Reflections on critical contemplative pedagogy – two perspectives

I was excited to realise that it wasn’t only me writing about critical contemplative pedagogy in the most recent issue of The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry. Michelle Chatman, who so generously contributed to the 2018 Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium and on whose singing I reflected in my own article, had also contributed a paper on this topic.

In this blog I have chosen to include the abstracts of our different and yet complementary papers, as well as the full text PDF documents if you wish to explore either paper further. With many thanks to The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry for allowing me to share the full text in this way.

Advancing Black Youth Justice and Healing through Contemplative Practices and African Spiritual Wisdom

Michelle C. Chatman, University of the District of Columbia

Enduring constructs of inequity seem to perpetually devalue Black youth, casting them as insignificant and disposable. Critical contemplative pedagogy can help us disrupt the damaging narratives and systems that impede youth thriving, while also awakening us to a deeper knowing of justice. In this reflective essay, I offer a reimagining of Black youth through the use of contemplative practices and West African cultural wisdom.

CHATMAN, Michelle C. Advancing Black Youth Justice and Healing through Contemplative Practices and African Spiritual Wisdom. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, Jan. 2020.

The Contemplative and Critical in Community

Caroline Barratt, University of Essex

In this paper, I reflect on my experience of organising and participating in the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in the UK in August 2018. The event brought together educators with an interest in contemplative pedagogy, living and working together as a learning community for four days. A sense of deep connection developed as we dared to explore social justice, discrimination, industrial action, the neoliberalisation of higher education, and how our work in the classroom engaged with or was affected by these issues. The feeling of community that emerged from being able to sit with what was beautiful and ugly, joyful and painful has flowered in the months since and generated the energy and commitment to sustain difficult and important work. The event clearly demonstrated to me how the contemplative can bring us into a closer relationship with the critical. Contemplative practice is about not putting our heads in the sand but developing the awareness and responsiveness capable of holding our own vulnerability whilst engaging creatively with that which threatens us. It is through working closely with other educators who are similarly committed, open, and kind that I have come to see how contemplative practice can develop the courage and patience we need to let down our defences and see the world differently.

BARRATT, Caroline. The Contemplative and Critical in Community. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, [S.l.], v. 6, n. 1, Jan. 2020.

Contemplating the future…

Looking back over this blog since its conception in 2014, a last minute pre-Christmas blog seems to have become something of a tradition. Having said that, even by my own standards, the 23rd is a little late so I expect many of you will come to this in January!

Since the symposium I have felt a little lost about what to write here. The energy of the symposium was amazing but fizzled out quickly as other commitments took me away from thinking about contemplative pedagogy. In addition, a training course for PhD students that I developed based on mindfulness and contemplative pedagogy did not take off – only one student signed up and it was therefore cancelled. This has been the first time since starting this work that I have not felt a natural sense of momentum or forward movement.

However, listening to Yuval Harari talk about education in his book 21 Lessons I was reminded of the value of contemplation, of being trained in matters of attention and knowing our mind. When discussing the value of attention he states ‘when politics or science look too complicated it is tempting to switch to some funny cat videos, celebrity gossip or porn’. He goes on to describe how, as machine learning and biotechnology improve we are likely to become easier to manipulate. Marketing, whether from a company or our government, will become more effective and knowing our hearts and minds progressively more difficult.

The value of contemplative pedagogy with regards to the issues Harari raises is that it emphasises teaching students about attention, the nature of their minds and includes practices which enable students to see their minds at work. Seeing more clearly the working of the mind may support students to proactively mobilise their attention, helping to counteract manipulation. This may support their learning and academic performance but crucially also support the development of critical thought. Rather than just being critical of thoughts and views for their content, the mind itself, the arising of thoughts and the development of views are observed critically. Where do thoughts come from? What emotions or body sensations arise when I have that thought? How do I react in response to it?

Ergas (2015: 210) emphasises that the value of a contemplative turn in education is its potential to create a meta-pedagogical shift that reorientates education from an almost exclusive focus on teaching about the world ‘out there’ to include and value what is ‘in-here’ (our subjective, embodied experience):

When we start examining the moment to moment experience of an actual student and the ways in which his or her own mind deploys attention, the third-person perspective from which we tend to consider “education” begins to feel quite naïve. Dwelling in the latter perspective suggests that society can go about its business and attempt to educate, as if the students’ resource of attention is completely in its hands, and as if the student’s mind does not have its own personal agenda

Ergas (2015: 17) points out that this is not just about giving students tools to help them perform better but helping them to realise that ‘meaning can never exist elsewhere but only in the place where attention rests – in the moment’. Whether this is on the page they are reading, the advert that has just popped up on their laptop or the ‘ping’ signifying that someone has ‘liked’ their tweet. This also applies to educators too of course: what might attending ‘in-here’ reveal to us? and how might that impact what and how we teach?

