July 19 2024

Contemplative Pedagogy and the Religious Studies Classroom: Editor's Introduction

by Sarah Jacoby, Northwestern University

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

The 21st-century has seen a rapid expansion of interest in contemplative pedagogy across institutions of higher education, not to mention K-12 education. Even as contemplative pedagogy can be found everywhere from courses on law to language, it has a more complex relationship with religious studies. Although the fiction of pure objectivity has receded in intellectual inquiry more broadly, many religious studies departments defend themselves from critics on all sides by presenting themselves as engaged in the “scientific study of religion” (religionswissenschaft). Promoting contemplative practice in the classroom can risk crossing the line into proselytizing, as well as into the culturally imperialist decontextualization and appropriation of others’ traditions, leaving some religious studies scholars wary of first-person approaches to learning that are based on practices associated with particular religions.

On the other hand, given that contemplative pedagogy often involves secularized versions of practices derived from religious contexts, its proponents argue that contemplative pedagogy does not conflict with the academic study of religion. On the contrary, they suggest that religious studies instructors may be the best-informed group of people to implement contemplative pedagogy techniques in our classrooms given that many of us study aspects of the social, historical, linguistic, political, literary, artistic, and philosophical contexts out of which contemplative practices have emerged.

With the complexities as well as the potentially mutually informative potential of religious studies and contemplative pedagogy in mind, we have invited a selection of religious studies teachers to share how they do, and do not, use contemplative pedagogy in their classrooms. Our contributors come from various areas of specialization within religious studies and different types of educational institutions, including public and private universities, as well as religious and secular settings. While some express hesitations about contemplative pedagogy, others are associated with leading contemplative studies centers, namely the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center, Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative, and Naropa University’s Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education. We have asked each contributor to reflect on the following set of questions (without pre-circulating submissions among contributors, to foster diverse responses):

  • What is your working definition of contemplative pedagogy?
  • What specific teaching methods/assignments/learning structures have you found to be the most effective approaches to enacting contemplative pedagogy in your religious studies classroom?
  • Would you recommend a set of “best practices” for those experimenting with contemplative pedagogies?
  • What does it mean to incorporate critical first-person approaches in your teaching? Can you provide an example of how this works in your classroom?
  • What is the relationship between contemplative pedagogy and critical thinking?
  • What is the relationship at your institution between contemplative pedagogy and religious studies as an academic discipline?
  • What are the promises and potential pitfalls of contemplative pedagogy as you understand it?
  • How do you hope to see contemplative pedagogy develop moving forward?

Candy Gunther Brown’s essay is a statement about “Why I do Not Use Contemplative Pedagogy in the Public University Classroom.” She defines contemplative pedagogy as “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.” Brown maintains the boundary between teaching “about contemplative practices” and teaching students “to perform” these practices. She questions whether the efforts many contemplative pedagogy proponents make to foreground students’ subjective experiences and a critical investigation of them in fact subtly promote culturally specific worldviews. Brown neither requires nor encourages students to perform contemplative practices in educational contexts out of respect for cultural and religious diversity, as well as the risks of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism. Even if instructors present contemplative practices in secularized forms, Brown suggests that contemplative practices often are only partly disentangled from their religious roots. She recommends that instructors experimenting with contemplative pedagogy learn the histories and contexts of the contemplative practices they teach, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of scientific evidence supporting their effects. She concludes that informed consent in school situations should involve an opt-in model and occur outside of required classroom hours. For a more comprehensive treatment of these topics, Candy Gunther Brown’s new book has just been published: Debating Yoga and Mindfulness in Public Schools (University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

Kathleen Fisher’s essay “Making Reading Relevant: Critical Thinking as Contemplative Practice” describes a pedagogy she calls “Torah Study,” because it is derived from the traditional study partnerships called havruta used in Talmudic study. By this, she means a slow, careful line-by-line reading that students do in pairs including reading text sections aloud to each other, pausing, and considering different interpretations. Fisher finds that this approach helps students “to drink deeply” from books, breaking down their antipathy toward reading ancient works, and making these readings more relevant to them. Fisher cautions against drawing an opposition between critical thinking and contemplative techniques to reading, such as her version of Torah Study. For Fisher, reading “critically” is developing the same faculties cultivated by contemplative practices, such as focus, attention to detail, and openness to multiple possibilities. Fisher notes that because Torah Study is rooted in a specific faith community, those who teach outside of theological contexts and/or at public institutions would need to secularize the religious pedigree of this reading technique. She reflects about the ethics of being an outsider to Judaism using this technique in her Catholic-college context, but ultimately decides that “this method of close reading does more good than harm” to her students because it combines critical analysis with meaning and self-knowledge.

