The Contemplative Life and the Teaching of the Humanities
by Brian Stock
This audience does not need to be reminded that meditation is enjoying a considerable vogue in medicine and psychology. There has also been a growth of interest in religion, which has taken the shape of reviving dormant meditative traditions (e.g., Roman Catholicism) or importing foreign ones (e.g., Buddhist practice into Judaism). Native, feminist, and ecological thinking has contributed to this renaissance. As a result, a good many people have been attracted to the idea of contemplative activity for the first time.
To date, the humanities have played a minor role in this discourse, despite the obvious fact that a humanities discipline, religion, is the source of all that we know about traditional meditative practices. In my view, this situation is unlikely to change in the short term. The "theoretical interest" of the humanities should ideally be “directed to human beings as persons, to their personal life and activity,” as well as to “the concrete results of this activity.” In practice, however, teachers of the humanities deal almost exclusively with the analysis of texts (or with source materials that can be discussed by means of literary theory). Opinions have changed radically over the years on what is the best interpretive procedure. But no major branch of contemporary thinking in the humanities is meditative in aims or style.
Edmund Husserl, whose definition of the humanities I have quoted, was persuaded that the disciplines dealing with culture had by his time entered a profound state of “crisis.” Many teachers of the humanities in contemporary schools and universities would agree, while acknowledging that the issues have undergone considerable change since 1935, when his celebrated critique was written. Husserl was one of a handful of twentieth-century philosophers whose unified view of the humanities made a significant place for contemplative activity within a secular world-view. As the study of the humanities has become more and more fragmented, there has been an ever-growing chorus of voices calling for a comprehensive vision of some kind. What the critics are asking for, among other things, is a type of education that teaches the student how “to live as a person...in a social framework, wherein I and we live together in community and have the community as a horizon ...:” They want the humanities to focus on “purposeful living, manifesting spiritual creativity in the broadest sense, creating culture within historical continuity.”
The roots of this approach, which insists that education deal with the whole person, lie in ancient thought. It used to be fashionable to think of ancient Greek philosophy chiefly as a preface to modern logic and scientific method. Scholars nowadays recognize that it was also concerned with a wide range of contemplative issues, which included the creation of self-knowledge through intellectual or spiritual exercises. This interpretation is particularly accurate for the later ancient period, when Greek philosophy was enriched by Judeo-Christian themes. Linked to oral instruction, that is, to direct interchange between a master and students, this type of reflection achieved its aims through the consistency of its arguments as well as through its ability to address the moral and ethical needs of a community. The exercises by which individuals were prepared for this challenge were not arid and abstract, although they were intensely cognitive: they were intended to develop the intellect, and through this to transform a life.
There is little formal meditation in ancient thought. Nor is there much talk about it in the Old or New Testaments. Meditative practice really came into its own in the later ancient and medieval periods, reaching its high point of development before the twelfth century; it owes a great deal to the original thinking of the desert fathers and monastic authors. Plotinus, the last great pagan thinker (d. 270 A.D.), gave a prominent place to contemplative ascent within a neoplatonist scheme. His ideas were taken over by Augustine in an attempt to unite prayerful reading and contemplative activity; these methods in turn eventually influenced both Catholic and Protestant devotional practices. The typically Western format, which was consolidated by the fourth century, incorporated meditative practice into the study of scripture effectively making meditation part of a reading project, although remaining distinct within it. In the background of this epochal change were the study habits of Jewish Christianity and ultimately of Judaism itself.
It is frequently proposed that the breakdown of this approach to spiritual education occurred during the Reformation or the Scientific Revolution. In reality, the decisive changes occurred during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when the first European universities emerged from monastic and cathedral schools and undertook to complete a largely Aristotelian program in logic, the natural sciences, and theology. Well before Galileo and Newton challenged medieval scientific methods, serious students of the contemplative life had abandoned the universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and Cambridge and sought refuge in a variety of institutions more congenial to their activities mainly religious houses. Virtually none of the “mystics” of the early modern period men and women who led contemplative lives between the time of Meister Eckhart and Teresa of Avila worked within what was taking shape as the modern humanities, which, from the time of Petrarch, were increasingly dominated by the “humanist” concern with correctness of Greek and Latin as well as with the rehabilitation of a skeptical, textually oriented interpretive tradition in figures like Lorenzo Valla, Erasmus, and Scaliger. The appearance of the printed book in a standardized format completed this transformation (in part by favoring visual, silent reading over oral, meditative reading practices). By the time of the Reformation, moreover, contemplatives, instead of withdrawing completely from society as they frequently did during the Middle Ages, sought occasions for contemplation within active lives. That is the typically modern situation.
When we talk about reintroducing the contemplative life into the humanities, therefore, we have to give some thought to what we are up against. Humanities methods have been extraordinarily stable over something like five centuries: all attempts to introduce alternatives have been successfully rebuffed. Periodic revivals of religious studies have not been able to dislodge entrenched ideas either. So a confrontational attitude would not be successful, even if it were advisable. Moreover, what one wants, ideally, is not an increased academic interest in meditation we already have that in specialist circles but the re-establishment of a tradition in which, along the model of some Eastern cultures, meditative practices and other intellectual activities are mutually supportive: a situation in which the person who meditates is not stepping out of the mainstream of his or her society, but is engaging in something normal and unremarkable, like keeping fit.
I think that the best way to achieve this goal is to begin with a concept related to the person's overall health. Let us call this the individual's “well-being.” Many Americans have little understanding of what is meant by meditation. But they all understand sickness, discomfort, and healing. If they are persuaded that meditation will contribute to their health, they may accept the idea of pursuing a contemplative activity within their daily lives. Some students of meditative practices will complain that I am tackling a spiritual problem through physical means. But the two cannot be separated. If people are taught to meditate, sooner or later many of them will discover the spiritual dimension on their own. In traditional settings, the pursuit of the contemplative life normally takes place within an accompanying belief-system. The only equivalent of this type of faith in contemporary society may be the confidence displayed in science. If I ask a room full of Americans to meditate for cultural, religious, or spiritual reasons, I am likely to find myself in the midst of a heated debate about their emotional and intellectual loyalties. If I suggest that meditation may help them achieve better health, and ultimately, perhaps, a state of well-being, most of them would weigh the evidence before dismissing my arguments.
