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Contemplative Education in Unexpected Places: Teaching Mindfulness in Arkansas and Austria

by Daniel Holland - 2006

Mindfulness meditation is increasingly recognized as a health promotion practice across many different kinds of settings. Concomitantly, contemplative education is being integrated into colleges and universities in order to enhance learning through reflection and personal insight. The confluence of these trends provides an opportunity to develop experiential curriculum that promotes both health and learning through the teaching of contemplative practices in higher education settings. Such curriculum, if indeed it is believed to be a valuable development in higher education, must not be reserved only for elite and highly competitive schools serving traditional college students, but must be integrated into campuses of all kinds and made accessible to any student. This emphasis on accessibility will need to consider the growing interest in contemplative learning across economic, religious, and ethnic groups, geographic contexts, and individual differences, including disability. The growth of contemplative curriculum in higher education will also need to be accompanied by meaningful and valid curriculum assessment methods in order to abide by the standards of contemporary university settings as it gently transforms many such settings. This article describes the development of an experiential course in mindfulness that was taught on two very different college campuses. The author's personal experiences and preparation for the course, the course content, the impact of the course on students, and reflections on contemplative practice as a movement in education are offered as an example of the potential for contemplative education in some unexpected places.

To understand ourselves requires objective, kindly, dispassionate study of ourselves, ourselves being the organism as a whole—our body, our feelings, our thoughts. They are not separate, they are interrelated. It is only when we understand the organism as a whole that we can go beyond and discover still further, greater, vaster things.

—Krishnamurti (1944)

What we are looking for is what is looking.

—St. Francis of Assisi


A growing body of empirical research supports the potential contribution of mindfulness meditation to health promotion and quality of life (Kabat-Zinn & Chapman-Waldrop, 1988; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, Burney, & Sellers, 1987; Langer, 1989). There has been increasing interest in the teaching of mindfulness meditation in medical settings (Shapiro, 2001; Speca, Carlson, Goodey, & Angen, 2000), mental health settings (Teasdale et al., 2000), and public urban settings (Roth & Creaser, 1997) for the promotion of health and psychological well-being. While this innovation is taking place in medical and community health contexts, there is a growing recognition that higher educational settings must incorporate a greater emphasis on experiential learning in order to create comprehensive and meaningful learning environments (Holland, 2004, 2005; Rockefeller, 1996). It is probably not by chance that an increasingly urgent call for contemplative practices in health and educational settings is occurring at the same time that these settings are being overwhelmed by bureaucratic and policy demands that often drain them of their creative, formative, and healing purposes. Too often, leaders in education and health care choose to be more careerist than visionary—adopting an approximation of corporate values within these increasingly stressed settings—when in fact it is a dramatic alternative to such corporate culture that is needed. As a result of these problems, which notably contribute to an acute loss of a sense of community in many learning and healing environments, many educators and health professionals are increasingly willing to take chances and resist the status quo in order to retain meaning in their work, for themselves, and for those they serve.

The confluence of these trends provides an opportunity for a quiet revolution across many educational settings. Such a revolution could involve the integration of contemplative practices into the curriculum of traditional higher educational settings for the purpose not only of retaining reflection, creativity, and meaning in the learning process, but also of promoting health and psychological well-being among those within these educational settings.

In this article, I offer two descriptive examples of integrating an experiential course in mindfulness into the curricula of two very different higher educational settings: a metropolitan university in Little Rock, Arkansas, and a school for applied sciences in Bad Gleichenberg, Austria. In both cases, the experiential course involved the contemplative practices of sitting meditation, guided body scan, walking meditation, and mindful movement exercises called Hanna Somatic Education. In both cases, the course was offered for credit as part of each university’s formal curriculum, constituting a purposeful conflation of contemplative practice and health promotion as a form of experiential learning. In both cases, the course constituted a dramatic departure from the typical curriculum of the university in which it was offered. And in both cases, the course was judged by its participants to be a success worthy of repeating.

Jean Vanier (1979), the French humanitarian who founded L’Arche, an intentional community within which people with and without developmental disabilities live together, noted that the purpose of a community is to offer new hope and new meaning to its members. Indeed, now is clearly the time for the promotion of community in educational environments. The contemplative course profiled here is my effort to contribute to a sense of community where I teach, with the intention that it might offer new hope and new meaning to those of us who share this place and this experience.


