Creating contemplative studies in the Southwest: theory and practice
Fort International Journal of Dharma Studies
Creating contemplative studies in the Southwest: theory and practice
Andrew O. Fort 0
0 Texas Christian University , Fort Worth , USA
In this article, I offer a brief history of the Contemplative Studies initiative at Texas Christian University, then discuss some of the theoretical underpinning for our program, indicating the value of contemplative pedagogy in academia and Religious Studies in particular. I argue that such pedagogy addresses central concerns of liberal arts education, that is, enhancing insight into and critical reflection about both self and others in their social and historical location. Contemplative learning adds “first person” direct experience to traditional “third person” objective study which gives a more accurate (and “lived”) understanding of both one's own and others' worldviews and practices. I will also discuss how and why students themselves want contemplative methods in the classroom. Religion professors in particular should introduce students to the importance of understanding the historical and cultural context of these (and our own) worldviews, enhancing these understandings with appropriate first-hand experience of basic exercises in various traditions (religious and modern secular) that have specialized in “first person” inquiry. I will close by raising questions about how scholars should address the high degree of appropriation, decontextualization, and commodification of most contemplative traditions today.
Contemplative Studies; Pedagogy; Liberal arts; “First person” inquiry
person” study for those in the liberal arts, particularly as it enhances insight into and
critical reflection about both self and others in their social and historical location.2
Part I: starting a program in the region and at TCU
Two initial workshops set the foundation for the development of CS at TCU and in the
Southwest region. After reading about and speaking with some others interested in this
emerging field, significantly prompted by the preparation for and publication of the
book Meditation and the Classroom (Simmer-Brown and Grace 2011), I organized
these two workshops for scholars in the Southwest (the first held at Baylor University
in 2011 and the second at Rice University in 2012), both led by Louis Komjathy of the
University of San Diego, a co-founder of the CS group of the American Academy of
Religions (AAR). The first, funded by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning
about Religion and an AAR regional development grant, explored the interest in and
knowledge about CS in the region, and began a discussion of pedagogical issues relating
to teaching CS in liberal arts settings. The enthusiasm produced by this meeting
generated a second one, also funded by the Wabash Center. We expanded and deepened the
earlier conversation to enhance our abilities to think critically and teach effectively
about traditions of contemplation,3 to develop best practices for “contemplative
pedagogy,” and to better articulate, on and beyond our campuses, how courses on or using
contemplative practices contribute to a liberal arts curriculum.
One outcome of these workshops was a commitment by a number of participants to
look into the development of CS on their respective campuses. To that end, in the
spring of 2012 I began conversations about this topic at TCU with a variety of faculty
as well as the director of our Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). We decided to
launch a faculty/staff interest group in the fall of 2012, with monthly discussion
meetings (including education, practice, and sharing) and one major event with an outside
speaker per semester, a structure we continue today. We formed a steering committee,
which included two members from the department of Religion, and one each from
Anthropology, Modern Dance, Psychology and Student Development Services. Each
committee member already had some form of contemplative practice, and we meet at
semester beginning and end to review the prior semester’s efforts and to plan for the
next term.4 We were then, and remain today, committed to interdisciplinary approaches
(and participants now include faculty from English, Physics, and Business).
With an interdisciplinary committee established, we announced our first panel
discussion titled, “What is Contemplative Studies, and what is its place at TCU?” The
panel, promoted and supported by CTE staff and advertised through email and
informal networks, included short presentations by me and another TCU religion professor,
Mark Dennis. We were also joined by Donnalee Dox, a performance studies professor
and director of the Religious Studies interdisciplinary program at Texas A&M, who
was also a participant in both of our earlier regional meetings. The panel was followed
by a brainstorming session with the twenty-five faculty and staff who attended to see
what was possible and desirable at TCU. In addition to introducing CS in this initial
workshop, we began relationship building and networking, finalized topics for the
meetings that would follow, and committed to a spring event co-sponsored with TCU’s
Nursing School. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this event was the extent of
interest shown by faculty and staff in personal practice, and conversely, how few of the
faculty had any such practice.