That evidence is slowly being assembled. Yet, the study of meditative practice cannot afford to stand still in this respect, the notion of teachings of “timeless wisdom” is somewhat misleading. We lack a sufficiently large and diversified body of experimental evidence proving that large-scale programs in meditation would deliver the benefits that they promise, despite encouraging recent progress in major medical institutions. We know that stress reduction techniques like meditation lead to a positive state of the parasympathetic nervous system, and meditation is used increasingly to help prevent and treat heart disease, auto immune disorders, chronic lung disease, headaches, diabetes, eczema, asthma, allergies, infertility, and gastrointestinal problems, as well as panic, depression, and hostility. But more studies are needed to clarify the effect of meditation in relation to other mind/body therapies.
If we move from the clinical to the cultural aspects of the question, the difficulties increase. It may be easy to measure the effect of sustained meditation on blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and stress reduction as contrasted with trying to determine its influence on nebulous issues like the sense of self and other, or the willingness to participate in family, community, and collaborative work. We do not know whether concentrated inwardness can fortify the individual against the commercial exploitation of the sensorium by the media; we have as yet to determine its effect on individuals' predilection for aggression, violence, socially deviant behavior, and the destruction of the environment. We have not come to grips with still more subtle relations involving trust, patience, generosity, confidence, and love. If some sort of scientific information is not built up on these and related issues, I do not believe that meditation will have a lasting role in American life and thought.
At the end of this long road lies what we mean by a humanities education for young adults in American society. If contemplative activity contributes to their sense of well-being and if it helps to put them in a frame of mind that enhances their ability to cope with a range of issues ranging from health to their sense of community, then presumably contemplative traditions should have a larger place in educational programs. And, if that is the case, we have to teach students what contemplative activity is all about. Among other things, they have to be instructed in reading meditative literature, not as they would read modern poems, plays, or novels, but as contemplatives read them, using texts as a means to an end and not considering them, as is the fashion in contemporary literary practice, as ends in themselves. They would also have to explore types of meditation that are unlike the Judeo-Christian tradition in not requiring the presence of texts, images, or other sensory supports. Beyond that, teachers of the humanities would have to use the renewed interest in the contemplative life to begin an exploration of what we mean by “the modern identity,” that is, as a means of “tracing the various strands of what it means to be a human agent, a person, or a self.” This implies broadening the discussion of ethics beyond the traditionally narrow confines of academic speculation and taking up a number of cultural connections religious history, gender orientation, ecological considerations, etc. Much contemporary moral philosophy, Charles Taylor notes, “has tended to focus on what it is right to do rather on what it is good to be, on defining the content of obligation rather than the nature of the good life; and it has no conceptual place left for a notion of the good as the object of our love or allegiance...” Within the humanities, that is a major challenge.
Meditation, Social Change, and Undergraduate Education
by Steven C. Rockefeller
It is the purpose of this essay to explore ways in which the American undergraduate college can provide students with opportunities for understanding, appreciating, and practicing the meditative and contemplative disciplines. Since the assumption underlying this inquiry is a belief that meditation can serve as an instrument of beneficial social change in American society, it is useful at the outset to clarify the kind of social change that is desirable and to suggest at least some ways meditation might be complementary to or even a force for such change.
Directions for Creative Social Change
One way to generalize the nature of the creative social movements in America today is to view them as part of a threefold development that involves:
- an extension and deepening of the democratic revolution,
- a furthering of a new ecological reconstruction of how people think and live, and
- a fresh spiritual awakening to the sacredness of life and the Earth.
The democratic movements include the battle for women's rights and minority rights, the promotion of tolerance, the celebration of diversity, the empowerment of people to solve public problems, the spread of industrial democracy, a new emphasis on l-thou relationship and community, and international cooperation on behalf of peace, human rights, economic opportunity, and the environment. The ecological revolution is founded on new scientific discoveries in astronomy, biology, cosmology, ecology, physics, and psychology. It emphasizes holistic and global thinking, and it is guided by a new moral awareness expressed in the imperative: respect and care for the whole community of life. This means restoration of ecosystems, a new eco-economics, sustainable modes of living, and subordinating the principle of national sovereignty to international cooperation.
The spiritual awakening involves a new sense of wonder in the face of the mystery and beauty of the natural world and a rediscovery of the sacred. It entails a realization of the sacredness of one's own life and of all life.
It involves an integration of the sacred and the secular, spiritual life and everyday life. It recognizes that ultimate meaning is found in and through the development of a compassionate, democratic and ecological self that is inclusive, expanding to embrace all life. These three movements are often interrelated, and they can be understood as different aspects of one larger unified transformation of social consciousness. The concern is to join and integrate the search for power and material progress on the one hand with the quest for wisdom and well-being on the other. The general objective is a way of being that will enable people to humanize technology, realize the full promise of democracy, heal the Earth, and celebrate life.
There are two fundamental ways to advance social change. One involves reconstructing the social environment that shapes the way people interact and behave. The other involves healing individuals and changing their character orientation transforming their awareness, attitudes, and values. Both are necessary. The two ways can and should complement and reinforce each other.
Meditation and Social Change
Can meditation produce transformations of consciousness in individuals consistent with the changes in social habits, laws, and institutions inspired by creative democracy and the environmental movement? Can meditation help people realize the democratic-ecological self? Is there the possibility that meditation could add a unique quality and depth to democratic-ecological living, adding balance and perspective? In short, should Americans include meditation and contemplative disciplines in their vision of the way to individual freedom, community, and fulfillment? The answer is a qualified yes.
