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Appalachian State University’s Still Point: Who We Are and What We Do

Authors: Linda Coutant, Dr. Elaine Gray and Dr. LaShanda Sell

Abstract

Formal interest in contemplative practices and pedagogy at Appalachian State University began in Fall 2013 when two faculty members returned from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s Annual Summer Session energized to create a mindful campus culture at their home institution. A gathering with a handful of other faculty over tea led to what is now an officially recognized faculty/staff organization called Still Point.  For others considering starting a contemplative faculty/staff organization on their campus, we share our organization’s history and purpose, and the challenges and opportunities we’ve experienced in setting up a formal structure dedicated to contemplative practice and pedagogy.

Contemplation
Introduction

Still Point is an officially recognized faculty/staff organization at Appalachian State University that is dedicated to exploring contemplative pedagogy and practice in higher education. Its purpose is to create space for an introspective, critical first-person approach to learning across the academic disciplines through such contemplative practices as yoga, breathing work, deep listening exercises, mindfulness meditation and reflective journaling (Appalachian State University, 2017). Among college students, many of these practices have been found to lead to greater meaning-making and academic motivation (Bach & Alexander, 2015), independent critical thinking (Sable, 2014), and reduction of stress (Greeson, Juberg, Maytan, James & Rogers, 2014). The organization supports and organizes campus events, workshops, and opportunities around this topic to encourage deep learning and well-being in the faculty and staff who engage in these activities and the students they serve. Thus, it supports the university’s strategic initiatives in integrative approaches to teaching and learning and in health and well-being, while building and sustaining community.

There is a growing international movement to transform higher education through contemplative practices (Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, 2015a). Still Point aligns itself with a primary leader in this movement, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which envisions “an education that promotes the exploration of meaning, purpose and values and seeks to serve our common human future,” and that leads to “connection to each other, opening the heart and mind to true community, deeper insight, sustainable living, and a more just society” (CMind, 2015b). Members of Still Point’s leadership team are active members of CMind’s Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and having participated in its conferences and workshops, among other events related to contemplative practices in higher education.

This reflection outlines how Still Point began and contributes to the building of community, the challenges and opportunities it has encountered, and the reasons we choose to be involved.

Early History

Appalachian State University is located in the mountains of western North Carolina and is one of 17 institutions within the University of North Carolina system. It has about 18,000 students and approximately 3,000 employees. Formal interest in contemplative practices and pedagogy at Appalachian began in Fall 2013 when two faculty members returned from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s Annual Summer Session energized to create a mindful campus culture at their home institution. They invited a few others on campus with similar interests to share tea and have a conversation about how to integrate contemplative practices into their personal/professional lives and the higher education community. When deciding what to call themselves, one member, Dr. Karen Caldwell, said the term “still point” came to mind. It was exactly what the group said they felt they wanted to create amid the busyness of academia. The name also symbolized a gathering point where things simultaneously come together and ripple out.

As a group, Still Point began hosting monthly, hour-long contemplative practice sessions in guided meditation, movement-based meditation, or simple conversations about the use of contemplative pedagogy in classes. This eclectic group grew organically and rapidly—within three months, over 100 faculty and staff asked to be added to Still Point’s email list. The membership represented multiple disciplines and a cross section of the campus community. The email list soon was transferred to the university course management system, which allowed members to exchange information and share resources. Events were advertised campus wide through mass email announcements, drawing in new members.

Still Point also held monthly leadership team meetings. Some who attended the practice sessions chose to sit in on these leadership meetings and became more deeply involved, further diversifying the active engagement among faculty and staff. From these meetings grew interest in formalizing the group as an official faculty/staff organization, which would allow us to reserve campus meeting rooms more easily and qualify for a website on the university’s domain. Over several months, the leadership team worked on the university’s organization application form, including a formal mission statement and vision. Still Point submitted its application during the 2014-15 academic year and received the chancellor’s approval in March 2015.

