July 19 2024

Teaching Contemplation in 3D

by Michael Sheehy, University of Virginia

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

Contemplation is a dense term with a diverse range of meanings that have shifted semantically across different times, cultures, and languages. For instance, the terms “contemplation” and “meditation,” from early Christianity up through Early Modern European usage, have ironically evolved to mean the opposite of what they mean in contemporary English parlance. Contemplation now typically has the connotation of cognitively engaging a topic, thinking it over; meditation has come to mean a quiescent concentration. In the classroom, and across contemporary secular settings, the term “contemplation” has been adapted and expanded to include a broader scope of meaning.

To take contemplation seriously, both teachers and students are invited to co-participate in critical and creative thinking about the primacy of subjectivity. For many religious studies scholars, taking subjectivity to be an object of serious inquiry invokes reticence towards an apologetic stance. As religious studies scholars, we are trained in certain disciplinary structures and methods that have historically informed the ways that we produce knowledge, and these ways deter us from taking subjectivity seriously. The field of religious studies has historically inherited structures and methods from the modern theoretical project of objectifying the world of experience, and it applied these to the study of religious phenomena. This paradigm presents objective knowledge as if it exists outside a given lived world, divorced from subjective experience. The problem is that this entire project of objective knowledge production takes place within the world of experience.

Contemplative pedagogies employ first-person inquiry, a methodology that valorizes the world of experience in both research and teaching. The value of first-person inquiry, and the critical subjectivity that it ensues, is that this it enables students to gain an observable distance from their own internal experiences and to investigate previously unexamined assumptions and potential biases. First-person inquiry has increasingly become relevant not only in the basic and social sciences, but also in religious studies, and it is a cornerstone to contemplative studies.

I have come to think about contemplation not merely in the narrow sense of a prescribed set of practices, though the application of specific techniques to acquire intentional outcomes is critical, but rather as a performative range that cultivates cognitive, affective, and somatic experiences. These contemplative experiences correlate to sets or families of contemplative practices, including practices that are characteristically analytical, attentional, constructive or deconstructive, imaginative, or kinetic. Contemplation is not meant to be a static or uniform practice, but rather a set of flexible processes to be pedagogically employed. Depending on lesson, time, and setting, students may be receptive to different types of practices, and are affected variably. There are however pedagogically constructive frames in which to scaffold contemplative processes. The following is a summary of my current thinking about the scope of contemplation and its pedagogical efficacies in classroom settings.

Contemplation in 3D

In thinking about how to define contemplation in higher education, I suggest framing contemplation and its extensive practices within a heuristic that has three dimensions: (1) reflection, (2) contextualization, and (3) transformation.


As the first dimension of contemplation, practices of reflection bring awareness to thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, or probe the meaning of a specific topic of inquiry in relationship to the self. These reflective processes activate the operations of mind that facilitate observation and learning about the self. Most basically, practices of reflection emphasize oscillations between the operations of attention, meta-awareness, and mindfulness. This includes practices that cultivate a selective attention by directing awareness to a chosen intellectual topic or query, thought, emotion, or sensation. Practices that cultivate meta-awareness observe the ongoing processes and fluctuations of one’s own bodily and mental movements. The operation of meta-awareness functions in a twofold capacity to both (a) monitor the body and awareness by consciously scanning and detecting experiences, and (b) be reflexive as spontaneous self-awareness. Mindfulness practices are cultivated and applied to intentionally notice what occupies your attention and to recurrently bring your attention back to the topic of contemplation. These three operations work synchronously to practice reflection by bringing attentional balance to a chosen topic of inquiry, monitoring via meta-awareness the experiential contents of consciousness in connection to that topic, and intentionally recalling the topic of inquiry when the mind wanders or becomes distracted.

Pedagogical practices of reflection engage students’ attention on a topic or inquiry, and have them sustain their attention on this inquiry through supportive practices. An example of this family of practices is to:

  1. Choose a topic in the form of a question;
  2. Analyze and investigate the significance of that question by noticing what thoughts or sensations emerge in response;
  3. Stabilize the mind and body in stillness for a duration of five to ten minutes, so as to be attentive to that response;
  4. Repeat this session in a recurrent manner during two to three classes, and after each session, have the students write down the ideas that emerged from sitting with the inquiry;
  5. After the final session, pair students in dyads to practice deep listening in a structured dialogue or facilitate a phenomenological interview about the inquiry, and their response;
  6. Ask the students to discuss how their response to the inquiry could be integrated, or at least its current iteration, into their own thinking and behavior.


The second dimension of contemplation is practices of contextualization. This dimension involves (a) practices that notice and bring attention to the context in which the self is situated in relationship to other social or environmental variables; (b) practices that contextualize the self within a given context, whether it be social, cultural, environmental, global, cosmological, or some other factor; and (c) using communal, environmental, cosmological contexts, and so forth, as starting points for practice. This dimension of contemplation, as well as its pedagogical efficacies, recognizes that contemplation is a family of cultural practices, and that these practices have ethical and social consequences.

Practices of contextualization challenge the current normative discourse that suggests contemplative practice, particularly mindfulness, is a priori the cultivation of private mental states. This family of contextualization practices is a dynamic nexus that includes the cultivation of cognitive and emotional skills, development of behaviors and bodily movements, antidotal applications to symptoms, and situatedness within social contexts. These practices work to develop the variegated competencies of a practitioner so to more fully familiarize the self within the contexts in which they are embedded and integrate the skills necessary for being responsive to those contexts. This includes practices that monitor the positionality of the self at its social and political intersections of race, ethnicity, class, sex, gender, and ability. By identifying the self in context, and iteratively contextualizing the self, these practices accentuate the ethical consequences of contemplation. Contextualization intentionally cultivates pro-social practices, including empathic responsiveness, compassion, resilience, etc., that orient the self to develop connections to the environs and persons in their world. In this way, this family of practices is enhanced by second-person perspectives that are intersubjective, dialogic, and dyadic, as well as third-person perspectives that inform the self about the contextual landscapes in which they practice.