First of all, it is important to keep in mind that the American experiment with meditation is just beginning, and there is much that Americans have yet to learn about the nature of meditation, its dangers, and its potential as an instrument of growth and transformation in a democratic-ecological context. The experience of Americans to date indicates that it is not a substitute for the learning and psycho-social development that comes in and through living and working with others. It is not a substitute for searching rational inquiry and critical reflection. As a general rule, it is a mistake to think that it can or should be used with Westerners to address the problems in personality development for which psychotherapy has been developed. However, there is much evidence that suggests that under the guidance of well-trained, experienced and responsible teachers, meditation can be of benefit to many people when they are ready for it, helping them to grow in unique ways and to promote creative social change.
There are, of course, many different meditative and contemplative disciplines, and the kind of practice that is appropriate for any one individual will depend on what stage in the human life cycle the person is at and on his or her special needs and abilities. The most basic forms of meditation involve techniques of concentration that bring calm and clarity to the body-mind. Many of the more advanced forms are designed to help a person to move beyond a narrow atomistic sense of self and to develop a sense of belonging to and identity with others and the larger community of being.
It has been experimentally documented that certain forms of meditation may improve physical health. There are meditation practices that can be used to improve athletic and artistic performance. Contemplative disciplines may help some people become less frenetic and more centered, more aware of the goodness and beauty of their own being, more appreciative of the intrinsic value of other beings, more responsive to suffering, more attentive and mindful, more open to I-thou relationship and meaning. When meditation affects a transcendence of ego-centered awareness, it may deepen consciousness of the sacred.
The full significance of meditation is missed if it is viewed just as a technique, that is, solely as a means to ends beyond itself, such as health, social change, or even enlightenment. Contemplation is a form of human activity that possesses its own inherent value, and it may involve a beautiful experience that is a fulfillment complete in itself. In this sense it is an end in itself. If American society were to understand and accept this notion, this alone would cause a beneficial change of attitude regarding the place of contemplation in culture. Furthermore, the full benefits of meditation only follow upon wholehearted engagement with the discipline, and this requires that the practitioner view it as a end and not just as a means.
There is also very limited value in thinking about meditation as an isolated practice. The larger intellectual and moral environment in which meditation is done influences the way people understand and approach it and the effect that it has. In some cultures, for example, meditation has been used to reinforce and implement philosophies of quietism or of world denial and extreme asceticism. However, there are also many examples of where meditation has been associated with a world-affirming ethical mysticism and even revolutionary social change. In addition, the physical environment in which meditation is practiced is important especially for beginners because it may be more or less conducive to concentration and because it also reflects certain values and attitudes. In American culture the challenge is to set the practice of meditation in the context of a worldview that affirms a healthy balance between inwardness and activism, concentration and going forth into relationship, quiet contemplation and social responsibility.
Higher Education and Meditation
The modern secular university is centrally concerned with scientific research and the arts of critical rational reflection. The university trains the teachers who form the faculties of undergraduate institutions, and the influence of the university is the dominant force shaping undergraduate education. The central mission of the undergraduate college is to train and nurture the growth of the human mind, especially the powers of critical reason.
There are, of course, many dimensions to a liberal arts education. There are courses that emphasize the human imagination, explore the art of appreciation, and nurture creative self-expression through the arts. Undergraduate schools have their athletic programs and a great variety of other extracurricular activities that evolve to reflect student interests. There are numerous opportunities for off-campus and overseas study. Up through the Second World War most colleges required attendance at chapel, reflecting a concern to shape the moral and religious sensibilities of students, but required chapel has been abandoned in the vast majority of colleges. Today moral education occurs primarily in and through enforcement on campus of codes of conduct that emphasize respect for persons and diversity. Recognizing the many pressures upon undergraduates and their emotional needs, most schools have introduced opportunities for short-term psychological counseling.
Even though there are these diverse offerings, which reflect at least some concern with the whole person and with the diversity of human interests and talents, the strong emphasis remains on critical reason, and especially on methods of knowledge that have a practical bearing. Critical reason is one of the finest flowers of Western civilization. Its cultivation and exercise are essential to the development of autonomy and a healthy democratic society and to caring for the Earth. That undergraduate education should emphasize the experimental method of knowledge and the arts of critical reflection is not to be questioned.
A question can be raised about whether the education of the undergraduate college in America today fails to put science and discursive reason in proper perspective and whether it tends to encourage a character orientation that is too head-centered as distinct from heart-centered, more interested in information than appreciation, more concerned about the knowledge which is power than wisdom and ethical values, more oriented toward I-it than I-thou, more skilled at striving for future ends than living a fulfilling life in the present. It is a question of balance.
This is a complex issue, for which there is no simple answer, and the university and college by themselves cannot solve this problem. However, a fresh appreciation for contemplative experience may be one element in a larger strategy for dealing with the issue. Two hundred years ago Friedrich Schleiermacher, the founder of the liberal Christian tradition, leveled a criticism that addresses this question. He pointed out that every person is born with a capacity to experience directly the mystery, wonder, and beauty of the world, which is essential to human well-being and a sense of the joy and meaning of life. However, he lamented that this capacity is "crushed out" of children in the course of their education by the modern "rage for calculating and explaining" under the leadership of "the discreet and practical men" who dominate society. "In everything there must be design and aim; something has always to be performed, and if the spirit can no more serve, the body must be exercised. Work and play, but no quiet, submissive contemplation," wrote Schleiermacher.1
Most American schools at all levels reflect the bias that Schleiermacher criticizes. In the early grades, the best way to address this imbalance is a new emphasis on the arts and a concern on the part of teachers to respect and nurture the sense of wonder in children as essential to their well-being. In the American college, along with strengthened programs in the arts and related fields, students can benefit from greater opportunities to study and experience the meditative and contemplative disciplines.
Strategies for Acquainting Students with the Nature and Practice of Meditative Disciplines
Need for Research and Teaching
First of all, meditation needs to be de-mythologized in the American mind so that people have a rational understanding of what it is and can and cannot do. On the one hand, the majority of Americans still view meditation suspiciously as something of a weird Eastern practice that is essentially passive, self-centered, and otherworldly. On the other hand, there are those who think of it as a cure-all or as a short cut to enlightenment and bliss that enables a person to leap frog whole developmental stages. The truth about meditation should be carefully researched and studied in the university and college, so that Americans can develop an informed understanding of its history, varied nature, proper uses, and social value. To what extent is it possible for contemporary lay people to take advantage of the contemplative disciplines that have been developed by men and women living cloistered lives in monasteries and nunneries? How are the effects of contemplative practice to be understood in relation to the transformations of consciousness essential to the deepening of spiritual democracy, healing the Earth, and international peace and cooperation?
