An introduction to the courses that are carving out spaces in academia for students’ well-being
There is new development in the Religious Studies Department. Dr. Adela Sandness has constructed a new ‘Mindful Living’ stream of study consisting of 7 different classes. Dr. Sandness has been a prominent figure in the Religious Studies department in structuring her classes around issues of power, gender and gender relationships. She is trained as a scholar in the deep history of Buddhist psychology and the nature of mind, which has transferred over into her role as a professor in current classes about Modern India and Ghandi’s principles of truth and non-violence as a way of creating social change. The Xaverian sat down with Dr. Sandness to speak to a new stream of classes that will be available starting this upcoming fall.
Dr. Sandness prefaces our discussion by speaking to how the material involved in these new courses have been worked on already in various ways. What is unique now, is that the various elements already discussed, have come together in a single thread to create this stream focused on mindful living.
“These series of classes that Dr. Sandness will be teaching are really interesting and important, that sort of holistic approach to mental and physical health is an up and coming thing in society and it is something people are just starting to recognize. I think that culture has always been there but now it’s being brought to the forefront” says student, Matt Fleming who is not a religious studies major but has been drawn to take Dr. Sandness’ courses as electives.
Specifically, these courses will be addressing several issues that have been identified on the university campus. In part, the establishment of this stream of study is in response to the conversations we have been having as a campus community surrounding sexual safety. It has very intensely been brought to people’s awareness that the ways in which we relate to ourselves, and our own bodies, as well as with other people in the quality of our relationships is something that needs to be talked about. Dr. Sandness asserts that in the time speaking with individuals, after the sexual violence case that occurred last semester, no one was moving into a space of simplistic blame. Instead, the reoccurring narrative is an understanding that the occurrence of sexual violence and the responses that follow are situated in a broader, cultural aspect of how we are relating to each other as people. Dr. Sandness attributes the depth, intensity, sophistication and duration of these conversations to confirm that the campus is in need of structured space to do a “re-think.”
4th year student, Jillian Barvir who works closely with Dr. Sandness says that
“[These courses] will be a part of addressing issues on campus like sexual safety and the rise in mental health issues and despair that some students face. Dr. Sandness will have direct access to these students to help them work through it.”
These conversations are both academic by nature with groundings in Ancient Indian or Veda cosmology. Or in other words, the study of the world through religious groundings alternative to contemporary scientific western materialism. It will be the pairing of this academic anchorage with honest and open conversations that will lead to discussions on the quality, sensitivity and genuineness of the relationships that we’re creating with other people; whether that is an intimate relationship or not. The quality of relationships that we have with one another will necessarily create structures or frames of thinking that can shape the views of the world we have when we focus in on broader social issues. Dr. Sandness identifies these as issues of safety, respect, gender and power relationships. These relationships will also offer insight into the ways that we service leaders in the world; whether that be the leader of a residence house, a family or the leader of broader situations.
Next year (2018-2019) will introduce the first two new courses. In first semester is RELS 294 Mindfulness: How to Cope with Hard Things. This course will be dealing with mindfulness in a very direct way through applying historic, old Indian understandings of the shape of the world and the mindfulness techniques that evolved at this time to a practical component such as meditating together as a class. Through looking at various aspects and shapes of the world, this course is very much how to cope with hard things and how to work with balancing emotions such as jealousy and pride.
The second semester class is RELS 297 The Body: An Owner’s Manual in which students will quite literally be making an owner’s manual to their bodies grounded in cosmology that comes out of Hinduism and Buddhism. “What is a body” in this case will be explored more broadly. Dr. Sandness expresses her intent in bringing in several guest lecturers to cover the basis of what a body is. For example, she aims to invite community members from indigenous elders to lawyers, to the AWRCSASA and even nutritionists in unpacking what students feel and think about their bodies and why they feel such ways. Relating it back to a response to observed campus conversations about student’s wellbeing, this course will find the space in between conversations to say “well ok, how do I understand my relationship with my body and what is the quality, dignity, and respect I am offering to myself. Do I feel like I would want to make some changes?”