Where do we go from here?

I think there are three key questions with which we should be primarily occupied in practising and researching contemplative pedagogy:

  1. How can we provide students and educators with opportunities to attend ‘in-here’ as well as learn about ‘out-there’?
  2. What are the risks and benefits of doing this?
  3. How might contemplative pedagogy prepare students and educators for the challenges we face in the 21st Century?

These are deliberately very broad. Fortunately, there is excellent work already being done – I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t the case but far more is needed.

In the past I have written about the need to consider contemplative pedagogy in conjunction with other pedagogical theories and the broader landscape of pedagogy research (critical pedagogy in particular). The more I think about it the more important it is. Listening to Harari has highlighted the need for research on contemplative pedagogy and the skills that we will need as a society in the future. This is partially being addressed in social mindfulness research but this is usually outside of formal education settings. At all levels of education this might include thinking about what are sometimes referred to “21st Century Skills” which include the 4Cs of critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity (for brief intro see Larson and Miller 2011). I am also interested in how a contemplative aspect might work with Bruner’s 5E Lenses (engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration, evaluation) and how this might manifest in different disciplines (see Kivunja 2015).

It may be that is perfectly obvious to you all! However, as someone who feels relatively new to pedagogical theory I am only just starting to realise that I have understood contemplative pedagogy in quite an isolated way. Moving thinking and practice forward needs to be done in relationship to established knowledge and thinking, informed by the needs of our society at this point in history.

I am sure these not quite congruent observations raise more questions than they answer, so do let me have your thoughts and comments.

Wishing you a joyful and peaceful festive season and happy new year.


What’s love got to do with it?

The moment we choose to love we begin to move against domination, against oppression. The moment we choose to love we begin to move towards freedom, to act in ways that liberate ourselves and others.

hooks (1994: 298)

When I first read Zajonc’s ideas about an ‘epistemology of love’ in 2014 (Zajonc 2006), I decided that this talk of love wasn’t for me. I could stand up and talk to students and educators about the value of contemplation but talk about love? No way.

Yet now, in 2019, love suddenly feels important and relevant. I have recently started reading bell hook’s work for the first time. I have been touched by her willingness to talk about love. She liberates love from the suffocating shackles of the romantic ideal and celebrates love as a liberating force in a way that makes my heart tremble. She also talks about love not just being a feeling but an action too. The idea that we can simply ‘love everyone’ may seem trite, yet the desire to act lovingly is accessible and grounded: ‘openly and honestly express[ing] care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust’ (hooks 200: 14).

The current political difficulties facing the UK have also brought this to the forefront of my mind. When I was pondering what banner to make to attend the anti-prorogation protest in London last Saturday I decided I just wanted to take a love heart on a stick. That for me encapsulated why I was going and yet I did not have the confidence to make that banner, fearing ridicule. Didn’t I have anything sensible to say? Didn’t I want to take sides? To ridicule Johnson?

Whilst there, although I had attended because I had disagreed with the action taken by the government, I came to the conclusion that my overwhelming motivation was love, not sentimental love, but an embodied sense of care, affection, responsibility, respect, commitment and trust that hooks so pertinently describes. My fear about what was being lost through the government’s action was not just about me (although that was certainly part of it) but part of something much bigger – our collective freedom.

So what has this got to do with contemplative pedagogy? My contemplative and spiritual practice has been fundamental in making me wake up to love and the responsibility that this entails. Mindfulness practice in particular (both on and off the cushion) has helped me see how fear and ignorance contain and restrict me as I mould myself to accommodate and ameliorate dominant world views, ensuring that I am OK often at the expense of seeing the realities of others. Embodied practice such as yoga has also facilitated access to my experience of heart and body where injustice cannot as easily be explained away as it can in my mind. It is felt and once felt, at least in my experience, it cannot be easily dismissed.

In recent months I have come to see that contemplative practice, critical pedagogy and love are intertwined. By engaging with direct experience and seeing more clearly what drives my actions and decision making, my commitment to creating social change grows. I can see, and more importantly feel, how interconnected we are all are. The friendships I have developed with others who are wiling to be honest about the terrifying vulnerability of what it means to be human, have helped to open my heart and acknowledge how recognition of this fear can reveal love. Bristow (2019) describes how mindfulness practice can help to shift thinking from ‘me’ to ‘we’ and support the development of equanimity and insight capable of holding the complexity of the difficulties we face. This is not to say that love instantly makes everything OK – this is not naive hocus pocus, but it does mean I can start to see the world differently and want to take action as a result.

