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Introduction: Contemplative Practices and Education

by Clifford Hill - 2006

An introduction to the special issue on Contemplative Practices and Education.

Is your practice sacred and your work profane?

Then your mind is separated:

from itself, from oneness, from Tao.

—Lao Tzu

The practical legacy of the modernist tradition is a compartmentalized, fragmented way of learning and teaching, dualistic alienation of body from mind, emotion from intellect, humans from nature, and art from science, whereas the basis of contemplative understanding is wholeness, unity, integration.

—Mirabai Bush

This special issue grew out of a conference on contemplative practices and education that was held at Teachers College, Columbia University, in February 2005. The conference, which brought together faculty and students from colleges and universities across the country, was sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Among the various programs the center has established is an academic program that explores the role of contemplative practices in higher education (for an overview of the center’s programs, see http://www.contemplativemind.org). Working with the American Council of Learned Societies, the center has provided more than 100 fellowships in over 80 colleges and universities. The purpose of these fellowships has been to support the development of courses—and, in some cases, academic programs—that draw on contemplative practices to facilitate greater mindfulness in a range of academic disciplines and professional fields.

Courses have been developed across a wide range of academic disciplines—humanities such as history and literature, creative arts such as music and dance, social sciences such as anthropology and psychology, and natural sciences such as physics and astronomy. Interdisciplinary courses have also been developed. One of the more striking examples, which is described later in this special issue, brings together physics and the visual arts. In addition, courses have been developed in a number of professional fields, such as medicine, law, architecture, social work, and education.

The conference was held to explore the creative ways in which contemplative practices have been integrated into higher education. Within departments of religion or anthropology, these practices often become an object of study, either in historical settings, as part of wisdom traditions, or in modern settings, as part of social and cultural practices that have emerged in the larger society. To take just one familiar example, the practice of yoga has spread from its origins in ancient Hindu tradition to health centers all over the world.

In other instances, contemplative practices have become a means of expanding and transforming knowledge within an academic discipline or a professional field. Within the humanities, for example, these practices have been used to further our understanding of how a text can be read so that deeper layers of meaning can become available. Within the performing arts, contemplative activity has been used to transform the very nature of performance so that silence, as in Noh drama, can become an active force in shaping communication between artist and audience. Within the neurosciences, there is growing interest in the effects of meditation on brain activity. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown that meditation can lead to heightened activity in the left hemisphere of the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with states often described as calm and centered. And within the applied health sciences, contemplative practices have been integrated into a wide range of programs designed to promote health and healing.

With respect to professional fields, architects have become increasingly attentive to the societal benefit in constructing physical spaces that contribute to contemplative awareness. They have also become appreciative of the professional benefit of incorporating contemplative practices into the curriculum in order to develop the human capacity to create such physical spaces. In the field of education, contemplative practices have been integrated into programs of teacher preparation so that they can become a source for innovative pedagogy, in which they help to shape not only how the teacher interacts with students but also how students interact with each other. To take a common example, some form of contemplative activity—often silence itself—is used to begin a class in order to create an atmosphere in which human exchange can take place at a deeper level. Contemplative practices are also used to facilitate mindfulness in students, which can be characterized as the capacity to concentrate on the “here and now.” For example, students may become more attentive in the classroom or more focused on what they are reading. It is as if contemplative activity can cleanse the mind so that it can engage more fully with what one is currently experiencing.

This special issue is divided into two major sections. The first section consists of five presentations that were originally delivered in oral form at gatherings sponsored by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. The texts on which these presentations were based have been only minimally edited and hence preserve the flavor of oral communication. The first two presentations were made at the conference held at Teachers College, Columbia University. Marilyn Nelson, a poet who taught for many years at the University of Connecticut, describes how she introduced contemplative practices into a poetry course that she taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Her presentation, as indicated by the title, “The Fruit of Silence,” borrowed from Mother Teresa, explores the transformative role that an active listening to silence can play in expanding not only human consciousness but also the human heart. In her course, she helped cadets discover how certain strategies used in creative writing are akin to contemplative experience. She provides rich examples of the writing they did about their experience of meditation not only during the course but also during their service in Iraq, where they continue to practice what Marilyn taught them: the importance of setting aside time for active listening to silence even when living in a highly stressful environment.

