Contemplative Education is a philosophy of higher education that integrates introspection and experiential learning into academic study in order to support academic and social engagement, develop self-understanding as well as analytical and critical capacities, and cultivate skills for engaging constructively with others.
The inclusion of contemplative and introspective practices in academia addresses an increasingly recognized imbalance in higher education: a lack of support for developing purpose and meaning, or for helping students “learn who they are, search for larger purpose for their lives, and leave college as better human beings.”
Informed by the many forms of contemplative practice in philosophies and religions the world over, contemplative education invites students to embrace the immediacy of their interior lives as a means for applying their own first-person experiences to what they are learning in their classrooms. Contemplative practices invite close observation of phenomena (e.g., natural processes, cultural productions, mental and emotional states, biases). These practices provide opportunities to develop attention and focus, increase awareness and understanding, listen and speak across difference, support creative approaches to problem solving, and consider the impacts of our actions on the world at large.
Contemplative education is not solely traditional education with, for example, a course in meditation thrown in; it is an approach that offers an entirely new way of understanding what it means to be educated in the modern Western liberal arts tradition. For example, to deepen their academic study, students might engage in mindfulness practices in order to cultivate being present-moment awareness, or engage in dialogue and deep listening practices in order to develop interpersonal skills.
The philosophy of contemplative education has been present in the United States since at least 1974, but has gained popularity particularly recently as contemplative practices (such as mindfulness and yoga) have sparked the interest of educators at all levels. It has inspired networks of higher-education professionals for the advancement of contemplative education, primarily the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE), which has an international membership of over 750 faculty, administrators, and higher education professionals. The ACMHE was founded in 2008 by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and has convened annual conferences on contemplative education since 2009. The formation of the ACMHE was precipitated by the Contemplative Practice Fellowships, a program administered by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society from 1997 through 2009. Fellowships were awarded to 153 faculty members at 107 colleges and universities for designing and teaching courses which included contemplative methods. This initiative helped to form a community of practice on the use of contemplative methods across higher education disciplines.
While contemplative education aims to integrate contemplative practices and perspectives within any subject of study, the discipline of contemplative studies—the examination of the contemplative experience itself--has also developed. The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University, founded by Harold Roth, Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative, offers a formal concentration in contemplative studies.
Contemplative education also fueled the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies curriculum at The University of Michigan School of Music, which combines meditation practice and related studies with jazz and overall musical training.
In Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Contemplative Higher Education Network (RMCHEN) launched in September 2006 with an event hosted by Naropa University. Peter Schneider, a renowned architecture professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder and Barbara Dilley, a former president of Naropa and an accomplished dancer, choreographer and educator, spoke at the launch of RMCHEN.
Contemplative Education in Practice at Naropa University
The depth of insight and concentration reached through students’ disciplined engagement with contemplative practices alters the landscape of learning and teaching at Naropa University (Boulder, Colorado) founded by Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche in 1974.
Through such a focused self-exploration, students and faculty acquire the ability to be present in the classroom and in their lives; to engage in active listening with an open mind; to analyze a subject; and to integrate what has been learned with personal experience. Other resulting qualities include the development of openness, self-awareness and insight; enhanced speaking and listening skills; the sharpening of insight; and an appreciation of the world’s diversity and richness. From this self-understanding comes an ability to appreciate the value of another’s experience.
The goal is not to nurture the solitary contemplative only; it is also to cultivate those at the other end of the spectrum whose interior work acts as preparation for compassionate and transformative work in the world. More specifically, the value of contemplative education is measured in students’ ability to put their wisdom and insight into practice through creative, helpful and effective action.
“The point is not to abandon scholarship but to ground it, to personalize it and to balance it with the fundamentals of mind training, especially the practice of sitting meditation so that inner development and outer knowledge go hand in hand. . . . A balanced education cultivates abilities beyond the verbal and conceptual to include matters of heart, character, creativity, self-knowledge, concentration, openness and mental flexibility.”
—Judy Lief, former Naropa University president
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- Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education
- Brown University Contemplative Studies Initiative
- Contemplative Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion
- Contemplative Studies Website
- Garrison Institute's Contemplative Education Program Database
- Journal of Contemplative Inquiry
- Mindfulness in Education Network
- Naropa University
- University of Michigan Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies
- University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences Center
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- "Contemplative Studies: The Formal Concentration". Brown University.
- Ed Sarath (Summer 2003). "Meditation in Higher Education: The Next Wave?". Innovative Higher Education.
- "Contemplative psychology, Han F.de Wit, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh,1991". SHAMBHALA, Netherlands.
- Caroline Hsu (2005). "America's Best Colleges: To learn in the moment". U.S. News & World Report.
- "What are contemplative practices?". The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. 2001–2006.
- "The Tree of Contemplative Practices". The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. 2001–2006.