The relevance for educators is that if we are to start drawing critical and contemplative pedagogies together, establishing deeper connections between the personal, internal world and the social, external world we also need to be prepared to talk about love. Friere in his development of critical pedagogy did not shy away from love, identifying it as both the means and ends of a critical education. He noted that education occurred “when [the teacher] stops making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures and risks an act of love.” (1970: 34), seeing his work as contributing to the creation of a world ”in which it will be easier to love” (1970: 24). However he was not explicit about how he defined love and the centrality of love in his work is often over looked (Schoder 2010).

My experience suggests that if we start to speak of love in education we also need to acknowledge fear too. Seeing ourselves and the world differently can be fearful. It requires courage and yet it is through touching our own vulnerability and seeing that of others that love can emerge and become a force capable of transformation, that can help us move towards freedom.

‘As our cultural awareness of the ways we are seduced away from love, away from the knowledge that love heals gains recognition, our anguish intensifies. But so does our yearning. The space of our lack is also the space of possibility’

hooks 2000: 221


Bristow, J. 2019. Time for new thinking about mindfulness and social change

hooks, b. 2000. All about love: new visions. New York: Harper Perenial

hooks, b. 1994. Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations. New York: Routledge

Freire, P. 2000. Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum

Schoder, E. 2010. Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of love.

Zajonc, A. 2006. Love and knowledge: recovering the heart of teaching through contemplation. Teachers College Record, 108, 1742–1759.

Symposium programme taking shape

Hello everyone

There are only 24 hours left to book for the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium (bookings close at 5 pm on Friday 16th August). There are a couple of places left if you are interested. Please book and pay here.

The last few hours have been very exciting as have confirmed part of the programme. I have included some details below to give you an idea of what we are going to getting up to!

Thanks to Andrew Morgans, Siobhan Lynch and Iddo Oberski for helping to get us to this point – especially Andrew who has been busy collating abstracts and liaising with workshop facilitators.

Monday evening group contemplative practice

Contemplative with open eyes: a contemplative visual perception and writing exercise

Stefanie Pohle, University of Bonn

Being in the here and now, developing a mindful presence, having direct experiences – this is at the heart of all contemplative practices. With the visual perception exercise, we practice this through our sense of sight, and the writing helps us to dig deeper into our personal connections with what we see.

The idea is to perceive the world around us as it is, and to leave our pre-conceived ideas, memories, evaluations and judgements aside for a moment. We try to resist the temptation to immediately label and categorise what we see, or to let our mind wander off: “Ah, this is a car. Looks like mine, but it has a different colour… People shouldn’t be using cars these days…the climate crisis…”. Instead, in this exercise, we turn our attention to colours, patterns and shapes, textures, light and shadow, no matter what we look at, be it a car, a twig, a wall or the gravel on the ground.

In the ensuing writing, we first try to find words for what we have seen. We may then write about how we experienced this fresh way of seeing. Questions to explore, are, for instance: Could I stay with one perception for a longer time? What did I feel – calmness, joy, impatience, boredom? Where in my body did these feelings arise? Did my mind wander off? Which thoughts came up?

The practice is rooted in contemplative writing and in contemplative photography in the tradition of Miksang. ‘Miksang’ is a Tibetan word which translates as ‘good eye’ or ‘purified eye’ (for more detailed explanations see here and here). Miksang photography has been strongly influenced by Buddhist teachings, most notably by the Dharma Art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa (Shambala).

You can find a selection of Stefanie’s photos on flickr and instagram.

Tuesday workshops

Walking towards a more embodied pedagogy

Rosie Holmes, University of Winchester

With rapidly growing numbers of HE students declaring poor mental health, the responsibility of HEIs to provide more pastoral care is evident; in many cases, resources are severely limited, and there is a clear need for creative responses to this increasingly common barrier to learning. Almost all learning environments in HE are sedentary (lectures, seminars, workshops, studios etc), and modern screen-based learning further increases this tendency. Walking has historically offered space for movement of the mind and body, deeper reflection and rumination; and numerous philosophers, writers, and artists are known to have used walking as an essential aid to their creative process. In addition, walking, movement and time in green spaces are increasingly recognised by health professionals as antidotes to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

This pilot study investigates the potential benefits of walking for a more embodied pedagogy: for learning, creative thinking and increased wellbeing, in this case for the mentoring relationship. Research was based on a ‘non probability’ sample of two students. After all or part of three of their mentoring sessions walking outdoors, they participated in a semi-structured interview about their experience. Qualitative research, action research and case studies were used. Feedback from the participating students was very positive: observations and interviews found that walking whilst mentoring supported a more focused (and yet spacious) attention, the generation of creative ideas, reduced anxiety and, most notably, freer dialogue and discussion, which is essential for productive mentoring. 

Further details on the pilot study can be found here.

