Aaron Godlaski is a neuroscience professor. So when you close your eyes, you obviously see a man in full lotus, chanting, “Ohm…”, right? Not the picture you had in mind? Would it make sense to think of him as a meditation guru while wearing the neuroscience hat? You would think not; yet he has creatively introduced meditation into neuroscience in ways that actually increase cognitive awareness. Through a pedagogical practice called contemplative studies, Godlaski has expanded the boundaries of student learning.
The inspiration for incorporating contemplative pedagogy into his courses began when he was conducting clinical work and simultaneously working as a Teaching Assistant (TA) . During this time, he was observing patients who were dealing with heavy loads of stress. As he worked with them on mindfulness practices he began to notice it was helping ease some of the stresses in their lives and they become more attuned to the present. His experiences and successes with the clinical work inspired him to carry it over into his teaching, and he began to intertwine academics alongside his personal experiences with meditation.
When Godlaski arrived at Centre College, he wanted to bring his students a new and creative method of analyzing information. He wanted them to have a chance to be comfortable not knowing something, or to give themselves permission to stop for a few moments in the midst of their hurried schedules.
Though the concept of contemplative thought stems from ideas that are centuries old; implementing these contemplative practices within the classroom is innovative, especially for the students. Just as many of history’s greats who had their flashes of insight during still points, when they had given up, Godlaski hopes his students will find inspiration in the quiet moments during his courses.The process he most frequently uses is a period of meditation, focused on breathing exercises to get relaxed and centered. He will often do this exercise at the beginning of class, or before an exam or a decision-making process, such as selecting a writing topic. This process, he finds, helps students let go of anxiety, or at least learn to sit with the anxiety until they learn to regulate it and transform it into productive output.
He has also conducted some guided visualizations, where students are asked to essentially float around in their brain, becoming aware of their external worries, internal skills, strengths, and curiosities, and become cognitive of their own breathing. These visualization exercises were designed to help students learn complex three-dimensional architecture in creative and personally meaningful ways, and to relax and focus their attention on the sometimes daunting task of learning the structure of an organ we rarely actually see.
He is quick to say that meditation won’t fix you and that a common misconception is that meditation is about shutting down your brain. As a neuroscience professor, Godlaski says, “There’s only one way to shut off your brain, and no one wants to hit that switch, cause once you do, it’s off for good”. Meditation is not about shutting down; it’s about opening up.
Despite the pan-religious contextual implications, meditation, used within the constructs of contemplative pedagogy, allows even skeptics to find these calming techniques useful.
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