As mentioned above, our small group meetings have generally included both
discussion and a shared group practice. Over the years, discussions have focused upon CS
as an emerging discipline, the roles of contemplative theory and practice in teaching
and research, their relationship with the traditional goals of liberal arts education, and
their place in student development, broadly conceived. Other topics discussed include
definitions of key terms in CS, ethical issues in teaching contemplative exercises in
class, contemplation in a digital era, the role of embodiment (physical and cultural)
and the environment on contemplation, how to build interdisciplinary and
crosscampus relationships, and personal practices of faculty and staff. We have held lecture
style presentations on various aspects of contemplation, ranging from long-standing
Asian religious traditions to modern psychology.5 Given TCU’s heritage and student
population, we have also made sure to spend time focusing on Christian
contemplation, as well as dispelling the misimpression that contemplative practices are
Our discussions have also extended to address broader pragmatic applications of
contemplative practice in a variety of campus environments. We have, for example,
discussed specific classroom practices which would be useful and effective in any
course: exercises like sitting in silence or watching the breath for a few minutes at the
beginning of class, being present when walking across campus or eating a meal, or
bodily awareness practices.7
In addition to integrating contemplative exercises in their own classes, steering
committee members also led exercises in other faculty members’ classes (from Business
to Philosophy to Media Ethics) and made presentations to departmental faculty
meetings. We have also established weekly meditation sessions sponsored by our Office of
Religious and Spiritual life and Brite Divinity School, and a member of the Counseling
Center also regularly leads a five-session workshop for students in which he introduces
a variety of contemplative practices to address stress, anxiety, and sleep issues.
Finally, we have organized social events promoting CS on campus, including faculty
and student panels on personal contemplative practices, movie nights (including the
films Kumare,8 Samsara,9 and Doing Time, Doing Vipassana10), a number of labyrinth
walks,11 a contemplative poetry competition co-sponsored with the TCU literary
magazine, and various contemplative movement exercises in (and outside of ) a dance studio.
Together these events have effectively helped “spread the word” about contemplative
thought and experience to a diverse audience at and beyond TCU.
Major semester events at TCU
In addition to our monthly meetings, we have hosted at least one larger event each
semester featuring speakers from a wide range of disciplines. Each was intended to
offer an expert illumining some new aspect of CS for the TCU community. I will now
briefly describe these events (and the people involved in them), in part as examples and
suggestions for readers interested in creating CS programs at their universities. As
previously mentioned, we co-organized a workshop titled “Wellness and Contemplative
Practice in Health Care and Higher Education,” with TCU’s College of Nursing in
spring 2013. This workshop addressed the ongoing effects of stress and “multitasking”
in contemporary life, and offered possibilities to maximize wellness and help cultivate
physical, mental, and emotional balance, both personally and in one’s local
environment. The speakers were Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco and
Alejandro Chaoul, professor in the Integrative Medicine Center at MD Anderson
Cancer Center in Houston. Prof. Epel shared her work on the role of stress in aging
and how mindfulness-based interventions might slow cellular aging and Prof. Chaoul
described his experience with using yoga and meditation with cancer patients. Both
discussed some of the methodological issues that their work raises in the humanities
and sciences.12 This event obviously foregrounded aspects of contemplative studies in
health care, and was particularly valuable to start our initiative.
In fall 2013, Louis Komjathy, who is both the co-founder of the CS group in the
American Academy of Religion and a Daoist priest, led a workshop on “Imagining the
Contemplative University,” exploring university education and campus community life
in relation to contemplative practice and experience from a multi-disciplinary and
diverse curricular perspective. Prof. Komjathy also gave a talk titled, “Studying What
One Practices, Practicing What One Studies: A Daoist Professor’s Perspective.” Here,
he pointed out that being an adherent of a religious tradition while working in the field
of Religious Studies raises a host of issues, and brings forth a variety of reactions,
positive and negative. For example, some hold that “insiders” or practitioners have lost
critical distance; others argue that actual practice deepens scholarly insight. He
emphasized the potential contributions of the scholar-practitioner to the academic study of
religion in general and Daoism in particular, and shared his own “first person”
experiences of being both while working in an academic context where “third person” social
scientific and secular materialist perspectives dominate. 13 With this event, we hoped
to raise awareness of the unique value of contemplative studies within a traditional
liberal arts context.
In spring 2014, we held a major event co-sponsored with TCU’s College of Liberal
Arts. Here, the former Jesuit priest and now long-time Zen master Ruben Habito,
whose formal titles include Professor of World Religions and Spirituality at Southern
Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology and Guiding Teacher at the Maria
Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, spoke to faculty, students, and community members
(many from TCU’s affiliated Brite Divinity School) in a lecture titled, “Christian
Contemplation and Buddhist Practice—The Spiritual Exercises and Zen.” Habito
discussed his life journey and new book Zen and the Spiritual Exercises (Habito 2014),
which considers the relationship between Zen meditation and the Spiritual Exercises of
St. Ignatius Loyola. He eloquently articulated the experience of sitting quietly with full
attention bringing forth profound feelings of love and unity, within or without God.
