In 1996, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society was looking for opportunities to explore its central question: Could contemplative practices change the way we think and act so that we move toward a more just, compassionate, and reflective society? These practices, drawn from the wisdom traditions, had already been shown to be beneficial in health and healing, and we were curious about their broader applications. We were interested in testing this question in diverse sectors of American life and so had initiated programs in business, law, and environmental leadership. We knew that the academy was the place where the fundamentals of this inquiry could be best explored: Could a contemplative way of knowing complement the rational, scientific way on which the academy is based? Could students become deeply engaged with new ways of knowing and learning that address the urgent issues of our time? Could students and teachers together develop a more compassionate understanding of the behavior and values of others?
When President Stan Katz of the American Council of Learned Societies agreed to partner with us in offering fellowships to develop courses in various academic disciplines that would integrate contemplative practices, we were simultaneously elated and concerned. Was there anyone in the academy with sufficient knowledge and interest to take the risk of introducing contemplative activity into their teaching? We didn't know anyone ourselves. We wrote the description of the fellowship program and waited. Three months later, we received 100 applications, and they were more interesting, creative, and rigorous than we had even hoped. The selection committee chose 16 fellows that year, and the program got under way.
Despite the constraints on higher education that often inhibit change, there are now more than 120 fellows in 80 colleges and universities throughout the country, including liberal arts schools, Ivy League universities, state universities, and traditionally Black colleges. As fellows generated interest among colleagues, interdisciplinary courses and seminars emerged, and we now offer Program Development fellowships to encourage contemplative concentrations and collaborations. To respond to the growing interest, we also offer a weeklong summer session on contemplative course development at Smith College.
This special issue on contemplative practices and education grew out of a national conference held at Teachers College, Columbia University, in February 2005. This conference was a turning point in public education about the program, as it drew educators from colleges and universities across the country and even from abroad. We are delighted that Clifford Hill, who hosted the conference at Teachers College, has skillfully put together this collection. And we are pleased that Teachers College Record, a leading journal in the field of education, is publishing this collection both in print and online so that it will be accessible to an international audience. It is published at a time when other developments point to the importance of contemplative teaching, learning, and knowing. Neuroscientists are conducting studies of the brain that document the positive effects of meditation. In a recent social research study reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel Yankelovich identified five trends that will radically transform higher education by 2015; the fifth one is public support for other ways of knowing. It is clear that new approaches in education are called for as social, political, and environmental conflicts become increasingly dangerous.
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society gives thanks to Teachers College, Columbia University; the American Council of Learned Societies; the Nathan Cummings Foundation; the Fetzer Institute; all the fellows and others who have developed contemplative courses; the students who have participated in them; Founding Board Chair Charles Halpern for the original idea; Arthur Zajonc and Sunanda Markus for directing the program; and especially Clifford Hill for putting together this special issue on contemplative practices and education. May it inspire many to explore new ways of knowing and learning that will lead to a more just and compassionate world.
As executive director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, MIRABAI BUSH brings a unique background of organizational management, teaching, and spiritual practice. A founding board member of the Seva Foundation, an international public health organization, she directed the Seva Guatemala Project, which supports sustainable agriculture and integrated community development. Also at Seva, she codeveloped Sustaining Compassion, Sustaining the Earth, a series of retreats and events for grassroots environmental activists on the interconnection of spirit and action. She is coauthor, with Ram Dass, of Compassion in Action: Setting Out on the Path of Service, published by Random House.