[This is an early draft of ideas for an upcoming paper – email pmr01[at]ucsb[dot]edu if you have any comments or questions.]

The past few years have seen a surge in literature promoting the use of contemplative practices in higher education. The suggestions offered by these advocates can appear bewildering, ranging from slightly modified classroom activities to more obscure Asian-inspired meditative techniques. In a seminal volume on contemplative pedagogy, Judith Simmer-Brown admits that “there is no single contemplative pedagogy and no single prototype of the contemplative professor.”[1] Anyone exploring contemplative pedagogy through published literature or online resources will quickly confirm this observation.

The nomenclature “contemplative pedagogy” (CP) functions as a broad and malleable umbrella for a wide range of teaching and learning strategies. This diversity is a result of CP’s origins in several educational trends that began as early as the 1960s, or depending on how one defines “origins,” extending back much further.[2] As an initial step to understanding CP, I try to distinguish between two main strains or camps which remained entangled in practice in complex ways.[3] Specifically, through examining both published and online resources, we will find divergent methods, goals, and institutional supports for the advocates of CP. Thus, in order to see an overarching picture of this experimental educational movement and its internal complexities, it will help to start by making generalizations.[4]

Critiques of CP often reduce the diversity of its practices to a select few – often Asian (or Asian inspired) meditation or mindfulness techniques – without realizing the overlap with more established educational practices. Additionally, some of the more vocal advocates of CP, in order to carve out a unique niche, also overlook the important intersections with critical pedagogical theory. This is often found in the rhetoric of advocates who disparage the impersonal modern educational system, but remain unaware of the sizable scholarship placing students at the center of the classroom experience.[5] The most charitable (though admittedly incomplete) analysis of CP would highlight the alignment with some of the most important advances in the scholarship on teaching and learning in the past few decades. In fact, it is impossible to untether CP from the larger trends in education, regardless of what advocates or critics claim. This essay is an attempt to analyze CP critically and to highlight some connections to contemporary non-CP practices.

The “Transformative” Camp

Arguably, one strain of CP more consciously foregrounds the importance of the introduction of Asian religious traditions into the US in the mid-twentieth century and the mainstreaming of meditation practice. These practices, especially the ones derived from Buddhism, are more commonly championed in their modernist, (pseudo-)secularized forms of “mindfulness.”

Among the long list of individuals and institutions who advocate the use of contemplative practices in educational contexts, the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society (CMind) and its academic arm known as the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), are perhaps the most well-known and influential.[6] CMind promotes an array of retreats, workshops, and annual conferences on contemplative practices and the development of curricula for university settings. Since 2014, CMind has also published The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry and between 1997 and 2009 granted fellowships to 158 faculty to develop contemplative pedagogical approaches.[7] CMind, ACMHE, and other organizations, while diverse in their missions, value the personal and societal transformative potential of contemplative practices.[8]

Several figures whose scholarship has formed the early direction of the CP movement have notably helmed CMind, including Mirabai Bush, Daniel Barbezat, and Arthur Zajonc. Their approaches, unsurprisingly, reflect a socially engaged and personally transformative perspective and either draw from, or have an elective affinity with, a variety of other educational movements such as integrative education (of Ken Wilbur and Sri Aurobindo)[9], transformative education (of Jack Mezirow)[10], spirituality in education[11], and mindfulness in education.[12] Additionally, there are resonances with service learning[13] and the recently conceptualized compassionate pedagogy and the pedagogy of kindness.

The contemplative methods promoted by this strain of CP are diverse and not easy to characterize. Descriptive language tends to gravitate towards ideas of interiority, personal reflection, silence, presence, and transformation. As is noted by Patricia Owen-Smith, these practices are “solidly anchored in mindful attention, the sine qua non of all contemplative practices.”[14] Exercises such as deep listening or deep reading, also referred to as lectio devina from traditional Catholic monastic practice, embrace a slow, reflective pace that enables students to establish more meaningful connections with the material.[15] Furthermore, as noted in Barbezat and Bush’s introductory book on contemplative practices, the activities of introspection and awareness also “yield increased empathy for others and a deeper sense of connection to the world.”[16]

A diagram called the Tree of Contemplative Practices is used to represent the range of contemplative activities organized into several clusters: activist, creative, generative, movement, relational, ritual or cyclical, and stillness [Fig. 1]. A quick glance reveals that the specific practices outlined are far more diverse, and far more interdisciplinary than one would typically see in traditional university classroom settings.[17] They are rooted, literally in the case of this diagram, in communion, connection, and awareness. This is just one example of how CP is believed to impact both the personal and social domains.