I came to this endeavor of integrating mindfulness into higher educational curricula following a long personal history of involvement in contemplative education. I received my elementary education in the Detroit Waldorf School, a school that is based on the teaching of Rudolf Steiner (1996) and involves a pervasive emphasis on contemplative practices, creative thought, and critical thinking as inseparable learning experiences in education and human development. Much of the curriculum in Waldorf schools is experiential and involves various forms of reflection, including meditation, contemplative arts, and forms of contemplative movement such as eurythmy. The emphasis of a Waldorf education, then, is frequently said to be “learning from the inside out” (Petrash, 2002). My early education promoted the gradual realization that life is often spent seeking without necessarily finding, creating with no intention of selling, and sometimes working with little hope of earning, all of which leave one predisposed to spend a lot of time with the contemplative practices, arts, and humanities. This early educational experience revealed a set of core beliefs and values that have consistently served me when I follow them and have perhaps been validated most when I have strayed from them and encountered their alternatives. It was this early experience in the Detroit Waldorf School, and a subsequent lifelong pursuit of contemplative learning, that ultimately informed my intention to integrate contemplative practices into the curriculum of mainstream higher educational settings—even in the unlikely settings of Little Rock, Arkansas, and a small college for applied sciences in Austria.


The initial development of the course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock involved a purposeful emphasis on making this experiential course in mindful practice particularly welcoming to students with disabilities. There were specific reasons for this. Disability is increasingly recognized as a social and political position, as opposed to a private medical and psychological condition. Living with a disability, therefore, results in social, political, and experiential perspectives that enhance the diversity of any human collective. As a result of the passage of civil rights laws like the American with Disabilities Act, the number of students with disabilities on college campuses continues to rise (Paul, 2000). Although the presence of people with disabilities has increased on campuses, changes within college curricula that address, celebrate, and capitalize upon this diversity have been slow to occur (Hodge & Preston-Sabin, 1997; Linton, 1998; Rendon, 1994). Furthermore, students with disabilities are at increased risk for more stressful and less rewarding college experiences because of persistent social marginalization on many college campuses (Barga, 1996; Biklen, 2000). The experiential course in mindfulness meditation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock was open to all students but was particularly welcoming to students with disabilities. The intention was to create a diverse learning environment in which students with and without disabilities could practice various forms of mindfulness and then discuss with each other their experiences, providing an opportunity for students to learn about the intersection of mindfulness and individual differences from one another.

As the son of two parents with disabilities, I approached this endeavor with an educated assumption that mindfulness meditation has a great deal of relevance for the experience of disability. In the past, disability was perceived exclusively as a medical condition. It was presumed to be an objective and professionally determined condition associated with some kind of impairment, and it was assumed to be the responsibility of the diagnosed individual to try to overcome the disability in an effort to join, or rejoin, the nondisabled society. But disability is increasingly recognized as a socially constructed designation that differs across cultures and subcultures (Priestly, 1995), and as such, it is a diverse sociopolitical category that constitutes a normal, if marginalized, human condition. Disability, then, is not a matter of requiring more effort from the person who is deemed different so that he or she might “fit in,” but rather requires more awareness on the part of any human being who might be apt to essentialize human qualities that are in fact primarily socially and politically determined. This awareness, however, must be facilitated in some way, and contemplative education provides one important means of doing so.

It may be worth noting that the Detroit Waldorf School in the early 1970s was an educational environment in which disability was common and normal. Students with and without disabilities learned together, and distinctions were not made on the basis of how well one approximated some preconceived formula for achievement. In fact, it has only been in retrospect, looking back from the perspective of adulthood, that I have come to realize that my best friend during my grade school years at the Detroit Waldorf School had a developmental disability. The social determinants of "disabled" and “not disabled” were not present there, at least among us students, and we therefore did not make that particular kind of distinction. This early educational experience, like my experience as the son of parents with disabilities, has influenced my approach as a college professor, including the teaching of this experiential course in contemplative education. The early, direct experience of a learning environment in which disability was not stigmatized continues to compel me to question the nature of environments in which it is, and this remains another lasting achievement of the educational mission of the Detroit Waldorf School.

