Lesley's Sonnabend Fellow Diana Chapman Walsh, President Emerita of Wellesley College, offered her reflections on the convergence of leadership and mindfulnessBy Dr. Nancy Waring, Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and faculty director of the Mindfulness Studies Program at Lesley
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Such was the question explored by Dr. Diana Chapman Walsh in her far-reaching talk Tuesday evening at Lesley University on the convergence of mindfulness and leadership.
Chapman Walsh led the audience through her early days as President of Wellesley College, to Southern India last summer, where she helped lead the week-long Mind and Life Institute hosted by the Dalai Lama. The conversation focused on the bridging of Buddhist Scholars in Tibet with researchers and scholars from around the world.
“Being with you today, and preparing for this visit, have enhanced my appreciation of who you are and what you do,” said Chapman Walsh. Lesley’s vision resonated with her, she said: “’Scholarship grounded in practice … learning rooted in experience.’ Graduates who you hope will leave you ‘with the knowledge, skill, understanding, and ethical judgment to be catalysts who shape a more just, humane, and sustainable world.’” She praised Lesley’s dedication to “intellectual rigor side-by-side with a growing interest in contemplative practice and mindfulness as a subject of serious study.”
Reflecting on her Wellesley presidency, Chapman Walsh observed, “For me the discovery of mindfulness was initially very much implicated in the practice of leadership---leadership that is effective or ‘trustworthy.’”
Chapman Walsh was speaking as this year’s Sonnabend Fellow. Initiated in 1989 to honor former Chair of Lesley’s Board of Trustees, Elsa Sonnabend, the fellowship brings to campus distinguished practitioners in the field of human services to work with Lesley's students and faculty and enrich the academic community. Renowned for her transformative educational leadership at Wellesley and beyond, Chapman Walsh is a sought-after speaker and consultant. She serves on the governing boards of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Broad Institute, the Kaiser Family Foundation, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, and the Mind and Life Institute, as well as on national advisory boards.
Trustworthy leadership “begins and ends with leaders who can question themselves,” she said, noting that she found that the contemplative disciplines helped her quiet her heart and stabilize her mind. With mindfulness as an ally, she found herself grounded in a truth she described as joining her ability to integrate knowledge, “with skillfulness at integrating self as knower, mind, body, heart and spirit. If I couldn't trust myself, I realized, how could I ask others to trust me?”
Serendipitously, she noted, “gentle emissaries from the contemplative traditions…would appear from time to time and extend to me a fresh invitation to slow down and pay attention.” Among these were His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom she first met in 1997 as a fellow faculty member at a conference. Thich Nhat Hanh led a retreat for several hundred of his followers at Wellesley during her tenure as president. There were others, including Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, who joined a conference at the college in honor of his grandfather. Chapman Walsh suggested that “it was in part these visitations from the East that guided me to the teaching that ignorance lies at the root of suffering and to see my evolving contemplative practice not as a religious or spiritual gesture but as a doorway to learning. I was learning a new way of being in the world, of cultivating a mindful and ethical integrity.”
Chapman Walsh emphasized that importantly for us and our students, “the secularization of the contemplative practices and their gradual grounding in scientific research have moved them out of the realm of religion and unquestioning faith and into the realm of education, open for investigation and critique.” The simple “being there” aspect of mindfulness is one of its great assets in the academy, its cultivation of qualities of concentration, reflection, self-observation, compassion, deeper engagement with the material-all skills requiring nothing in the way of [religious] belief. But rather building emotion regulation and sustained attention.” She underscored that “we have mounting scientific evidence of the importance of these skills for success, in school and life.”
Mindfulness was not simply a personal path, she said, but one that enabled her to “embody the role of the president with fuller integrity.” Emboldened by this discovery, Chapman Walsh became more public in her pursuit of questions about how what she called “a truly integrative education might join body, mind, and spirit for whole human beings seeking knowledge in all its complexity, all its mystery. I was out on a limb. And it was out there that I began to encounter the friends and colleagues who would encourage me on.”
Among them were her meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Lesley’s 2012 Sonnabend fellow and friend, and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Lesley in 2011. Another was Arthur Zajonc, the Amherst physicist, and now President of Mind and Life, who moved her with his arguments for a radical vision of education as transformation.
Circling back to Lesley, Chapman Walsh said, “I see you opening spaces for your students to become increasingly mindful of our immense capacity as humans, to find and awaken the best in ourselves and one another. And I see you doing that in part by advancing the emerging academic field of mindfulness and contemplative studies.’’
Turning to her most recent encounter with the Dalai Lama, Chapman Walsh noted that His Holiness was instrumental in founding The Mind and Life Institute to bridge the gap between the first-person, phenomenological perspective of the world's contemplative traditions, and the third-person, objectivism perspective of Western science, with its increasingly powerful methodologies and tools for probing the mind. She offered a glimpse into last summer’s dialogue in Southern India with the Dalai Lama and other thinkers, on bringing Western science into the Indian monastic curriculum.
Near the end of a week of conversation, said Chapman Walsh, His Holiness “spoke of his dream of an educational initiative throughout the world that would teach what he calls ‘secular ethics’ as a means to reduce human suffering and promote human flourishing.” Chapman Walsh, who was moderating the proceedings at the time, said she felt like he was speaking to her, and through her to the Mind and Life Institute, and on to the larger educational community.
“And so I’m here to pass the charge along to you,” she said. Lesley faculty, she noted “have been opening spaces for your students to become increasingly mindful of our immense capacity as humans. I see you doing that in part by advancing the emerging academic field of mindfulness and contemplative studies.”
How blessed we are at Lesley University to have been visited by this gentle emissary from the world of possibility. May Diana Chapman Walsh’s visit last evening be the first of many encounters with her as we continue to develop our mindfulness offerings.
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