Combining poetry and mindfulness: creating new learning spaces in higher education

Terry Barrett, University College Dublin

This workshop explores three different ways of combining poetry and mindfulness namely 1) using mindful reading to teach any poetry to students and to create egalitarian spaces for poetry exploration, 2) creating mindful spaces for reflection, personal transformation and thanks through reading and writing poetry, and 3) listening to poetry to resonate with the nature of mindfulness and connecting with inner spaciousness, compassionate values and creativity.

The workshop will begin by the facilitating the mindful reading of a poem together. Participants can adapt this mindful reading approach to reading poems, abstracts and other short texts with students in different disciplinary contexts. This approach develops confidence in interacting with a text.  The second poem that will be explored is the video of a group of first years performing a communal poem about their experiences of being new higher education students. The creation of this poem provided a sense of community, first year students in the same boat together.  A third poem will be read as a trigger for noticing and thanking all those who help us in higher education. This will be followed by a gratitude writing exercise. The fourth poem will be at the end of a guided practice and will resonate with the nature of mindfulness and creativity. The final poem is an inspirational one about writing.

Lastly there will be a short discussion on ideas for future collaboration for teaching practice and/or research.  

Broadening Perspectives on “Contemplative Practices”: Drawing on Personal, Global, and Indigenous Traditions

Juliet Trail, Contemplative Sciences Center, University of Virginia

The definitions of what might constitute a “contemplative practice” in higher education have begun to be explored, normalized, and tested for efficacy in research. Programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, for example, have been inspired by Buddhist practices and teachings, bringing them into a secularized setting that has proven to be impactful and beneficial to participants in a wide array of empirical research studies. However, which voices and cultures are currently represented in common “contemplative practices” in higher education, and which are excluded? How might a wider and more diverse array of contemplative practices enrich these efforts? What would be necessary for the academy to diversify and broaden the notion of contemplative practices? In this session, the presenter will lead practices drawn from Native American and Zulu traditions and guide a thoughtful discussion around the issues of diversification of contemplative practice. Results of prior presentations on this topic in the U.S. and in Africa will be described.

All world cultures have traditions that involve deep contemplation, reflection, and rituals or customs related to looking deeply into the nature of the world and connecting beyond the independent self to a broader interdependence that may include wider human communities/societies, nature and the animate and inanimate denizens of the natural world, and often also to a greater connection beyond this world that might be to a sense of spirit, spirituality, or cosmic consciousness. Each of us, personally, have traditions from our own family, community, and/or ancestors. Further, the students of today and of tomorrow come from a dazzling variety of races, ethnicities, and cultures. All of these individuals will also have traditions which incorporate contemplation, reflection, and practices like prayer, ritual, ceremony, etc. that might also prove fruitful for exploration and incorporation into higher education. Studying the mystical and contemplative traditions across world regions and peoples has the potential to provide our students with a much more diverse, global array of contemplative practices, being more inclusive and potentially more accessible for a wider and more diverse array of students. Just as many calls arise today from students and the public for higher education to diversify the professoriate and curricula across fields, contemplative pedagogy and curricula need to broaden and diversify as well.

Stepping off the treadmill: creating spaces of reflection and care for academics

Chiara Cirillo and Geoff Taggart, University of Reading. 

Finding quiet spaces to cultivate awareness, reflection, connection and care has become increasingly important in contemporary, commodified universities. Discourses of ‘learning gain’,  ‘measurements’ and ‘efficiency’  have been deemed detrimental not only to students’ critical intellectual abilities and wellbeing,  also to the capacity of the University to create new knowledge and play its civic role in society (Brown, 2013; Collini, 2017; Giroux, 2014; McGettigan ,2013). 

Slowing down, pressing the ‘pause button’ and ‘changing lenses’, are also important and particularly urgent for the academics, who are struggling with the pressures of the ‘audit culture’ and are being ‘pushed and pulled in many directions and simultaneously constrained by their institutions’  (Hunt, 2006, in Beer et al.,2015). Reclaiming time and space in the performative university enables academics to recover and regain a sense of perspective, purpose and integrity. In the frantic,  ‘limitless’  university, the personal becomes political and vice versa. Reflection, contemplation and care become acts of collaborative, creative resistance (O’Dwyer, Pinto & Mc Donough, 2018) and the foundation of practices to be role-modelled and applied in classrooms and lecture theatres, developing ‘more holistic learning environments […] vital to teaching and learning in higher education’  (Quinlan, 2016). In this hands-on session, we will share our experience of offering contemplative and reflective spaces to staff at a UK university, exploring ways to step off the treadmill. We’ll provide a brief introduction to the institutional context, describe what we do, how we conduct our workshops and the response we have had from participants. You will be invited to try out some of the activities we offer to our university colleagues and to contribute with your own experience, knowledge and wisdom, building on what we do.