Still Point’s mission statement reads:

Still Point is a community of practice comprised of faculty/staff/students engaged in contemplative inquiry in their personal/professional lives. The purpose of Still Point is to create space for contemplative inquiry, and the exploration of contemplative practice, pedagogy, and research in diverse forms. Through a variety of campus activities, Still Point will support the application of contemplative inquiry across the university through personal/professional development opportunities for staff and faculty, curricular innovation, and multi-disciplinary research. Still Point seeks to affirm and enrich the value of contemplative inquiry as a powerful mode of teaching, learning, research and engagement that complements the university’s commitment to sustainable and just communities (Appalachian State University, 2017).  

Its vision statement adds that it will contribute to a climate of health and well-being on campus and that it aligns with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

In a news release distributed by Appalachian’s University Communications office soon after receiving official recognition, Still Point’s president, Dr. Elaine Gray, was quoted as saying:

Our aim is to support faculty and staff in their personal practice but also to help students live a richly integrated life by supporting the use of contemplative practices into our teaching. Still Point is part of an emerging movement in recognition of whole person learning (Appalachian State University, 2015).

The news release, written by a communications staff member serving on the Still Point leadership team, was distributed to local and regional media to help broaden awareness of the larger contemplative education movement. It included this quote from leadership team member Dr. Vachel Miller of the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies:

Amid a culture of entertainment and distraction, contemplative pedagogies address the felt need for focus, self-reflection and a quiet space amid the incessant spin. Contemplative pedagogies bring a sense of calm to the classroom and cultivate presence: being here together (Appalachian State University, 2015).

The news release also included a summary of events the organization had organized up to that point. The next section will highlight Still Point’s overall accomplishments.

Activities

Still Point’s membership has grown to include diverse types of employment at the university, with faculty representing a number of academic disciplines and staff representing a variety of positions from student affairs to academic support to communications or special grant projects. The organization has gradually increased its presence and activity on campus through signature events and collaborations with other campus units, and by hosting book groups and social events for campus.  

Signature Events

In academic years 2013-14 and 2014-15, Still Point’s signature events were monthly one-hour contemplative practice sessions and conversations as its primary presence on campus. These sessions included sitting meditations, movement-based meditations, and discussions around the meaning and definitions of contemplative inquiry and contemplative pedagogy. Beginning in Spring 2015, the leadership team chose to shorten these events and make them more frequent, which better suited leaders’ time schedules. This change boosted attendance and created a more consistent presence of stillness. These shorter, weekly meditations became known as “15 Mindful Minutes,” which continue today. In fall 2016, Still Point introduced a second signature event called “Mindful Methods,” a periodic return to the one-hour workshop for greater depth.  Three such presentations have been made so far in 2016-17: Mis-Communicating Mindfulness, by a communication professor; Ki Development, by an adjunct professor with a longtime aikido practice; and Mindful Clinical Practice, by a communication disorders professor.

Collaborations with Other Units

In its collaborations with other units, Still Point has worked with Appalachian’s Division of Student Development, Belk Library and Information Commons, several academic units and Human Resources.

Within Student Development, Still Point members have led sessions on mindful leadership and authentic leaders at the annual event called Appalachian Leadership Forum, designed to equip club and organization presidents with stronger leadership skills. Appalachian’s two student meditation clubs, Yesplus and APPSits, together with Still Point and the university’s Wellness Center, hosted meditations of 75 people or more in spring 2014 and spring 2015. More recently, members of Still Point presented a walking labyrinth at the INTERSECT Social Justice Conference for students, held February 2017. The group also worked with Plemmons Student Union to refurbish the building’s meditation room. What previously had been a poorly furnished room with fluorescent light and ragged carpeting is now a hardwood floor space with comfortable, movable chairs; soft, inviting lights; fresh paint; and attractive color scheme. 