2012-tree2-800x810v2.jpg
Carrie Bergman (illustrator) and Maia Duerr (designer), Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

An interesting comparison can be made to the taxonomy of student learning goals popularized by Benjamin Bloom and colleagues in 1956. While numerous modifications and re-conceptualizations of Bloom’s Taxonomy have been offered over the years, it remains arguably the most popular tool among instructional development (or teaching commons) departments across university campuses.[18] The version of CP stressed by CMind extends well beyond the cognitive skills expressed by Bloom, integrating both affective and psychomotor aspects. If Bloom’s Taxonomy can be seen to represent a traditional or normative educational approach, it is apparent how significantly CP recasts the mission of education and the techniques of pedagogy. In their totality, CP practices represent a wide spectrum of activities that address the personal transformative potential of contemplation in the broadest sense.

The “Critical” Camp

One might draw a comparison here to what might be characterized as a more critical approach to CP. Harold Roth is often cited as the main contributor to the first conceptualization and development of an interdisciplinary contemplative studies field in higher education, of which CP might be considered an expression.[19] Whereas advocates like Zajonc would frequently use terms like “interiority” to characterize contemplative practice, Roth, borrowing from Dutch psychologist Han de Wit, has popularized the concept of a “first-person discourse” that describes and explains the aims of a contemplative approach.[20] A subject first-person approach is held in contrast to a putatively objective third-person approach, which is often cast as the perspective par excellence into which students are intellectually socialized.

A critical contemplative practice would employ both perspectives, sometimes in conjunction with a more recently fleshed out inter-subjective second-person approach.[21] This particular language and framing is common to many CP advocates in both camps,[22] but because a point-of-view pedagogy is not the language traditionally used within educational psychology, instructional development, or the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL) it is worth examining in more depth.

Roth has proposed the disciplined use of first-person perspectives to investigate subjective experience. This held in contrast to normative Western epistemological biases that privilege “veridical cognition,” or the perspective proclaimed by a putatively disinterested and objective observer.[23] Bracketing the question if this reflects how most university instructors teach, the point that Roth raises is salient – should we not increase the value of our student’s own subjective experience and make that experience an object of critical inquiry?

This leads to interesting questions about what type of “experience” advocates of CP would like to investigate. Roth’s views sometimes clash with other figures who take this critical point-of-view approach. At times, Roth seems to advocate for the cultivation of a noetic, “pure experience,” in line with the insights proposed by religious mystics.[24] It is worth quoting Roth in his own words:

“By turning our backs on the systematic exploration of religious subjectivity from the inside out, so to speak, we have also cut ourselves off from a valuable approach to the many problems of human existence. We have ignored a valuable source of empirical knowledge that has been well developed in the contemplative traditions of Asia, and we deny ourselves a potentially valuable method for studying these traditions.”[25]

In making such assertions, Roth highlights a specific “contemplative experience” of which students attempt to cultivate a first-person knowledge. Roth ultimately hopes to incorporate these contemplative experiences into formal academic analyses that take a third-person perspective, most directly, into the fields of religious studies or contemplative studies.[26] Additionally, Roth envisions the critical combination of the first-person and third-person approaches in other fields as well, most notably the creative arts such as the visual and fine arts, creative writing, and the performance arts, although he does not discuss specifically how contemplative practices could be utilized in the classroom.[27]

Other scholars are not as ready to embrace Roth’s contemplative experience. Louis Komjathy also promotes a critical first-person method, but instead envisions the experience primarily as metacognition, requiring reflection on personally held assumptions, ingrained opinions, and unrecognized biases. These first-hand student experiences are all historically and socially constructed, as are the contemplative experiences of religious practitioners who are studied.[28] This critical first-person method challenges egotistical or culturally decontextualized perspectives and ultimately functions as a “complex negotiation between personal interiority, interpersonal engagement, and transpersonal concerns.”[29]

Komjathy’s vision of a CP point-of-view pedagogy is among the most encompassing and readily transferrable to disciplines outside of religious studies or contemplative studies because it appears to highlight the critical practice of metacognition – but, problematically from the perspective of comparison with more established pedagogical methods, Komjathy does not use this term.[30] Furthermore, Komjathy’s CP does not exclude the implementation of meditation-inspired or mindfulness practices, but if they are incorporated into a course they become an object of inquiry that are measured against primary textual sources, the insights of practicing religious communities, the arguments of trained scholars, and the ideas presented in conversations with student-peers. Consequently, contemplative practice is less focused on the “therapeutic” or “hygienic” aspects of mindfulness, e.g. stress reduction or enhanced focus, which tend to be more of a concern for CP advocates in the transformative camp. Yet, the transformative potential of critical meta-reflection must also be acknowledged, thus the difference between these camps is not necessarily expressed through their overarching goals (indeed, most would say that education should be transformative), but the privileging of certain methods towards certain ends.[31]

A Variety of Contemplative Methods

 There is a variety of discipline-specific, course-specific, or even exercise-specific approaches to the implementation of CP in a class setting. As with any pedagogy, attention must be given to how the course is designed, desired learning goals, student interest, the instructor’s personal values, and the institutional profile, among other concerns. Nevertheless, given the sheer variety of these experiential practices, it would be helpful to see how those practices might also be sorted or categorized. There has been no commonly accepted approach to this division among CP advocates, although several suggestions have been offered, which I collect and summarize below.