Meditation and Developmental Psychology
More work is needed on the relations between psychology and contemplative science. How is the Western idea of developmental stages related to the developmental stages envisioned by contemplative psychologies and philosophies? Does the contemplative understanding of spiritual development alter or expand the vision of Western psychology, and, if so, how? Is it possible to construct an idea of universal human developmental stages that integrates Western science and contemplative science?
New research is needed on the effects of meditation on human growth and mental illness at each different stage in the life cycle. For example, what forms of meditation may be helpful to adolescents? What risks and dangers are involved when college aged students engage in various forms of meditation? A recent study has warned that a person who has failed to develop a strong sense of self is not fit to engage in contemplative disciplines designed to help the practitioner realize the truth of no-self, and that if such a person pursues these disciplines, there is a risk of pathological consequences.2 This caution should be taken very seriously. In what situations is psychotherapy rather than meditation the most appropriate method of healing and growth? In what situations can a meditative discipline be used to complement psychotherapy? In what situations should a person turn to meditative disciplines rather than psychotherapy for growth and transformation?
The Role of Religion and Social Science Departments
Religion departments and social science departments like psychology and sociology have a special role to play in pursuing research and teaching regarding the history, methods, and social significance of meditative and contemplative disciplines.
The American interest in meditation in recent decades has been closely related to the explosion of interest in Asian religions which occurred in the 1960's and 1970's. This fascination with Asian religions was to a large degree fueled by a hunger for transformative experience among a new generation of young people, who found traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism too focused on doctrine and law and out of touch with the living truth. Traditions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism seemed to offer Americans spiritual disciplines in the form of meditative practices that could open the door to liberating experiences and enlightenment.
Prior to the 1960's very few Americans had ever actually practiced meditation even though an interest in Asian religions had been slowly developing ever since the Parliament of World Religions in 1893. However, during the 1960's this changed. All over America small groups, largely made up of young people, began training with teachers from China, India, Japan, Tibet, and Southeast Asia. A few of these teachers were Americans who had gone overseas to be trained. For the first time it was possible for an average American to receive formal training in a variety of Eastern meditative disciplines in the United States. Among those who turned East were a number of men and women who chose academic careers. As a result of all these factors a vast new literature on meditation practice in Asia has been generated.
The fascination with Eastern meditative practices stirred fresh interest in traditions of contemplative prayer, meditation, and mysticism in Christianity and Judaism. Efforts were made by Christians and Jews to retrieve lost traditions of contemplative practice. As a result, much work has been done in this area also in the course of the last two decades. Whereas in the early 1960's it was almost impossible for a lay person to find a priest or rabbi who could or would instruct them in contemplative prayer, today this situation has dramatically changed. This meeting of East and West and the related developments mark a major moment in the history of American spiritual life.
As a result of these developments most religion departments offer at least a few courses which include some exploration of various aspects of the history of meditative and contemplative disciplines. The most concentrated study of meditation often goes on within the framework of the psychology of religion, which has been especially concerned with the study of religious experience and mysticism. In psychology departments, which are commonly dominated by faculty trained in physiological psychology as distinct from personality development, there is often little if any attention given to meditation. Psychology departments could do much more in this field, including a more serious study of transpersonal psychology and psychology of religion. In general the social sciences have done little research on meditation, and this needs to be encouraged.
The Practice of Meditation in Academic Courses
The discussion of academic coursework related to meditation raises an important question. Should a religion department instructor in an academic course be permitted or even encouraged to offer students opportunities to practice some form of meditation related to a tradition or traditions under study?
A number of professors are doing this today, some by taking a class to visit a Zen center or Christian monastery, for example. This is a delicate issue in a secular university or college for the fear is always there that a religion department professor may cross the line and get into religious indoctrination or begin to play the role of a guru with students. However, as long as that is not the case and as long as the person teaching a meditative practice has the training to do so, the exercises in meditation are introductory in nature, and substantial academic study forms the core of the course, such practical introductions to meditation will probably be accepted. They should be viewed as quite appropriate, for the simple reason that it is very difficult to understand and appreciate the nature of an activity which one has never directly experienced.
Should an instructor be permitted to offer a course, the chief objective of which is to train students in the art and practice of some meditative discipline? Should students get academic credit for undergoing actual training in meditation at a meditation center outside the college? As a general rule, the answer to these two questions should be no, but some exceptions to this rule could be made. For example, it might be appropriate to give course credit for a period of training at a meditation center in the case of a college that has a one-month Winter Term (4-1-4 semester schedule) designed in part to permit off-campus learning in a variety of practical endeavors. If academic credit is to be awarded for a stay at a meditation center, some appropriate written critical reflection on the experience should be required. Along the same lines, a college might adopt a curriculum in which each student is permitted to take a few courses for credit toward the B.A. degree that are to be centered on practical learning with meditation practice as one of many options. A mechanism for evaluating the psychological fitness of students for such courses would, of course, have to be established.
Education in American colleges commonly suffers from a failure to connect information and experience, theory and practice, ideas and solutions to real problems. Much that goes on in the classroom is abstract and unrelated to the living experience of the students. Consequently much of it is not retained beyond the examination period. It is never digested and integrated into a student's real understanding so as to produce growth and wisdom. One remedy to this problem is to find new imaginative ways for students to learn by doing.
Since there are opportunities for abuse of authority and influence in the case of leading students in the practice of meditation, guidelines for this kind of situation should be developed, including identification of the kinds of meditation that are appropriate for use with undergraduates in an academic course. The existence of such guidelines would go far in avoiding problems and in diffusing apprehension and criticism. This could be the subject for a conference, or it could be made the focus of a session at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.