While interesting for many reasons, Prof. Habito’s presentations were particularly
helpful for strengthening our connections with the Divinity School.
In fall 2014, we hosted the well-known contemplative movement educator and former
president of Naropa University, Barbara Dilley. About 50 participants attended each of
two workshops exploring the relationship of dance and contemplative movement in
theory and practice. Her visit, and the various conversations on pedagogy we had with her,
was particularly helpful preparation for the course we taught at TCU on contemplative
movement and reflection the following semester, to be discussed shortly.
In Fall, 2015, we hosted Prof. Bill Barnard of Southern Methodist University, on his
work with the Santo Daime tradition in Brazil and more generally with entheogens and
contemplation. This was particularly interesting to Religious Studies faculty and
students, and illustrated an understanding of Christianity quite novel to most. In spring
2016, our major speaker was John Dunne, the first holder of the Distinguished Chair in
Contemplative Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, an endowed
position created through their new Center for Healthy Minds. Dunne gave a public lecture
on issues concerning contemplation and neuroscience, and held additional related
discussions with students and faculty in our science programs (including our emerging
medical school). Our Fall 2016 speaker was Barbara (Bobbi) Patterson of Emory
University. She is an award winning teacher of contemplative pedagogy, and she gave both
an inspiring lecture and instructive workshop to TCU faculty on this topic.
In addition to bringing in major speakers, it is noteworthy that during fall 2014
alone, TCU faculty gave five CS-related conference presentations off-campus in
several different scholarly venues. This shows that our CS initiative has catalyzed not
just the offering of informative on-campus events, but also research interest among
the steering committee’s faculty members.14 Two of these presentations were papers
of my own, one of which was given at a CS conference organized by Louis Komjathy
immediately before the 2014 American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting in San
Diego, and another at the AAR meeting itself. Both of these papers were further
developed at the 2015 DANAM meeting in Atlanta and in this article.
I should also note here that over the years, an array of sources have generously provided
funds for our CS programming: our center for teaching excellence, various undergraduate
departments (especially the Religion Dept.), the liberal arts college (known as AddRan),
the university’s Global Citizenship program, our Center for International Studies, the
Asian Studies program and our affiliated divinity school (Brite).
The first contemplative studies course at TCU
Let me now turn to the most sustained and concentrated manifestation of our initiative
at TCU thus far: our first curricular effort, formally titled Mindbodyness: Contemplative
Movement and Reflection, a course that I co-taught in spring 2015 with a professor of
modern dance, Susan Douglas Roberts.15 As an upper level directed study without core
credit, it drew only nine students, but that modest number and the enthusiasm of the
participants were actually very beneficial for this pilot effort. The course, held in a
dance studio, met twice a week for 80 minutes. In most cases, the first half of the class
was a contemplative movement practice led by my colleague (at different times, the
movement included some combination of lying, sitting, and standing; walking, both
straight and in circles/while turning; students moving solo, paired, or as a group;
practicing various breathing styles; proceeding as an animal; and other actions). This was
followed by journaling and conversation, and then we turned to lecture and discussion,
which I or a guest led, about some aspect of “mindbodyness,” with reference to the
The course was loosely divided into several units: first we considered definitional and
theoretical issues in CS, then various conceptions of mind and body in the modern
West and in traditional Asia (including Indian Yoga, taijiquan, and Tibetan and Zen
Buddhism; we also discussed Native American traditions). Some ideas were introduced
by me, and others by an array of TCU faculty and off campus guests, including a highly
appreciated visit from Judith Simmer-Brown of Naropa University.16 As the semester
continued, students were assigned an increasing number of exercises, including
weeklong practices of mindfulness meditation and the five basic Buddhist precepts. There
were also day-long exercises of silence and focusing of awareness on “digital
attachment,” a practice of contemplative walking (beginning with John Francis’s TED talk
on silently “walking the earth”), 17 and a labyrinth walk. Near the course end, we read
Jeff Wilson’s Mindful America (Wilson 2014), which raised important issues of
cultural adaptation, appropriation, and commodification that the class participants found
quite thought provoking.