For example, one cluster of practices has been termed “hygienic” or “Jamesian” (from William James). This largely concerns the implementation of mindfulness techniques to cultivate focused attention and alleviate anxiety.[32] Defenders of these practices will often note the growing body of scientific literature that points to their efficacy and arguably these remain the most popular expressions of secularized meditation among the general population of students and teachers. The purpose of these techniques is to enhance overall student learning, and thus these are promoted by instructors from all disciplines and fields. Some university instructors, however, do not feel academic course work should involve what they see as therapeutic practice (or pastoral care) and consequently eschew this contemplative approach.[33] Notably, recent contraindications in meditation research have also caused some pause in the implementation of similar secular-oriented mindfulness practices.

The second cluster of practices has been termed “modes of inquiry” which includes the widest assortment of classroom practices, many having barely discernable relationships to traditional meditation techniques. This could be exercises such as freewriting, reflective journaling, deep listening, deep reading (lectio devina), “big questions” inquiry, and so forth.[34] It is possible to consider metacognition here as well, where students reflect on their “interpretive tendencies, theoretical (theological?) commitments, unquestioned assumptions, and…ingrained opinions.”[35]

Lastly, in what Anita Houck has termed the “contextualized’ approach, this involves the teaching of fairly straightforward religious practices, like traditional Buddhist forms of meditation. Not surprisingly, this is mostly limited to the fields of religious studies, contemplative studies, or theology. Recently, however, Candy Gunther Brown has questioned if there are legal hurdles for teaching these practices within a public school setting, a topic that will surely be revisited in the future as contemplative practices gain more mainstream attention.

Contemplative studies and its expression as CP in higher education has become strongly associated with several figures, groups, and institutions as discussed above. Notably, this includes the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, the Mind & Life Institute, the Contemplative Studies Group at the American Academy of Religion, and several university programs, including the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, started by Harold Roth. (Other important university programs are noted below.) Regardless of the diversity within CP, I believe the pedagogical focus on “interiority” and a “critical first-person approach” further reflects educational trends emerging in the 1990s which highlighted a move towards a student-centered classroom experience, of which reflection and metacognition played an integral role. The nuanced connection and different expressions of contemplative reflection remain an area deserving of more research.

Resources:

University Interdisciplinary Programs

Instructional Development Sites

CP & CP Related Journals (or special issues)

Notes:

[1] Simmer-Brown 2011.

[2] While many will trace the origins of CP to contemplative practices introduced to the United States by advocates of Asian religious contemplative practice, educational movements also played an important role. Some proponents of CP will incorporate figures like William James into their lineage of formative pedagogues, among others. Of course, one could be inclined to trace the origins of CP back to contemplative practices of Asian antiquity, but I think this would unnecessarily characterize, as some advocates of CP do, modern educational paradigms as devoid of contemplative, or meta-cognitive aspects.

[3] The metaphor of a spectrum may provide more clarity here as these two camps are positioned at the two furthest ends of this spectrum. It may be that these camps are more ideal types than actually represented by an individual or group of CP scholars.

[4] One can see that both critics and advocates of CP will sometimes reduce the complexity of the field down to more generalized identities. See, for example, the nature of Kathleen Fisher’s (2017) criticism of CP, as well as Louis Komjathy’s (Fort & Komjathy 2017) reply.

[5] Advocates of CP will sometimes trace intellectual lineages to iconic pedagogues like Maria Montessori, Horace Mann, John Dewey, or Paulo Frier, but gloss over the significance of the constructivist “student-centered” movement in pedagogy in the 1990s – of which I would place the modern origins of the CP movement.

[6] Other important non-academic organizations include the Mind & Life Institute, the Garrison Institute, the Fetzer Institute, and the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies. One could include Naropa University here as well. For a history of CMind and contemplative education in higher education see Bush 2011 and Owen-Smith 2018.

[7] The Contemplative Practice Fellowship Program (CPFP) was funded by the Fetzer Institute and run through CMind in association with the American Council of Learned Societies (ALCS).

