Teaching and Learning in the Present Moment

When I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh died it was like a meditation bell ringing that returned my attention to the present moment. My next breath was deeper and calmer. In his death as in his life, he brought me peace. Like so many others, I have followed Thich Nhat Hanh from a distance, reading his books, listening to his dharma talks. I have taught his book Being Peace through the years, both in intro religion courses and in peace and justice courses. This year, I have felt him closer to me in the classroom than ever.

“Why are you here?” I use this question as a writing exercise on the first day I meet with my first-year-seminar students.I ask them to write for about five minutes. No follow-up questions are allowed. Write about whatever comes to mind. Some of them write about why they chose our college. Many of them rush ahead four years and talk about why and how they think college will help them get the job that they want. Then, I ask them to answer the question, “Why are you here on the face of the earth?” This gets them to think about meaning and purpose. Many of them write about helping others. Some talk about their faith and values. There are always one or two who give provocatively nihilistic answers. Finally, I ask them to address the prompt, “Why are you here in this moment?” Most admit that they just followed the directions of their orientation mentor and went where they were told. Some get a little philosophical. I then start a conversation that is woven throughout the semester about how we need to connect these three questions. How does my sense of meaning and purpose inform how I am present in this moment? How can my educational and career goals be shaped by my values? How can I live meaningfully, right here and right now?

Mountain peak with clouds.

This year, I also started meditating with my students. I do simple breathing meditations with them at the beginning of each class. I start with just a couple of minutes and most days we stop at about four minutes, but my students and I find a rhythm of beginning each class with breathing together. Of course, some take to it better than others, and there were some uncomfortable glances and giggles when I introduced it to my first-year-seminar students on their first day of college, but mostly it serves to focus their attention and gives them a resource for loosening their grip on their anxiety and fear.

Thich Nhat Hanh is the voice in my head when I lead these exercises. I hope my voice has half the simplicity and peace that his does as he and I speak together. I hear him especially when I lead a meditation called “mountain, solid.” I learned it from an old CD that I played in my car and is now lost. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s slow, intentional pace he explained that we all need some solidity, some stability in life. And we can find that stability when we return to the present moment and focus our attention to our breath. The exercise is simple. Breathing in we imagine a mountain. Breathing out we contemplate its solidity. Mountain. Solid. I tell my students that the stray thoughts that they experience during meditation are like clouds that pass over the mountain. We can simply watch them float by and we return our attention to our breath. Mountain. Solid. We can even imagine that our emotions are like clouds. The clouds of fear or anger may sit over the mountain for a time, but eventually they move on. We can remember that we are not these emotions, but solid mountains who outlast these emotions. Mountain. Solid. Maybe even the great storms of our lives are like storm clouds over a strong mountain. They deluge the mountain with water and batter it with wind. Their clapping lightening and booming thunder can be frightening. But the mountain beneath remains solid and outlasts all the storms. Mountain. Solid.

We have to be in the present time, because only the present is real, only in the present moment can we be alive. We do not practice for the sake of the future, to be reborn in a paradise, but to be peace, to be compassion, to be joy right now.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace, (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1987), 88.

I know that not all my students understand why we begin class with meditation, even though I tell them several times and in several ways. I’m sure they tell their friends about that “crazy religion prof who makes us meditate.” I tell them almost every time that this is a way for us to focus our attention and to cleanse our minds of the stresses and distractions of the day. Mostly what I want them to realize, which is something that they have to come to understand and not just hear from me, is that the present moment is calling them. If they flee to the past, or lurch toward the future, they will not hear their calling. The present moment is their only true vocation. Maybe stronger, the present moment is their obligation. It is all they have. If they want to learn, they will need to do it in the present moment. If they want to offer or receive compassion, they will need to do it in the present moment. If they want to bring peace into the world, they will need to do it in the present moment, right there in the classroom where we sit, with the breaths they take, with the words they speak, with the intention with which they listen to one another. All of this can only happen in the present moment. I am certainly grateful that I hear Thich Nhat Hanh’s voice always calling, reminding me of my vocation.

Daniel J. Ott is Associate Dean for Academic Initiatives and an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Monmouth College.

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