Responses to ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’: exploring critical and social mindfulness in education

Some very rich and important discussion has been ignited within the mindfulness community by the publication of ‘The Mindfulness Conspiracy’ by Ronald Purser. Although we don’t focus on mindfulness specifically on this blog, it is an important component of contemplative pedagogy and some of the same issues are pertinent. When considering how to respond to the article I was struck by how people interested in contemplative pedagogy are often engaging in more critical and social explorations of mindfulness, which run counter to the individualized and commodified model described by Purser.

Given that the article has raised some very important points about mindfulness that should not be dismissed, and yet my experience of the movement has been much more mixed and nuanced than the article suggests, I asked people from the Contemplative Pedagogy Network to contribute blogs which touch upon how they go beyond the individualised, neo-liberal model of mindfulness, critiqued by Purser, in their teaching. I will be publishing these over the next week or so.

Please do get involved in the discussion using the comments below, showing respect and compassion for contributors at all times.

Thank you to all have contributed and if you haven’t yet there is still time! Just email me.

Best wishes


PS Several of you have emailed to contribute social and critical mindfulness resources. I have added these to the bottom of the ‘Resources’ page.

Contemplative self-care for the bank holiday*

*Or anytime at all!

I am very aware that the concepts of individual resilience and self-care are receiving considerable critique at the moment. I think that this is important and timely because the way that they are being used usually overlooks the wider social and economic context in which our struggles arise, placing the responsibility for wellbeing solely on the shoulders of us as individuals.

Having said that however, I personally have benefited hugely from contemplative practices. They help provide perspective, they help me relax physically and mentally, they help me to see what I really value and provide spaciousness to develop more creative responses and appreciate other view points. I know am not alone in this.

Therefore it is important we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. The rapidly growing mindfulness for social change movement is helping to highlight how our internal and external struggles are related to each other. If we want to fight for social justice we need to take care of ourselves in that process and do the inner work that is necessary to become aware of how we perpetuate justice or injustice in our own lives.

Inspired by the three day bank holiday this weekend (in the UK), I have put together this short course in contemplative self-care which consists of three short activities a day, for three days.

It includes short meditations, reading poetry and other contemplative resources that I hope you will find restorative or interesting in some way. There is no particular expected outcome, I just hope it might be a useful exploration, a welcome pause and a fresh source of inspiration. Feel free to experiment – if you want to only do one activity a day then great. If you find one you like and want to repeat it then do so.

I have put this together quite quickly so if you have any feedback or questions please do comment below. I’d like to know what you think.

To enter the course click here.

Happy exploring


Thoughts from last year’s Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium participants

Creating our Open Space agenda, Emerson College 2018

As you are probably aware, a few weeks ago we opened the booking for the 2019 Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in September 2019 – ‘Contemplative pedagogy in higher education: building confidence and community

We know that committing to come to a four day symposium is a big ask. Many of us work in pressurised environments and we want to know what we are going to learn and get out of that time. The way that we organise the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium may not help with this anxiety – no list of key note speakers is provided, no specific topics for exploration are identified or learning outcomes guaranteed.

In recognition of this Siobhan contacted last years participants and some of them have been kind enough, with the benefit of 10 months to reflect, to share some thoughts on why they were pleased they attended.

Please take the time to look through the Sway presentation she has put together if this is of interest to you. Thanks for your work on this Siobhan.

If you have any questions do comment below or get in touch.

Warm wishes Caroline

Feedback a year on
In 2018 the Contemplative Pedagogy Network ran a four-day symposium for educators, which focused on how contemplative pedagogy could be embedded in higher education.
Go to this Sway

Applying contemplative pedagogy at the University of Essex

I was pretty shocked to realise that the last blog was back in February. I hope you are all doing well.

This is going to be very brief but I wanted to share with you the resources I have generated during my recent ‘Applying Contemplative Pedagogy’ series here at Essex. The descriptions of each workshop are in the image below.

I have uploaded the four presentations that I put together for these sessions. These don’t include a detailed breakdown of what we did (these only existed in my mind!) but you may still find them useful. Please feel free to share and use as you see fit. If you have any questions please comment below and I will do my best to respond.

Best wishes, Caroline

Update – I realised it might be helpful to see the description of each session along with the learning outcomes. I have now uploaded the document with that information too.

University of Winchester Student Contemplative Community


Many thanks to Dr Terry Biddington, University of Winchester, for contributing this really encouraging blog about the work they are doing in supporting students to explore their spiritual lives, whatever their beliefs. A brilliant example of contemplative community.