With Belk Library and Information Commons, Still Point helped put on a series of stress reduction meditations during exam week, known as Library Cares week, in December 2016. Still Point and the library also co-sponsored a visit in October 2015 by Dr. David Levy, author of Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. Through a professional development workshop series hosted by Appalachian’s Human Resources, Still Point members twice led one-hour workshops called “Mindfulness and Meditation” workshops, in November 2015 and May 2016, with about 25 faculty and staff present—making the events among HR’s more well-attended workshops. With the Beaver College of Health Sciences, University Documentary Services, Staff Senate, and Wellness and Prevention Services, Still Point co-sponsored a screening of the 90-minute documentary The Physics of the Soul and discussion with the filmmaker.

In 2016-17 academic year, Still Point has joined with Appalachian’s College STAR program, a University of North Carolina system project supporting students with learning differences, to initiate a learning community called The Mindful Classroom. Its purpose is two-fold: to align mindfulness practices with the Universal Design for Learning model (UDL), which College STAR advocates, and also connect faculty across the disciplines using contemplative practices in their teaching.

Book Groups and Social Events

Still Point has hosted two book groups, one with a grant from CMind to bring co-author Daniel Barbezat to campus. About 18-20 people signed up to participate in the book groups for Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning (Barbezat & Bush, 2014) in fall 2014 and Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (Hanson, 2009) in spring 2015. Both book groups were sponsored in conjunction with Appalachian’s Hubbard Center for Faculty Excellence, which purchased copies of the books for all participants and hosted meeting space. A contemplative “Tea and Be” event welcoming faculty/staff back to campus was held as a social event in early spring and fall semesters of 2015, with moderate attendance.

Opportunities

The most significant opportunities that have arisen through Still Point include the time and space on campus for being still and the collaborations among units to help make stillness a part of the Appalachian culture. Many people on campus now know of the organization. At least twice a year, offices or units request Still Point members to come to their staff retreat or other event to lead a special 15 Mindful Minutes or other presentation on mindfulness. There is also increasing diversity at 15 Mindful Minutes during the 2016-17 academic year, as seen in the increased number of housekeeping staff, or faculty/staff who are new to the university. Still Point’s alignment with the university’s new Center for Academic Excellence is believed to play a significant role in this increased diversity, because the center includes 15 Mindful Minutes in its workshop calendar. Participants are encouraged to register their attendance before each week’s meditation, which provides a record for administrative purposes and also gives credit to the employee for having attended a professional development workshop. Another opportunity for the organization has been the rising number of Still Point members who have attended the CMind summer institute and/or presented at national and regional conferences for contemplative pedagogy and practice.

Challenges

Despite the many opportunities surrounding Still Point and the attention it brings to the use of contemplative practices on the Appalachian campus and beyond, there are challenges to operating this type of organization. These challenges relate to both the understanding and use of contemplative practices and the day-to-day leadership and administrative tasks. Still Point had difficulty developing clarity for the purpose of the group, as the first leaders had slightly differing ideas of what such a group might mean for campus. Their varying definitions and purposes of contemplative practices became more pronounced as they crafted final drafts of the organization’s mission and vision statements. Still Point’s leaders also discovered misconceptions about this emerging field, and therefore had some difficulty communicating across campus about the organization’s events and their value in higher education. For example, when making a request for a website on the university’s domain, the group was initially denied because the IT director said the organization appeared to be a religious organization.

Given the diversity of Still Point members, it has also been challenging to remain inclusive of the more esoteric practices/beliefs of some practitioners and maintain the credibility of the group. To help establish and communicate this balance, Still Point attempted to create a directory of who does what in and outside the classroom with contemplative practices, but this effort met resistance and lack of participation. As other units—such as Appalachian’s Wellness and Prevention Services, Counseling Center, and student groups—engage in more activities under the umbrella term of mindfulness, it is growing more difficult to develop a cohesive collaborative of the various mindfulness and contemplative initiatives on campus.