The Role of Health Care Professionals, Psychological Counselors, and Chaplains
Students can also be introduced to meditation by health care and counseling professionals on campus and in and through a college program of extracurricular activities. As the medical and counseling professions integrate meditation into their understanding of preventive medicine and resources to deal with stress and anxiety, it will become natural for college health centers to provide information and even instruction in meditation. College chaplains are also in a position to offer and lead workshops on meditation, but few of them are trained in this field, which is of little interest to most theological seminaries.
Another approach involves an academic department or a chaplain's office establishing a program of visiting speakers and teachers in the field of meditation. Such programs require special funding, including travel expenses and an honorarium for visitors. However, even with an annual budget of one or two thousand dollars, a meaningful program can be started. Strong on-campus leadership is essential, if the program is to be successful in involving students.
Organizing and Leading On-Campus Meditation Groups
My own experience in the late seventies and early eighties at Middlebury College taught me that if students, who have been introduced to meditation at a workshop, are to continue to practice, it requires the leadership of a committed faculty or staff member and an appropriate space. I occasionally offered workshops in basic Zen meditation at the College and would usually get 25 to 50 interested students to attend. Particularly for a beginner, it is very helpful to have a group to sit with. After each workshop, some would want to join such a group. Finding an appropriate space is difficult. Student activity space is always limited, and the competition for it is often intense. Setting up a large public room by moving aside furniture and bringing in cushions for each meditation session is not a very satisfactory arrangement. I finally secured a basement room in a dormitory for the exclusive use of the meditation group. It was set up with cushions and opened by Campus Security every morning at 6:30 a.m. and locked at 11 p.m. to discourage abuse of the space (which occurred on a few occasions).
As long as I sat on a regular schedule with the students, participation remained strong, and students would sit on their own from time to time. When my administrative duties at the College made it impossible for me to continue this involvement, the group gradually disbanded. The meditation room lasted at Middlebury for three years.
In summary, if students are to learn and practice meditation on campus beyond introductory workshops, the three essential are first, a faculty of staff person with appropriate training who will organize and lead a group; second, a space that is permanently committed to this purpose; and third, a regular schedule for group practice. It is not realistic to expect that a faculty or staff person will continue to lead a student meditation group on a purely voluntary basis indefinitely. It is a demanding responsibility and often requires the commitment of evening hours. Some compensation is necessary unless a staff person, such as a college chaplain or a student counselor, understands it to be part of his or her job description. Ideally, students would be offered a variety of appropriate introductory meditative disciplines to choose from, and a college meditation room would be designed so that it can be used by groups pursuing different traditions. Such a space should also be open for faculty and staff use.
With these needs in mind, I proposed to Middlebury College in 1982 creation of an interfaith center that would include a permanent meditation space as well as a director who would develop an appropriate program. The proposal is attached. The idea for this Interfaith Center was strongly influenced in certain respects by Chapel House at Colgate University. The proposal was supported by about twenty faculty and staff, but it was never implemented. The College administration was not convinced that the facility would be well used by students, and meditation did not seem an important need to the administration, who had had no experience with it. There was also the problem of raising the money to build an interfaith center, maintain it, and staff it.
Chapel House is a non-denominational retreat center established to make available to lay people an opportunity for contemplative experience. It sits on the edge of the Colgate University campus and is open to students, faculty, and staff. However, Chapel House does not make a major effort to involve students. Its outreach is minimal. It distributes a mailing to entering students, but it does not have a regular program of workshops and lectures for students. The facility, which includes some overnight accommodations and an extensive library, is set up primarily for use by individuals who are expected to decide for themselves how they wish to use their time at the House. The Director estimates that about one-third of Colgate students visit Chapel House during their four years. The Director, who teaches Buddhist Studies, does bring his college students to the House to do Buddhist meditation as part of their coursework. Very few faculty and staff use the facility. Since group discussions and meetings are not encouraged, the College chaplains seldom use the House.
The majority of visitors to Chapel House are from off-campus and have no connection with the University. The House was founded through the generosity of the same donor who established the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. In contrast to Chapel House, the Interfaith Center proposed for Middlebury College would have as its central mission campus outreach and involvement of students, faculty, and staff.
Meditation Time and Space for Faculty and Staff
Another way that meditation can be introduced on the college campus is by faculty and staff practicing it with administration support. This support could involve a policy of allowing staff time for meditation during the work day and, again, creation of a space, or spaces, for it in buildings where people are working. A college administration would only do this if it were convinced that there is a real demand and that job performance and morale would be enhanced.
In conclusion, meditation can improve the quality of life of those who choose to practice it under the guidance of competent teachers. When pursued seriously as a discipline, it can add a unique depth to democratic and ecological living. It can help people become free and fully human. By itself meditation does not impel human beings to social action, and it needs to be counterbalanced by a concern with social reconstruction and personal relationship. However, in a democratic ecological society that affirms life in the world and values social action and community, the practice of meditation can help to shape the direction of social action, contributing to an integration of the ethical and the political, the spiritual and the practical. The undergraduate college is one place where these issues should be thoughtfully explored.
1 Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion - Speeches to its Cultural Despisers, trans. John Omen (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1958), pp. 124-30.
2 See Jack Engler, "Therapeutic Aims in Psychotherapy and Meditation," in Ken Wilber, Jack Engler, and David P. Brown, Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development (Boston: Shambhala, 1986).
Meditation and Education: Buddhist India, Tibet and Modern America
by Robert A. F. Thurman
I: What is "Meditation?" What is "Contemplative Mind?"
When we feel we've lost it, need more of it, can improve our health with it, can generate well-being with it what is this "it?" How did it get lost in the West and the modern world? Who was for it, who against?
It is fair to say that classical Indian civilization incorporated the contemplative far more than any other, then or now. The contemplative marked that civilization in every way. It caused it to develop unparalleled "inner sciences," as they are called, shared among the various religions. The Buddhist inner sciences were the most broadly developed, since their monastic institutions of higher learning were the most numerous. So we can conveniently use a Buddhist analysis of meditations as typical for our general discussion.
