Tag Archives: teaching

Not So Lively?

28 Nov

Promises to get back to blogging are easy to break. I’ve made them before only to find myself staring at months of silence. I’m not about to make another one now. This blog has been a home for many works-in-progress ideas. When I needed an outlet for exploration, this was an ideal forum. I struggled, as we all can, to maintain a steady volume of output. The ebb and flow of posts is essential for long-term readers. As a writer I am learning to be reliable, but it is a long process.

Part of the challenge–which I recently discussed with a colleague or two at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Religion in San Diego–is the paralysis that can come when writing a certain kind of blog post. I have preferred to write lengthier posts that do a bit of the initial free-writing on a topic I’d like to explore further (Demons in video games, for instance, or the viral qualities of cult formation seen in Twitch Plays Pokemon). This preference makes it much harder to be satisfied with your posts. When have I had my say on a topic that I’m just beginning to write about? Am I using my blog as an “open research notebook” for myself or should I consider my audience as I write?

For me the paralysis of writing often emerges when I fail to find a suitable way to balance the demands of audience and personal research notes. The first requires clarity and a willingness to explain context while avoiding jargon. The second makes more rapid progress while shutting out potential conversations. Rather than walk the line I have often chosen not to take a first step and my writing suffered.

Being out of the classroom (we knew we were moving mid-semester so I lost quite a bit of time when I could have been teaching) also diminished my desire to write. Speaking with folks on sabbatical reminded me how integral the conversations in the classroom have been to my own writing process. This blog has been most active when I have been working intensely with students who challenge me to present my ideas more succinctly and seek out points of reference for their frame of experience. Having begun teaching again this fall I feel my desire to write has been rejuvenated. I am also brimming with ideas, many of which are spurred by the work my students have done.

If this experiment has not been so lively lately, I am certainly to blame. But I have not been idle and I hope to be able to share the fruits of other orchards with visitors when they arrive. I still hope to transfer my digital life over to my self-hosted site; I still work on the details of my Spiritual Warfare Archive; I am moving forward in the development of multiple writing projects; and I have exciting partnerships with folks elsewhere on the web such as SacredAndSequential.org and SacredMatters. Perhaps I should shed more light on the shadowy development process, but, as many of us feel, it is often easier to *do* the things rather than discuss them. Self-reflection is a skill to be mastered just as much as blogging.


Open Water Swimming as Meditation

30 Sep

Yesterday I completed the swim portion of the Carpinteria Triathlon. In an olympic distance triathlon you swim 1.5k (just under a mile). At most races, the top swimmers complete this leg in just 20 minutes. Olympic triathletes in London, for instance, finished in just 17 minutes. By comparison, I was thrilled to finish my swim in 35 minutes. I knocked a whopping 19 minutes off my time from my previous race! That’s an improvement of 35%! Pretty excellent, if I may say so. If you’re curious about what a swim looks like at a triathlon, here’s the start to last year’s race:

When top swimmers nail their swims in under 20 minutes, that’s not a lot of time in the water. When you double (or triple) that time, there are a couple of things that happen. For me, one of the them is that I find it impossible to concentrate on all of the niggling issues with my swimming stroke. Yes, I can focus for a short while on making sure I am not letting my wrists drop at the beginning of my catch or rotating my body better, but my ability to sustain this focus appears to be a function of the length of my swim.

Practicing for this race I often found myself swimming for an hour or more. At that duration, I had to trust my training to ensure that my stroke was correct. I wasn’t going to accurate assess my form halfway through my ocean swim. Open water swims (in lakes, reservoirs, rivers, oceans, etc) differ from pool swims because there is little incentive to interrupt yourself. In the pool you’re always touching the wall or doing a flip turn to complete your laps. This interruption (and it’s a huge one for those of us that can’t do flip turns) means you can always break a long swim into much smaller units. These units are perfect for assessing and tweaking your form. On this lap, I’ll think, I’m going to focus on kicking. The next lap I’ll breathe every 5 strokes instead of every 3. And so on.

In the ocean there is less room for these incremental session-passing training moments. What you are training for in the ocean is to just go and go for a long while without stopping. For me it is the perfect time to work on shutting down my “monkey mind.” My fickle stream of consciousness narrows when I swim long distances. The world reduces to the simple equation of breath, kick, sight, and stroke.

When I was in India as an undergraduate over a decade ago, I participated in a hands-on course on different styles of Buddhist meditation. I struggled intensely with various forms of seated meditation. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t prevent myself from moving and adjusting and squirming. (The heat and mosquitos and 5am sessions probably didn’t help either.) When it came to walking meditation though, I finally felt I was really poised to make some progress. For me, the inclusion of movement allowed my body to quiet down. Swimming is the same. I train so that my body quiets down and just does what it knows it can do.

Mentally the challenge of the swim resembles the central challenges of attention-based meditation–acknowledge thoughts as they arise, but dismiss them and move on. Yesterday, halfway to the turnaround buoy, I found my shoulders were burning quite a bit more than I expected. Even as I tried to think about other elements of my stroke, I kept returning to the discomfort. I kicked harder for a while. I breathed bilaterally (normally I breathe only to the right side.) I increased my cadence slightly (moved my arms faster) but decreased how hard I was pulling through the water. Nothing was working. Eventually I had to accept the discomfort and keep swimming despite it. Of course your shoulders hurt, I thought. When you finish your swim you can stretch them out and you’ll be fine. And they were.

It’s not often that I get to return to religious practice in my academic routine (by way of exercise no less). It’s easy to get caught up in describing what believers do or theorizing about what beliefs mean. We can let it all get pretty theoretical and, gasp, academic.

Swimming is just close enough to moving meditation that it feels natural to use the methods I learned long ago and otherwise rarely develop. As a teacher I value any chance to privilege experiential learning.

Reading about Buddhist meditation techniques is vastly inferior to experiencing them. Descriptions of the great cathedrals of Europe pale in comparison to standing in them. There are few replacements for the thing itself. Our access to similar experiences, however, is vast. A local church may be suitable for getting the sense of space, light, and weight of cathedrals. And any number of physical activities may be opportunities to attempt primary meditative techniques.

If swimming is a great segue to meditation, then I wonder what most accessible analogous activities for communal worship, prayer, bible study, seder, fasting, and so on, might be. We don’t always have access to the thing itself, nor can we necessarily expect students to be free (or open) to every religious activity that a syllabus might merit. (Can you imagine convincing a group of your students to participate in a seance to get a better sense of spiritualism?)

It’s worth our best effort to try. We should be able to be pretty persuasive, too.  But when that is insufficient, then identifying the next best thing becomes a fabulous opportunity for creative experiential learning. I had a great swim and I am thankful for the reminder that pedagogical insights are never so far from us as we’d like to think.