Some years ago a conversation began here about setting up an interfaith community of students and staff who would meet together, to think about what it might look and feel like, to live and work together and address some of the stereotypical thinking that exists between, and about, the great faiths of the world. Now, several years, later a new community has been launched: a Student Contemplative Community.

During Freshers’ week the university’s Dean of Spiritual Life sent out a call: “tell us about your spiritual self! With free pizza and the coolest jazz music!”

The result was 70 students – mostly Atheists and Humanists- who wanted to talk about what made them tick spiritually. While we were surprised by the take-up, and the sheer energy in the room, this needs to be set against the background of a student survey the previous year that indicated a significant number of students were choosing Winchester because of our stated interest in valuing spirituality: whatever form it took.

A large number of these students expressed interest in meeting together to share silence, contemplate, meditate – and be together. Without preconditions. A kind of contemplative community was imagined. So a second call went out:


As of today we have a small but growing community of students – Pagan, Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, “Spiritual Seeker,” Agnostic, Kabbalist – who meet together twice a week. Monday mornings for breakfast together, followed by 30 minutes’ silence and Friday mid-morning for a further 30 minutes. The group is now usually student-led, though we have set up the community with staff involvement too. There are five mentors – Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, Christian and Pagan – whose job is to ensure no one perspective dominates the group and also to share personal stories, practices and advice.

The students have now decided to add Wednesday afternoons into the life of the group, with volunteering with a local homeless project alternating with input from the mentors and other visitors. Everyone values the importance of connecting meditation with social justice.

Last weekend we enjoyed the gift of a free retreat in the New Forest: home-cooking, shared silence, deep conversation and long walks with fresh country air. We plan to visit a Buddhist monastery together in this coming autumn. We are immensely grateful to the generosity of a friend of the University who is funding our work.

The icing on the cake? Since ‘spirituality’ is one of the University’s values (along with ‘individuals matter’ and ‘compassion’) the senior management has offered the former Principal’s house as a base for a residential student contemplative community within the next few years.

This work is but part of the contemplative pedagogy work currently emerging –burgeoning!- at Winchester. Academics, professional support staff, and of course the students, are coming together in unexpected, creative and breath-taking ways to explore what spirituality means: for each other personally, as something for the classroom, and for shaping new approaches to teaching and learning and curriculum design.

We look forward to sharing with and learning from others in the Contemplative Pedagogy Network!

Dr Terry Biddington

Dean of Spiritual Life, University of Winchester,


Reflections on a critical contemplative pedagogy at Christmas

At this point each year since 2014 I have puzzled about what to write in a blog before heading off for the Christmas break. This year I thought I’d draw attention to an article that has influenced my thinking on the relationship between critical and contemplative pedagogies.

I think that one of the important areas of work for contemplative pedagogy is around making connections with other pedagogies and learning theories. I think this is particularly important in developing research on the relevance and effect of contemplative pedagogy in teaching and learning.

The connection between critical and contemplative pedagogy probably stands out to me because of my interest in social mindfulness, reflecting the formative learning experiences I have had in connecting with people who are part of that movement. In his article, Kaufman (2017) makes a compelling argument for why these approaches to teaching and learning are usefully different from each other and yet also share things that underpin their complementarity. He explores this through what he calls the five dimensions of critical contemplative pedagogy:

Unfortunately, there is not time to go into each of these here (the reference provided below provides a link to the full paper) but I wanted to explore why he feels critical contemplative pedagogy ‘grounds the political with personal’ as I think this is key.

Kaufman draws out how Friere (2000) was concerned by the potential risk, that those who have been oppressed, on waking up to their situation, then go on to become the next oppressors. He points out that this behaviour is common everyday life. As we move into greater positions of power within our own lives, becoming parents/teachers/managers, do we model the values we had wished to see when we were children/students/staff? Critical pedagogy in isolation can wake students up to the nature of their oppression, which has real value, but contemplative practice facilitates the realisation that:

‘We have the capability to choose to act otherwise. By anchoring ourselves in our own personal practice of contemplation, and by coming to realize our non-dual, interdependent, and impermanent nature, we begin to shed the “it’s-all-about-me” mentality of greed and wanting that underlies the quest for power, control, and domination’ (Kaufman 2017: 14)

In my own experience, particularly working in an academic context, I have noticed how my contemplative practice has helped to erode that sense of desperate clinging to my own success and status and the less than compassionate behaviour that this leads to. I have become much more sensitive about the choices I make and how I treat others, recognising our interdependence. In particular I have noticed how the ethics of my behaviour has become more important to me than trying to create a certain (often self-promoting!) outcome. I am making no big claims here!! I am still dragging plenty of ego around. Just observing changes I have noticed.