The course concluded with a final contemplative project by each student, which
included both movement and reflection, both indoors and outdoors. Some examples
were slow walking amid Froghenge, the circular array of sculptured rocks in the center
of campus, circling a building while looking at it closely and carefully, being present
with trees as witnesses and elders, listening to “singing bowls,” staying aware while
doing repetitive motion, being with a partner with eyes open then moving in concert
with one’s eyes closed, slow rolling while attending to all parts of the body, walking a
mini-labyrinth, and expressing gratitude to the body from feet to head while walking.
In class and in anonymous semester-end feedback, 18 students expressed great
appreciation for the course as providing new and different ways of knowing mind and body and
their connection, both theoretically and on a “real, experiential” level. They especially
valued learning what guest teacher Alejandro Chaoul called “meditation pills,” tools to
quiet and center themselves during the daily rush of university life.19 There was a striking
emphasis on how much they welcomed and integrated simple and practical self-care skills
of focused breathing and being present; this was especially important for and appreciated
by the many seniors with an uncertain future after graduation. One said, beautifully, “this
course became a refuge rather than a requirement.”
But students also expressed frustration with the workload, both the amount of
writing (weekly short papers, plus responses to the meditation exercises and the final
project) and out of class practice, feeling (justifiably in retrospect) that we required too
much in too concentrated a time. They and especially we also felt that there was
insufficient time to adequately address all the material introduced in class. To address these
issues, we will lighten the class writing and practice load, and plan 2 two-hour classes a
week next time.
With the aforementioned history in mind, I will provide my impressions of the
development of TCU’s CS initiative so far. I believe that our greatest success has been the creation
of an interdisciplinary and highly collegial steering committee, which has stimulated
reflection and enthusiasm among its members and become a core group which, as shown
above, has brought attention to CS to a wide variety of university constituencies. There is
no question that our university at large has a greater awareness of, and openness to, the
benefits of contemplative inquiry than four years ago, during which time we have drawn
the attendance of hundreds of faculty, staff, and students, many repeatedly. As just
described, our efforts took successful curricular form for the first time last year. We have
also begun to have a greater engagement with members of our associated Divinity School
(Brite). Finally, through the generosity of an array of university sources, we have also had
the opportunity to bring in some leading figures in this emerging movement, thus putting
TCU on the map for CS.
Although we have reached hundreds of students (often with the strategic use of extra
credit), perhaps our greatest disappointment has been the inability to create a
selfsustaining student group which would originate student-focused activities. Because of
this and the fact that students are dealing with a curriculum already full of
requirements, we have had limited curricular success, but are heartened by the commitment
and enthusiasm of the students who enrolled in the Mindbodyness course. We also
think that gaining more regular involvement from a larger number of faculty in the
sciences, including health sciences, especially with the beginning of our medical school,
would contribute to the program’s curricular success. Still, we have begun well and plan
to continue to expand our influence carefully by documenting the value for faculty and
students at each step and, most especially, by engaging in ongoing conversations at
TCU and in the academy generally, about the role and benefits of CS.
Part II: enhancing liberal arts education through contemplative studies
I now turn to the second part of this paper, expanding on my thinking about the
rationale for the broader principles underlying our program and particularly how CS
can enrich the liberal arts. Thinking this through is especially important given the
skepticism about CS in some quarters of academia. In this section then, I want to focus
on justifying CS as a powerful and effective enhancement of liberal arts education.
One of the key assumptions behind the development of our initiative is that there are a
wide variety of ways of knowing oneself and the world, and contemplative study and
reflection is an important, and today often underappreciated, way to investigate and
understand human existence. As a number of writers have pointed out, most university learning
occurs through “third person” objective study, which is certainly important and valuable,
but contemplative learning adds “first person” direct experience as a way to gain a more
accurate (and “lived”) understanding of both one’s own and others’ worldviews and
practices, about which one can then critically reflect.20 It can also provide the opportunity to
contemplate the validity of the possibility of “objective” third person study.21
Further, since contemplative inquiry has been important to many people in a large
number of cultures, there are, naturally, diverse contemplative traditions and
experiences. Another key assumption, therefore, is that, we should teach, to the extent
appropriate to the class and our training, how this variety is understood and explained by
practitioners of the various traditions we engage. This is part of a need for many
academics to better appreciate that adherents or “insiders” of contemplative traditions
themselves have a long history of critical analysis and argument about the nature of
reality and the value of various introspective states, so we should attend to and
communicate both the description of the states as well as the arguments.22 When done well,
contemplative pedagogy can in fact be particularly effective in simultaneously increasing
students’ self-knowledge in and of their historical location along with their awareness of
the breadth and depth of the understandings of those in other cultures and times. Such
comprehension will lead to the classic liberal arts goals of more insight into and critical
reflection on both self and other.
