Applying contemplative pedagogy: integrating contemplation into teaching and learning

I was recently sent links to a series of videos by Karolyn Kinane an Associate Director at the Contemplative Sciences Center, University of Virginia. I have not yet had chance to watch them all but I wanted to share them with you. Karolyn has kindly given her permission for me to use them in this blog.

The videos are incredibly practical and I know this is something that people are really looking for. Each video is just a bite size chunk so you can really focus on what is relevant to you.

I have provided a link to the first video but the others are easy to access from here. The later ones in the series highlight how contemplative approaches can support our development and exploration of ourselves as educators which is so important.

To give you a sense of Karolyn’s approach this is a quote from her blog:

I first work with faculty to explore those hidden values so that we may be intentional about what we are cultivating—what our classroom practices and habits (which include assignments and activities) are developing in students. The contemplative precedes the critical. We look at what is happening in our classes in a non-reactive way so we can be honest about what, why, and how we are teaching and how we may wish to change it.

Karolyn Kinane, Contemplative course Design beyond technique

You can see that she does not see contemplation as an end in itself but, as I have explored here in the past, as a doorway into critical perspectives.

I hope you enjoy these resources and find them helpful. Feel free to leave comments or questions below. If you take any of these ideas forward in your teaching it would be great to know how it goes and learn from your experience.

Lastly if you haven’t booked for the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium 2020 please do so here

Many thanks to Karolyn for her generosity in sharing these resources.

Warm wishes, Caroline

Addressing racism in higher education: some suggestions from contemplative pedagogy

It has only been in the last few years that I have come see the need to engage in discussions about race and racism and understand the implications of my whiteness. I am thankful to colleagues, friends and writers, particularly people of colour, who have showed great patience in helping me, and others, finally acknowledge this.

It has particularly been people working with contemplative pedagogy and social mindfulness (see Mindfulness and Social Change Network) who have made me appreciate the necessity of exploring racism within my own experience. This quote from bell hooks (2003: 29) illustrates the need to move from intellectual exploration of race to an embodied, experiential approach:

‘a well-meaning liberal white female professor might write a useful book on the intersections of race and gender yet continue to allow racist biases to shape the manner in which she responds personally to women of color. . . She may have a “grandiose” sense of herself, that is, a confidence that she is anti-racist and not at all vigilant about making the connections that would transform her behavior and not just her thinking.’

(hooks 2003)

Educators have a crucial role to play in addressing racism. Education teaches us about our society both implicitly and explicitly. As we move through the education system we learn what we should value and the ideals to which we should aspire. To address racism all levels of education need to be mobilised. This is not just about educating students and educators about race but helping us all to explore racism in our lived experience, to appreciate the interplay of privilege and oppression of which we are part. Yet, simultaneously, individual exploration needs to be supported by understanding racism in educational institutions which typically uphold dominant ways of understanding and knowing. Exploring racism in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) Bhopal (2014) notes that:

The internal cultures of HEIs often present a picture of themselves to the world that highlights liberal sentiments, progressive values and a commitment to meritocracy. Almost instinctively we regard our ‘seats of learning’ as institutions that rise above the inequalities and injustices of society at large. However, this is clearly too rosy a picture.

(Bhopal 2014: 18)

I now go on to suggest some ways contemplative pedagogy may support anti-racism work in higher education. This is the first time I have written about this and I share it as a working through of my ideas rather than a definitive account. I’d welcome comments, questions and suggestions below.

Understanding our world view

McGee (2015) points out that the idea sometimes expressed by white people, that they do not ‘see colour’ actually impinges upon our ability to engage in much needed conversations about race and how it impacts our view of the world. It prevents us from seeing that whether we like it or not our experience in the world is influenced by race. Reflecting honestly on our views and actions and being open to hearing stories of the world that may not fit our view of it is a necessary starting point. I have become conscious that I have been privileged enough to grow up in a world that has felt quite hospitable most of the time, that seems to value me and reward me for my efforts. My inability to hear, really hear, stories to the contrary has been made painfully obvious to me since I started taking this work seriously.

So, recognising views and the lens through which we look at the world is fundamental in understanding and addressing racism. Although attempts to address this with unconscious bias training in many HEIs have been made, these tend to be tokenistic and superficial. Contemplative practice can help us recognise our views and create the mental space to appreciate the experience and views of others. Whilst contemplative practices are diverse they typically involve stopping, stillness and inner reflection on our embodied experience. They balance the tendency to over value the cognitive domain in education by making space for the complex emotional reality we inhabit which is crucial in anti-racism work.

