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Contemplative Grounds

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Contemplative Grounds

The University of Virginia, as a major research University with global reach, has eleven schools centered around the historical “grounds” designed by Thomas Jefferson: Architecture, Arts and Sciences, Business, Commerce, Continuing and Professional Studies, Education, Engineering, Law, Leadership/Public Policy, Medicine, and Nursing. The Contemplative Grounds initiative aims to facilitate new levels of innovation and efficiency in each of these schools through individuated planning and support as we collectively explore the ways in which contemplative practices, ideas, and values can transform learning, research, and engagement in each area. In order to accomplish this aim, we need to understand the academic fields, social domains of engagement, organizational units, distinctive challenges and gaps, and overall goals in each school, and then work in a mutually engaged fashion. Two schools – Nursing and Education – are already deeply committed to broad transformation, while a majority of schools have deep engagement, and all schools are involved. The long-term goal is for each of these schools to become a pioneer in holistic and systematic integration of contemplation within their respective fields in learning and research. At the same time, the University as a whole will become an environment hospitable to innovative partnerships across these schools and will serve as a model for the transformation of higher education.

i. Learning

In learning, our core focus is the development of new models and practices of integrative learning that address three circles of knowledge and development in synergistic fashion: (i) personal well-being and character development, (ii) intellectual pursuits and abilities, and (iii) social relationship and engagement capacities. Presently, the standard is that these three circles are too disconnected from each other, and academic classes tend to focus only on the second dimension. However, contemplative practices, ideas, and values provide a powerful resource that, if properly understood, developed, and utilized, could help address this gap and provide avenues for new forms of intellectual development that will include analysis and critical thinking skills, but also creativity, pattern recognition, and other areas - as well attention to personal well-being, character, and social relationship skills. As economic pressures accumulate, and as technology increasingly “flips” lectures into digitized video, it becomes increasingly important that new interactive models of learning displace traditional lectures. In addition, society relies on universities and colleges to help cultivate individuals that can thrive in their chosen workplace while also being citizens who contribute to a better society and environment for us all. Such models of integrative learning are poised to address both of these challenges, such that teachers don’t simply transmit their subject-specific content, but also take responsibility for the overall production of new generations who can manage their stress, regulate their emotions, be insightful and creative, engage in deep listening and bias management, and understand how community formation and engagement can be done in ways that advance goals but also improve collective well-being. We are thus proceeding with initiatives that thread contemplation in modest ways into a variety of courses. These courses include a weekly contemplative lab in which students learn techniques of contemplation and explore the dynamics of contemplation intellectually.

In addition to the classroom, the broader initiative must also address residential life and intramural activities. Overall, it is necessary to integrate contemplation into the residential life from day one, so that students are training their bodies and minds and learning the forms of knowledge and skills necessary to do so. This must include residence assistants and dormitory environments, which have a profound impact on students. We are also working closely with intramural sports and recreations, which has begun a new mind-body activities training program for student teachers. They are also expanding offerings in areas such as Ashtanga Yoga and Taiqi, and they are exploring new forms of partnerships with the academic side of the University. We are also developing a contemplative map of the University to guide students, faculty, and staff in engaging in contemplative practice on grounds. This is also related to our fashioning of a network of 'resiliency rooms' optimally suited for such practice, as inspired by the Nursing School’s original resiliency room, and hopefully anchored by a new CSC building with integrated practice and research facilities at the center of the University.

ii. Research

In research, we aim to mobilize a broad array of subject experts to study the dynamics of specific contemplative practices, as well as their potential and actual impact in diverse contexts. Learning initiatives, whether in the classroom or work place, must be done in an evidence-based fashion that is deeply rooted in ongoing research, rather than simply assuming what is good and useful. Thus learning and research must be engaged in ever deeper forms of inter-relationship. In addition, we believe that contemplation offers a unique opportunity to address two of the most pressing challenges of higher education: the immense gulf between the humanities and sciences, on the one hand, and the professional schools and specific applications of knowledge, on the other.

CSC’s charge is to explore contemplative practices, values, ideas, and institutions historically and in contemporary times to better understand their diverse impacts, underlying mechanisms, and dynamic processes through rigorous research and scholarship, as well as to develop new applications and learning programs for their integration into varied sectors of our society. Our mandate is to pursue research, learning, and engagement related to contemplation across all schools and organizational units of the University of Virginia, and become national and international leaders in this explosively growing field of activity. We see three core commitments pervading all of our work in research, learning, and engagement: (i) fashioning deeply reciprocal partnerships between scientists (the scientific process), humanistic scholars (hermeneutics), ethnographers (ethnography), and practitioners (phenomenology), and in particular creating new relationships across the sciences and humanities; (ii) building tight relationships between tradition, research, innovation, application, and engagement; and (iii) taking care to address issues of inclusivity across the dividing lines of inequity and addressing issues of social justice.