"Meditation" translates from the Sanskrit dhyana, bhavana, and even samadhi, which all designate organizations of the mind-body complex considered different from sensory and intellectual receptive states (as in learning) and intellectual reflective or discursive states, though they include these states sometimes. There are usually said to be two main categories of meditation: shamatha (calming) and vipashyana (seeing-through, insight, or transforming), with both again dividing into critical and creative types.
Calming meditations are deep concentration states, culminating in one-pointed trance, usually devoid of all sensory awareness or mental flow, though also able to entertain with great stability a fixed picture or even a full environment. They produce marked physical effects, and equip the mind with tremendous fitness and fluency in executing whatever tasks it addresses. When our health researchers note and study effects of meditation, they are almost always referring to calming, one-pointed, thought-free meditation, with or without images. Calming benefits health and empowers the mind; but by itself it is not thought to produce in a person either positive or negative evolutionary (that is to say, long-term and multi-life) transformation.
Seeing-through or transforming meditations are also quite numerous. They range from basic scanning mindfulness meditations, through critically penetrating insight meditations, up to imaginatively creative visualizing meditations. They are considered most important in psychological, intellectual and spiritual development. They have been studied relatively little. They are closely related to reflective states.
Both these types of contemplative mind exist in all cultures, even the simplest: naturally, hunters and mothers cultivated the most one-pointed mind-states, and the maker, the shaman/ess and the poet/ess the most transformative. I think it is slightly misleading to speak of our culture as lacking contemplative mind. When we feel that, we are rather lamenting the deplorable contemplative states within which the common mind is absorbed. Peoples' minds are absorbed in continuous reverie almost all the time. When they sleep, they experience a withdrawal from sensory stimuli, though they identify that as a state of unconsciousness. Education in any particular culture builds up a world picture, constantly reinforced by symbols and images and contemplated (creative fixating and discursive contemplations combined) life-long. Television, modern culture's peculiar contemplative shrine, supplies a contemplative trance to millions of people, for hours on end day after day year in and year out. It is unfortunately a trance in which sensory dissatisfaction is constantly reinforced, anger and violence is imprinted, and confusion and the delusion of materialism is constructed and maintained.
Thus, when we talk about seeking to increase and intensify contemplative mind in our culture, we may really be talking about methods of transferring contemplative energies from one focus to another. We want people to contemplate disidentification, detachment and contentment, to cheer themselves up by becoming less greedy and needy. We want them to contemplate tolerance, patience, nonviolence, and compassion, to unstress themselves by feeling less angry, irritated and paranoid. We want them to develop more wisdom, more freedom, more capacity for responsibility and creativity, by seeing through the constructed realities in which the materialist culture has us enmeshed. It is important that we recognize the value choices implicit in our esteem for contemplation. Only by doing so can we understand the opposition we are encountering, deriving from other value choices.
Commercial interests with their advertising industry do not want people to develop contentment and less greed. Military interests in economic, political, ethnic or nationalist guises, do not want people to develop more tolerance, nonviolence, and compassion. And ruling groups in general, in whatever sort of hierarchy, do not want the ruled to become too insightful, too independent, too creative on their own, as the danger is that they will become insubordinate, rebellious, and unproductive in their allotted tasks. Therefore, in Asia, contemplative institutions got their licenses from the governments sometimes by creating a second society, ritually outside the ordinary society, wherein contemplation in the directions we consider positive was encouraged, and by tacitly promising not to interfere too much with the dominant culture's ongoing contemplation of its own necessity. In the community (Sangha) outside the mundane society, calming and insight could be valued even by the ruling elite, as a sort of safety valve activity for unsocializable individuals.
The fact is that developing either contemplative capacity calming or seeing-through greatly empowers an individual, the combination even more so. Civilizations that suppressed these capacities had reason for wishing to disempower their individuals: they tended to be collectivistic, persistent in regimenting their people, due to their insecurity with respect to the environment and their neighbors, and usually warlike. Though we Euro-Americans like to think of ourselves as primarily individualistic (even when we simultaneously consider too much of that a bad thing), Western societies tended to suppress individualism over the millennia. Socrates finally was given the hemlock cocktail for corrupting the potential soldiers with critical thought, and Sparta was the dominant model, not Athens. Therefore the kind of humanistic and humanizing contemplative orientation we seek to further now was systematically suppressed all along.
So we must not be surprised if commercial and military influences, and conservative ruling groups currently still active in our society set themselves against any contemplative movement even today. On the brighter side, if the liberal education so essential to a modern democratic society really wants to empower the individuals who must constantly re-create democracy, then it needs to incorporate contemplative dimensions in its curriculum: for liberal education to fulfill its responsibility, the teaching of contemplative skills is a necessity, not a luxury.
Today, our society has entered a very complicated and ill-understood time, the so-called post-industrial and post-modern age. Democracies are meritocratic in ideal, and so are compelled in principle to try to provide each individual with the opportunity and ability to rule the whole. Individuals have the responsibility to make crucial decisions, and the technological power to cause immense destruction if they make deluded, greedy, and angry choices. It is a sort of situation in which we must oscillate between terminal, doomsday pessimism about our chances of surviving as a species at all, and apocalyptic, utopian, optimistic visions about how the entire society must become a contemplative community, in order to survive and thrive. I try to stick to the latter kind of positivity, while not blinding myself to the dangers of negative outcomes, remaining fully aware that those who think the future hopeless and try to turn back by whatever means will not support, and will actively oppose the attempt to create a more positively contemplative community. I personally consider broad-scale individual development of contemplative insight to be necessary for survival.
There are many ways to make our society more contemplative. Joyce wrote Finnegan's Wake to make unthinking embeddedness in words more difficult. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi from Transcendental Meditation tried to organize contemplative SWAT teams to travel to trouble spots to send out mass meditation waves to calm groups caught in the flames of fury and violence. Contemplation is taught in thriving Eastern-based centers, Cistercian monasteries, and hospitals, and should be taught more widely through every available medium. I have chosen the liberal arts and sciences university as the individually liberating institution left over from our Western extra-social contemplative communities, which has however been too much co-opted to empower and train the individuals who are destined to serve as the ruling elite of the materialist, modern unified society. I see the technological media as branching out, however clumsily, from this university complex to enfold the larger society within it. Therefore, if our concern is to heal, enlighten, and empower individuals to live better and create a better society by learning how to manage their own contemplative energies, the academic community is the very opposite of academic. It is the vital arena within which the future is being determined.
