July 18 2019

Why I Do Not Use Contemplative Pedagogy in the Public University Classroom

by Candy Gunther Brown, Indiana University

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

Contemplative pedagogy is a broad field. When I use the term, I am thinking particularly of approaches to teaching and learning that encourage participation in “critical first-person,” “experiential,” “introspective” exercises, many of which are derived from religious or spiritual traditions, though they are sometimes reframed as secular.

I teach in a religious studies department at a public university that serves students from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds. I regularly teach students about contemplative practices—including mindfulness meditation and yoga as well as prayer and devotional Bible reading—but I do not ask students to perform religious or “secularized” versions of any of these practices.

This essay articulates ethical and legal reasons for preserving the distinction between teaching about and encouraging performance of contemplative practices.

What I Do and Do Not Teach Concerning Contemplative Practices

I share with advocates of contemplative pedagogy a passion for equipping students to do more than passively absorb new information. I want to empower students to become more active learners who demonstrate skills in reading closely, thinking critically, forging connections with personal experiences and values while communicating respect for those with divergent perspectives, conceptualizing and supporting arguments with well-selected evidence and careful analysis, and creatively applying classroom learning to life in their inner and outer worlds.

There are many ways to achieve such learning outcomes. For example, I model close reading of short sections of text, facilitate open-ended discussions, invite students to share cultural artifacts that reflect their personal interests, make it safe to experiment with creative modes of expression, and stage writing assignments to maximize opportunities for reflection and revision.

Many proponents of contemplative pedagogy seek to foreground the student’s subjective experiences, perspectives, and values, and to foster critical investigation of the student’s own interpretive tendencies. Instructors may, however, overestimate the possibility of gaining direct, unmediated access to experience. Contemplative experience is always subject to interpretation, and interpretations are framed by worldviews. Perceptions emerge through interplay of sensory stimuli and suggested interpretations of experience. Instructors influence what students notice and how they do so: by means of such simple instructions as to focus on the sound of one’s breath without judgment. Even the “present moment” is an elusive ideal that presumes that one’s own body and breath should be the center of attention; here and now are the place and time that should be the object of focus; awareness should be nonjudgmental; one should accept both negative and positive experiences without striving for something else; and one should cultivate virtues such as empathy, compassion, kindness, optimism, and happiness. Exhortations to “wake up” and “see things as they are” gloss cultural constructs and favor one set of lenses with which to view and interpret reality (e.g., conceptualized in terms of suffering, no-self, impermanence, nonduality, and interconnection) over another. Believing that one has an unclouded view of reality can justify upholding one culturally particular worldview as superior to others.

I teach university students about mindfulness (among other contemplative practices) in two of my regular course offerings: an introduction to religion in America and an intensive writing research seminar on religion, illness, and healing. In neither course do I encourage or discourage students from engaging in mindfulness exercises. Rather, I use a variety of reading and writing assignments, training in ethnographic and library research, audiovisual resources, and lecture and discussion activities that are designed to provide information, engage interest, and move students from their starting assumptions to a deeper level of knowledge, understanding, and analysis.

My introductory course enrolls between fifty and ninety students. I begin our discussion of mindfulness by asking students to express, on a Likert scale, degree of dis/agreement with two statements: “When I think of ‘mindfulness’ I think of ‘stress reduction,’ ” and “When I think of ‘mindfulness’ I think of ‘Buddhism.’” These questions typically elicit a lively discussion. Predictably, several students volunteer anecdotes about how they have benefited personally from mindfulness programs. Those students who speak up (and quite a number of them do) generally associate mindfulness with stress-reduction—but not with Buddhism.

After a period of freely flowing discussion, students are intrigued to learn about the influence of Buddhist canonical texts such as the Satipatṭhāna Sutta (The Discourse on the Establishing of Mindfulness) in shaping American concepts of mindfulness, and that “right mindfulness” (Pāli sammā sati) comprises the seventh aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path to liberation from dukkha (which can be translated as suffering or as stress), the fourth of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. Students are surprised to discover the Buddhist credentials of influential promoters of “secular mindfulness”—which some promoters describe as “skillful means” for mainstreaming the dharma or as “stealth Buddhism.” Close examination of clinical research reveals gaps between study results and marketing claims, weaknesses in study quality, reports of challenging and/or adverse experiences, and unexpected correlations between participation in secular mindfulness and changes in spiritual experiences and religious affiliations. Comparison of Buddhist and Christian understandings of compassion raises questions about the “universality” of “secular ethics.” When students observe videotaped loving-kindness (mettā) exercises, they note visual and verbal parallels to prayer, and they reflect on how race and gender function in promotional materials. Considering controversies over public-school mindfulness helps students understand why certain people might resist mandatory mindfulness as a violation of conscience or feel pressured by teachers or peers to participate even if opting-out is permitted.

