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Nicholas Trautz

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Nicholas Trautz
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While there are many courses at the University of Virginia which offer students the opportunity to study Buddhism from a strictly academic perspective, Professors David Germano and Kurtis Schaeffer are experimenting with a course offering both a historical introduction and practical experience with meditation in contemplative labs. In the first semester it was offered, the course, titled Buddhist Meditation, had a lengthy waiting list and relied on three Teaching Assistants to help guide students through contemplative practices. Nicholas Trautz, a doctoral student at the University of Virginia who is trained as a meditation instructor in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, has had a central role in leading the course’s contemplative labs. Although these practices originated in Buddhist traditions, Nicholas explained that they had been secularized for a modern, academic context, providing “the opportunity for each student to define for themselves what contemplation is or what it could be for them.”

In addition to weekly practice in the contemplative labs, students are asked to do brief calm-abiding meditations three times a week, while also keeping a journal outlining their experiences and reactions to meditating. It was these journals which most impressed Nicholas, who said that “many students used the journals as an opportunity to be creative, and I was really excited by the results—some students began writing their journals in free verse. Poetics and contemplative technique are deeply connected, and I really got to see my students explore that.” Many educators find the definition of learning most often utilized in academic environments unnecessarily narrow, and Nicholas argued that the Buddhist Meditation and Modernity course is combining theoretical introduction with concrete experience to challenge this confining paradigm: “With this course, we’re really expanding what it means to learn and to know. The course was eye-opening for many students in engaging with different modes of learning, needing to define learning in new ways, which included a certain kind of creativity, a certain kind of comfort with uncertainty, incorporating broader concepts into what it means to learn—all practices originating from contemplative activities.” In course evaluations and personal correspondence, many students communicated to Nicholas how the regular meditative practice they developed through the Buddhist Meditation and Modernity course benefited their quality of life and performance in other courses, athletics, or extracurricular activities. Beyond helping students expand their own sense of learning, Nicholas believes that many the skills taught in contemplative classrooms could help faculty educators as well: “Leading meditation and contemplation requires comfort with space, which might include silence in the classroom or accommodating confusion—these are skills educators can really benefit from themselves.”

Through helping to lead Buddhist Meditation and Modernity and witnessing the benefits which can arise from incorporating contemplative practices into the classroom, Nicholas says that he believes contemplative education offers “a lot of exciting possibilities that are not only feasible, but truly necessary in the evolving face of the what Higher Education is becoming.” Nicholas hopes in the future to incorporate a greater emphasis on those contemplative activities which focus on the use of movement and the body. Ultimately, Nicholas is confident that such practices will support his goals for students’ self-cultivation and progress: “I want students to develop a profound appreciation and sense of possibility for themselves. The classroom is a transformative place especially when students are willing to broaden their expectations of what it means to learn and to know.”