This simple and insightful practice has been developed by Judith Simmer-Brown specifically to bring a contemplative approach to traditional academic disciplines. For both students and professors reading can become habitual and often quite goal-oriented, focused on gathering as much information as quickly as possible. The practice of contemplative reading allows students to slow down and engage deeply and intuitively with a given passage, letting meaning dawn through contemplation and present-moment awareness. In this process, mixing intellect and emotion, students learn to bring a fresh mind to reading and to develop a creative, actively engaged relationship with the reading experience. This practice can be seamlessly integrated into the academic work of a class, drawing on readings that have both relevance to the course and depth of meaning.
Historical Background and Lineage
Judith Simmer-Brown developed this practice during her many years teaching at Naropa University. The contemplative reading practice applies the three stages of developing wisdom as outlined in the Buddhist tradition: listening (hearing teachings), reflecting and contemplating (thinking more deeply about what one has heard or read) and integrating this understanding with one’s life. Stage by stage, the reader deepens their engagement with and expands their comprehension of the text.
About Judith Simmer-Brown
To hear Judith talk more on contemplative pedagogy, please view the following video:
Benefits of this Practice
- Offers a fresh, creative and inspiring method for engaging with a text.
- Connects an academic subject matter with contemplative practice so that new and broader perspectives can arise.
- Encourages reflective dialogue and engagement between students.
Preparations for Teaching
- Practice this exercise yourself with a partner several times. We recommend that you journal and reflect on what you have gained from it, so that you can bring your personal experience to bear on the practice as you offer it in class.
- Reflect on where in your syllabus you want to situate the practice in order to deepen, enliven or reinvigorate the classroom atmosphere.
- Take some time thinking about the reading you will work with; make sure it is not too long and that it warrants delving deeply into its words. Judith Simmer-Brown often uses a poem or inspirational passage, such as:
- If You Seek by Thomas Merton (a pdf of this text is accessible on this page)
- Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
- The Guest House by Rumi
Steps for Teaching the Practice
- Create a positive, open atmosphere in which to offer the practice to students. This is a process of discovery and creative exploration. There are no ‘wrong answers.’ If you have introduced contemplative learning in the classroom already, then you may not need to do as much (if any) setting of the context for this practice. In general, participants respond better if they know ahead of time why they are doing something (see above for some of the benefits students have reported).
- Let the class know there will be a discussion and chance to talk about their experiences afterwards. We find this helps participants to go deeper into their experience.
- Fold your chosen reading in half (so that one cannot see the words) and hand out copies to each student.
- Begin with a period of silent sitting. We recommend at least 3-5 minutes.
- Have all students open their copy of the reading. Read it aloud, while everyone follows along silently. Encourage everyone to stay naively present, paying attention to the literal words, rather than trying to interpret the text. Let the words penetrate.
- Now students read the text repeatedly for themselves, moving slowly and just staying with the actual words. Invite students to develop a sense of curiosity about the words they are reading. While meanings may begin to dawn, do not try to make them consistent or coherent. Encourage students to notice how it feels to stay with one relatively short piece of writing for an extended period of time.
- Return to silent sitting for a few minutes.
- Students return once more to the reading, this time focusing on the analysis of the text. Guide everyone to reflect on the interpretation of the words and on the various meaning(s) within the reading. Students can make notes on the text if they like.
- Divide students into small groups of 2-3 people to share some of their reflections on the meaning as well as on the process of contemplative reading. What was it like to just stay with the words? What was it like to spend time reflecting deeply on the meaning? What layers of meaning arose for you as you repeatedly re-read the text?
- Return to silent sitting practice for a few minutes.
- Return to the text a third time. This time, ask students to express or write a response to the reading, letting their own voice begin to surface. Invite students to draw a picture, journal, visualize a dance step, or write their own poem/prose in response to this reading.
- Have students return to their small groups to share their writing or creative expression.
- (Optional) Have a group discussion about this overall experience including any challenges and insights that emerged.
- Guide students to notice any response they had to the exercise. What was noticed before, during, or just after the practice? How did their relationship to the text develop over the course of the exercise? Was something as habitual as reading experienced in a new way through this practice?