It is also important to note that students themselves have urged us to develop
contemplative methods in the classroom. Any teacher can observe that today’s university
students feel over-committed, over-worked, and overwhelmed. Thus, when first given
the opportunity to meditate, many often think of such a practice as just one more daily
task to complete. Yet many of us have seen that once students actually engage in
meditation or other contemplative activity, they realize both how the exercises bring greater
self-understanding and how useful they can be to their everyday life by reducing stress,
improving mood, and bringing rest,23 which sometimes leads to hunger for more.24 As
Fran Grace has discussed (See Grace 2011; Barbazat and Bush 2014), various empirical
studies have begun to show that contemplative pedagogy provides an antidote to the
anxiety, distraction, and academic pressure so many students feel, and there are
measureable improvements in variables for mental, physical and emotional well-being. This,
as well as academic improvement, is discussed in a very interesting study of the
spiritual life of college students, Cultivating the Spirit: How College Can Enhance Students’
Inner Lives (Astin et al. 2011). Here, the authors point out that while “knowing thyself”
is understood to be central to liberal arts education, developing answers to meaning
and purpose questions or discovering students’ own beliefs and values gets little
attention, especially when they are nervous about their future and finances in a difficult
economy. In a seven-year (2003–10) study, the authors found that over their college
careers, students became more personally spiritual and less formally religious, more
caring, tolerant, and globally aware, and these qualities enhanced other “traditional”
college outcomes: improved academics/GPA, leadership skills, psychological well-being
and life satisfaction. One significant factor assisting this growth is meditation/reflection
or any “inner work” that increased self-awareness. Indeed, the authors write that
contemplative practices “are among the most powerful tools at our disposal for enhancing
students’ spiritual development (148).”
It bears repeating that the capacity to focus attention is particularly important given
students’ immersion in technology, social media and other ongoing diversions of
modern life.25 Contemplative exercise raises awareness of everyday distractedness and the
limits of the (overpraised) notion of multitasking, thus demonstrating the value of
silence and quiet alertness so much a part of most contemplative traditions. It can also
call into question the contemporary instrumentalist focus on “productivity” in and
beyond work life. This focus points to trends in mainstream culture where meditation,
and in particular various conceptions of “mindfulness,” has become widespread in
health care, corporations, and even the military.26 One hears of mindful leadership,
parenting, therapy, sex, and marksmanship. As mentioned earlier, Jeff Wilson’s recent
book Mindful America (Wilson 2014) offers an excellent history of this cultural
development. As his and others’ writings demonstrate, academics are uniquely placed to add
historical awareness and critical analysis to such practices.27
With students in mind then, let me again emphasize the benefits of contemplative
practice for liberal education.28 As contemplation enhances the ability to concentrate
and introspect, it increases the depth, quality, and strength of attention and mental
discipline, as well as emotional control and awareness of body-mind interaction.29 It
gives students the opportunity to reflect on and analyze “first person” experience—their
own and others–in a classroom setting (for both peer and professor feedback). They
can gain insight into how their perspective has been shaped and see new possibilities,
both noticing and going beyond prior thought patterns. Finally, contemplative exercises
offer students the opportunity to critically reflect on the meaning and value questions
that they feel are too often ignored in the classroom, even or especially by professors in
Contemplative studies and religious studies
This conversation now leads me to a greater focus on how contemplative study and
practice are especially useful in my home discipline of Religious Studies, where students are
often for the first time introduced to long-standing and widely spread worldviews still
insufficiently known in contemporary America. Religion professors can and should
introduce students to the importance of a fuller understanding of the historical and cultural
context of these worldviews, and how these perspectives influence human experience and
interpretation—theirs and ours. Student understandings can then be enhanced by
firsthand experience (as “participant-observers”) of some basic exercises in various traditions
(religious and modern secular) that have specialized in such “first person” inquiry.
