English Professor Guides Monks Through the Writing Process
By Art Taylor
With such publications as “Wait and the Writing Will Come: Meditation and the Composing Process” and “What Is the Sound of No Hand Clapping: Using Secularized Zen Koans in the Writing Classroom,” Mason English professor Don Gallehr is known throughout the United States as a pioneer in incorporating meditation into the writing process.
Earlier this year, Gallehr was invited to teach writing and meditation to some of the world’s most disciplined practitioners: Tibetan monks under the leadership of the Dalai Lama.
Surprises were in store for all.
“One of the things meditation does is release anxiety,” says Gallehr. “These monks meditate, so they won’t have anxiety about their writing, right? But they did.”
That was just the first of the lessons Gallehr learned during two weeks in May when he joined four other North American scholars for an intensive two-week workshop in India.
This biennial program, hosted by the Sager Science Leadership Institute for Monks, seeks to bring the leading instructors of the Western world into conversation with the budding spiritual leaders of the East to combine training in meditation, spirituality and philosophy with science, neurobiology and cosmology.
In India, Gallehr drew on many of the techniques he uses in his Mason classes: journaling; drafting, revising and editing; and then what Gallehr calls the 35,000-foot exercise. He developed the exercise to help students see their personal writing within the context of the larger world.
“I suggest that they look down on their topics from an airplane flying high above the earth and tell us what they see surrounding their topic,” he explains.
But revision was an entirely new concept to the monks, and they weren’t comfortable with incorporating their personal experiences into their writing.
Also, while their philosophical training had allowed them the larger view that many students in the United States struggle with, they lacked the close look.
They could talk about poverty in India in general terms, for example, but they couldn’t tell the story of someone living on the streets.
“I’d spend two or three hours a day reinventing my classroom,” says Gallehr. “I had to create a new ‘five-foot exercise’ in which they included their personal experiences in their writing; something that was new to them. I also showed them how to incorporate dialogue, action and detail in their writing to make it more engaging for the reader.”
Another cultural difference involved was how knowledge is formed. For one exercise, Gallehr assigned one student to be the author and to read his piece aloud, then quietly take notes as his fellow students responded in designated roles as supporters and critics.
“Just listen,” Gallehr told the author. But when the time came for him to take notes, the author started yelling.
“What I discovered is that they learn by debating. One takes one side, one takes another. There are no ill feelings; it’s just how they learn.”
Throughout the two-week session, Gallehr worked closely with his fellow instructors: Chris Impey, a cosmologist from the University of Arizona; Lori Lambertson, an educator with San Francisco’s Exploratorium; Scott Schmidt from the Smithsonian Institution; and Bryce Johnson, an environmental engineering scientist from Berkeley, Calif.
When the monks used telescopes brought by Impey to peer at the stars, for example, Gallehr helped them make sense of what they observed by having them write about it and share it with their fellow monks.
Some of the monks’ articles will be published in a book by the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala. Other students were encouraged to submit their writings to journals in India, the United States and other countries.
“In many ways, this was a unique experience,” says Gallehr. “I learned things about the monks and India that I’ll be able to share with my colleagues and students. In addition, I am working on selecting one of the monks to come to Mason to train with us in the Northern Virginia Writing Project Summer Institute so that he can return and start a similar project in India.
Gallehr stresses the importance of global thinking when it comes to his work.
“As Thomas Friedman so accurately put it, the world is flat. We are no longer so separated that we can’t benefit from each other all across the globe.”
This article originally appeared in the English Department newsletter Not Just Letters.