Yes Chef! Contemplative pedagogy, culinary education and professional culture

Many thanks to Annette Sweeney, Culinary Arts Lecturer at Technological University Dublin, for this article about contemplative pedagogy in a discipline that we’ve not discussed on this blog before. Enjoy!

My question is – does contemplative pedagogy have a role in modern culinary education? In the increasingly busy professional kitchen environments, does it have a function in innovating kitchen culture?

As a culinary arts educator I have been using experiential learning in my classroom for over 26 years in order that chefs at undergraduate and post-graduate level, can relate to and understand the application of the applied sciences to kitchen practice and product design. As educators it is our professional responsibility to avoid complacency with regard to the teaching methodologies we use. Through ongoing reflection of my own practice, I questioned, if, in our modern high-tech, fast paced society filled with distractions, this approach was enough for effective learning?

At an engaging pedagogy conference in 2015, I was inspired by Daniel Barbezet and others in how they were applying contemplative pedagogy to teach in their subject areas. In particular, what resonated with me was how they were using the pedagogy in very practical ways to develop students professionalism, to prepare them for their furture careers. Since then, I have been exploring and researching how this pedagogy could support teaching and learning in culinary arts education at undergraduate and post-graduate level. One of the ideas that emerged from this research was The Mindful Kitchen Project.

Today, due to pressures of various forms in some kitchens, trained, young chefs are abandoning their career. In addition, greater awareness of food sourcing, food waste and sustainability is increasingly becoming part of modern professional kitchens operations. The Mindful Kitchen Project aims to investigate, instill and reflect on the new skills needed to support culinary students as individuals, and as young professionals working in modern kitchens. These skills are taught in ‘The Mindful Kitchen’ module. ‘The Mindful Kitchen’ is a new compulsory module delivered to all year one culinary arts students in the Technological University of Dublin- Tallaght Campus. It is the first of its kind globally, in culinary education and it seeks to innovate kitchen culture for chefs using teaching and learning. Contemplative pedagogy is central to the module design and delivery.

The challenge in designing the module was finding practical ways of incorporating contemplative pedagogy that would support and connect chefs with ‘attention’ and with their own health and wellbeing now and for their professional career. In addition it sought to heighten their awareness of the impact of their culinary practices on the environment. Creativity is also an important element of menu and dish design and thus an important skillset for the culinary arts profession. Allowing the mind to settle can give rise to creativity, and so the module seeks to create a mindful space to nurture creativity. The role of the educator is to provide the environment to support all these activities in order that students can integrate their experience into their learning.

The delivery of the module was divided into two parts, the first is Mindful Kitchen Practice and the second Chef Self-care and kitchen culture. In the mindful kitchen practice, students are introduced to a wide range of mindful resources e.g. chef yoga, breathing techniques and Qigong, which can be used for chef health and wellbeing. Through the use of mindful practical challenges, creativity is supported and they are encouraged to be more mindful with regard to food sourcing, food production, food waste, presentation and eating. The awareness and insights gained form the foundation for their discussions on their own self-care, interactions in kitchen teams, kitchen culture and overall reflective practice.

Students responded positively to the module demonstrating a greater awareness of themselves and acknowledging the potential of the approach. As a lecturer, it has been inspiring and rewarding to use this pedagogy in such a practical way and to witness student engagement and insights. Ongoing research and reflection is required to assess the full impact and value on student learning and professional practice. As the culinary saying goes ‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’!

By Annette Sweeney, Culinary Arts Lecturer at Technological University Dublin

‘The Mindful Kitchen’ module recently won the 2019 Jennifer Burke Award for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

Overview of the programme through a 5 minute video:

The Mindful Kitchen: Innovating kitchen culture for chefs, using teaching and learning


Waking up to suffering and the possibility of change

I had been reflecting for several days on how to bring this series of responses to the ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ to a close when I randomly opened a booked of poetry on ‘Singapore’ by Mary Oliver. I will let you read it before I explain why I thought it relevant.

Mary Oliver

In Singapore, in the airport,
A darkness was ripped from my eyes.
In the women’s restroom, one compartment stood open.
A woman knelt there, washing something in the white bowl.

Disgust argued in my stomach
and I felt, in my pocket, for my ticket.

A poem should always have birds in it.
Kingfishers, say, with their bold eyes and gaudy wings.
Rivers are pleasant, and of course trees.
A waterfall, or if that’s not possible, a fountain rising and falling.
A person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.

When the woman turned I could not answer her face.
Her beauty and her embarrassment struggled together,
and neither could win.
She smiled and I smiled. What kind of nonsense is this?
Everybody needs a job.

Yes, a person wants to stand in a happy place, in a poem.
But first we must watch her as she stares down at her labor,
which is dull enough.
She is washing the tops of the airport ashtrays, as big as hubcaps,
with a blue rag.
Her small hands turn the metal, scrubbing and rinsing.
She does not work slowly, nor quickly, like a river.
Her dark hair is like the wing of a bird.