Responsible adaptation of methods drawn from those traditions enriches the liberal arts
classroom, and different kinds of knowing can increase the capacity for critical analysis.31
That is, in evaluating what contemplative thinkers say, it is valuable to observe and
analyze what and how we ourselves experience (“think about our thinking while we are
thinking”), and compare and contrast that (even at an elementary level) with others’
experience. To offer some brief examples: practicing mindfulness meditation or following
(or not) the five basic Buddhist precepts for a week can illumine both the Buddhist
tradition and the student’s own mental patterns,32 as can movement practices in a dance
department (as explored in the course discussed above), attending to art in a museum
(vs. venerating an image in a church or temple),33 or contemplative walking (which
could be usefully compared with “jogging” or “a stroll”) in an anthropology course on
Native American traditions. And while there has never been a single kind of yoga
practice, one could also usefully contrast classical Hindu Patanjala Yoga with modern
postural yoga exercise (See, for example, Sarbacker 2011).
Reflections on such theory and practice draw attention to what and how we study
“religion(s)” and contemplative traditions, and illumine how differing issues and perspectives
are important in different worldviews and models of reality. In sum, contemplative inquiry
opens possibilities for critical thinking about both philosophical arguments and one’s own
and others’ mental processes and contents. It can challenge prevailing theories, whether
scientific, sectarian, or postmodern. Finally, by opening alternative views of human being and
flourishing, contemplative study and practice offers new models and possibilities for thinking
and living, thus addressing questions of meaning that arise for students, and all humans.
This is the promise of CS. There is, of course, need for more critical reflection on,
and assessment of, the nature and significance of contemplation in general and
contemplative pedagogy in particular, as I will indicate in the final section below.
Bringing sufficient critique to contemplative studies
Turning to a greater emphasis on critique of this emerging discipline, I am especially
concerned about the importance of recognizing the specific time, place, and context of
both any contemplative tradition and of its study, that is, the awareness of “their,” as well
as “our,” historical locatedness. As Louis Komjathy and others have shown, historically,
virtually all contemplative practice and experience has been religiously committed and
tradition-based, and part of a path with a goal of transcending (or profoundly deepening
insight into) this life (This is extensively discussed in Komjathy 2015). Worldviews
are comprehensive (even if not always well-integrated), including an array of
myths, rituals, doctrines, and ethics held by communities. When studying
contemplative traditions, it is crucial to attend to how one’s experience is shaped by one’s
cosmology (modern science vs. karma and samsara vs. heaven and hell), ideas of
self (ego self, atman, soul) and ultimate reality (brahman, Dao, God or multiverse).
What is the view of human embodiment and physiology? What are the associated
ethical rules and prerequisites to contemplative practice, if any? The social
institutions? Perhaps most important as it shapes these questions, what are the goals
(liberation/salvation34 vs. happiness and stress reduction)?
One of the merits of Religious Studies training is the awareness that all traditions
change over time. Still, it is worth being reminded–and reminding others–that modern
global awareness and comparative interests inevitably condition our thinking. This
shows up in the definitions of “contemplation” itself; some focus on meditation and
Asian religious traditions, others include prayer and scriptural study or certain kinds of
movement, music, or painting, still others include any focused attention or mindful
awareness.35 A modern pluralistic understanding is clearly seen in the common use of
highly abstract and non-tradition specific terms like “pure experience,” “spirituality,” or
“wisdom traditions.” How does one negotiate the tension between the irreducible
differences in historic contemplative traditions and today’s common search for
commonalities or “universals?” What in contemplation is “secular,” what “spiritual” and what
“religious?” And how should we deal with the modern concerns with race, class, and
gender? Since contemporary traditions and worldviews are also inevitably in particular
sociocultural locations, today’s adherents always have interests and commitments,
whether in theology, humanistic psychology, or natural science. Are these recognized
and acknowledged? Having a position is inevitable, not a problem; the problem is not
identifying or inquiring into one’s position.
Further, most people who are being exposed to aspects of longstanding and
complex contemplative traditions are not interested in and would not consider studying
or practicing Asian religions in their ancient forms. But those of us who do such
study (and possibly practice) face the question of how we should understand and
address the high degree of appropriation, decontextualization, and commodification
of most contemplative traditions today. An extended discussion of this topic is
beyond the scope of this paper, but to mention some examples now under
investigation: what, in the contemporary context, is “mindfulness,” “yoga,” or “Tantra,” and
how do these relate to earlier historical manifestations? 36 Few practitioners today
understand the originating traditions, have a holistic or prolonged practice, and
submit to spiritual direction. Many in our therapeutically inclined culture are far
more interested in the development, not cessation, of the ego self. While such
studies are unlikely to be read by non-academics, Religious Studies scholars are uniquely
positioned to note and describe an array of issues here.37 Some scholars are in fact
making attempts to address these issues in popular journals such as Tricycle: The
To conclude, I firmly believe (and hope to have shown at TCU) that Contemplative
Studies can make an important new contribution to liberal education in broadening the
ways of knowing available to students—but scholars, in and beyond Religious Studies,
have an equally important job to keep to the critical inquiry and analysis that has long
been at the heart of the liberal arts.