Administratively, challenges have included the limited number of engaged members willing to lead the organization. Out of a listserv of 100 people, only eight to 10 members consistently participate in leadership team meetings or serve as officers as required by official faculty/staff organization status at Appalachian. Still Point also has no home unit within the university’s organizational structure, which means no operating funds or administrative support. Leaders typically use personal time for planning and executing Still Point activities. Lack of funding and limited time also hinder building a research and scholarly agenda. While members recognize gaps in scholarly literature around aspects of contemplative pedagogy, there are limited resources to support their endeavors. 

Why Be Involved?

Each of us has a different perspective on Still Point. Dr. Elaine Gray is an original founder, Linda Coutant is a member who became involved in the leadership team during the group’s first year, and Dr. LaShanda Sell is a newer faculty member who joined Still Point in Fall 2016. Below, we provide insight on what drew us to this organization and why we remain actively engaged.

Dr. Elaine Gray

I have always felt passionate about student success. While teaching First Year Seminar students over the past three decades I often focused on encouraging students to develop aspects of their emotional intelligence as a prerequisite lifelong learning skill. Self-awareness, empathy, and self-directedness were novel ideas thirty years ago. It always felt risky to invite students to explore their inner lives in the context of higher education, as there was no textbook or specific pedagogical guidance at the time.

Since then, I felt inspired and guided by the work of Parker Palmer and more recently the leadership and vision of Arthur Zajonc. I became more fearlessly committed to facilitating whole person learning in my classrooms. My own meditation gave me insight and inspiration to integrate aspects of mindfulness in the classroom, specifically as it related to developing inner attention and stress reduction. When I attended the Contemplative Mind summer institute in 2013, I was grateful to find an entire network and community of educators exploring contemplate pedagogy. On my return to Appalachian I was committed to organizing a campus group.

Linda Coutant

I have been a practitioner of various meditation practices for more than 20 years, beginning as a young college graduate struggling with anxiety. Through tai chi, open heart meditation, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and other forms of centering, I have been able to create a more calm and satisfying life. I wish I had known in college these important life skills in mindfulness and emotional self-regulation.

When I learned that a group called Still Point was forming on the Appalachian campus, I was excited to merge my personal interest in this area with my professional life in higher education public relations/marketing. I feel called to participate in this movement to bring mindfulness and other contemplative practices to higher education to benefit both students and colleagues. As a communications professional, I volunteered my writing and editorial skills to the early work of Still Point as it developed its mission and vision, website content, and proposal to become an official faculty/staff organization. I have also served as a meditation leader and officer within the organization. I remain involved because I observe how we are building community and cultivating a more contemplative campus culture.  

Dr. LaShanda Sell

I recently started at Appalachian State in August after graduating the previous semester with a PhD in nursing. One of the things I was intentional about with my first official academic job was to create the self-care practices I learned as a doctoral student at UVA, where there was a strong culture for yoga, mindfulness practices, and meditation. I was determined when I started my professional career that this culture would be necessary for finding balance and long-term success. In a campus-wide events announcement, I learned about Still Point and immediately recognized this to be the much needed support for my self-care practices that I was searching for. Attending the 15 Mindful Minutes series has been very helpful for me in that transition back into teaching full time amid the typical nursing stressors, clinical stressors and classroom stressors. I return from the Mindful Minutes meditations refreshed and my colleagues have taken notice.  I often invite them knowing how valuable these practices are in preserving my emotional, spiritual, and physical health.  

Conclusion

What began as a hopeful vision of two faculty inspired by CMind’s Annual Summer Institute has become a well-respected faculty/staff organization that supports Appalachian State University’s strategic initiatives in integrative approaches to teaching and learning and in health and well-being. As an official faculty/staff organization, Still Point sponsors programming to benefit all of campus—short, weekly meditations in the form of its signature 15 Mindful Minutes as well as longer information sessions on mindfulness and contemplative inquiry—and it collaborates with groups across campus, from the library and Division of Student Development to Human Resources. In reflecting on the organization, three employees shared why they participate in this group, recognizing that any attempt to change the campus first begins by looking within themselves.  