I don’t doubt for a moment that she loves her life.
And I want her to rise up from the crust and the slop and
fly down to the river.
This probably won’t happen.
But maybe it will.
If the world were only pain and logic, who would want it?

Of course, it isn’t.
Neither do I mean anything miraculous, but only
the light that can shine out of a life. I mean
the way she unfolded and refolded the blue cloth,
The way her smile was only for my sake; I mean
the way this poem is filled with trees, and birds.

First featured in Poetry July 1988, freely available through Poetry Foundation


This poem captures for me something fundamental about the social and critical aspects of mindfulness practice – that mindfulness practice can wake us up to suffering, our own and others. It can ‘rip darkness’ from our eyes. It also points to our preference for poems which help us ‘stand in a happy place’ which unknowingly, yet beautifully captures the tension between a mindfulness which connects us to a ‘happy place’ yet fails to develop real awareness.

My own practice has helped me to become aware of the discomfort I feel in situations like those described so poignantly above. It is through the very personal and painful exploration that deep mindfulness practice encourages that I have come to see my own prejudice, privilege and self-absorption. I have come to see how heavily edited by version of ‘reality’ was (is!?), how the strong sense of self-determination in my understanding of my life course led to complacency, disconnection and a undervaluing of others.

Purser notes that mindfulness has been promoted in such a way that personal stress has been disconnected from societal causes. This is not without foundation in some contexts, but I have found that mindfulness practice has provided me with a way to see societal causes of suffering more clearly, as well as acknowledge my own role in perpetuating those stresses for others and the planet. For me mindfulness has collapsed the distinction between the personal and social so that work to create change ‘out there’ is not distinct from creating change ‘in here’. For me this has simultaneously led to greater activity and engagement in the world to acknowledge and address the challenges we face as well as a more sincere commitment to personal practice.

Later in the article Purser describes how ‘proponents of mindfulness believe that the practice is apolitical’ and that this underlies many of the issues he raises. I admit that it has taken me some time (and a little help from my friends!) to come to understand just how political it is and how it is intertwined with concerns about the weaponisation of resilience and the responsibilisation of wellbeing.

I have confidence from the responses to the article that there are growing numbers of individuals within the mindfulness movement, as well as those interested in contemplative pedagogy, who do consider it to be political. However, it is important that we are not complacent; that we are open to the valuable critique offered by Purser so that we stay awake, aware of different challenges and view points so that opportunities for meaningful change are not lost.

Thanks to everyone for your contributions in this important debate.


Mindfulness as a prosocial movement

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Joey Weber at the University of Bolton Manchester

Mindfulness should be taught through a social and critical lens, because there is no other authentic way of doing it. Ron’s article raised important questions of how mindfulness is manipulated in contemporary society. The underlying factor when considering whether mindfulness has become a new age neo-liberal weapon, or an expansive form of person-centred social activism, is the way in which it is used. Ron’s article I hope improves current practice, rather than putting people off. The questions raised by Purser, place emphasis on both the teachers and participants intrinsic motivations. If it is solely translated as a stress reduction technique it will yield those benefits, or if it is used unwisely to indirectly increase workloads and shift onus onto the individual, rather than look towards wider society then it may unfortunately do that too. I teach mindfulness to various health care professionals in higher education and find that it cuts across socio-economic boundaries and inequalities

When I teach mindfulness, I highlight the usefulness of mindfulness for participants personal and professional lives but also promote it as a transformative tool to improve self. Mindfulness without compassion can be merely attentional training. Mindfulness, with self-compassion, compassion, and taught with equanimity can be transformational. This is the mindfulness I am akin too and it is worth reminding that Kabat-Zinn himself says there is no ‘mindfulness’ without ‘heartfulness’.  There is a mindfulness found in all the major religions, and without debating how much or which translation the ‘right’ and one true ‘mindfulness’ is found, one must remember that contemporary mindfulness is not without nuances. It is noteworthy then to also consider how religion or ‘ordered thought’ also relies on other extensive teachings such as compassion. Thus, I argue mindfulness is not an authentic ‘package’ without the purposeful cultivation of compassion and other such virtuous qualities. In terms of social and critical mindfulness, the cultivation of such qualities and extensive self-awareness becomes a platform to mediate between self and other – the individual and the social.

The significant quandary is how efficacious mindfulness is in kicking back against socio-economic inequalities rather than being a commodified product of neoliberalism. The answer to this becomes dependant on the participants’ intrinsic motivation but also the context in which it is taught. Like a ‘dot to dot’ – teaching the basics of meditation, the theoretical concept and prosocial qualities, it is up to the students to join the dots and take from it what they want. In my experience, when teaching mindfulness, participants become free to examine the nature of their own experience, and to question their realities but only if directed to by themselves.