Daniel Hirshberg applies contemplative pedagogy to a topic that few college teachers haven’t despaired about: the compelling nature of smartphones. In “Contemplating the Smartphone Dis/Connect,” Hirshberg avers that “few among us, regardless of when we were born, have more deliberately explored the maladaptive behaviors of our technology usage, nor consistently applied alternatives to remedy them.” He seeks to do just this by introducing a “Smartphone Dis/Connect: FOMO” exercise in his classroom, one that he graciously shares with us in full, so you can try it in your class (I’m eager to try it!). Hirshberg calls attention to the high valuation in contemplative pedagogy on “first-person content and discourse: students explore their own subjective experience as a legitimate object of critical inquiry.” In his treatment, contemplative pedagogy also involves second-person approaches to learning, meaning those that emphasize dialogical interaction between students, which he suggests is becoming more essential in this era of “technological disconnection.” His exercise focuses in particular on the anxiety our smartphones produce within us by fostering a collective-contemplation experience in which participants sit in meditation and observe their thoughts a) while their smartphones are off and b) with their smartphones on and all alerts set a full volume, but out of reach. Students and instructor then share their experiences with each other, and they brainstorm together about skillful and deliberate ways to use smartphones.

Karolyn Kinane’s “Critical, Creative, Contemplative” makes a case that the purpose of education is more than inculcating critical-thinking skills; it is about helping students flourish by building their senses of agency and resiliency. She brings this insight into her role as associate director for faculty engagement and pedagogy at the University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center. In Kinane’s words, contemplative pedagogy uses practices to attend to the inner-world of students in order to augment their capacities to “notice existing cognitive, affective, and somatic habits; bring critical reflection to bear upon them; move toward course material, fellow students, and our larger communities with the awareness that arises from practice.” Kinane suggests that contemplative practices such as deep listening, journaling, and meditation can serve as “first-person critical approaches” to learning. She takes us through a four-part “contemplative reading” practice that she uses in her senior seminar “Mysticism and Contemplation,” including 1) noticing their responses to the reading, 2) pausing and exploring those responses, 3) returning to the text to critically examine it, and 4) reflecting on what the text has to teach about its topic. The strength of her approach is built upon its combination of both critical and contemplative-reading strategies, which she views as complementary, involving on the one hand dissecting and analyzing texts, and on the other hand the pursuit of connection, communion, and understanding. Kinane brings a clear-eyed view of both the riches of contemplative pedagogy for religious studies, given its subject matter of “centuries of wisdom on what it means to be human,” as well as the risks, such as the concern that contemplative pedagogy is a covert form of proselytizing, and one that is rife with cultural appropriation. Nevertheless, she puts forth a powerful argument that contemplative pedagogy enhances what higher education should be about: advancing human flourishing.

Anne Carolyn Klein’s “Simplicity: Portals to the Contemplative” is informed by her dual roles as professor of religion at Rice University and founding director of Dawn Mountain Center for Tibetan Buddhism. Klein notes the complex relationship between academic inquiry and religion, but she draws on her extensive research and contemplative practice in Tibetan Buddhist studies to demonstrate the value of pursuing different ways of knowing—including the intellect—but not reducing the pursuit of knowledge to intellectual inquiry alone. In Klein’s words, “I believe this clarification of skills not accounted for in our appreciation of intellectual discernment is the most important element to emphasize in a general contemplative studies orientation.” The aim of a contemplative orientation is “being in touch with what is going on in your own mind and body at a particular moment” instead of identifying completely with the story or judgment occurring internally. Instead of moving without notice from “how it feels to what I think,” Klein invites us to probe the nuances of our felt experience, refusing the habit to dismiss this exploration and get lost in the “what” of our mind’s contents. She shares with us small exercises and more traditional meditations that she has found useful to bring students fully into their experiences in the classroom and beyond.

