Clearing space: Meditation in a classroom

(By Tamar Barkay, Professor of Microbiology, Rutgers University, a 2017 Earth-Love-Go workshop alumni)

Inspired by my attendance of the 2017 Contemplative Environmental Practice workshop at the Lama Foundation, I introduced a guided meditation exercise at the beginning of each lecture in my “Microbial Ecology and Diversity” course in the Fall of 2017. This three-credit course is required for all microbiology majors at Rutgers who usually take the class in their junior or senior year. The exercise which I called “clearing space”, consisted of a very brief period, a minute or two at most, when we all set in our chairs focusing on our breath, on relaxing our body, clearing our mind from “noise”, and focusing on the here and now. Participating was voluntary but all students were asked to keep quiet during that time. At the end of the semester students were asked, voluntarily and anonymously, to answer a brief survey evaluating the exercise.

While during the semester I sensed that students responded positively, I was amazed with their enthusiasm for the practice as conveyed in their response to the survey. Twenty students (out of 26 who took the class) took the survey. The highlights of their responses were that out of 20:
• 19 would like to see this practice introduced in other courses
• 14 reported that the exercise helped them focus on the material in class
• 8 said that the exercise helped them appreciate their place in nature
• Many left comments on the role of the exercise in reducing anxiety and reported that they had adapted it in other places in their lives.
To see a brief report on the “clearing space” exercise and the survey you may click here.

I took these responses as an indication to the great need among our students for finding a peaceful place for contemplation. I think that without much planning the exercise gave a spiritual aspect to the material covered in class i.e., how microorganisms and their activities modulate life on planet Earth. I believe that any course being taught by a teacher who is passionate about the topic, being it chemistry or American literature, can be enriched by helping students to the spiritual aspects of the topic.

The success of the “clearing space” exercise has been a rewarding experience to me as a university professor; it is an important milestone on my personal path to combine my academic work with my contemplative practice and my training as an academic coach.

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