Why I Draw the Lines Where I Do

There are, in my opinion, ethical and legal reasons to abstain from encouraging—and certainly from requiring—students to perform contemplative practices, even if “secularized.” My ethical concerns center on respect for cultural and religious diversity as well as informed consent.

Many of the contemplative practices that are commonly employed in educational contexts—such as mindfulness and yoga (or lectio divina and labyrinth walking)—have historical and ongoing associations with religion. Regardless of whether these practices can be disentangled from religion, empirical correlations between participation in nominally secular versions and religious and spiritual experiences suggest an incomplete separation. Even if an instructor has purely pedagogical rather than religious motives for introducing what she is convinced is a fully secular practice, students may still feel uncomfortable for religious reasons. Some may envision participation as disobedience to the most sacred commandments of their religion: for instance, by bowing to the sun god, Surya, in Sun Salutations (Sūrya Namaskāra), or meditating on the creature versus the Creator of body, breath, and everything else.

Reframing religiously derived practices as secular or secularized impedes the transparency and voluntarism that are essential to informed consent. If more instructors provided students with in-depth information about the historical and ongoing associations of practices with religion and the potential for nominally secular versions to produce religious effects—before encouraging students to try the practices—a higher percentage of students might raise religious objections. Although university students are somewhat less vulnerable to indoctrination than younger students, the context of higher education exerts subtle, or not-so-subtle, coercive pressures of its own—since students need excellent grades and strong recommendation letters. Even students who “opt-in” in the sense of choosing to enroll in an elective course based on the course description or syllabus may not have enough of an understanding of the contemplative practices taught to make a genuinely informed decision. Some may discover too late (i.e., after the add/drop deadline) that a requirement—or at least encouragement—of the course takes them into territory with which they do not feel comfortable for reasons of religion and/or conscience.

Promotion of secularized practices also risks cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism. Certain of the foremost promoters of secularized practices are wealthy, non-Hispanic whites who pick and choose which elements to take and adapt from Asian traditions—sometimes denigrating the remainder as cultural and religious “baggage.” Research studies and marketing videos often feature low-income, so-called inner-city African American and Latino males who are portrayed as having more difficulty “self-regulating.” This narrative fails to address structural causes of racism or poverty and overlooks the cultural resources and resiliency of targeted groups—who are, statistically, more religiously active and predominantly Christian than the missionaries for “universal” practices that actually privilege white, middle-class ideals.

Universalist rhetoric foregrounds perspectives of those who select and teach their own favored contemplative practices as valuable for everyone. This universalism is religious in the sense of claiming special insight into causes and remedies for ultimate problems: diagnosing what is wrong with the world and prescribing how it can be righted. Other worldviews imply competing diagnoses and prescriptions: for example, urging remembrance of a better past and hope for a better future, thereby inspiring passionate, sacrificial struggle to transform the present world. Being convinced of the benefits of contemplative practices—based on personal experiences and scientific studies—can lead to inadvertent conflation of religious with universal ideals. Particular practices may appear to be self-evidently good and their underlying assumptions obviously true—rather than culturally conditioned and potentially conflicting with other worldviews.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects free exercise of religion and against establishment of religion. The Supreme Court, (most notably in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 1963), has distinguished between teaching about religion and encouraging students to perform religious practices. The former is constitutionally permissible; the latter is not—even if students are allowed to “opt-out” of participating—since coercion can be subtle.

United States courts have for decades prohibited public schools from encouraging even voluntary, nonsectarian prayer and Bible reading. Courts have only begun to examine contemplative practices rooted in religious traditions other than Christianity—finding, for instance, in Malnak v. Yogi (1979) that Transcendental Meditation violates the establishment clause. My experience serving as an expert on religion in four recent legal challenges (over Ashtanga yoga, Superbrain yoga, Waldorf Methods, and mindfulness meditation) leads me to expect that courts will give heightened scrutiny to more such practices in the years ahead.