Harold Roth’s essay emerges out of his experience developing an innovative undergraduate major in contemplative studies at Brown University, which began in 2014. In his view, contemplative studies shares religious studies’ focus on the historical, philosophical, and cultural backgrounds of the sources studied, but adds to that a particular focus on sources’ contemplative dimensions. In his initiative, students can engage in this contemplative dimension from a humanities-focused angle or a scientific angle, including neuroscience and cognitive science. Roth defines contemplation 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.” His “Integrative Contemplative Pedagogy” merges a “critical first-person approach” involving actually practicing a particular contemplation in the classroom with third-person “‘objective,’ at-a-distance perspectives” that seek to analyze and contextualize the contemplative practice. Roth acknowledges the concern that many religious studies instructors feel about contemplative pedagogy bordering on proselytizing, but he insists that the “critical spirit and empirical nature” with which students practice contemplation mitigates against it being an attempt to indoctrinate students into the contemplative traditions they try out in his classes. In his words, teaching contemplative practices does not conflict with being in a secular university context because “the need to believe is removed.” To argue for the value of contemplative pedagogy, he invokes the call by William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890) that “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.”

Michael Sheehy’s “Teaching Contemplation in 3D” directs us to conceive of contemplation as participating “in critical and creative thinking about the primacy of subjectivity.” Sheehy associates religious studies with “the modern theoretical project of objectifying the world of experience,” at the expense of subjective experience. He seeks to turn this value system on its head, privileging first-person forms of inquiry that “enable students to gain an observable distance from their own internal experiences and investigate previously unexamined assumptions and potential biases.” Particularly noteworthy is Sheehy’s clarification that contemplation is not only an interior-oriented attentiveness, but rather is also pro-social, intersubjective, and dialogical. Sheehy categorizes contemplation as “a performative range that cultivates cognitive, affective, and somatic experiences.” He outlines three dimensions to contemplative pedagogy, including reflection, contextualization, and transformation, while giving examples of how instructors can operationalize these dimensions in contemplation-oriented classrooms.

Judith Simmer-Brown brings her many years of contemplative-education experience at Naropa University to bear in “Reading with a Fresh Mind: Contemplative Reading Exercise.” Simmer-Brown generously offers us a twelve-part description of how to perform a contemplative reading of a text, which includes enough detail that we can try out her method. Simmer-Brown explains that “what distinguishes contemplative education from just ‘good teaching’ is the strategic focus on the development of ‘first-person inquiry,’ that brings personal experience and inner wisdom into the learning process.” She articulates contemplative education as “a disciplined process of returning the attention to the passage of text, dropping immediate notions of what is meant.” This is more than navel gazing; it is cultivating in students a “cognizance of their most deeply held opinions, habits, and views that contrast with their present-moment wisdom.” Simmer-Brown argues that first-person inquiry is not a stand-alone approach, but rather should be integrated with more dialogical second-person forms of inquiry, and also with the third-person inquiry that is “the bread and butter of university pedagogy.” By emphasizing first-person inquiry, Simmer-Brown seeks to correct what she views as an overemphasis in religious studies on “objective” conceptual analysis in an effort to distinguish the academic study of religion from confessional religious practice. Simmer-Brown points out the irony that students often seek mindfulness training far away from the religious studies scholars who may be better equipped to provide relevant historical and cultural contextualization for these practices. She seeks to re-join contemplative techniques with the study of religion, among other academic pursuits, in an effort to “cultivate a dynamic, non-consumer relationship with what we read,” and thereby to make education transformative.

Contemplative studies is a dynamic and burgeoning field across the university, and it has the potential to significantly impact how we teach religious studies as well as how we conceptualize its disciplinary boundaries. The contributors to this issue give us a taste of the teaching methods and rationales associated with contemplative pedagogy, as well as the broader dilemmas that arise when bringing contemplative pedagogy to religious studies.


Komjathy, Louis. Introducing Contemplative Studies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2018.

Sarah JacobySarah Jacoby an associate professor in the religious studies department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She specializes in Tibetan Buddhist studies, with research interests in gender and sexuality, the history of emotions, Tibetan literature, religious auto/biography, Buddhist revelation (gter ma), the history of eastern Tibet, and scholarship of teaching and learning. She is the author of Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Columbia University Press, 2014), coauthor of Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience (Oxford University Press, 2014), and co-editor of Buddhism Beyond the Monastery: Tantric Practices and their Performers in Tibet and the Himalayas (Brill, 2009). She teaches courses on Buddhism, gender and sexuality studies, and theory and method in the study of religion. She has just completed her six-year term as cochair of the American Academy of Religion’s Tibetan and Himalayan Religions Program Unit, and continues to serve as a member of the AAR’s Committee on Teaching and Learning.