Debut Contemplative Initiative invites pause, introspection

Professor Palmer and Contemplative Studies students have studied and practiced a variety of contemplative traditions, including mindfulness, meditation and deep listening. Charlotte Varcoe-Wolfson/The Miscellany News.

The ringing of a Tibetan singing bowl echoes through Kenyon Club Room and signals to 10 students and Professor of Psychology Carolyn Palmer that CLCS 151: Introduction to Contemplative Studies is beginning. The first of its kind, this class invites students to study, as well as to participate in, a wide variety of contemplative traditions and practices. As Palmer described in an email, “An interdisciplinary field, Contemplative Studies draws on humanities, arts, and sciences to understand contemplative traditions from critical third-person scholarship, second-person witnessing, and first-person immersive experience.”

This course is a significant development in the emerging Contemplative Initiative, a collaborative effort of the Engaged Pluralism Initiative’s Capacity Building Working Group, the Carolyn Grant ’36 Committee and the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Contemplative Practices (RSLCP). The first of these groups’ mission is as follows: “We are committed to building and fostering a community that values and cares for all its members and is willing to work inclusive of our intersecting identities to promote shared experience, skills and practices that support ever deepening levels of compassion, understanding and affirmation of one another.” The Carolyn Grant ’36 Fund encourages faculty to integrate experimental, hands-on pedagogy in their teaching. The third collaborator, formerly known as the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, added Contemplative Practice to its name this year to fully reflect the wide range of traditions and practices that the office supports and oversees.

The core organizers of this project are Assistant Director of Counseling Services Wayne Assing, Professor of Earth Science Jill Schneiderman, Director of RSLCP Samuel Speers and Palmer.

Schneiderman highlighted the beneficial effect that taking a contemplative approach can have on both students and teachers. She commented in an email, “Contemplative approaches to education teach students to ‘pay attention’ to whatever is at hand.” She continued, “Opportunities for me to cultivate my own practices as someone who has had a mediation practice for 11 years have enabled me to become better at…’attentive listening’ … I have become a better listener and therefore better able to advise my students.”

This fall, along with the launch of Introduction to Contemplative Studies, the Contemplative Initiative is hosting Labyrinth Week, starting on Monday, Oct. 22. This five-day event is one of the first steps in the longer-term goal of bringing a permanent labyrinth to campus in the next couple of years.

During that week, a canvas labyrinth for walking meditation will be open to all in the Villard Room. There will be two events during the week and various faculty members, administrators and students will host the space throughout the week. On Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper will present a “Labyrinth Lecture and Walk” titled “Walking Around in Circles.” On Thursday at 8 p.m., RSLCP will host its annual coffee house. The theme this year is “Finding Our Way,” and the event will feature songs, readings, discussions and baked goods from RSLCP student groups.

Each of the organizers emphasized the collaborative nature of the Contemplative Initiative. For over a decade, members of the Vassar community have had energy around contemplative practice and study on campus. Palmer elaborated in an emailed statement, “Vassar faculty have been systematically building toward a contemplative curriculum for twenty years. Through numerous campus events, faculty development projects, retreats, Pedagogy-In-Action workshops, guidance from leading scholars, and support from the Carolyn Grant ’36 Endowment, Dean of Faculty, and Engaged Pluralism Initiative, we are consolidating our progress in several ways at this stage.”

Along with pointing to faculty initiatives, Speers highlighted past students’ work toward this project. One former student, Gabriel Dunsmith ’15, wrote his Environmental Studies senior thesis about the idea of installing a labyrinth on campus. Speers shared, “We’re working with that thesis as an incredibly helpful resource for us as we try to move this project forward…In many ways, it’s a good example of the long-lasting impact that student organizing has.”

Assing emphasized the value of Dunsmith’s thesis in the continued progress toward a permanent labyrinth, specifically noting a labyrinth’s ability to connect practitioners with nature. He said, “In a labyrinth, you’re in relationship with yourself, but you’re really in relationship with the earth because it’s grounded in the earth, made of natural resources that have a certain both attractiveness and mystery.” Especially in the 21st century, when many people rely on technology to unwind, Assing proposed that labyrinth walking can help community members develop a relationship with themselves through connecting with nature.

Drawing on the theme of introspection, Speers stated, “Our main goal with Labyrinth Week is to…reintroduce the labyrinth to the broader campus community as a powerful instrument, as our speaker puts it, quite simply but helpfully it’s a way of learning to go in so you can go out.”

Every year, the Office of Religious and Spiritutal Life and Contemplative Practice sets up a temporary campus labyrinth. Pictured above is a Lantern Walk on the Chapel Lawn. Courtesy of the RSLCP.

Unlike mazes, for which they are sometimes confused, the goal of labyrinths is not to get lost, but instead to connect to oneself and nature through walking meditation. Labyrinths date back to the Neolithic period, first as designs carved into stones meant to be traced with one’s fingers. Today, large-form labyrinths are used in a wide variety of religious traditions. Speers highlighted the opportunity for all community members, regardless of religious or spiritual belief or lack thereof, to partake in labyrinth walking as a practice. He said, “[Walking meditation] is a good example of a project that fits in a context that’s both secular and inner-religious…It’s something that many different traditions make a contribution towards.”

In fact, organizers encourage people to stop by the Villard Room to walk the labyrinth multiples times during Labyrinth Week. Speers explained, “As with any number of different contemplative practices, what’s powerful about it is the way it connects you with where you are in that particular moment. And as human creatures, that’s always different. So every experience of…walking a labyrinth is going to be different because we’re necessarily coming at it from a different place.”

Similar labyrinth initiatives have been carried out at peer institutions Middlebury College and Wellesley College in the past two years. Additionally, the Hudson Valley boasts a few labyrinths: one at the Garrison Institute and one at Sprout Creek Farm, just 15 minutes from campus. While Vassar does not yet have a permanent labyrinth, RSLCP constructs temporary labyrinths on campus a few times a year, often encouraging practitioners to spiral through paper luminaria.

The collaborative is excited to be working with Schaper, who will visit campus during Labyrinth Week to give a lecture, as well as to visit Palmer’s Introduction to Contemplative Studies class. Schaper is a long-time activist and Senior Pastor at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village and has authored over 30 books, including one on labyrinths. Speers commented, “It feels to me like she’s an especially good fit for the Vassar community…Bringing an activist’s perspective on how it is that contemplative practices like walking a labyrinth are a way of situating us and sustaining us for the change work that so many people at Vassar are engaged in.”

In reflecting on the opportunity to partake in walking meditation during Labyrinth week, Assing said, “The labyrinth is a visual representation, a reminder and then an invitation to practice.”

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