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The great awakening

Meditation is like waking up from a dream – a dream that most people create by preoccupying themselves with the past and the future rather than living in the present.

Just as one’s perceptions color his or her world, the idea of meditation often invokes images that are far from simplistic. Meditation can provide a space in which honest inquiry and oneness with life is possible.

“It is hard to say what meditation is,” women’s studies professor Gurleen Grewal said. “We have so many preconceived notions of it. It is not about sitting tall and erect in a certain posture and closing your eyes and holding your hands in a certain way, gazing at your navel, what have you, zoning out, tuning out the world. It is actually being fully present to the present moment. That’s my definition of meditation.”

However, what may be the very thing that prevents individuals from opening up to the possibilities of meditation is how they perceive meditation and how it should be done.

“What that means is we adopt a stance of welcoming towards everything in life as it comes, without filtering it with our likes and dislikes, preconceived notions,” Grewal said. “It is really abiding in a state of openness and welcoming.”

If the core of meditation is simply to be open and aware in the present moment, one can see that it is not something that has to be done a certain way, in a certain place or at a certain time.

“I think the only thing that makes it (meditation) inaccessible is the notion of a goal or that you aren’t good at it,” women’s studies graduate student Heather Curry said. “You’ve heard people say ‘I’m not good at meditating,’ and there probably was a time that I would have said that as well, but it seems like a pretty useless thing to say. There is no good or bad – there is only being there. And if you are there, you simply let happen what happens.”

While meditation does not always guarantee happiness – nor does it guarantee an easy life – it does provide practitioners with a foundation for living life as it unfolds moment to moment.

“When meditating, you’re not following the story line, you’re not living in the past, (but) existing in that moment,” Curry said. “I think the past is a gift; the only reason you are here is the days you have lived previously. But I think that it is when you are rooted in the past, when you are entrenched in it, that is what the gift of meditation offers you a way out of.”

Grewal is teaching Transformations in Consciousness this semester, but it’s been several years since she began teaching classes that examined topics such as spirituality and meditation.

“I taught (Transformations of Consciousness) for the first time last year (Spring 2006). This is the second time that I am teaching it,” Grewal said. “I thought a lot about it before I actually taught it; I thought about it for a few years, then I finally mustered the courage to offer a course that really goes beyond identity politics.

“The course is actually about interrogating and transforming the way we think of ourselves as separate selves, separate individual entities. An inquiry into the nature of consciousness, the course expands our understanding of the nature of self, which has profound implications on how we conduct ourselves in the world.”

Recently, Grewal began including the actual practice of meditation as part of the class rather than just reading or talking about it.

“Since I knew the value of (meditation) in my own practice, I clearly wanted to include it, but you know how it is in academia; we have notions of what belongs in the classroom and what doesn’t, and meditation didn’t seem to belong there,” Grewal said. “The first time I taught Transformations in Consciousness, I did not include meditation, strange as that may seem. I talked around it, we (the class) talked around it, but we didn’t do it.”

Grewal credits the push to include the practice of meditation into her classes to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Last summer, she discussed issues of contemplative pedagogy with other scholars at Smith College after being selected as one of 35 people to do so.

“We were like-minded professors from all across the nation talking about this,” she said. “The question arose: why don’t we do this (meditation) if we are all convinced of the usefulness of it. We burst out laughing, because we had been afraid – we hadn’t dared to. We had to give ourselves permission first. So being surrounded by scholars who thought the same way I did, it was just a no-brainer – I had to do it.”

For students juggling coursework as well as jobs, meditation in the classroom may help them to be present and attentive. In Curry’s experience, meditation in the classroom really helps students be present in that space.

“I think that it allows the class to evolve together a little bit better,” Curry said. “It can provide a sort of glue; it makes you aware of those connections in the classroom and they are palpable if you’re paying attention. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from presence of mind and total engagement in the classroom?”