Radical Presence: Teaching as a Contemplative Practice

by Guest Blogger August 17, 2011

by Ivy Rutledge
With school starting back up and our staff busy with lesson preparations for our upcoming Writer's Workshop, we were thrilled to be able to share guest blog contributor Ivy Rutledge's thoughts on the lovely book Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice, by Mary Rose O’Reilley.

Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice, by Mary Rose O’Reilley, is a deceptively slender volume of seven essays about the idea that a truly receptive teaching practice requires a high degree of spiritual presence. What at first glance appears to be a quick read is in fact a book that encourages a slow, careful examination. Like a light soaking rain that lasts for days, these essays encourage deep rooting and long-term growth.

O’Reilley draws on her background in Catholicism, Buddhism, and Quakerism, which each fed her inner life in a way that led her to a teaching practice that has room at the podium for both kittens and extended silences. Teachers that come from more mainstream pedagogical backgrounds may find her suggestions to be foreign, idealistic and impractical. But I’d encourage those readers to persist, think for a while, and read the book a second time. She describes the process of transformation as a spiral, by which getting to the center only happens after circling around analysis and resistance: “When you move any small peg in classroom culture … everything you used to take for granted will shift. Things get interesting, because people have to wake up and move out of their programmed behavior.”

Tucked away throughout her essays are examples of the small shifts that she has experienced throughout her teaching career. In her essay “Listening Like a Cow,” she shows her readers how life-changing it can be for someone to be listened to. She tells of how listening to her friend Dan talk about what was happening to his farm helped Dan to break free from the story he was telling himself and to develop a new story about his future. She says that we all have a story caught in our throat, and when we are listened to, we free up those stories to be told and changed. These personal moments that she shares show concretely how she learned to trust that being open and completely present will offer plenty of opportunities for students to learn and grow and tell their stories.

A writing classroom that values storytelling is a place where the spiritual merges with the professional. Mary Rose O’Reilley has shown that with this type of teaching, students will tell their stories and become better writers. This is what teachers across all creative disciplines crave: that moment when students open and blossom. Only then can student writers use the technical know-how that fills most curricula. In her last essay, “Nourishing the Prophetic Vision,” she relates the practice of radical presence to all forms of art, asking, “What do you have to make? What can only you make?”

In the process of reading and following the myriad narrative paths that O’Reilley leads us down, readers slowly build a sense of how, and more importantly, why, to shift their daily practice. Once readers discover how radical listening is important in all arenas, they begin to experience life with a new pair of ears. O’Reilley quotes from Bharati Mukherjee’s book Jasmine: “‘The incentive,’ Jasmine says, ‘is to treat every second of your existence as a possible assignment from God.’”  Radical Presence offers teachers and artists a place to begin, or to continue along, that spiraling journey.

Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice (Boynton/Cook, 1998)


Originally from Rhode Island, Ivy Rutledge lives and writes in the Piedmont of North Carolina, where she shares her life with her husband and two children. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Sun, Home Education, and several local and statewide publications. She has her first piece of fiction forthcoming in the Main Street Rag anthology, Altered States, a poem forthcoming in Tilt-a-Whirl, and was recently named a co-winner in the Perilous Adventures Perilously Short Nature Writing Competition.

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