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Good Letters

Note: Read part 1 of this post here.

Five minutes later, I rang the bell again. Students opened their eyes. I asked them to write in their notebooks, reflecting on what they had just experienced. There’s no right or wrong experience, I said. Whatever you experienced is your experience.

They wrote. Then we talked.

One of the first students to speak noted the musicality of the phrase, the many “m’s, “r’s, and “s’s.” It also has a distinct rhythm, she said.

Fabulous, I said. Words are more than concepts. Language is physical as much as it is conceptual, and its physicality acts on a reader as much as the ideas expressed by the words. Becoming sensitive to the physical qualities of language is similar to paying bare attention to sensation, an experience that precedes conceptual thinking.

Another student said it was very difficult for him to repeat the phrase without trying to think about it, to analyze it. That’s the very thing we’re taught to do in college, he said: analyze in order to understand.

Bingo. I think I might have shrieked with joy. These two comments led me to the question about the potential value of learning to resist, even if only briefly, the urge to interpret, to solve the problem, to get to the answer, the right answer, to master the text.

The more one is able to dwell on, hear, and receive the text with its many expressive qualities, physical, conceptual, tonal and more, the greater the likelihood is of the text’s becoming a bridge between writer and the reader. That, at least, is what I would like to believe.

Then a third student spoke. I coordinated the phrases with my breath, she said, “my memories” on the in breath, “our memories” on the out breath. Eventually, once I settled into that, she said, I had the sense with the in breath that I was breathing in my personal memories and with the out breath I was contributing to the creation of our collective memories, as a class, as a people.

Wow. Not only did she intuitively add another element to the contemplative exercise—coordinating the phrasing with the breath—she also arrived at an insight that responds to Kluger’s despair that the connection could never be made between her experience and ours, between personal and collective experience.

Having intuited that one’s personal actions contribute to the creation of our story, one might become, in the future, more thoughtful and intentional with one’s actions and the ways one interacts with and reacts to others.

Maybe I was lucky when I was preparing for class that day and came up with this exercise. Maybe the whole class was lucky that at least a few students paid close attention to their experiences and were willing to share honestly their experiences with the rest of us.

Maybe we were lucky that their experiences showed us what can happen when one takes a text deep inside herself, when one notices the urge to conquer the text by analyzing it, when one resists giving into that urge, when one notices that words are more than their denotative and connotative meanings, when one intuits the possibility that we can exist, breath by breath, as individuals and as members of a larger community.

Luck must surely have been part of it. But I think there were a few other contributing factors that created the conditions in which we could have such a powerful experience that day.

At that point in the semester, we had been working with short periods of silence and concentration practice in class for about six weeks. We were a small group, sitting in a circle. We had established an atmosphere of openness and trust, an atmosphere made possible in part by our having had multiple experiences of sitting silently together, of opening ourselves to what was arising. It was in such an atmosphere that this deep, revealing, and perhaps for one member of the class or another, transformative encounter with the text occurred.

Even if this were the only experience I’d had with the use of contemplative pedagogy in the classroom, it would have been enough for me to make the commitment to use this pedagogy again, to use it because it helps create the possibility of transformative experiences.

My responsibility, I believe, is not merely to impart information or to teach students certain reading and writing skills. Rather, my work is to create the possibility that every student I’m fortunate enough to work with will have a transformative learning experience that will inspire her to a live a life devoted to inquiry and learning.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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