Arthur Zajonc, who teaches physics at Amherst College, describes how he and John Upton, who teaches the visual arts, have together developed a course that introduces contemplative practices as a way of knowing that extends beyond what is ordinarily taught in higher education. For Arthur, who also directs the academic program of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, contemplative practices are fundamental in transforming the nature of knowledge. Our knowing remains partial unless we learn to practice what he calls an epistemology of love (in which the knower enters more deeply into the phenomenological world that he or she seeks to know) rather than an epistemology of separation (in which the knower uses rational inquiry to remain apart from what he or she seeks to know). For Arthur, both epistemologies are fundamental to education, but the latter has been developed at the expense of the former. Students need to integrate both ways of knowing so that they can be prepared to live humanely in a world plagued by human conflict. As Arthur has written in an introduction to the academic program on the center’s Web site (http://www.contempla tivemind.org/programs/academic),

The university is well-practiced at educating the mind for critical reasoning, critical writing, and critical speaking, as well as for scientific and quantitative analysis. But is this sufficient? In a world beset with conflicts, internal as well as external, isn’t it of equal if not greater importance to balance the sharpening of our intellects with the systematic cultivation of our hearts?

The remaining three presentations in the first section were made at a gathering in 1994 at which the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society was seeking to define what its mission should be within higher education. As working papers at the center, they have been of particular value in guiding the development of the academic program. These presentations have been included in this special issue because all three reflect broad historical and philosophical perspectives on the relations between contemplative practices and higher education. At the same time, in many ways, they have all been prescient in anticipating the practical challenges of integrating these practices into a college or university setting.

Brian Stock, a professor in the Center for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, traces the increased interest in meditation in Western societies to a range of factors: the concern with health issues, the development of psychology, the feminist and ecological movements, and the revival of interest in the experiential aspects of various religious traditions. He notes that within the modern university, the humanities have made little contribution to this growing interest even though religion, as a humanities discipline, is the major source of our knowledge about meditation in different traditions.

Brian then provides an overview of the development of contemplative activity within Western traditions. He notes that, contrary to popular opinion, its beginnings were in Greek philosophy and its demise was not “during the Reformation or the Scientific Revolution,” but during the 12th and 13th centuries when the European universities emerged from monastic schools and developed curriculum in logic, science, and theology. From this point on, contemplative activity was relegated to monastic life as it became increasingly separated from the university.

Given this long-entrenched separation, Brian contends that contemplative activity will not be easily integrated into the modern university. He notes, however, the increasing respect for such activity as it becomes more closely associated with greater health of body and mind. This respect may well grow as cognitive neuroscientists continue to investigate the effects of meditation. If contemplative activity does gain a foothold in the modern university, then the challenge to the humanities will be not only to deepen students’ understanding of its historical development but also to develop their awareness of the positive role that it can play in contemporary society. He concludes that contemplative activity could help moral philosophy shift its focus from “what it is right to do” to “what it is good to be.”

Robert Thurman, who is the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, first explores Asian traditions of contemplative practice, paying particular attention to Buddhism as it was developed in ancient India. He lays out a core curriculum that was developed within monastic institutions of higher education and shows how it has been most fully preserved in Tibet. Having explicated various meditation practices embedded in this curriculum, he then explores their relevance to American higher education. As he turns his attention to the American university, he notes that it is misleading to think of our culture as lacking contemplative mind. As he observes,

Education in any particular culture builds up a worldview, constantly reinforced by symbols and images that are contemplated throughout life. Television, modern culture’s peculiar contemplative shrine, supplies a contemplative trance to millions of people, for hours on end, day after day, year in and year out. . . . Thus, when we talk about seeking to increase and intensify contemplative mind in our culture, we are actually talking about methods of transferring contemplative energies from one focus to another. (p. 1766)

Robert ends his article by presenting a number of practical strategies that can be used to introduce contemplative practices not only in the academic curriculum but also in the broader campus life. For him, these practices need to find a home in the modern university if it is to provide the humanistic education that it claims as its fundamental goal.

The final presentation in the first section is by Steven Rockefeller, professor of religion emeritus at Middlebury College, who explores how contemplative practices, as part of the burgeoning interest in spirituality within American society, have the potential to help foster creative social change by deepening the democratic revolution, strengthening ecological awareness about how people should live, and nourishing a spiritual awakening to the sanctity of life and the Earth itself. At the same time, these practices have the potential to benefit individuals by contributing to their physical health, mental concentration, and ethical awareness. He is careful to point out, however, that “the full significance of meditation is missed if it is viewed just as a technique—that is, solely as a means to ends beyond itself, such as health, social change, or even enlightenment. Contemplation is a form of human activity that possesses its own inherent value, and it may involve a beautiful experience that is a fulfillment complete in itself” (pp. 1777-1778).

As Steven explores manifold ways in which contemplative practices can be integrated into undergraduate life, he cautions about various difficulties that are likely to arise. To take just one example, he notes certain dangers in college-age students approaching meditation as a cure-all for psychological problems. He thus notes the important role of health care professionals and psychological counselors in guiding students toward psychotherapy when they believe it would be beneficial. He also argues for the importance of psychological research on the benefits and possible risks as students engage in meditation.

