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Frances Garrett is an Associate Professor of Buddhist Studies and Tibetan Studies in the Department for the Study of Religion and Director of the Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health program at the University of Toronto.

In December when my cousin Kristin died, I was living in a windswept cedar-shingled house perched on a stone foundation 3,500 miles away, near the cold and rocky beaches of Nova Scotia. Kristin and I grew up together, spending summers at the family cabin on the cold and rocky beaches of the Pacific Northwest, and she had been sick for a year when she died. I was at a weekend retreat at the 1440 Multiversity near Santa Cruz meeting with participants of the Flourishing Academic Network (FAN), when they found a tumor in her lungs. She called me that Saturday to tell me she was in the hospital so would miss our planned visit that weekend. Exactly a year later, she died. I didn’t hear about it until the next morning, but that night—right as Kristin was taking her last breaths in her bedroom, surrounded by a group of women singing to her—right at that moment, I woke up suddenly in my dark purple attic in Nova Scotia. As I listened uneasily to the ocean roaring, I was alert with the most vivid, intense, breathtaking sensation of connection to Kristin.

Sometimes we have strange experiences like that. They sparkle in our lives like crystals, casting a rainbow of “How can it be?” or “What does it mean?” questions. This is the art that life makes for us, and in this one precious life, we should probably take the time to know these experiences from as many dimensions as possible. 

For the last three years, I’ve been the director of an undergraduate minor called Buddhism, Psychology and Mental Health (BPMH), a contemplative science program at the University of Toronto that is unique in Canada. Life experiences like what I just described are the “data” our students learn about, reflect on, share, and appreciate in our courses. Yes, the program trains students in qualitative and quantitative research, scientific literacy, and writing skills. But it also develops students’ capacities for self-reflection and awareness. We draw on contemplative, decolonial, and Indigenous teaching approaches especially, and our courses focus on both third-person and first-person inquiry to explore ideas about meaning, truth and reality, or the nature of embodiment and experience. We also use second-person experiential inquiry through relational practices like deep listening and public engagement.1

Our program has over 300 students enrolled, and because it is a minor requiring eight courses, students are embedded in our community for several years. They experience their lives with each other and with us instructors—and given the kinds of courses we have, students bring loss and grief, fear, anxiety, or love into our classrooms as topics for sharing and analysis. For faculty and students, encountering these experiences together over a semester in the deeply explorative context of a university classroom is utterly transformative.

A month before my cousin died, I had been hiking in the mountains close to the Tibetan border and I had just returned to Kathmandu when I felt the hotel shake vigorously; a major earthquake hit Karnali Province, 500 km (300 miles) west of Kathmandu. I lurched out of bed and peered uneasily out the window. Although it was late, I hadn’t been asleep. Earlier, I had been called to a Zoom meeting with the principal of the College in which our undergraduate program is housed—he informed me that a recommendation had been made to the dean (by a committee on which he sat, inexplicably) to close our program. This was completely unexpected. Our program has grown dramatically over its 17 years. Many of our courses have long waiting lists, and thousands of community members attend our events. No one involved in the program was consulted before the recommendation was announced, and after four months, we are still waiting to discuss the proposal with the dean’s office. The circumstances remain perplexing. 

A person and person standing on a hill with a beach and water in the background

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As soon as I returned from Nepal, students and faculty mobilized quickly. Students started a Protect the BPMH Program petition that quickly exceeded 1,000 signatures and now has almost 2,000. Our story has been in the press eight times so far.2 We’ve gathered 80 passionate and well-argued letters of support from past and present students of the program, plus over 40 letters of support from an international group of scientists, scholars, and community members. The outpouring of support has been an astonishing gift, an unexpected refraction of generosity and solidarity. Many of these letters describe programs like ours at institutions around North America, and it has been inspirational and instructive to learn about how many institutions are embracing teaching and research practices that center student well-being. Our Program Support Dossier is now over 150 pages long, and it has become a fascinating body of data about the value of our program and programs like ours, citing both the research that grounds our pedagogical approaches and qualitative experiences of student, faculty, and community participants in the program.

And so, the bewildering recommendation to close this popular program has resulted in an unexpectedly intimate quality of being with various local and international communities, including participants in the Flourishing Academic Network. FAN is a group of faculty members, student affairs professionals, and community partners across the United States and Canada partnering to advance student flourishing in higher education. FAN recognizes that college and university classrooms are key sites for academic, social-emotional, and professional development for students, and through shared research and advocacy projects, the network aims to contribute to a growing movement to support classroom engagement with evidence-based work that promotes student wellbeing.3 In meetings over the last several years, FAN members have learned about the University of Toronto’s BPMH program, and hearing news of our threat of closure, members rose to offer letters of support.

Like programs at other FAN institutions, our program directly targets an outcome of student well-being in both its curriculum and teaching methods. BPMH courses engage interdisciplinary research interactions between scientists, academics, health practitioners, and contemplative traditions, with a focus on global understandings of health and distress and the impacts of ecological breakdown and systems of oppression on individual, communal, and planetary well-being. Our student-centered pedagogical methods engage students in first-person research, which may involve contemplative, action inquiry-based, micro-phenomenological, or reflective learning. We draw on trauma-informed or healing-centered teaching methods that are culturally-informed and place-responsive.4 Inside and outside the classroom, program work is structured around the importance of community and relationship, characterized by respect and attention to affect and embodiment. 