II: What is the Buddhist take on contemplation and meditation? How was it used in Buddhist civilizations? Can that be relevant to us?
The essence of the Buddha's awakened vision of life is that its purpose is evolutionary: beings naturally seek happiness and can effectively evolve into a condition of perfect happiness through awakening to the reality of the world. The cause of suffering is ignorance, an active misknowing of unreality as if it were reality. The cause of awakening is the antidote of misknowing superknowing, insight, or wisdom. The human life form is already immensely evolved toward awakening, more so even than most deity forms. The ideal occupation of a human lifetime, therefore, is disciplines and practices that enhance and accelerate evolution toward awakening. Since wisdom is the ultimate cause of awakening, of liberation from ignorance, then these disciplines and practices are educational in the classical sense. One person cannot awaken another. No God can awaken someone. No belief can awaken someone. No meditation can awaken someone. The individual's transformative understanding is their awakening. Realistic beliefs, helpful and skillful others, meditations and practices, all these can help by supporting the process of education. But the realistic understanding that liberates is the individual's own process and attainment.
Therefore, the Buddhist civilizations developed institutions and curricula that empowered individuals. India became the most individualistic of all civilizations after the time of Buddha. Buddhist India was the first to develop cenobitic monasticism, and that monasticism developed into a network of universities with a liberating curriculum. The Buddhist curriculum always cultivated contemplative mind, both for empowerment and for liberating transformation.
The Buddhist tradition should thus be viewed essentially as an educational tradition. In its essence and beginnings, it is not too religious in the usual sense of that word, i.e. focused on the transcendent, the sacred, concerned with ultimate realities, warrants of meaning. Its goals are liberative and evolutionary. The Buddha broke with the dominant religious system of his world, the powerful religious atmosphere of the Vedic Brahmins. He found it misleading, not liberating, and not necessarily evolutionary in a positive direction. It wrongly submerged the individual in the collectivity, reinforcing the sense of social duty at various levels with ultimate sacred sanctions. It relied on deities: Buddha did not question their existence, but thought their powers to be not as believed by the Brahmins. He thought the gods had great mundane powers but not the power to liberate individuals from suffering, or even themselves from their own devastating agonies. And the Vedas enjoined rituals of sacrifice that cause suffering and death to many animals, which had the opposite of the desired effect, not leading sacrificers to heaven as a result of giving but sending them to hell as a result of killing in any case turning their evolution in a negative not a positive direction. The Buddha rejected all this, and set forth the following:
- the individual has to take charge of his or her own evolutionary destiny, not relying on gods or any others;
- a person has to face the fact that all life bound by delusion and driven by egocentric passions is inevitably frustrating and ultimately miserable, and place hope in the realistic accessibility of liberation by overcoming delusion through wisdom; and
- positive evolution has no limits, and a person can really participate in creating a world of happiness for all instead of the unenlightened world of universal suffering.
I want to emphasize again that in Buddhist and consequently Indian thought in general, delusion is the root cause of suffering, and wisdom is the antidote for delusion, hence the root cause of liberation. Wisdom (prajna) is not accumulated instrumental knowledge, but is a special kind of super-knowing, a knowing by becoming the known, by transcending the subject-object dichotomy. Thus, liberation is achieved not by believing, not by participating in any ceremony or belonging to any group, but by understanding in the deepest possible way. The cultivation of such understanding naturally became the task of the Buddha's teaching, and the mission of the Buddhist tradition. Contemplation was an indispensable discipline for deepening and empowering this understanding.
The path to freedom was said to have eight branches, eight channels of realism to gradually overcome the massive unreality generated by beginningless instinctual delusion. These eight are called: realistic worldview, realistic attitude, realistic speech, realistic action, realistic livelihood, realistic effort, realistic mindfulness, and realistic meditative concentration. These eight are grouped into the Three Spiritual or Higher Educations (adhishiksha), the Higher Educations of Justice or Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom. The Buddha found he was unable to liberate people by the sheer force of his own wisdom or compassion. He could only help them to open their minds to a new understanding of self and world; he was forced to channel all his wisdom and compassion into the educational art. So it is that the Buddhist tradition has always focused on spiritual education. The Buddhist monastery was not primarily a place of solitude, but was rather a place of cultivation. Wisdom, the engine of liberation, was cultivated at three levels, by learning, critical reflection, and contemplative penetration. First, one learned the Dharma, one moved away from one's inherited deluded mind and into the Buddha mind by engaging with the enlightened speech recorded in the Sutras and their elucidations. Having understood the teachings at the surface level, one then had to pit one's instinctively deluded mind against the new, inferential and relatively delicate understanding of the verbal Dharma, and struggle back and forth, cultivating doubt intensely through critical reflection that seeks to delve below the surface to find the deeper meaning. When this process is pursued with great energy and determination, critical reflection becomes penetrative concentration upon the cultivated, doubt-deepened understanding. This concentration draws energy away from instinctual misknowledge and pours it into the liberating insight of transcending wisdom, until wisdom's realistic understanding becomes intuitive and instinctual. Wisdom becoming intuitive, the self realizing its selflessness, and the person enjoying liberation all happen at the same time.
This kind of core curriculum was maintained for more than ten centuries in hundreds of Buddhist monastic universities all over India, and many more that developed in various other Asian countries, though India's abundant economic situation, its special gentleness and its tolerance of individual liberation were not easily duplicated in other countries where conditions were harsher. After the Indian classical civilization was utterly smashed by the Muslim invasions at the end of the first millennium CE, this curriculum was most faithfully preserved and implemented in the high mountain refuge of Tibet, where so many of the great Indian masters fled. So it is that fragments of the full educational program of the global Buddhist movement has only begin to emerge fully since the opening of Tibet.