RELS 315/WMGS 397 Authentic Power and Gender is another new course that will be offered in the following year (2019-2020) along with RELS 394 Authentic Relationship. These courses are going to look at the ideas of power and gender from perspectives that come specifically out of Ancient Indian Cosmology. These ideas will provide a framework for answering questions around what constitutes real and authentic power. They will explore the interrelationship of masculine and feminine principles in Hinduism and Buddhism and gender from outside the contemporary western understanding. The first class will unpack controlling, domineering, territorial and oppressive natures as the default understanding of power. Dr. Sandness asserts that these behaviors are rooted in fear which merits compassion but not complacency so this course will be looking at what defines a strong and powerful person. The latter course mentioned is the companion class and this will continue the conversation by saying “if relationships aren’t about predatory dominance, power, control or who is on top, then what actually is an authentic and genuine relationship?” At the heart of these classes is human connection and with what degree of sensitivity to ourselves and others.
These are the four new courses offered next year. Accompanying them are RELS 395 Selfless Leadership: Be the Change I and RELS 397 Selfless Leadership: Be the Change II. The first two courses apply these authentic leadership learnings into leadership questions, both inspired the work of MK Gandhi. There is a sense that it is entirely possible to create broad stroke social change and these courses will look at some practiced ways to do so. These courses are rooted in old Indian World Views that informed Gandhi’s non-dualism truth and non-violence, specifically in relation to colonialism. These courses will actively unpack the perceptions of success within leadership that are directly from colonial forms of thinking; thus up for complete re-working and review when as a culture, we begin to authentically decolonize.
As for the final course, Dr. Sadness refers to it as the capstone of a series of classes. Every August, Dr. Sandness takes students to the Buddhist monastery in Cape Breton. After three weeks of online study together, the group goes to the monastery and lives there for a week the way that the monastics do. In essence, it is a mindfulness immersion experience to provide quite a strong basis in exploring meditative practices. This has been a class that Dr. Sandness has been nurturing and loving for quite some time now.
Dr. Sandness has made these courses free of pre-requisites in order to make them as accessible as possible to students from all disciplines.
The Xaverian also had an opportunity sat down with 4th year student, Colleen Murray.
“I took my first class with Dr. Sandness in my second year and there is something about the way that she brings the people in the classes that she teaches together that is really unique to the education that I have received at StFX. We get to know each other in the classroom and she gets to know us to incorporate the experience that we have on campus, our feelings about our positions as students and our own personalities into the course material which makes it really meaningful and purposeful for students. Not only are you receiving an awesome education, for example, in the religion and modern India course that I took with her, we learned so much about the history and development of religions about politics and important people from India; but we also got to learn a lot about each other and ourselves and it was just a beautiful experience as a student to encounter that on a university campus. It’s not something I expected. The fact that now there is an entire stream so students can be introduced to that way of learning and that way of thinking and being in the world is so important.”
Upon completing our interview, the Xaverian asked Dr. Sandness why she felt that it was time to introduce these courses. She expresses that in Buddhism there is an understanding that in any situation there would be the outer, the inner and the secret. In this case, the outer rationale would be that these courses are simply interesting theoretical material. There are many ways to dream a world and it is very helpful and useful to look at alternate ways of understanding the nature of self, body and other. Dr. Sandness speaks to the inner layer by saying that we can help people make choices and now these classes offer an avenue. The students are asking the institution to do better and it is completely appropriate to offer a space to have that conversation in a sustained way. And finally, the secret layer to the rationale.
“If I were to give away my secret, I have heard it said that we really only need 10% of any population to identify with each other as being an alternative culture to create that socially viable alternative. We are a campus of 5000 students which means we would only need to have 500 students who are identifying each other as being people who are making alternative lifestyle choices in order to create that viable, peer, cultural alternative that people as far as I can tell are essentially begging for…It isn’t about either this or that, but there is a space in between in which we live and how we engage in that space in between here is honestly going to set the platform for the rest our lives not just in the way it shapes our personality style and our long term friendships and the ways in which we tend to carve relationships in the future. I feel that it is an appropriate for a way to create that viable cultural alternative, 10% of our student population is only the Schwartz Auditorium filled twice.”
As we said goodbye, Dr. Sandness offers one last comment
“Just breathe, you are enough.”