July 18 2019

Contemplative Pedagogy

by Harold D. Roth, Brown University

a small tower of rocks built on an enbankment in front of a forest

I understand “contemplative pedagogy” within the practical and philosophical contexts we have developed at Brown in our novel undergraduate concentration (major) in contemplative studies, which began in 2014 and has graduated twenty-seven students. Nonetheless, even if you don’t have a program like that at your home institution, we think the methods we have developed are broadly applicable. I will begin by setting up our context.

Let me begin by contrasting contemplative studies as an academic field from religious studies. In our field we do the same kind of careful scholarly research on the historical, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds of the sources we study (texts, archaeological evidence, etc.), but we focus on the contemplative dimensions within them. We bring these dimensions into dialogue with the most rigorous scientific studies of the effects of contemplative practices that have been completed during the last four decades. This research has occurred mainly in the brain sciences and in a variety of clinical applications often derived from various forms of “mindfulness” techniques. The most widely accepted of these methods is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.”

Students concentrating in contemplative studies can focus on one of two tracks: the humanities (especially philosophy of mind and contemplative religious traditions) and the sciences (especially neuroscience and cognitive science). Students who focus in one of these tracks are required to develop critical competence in the other. We bookend their study with a required methods course, “Introduction to Contemplative Studies,” and a required Senior Concentrators Seminar. The introductory seminar presents the theoretical foundations for the field, such as Alan Wallace’s The Taboo of Subjectivity and Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch’s critique of cognitive science, The Embodied Mind, as well as introduces methods for critical first-person study of contemplative practices. The purpose of this concentrators seminar is to bring students from our various tracks, who have taken a broad array of courses in the sciences and humanities, together to focus on developing a clearer understanding of the field and its contemporary issues.

Foundational to our attempts to define this field of study is the following definition of “contemplation.” We see it as the focusing of attention in a sustained fashion leading to: deepened states of concentration, tranquility, and insight; a broadening of the awareness; and eventually to self-contextualizing experiences that are the basis of other-regarding virtues such as empathy, compassion, and love which provide a crucial foundation for social engagement.

In addition, contemplation occurs on a spectrum: from the rather common spontaneous experiences of absorption in an activity which have been explored in the scientific research generated around psychologist Mihalyi Csíkszentmihalyi’s concept of the state of optimal experience he called “flow” to the most profound experiences deliberately cultivated in religious traditions.

Teaching Strategy

How this works out in the classroom is that we have developed what we call an “integrative contemplative pedagogy” that focuses on a “critical first-person approach” to the study of contemplative sources. What’s “critical” about it is that we actually try out contemplative practices in the classroom that are directly related to particular sources we are studying, while also exploring this source from the third-person, “objective,” at-a-distance perspectives that are common in the humanities and the sciences. In other words, we teach students the same practices they might encounter in a spiritual practice center, but we teach them the cognitive frameworks in which these practices are embedded from a third-person critical perspective, and we urge students to empirically study these practices without any prior commitment to their efficacy as might be expected or enforced in a devoted spiritual center. Doing this adds an important experiential element to their study of these sources that there is no other way to obtain.

For example, when we study a normative Buddhist text like the Anapannasati sutta (On the Mindfulness of Breathing), we study the history and philosophy of the early Buddhist canon, we try out the practices detailed in the text of mindfully attending to inhalation and exhalation while sitting still, and we look at a relevant scientific article that explores mindfulness meditation. We understand what the tradition claims will be the results of such practices and we approach those claims from a critical position that includes these third-person perspectives as well as the first-person perspective of trying out the practice itself. We also discuss how practicing in a secular context differs from practicing in a spiritual context.

We pursue third-person study through reading a variety of sources including the contemplative texts in translation and secondary works that provide their philosophical and historical contexts. We pursue critical first-person study of the contemplative practices that are discussed or that underlie these practices in “meditation labs” that are a distinct part of each course. Usually our courses meet from two-and-a-half to three hours each week; the “Medlabs” have exactly the same time devoted to them.

Probably the greatest concern about this methodological approach is the appearance to colleagues in religious studies of uncritically proselytizing for a particular religion. To protect against this perception as much as possible, it is crucial that the course include a clear and unequivocal affirmation of its critical spirit and empirical nature. Such a statement should emphasize that although students are learning a contemplative practice and the cognitive framework in which this practice is embedded, they are never asked to believe in the veridicality of those cognitive frameworks. This is essential to the use of first-person methodologies in a secular university.

This is an example of the statement of our empirical approach to studying contemplative traditions I have used in many courses:

The point of the meditation laboratory is not to convert anyone to any of the contemplative traditions we are studying in this course: I never require that you believe in anything, Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, Daoist, or otherwise. All I ask is that you approach the experience with an open mind and simply observe what is happening while you are meditating.

The modern Western academy is dominated by what we might call “third-person” learning. We observe, analyze, record, discuss a whole variety of subjects at a distance, as something “out there,” as if they were solely objects and our own subjectivity that is viewing them doesn’t exist. Certainly there are exceptions to this: in public speaking, in studio art, theatre, and sometimes in music, environmental studies and other disciplines, students combine academic study with direct first-hand experience of what they are studying. But in general, in the humanities we tend to value “third-person” learning at the expense of all other forms. Despite this, I have found that when students are called upon, for example, to reflect on what a haiku poem means to them, or to actually try to write one, they gain a greater understanding than if they simply read and critique them. And when students are challenged to apply Confucian ethical theories to observe patterns of social interaction in their own lives, they gain a much greater appreciation of what it means to be truly humane from a Confucian perspective.