Holding Discomfort

Along with exploring our views, contemplative pedagogy can also help with coping with the discomfort of discussing racism and facing up to the fear of making mistakes. Fusco summarises how fear of discomfort can undermine our intentions:

“The socialization I and many other affirmative action babies received to identify racism as the property only of ignorant, reactionary people, preferably from the past, functioned to deflect our attention from how whiteness operated in the present…’

Coco Fusco cited in hooks. b. 2003.

Contemplative practices can help to reduce the emotional reactivity and emotional suppression which may hinder the progress of this work. They can support individuals as well as groups in coming together to communicate meaningfully. The growing interest in social mindfulness emphasises the importance of inner change for outer change and the benefits of self-care activities even in the midst of the pursuit of social justice (see Open Democracy 2020).

Embracing different ways of knowing

The valuing of subjective experience as a way of knowing the world is an important aspect of contemplative pedagogy. Roth (2014: 98) described how the ‘critical first person’ perspective developed by contemplative practice encouraged deeper understanding of the significance and meaning of what was being studied compared to objective, ‘third person’ study alone. Contemplative pedagogy therefore embraces different ways of knowing that take into account our embodied, emotional nature.

When considering how to address racism in higher education this is important. For Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students to feel heard, seen and appreciated in a learning context there must be space for them. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020) refers to the importance of epistemic freedom in addressing racism in education:

‘A noncolonial way [of learning] underscores that all human beings were born into valid & legitimate knowledge systems & recognizes the various & diverse ways of knowing, which restores epistemic freedom & cognitive justice.’

(Ndlovu-Gatsheni 2020)

Contemplative pedagogy, in my experience in any case, has helped me to see the epistemic assumptions much of my teaching makes. It has helped me develop ways of teaching in which the student is centred and explores learning through their own experience. Ndlovu-Gatsheni (2020), in the interview referenced above, goes on to say that whilst the physical processes of colonisation might have unravelled the epistemic project is on going because colonisation ‘invades the mental universe of a people, destabilising them from what they used to know’. It is crucial to take this into account if we are to address racism in higher education.

What does this look like in practice?

These claims now leave an important question. How do we integrate contemplative pedagogy in teaching and learning? This is a huge question, these are only suggestions.

Magee (2015) has developed a range of practices she refers to as Mindfulness-Based ColorInsight Practices. These include using mindfulness practices, reflection and dialogue to explore race with students. In this video she explores mindfulness in relation to the responses to the murder of George Floyd:

I would also suggest looking at Beth Berila’s website on Anti-oppression pedagogy and particularly the examples on injustice and privilege outlined by Susal Stebbins Collins.

Ruth King, who has written and taught about mindfulness and race, also presents relevant ideas on her blog and in her book Mindful of Race.

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education also has some very useful ideas in their seminar series including:

Cultivating Hope in a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous World with Dr Éliane Ubalijoro

Exploring Interdependence through the Lens of Blackness with Ruth King and Kamilah Majied

From my experience of contemplative pedagogy its key contribution is creating space in the learning environment, whether through short periods of silence, written reflection or mindfulness practices, during which students touch into their own experience.

It is important to remember that contemplative practices are not something we should be asking our students to do without taking the time to engage in them ourselves. As educators we need to ensure we have the emotional resources to engage in anti-racism work in constructive and compassionate ways. We need to be clear about our intentions and the values sustain us. Finding contemplative practices that are meaningful to us can help with this.

Care, co-production and participatory research

Before finishing there is one more thing to emphasise – the importance of care. I am very conscious that as a white woman talking about anti-racism work that I have not experienced serious trauma within the institution I am trying to change, nor am I worn down by the micro-aggressions my BME students and colleagues face daily. It is crucial to recognise the differential burden carried in the work of addressing racism.

As such, any engagement with contemplative pedagogy, particularly in addressing racism, needs to be done with great thought and care and follow up support where necessary. I am particularly conscious that I do not know what these exercises might bring up for BME students or colleagues. Bringing a compassionate, flexible approach that allows individuals to opt out and provide feedback is important.

Co-creating different practices with BME students and staff could be a valuable way of developing the use of contemplative practices in this context. Innovations should be the subject of participatory pedagogical research to inform the use of contemplative pedagogy in addressing racism in higher education.

There is so much more to write on this!

But I am out of space, so I will leave you with Prof. Magee (2015) who summarises the point of this blog very beautifully:

While they won’t end racism, mindfulness and other contemplative practices do support ways of being in the world that reflect less of the biases that each of us holds, whether we are deliverymen, students, teachers—or men and women with badges, authorized to shoot to kill. 

