Contemplative Education

Barry Boyce on three university educators who have begun to integrate mindfulness into their lives and work. Click here to watch related footage from the Creating a Mindful Society conference.

A small but growing cadre of university professors who integrate contemplative disciplines into academic training are staking out a unique position in the longstanding debate about what is “higher” in higher education. Through a variety of innovative programs, they’ve been bringing contemplative disciplines onto university campuses as a way to increase students’ attention and decrease stress, give deeper meaning to university education as a means to self-knowledge, and foster community and cooperation as a salve to the competitive atmosphere of the academy.

Harold Roth, professor of Religious Studies at Brown University and founder of the Contemplative Studies Initiative there, told me, “I’m very encouraged by how this movement is gaining momentum. We’re at the beginning of the development of a major new academic field, one that will be potentially quite significant in changing the face of higher education in North America. It asks us to deeply consider what a higher education really means.”

According to Geraldine DeLuca, who has been teaching English at Brooklyn College for thirty-seven years, the City University of New York Contemplative Network began “about five years ago, when David Forbes came to me with the idea of starting a contemplative studies center at Brooklyn. We got a $20,000 grant from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and we both started to teach courses with contemplative components.” Forbes is in the education department and wrote a book, Boyz 2 Buddhas, about his experiences introducing meditation practice to high school athletes. A dozen faculty CUNY-wide form the core of the network, along with about a hundred others who use or would like to use contemplative disciplines in their classes.

The network held its second “Mindful Learners Conference” on April 3, focusing on classroom practices and information-sharing among faculty in different subject areas. Sixty faculty attended. The day began and ended with meditation, and included a keynote lecture by Arthur Zajonc, professor of physics at Amherst College and a well-known advocate of contemplative inquiry as a learning tool. Zajonc spoke of the value of asking students to hold an idea in mind long enough to appreciate all of its dimensions and of holding contradictory ideas in mind at the same time. He drew on his new book, Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing becomes Love.

Another highlight, DeLuca said, was a presentation by Maria Arias of CUNY’s law school, who discussed preparing her students to work within the judicial system not simply “from the point of view of right and wrong but also from the perspective of compassion.”

DeLuca begins her own classes with a period of meditation and “paying attention to what’s going on in the body.” It’s important, she says, “to have students drop down a level in their mind and body. In many kinds of writing, you really have to get underneath the surface to write anything that’s worthy of anyone’s attention. At its core, writing is a contemplative activity.”

When Ed Sarath, who teaches in the school of music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, proposed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies, he faced extremely vocal resistance. “Some faculty members were very concerned that we were bringing spirituality into the classroom, that contemplative practice did not fit into credit-bearing courses, and that it would be impossible to grade,” Sarath told me. In the end, he persuaded two-thirds of the faculty to vote for the program, and it got off the ground in 2000.

Sarath began playing jazz at about the same time he began meditating in the Vedanta tradition, about thirty-five years ago. He’s always perceived “a very close relationship between improvisation and meditation practice, in that both are grounded in a heightened sense of the present moment. They also complement each other quite nicely, so for a long time I’d been wanting to create a curriculum that harnessed that connection.”

The program requires students to take four terms of a class in contemplative practice that combines “direct contemplative experience with an analytical consideration of the mechanics of contemplative experience and its role in overall human creative, spiritual, and intellectual growth,” says Sarath. Students who don’t already have a meditation practice are directed to receive instruction at one or more of the many organizations in Ann Arbor offering meditation.

“When I started the program,” Sarath says, “I was unsure how it would turn out, but it’s been highly successful. Students reallyget the connection between improvisation and meditation. They see the results in their music and can articulate them clearly. They find they’re much less tense in their playing and enjoy the freedom and expansiveness that comes from being more comfortable with their minds.” Sarath’s work led to the creation of a faculty network for creativity and consciousness studies, and he hopes the framework he’s created in the jazz departmentwill be adopted campus-wide.

Harold Roth is a long-time student of Joshu Sasaki Roshi. When he began his academic studies more than thirty years ago, he was looking “for meaning and self-knowledge, but I wasn’t finding it simply by reading more and more books about the Asian tradition. I had to find a teacher. The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown tries to bring these two things together—to have both traditional academic third-person inquiry and the first-person inquiry of the great contemplativetraditions.”

The initiative began in 2002 with a visiting speaker series (the initiative’s website offers videos of presentations by prominent contemplative educators) and the development of a course integrating practice into the study of contemplative traditions. While Roth’s dream of a full-fledged major in contemplative studies lies farther down the road, at present students can do an independent study with a concentration in contemplative studies. Obtaining approval for independent study is time-consuming, so only two to three students each year become “independent concentrators” in contemplative studies. The introduction to contemplative studies course that Roth teaches, however, attracts more than eighty students each year, but to keep the course manageable (it was designed for a group of twenty), he caps it at thirty-five.

Like Sarath, Roth encountered resistance from faculty who thought that a “meditation practicum” amounted to forcing students to do religious practice, so he changed to having “meditation labs,” which emphasize the scientific and exploratory nature of contemplative practice. The program now enjoys broad support, particularly as more scientific evidence has emerged to show, in Roth’s words, “the distinctive neurological signatures, cognitive changes, and clinical benefits that come with mindfulness practice.”

In 2007, the medical school at Brown began offering students elective-study options that would help them become more well-rounded physicians, including one in contemplative studies that Roth helped to create. In the first year, one concentrator focused on contemplative studies, but this year seven students chose a contemplative study concentration. One is studying the effect of yoga practice on post-partum depression, and another wants to develop what he calls “Mindfulness-Based Positive Psychology,” in an attempt to bring mindfulness into clinical settings on a much wider basis.

Students in the meditation laboratory of the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University.

Photo by Matthew Sacchet