Another purpose of this contemplative course, in addition to reflection upon the nature of individual differences and their significance for mindful awareness, was to explore conceptualizations of health and health promotion and encourage students to explore how mindfulness can be a form of health. An expanded conceptualization of health involves perceiving it as comprising a multitude of experiences that are undergoing continuous change (Holland, 2005). Such a conceptualization allows for a recognition that some facets of health (the functioning of certain organ systems, for example) may decline even as others (psychological or social aspects of health) are being optimized. However, one must gain an awareness of the multitude of changing experiences that one is a part of at any given moment if multifaceted conceptualizations of health are to have any practical value; and if health is to be examined through one’s own direct experience, certain means are necessary to facilitate such examination. Contemplative education is one means of practicing such an awareness because it offers a variety of opportunities that can provide one with insight into what one is experiencing in the present moment. As soon as one transcends a biomedical paradigm and begins to recognize health as an interlaced web of many different physical, psychological, social, and ecological experiences occurring in the present moment, the opportunities to experience health, and the settings in which to promote health, become nearly limitless. The integration of opportunities for practicing such mindful awareness into higher educational curricula, then, become a natural and sensible—maybe even unavoidable—process.


Preparation for the course involved my taking part in a number of training programs focused on the pedagogy of contemplative education. This preparation was made possible by a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies in 2001, which allowed for a summer teaching release and funds to support participation in the training. I first participated in the Teacher Development Intensive (TDI) at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. The TDI involved 3 weeks of intensive training in mindfulness pedagogy spread out over a 3-month span in spring 2001. The content of the TDI is primarily focused on the experiential mindfulness curriculum constituting mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) as developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) when he was director of the Center for Mindfulness. This curriculum includes the mindful practices of sitting meditation, the body scan, walking meditation, and yoga. The TDI involves working with cohorts of 10-15 teachers of mindfulness meditation in order to explore underlying assumptions, practice the communication of certain concepts of mindfulness, and improve pedagogical skills in contemplative education.

While taking part in the TDI, I was also a residential scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies (BCBS) in Barre, Massachusetts. The executive director of BCBS, Andy Olendzki, generously allowed me to stay in the BCBS dorm and use the BCBS library during the time I was involved in the TDI. I was able to spend my days in the training program and my evenings in the BCBS library, reading texts from which the nature and purpose of my mindfulness project were derived.

In addition to the TDI and my time at BCBS, I also participated in a monthlong residential training program in Hanna Somatic Education at the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training in Marin County, California, during the summer of 2001. Hanna Somatic Education is a method of practicing awareness through various sequences of movement exercises developed by the existentialist philosopher Thomas Hanna, and drawing upon principles of Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique (Hanna, 1993). Hanna Somatic Education, then, similar to yoga, offers a physically mediated form for fostering mindful attention and enhancing awareness of various aspects of one’s moment-to-moment experience, such as posture, muscle contractions, and gross and fine motor movement. Because Hanna Somatic Education, a pedagogical approach for enhancing self-awareness, was conceived and developed with individual differences in ability and function in mind, it is a particularly relevant form of mindful physical activity to integrate into the experiential content of the contemplative course. These various preparatory educational activities were immensely important to my venturing into the teaching of this course. Although I had been a student of contemplative practices for much of my life, I had not focused on gaining the pedagogical skills necessary to teach a contemplative curriculum. The TDI and Hanna Somatic Education program provided important guidance in developing experiential pedagogy and allowed me to develop the pedagogical confidence necessary to implement this course for the first time.


There are many individual differences with regard to the experience of mindfulness. There are thus many different means by which mindfulness might be best facilitated for any given individual. It is necessary in a course such as this one to offer a variety of activities with the potential of fostering mindfulness and allow each student to determine for him- or herself which is most accessible. The experiential content of the course, then, aimed to provide a spectrum of practices for facilitating mindful reflection, with the intention of providing students with a number of different portals for experiencing mindfulness and allowing them to discover for themselves which ones were most helpful.


There are two broad forms of meditation, and most forms of contemplative practice across the various traditions tend to correspond to one of these two forms. One form emphasizes a single point of exclusive focus. This point of focus might be an object, image, thought, sound, chant, or prayer. This form of meditation emphasizes disciplined, single-pointed concentration as a means of attaining tranquility. The other form of meditation, referred to as Vipassana, "insight," or "mindfulness," has a very different emphasis. Mindfulness meditation involves an inclusive focus on anything in the present moment of one’s experience. This awareness occurs through a nonjudgmental acceptance of all that arises in the mind and body as one observes oneself. This is accomplished by using the sensations of one’s breathing as a means of staying in the present moment, and from that vantage point, observing the thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that arise and dissipate as each moment is formed. The breath, then, offers a sort of gentle anchor and is a practical vantage point from which to observe because it is always present but also always changing; as such, breath is an immediately available metaphor for life itself.