And that is truly good news.

(Magee 2015)


Bhopal, K. 2014. The experience of BME academics in higher education: aspirations in the face of inequality. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education

hooks, b. 2003. Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge

Magee, R. 2015. How mindfulness can defeat racial bias.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S.J. 2020. Decolonization, decoloniality, and the future of African Studies: a conversation with Dr. Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni

Open Democracy. 2020. Can mindfulness help us in the midst of COVID-19 – and beyond?

Roth, H. 2014. A pedagogy for the new field of contemplative studies. In Gunnlaugson, O., Sarath, E., Scott, C., Ba, H. Contemplative learning and inquiry across disciplines. State University of New York Press, Albany

Contemplation in the time of Corona

How quickly the world has changed! I am finding it a very humbling experience. It is certainly making our interdependence and vulnerability abundantly clear.

It has got me thinking about contemplative pedagogy in moments of profound change and insecurity. I hope that we can start to explore ideas collectively so please do feel free to contribute in the comments below.

Creativity from uncertainty

It’s when we lose the illusion of control—when we’re most vulnerable and exposed—that we can discover the creative potential of our lives.

Pema Khandro Rinpoche, The Four Essential Points of Letting Go in the Bardo

If Pema Khandro Rinpoche is accurate, and in my experience she is, then we are in one of the most collectively creative times we have known for many years. However, if this creativity is to manifest we need to find ways to be with the anxiety and fear that naturally arises in response to uncertainty. For many, contemplative practice, in whatever form that may take, is a way of making space, becoming aware and learning from our embodied experience as human beings.

As educators what we do and who we are becoming matters because our students are watching, particularly in these frightening times. At the heart of contemplative pedagogy is the willingness and courage of educators and students to stay in touch with the openness, vulnerability and beauty that are unveiled through contemplation. During difficult times this becomes especially important. Everyday life with its endless distractions and strivings pulls us in different, task orientated directions particularly when we are fearful. This can leave little space to acknowledge what is really going on making it difficult for educators and students alike to respond creatively. It is about balance of course, we need to engage in the tasks of life and our work in the world, but it is easy to shut down, disconnect and lose perspective.

Sitting with the whole catastrophe

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

Contemplative practices may then have a particular potency at times of uncertainty. I have found this individually to be true and now wonder about the collective potential in the face of this global threat. Taking time whether to meditate or write a reflection for example, can help us to avoid the violence that Merton describes above. When we feel out of control contemplation can provide a space for the vulnerability we feel to be held, explored and loved.

As educators the work we do with our students in these times must first and foremost be acts of compassion and generosity with their safety paramount. Given the move away from face-to-face teaching we know less than ever about the environments in which our students are learning. When considering contemplative practice with students in this context we need to ensure that engaging in practice is always by way of invitation and is backed up with appropriate support. I for one have been surprised by my tearfulness in meditation this week. When I am quiet my vulnerability makes itself known. I have done it long enough to not be perturbed by this but it important not to expect this of others, especially those of whom we know little.

Looking in and reaching out

At times of uncertainty it is important to maintain our practices for looking inwards and developing awareness so that we retain a sense of own values, intention and purpose. Yet when we are anxious and fearful it can be difficult to do this, even though it is when we need it the most. We need to heed Merton’s warning and not get too caught up in the doing of things. I have noticed how easy it has been, particularly when working from home, to get caught up in frantically checking the news, email or Twitter or purchasing things on ebay. It is as though the energy of my anxiety has to go somewhere and it is remarkably challenging to get it to go somewhere constructive!

Having warned against getting caught up in habitual patterns of ‘doing’, it is important to recognise that some of us over the next few months will see a significant increase in the demands placed upon us. Health and care professionals will be under intense pressure over the next few months. Some of us will engage in volunteering in our communities or be under more pressure at work or have to care for family members. So this is not a call to cut off in a contemplative bubble but to create moments of quietness and creativity for our ourselves and our students that enable us all to reach out into the world with greater awareness and compassion and learn to notice what we need to take care of ourselves and others.

How we will each perform this dance and how it will manifest in our teaching will be unique. These are uncomfortable times on many levels but my experience within the Contemplative Pedagogy Network, and the contemplative pedagogy community more widely, is that we collectively hold a lot of knowledge and experience that is highly relevant to the current situation. Let’s find ways to share this and support each other.

With love

Caroline; Felipe Esquivel Reed

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