April 23, 2003

Class Explores Meditation

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Fourth in a series on interesting courses at Cornell.

Three credits, three 50-minute classes weekly…inner peace? Not quite, but if you take ASIAN 277: Meditation in Indian Culture, you will at least be introduced to the concept of meditation.

The course, taught by Prof. Daniel Gold, asian studies, was envisioned as a class that would serve as a “survey or sampler” of meditation techniques and history.

Meditation is not exactly the staple of an Ivy League education, but students have responded well to this opportunity to expand beyond, what are for most, Western cultural boundaries.

Ravi Barr ’05, who took the course in 2002, said that “everyone is out there studying economics, and unless you’re an asian studies major, you normally don’t learn this kind of stuff.”

“If you take the class you are expected to experiment with meditation practices,” Gold said.

However, he also added that students “are graded on papers.”

Gold, who did his undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley and his graduate studies at the University of Chicago, describes the class as “less conventional” than most.

That’s because at least once, maybe twice a week, part of lecture will be devoted to experimenting with a style of meditation. The course primarily focuses on Hindu and Buddhist meditation styles, which include among other techniques, breath meditation, mantra meditation-word based, simple visualizations, and philosophical meditations.

According to Gold, “these meditation styles are paired with certain aspects of cultural traditions.”

Because of this, Gold dedicates a significant part of the class to “understanding what meditation techniques are, and how they fit into cultural traditions.”

Gold mediates himself, and when asked why, he responded jokingly, “I’d like to say salvation, but I haven’t gotten it yet.”

Gold says that many students have informed him that they enjoyed meditation’s secular aspects, in that they found meditation relaxing.

The class has been taught three times in the past few years, most recently in the spring of 2002. One of the reasons Gold developed the class was a grant offered by the American Council of Learned Societies that worked to promote meditation through the classroom. Another reason that Gold claims impelled him to teach the class was the perceived level of ignorance the average person has when it comes to meditation.

“I think there is just a general lack of knowledge about [meditation],” Gold said.

The class may be “less conventional” but it does still require three to four papers, depending on how many students are enrolled.

In 2002, class enrollment swelled to 150 students. The first time it was offered, the class was in the 25-30 range. Gold said that if enrollment does not taper off they will have to start limiting enrollment because they cannot find the teaching staff to handle the class load.

The class is Gold’s favorite to teach. Of this he said, “I feel that it’s special. It’s a lot of work-a lot of papers-but I feel it’s worthwhile.”

Even though class involves meditation exercises, Gold tries to maintain a certain level of academic rigor.

“I try to keep [the class] on an intellectual edge. I build it around contrasts between Hindu and Buddhist practices,” he said.

Gold said that these differences manifest themselves in the “different world views and affect the practices.”

Students generally respond well to Gold’s emphasis on contrasts.

“The cultural and religious comparisons were very interesting,” Barr said.

Prof. Gold also teaches ASIAN 347: Tantric Traditions. Tantra has garnered an interesting reputation in popular culture recently as a unique marathon style of sex. Gold’s class is by no means a sexual education class but as he explains, “sex naturally develops out of [Tantra].”

He is quick to emphasize, however, that “the majority of people who practice Tantra do not practice the sexual aspect.”

Tantra is a difficult philosophy to define, and Gold explains this is precisely why he has developed the class. Tantra is a style that pervades a number of Indian religious traditions, which preach polarity.

“This means that the cosmos are polarized, with a masculine principle of calmness and a feminine principle of power,” Gold said. “And you can’t have one without the other.”

According to Gold, these concepts of polarity, balance and the personification of power as female and calmness as male “has lead to some sexual practices.”

The Tantric course naturally overlaps with his meditation class, both dealing with, in Gold’s words, “elaborate ritual traditions.”

Gold has not taught ASIAN 347 in a couple of years and is unsure when it will return to the roster. He hopes to continue the class sometime next year, when he returns from sabbatical.

Archived article by Michael Margolis