The second section is composed of articles that have been expressly prepared for this special issue and thus reflect a more traditional academic style. The section begins with two articles that explore a new interdisciplinary field of study built around contemplative practices. Hal Roth, a professor of religion at Brown University, describes how he and colleagues are developing an interdisciplinary concentration for undergraduate students in what he calls “contemplative studies.” At the heart of this new concentration are core courses in which students integrate what Hal calls “critical first-person experience” with the more traditional third-person approach to knowledge that dominates higher education. In effect, students participate in weekly labs in which they practice various forms of meditation and then critically reflect upon what they have experienced. This critical first-person experience is integrated with the third-person approach as students read texts about the forms that they are practicing. These texts reflect a more traditional approach to education in that they provide students with historical and cultural understanding regarding how certain contemplative practices emerged. In addition to the core courses, students are expected to take courses in three major areas—the humanities, the sciences, and the arts—in which they have the opportunity to meet the following goals: (1) to develop a third-person philosophical and scientific understanding of contemplative experience; (2) to develop a critical first-person understanding of the manifold ways in which contemplative states can be experienced; and (3) to explore how contemplative practices can contribute to physical and mental health.

Ed Sarath, a professor in the music department at the University of Michigan, has developed an innovative program in jazz and contemplative practices. At the heart of this program is the use of contemplative practices to develop a distinctive kind of awareness that students can draw on as they engage in jazz improvisation. With this program firmly established, Ed is now developing a more broadly based program that he describes as “creativity and consciousness studies.” Like Hal Roth at Brown University, Ed makes a fundamental distinction between critical first-person and third-person ways of knowing. At the heart of critical first-person ways of knowing are contemplative practices that students engage in as they seek to understand the nature of human creativity and consciousness. To be exposed to a range of these practices, students are encouraged to draw on resources within the larger community in which the university is located. From Ed’s perspective, this approach ensures an authentic experience for the students that they can then reflect on as they return to the university environment. This program, like the one at Brown University, is built around core courses in which students are exposed to a broad range of approaches to the nature of human consciousness. The texts used range from ancient Hindu vedas to contemporary philosophical and scientific ones that approach consciousness from a neurological perspective. Within this new program, the core courses, as at Brown University, are supplemented by courses in the humanities, the sciences, and the arts, all of which are designed to explore how contemplative practices can be used to nourish new forms of creativity and consciousness.

Dan Holland, a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock, describes a course designed for students with disabilities in which he seeks to integrate contemplative practice with physical and mental health. He has taught this course in Arkansas and at a university of applied sciences in Austria, so he is particularly attentive to the ways in which cultural differences can shape curriculum and instruction. At the heart of this experiential course is a range of contemplative practices: sitting meditation, guided body scan, walking meditation, and mindful exercises derived from Hanna Somatic Education, which is a process of mindful movement similar to Feldenkrais. Of particular interest to Dan is how these practices can be adapted so that students with disabilities can participate in them. For example, the walking meditation can become a movement meditation so that participants engage in whatever movement—even if it is just moving a finger—that is available to them. As Dan points out, such adaptations often help to clarify what is most essential in a particular meditation. He requires students to maintain a journal in which they have an opportunity to reflect on their experience (see the critical first-person approach that Hal Roth and Ed Sarath write about). He includes excerpts from a number of journals in which students focus not only on contemplative practice itself but also on how it is integrated into their lives beyond the campus.

The next two articles are concerned with how contemplative practices can be integrated into programs of professional preparation. Kathleen Kesson and Cecelia Traugh are professors in the School of Education at Long Island University in Brooklyn, and Felix Perez is a student who participated in a contemplative form of inquiry, known as the Descriptive Review, that is used to prepare teachers for the challenges that they face in urban schools. The article begins with autobiographical reflections on the contemplative practices that the two professors bring to their professional work—one working out of a Buddhist tradition and the other out of a Quaker tradition. They then show how “seeing clearly” is the fundamental goal in teacher preparation based on the Descriptive Review. Through the development of a contemplative spirit, teachers become attuned to multiple layers of meaning in classroom events. As they practice systematic observation in the classroom, they learn how to reflect on both outer and inner events so that they are in a position to make responsible ethical judgments about what is in the best interests of the students they teach. To demonstrate how the Descriptive Review works, the article highlights a narrative of practice related by Felix Perez. As Felix learned to see more clearly the complexity of events in which he was involved, he was able to develop an ethical framework for his work in a challenging urban environment. His narrative shows that as he deepened his inquiry, he developed a contemplative spirit that allowed him to be more fully present to the children for whom he was responsible.