Mindfulness can be formally practiced in myriad ways, including sitting meditation, walking meditation, various forms of guided meditation, and through a number of movement traditions such as yoga, tai chi, and contemplative dance. Mindfulness is not limited to these or any other specific set of techniques or methods, however. Indeed, any activity can be practiced mindfully or employed in the service of mindful meditation. Mindfulness, rather than a set of techniques, is a way of living (Kornfield, 1993), but finding and committing to a formal mindful meditation practice, whatever the specific activity, is often necessary to foster this way of life (Goldstein, 1994). The course was designed to encourage students to explore some of these formal practices.


Hanna Somatic education refers to a process of gaining greater awareness of one’s own physical functioning, posture, and movement through sensory-motor learning (Hanna, 1988, 1993). Somatic education, like yoga, Feldenkrais, the Alexander Technique, eurythmy, and other forms of sensory-motor awareness, is facilitated through certain sequences of movements accompanied by one’s close attention. Somatic education has the potential to facilitate an awareness of habitual and unconscious sensory-motor patterns, many of which result from and contribute to chronic pain and limited motion and may persist for many years if awareness of these patterns is not sufficiently developed. Somatic education, then, practiced as a series of movements and positions, can be conceived of as an active means of practicing mindful awareness.

Somatic education provides a more physically active form of mindful attention, and for those students so inclined, it may offer a particularly helpful means of practicing awareness (Holland & Holland, 2003). It is also a means of mindful attention that is highly adaptive and accessible because the essence of Hanna Somatic Education is not achieving a particular outcome in the form of postures or movement sequences, but is a process of increased awareness of one’s sensory-motor experience, with considerable latitude in how that process is best facilitated for any given individual.


Students were given readings that provided overviews of the theory and practice of mindfulness meditation, contemplative education, and Hanna Somatic Education (Hanna, 1993; Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Additional readings were drawn from poetry (Oliver, 2004; Rilke, 1989), the dramatic arts (Adler, 1988; Strasberg, 1988), and contemplative writers (Goldberg, 1986, 1990), with an emphasis on transdisciplinary themes of self-awareness and reflection. An effort was made to provide readings from across the arts and humanities so that students with many different academic interests could recognize the significance of contemplative practices in their individual academic pursuits and appreciate the role of the contemplative mind in any academic discipline or professional field.


A significant amount of time was devoted to discussion during each class meeting. Discussion centered on students’ experiences with the various contemplative practices, insights drawn from the readings, and sharing different perspectives as students progressed through the course. The purpose of such discussion was to help students articulate the nature of the mindfulness experiences in a reflective, rather than didactic or rote, manner. Discussion was also used to clarify how adaptations made to the various forms of contemplative practice, whether to accommodate one’s disability for any other reason, does not have to alter the essence of the practice or the intention of the practitioner.


The syllabi for the two courses described the forms of contemplative practice that would be used and outlined the general rotation of practices throughout the course. Because the purpose of this course was to promote experiential learning in the contemplative practices outlined above, there was less attention paid to traditional didactics, rote learning, and exams. The primary requirements for the course were attendance, participation, and keeping a journal on the contemplative practices that one was engaging in. No traditional academic papers were required in the course. When taught in Arkansas, the course did not have any exams. When taught in Austria, the course had one exam after its completion, as was required by its higher education setting. Students were expected to adopt their own meditation practice outside of classroom time for at least the duration of the course. A student was graded based on attendance, the level of investment evident in his or her journal and personal meditation practice, and participation as evident in his or her investment in the experiential content and group discussion. Once the practice of meditation and somatics was established, some class meetings were used for presentation of research on contemplative practice and health, and for videotape documentaries showing applications of mindfulness meditation in community settings like a prison or a health clinic. Students were required to hand in their journals at various points during the semester so that I was able to provide feedback regarding their experience in the course as it progressed.


Little has been written that specifically addresses the intersection of disability and contemplative education, or even contemplative practices more generally. One might even wonder whether specific forms of mindful practice are fully accessible to people with certain disabilities. “Walking meditation,” for example, might seem to exclude people who cannot walk. Guided meditation might seem less accessible to people who cannot hear. But the advantage of drawing together different people with different abilities and disabilities is that each of the contemplative practices can be adapted to make it accessible for each participant, and in doing this, the essence of each practice becomes more clear. So walking meditation, as an example, becomes more accurately defined as “moving meditation” because it is really the incorporation of movement into one’s awareness that is the intention of this particular practice. Every living being moves. The focus of walking meditation becomes not walking, but movement, regardless of whether it is the movement of one’s index finger, eyelids, or body through space. The essence of this practice becomes accessible to everyone, and although some will discover this essence through walking, others will do so through some other form of movement.