1See Fort 2013 and Fisher (Fisher, Kathleen: “Look Before You Leap: Re-considering
Contemplative Pedagogy”, forthcoming) along with responses by Andrew Fort and
Louis Komjathy.Here are some points discussed more fully there: first and most
important is the fact that like any group of scholars, and perhaps more than average in
emerging fields, advocates of Contemplative Studies are a diverse group, and most that
I know argue for CS as an enhancement of the valuable traditional liberal arts
education, not a replacement for it. I agree that sometimes contemplative pedagogy can be
insufficiently critical (as can “regular” teaching in many classrooms!) and that this
legitimately puts off other scholars. Academic course work is not therapy, and our first job
is to teach critical thinking and reflection, to help students understand religion(s) and
themselves better, not help them feel good or be happy. Still, my experience is that
contemplative exercises (with accurate information about others and critical reflection)
usually do increase students’ self-awareness and encourage openness to and
engagement with other people and views.It’s also worth noting that many of the figures in CS
are not trained in Religious Studies, and I think those of us in this field have an
important role to play in the development of CS. See Komjathy 2015. In the first two chapters,
Komjathy gives a cutting edge introduction to, with a history and critical analysis of, CS.
2I have discussed this more extensively in Fort 2013. Concerning the definition of
“liberal arts,” there I write: “‘Liberal arts’ or ‘liberal education’ has many qualities and
purposes (overall, to provide the tools to inquire into the multi-level nature of human
being and the universe), but the ones most relevant here include (1) reflective
selfawareness, recognizing and critiquing one’s beliefs and assumptions; (2) respectful and
empathetic understanding of others (what I call ‘mental migration’ into other worldviews);
(3) understanding that humans are socially and culturally conditioned, existing in and
shaped by historical contexts; and (4) learning about various ways of thinking or modes of
inquiry.” Effective contemplative pedagogy would address each of these goals.For more on
the definition of “contemplation,” see footnote 43 here.
3Including meetings with staff members of the integrative medicine program of the
MD Anderson Cancer Center and the director of the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
4The steering committee considered the eventual possibilities of secretarial help,
office space, website, and university or other funding through grants and fundraising
for a free standing program, but none of these were deemed necessary to begin, or have
been pursued since. As will be noted later, we have used departmental, college, and
university funding for speakers and materials such as flyers for events or to publicize
upcoming courses with a contemplative component in the next semester.
5Including contemplation and counseling and contemplative exercises and social
justice. One of the most successful presentations was a talk by a psychology professor
on the cognitive neuroscience behind meditation, which included a Powerpoint
illustrating anatomical changes that occur to the brain during meditation. A student then
offered a well-researched and entertaining presentation on brain states during surfing
and meditation. Over 70 students, faculty, and staff attended, listened, and practiced
both silent and focused meditations.
6For example, a member of TCU’s Student Development Services organized a panel
on contemplative practices in contemporary Christianity. Speakers discussed the
tradition of labyrinth building, the practice of centering prayer, integrating Asian practices
like mantra chanting or Zen sitting with Christian contemplation, and more generally
harmonizing the “secular,” “spiritual” and “religious.” In the question and answer period
that followed, there was an interesting tension between some students whose views
about our Calvinist fallen nature conflicted with the speakers’ emphasis on the presence
of God’s love which they found in contemplation.We have also sponsored a
conversation on Contemplation and Christian Ethics with a Brite Divinity School professor and
a member of our steering committee.
7In the upper level Buddhism course, we include tonglen breathing and metta
(loving kindness) meditations. For more ideas about practices, one might consult various
articles in Simmer-Brown and Grace 2011 or Bush and Barbezat 2014.
8Kumare (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kumar%C3%A9, Accessed 15 November
2016) is about an Ivy League educated Indian-American filmmaker (Vikram Gandhi)
who took on the persona of a Hindu guru and taught a group of followers in Phoenix.
They embraced Gandhi as a true spiritual teacher, to an extent which surprised and
even alarmed him, and taught him a great deal about himself as well.