[8] Komjathy 2018: 31-2.

[9] See Barbezat & Pingree 2012: 179.

[10] Zajonc 2003.

[11] See Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25 and esp. Sherman 2014.

[12] This may be just a transformation of Spirituality in Education, see Komjathy 2018: 162. It seems the widespread popularity of mindfulness as a mental health treatment has spurred a conception among some that CP is simply teaching mindfulness techniques in a classroom setting, see Bonnardel et. al. 2018.

[13] See Owen-Smith 2018: 15ff.

[14] Owen-Smith 2018: 24-5.

[15] See especially Owen-Smith 2018: 42-8.

[16] Barbezat & Bush 2014: 5. A focus on interiority and attention is also noted in Owen-Smith 2018: 26-7. Barbezat also acknowledges the importance of “a type of intra- and interpersonal awareness, compassion, focus and discernment” (quoted in Owen-Smith 2018: 23). On the other hand, Kathleen Fisher remains skeptical that self-knowledge can lead to empathy, see Fisher 2017.

[17] It is worth noting that CP advocates from the other camp also perceive interdisciplinary benefits, see e.g. Roth 2007: 20-22.

[18] This is not necessarily because it is the best or the most complete, but because it is the simplest and easiest to use for conceptualizing and crafting learning objectives. There are many limitations of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

[19] Not surprisingly, Roth was a CMind fellow.

[20] Komjathy 2018. The phrase, “taboo of subjectivity” coined by Alan Wallace in 2000, is also another source of inspiration for Roth. See also Komjathy 2015: 10-11 for further comments.

[21] See especially Gunnalson 2009. Also see Komjathy 2018. The Contemplative Studies concentration at Brown University, started by Roth, formalizes the conjoined methodology of a third-person and first-person approach, see here. [https://www.brown.edu/undergraduateconcentrations/contemplative-studies-ab]

[22] See for example Owen-Smith 2018: 27 and Barbezat & Bush 2015: 105-6.

[23] Roth seems to suggest the origin of this epistemic stance stems from a religious, all-knowing, God-perspective, see Roth 2007: 2. I would suggest that  Roth strawmans the study of religion by contemporary scholars; there is plenty of research which is self-reflective and avoids overly-broad, eminently stable claims of objectivity. I am not sure the commitment to a veridical cognition is due to a unrecognized assent to a Christian God-perspective, but to a methodology where scholars can analyze and critique the claims of another scholar. This is different from taking the perspectives of a religious practitioner seriously, see Komjathy 2015:11.

[24] Roth 2008: 5-6. After intoning William James, Roth characterizes the rejection of inner experience, the “very essence of religion,” as historical reductionism, see Roth 2008: 10. It remains unclear, at times, if Roth intends to equate inner religious experience with an unmediated mystical experience or merely the emic perspective of religious practitioners, or a mixture of both. Komjathy appears to interpret Roth as inferring a combination of both. Fran Grace prefers to use a guidebook metaphor, where the practitioner represents a person who has actually experienced the given contemplative terrain, see Coburn, et. al. 2011: 173.

[25] Roth 2008: 10.

[26] Roth 2008: 19-22. Specifically, Roth criticizes the rejection of religious practitioners’ views in the study of religion, see Roth 2008: 10. This reflects the scholarly debates around emic-etic perspectives. Komjathy also notes Roth’s focus on cultivating individual contemplative experiences, see Komjathy 2015: 11. Roth further comments that human subjectivity is the source for all cognitive models of the world, and goes on to quote Zhuangzi to support his views, see Roth 2008: 11-14.

[27] Roth 2008: 19-20. Roth unfortunately does not discuss at length how the personal “contemplative experience,” say, of a dancer, would be utilized in an educational context.

[28] See especially the comments in Komjathy 2015: 17. Of course, this does not mean that the perspectives of religious practitioners are disregarded, but neither are they privileged, see Komjathy 2015: 11.

[29] Komjathy 2018: 172. In his chapter on CP, Komjathy notes the challenges to both students and teachers in facilitating this critical perspective, see especially the box on Komjathy 2018: 169-10.

[30] Komjathy himself notes that his vision of CP is already in widespread use in education, Komjathy 2018: 170.

[31] Komjathy, too, acknowledges the benefits of methods such as relaxation techniques, but these do not appear to be a particular focus in his teaching, Komjathy 2018: 173.

[32] Owen-Smith 2018: 24, Houck 2019: 118-9.

[33] See the comments in Fisher 2017.

[34] Sadd 2018, Owen-Smith 2018.

[35] Fort & Komjathy 2017: 25.

[A full bibliography can be provided upon request]

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