Methods of contemplative practice that foster self-awareness pose a universal challenge regardless of individual differences. There is really no such thing as a good meditator or a bad meditator—there is just a meditator. Because the experience being fostered by any contemplative practice is a process of awareness, without a specific goal or criterion, nobody has a relative advantage; each process is individualized, “customized” in some way. It was discovered through the discussions in this course that the students who made certain types of adaptations to the various meditative practices encountered the same discoveries and frustrations as those who made very different adaptations. Students who initially thought that they were not making any adaptations to the various practices were later to discover that they had; when closely observed, it was discovered by each person that he or she engaged in the contemplative learning process somewhat differently than the others did, regardless of having or not having a disability. It was also discovered that despite such adaptations, the essence of the practice was retained. It was through the students’ sharing their respective experiences across the duration of the course that these insights were developed. Students came to discover that whether one walks or uses a wheelchair, speaks or uses a communication device, sees or is blind, has free movement or quadriplegia, the process of mindfulness remains essentially the same. This discovery in the course could then be contrasted with the nature of socially and politically derived differences beyond the meditation classroom. Questions arose regarding the basis of perceived dichotomies, such as "us" and "them," "healthy" and "unhealthy," "disabled" and "nondisabled," or any other contrast across any number of human qualities (Holland, 2003).


The course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR) was open to all students but, as explained above, was particularly welcoming of students with disabilities. The UALR has a large number of students with disabilities and an unusually active and strong Disability Support Services (DSS) office. The DSS office was very supportive of the development of the course and actively advertised and recruited students to participate in it.

The UALR is an urban metropolitan university serving commuter students. Thirty percent of the students at UALR are African American. Almost 40% are first-generation college students. The majority of students have part- and full-time jobs to pay for their tuition and help support their families. The student body at UALR is diverse, hard working, and busy.

The administration at UALR was supportive of this effort in that they did not interfere with it. The Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies would have served as an important shield against any challenges if they had been waged. In fact, none were.

It is important to emphasize that the reception of this course by students, faculty, and frontline staff on the UALR campus and among members of the Little Rock community was immensely positive. This may come as a surprise to those who have developed, often from a distance, unfavorable impressions of Arkansas. As a northerner from the big cities, I was initially one of those people. The fact is that there is a great deal of interest in and support for contemplative education in the American South. This interest is not matched by supply, however, so when opportunities such as this course become available, the response is often overwhelming. Enrollment in the course was filled within 48 hours of the opening of registration on each of the occasions it was offered. No student, once enrolled, has ever dropped the course.

Many of the people who enrolled in the course, as well as members of the community who expressed support for the course, are deeply invested in Christian faith. In fact, because of a shortage of appropriate classroom space on campus for this experiential course (space free of desks and chairs), a Methodist minister from the community who heard about the plans for the course and is the director of the Wesley Foundation on the edge of campus offered his space for the class. Not only did the class meet at the Wesley Foundation throughout the semester, but the minister who shared his space with us also showed up to make coffee and bake cookies for the participants twice a week for each meeting. He later invited me to give a guest lecture on mindfulness at his United Methodist church in town, and his wife asked me to speak to her Bible class. Many of these Arkansans belied the image of fundamentalism often associated with the church in the South. Many expressed a need for public educational settings to promote health, moral development, and insight through some form of contemplative practice and to enhance quality of life through ecumenical means that would preserve the secular nature of a public university.

If contemplative education is as important for contemporary higher education as we, its proponents, say it is, then it must be integrated into the curricula of colleges beyond the East and West coasts, beyond schools accessible only to those who can afford private tuition, and beyond schools primarily serving traditional residential undergraduates. The UARL is a higher educational setting that is indeed "beyond" all these things. The implementation of this course in mindfulness at the UALR, and the eager response of the students who have enrolled each time, serves as an example of how receptive such settings and communities can be to experiential curriculum in contemplative education when given the opportunity to host such curriculum.


The course in Austria was taught through a Fulbright Senior Specialist fellowship that I received in the spring of 2004. The host campus was the Facchochschule-Joanneum, a very small college of the applied sciences in Bad Gleichenberg, which is in the Styrian region of Austria. The course was offered as part of a program in what was termed Health Tourism, preparing students for occupations in the European spa industry and for roles in health promotion in less typical environments, like workplaces and other institutional settings. The college is located in a remote old European spa town, with active spas and mineral baths still drawing visitors seeking treatments for various chronic health conditions. The town of Bad Gleichenberg itself served as an incubator for these college students interested in pursing positions in European health tourism.