9We screened Samsara (http://barakasamsara.com, Accessed 15 November2016) as
part of both a weekly global cinema program at TCU and the Sociology and
Anthropology Department’s Sustainability Film Series. Filmed over five years and in twenty-five
countries by Ron Fricke (director of photography for the 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi and
director of the 1992 film Baraka), Samsara moves vividly but wordlessly from sacred
grounds and natural wonders to disaster zones and meatpacking factories.For more on
this movie (and our initiative), see Dennis 2015.
10Doing Time, Doing Vipassana (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkxSyv5R1sg,
Accessed 15 November 2016) shows how Kiran Bedi, the former Inspector General of
Prisons in New Delhi, worked to transform the notorious Tihar Prison by teaching
inmates the traditional Buddhist meditation practice of vipassana.
11Labyrinths as occasions for calm focus and reflection have a long history, of course,
both within and beyond religious traditions (see, for example, http://labyrinthsociety.org,
Accessed 15 November 2016). For example, over Easter weekend 2014, a temporary
labyrinth was created on campus, organized and led by a professor of Anthropology, assisted
by staff from our Office of Religious and Spiritual Life and Fort Worth church community
members. The labyrinth was placed within a circular array of sculptured rocks in the
center of campus affectionately known as Froghenge. Both faculty and students shared
poignant writings about their experience walking the labyrinth, and the TCU student
newspaper, the Skiff, covered it online and in its graduation issue
(http://www.tcu360.com/campus/2014/04/32243.labyrinth-built-froghenge-help-students-find-peace-serenity.) Accessed 15 November 2016.
12These issues include how accountable members of the modern scientific
community are to the traditions from which mindfulness and yoga arose (whether to use
traditional terminology and acknowledge the roles of community and ethical behavior in
practice) or how financing and the larger socio-economic environment condition their
work (issues of class/race/gender and access/cost).
13As previously mentioned in note 1, see also Komjathy 2015.
14Prof. Dave Aftandilian in our Anthropology Department gave a paper at an
Ecomusicologies conference in Asheville, NC referencing course meditations titled
“From Hearing to Caring: The Role of Listening in Place-Based Pedagogy.” Mark
Dennis delivered a (now published) paper on our viewing and discussion of the film
Samsara mentioned above to the International Society for Religion, Literature and
Culture in Leuven, Belgium. Prof. Vanessa Miller presented a poster on “Creating CS in
the Southwest” for the 2014 International Symposium for CS (organized by the Mind
and Life Institute) in Boston.
15The syllabus can be found at
http://personal.tcu.edu/afort/Mindbodynesssyl-3.16.15.pdf Accessed 19 Nov 2016.
16In addition to leading a Mindbodyness class session, she taught my Buddhism (and
another world religion) class, led a seminar in contemplative writing for twenty five faculty
and staff, and offered a public lecture on “Tibetan Buddhism: From Fringe to Fashion.”
17https://www.ted.com/talks/john_francis_walks_the_earth. Accessed 15 November
18The latter came from anonymous online end of semester student feedback forms
(called SPOT for Student Perception of Teaching) used in all TCU courses.
19The idea of finding cues for brief respite or quiet time in daily life became a
course theme, reinforced by other visitors.
20In addition to those scholars mentioned earlier, Harold Roth has been particularly
eloquent and effective in writing about and developing such study. See, for example,
Roth 2011. Through his leadership, Brown University now has a multidisciplinary CS
initiative which considers the underlying philosophy, psychology, and phenomenology
of human contemplative experience across cultures and times through a combination
of these third person and first person approaches, both utilizing systematic
investigation and ongoing critical reflection: See
http://www.brown.edu/academics/contemplative-studies. Accessed 15 November 2016.For more resources, one can also consult the
CS page on Louis Komjathy’s website at the University of San Diego:
Accessed 15 November 2016.
21On this issue, one might consult Jorge Ferrer’s work on “participatory spirituality.”
See Ferrer (Ferrer, Jorge: Participation and the Mystery: Transpersonal Essays in
Psychology, Education, and Religion.Albany: SUNY Press, forthcoming), as well as Ferrer and
22Given the breadth of traditions, no single source could cover this matter.
However, one might consult colleagues or other specialists in specific traditions, and look at
23See the comments by the Mindbodyness course participants above. Another good
example of a course which illustrates the value of contemplative pedagogy is Haynes et
24That is, some students also look, with various degrees of urgency, for a
nonneuroscientific explanation of unusual or “mystical” experiences, such as those described
by Ehrenreich 2014.
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