Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Mindfulness and Nature

Nature is a still place where we can practice mindfulness. As I think about going back to teaching next fall I struggle with the idea of how to bring mindfulness to the classroom.

More than that, I struggle with the concept of bringing 25 college students, all non-science majors, into a space where observation, reflection, and critical thinking are meaningful laboratory activities.

High spirited, busy, noisy, my students are nice people who don't have much interest in what I have to teach. It's been a long time though since I thought of myself as a "science" teacher. Instead I look at my job as a way to engage students in thinking critically about abstractions. To me this pursuit requires a kind of focus, a mindfulness that allows room for contemplation.

Nature looks "concrete" enough. You've got your water. Youve got your soil. You've got your plants. But what about all the underlying complexity? The electrons, the cellulose, the bacteria, the proteins, the branching patterns? As a botanist I trained myself to look deeply whether in the field, the library, or staring into the eyepiece of a microscope. Many quiet moments, many missed weekends, and a love for what I was doing brought me to some understanding of science.

I was in my 30s and 40s when I tackled this challenge, decades and in some ways, worlds away from my current crop of undergraduates. Nevertheless we are together in a classroom where we share ideas, and to some extent, common goals.

I've managed to bring a kind of centering to my lectures. Visitors comment on the quiet concentration at work there. But what about lab? A place of play, a noisy place, a place to bring out the cell phones and use them "as a force of good and not evil" as we find new ways to engage new thinkers in our quest for an understanding of nature.

How to introduce mindfulness to that space without squelching enthusiasm? How to bring a joy of discovery without prescribing recipes? How to encourage critical thinking about abstract concepts, and make something tangible and useful through the process of exploration and learning?

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