- Contemplative Studies and the Liberal Arts
Contemplative Studies—meaning both standard “third-person” study of contemplative traditions in history and various cultures as well as actual “first-person” practice of contemplative exercises as part of coursework—is a new field in academia, and aspects have been controversial in some quarters, seen as not completely compatible with the rigorous “critical inquiry” of liberal arts study. While there are agendas within contemplative studies (CS) that go beyond the traditional questions and issues of liberal education, I want to argue that CS has, for a number of reasons, a place right at the heart of such inquiry. CS can be approached from many disciplines, including psychology, medicine, and neuroscience, as well as literature and visual, fine, and performing arts, but here I will focus on its place in liberal arts generally, and in religious studies specifically.1
Given my specific focus, I will skip defining some broad terms frequently used in and beyond CS (such as “religion,” “spirituality,” or “meditation”), but, in view of my topic, I do need to say a few words about what I mean by “contemplation” and “liberal arts.” “Contemplation” refers to ways of knowing and focusing attention, often but certainly not always part of a religious tradition. It includes a wide variety of practices: sitting or walking meditation, various other kinds of “mindfulness” practices, yogic postures, visualizations, silent prayer and group chanting, reflective self-inquiry, observing nature, and many others. “Liberal arts” or “liberal education” has many qualities and purposes, but the ones most relevant here include (1) reflective self-awareness, recognizing and critiquing one’s beliefs and assumptions; (2) respectful and empathetic understanding of others (what I call “mental migration” into other worldviews); (3) understanding that humans are socially and culturally conditioned, existing in and shaped by historical contexts; and (4) learning about various ways of thinking or modes of inquiry.
Contemplative studies clearly has the goals of enhancing both self-awareness and “mental migration” into other worldviews, and an expected outcome would be ongoing critical reflection on such learning. CS should and does value the analytic study of contemplative states and traditions: scientifically, historically, culturally, and personally. While few would disagree that scientific inquiry, historical study, and knowledge of sociocultural context are significant when learning about contemplative traditions, [End Page 23] there is more dispute about the value of actual “first-person” contemplative practice, both for scholars and for students in academic courses, either during or outside class. Some of my fellow essayists in this volume and many others have argued eloquently that firsthand personal experience is an important way of illumining these traditions as well as alternative ways of knowing and valuing more generally.
I will begin by offering a series of connected reasons why the latter view should resonate for a liberal arts teacher, then raise some issues that focus on the practice of contemplative teaching in the classroom.
1. There are a variety of ways of knowing oneself or consciousness and the world, and it is important to investigate these various ways, to better understand human existence. In fact, recognizing that there are different kinds of knowing increases one’s capacity for critical analysis.
2. Contemplative reflection is one of the ways people come to know themselves and the world, and come to understand the nature of contemplative practice itself.
3. Contemplative inquiry has been important to many people in a large number of cultures, so it should be understood through both external study and direct experience, to gain a more accurate (and “lived”) understanding of others’ worldviews and practices.
4. Given this broad and long-standing interest, there are, naturally, diverse contemplative traditions and experiences. We should learn how this variety is understood and explained by practitioners (i.e., their personal significance) as well as by scientists (their observable characteristics). Both kinds of study facilitate “mental migration” into others’ worldviews.
5. Those within contemplative traditions have a long history of critical analysis and argument about various introspective states, so we should learn about and attend to both the states and the arguments.
6. In evaluating what contemplative thinkers say, it is valuable to attend to what and how we...