Many of the experiential learning activities that enliven our classrooms are part of our Engaging Education in Buddhist Studies (EEBS) program, which supports classrooms in several departments at the university thanks to a generous grant to BPMH from the Khyentse Foundation. This year alone, for example, EEBS has supported an in-class mindfulness retreat, a workshop on Movement Medicine for a session on trauma and the body, and guest speakers to lead practice workshops for the courses “Biohacking Breath” and “Touching the Earth.” Drawing on research on the benefits of meta-cognitive, experiential, and contemplative pedagogies, the multi-year EEBS project has developed classroom activities targeting attention training, contemplative movement, art-making and dance, community-based and anti-oppressive learning, and environmental engagement.

Student surveys and support letters overwhelmingly show the value of our program’s approach to their academic success and overall well-being. One BPMH alumnus wrote that the program “truly transformed my life.” This is a common refrain in student letters. “The BPMH program has honestly changed the way I approach everything in life,” wrote a Computer Science major. “I have transferred my learning from my BPMH courses to all other aspects of my life,” remarked a student majoring in Cognitive Science. A Neuroscience major noted that, “focusing on improving my mental health has gone hand in hand with improved academic performance,” and a student majoring in Diaspora and Transnational Studies celebrated, “I have seen an increase in my marks all around—my average this semester is about 5–10% higher than previous semesters.” 

Students are inspired and motivated by their time with our program in all kinds of ways. A program alumna called her experience “an opportunity for revolutionary learning.” In November 2023, shocked by news of the administration’s sudden recommendation to close the program, students sat outside the dean’s office for a “Mindful Solidarity Sit-In,” motivated by coursework on Buddhist activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. In a letter describing the sit-in, Professor Stan Doyle-Wood, from the University of Toronto’s Critical Studies in Equity and Solidarity program, reported on “student testimonies that spoke to a deep collective love for the program.” Another observer, Dr. Tony Scott from the Department of Political Science, commented, “What most struck me was how these students supported one another, and it was clear that the BPMH program was a site for these students to radically transform their experience at the University of Toronto.”

The last few months have given me reason to think a lot about solidarity and its grounding in community and connection. The word “solidarity” is, of course, related the word “solid,” connoting firmness and strength; etymologically the word “solid” is also connected to a Latin word for safety, solidus. All of that brings me back to my cousin, and also to rocks. At the FAN retreat at 1440, that weekend when I got the call from Kristin at the hospital, we had been assigned to bring something to share. I brought a flat, round, smooth, grey rock, which I had collected at the beach near my house in Nova Scotia. Blake Hestir, Professor of Philosophy and Associate Director of CALM Studies at Texas Christian University, also brought a rock. After that sharing circle, I asked Blake if he would like to see my rock, and I’ll always remember how he turned his full attention at that moment to me and my rock, taking my rock carefully in his hands and studying it tenderly. It was an intimate moment with someone I had never met before that weekend. I spent my childhood collecting rocks with my cousin—which even then I saw, wondrously, as an act of collecting histories of an inhuman duration, or of holding deep time itself in my small hands. In Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen writes that, far from being inert, “things like rocks and mountains are what enable relations to flourish.”5 In my mid-forties, I took up rock climbing and began to see the landscapes around me in entirely new ways; I’ve since taken an increasing interest in the intimate lives we share with geological forms. “To tell a story with stone,” Cohen says, “is intensely to inhabit that preposition with, to move from solitary individuations to ecosystems, environments, shared agencies.”6 

I’m writing this story here on the ridge of a narrow granite peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. A rich, carbon-storing peat bog just behind my house stores energy from the past and hope for the future. These networked places and ideas are the bedrock of our contemplative science program at the University of Toronto, as they are of the FAN group, solidifying and energizing our lives. May they be preserved for the benefit of all.

A person standing on a rocky shore

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Four hundred million years ago the earth’s crust shifted, 
layers of mud compressed into the sea floor. 
Now rising to slice our hands, it is slate. 
Water over billions of crushed skeletons 

creating cliffs with calcite tufas that fit our grip, 
it is limestone. Igneous slabs darkened 
by iron and magnesium, dolerite. 
River deltas dried, gritstone.

If you climb in the Paha Sapa hills 
you may find chossy pegmatite crystals
containing aquamarine, tourmaline, or topaz 
surfaced at the end of a water-saturated flow 

of magma thirty million years ago. 
One summer morning I stood 200 feet 
above ground with the tip of one foot 
on a granite crystal the size of a silver dollar. 

I picked up a flake of mica. My story began 
1.7 billion years ago when a flow of granite intruded 
into a schist as heated mud pressed into the sea floor. 
Now it’s here, near your picture on my polished steel desk. 

  1. Frances Garrett and Sophie Chase, 2021. “‘Deep Listening’ in Buddhist Studies: Teaching and Learning during a Pandemic,” Religions 12, no. 6: 387. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060387. ↩︎
  2. See https://pathuoft.net/in-the-press/ ↩︎
  3. C. Zaza and R. C. Yeung, (2023). “It’s time to bring mental health literacy education into the postsecondary curriculum,” The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14, no. 1 (2023).  https://doi.org/10.5206/cjsotlrcacea.2023.1.13663. and Matthew J. Hirshberg et al., “Can the Academic and Experiential Study of Flourishing Improve Flourishing in College Students? A Multi-University Study.” Mindfulness 13, no. 9 (2022): 2243-2256. doi:10.1007/s12671-022-01952-1. ↩︎
  4. For more on these approaches, including our preference of the term “healing-centered” over “trauma-informed,” see https://windvane.life/why-windvane/↩︎
  5. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 3. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt155jmth. ↩︎
  6. Cohen, Stone, 11.  ↩︎