References

Appalachian State University. (2015, April 20). Still Point receives official recognition as new faculty/staff organization. University News. Retrieved from http://www.news.appstate.edu/2015/04/20/still-point-receives-official-recognition-as-new-facultystaff-organization/

Appalachian State University. (2017). Still Point. Retrieved from https://stillpoint.appstate.edu/

Bach, D. J., & Alexander, J. (2015).  Contemplative approaches to reading and writing: Cultivating choice, connectedness, and wholeheartedness in the critical humanities. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 2(1), 17-36. Retrieved from http://journal.contemplativeinquiry.org/index.php/joci/article/view/41

Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful  methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. (2015a). 2015 annual report. Retrieved from http://contemplativemind.org/files/2015_CMind_Annual_Report.pdf

Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (2015b). Our mission. Retrieved from http://www.contemplativemind.org/about/vision

Greeson, J. M., Juberg, M. K., Maytan, M., James, K., & Rogers, H. (2014). A randomized controlled trial of Koru: A mindfulness program for college students and other emerging adults. Journal of American College Health, 62(4), 222-233. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2014.887571

Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha's brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Sable, D. (2014). Reason in the service of the heart: The impacts of contemplative practices on critical thinking. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 1(1), 1-21. Retrieved from http://journal.contemplativeinquiry.org/index.php/joci/article/view/2

Author Biographies

Linda Coutant works at Appalachian State University as a senior editor/writer in University Communications. A former journalist, she has worked more than 20 years in higher education public relations and marketing.  In 2017 she completed her Ed.D. degree in educational leadership from Appalachian, with a research focus on mindful campuses. Linda has had a longtime meditation practice and in 2016 became a certified Koru Mindfulness Curriculum teacher. She serves as the president of Still Point.

Dr. LaShanda Sell began her yoga practice over 10 years ago as a way to combat the physical and mental strain of 10-hour nursing shifts. For the past 22 years she has practiced as a nurse, a Nurse Practitioner, and as nursing faculty. Dr. Sell found much needed peace and calm on the mat, and felt energized after each practice. After years of practicing various styles of yoga, she completed Yoga Teacher Training at Ganesha’s Yoga and Wellness, and is registered with Yoga Alliance as a RYT-200.She has seen her personal practice improve both weight and chronic disease, and loves sharing the many health benefits of yoga in her classes and workshops. She is a member of Still Point faculty/staff organization at Appalachian State University where she now teaches.

Dr. Elaine Gray considers herself an interdisciplinarian whose academic interests range from contemplative pedagogy, consciousness studies, spiritual intelligence, and the wisdom arts. Her most recent research focuses on how students in higher education can cultivate a sense of purpose and well-being. She received her PhD in Integral Studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies and her masters in Liberal Studies from Rollins College. Dr. Gray received the Appalachian’s 2010 Brantz Award for Outstanding Teaching in First Year Seminar. She is an affiliated faculty member with the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and the First Year Seminar Program. She is also the e-portfolio coordinator for University College. Dr. Gray began teaching student success courses at Valencia Community College in Orlando, Florida in 1995. Her extensive experience teaching first-year students created an opportunity for her to write a student success book which would blend her academic background in transformative adult learning theory and emotional intelligence. Pearson published the book entitled “Conscious Choices – A Model for Self Directed Learning” in 2004. She is vice president of the Still Point faculty/staff organization at Appalachian.

Appalachian State University’s Still Point: Who We Are and What We Do
Collection 2017 Contemplative Practices for 21st Century Higher Education
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users
Author Linda Coutant, Dr. Elaine Gray, Dr. LaShanda Sell
Year published 2017
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