The tradition of the spa, or sanitorium, continues in Austria, not necessarily as a luxury, but as a common means of promoting health and addressing chronic illness, and is partially supported by the state health system. This European tradition of promoting one’s health by seeking a secluded retreat for rest, reflection, and various health-promoting activities is beautifully presented in Thomas Mann’s (1927) novel, The Magic Mountain. Mann portrays a secluded Swiss sanitorium as a microcosmic reflection of the social problems inherent in early 20th-century Western European culture. Notably, Mann’s novel also suggests that contemplation, removed from the realities of everyday life, can result in detachment rather than affiliation. The alternative, one might infer by reading Mann, is a willful integration of reflection and contemplation into the lives of us all as we go about our daily routines as a part of the societies in which we find ourselves. It is a novel that can serve as a valuable reference for educators committed to integrating contemplative practices into traditional academic settings—whether in Arkansas, Austria, or anyplace else—and it was a frequent source of discussion among the Austrian students in this class.

As in the United States, there is a great deal of variability across European educational settings regarding the presence of people with disabilities (Ha-user, 2004; LeRoy, Evans, & DeLuca, 2000). Unfortunately, the course in Austria did not have a large enrollment of students with disabilities, primarily because the university did not enroll many students with disabilities. The course did, however, emphasize mindfulness as a method of health promotion, as was done in Arkansas, and it provided the same experiential curriculum consisting of sitting meditation, moving meditation, body scan, and Hanna Somatic Education, along with readings and discussions.

Contemplative education continues to be atypical in traditional American higher education settings, and it is virtually unheard of in Austrian colleges or universities. Academic curriculum in Austria tends to adhere to a very traditional standard, emphasizing specific content areas and skills gained through rote learning and evaluated through examination. This traditionalism in academic settings is balanced, however, by a great deal of extracurricular involvement in what is often termed wellness outside the context of the university. The course, then, constituted a rare opportunity for these students to experience how nontraditional, experiential, contemplative content, practiced as an approach to health promotion, can be integrated into a setting not necessarily geared to it. Discussions often involved the advantages and obstacles to doing this. In the end, this experience was particularly useful for students who were considering ways to integrate innovative forms of health promotion into occupational settings that might not typically harbor such practices. Like my own experiences in the Teacher Development Intensive at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and in Hanna Somatic Education in Marin County, it was hoped that this course would assist these students in gaining the confidence and perspective necessary to take creative risks in their own eventual endeavors in health tourism.


Henry David Thoreau’s most intimate writings may be his journals, because they capture many of his immediate reflections and insights and were written for no reader other than himself. Journals are also an important and intimate aspect of this contemplative education course. The journals allow students to exercise discipline and care when searching for ways to express, for themselves, the experiences that they are having in the course and with contemplative practice. The content of the journals is often profoundly revealing. The following journal entries represent a sample drawn from the most recent course offered in Arkansas during fall 2005. The students from whom these journal entries were drawn gave permission for their inclusion in this article. There are no "typical" journals or journal entries, but these selected entries serve as an example of how the course was experienced by some of these students and how contemplative education has influenced other areas of their academic endeavors, their learning, and their lives.

We did our first sitting meditation this morning. It was brief, but it helped me understand the difficulty of the method. When the method is being described you think, because you know all the words, that you understand what is being said. However, I soon realized that knowing the words and experiencing them are two different things. I’m afraid it will be difficult to relay my experiences during meditation because it seems to be a bit . . . ineffable. It’s almost as if you’re in a different universe, the rules are different, hard to explain.

—Male, age 23, senior, liberal arts

I just read this scripture that is often quoted, but the content of which I never noted:

“May the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer” (Ps 19:14).

So that made me wonder about the exact definition of meditation, which I should have looked up at the beginning of the semester:

Meditation usually refers to a state in which the body is consciously relaxed and the mind is allowed to become calm and focused. Several major religions include ritual meditation; however, meditation itself need not be a religious or spiritual activity. Most of the more popular systems of meditation are of Eastern origin, though there exists also various forms of Christian, Jewish and Muslim meditation.


So now when I pray at church and at home I want to practice “prayerful meditation.” I don’t want to recite prayers (although I am Pentecostal and we are not much for ritualistic prayers anyway), but I want to take in everything around me and be cognizant of the fact that it is all part of the right here, right now. In other words, I want to maintain beginner’s mind about my faith as well.