 There is liberation in quieting the mind; an individual may experience a potential reordering of priorities and an ethical shift in awareness towards one’s own thoughts and subsequent actions. Stepping outside of the regular stream of consciousness is beyond concept. Neoliberalism is essentially just a solidified concept; it holds no intrinsic power over anyone other than what the individual enables. However, due to the oppressive power structures it manifests, perhaps mindfulness true role mediates between individual acceptance and prosocial activism. With heightened awareness, a person may begin to question the nature of their reality and in turn integrate mindfulness with social activism. Thus, in this light, mindfulness can move from the personal to the political.

In Buddhism, (and I use Buddhism because Kabat-Zinn openly confirms how mindfulness was inspired by Zen) the root meaning of mindfulness in Pali must be remembered – to enhance the minds attention on an object in working memory. However, one must not forget that in Buddhism, mindfulness is only a segment of a much larger psychological process that includes the development of compassion and altruism and ultimately to evolve self. Often, this onus, is often overlooked by contemporary mindfulness’s attentional counterpart and perhaps it is up to deeper teachings of equanimity to link focussed attention to the cultivation of compassion. Equanimity explores how individual discrimination faculties solidify judgements and teaching around this enables an individual to lessen their cognitive rigidity and in turn find unanimous compassion. Teaching in this way, suggests mindfulness is a prosocial activity. Yet, contemporary mindfulness must be open enough to recognise its shortcomings. More psychologically informed clinical and operational definitions to discuss consciousness must be brought to attention and be rigorously scientifically tested.

By Joey Weber at the University of Bolton

Nurturing change through mindfulness ‘one person at a time’

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Roberta Pughe Clinical Director at  The Center for Relationship, LLC.

I have been teaching mindfulness and contemplative practice since 1996 integrating techniques from psychology, theology, shamanism and mindfulness.  Let me begin by stating first that mindfulness is designed to create awareness that actually mobilizes activism and offers a basis for “talking back” to socio/cultural norms that are not serving the evolutionary advancement of a just society.  My education is rooted in both Theology and Psychology and interestingly enough, all cultures, cross culturally, have a mindfulness and contemplative practice fundamentally rooted in their understanding of the world. 

Mindfulness is absolutely not rooted in Buddhism alone.  That belief is a western misnomer.  Most cultures agree that mindfulness and contemplative practice support the emergence of the Soul and thereby elevates and inspires humans to embody “soulful characteristics” which are ironically both generically and cross-culturally similar.  According to Sri Aurobindo & The Mother’s teachings these characteristics are specifically named as:  Sincerity.  Humility.  Gratitude.  Perseverance.  Aspiration.  Receptivity.  Progress.  Courage.  Goodness.  Generosity.  Equality.  Peace. 

An individual mindful/contemplative practice supports the emergence of these characteristics within the individual which according to psychology’s Systems Theory has the potential to foster and nurture the actualization of these characteristics within the local community and the larger world – one person at a time.  This is not magical thinking.   This is, in fact, how psychology’s Systems Theory and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (and its subset, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) describe a cognitive shift of paradigm which effects constructive behavioral change.  American Psychiatrist Murray Bowen and others, within the field of Marriage and Family Therapy’s contribution to Psychology, focused on the interdependence of individuals within the larger system to help understand, actualize and optimize the larger group as a whole.  This model suggests that improving relationships and working more efficiently toward a common goal, such as peace, harmony, morality, health, etc., are possible results.  The Huichol Shamans teach their practice through the “3 legged drum” to remind us that we do this work for ourselves, for the community (both local and global) and for Mother Earth, hence the three legs.

This conceptualization is rooted foundationally in the philosophical notion of Soul Loss, this is not something as the author states that “is in our heads”.  For most humans, soul loss is a real experience.  Individualization and neo-liberalization of personhood is a symptom of soul loss which mindful/contemplative practice seeks to talk back to, thereby, fostering soul retrieval which includes above stated characteristics that can help to foster a soulful society.  The retrieval of soul characteristics and the cultivation of an open heart  (my training/teaching comes through the traditions of Thomas Merton/Christian Mysticism, Sri Aurobindo & The Mother, Kundalini Yogic Philosophy, the Sufis, the Huichol Shamans & Celtic Shamanism) can actually interrupt destructive cognition/affect/behaviors rooted in thinking “only about the self as the priority”.   The phenomenology of subjective experience is essential in this case, supporting a daily devotional practice, having the potential to alter perception as to the meaning and understanding of this practice of mindfulness — from the inside-out.

Humbly and respectfully submitted,

Roberta Pughe (PhD student in Higher Education), EdS, MA, LMFT

Founder:  The School of Embodied Enlightenment

Clinical Director:  The Center for Relationship, LLC, Princeton, New Jersey, USA 

‘We are all implicated’: the need for deep critical reflection in the mindfulness movement

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Dr Patricia Morgan at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.