The next article is also concerned with how contemplative practices can be integrated into a program of professional preparation. Sandy Newsome, John Chambers Christopher, Penny Dahlen, and Suzanne Christopher investigate a graduate course entitled Mind/Body Medicine and the Art of Self-Care, which was offered at Montana State University. The goals of the course were to introduce students in counseling to the relevance of mindfulness practices and to provide them with methods for self-care that can help to prevent professional burnout. This course was built around the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) approach developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. The course involved experiential learning based on MBSR activities, and academic learning. Students were exposed to readings in behavioral medicine, religious studies, psychological and medical anthropology, cross-cultural psychology, and psychiatry. The course was evaluated from three perspectives—quantitative course evaluations, qualitative reports, and focus groups—and all these methods indicated positive changes for students in learning how to manage stress and improve counseling practice. Most students reported intentions of continuing mindfulness practices once they become counselors. Indeed, certain students expressed interest in exploring how they might encourage those whom they will counsel to engage in mindfulness practices.

Although the conference held at Teachers College focused on higher education, we were heartened by the number of K-12 teachers who attended. Many of these teachers use a variety of mindfulness practices in their classrooms and participate actively in the MiEN e-mail list (http:// www.mindfuled.org) that supports the use of these practices in K-12 education. For an overview of the broad range of mindfulness programs in K-12 schools, visit the Web site of the Garrison Institute (http://www. garrisoninstitute .org).

I have invited Jackie Seidel, a teacher in early childhood education in Alberta, Canada, to submit an article to this special issue. Her writing takes the form of a meditation on her return to teaching children after 8 years of graduate study and university teaching. At the heart of this article is a vivid exploration of what it means to approach teaching as a contemplative practice. Her meditative prose is grounded in stories and reflections about her classroom experience in which she seeks to help children to inhabit more fully their own experience. She observes that this approach to teaching is difficult to sustain in the competitive ethos that children must face at an early age as they are forced to prepare for high-stakes testing. Jackie challenges this ethos built around “distracting and distancing curricula and practices that seem to exist in no place or time . . . and with lofty and ungrounded goals located in the future” (p. 1901). Contrasted with this ethos is one in which a contemplative approach to teaching holds her and the children in the present moment, in the place that they actually inhabit; it is here that “the practice of contemplative teaching turns our work into a form of love, memory, and intimacy” (p. 1901).

The concluding article to this special issue on contemplative practices and education has been prepared by myself, with the collaboration of Akbar Ali Herndon and Zuki Karpinska. It begins with an overview of the course that I developed at Teachers College, Columbia University, under the sponsorship of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Because the course was offered in a professional school of education, I was concerned, given sensitivities surrounding the separation of church and state, that students be introduced to contemplative practices not from a particular tradition, but rather from diverse traditions around the world. Moreover, I was concerned that students, while learning to respect differences, be especially attentive to what various traditions share. Hence, the course began by presenting the historical dimension of major traditions before moving on to consider contemporary explorations of their commonalities, as found, for example, in the work of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The course ended by focusing on educational benefits of contemplative practices from three broad perspectives—the body, the mind, and society.

To celebrate the exemplary student work produced in this course, a collaborative project by Akbar Herndon and Zuki Karpinska has been included. In their essay entitled “Right Teaching,” they begin with the Buddhist conception of right conduct as it is manifested in eight domains (e.g., right speech) and then introduce the notion of right teaching, which they explore from traditional perspectives (e.g., Taoism and Sufism) and from contemplative perspectives that originated in the 20th century (e.g., those provided by two philosophers of spirituality, one from the West, Gurdjieff, and one from the East, Krishnamurti). Akbar and Zuki also introduce perspectives from contemporary research by educational theorists and bring the various perspectives together by delineating 12 principles of right teaching. It is our hope that this special issue will help to support right teaching in the many different settings where education takes place.


Rockefeller, S. (2006). Meditation, social change, and undergraduate education. Teachers College Record, 108, 1775-1786.

Seidel, J. (2006). Some thoughts on teaching as contemplative practice. Teachers College Record, 108, 1901-1914.

Thurman, R. (2006). Meditation and education: India, Tibet, and Modern America. Teachers College Record, 108, 1765-1774.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 9, 2006, p. 1723-1732
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12676, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 5:51:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Clifford Hill
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CLIFFORD HILL is the Arthur I. Gates Professor of Language and Education Emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University. His research on language and literacy assessment has led to numerous books and articles, most notably Children and Reading Tests and Testing and Assessment: English as an International Language. His cross-cultural research on language, space, and time has been widely published and translated into other languages.
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