—Female, age 21, senior, speech-communications

I kick off my shoes and play. Really play. And I observe that meditation 5 play. I was in the present moment, focused, no past no future. It’s just me and little Lucy at that instant.

—Female, age 30, senior, psychology

We are always either worrying over things in the past or anxious about things in the future. We are never (at least without effort) just in the moment. How did I live my whole life without realizing this? Why didn’t someone explain this monumental concept to me before now?

I begin to consciously attempt to be in the moment as I drive to and from class. I notice the colors of the trees, the sky, the cars that go by. I note the temperature outside, the breeze of the air conditioner, the softness of my seat. I stop there and try not to go further . . . non-judging, beginner’s mind.

My husband filed for divorce days before the semester began. It probably helps to understand the real stress I have been going through as I began to practice meditation. Then, he decided to dismiss the divorce and keep me around. I decided to meditate some more.

—Female, age 48, senior, psychology

By reviewing the journals at various points during each semester, I gain a greater sense not only of how each student is navigating the experiential content of this contemplative course, but also the kinds of life circumstances, challenges, thoughts, and feelings many of these students are experiencing beyond the meditation room. There are many journals that reveal the pain and suffering, as well as the joy, in students’ lives that I never would have anticipated from classroom discussions alone. This intimacy and openness in some students’ journals is not requested, and certainly not required, by me or the course design, but often comes as a natural outgrowth of the reflective nature of this contemplative course. Many students have commented that they found their journals to be far more valuable and helpful than they expected at the beginning of the course, often noting that the practice of mindfulness resulted in insights about themselves that resulted in a much more meaningful journal than they anticipated.


Many years ago, before beginning graduate school in clinical psychology, I decided to spend a summer in Italy studying Renaissance art history. The program was led by a brilliant, cantankerous Hungarian art historian who frequently yelled at inattentive students and demanded that even unwitting tourists and Italian pedestrians keep quiet if he happened to be lecturing to us on the street about some aspect of Renaissance architecture or Roman civil engineering. At one point during this immersion experience, the Hungarian professor brought us to the Academia after hours, and we were permitted to study Michelangelo’s David in the peaceful space of a relatively empty museum. There came a moment, as I was sitting on the floor gazing up at the David, that the professor leaned down and whispered a question to me:

“Is this the first time you have seen the David in real life?”

I told him that it was.

"Ah!" he whispered, “I really envy you at this moment.” I could hear a longing in his voice as he looked up at the statue. He then added wistfully, even regretfully, “I have seen him, well, hundreds of times.”

The professor snapped out of this reflection to move on and utter harsh admonitions to some students he considered not rapt enough. I remember looking back up at the David and thinking about the professor’s envy. So is it all downhill from here, I wondered? Is this my best moment with the David? Will all subsequent visits be less meaningful, less impressive? Is David’s dubious expression actually one of fateful resignation, stemming from seeing the mounting disappointment in the eyes of the museum visitors who have seen him more than once?

After years of being troubled by this incident and its implications, I came to a sudden insight. As brilliant as the professor was when it came to art history, and as bottomless as his theoretical and factual knowledge seemed to be, he had apparently not learned a critical lesson: how to retain “beginner’s mind.” It was my Hungarian professor, not David, who had succumbed to fateful resignation. Sadly, I realized, this was an unnecessary resignation for the professor, because it is not the number of times that one has seen the David that determines the statue’s influence on any given occasion, but an awareness of the remarkable David in that moment, as one experiences him each new time. The experience of seeing the David, or anything or anyone else, is not a matter of finite awe that is “used up” with each encounter. It is instead an unlimited series of unique experiences, each containing a multitude of impressions that cannot be anticipated beforehand. When I realized this, I felt I had arrived at an insight that would serve me for a very long time, across many different circumstances, particularly as an educator. This has proved to be the case, and I remain grateful to the Hungarian professor, Michelangelo, and the David for it, because they were my collaborators.

The point here is that contemplative education, like anything else, bears the risk of becoming rote over time, thereby no longer being contemplative education. Therefore, the integration of contemplative curriculum into higher educational settings is not only a special endeavor, but brings with it special responsibilities, and those include the need for the teacher to remain a student each time the course takes place. It is not only the traditional higher educational institution that must abdicate some of what is typical in order to integrate contemplative education into the curriculum, but the educators involved must also be willing to abdicate the authority and distance that too frequently accompany the traditional classroom performance. The result of such a process, if sustained, is a contemplative course with a credible educator who is engaged in the same contemplative process as everyone else.

