Contemplative education; math and meditation

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” 

-William James, 1890

The ability to focus and refocus attention is obviously extremely important for a mathematician working on research, or a student learning in class.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence showing that meditation can improve this ability.  In fact, there is a range of different meditation techniques, with a range of potential benefits: e.g. increased focus, mindfulness, curiosity and creativity; better control of emotions, and stress reduction; improved interpersonal communication.  Sounds great, right?

In the last few decades, empirical evidence has been piling up, supporting the millenia-old subjective claims of meditators.  An incomplete but good research bibliography is maintained here; see also here or here I don’t think this is sketchy science.  These studies have been the focus of recurring 5-day workshops hosted in India by the Dalai Lama, bringing together Buddhist scholars and Nobel-prize-winning scientists (like current US Secretary of Energy Steven Chu), and panel discussions at MIT and Stanford, with thousands of academics attending.

The contemplative education movement aims to use meditation and other contemplative practices in the classroom.  I recently attended a regional meeting of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education – an organization of teachers and professors interested in contemplative education.  The conference was very diverse – with people from the arts, social sciences, activist programs, and even a few natural scientists.  Some talks were detailing success stories, others were participatory and demonstrated specific contemplative practices to use, still others were theoretical and visionary.  The organization has produced a fascinating review of research that pertains specifically to the potential benefits of meditation to higher education.  They have also been building a database of contemplative pedagogical tools and syllabi.

To be honest, many of the classroom techniques (e.g. “one-minute papers,” or contemplative listening) are more conducive to writing- and discussion-based classes.  But you can start any class with a quick three-minute guided meditation.  I don’t know any mathematicians that have experimented with contemplative pedagogy, but I know that chemistry professor Michelle Francl at Bryn Mawr College, and physics professor Arthur Zajonc at Amherst College have had success.  Personally I haven’t yet had the courage to try something with my students.  However, this quarter I’ve been meditating on my own for thirty minutes in the hour before I teach my multivariable calculus class, and the class is my best ever.  During lecture I feel very present, relaxed, spontaneous, and receptive to the students.

If contemplative pedagogy in the classroom seems a little out there, you might still consider establishing your own personal contemplative practice.  Wouldn’t you love to have a more focused and creative mind, when you sit down to do your research?  Or take advantage of techniques to help balance math and life, and deal with grad school stress and anxiety?  All you have to do is look up some local meditation classes; they’re usually free.  Personally, I’ve been meditating (in the vipassana tradition) for about five years, and probably would’ve dropped out of grad school without the balance, perspective, and richness that meditation contributed.  (Incidentally, there’s a chapter in this book, which is free to download, where I talk about my experiences with math and meditation).

Along these lines, I’ve heard two nice analogies for the role meditation might play in a balanced life.

One is hygienic.  You keep your body clean, so you should keep your mind clean.  You nourish and exercise your body, so you should nourish and exercise your mind.  Meditation is a way of clearing out the clutter, of giving wholesome food to your mind, or letting it go for a quiet walk outside.

The second is more scientific.  In order to perform experiments, a scientist needs a lab with the right tools.  The untrained mind is unwieldy – easily distracted, prone to dullness, never still but always jittery and burdened.  Meditation cultivates your mind as a tool – steadies it, sharpens it, gives you practice in controlling it.  It allows you to run reliable experiments in your head (which is what math is, sort of).  Traditionally the purpose of this was to allow meditators to go deeper into the nature of reality, in order to find the most universal truths and embrace the world with the most expansive compassion.  But you can use it to do better math, too.

If anyone has personal experience with, or questions about, math and meditation, in or out of the classroom, I’d love to hear them (here or by email).

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