A major research university such as U.Va. offers a unique base for such work in its triangular synergy of research, learning, and application – not just contemplative practice, but also an analytical attempt to understand such practices, their operational principles, and their specific impacts – on our physical processes, cognitive processes, emotional life, and interpersonal relationships. With such analysis, we can begin to consider how to disentangle these components from their traditional integrations, and how they might be recombined and integrated into a variety of settings – leadership training, K-12 education, health care providers’ education, patient self-care, entrepreneurship, and much more. In addition, broad-scale social change requires policy shifts and new institutional practices, which can only be grounded in rigorous and community-attested research, which universities are uniquely prepared to deliver. Universities are communities that can, when properly situated, offer powerful blends of research – new understanding, innovation, and creative adaptation, and then actual delivery of vehicles for learning that implement those adaptations.

A hallmark of CSC’s work is a council of equals: contemplative practitioners, humanists, and researchers who explore the integration of contemplative techniques within the fundamental human project of personal and societal flourishing, as well as the creation of social and institutional realities that make such communal and personal growth through contemplation possible. Applied contemplation both understands traditional approaches and values in detail, and explores analysis and adaptation that creates new methods and programs based upon their dynamic principles. Too often modern applied uses both in education and training, as well as in clinical research programs, deal with only a limited range of practices, while humanistic research and teaching is isolated from the broader interest in adaptation; conversely humanistic scholarship can often be a deep vertical silo in its own right with no connection to actual practice. Both researchers and scholars alike are too often disconnected from actual teachers of contemplation, while contemplative practitioners often lack a critical and comparative sensibility about their traditions, as well as expertise in the various contexts in which contemplative practices might be gainfully deployed.

CSC is systematically addressing these limitations by enabling traditional practitioners and humanistic scholars to work closely with experts in education, patient care, medicine, architecture, leadership training, entrepreneurship, and other areas towards unprecedented synergy. The work is dedicated to increasing global understanding of the past, present, and future potential of these classical contemplative traditions of human development by treating them as foundational to human well-being and integrating them within the most dynamic arena for collaborative learning and innovation, the modern research University. Work will develop in four key areas centered around the exploration and actualization of contemplation as a transformative modern force, including:

(1) Tradition—We will deepen public knowledge of the history, scope, philosophy, literature, and living practice of contemplative traditions, which are far more diverse and sophisticated than usually understood, and we will deploy a research agenda to explore the rich details of these traditions with modern methods of interpretation and assessment, with humanists, scientists, and practitioners working side by side.

(2) Innovation—We will investigate how millennia-old contemplative traditions of practice and innovation are and can be applied to human and social flourishing and transformation, and how they might be best applied in the future in the broader world in traditional and creatively adapted forms.

(3) Application—We will develop and implement curricular and training materials on contemplation, and practices derived from analyzing the principles of traditional methods, for use across higher education, K through 12 education, commerce, other social sectors, and the public at large through distance education.

(4) Engagement—We will foster learning with and about contemplative leaders throughout the world who leverage contemplative practice for social innovators and social entrepreneurs in the marketplace and broader social arena, and work with business entrepreneurs and non-profit workers to apply these lessons in social contexts towards the common good; we will also engage the world at large through the Contemplative University, a portal for contemplative collections, reference, and instruction of unprecedented depth and sophistication.

Tradition, innovation, application, and engagement - this rich spectrum of activities and objectives will be implemented through an innovative blend of the traditional activities of a modern research university: learning, research, networking, engagement, and publication. These are the activities that make the modern university a valuable and productive place in contemporary society, but rarely if ever have they been fully integrated around contemplation. Universities historically grew out of monastic institutions, and it has become time to reassess those roots with an eye towards the central place of our institutions for collective wisdom, growth, and well-being. CSC will employ these assets to serve as a catalyst for collaborations and connections between academics, specialists within the traditions, and the public—collegial, intellectual, institutional, entrepreneurial, and personal connections that otherwise would not happen.

iii. Engagement

In engagement, CSC is committed to actively exploring how contemplative knowledge and contemplatively infused knowledge can be harnessed to accomplish ever greater inclusivity, social justice, and community engagement and empowerment. This suffuses learning and research, but also takes shape in specific initiatives aimed at expanding access to contemplative practices and ideas to all sectors of our society, as well as at enabling innovation and greater efficiencies in community engagement work. This is reflected, for example, in U.Va.’s Social Entrepreneurship program making personal consciousness and contemplative integrity one of its three pillars, our exploration of partnerships in the local Charlottesville community discussed below, and an initiative we are considering on international humanitarian aid organizations. We believe that major contemplative initiatives must take a proactive stance towards such issues of inclusivity, social justice, and community engagement, but also that contemplation has unique contributions to make to communities struggling with difficult challenges, as well as individuals and organizations working to help such communities with inadequate resources and under difficult circumstances