III: What are we doing in liberal arts colleges and universities to provide humanistic education? Can it be furthered by inculcating a more contemplative bent in our faculty and students?
What we do is try to liberate critical intellect, emotional stability, aesthetic sensitivity, and moral decency. Supposedly, natural sciences develop intelligence and knowledge of reality, social sciences develop awareness of the social dimension, and humanities provide emotional and aesthetic sensitivity and mold a sense of moral decency. Religion was originally driven away from the humanities, its content divided between literature, history, philology, and philosophy, because the scientific that is, wisdom-oriented study of religion could not proceed effectively, humanistically, as long as it was dominated by a particular religion. This tradition was born of the Renaissance through Enlightenment's impulse toward awakening the full powers of the human. The new notion was that the purpose of human life as being to move beyond the worship of reality (conceived as a mysterious all-powerful God) to the understanding of reality, assuming responsibility for the self and the environment, the whole existential situation. Therefore, it is natural that religion should be regarded with suspicion by the humanistic academy today. However, without the assistance of religion's deepest disciplines, contemplative as well as intellectual, the liberal arts and sciences are effectively prevented from becoming liberating arts and sciences. People are informed and certified but not properly prepared to exercise the responsibilities humanism imposes on the individual. It is not that religion can make this contribution because of the efficacy of one belief or another, or one practice or another (including the practice of meditation). Religions concern themselves with humans' ultimate orientation, with their ultimate aims, and so possess a wide repertoire of arts and disciplines, enabling individuals to integrate their entire beings their physical, ethical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual elements. While no particular religion could, or should, dominate the academy again, the moral, psychological, contemplative, and philosophical disciplines embedded within the religions must be made available to faculty and students if education is to go beyond being informative, to become transformative.
Fortunately the study of religion in religious studies departments has returned to the humanistic universities. Study in these departments labors under the handicap of the suspicious regard cast upon it by scientists, natural and social, and other humanistic scholars strongly mindful of the prevailing canonization of secularity. Nevertheless, religion departments are able to restore to the curriculum, and provide students with the opportunity to avail themselves of, the resources of the world's great spiritual traditions for self-exploration, self-cultivation, self-liberation, and self-integration. Here comes the tricky part. This must be done in an impeccable manner, due to the surrounding suspicion on the negative side, and on the positive side, due to the special measures that must be taken to insure pluralism. No one particular religion can again become normative, its resources dominant, its approach controlling others. So a modern religion department must have equal access to courses in all the major traditions.
In this context, we can approach with clarity the issue of contemplation and the contemplative mind. We have seen that contemplation fits in the traditional inner science curriculum at the highest level of the cultivation of wisdom, first learning wisdom, then reflective wisdom, then contemplative wisdom. Therefore, it is virtually indispensable if wisdom is to become fully transformative. The question then for academic, especially liberal arts, institutions, is not a question of adding a desirable frill to their vast smorgasbord of offerings. It is a matter of their effectively fulfilling their duty to provide a liberal, i.e., a liberating and empowering, education. The ideal pedagogical process is first to learn something really well, using memorization as well as broad study, then to reflect upon it internally, assisted by energetic debate and discussion with teachers and other students, and finally to meditate upon the first tentative understandings in a sustained and focused way, in order to integrate insight to transformative depth.
IV: Suggestions for programs that would gradually make contemplation a normal part of a realistic education.
First, we should recognize that we already do provide contemplative opportunities to our students off campus, of course, but provided by us in the sense that we give leaves of absence, years abroad in Thailand, India, Tibet, Nepal, Shri Lanka, and so on. We are also aware, though institutionally it is an uneasy awareness, that our students join meditation centers, go on retreats offered by all religions, though primarily the Eastern ones, which offer these most frequently. There are also student groups on campus, usually fundamentalist ones, that offer opportunities for participation in their rituals, chanting sessions, prayer meetings, and confessional activities of various kinds.
And finally, on the therapeutic or athletic model, there are stress reduction clinics and yoga classes at the gym. The point of reciting these ongoing activities is to remember, before we consider other methods, that we should reinforce those activities that are already performing valuable service. Other strategies include:
- Encouraging the establishment of contemplative centers on campuses such as that proposed but not yet implemented at Middlebury by Steven Rockefeller. Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions was set up by its donors with such a purpose in mind, though, significantly, its meditation room was eventually turned into a library. Colgate's Chapel House was set up by the same donors, and has provided some contemplative relief in its undergraduate center over the years. At Columbia we would have the opportunity to set up such a center at Earl Hall in the University's pluralistic religious group meeting spaces I have had the opportunity for some time, but I simply have not had the time or resources to accomplish it successfully. Amherst, Williams, Wesleyan, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, I know from personal experience, have chapel spaces that can be expanded, pluralized, and contemplativized, depending on the availability of motivated faculty willing to work on it. I'm sure every liberal arts college and university has the seeds of the kind of center and process we would like to see available for the students and faculty already there within it.
- Encouraging departments to introduce contemplative experience and expertise in whatever tradition as a recognized and rewarded accomplishment in the professor and the student. Just as knowledge of a particular text, ritual, doctrine, historical era, institution, individual, and so forth, expressed in a thesis or other demonstration, is evaluated and rewarded, so knowledge of a particular meditation practice, gained by study of texts, exploration of institutions, and personal experience of the practice, expressed in a thesis or other demonstration, should be evaluated and rewarded.
- Encouraging individual scholars in the natural and social sciences to expand their researches into physiological effects of various meditative disciplines, into institutions affected by the centrality of meditative experiences, and so forth.
- As importantly, encouraging scholars in religious studies to research, translate, and publish more of the contemplative literature, technical as well as evocative, born of the contemplative disciplines, from all traditions, but especially the Indian traditions. As I have said elsewhere, here in the area of contemplative development we should not make the industrial mistake of going crazy for the hardware possibilities and neglect the software already developed over millennia by contemplative cultures and traditions.
- Encouraging media productions that inform about and instruct in the practice of contemplation, thereby reaching a wide audience, de-mystifying contemplation, and creating greater public acceptance of contemplation in the educational arena.