Silences in Teaching

Les voix du silence dans l’académie

witnessing states of perplexity
David Fancy and Sue Spearey

People think of meditation as some kind of special activity, but this is not exactly correct. Meditation is simply itself . . . . It is about stopping and being present, that is all. Mostly we run around doing. Are you able to come to a stop in your life, even for one moment? Could it be this moment? What would happen if you did?

—Jon Kabat-Zinn

What happens during moments of silence in the classroom, moments of silence when there is clearly something occurring in the minds of students, when there is thinking, assimilation, realization? What kinds of tools can we bring to our teaching to ensure, even during the most overwhelming moment of realization, that the student’s moment of silence is a rich, generative one? How might these moments provide an opportunity for students to validate, for themselves, as much of the affectivity of the silence as possible?

By “affective” we don’t mean “emotional,” but rather affect in the sense of tapping into, as Kabat-Zinn suggests in the epigraph, the many dimensions of experience. The ones that alert us to the ways our intellect, psyche, body, expression, and processing of sensory input are deeply ingrained: unconsciously reproduced and replicated. If we elicit this awareness – bring it to crisis, if you will – and evoke responses which break free of the ones on which we customarily are most reliant, then we can open connections between subjects that have previously not been considered or explored in a sustained way.

A good way to stop all the doing is to shift into the “being mode” for a moment. Think of yourself as an eternal witness, as timeless. Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you see? What do you hear?

Unlike some “religious” perspectives on meditation, Kabat-Zinn suggests that awareness practices are not predicated on notions of disengagement, passivity, or the pursuit of transcendent states, but that they invite practitioners to address the plenitude and complexity of their present circumstances by engaging in acts of witnessing. Students and teachers could then be understood to be witnesses to the world, the texts, and the fields with which they engage and study. In mindfulness practice, however, such acts of witnessing do not necessarily privilege the discursive, but invoke and mobilize all the senses and faculties. The point is not to attempt a totalizing understanding of our experience of “silence” in any given moment but to register – in increasingly subtle ways – the vicissitudes and potentialities of what we already almost understand.

A dialogue between mindfulness, body-mind practices, and Humanities pedagogy can serve to foreground and recuperate valuable dimensions of Humanities education currently being eroded by the increasing corporatization of the university. At its best, Humanities teaching and scholarship resists the imperatives that index learning towards eventual moments of revelation, discovery, or mastery; it celebrates flux, open-endedness, and multivalence.

By taking a few moments to “die on purpose” to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By “dying” now in this way, you actually become more alive now. This is what stopping can do. There is nothing passive about it. And when you decide to go, it’s a different kind of going because you stopped. The stopping actually makes the going more vivid, richer, more textured.

Much of these forms of learning occurs in the interstices of speech, the waiting to speak, the resisting of speaking, the assimilation of a new idea.

The Humanities attends scrupulously to all that cannot be represented or articulated in language, or fixed as objects of knowledge. It grapples with indeterminacy and contingency, with what Stephen Batchelor has described as states of “perplexity” that suffuse the entire organism. Optimally, Humanities subjects engage not only the intellect, but also all the other senses and sensibilities. Ones that may be best experienced in silence. Attention to the particularities of silence can assist students to attend more fully, with less anxiety, to questions of power, social justice, and transformative possibility.

The Humanities does so not by advancing arguments, nor by appealing principally to the emotions, nor by cosmological or ideological paradigms, but by staging crises. Leaving it to the students to engage mindfully and ethically with what they witness.


Works Cited:

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion Books. Batchelor, Stephen. (1997). Buddhism without beliefs: A contemporary guide to awakening. New York: Riverhead Books.