It is worth noting that efforts to integrate mindfulness meditation into the curriculum of a traditional public university is quite absurd. Asking students to practice reflection and nondoing in silence poses a paradox for most contemporary educational settings, because typical approaches to thought are suspended so that learning can be more fully embraced. But it is this very absurdity that we should be after. We must embrace the absurdity, too. Without such absurdity, we will grow trapped in academic environments that have little meaning, because they will emphasize the acquisition of ideas and facts as separate from our lives as we experience them. Camus (1955) noted in The Myth of Sisyphus that “the absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world” (p. 28). Indeed, the absurdity of contemplative education is inevitable and welcome. The human need for meaning, and the unreasonable silence of the world in response to it, are both securely present. Avoidance of such absurdity leaves one with an unclear direction. Embracing the absurdity is our best option. The contemplative education movement, therefore, moves forward.

The course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has resulted in growing demand for contemplative educational experiences on campus. As a result of this growing demand, I launched a larger initiative in fall 2005 called The Mindfulness-Based Campus-Community Health Program. This program consists of four core components: contemplative curriculum; development of meaningful assessment methods for contemplative curriculum; empirical research on contemplative education and its relationship to health; and a community outreach initiative that explains the nature of contemplative practice and health to interested community groups in Arkansas, including churches, natural childbirth classes, and public schools. The purpose of this new program is to further enhance access to such curriculum for students and members of the community, and explicitly fuse contemplative curriculum with research in order to explore its impact on students’ health, learning, and lives. The initiation of this program, and the positive response to it, is yet another indication of the interest in contemplative education in the heart of Arkansas.

Although my own efforts to integrate contemplative education into higher education have found a great deal of support, contemplative education will be resisted in many higher education settings because it is perceived by some as less "academic," and therefore less valid, than traditional approaches. But this resistance will fade with time as the community of contemplative educators continues to grow and gain greater momentum, and as the next generation of educators, particularly those who have encountered contemplative practices as part of their own educational experiences, take the lead. In the meantime, however, it will remain important for contemplative educators to address such resistance by developing meaningful and valid assessment approaches for contemplative curriculum in order to confirm its relevance and its place in the academy. Although many current methods of assessment in higher education are often misguided, more generally emphasizing reflection on what has occurred in the classroom is potentially very valuable. If contemplative education is to be integrated into mainstream college settings, contemplative educators need to find ways of using the standards of each campus community to evaluate their approach, but ways that are valid for this particular kind of pedagogy. Such evaluation should not be perceived as a compromise; indeed, genuinely subversive initiatives have often been those that abided by the rules while transforming their meaning.

In the end, what will remain most important in this process of integrating contemplation into education is the assurance that it remains inclusive and accessible for any student who is interested and committed. Many of these students will be in schools and regions not typically associated with a great deal of resources, or with well-funded K-12 preparation, or with prior revolutions in education such as this one. The challenge in growing and sustaining this movement, then, will be to continue to find ways of bringing contemplative education to these unexpected places.

I remain very grateful to the Center for Contemplative Mind, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Fetzer Institute and Nathan Cummings Foundation for the Contemplative Practice Fellowship I received in 2001 that allowed me develop this course in contemplative education. I also wish to thank the Fulbright Program for the Fulbright Senior Specialist Award that allowed me to teach this course in Austria in 2004, and Professor James Miller and other faculty at the FH-Bad Gleichenberg for welcoming this course into their curriculum during that beautiful Austrian spring. Clifford Hill was tremendously helpful in providing editorial assistance with this manuscript, and I thank him for that. I also need to thank all the students in Arkansas and Austria who took a chance on this course, contributed to its growth, and allowed it to become the learning experience that it has become.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 9, 2006, p. 1842-1861
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12684, Date Accessed: 1/20/2022 3:09:05 PM

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About the Author
  • Daniel Holland
    University of Arkansas at Little Rock
    E-mail Author
    Much of DANIEL HOLLANDís work involves international disability issues, focusing on children and adults with mental disabilities. He was a Fulbright Senior Scholar in 2002, when he did field research with grassroots disability activists in postcommunist Eastern Europe. He was a fellow at the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. In 2004, he was a Fulbright Senior Specialist in Austria, where he taught contemplative education in a university for the applied sciences. In 2005, he was a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, focusing on civil society developments that foster disability rights and deinstitutionalization of people with mental disabilities in postcommunist Eastern Europe. He was named a Mary E. Switzer Distinguished Fellow for 2006 by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Education for his research in international disability human rights issues. He is currently on the faculty of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
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