This course is an example of what we call “critical first-person learning.” I say “critical” because in many forms of first-person learning in the contexts of a religious tradition, one must suspend critical judgment and believe in the various truths of the tradition. There is an important place for this form of “committed” first-person learning in our private lives, but we should be careful to not require that kind of commitment in a secular university.

By contrast, in the “critical first-person learning” about contemplative practices and their cognitive frameworks we do in this course, the need to believe is removed. We will read and analyze a variety of texts on meditation (“third-person learning”); we will observe how our minds and bodies work while trying out a variety of simple meditation techniques derived from these texts (“first-person learning”); and we will critically discuss these texts in light of our experiences in the “Meditation Laboratory.” You will also be asked to keep a note-card journal on which you will record brief comments or observations at the end of every lab session.

The Meditations Labs are an important element in this dual aspect pedagogy, However if, for health or other reasons there is a student who is unable to participate in the Meditation Laboratory, I will be happy to make arrangements for doing alternate work of equivalent value.

The recommended readings in the course constituted the “alternative work of equivalent value.” I have been teaching courses with these meditation labs for nineteen years and have taught well over a thousand students. Only two have ever taken me up on this option.

Conclusions and Extensions

There are readily observable benefits from this pedagogy. When students get to try out contemplative practices that are directly related to the texts they are studying they gain a much deeper understanding of the texts and the traditions that produced them. This is nothing more than an application of this famous educational principle of John Dewey:

…education, in order to accomplish its ends both for the individual learner and for society, must be based upon experience—which is always the life experience of some individual…There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction…1

In addition there is a second important benefit from this contemplative pedagogy: students learn a basic approach to the first-hand experience of contemplative practice that often stays with them long after they complete the course. In the famous words of William James:

…the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will…An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence… 2

Over the almost two decades I have taught such courses, many graduates have written me back that they are still using contemplative methods they learned in one of our Medlab courses.

We are fortunate at Brown to have had the range of faculty in the sciences, humanities, and arts to institute a full academic concentration in contemplative studies. But there does not need to be such a program for faculty to build their own courses using these basic principles and practices. Ideally it is very helpful if an instructor has had some extensive training in one or more contemplative traditions. This helps if one wishes to lead the critical first-person practices on one’s own. However, if one doesn’t have the expertise to lead Medlabs oneself, then one can make use of contemplative practitioners from the surrounding community. Colleagues at a number of institutions have done this to great success.

Potential pitfalls of contemplative pedagogy include approaching it without a clear definition of “contemplation” and without the proper critical apparatus. Just adding a meditation practice to a course without understanding its cultural context and how colleagues and administrators might perceive this is a recipe for trouble. I think it also helps to have a basic knowledge of the relevant scientific literature on the effects of contemplative practices, especially when it comes to university administrators who might be concerned about justification for doing this. Another problem is establishing qualifications for classroom teaching. If you are going to teach some contemplative practices yourself, then what kind of training is necessary? Is it enough to read a book about practice or to attend a two-day workshop? What does this qualify you to do? We have outlined an approach to this in materials that can be found in the “contemplative program development” section of the Brown contemplative studies website, which contains materials from our program at Brown as well as from programs and courses that have been developed at a number of other academic institutions. These emerged from a “think tank” on contemplative program-building in September 2017 that was funded by the Mind and Life Institute. Other helpful materials as well as videos of some of the over 200 lectures, workshops, and concerts we have organized over the past fourteen years at Brown can also be found here: https://www.brown.edu/academics/contemplative-studies/.

1 John Dewey, Education and Experience (New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi, 1938), 89–90.

2 William James, The Principles of Psychology (New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1890), 463.


Grace, Frances and Judith Simmer-Brown, eds., Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2011.

Gunnlaugson, Olen, Edward W. Sarath, Charles Scott, and Heesoon Bai. Contemplative Learning and Inquiry across Disciplines. Syracuse, New York: SUNY Press, 2014.

Komjathy, Louis. Contemplative Literature. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2015.

———. Introducing Contemplative Studies. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Blackwell, 2018.

Roth, Harold D. “A Pedagogy for the New Field of Contemplative Studies.” In Contemplative Approaches to Learning and Inquiry across Disciplines, eds. Olen Gunnlaugson et al. (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2014), 97–118.

———. “Against Cognitive Imperialism: A Call for a Non-Ethnocentric Approach to Cognitive Science and Religious Studies.” Religion East and West 8 (October 2008): 1–26.

———. “Contemplative Studies: Can It Flourish in the Religious Studies Classroom?” In Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies, eds. Frances Grace and Judith Simmer-Brown (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2011), 23–38.

———. “Four Approaches to the Study of the Laozi.” In Teaching the Daodejing, eds. Gary DeAngelis and Warren Frisina (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 14–45. Oxford University Press.

———. “Contemplative Studies: Prospects for a New Field”. Columbia Teacher’s College Record Special Issue on Contemplative Education 108, no.9 (September 2006): 1787–1816.

Harold D. RothHarold D. Roth is professor of religious studies and founding director of the contemplative studies initiative at Brown University. He is a specialist in Chinese philosophy and textual analysis, the classical Daoist tradition, the comparative study of contemplative experiences, and a pioneer of the academic field of contemplative studies, in which he created the first undergraduate concentration at a major research university in North America. He has published six books and more than fifty scholarly articles in these areas including Original Tao (Columbia University press, 1999), a translation and analysis of the oldest text on breath meditation in China, and “Against Cognitive Imperialism: A Call for a Non-Ethnocentric Approach to Cognitive Science and Religious Studies” (Religion East and West, issue 8, 2008), a critique of conceptual bias in cognitive sciences and religious studies. He has been the recipient of grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and the Mind and Life Institute.