Recommendation: An Opt-In Model of Informed Consent

Teaching students about contemplative practices is ethically and legally unproblematic and can be pedagogically valuable. However, encouraging students to try contemplative exercises, even if nominally secular and/or employed for purely pedagogical purposes, raises difficult questions.

As I explain elsewhere, subtracting religious language, symbols, and gestures and/or adding scientific framing may not go far enough to secularize practices that are premised upon metaphysical, contested assumptions, values, and worldviews.1 Secularization may be construed not as subtraction and addition but as radically rebuilding from foundations that make explicit and interrogate—thereby enhancing agency to act without being controlled by—assumptions about self and world. I thus operationalize secularization as transparency and voluntarism.

Rather than seek to ban all contemplative practice from educational contexts, I recommend an opt-in model of informed consent. My goal is to respect cultural and religious diversity by upholding the values of transparency and voluntarism. There is a higher barrier to participation in opt-in (active consent) than opt-out (passive consent) programs. This may be frustrating to instructors who want to maximize participation and distribution of benefits. Automatically including students unless they make an active decision to opt-out plays on human inertia, herd instincts, respect for authority, and peer pressure. It takes thought, time, and effort to make an active decision to opt-in or -out. For these reasons, opt-in programs better facilitate informed consent. Although one-on-one informed consent interviews are resource intensive, they are more effective than literature distribution for ensuring that individuals (in the case of minors, both children and parents) understand whether practices may or may not be appropriate for them, given their personal backgrounds, circumstances, beliefs, values, and goals.

My suggestion to instructors interested in contemplative practices is to first learn as much as they can about specific traditions. If they like what they learn, then there is no reason that they cannot engage in the practices themselves. Public-school instructors (from kindergarten through university levels) can teach their students about the histories and contexts of contemplative traditions, as well as provide information about strengths and weaknesses of scientific evidence concerning risks, benefits, contraindications, and alternatives—without either encouraging or discouraging students to try the practices for themselves. If contemplative pedagogy is employed in public-school contexts, I urge that it be done during noninstructional hours on a voluntary, opt-in basis, following one-on-one informed consent protocols. Instructors at private institutions have more legal latitude, but there are still ethical reasons to facilitate informed consent.

By distinguishing between teaching about and encouraging performance of contemplative practice, pedagogical goals can be achieved without violating ethical or legal standards.

1 Candy Gunther Brown, Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).



“Does Mindfulness Belong in Public Schools?” Two views by Candy Gunther Brown, “NO—with its roots in religious tradition, teaching mindfulness in public schools violates the separation of church and state,” and Saki Santorelli, “YES—mindfulness is a secular practice that benefits students,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Spring 2016): 64–65.

Fisher, Kathleen M. “Look Before You Leap: Reconsidering Contemplative Pedagogy.” Teaching Theology and Religion 20, no. 1 (2017): 4–21.

Fort, Andrew O., and Louis Komjathy, “Response to Kathleen Fisher’s ‘Look Before You Leap’.” Teaching Theology and Religion 20.1 (2017): 22–27.

Huss, Damon, ed. “Why is Mindfulness an Issue for Public Schools?” Two views by Patricia Jennings, “Mindfulness-Based Programs and the American Public School System: Recommendations for Best Practices to Ensure Secularity,” and Candy Gunther Brown, “Are ‘Secular’ Mindfulness-Based Programs in Public Schools Religion-Neutral?” The California Three Rs Project Bulletin 13 nos. 3–4 (2016): 1–12.

Candy Gunther Brown is professor of religious studies at Indiana University. Brown is the author of The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789–1880 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (Harvard University Press, 2012); The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America (Oxford University Press, 2013); and Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools: Reforming Secular Education or Reestablishing Religion? (University of North Carolina Press, 2019). She is the editor of Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing (Oxford University Press, 2011), and co-editor (with Mark Silk) of The Future of Evangelicalism in America (Columbia University Press, 2016). Brown teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on religion, illness, and healing; religion in the Americas; global Christianities; Evangelical America; and superheroes.