For me there are two central points I think Ron Purser makes in his article “The mindfulness conspiracy” recently published in the Guardian. Firstly, that stripping the practice of mindfulness from Buddhism means it has been removed from, as Purser says: “the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”  To some extent, new movements now associated with applications of Mindfulness in education such as: Social and Emotional Learning, Compassion Cultivation Training, and Social Justice concepts and practices, aim to ameliorate this though often they too have been quickly codified, commodified and commercialized.  

Secondly, Purser raises concerns about the commercialization of mindfulness, known by some as McMindfulness, where mindfulness is presented as a “tool” to be applied by individuals to themselves when they struggle or burn out, so they can quickly return to full productivity.  The fact that this struggle can be an outcome of pressures applied by the economic structures and institutions of Capitalism is ignored.  Mindfulness therefore becomes, according to Purser, “a tool of self-discipline, disguised as self-help. Instead of setting practitioners free, it helps them adjust to the very conditions that caused their problems.” 

Importantly, for those working in Contemplative Education and Inquiry, Purser continues: “A truly revolutionary movement would seek to overturn this dysfunctional system, but mindfulness only serves to reinforce its destructive logic.”  He rightly points to the way we are all implicated in the very system producing the problems we are attempting to solve through our work in contemplative inquiry and education.  This is core to the critical mindfulness movement that Purser is a part of and something I believe we need to urgently address.  For me this means moving into critical deep reflection, asking questions such as is my work in Contemplative Education and Inquiry adding to, maintaining or ameliorating the negative impacts of economic rationalism in education?

By Dr Patrica Morgan, University of New South Wales, Sydney

Mindfulness, personal integrity and overcoming self-interest

A response to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ from Dr Karen Blakely at the University of Wincester

In 1992 Fukayama wrote about the end of history.  There was no more to say – the debate had been won by capitalism, hands down.  From the vantage point of post 2008, we may laugh at this hubris but when we do this, we forget something very important: we are teaching Thatcher’s kids and their kids and their grandkids.  For these generations, the market, competition, survival of the fittest is not a paradigm, it is the truth.  It is, using Schein ’s phrase to describe culture, ‘how things work around here’.  For baby boomers, this is often difficult to acknowledge and we complain about how lacking in criticality students are today.

One way of cultivating critique is to use the spirituality lens.   For example, when I help my students study business ethics, we typically look at classical models of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, human rights theory and the ethics of care. Then we study behavioural ethics that tells us that, whatever beliefs human beings espouse, they will act in their self-interest as long as they don’t have to sacrifice their views of themselves as ultimately ‘good’ people (this leaves a lot of leeway). Basically, we know what the right thing to do is, but because we are human beings we don’t do it – so if everyone’s pursuing their self-interest why should anyone care about social justice, planetary extinction and climate change?

In teaching we draw on ideas around mindfulness (but not ignoring their roots in Buddhism and Hinduism) and we ask students about a typical day. They describe getting up, looking at social media, washing, looking at social media, getting dressed, eating whilst looking at social media, travelling to work/uni whilst looking at social media, entering the classroom whilst looking at social media, looking at social media whilst partly paying attention to the class, and exiting the class with friends chatting about what was on social media. 

When asked to describe this state of mind, students invariably use the word ‘trance’. When asked how much of their day is spent in trance, they say up to 90%. When asked how they behave when in trance they acknowledge that they are reacting to conditioning – reacting, buying, comparing, judging, liking, buying, copying others, liking, buying.  What a perfect recipe for consumerism – create an all-embracing paradigm of ‘you are what you buy’, cultivate insecurity through the use of celebrity role models, drawing on the natural human tendency to compare, inculcate a trance-like state through social media, and then brainwash the young into buying stuff in order to meet the emptiness they feel inside. 

But how then do we come to know the right thing to do? Our society is telling us that the right thing to do is compare, judge and buy. This is where mindfulness can make a contribution.  The only way our young people can know is to look inward and connect with their inner selves – their conscience, their courage, their sense of justice and righteousness. But how do you connect with your inner sense when your inner world is being bombarded by capitalism. What chance do our young people have?  The only chance they have is to connect to their own sense of right and wrong, to talk about this with others, to listen to themselves, to value their inner voices and then to gain the confidence to act – not react. 

At the other end of the scale I see friends growing old, too scared to say what they think and what they feel, and continuing to suppress their rage at the way they have been manipulated to live their lives.  The one thing that Marx under-estimated was the power of the capitalist state to manipulate identity.  Mindfulness, in a critical framework, offers us a way to help the young to pursue personal integrity.  I don’t know of any other way of doing this.

By Dr Karen Blakely at the University of Winchester