Pedagogical practices of contextualization engage students in thinking about how they are situated in social relationships and environments, how these contexts affect them, and what they can do to reorient themselves in specific contexts. An example of this family of practices is to:

  1. Invite students to imagine themselves in their immediate classroom environment, detailing features of the room (including the walls, furniture, fellow students, etc.);
  2. Gradually zoom-out to imagine the campus grounds, the town or city in which they are in, the state, continent, planet—detailing features of each broader context—zooming all the way out to the cosmos;
  3. After a pause and reflection on their situatedness in the cosmos, gradually zoom back in through the successive contexts in reverse until they are back on their seat in the classroom;
  4. Conclude with discussion about reflections on their perceptions of themselves going through this contextualization practice.

While elements of reflection and transformation are currently being studied in relation to contemplation, particularly within scientific research on contemplative practices, the dimension of contextualization has to-date not been given sufficient attention. This is a ripe area of research for humanities scholars, particularly to be studied through an interdisciplinary lens with colleagues in the social sciences. Contemplations that situate the student in their given contexts, and which query through reflections on their connections to the environs and social relationships in which they are embedded, can have transformative effects.


The third dimension of contemplation is practices of transformation. This dimension of contemplation includes both (a) processes of learning that are transformative through contemplative practices and (b) translation of the effects of those transformations into frameworks that articulate the plasticity of the brain, body, and mind. Primarily, this dimension recognizes that learning is transformative and pedagogies that apply contemplation can enhance, encourage, and optimize learning. A pedagogy that appreciates the transformative dimension of contemplation orients the student and their processes of learning at its center, and employs practices of contemplation to facilitate active processes of cognitive, affective, and somatic integrations and adaptations to newly emergent understandings. Taking subjectivity seriously, both the teacher’s inescapable own subjectivity as well as that of the student’s, this family of practices seeks to transform that subjectivity because it foresees new horizons for that subjectivity. Transformation can be changes from acquiring or discovering new knowledge through contemplation, but it also involves the transformative processes that noticeably alter attitudes and behaviors as well as physiological and neurological traits that correlate to those transformations.

Pedagogical practices of transformation engage students in practices of noticing their responses and how they can progressively shape their behavioral responses over time to situations, emotions, sensations, and thoughts. An example of this family of practices is to:

  1. Encourage students to choose a behavior that they want to change in themselves;
  2. Invite them for five minutes at the beginning of each class to imagine themselves behaving differently;
  3. Have them log a journal entry of their moods and experiences each day after they have practiced this exercise;
  4. After two weeks, organize them in dyads to share with their fellow students what they have noticed in their own behavior during that period of time;
  5. Repeat every two weeks throughout the semester.

Each of these dimensions of contemplation involves a process of discovery facilitated through a diverse family of practices that enable students to learn something new about themselves and how they identify with content presented in a course. A contemplative pedagogy may emphasize one dimension, focus on the student’s relationship to a chosen course topic within a given dimension, or engage a dimension at the intersections of second- and third-person perspectives. Ideally, throughout a course, each of these dimensions will be engaged through personal contemplative practices, interpersonal dialogue or dyadic practices with fellow students, and interdisciplinary perspectives that engage these dimensions in connection to the course content. As heuristics, these three dimensions are meant to serve as touchstones for teachers to retain their pedagogical work within a contemplative frame.

There is no necessary sequence, but each can be applied nonlinearly, according to course content and the needs of students. These three distinct dimensions, and their correlative family of practices, is optimally utilized in a complementary manner to comprise a whole contemplation on a given inquiry or set of topics. These three dimensions are not mutually exclusive. For instance, an attentional practice involves meta-awareness and cognizance of internal content, which is reflective, while also contextual if open-monitoring awareness is practiced in connection to environmental phenomena, and transformative because it cultivates attentional balance and reduces discursivity. In this way, while each dimension comprises distinct families of practice, they are integrated in various ways, and these three dimensions can work pedagogically in unison to optimize the learning of the whole student.

To think critically or creatively is not merely the act of having thoughts. To analyze, appraise, or probe an idea is a learned skill and a process of learning, just like the appraisal of a bodily sensation is learned. This kind of thinking or sensing is learned through the intentional application of strategies and techniques, and if we are to understand contemplation in educational contexts, both in life and in the classroom, I argue that it is important for us to examine intentional methods for how we think and learn. For the examination of the very protocols of how we learn gives meaning to contemplation; and conversely, contemplation (in its broad sense) is a range of methods for making meaning and understanding the processes of meaning-making.


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Michael Sheehy is the director of scholarship at the Contemplative Sciences Center and a research assistant professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He leads an interdisciplinary digital research collaborative to publish scholarship in the contemplative humanities and sciences, including the encyclopedic documentation of historical contemplative practice traditions and pedagogical resources. Sheehy has taught at The New School in New York City and Boston College, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Divinity School. His publications give attention to the literary and philosophical histories of marginalized traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Most recently, he is interested in the contributions of Buddhism to discourses in the humanities about contemplative experience, and the intersections of Tibetan contemplative traditions with the cognitive sciences and cultural psychology. He is co-editor of the book, The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet (SUNY Press, 2019).