Kaufman makes a compelling case, that I agree with, that to create real change it is not enough to be aware of the political context of our experience. We need to experience the personal within the political and this is what contemplative practice can bring:

Once we begin shedding the many layers of this me-mine mindset, we position ourselves to be true social agents of change. Instead of working for change because it may make me feel good or because it may assuage my guilt, we engage in anti-oppressive actions because we know that our fleeting lives are intricately tied up with the lives of all others.’ (Kaufman 2017: 15)

This very much reflects my own experience and from the deep conversations at the Symposium at Emerson this Summer I know I am not alone in this. Amongst the questions this raises for me is how we create research which helps to illuminate these connections in a less anecdotal way. Thinking about the links to critical pedagogy also highlights the importance of moving the conversation about contemplative practice in education away from the therapeutic, individualised model which often dominates research into education and mindfulness, to a social one.

Before signing off I want to wish everyone a joyful and peaceful festive time. Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the network this year through blog writing, symposium organising, commenting, emailing and reading. It has been amazing to see this subject and community come to life.



Kaufman, P. 2017. Critical contemplative Pedagogy. Radical Pedagogy 14 (1)

Not-knowing and creative insight

Many thanks to Heather Dyer for this insightful blog. If you wish to comment below, or ask questions, please do so and I will ensure Heather receives them. Enjoy!

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I’m not interested in contemplative pedagogy because I want students to become more compassionate or self-aware. I just want to help them finish their theses – I want to show them how to generate creative insights. But increasingly, the more I urge students to ‘trust the process’, ‘drop egoic desire’ and be ‘open, receptive and unattached to outcomes’, the more I suspect that what I’m really asking them to do is love.  


The state of mind in which creative insights arise is a place of not-knowing. The poet Keats called it ‘negative capability’, and it requires a high tolerance for uncertainty. This can be difficult for clever, overachieving, anxious people who like to be quick, right and certain. But it’s only by letting go of certainties that we can grow.

‘Forget memory. Kill desire. Open up in the moment to unleash creativity, intuition, and even political transformation’ says the tagline of Paul Tritschler’s wonderful article Negative Capability’. Life-enhancing ideas can surface, says Tritschler, when the mind is ‘adrift in unconscious reverie’. It is also on the cusp of knowing and not-knowing that we must seek the locus of personal transformation and change.

What seems to happen during these moments of not-knowing is that we momentarily escape our conditioned thinking. I imagine my conditioned thinking to be an established network of neural connections, electricity speeding up and down familiar tracks. But if I can slow my thinking and encourage the electrical activity to spread outwards and touch the periphery of my skull like static in a plasma ball, I tend to remember things I forgot to do, or recall forgotten dreams – or have new insights. And, once we can stand outside our conditioned thinking we can witness it rather than being it. ‘From this angle,’ says Tritschler, ‘negative capability is a tool for activists: it is not only a means of self-realization and a key to awakening the imagination, but also a means of resisting the imagined realities of exploitation and social hierarchy in favour of radical alternatives.’ 

Cultivating ‘not-knowing’

As a consultant fellow with the Royal Literary Fund (RLF), I begin writing workshops by asking participants what they’re doing when they get their ideas. They usually describe activities in which they are (unintentionally) contemplative. Maybe they’re walking, or on the bus, or just waking up. I invite them to intentionally cultivate this mindset, starting with short guided mindfulness meditations in which they alternate between narrow focus (on an object or the breath) and wide focus, which is receptive to whatever arises.

Freewriting is another great way to facilitate negative capability, and is a revelation to students who feel crippled by overthinking and perfectionism. I might ask participants to think of a problem or situation they’re wrestling with then freewrite for three minutes on what they think the answer isn’t. Or I’ll ask them to imagine that their thesis or situation is a plant, and write for several minutes about what sort of plant would it be – and why.

Divergent thinking exercises throw us off our beaten tracks, too. To help students make new connections within their theses I might ask them to write 12 words relating to their thesis across a blank piece of paper. Then I’ll ask them to link pairs of words and freewrite on the relationships between them. At a recent workshop a dance student linked the words ‘dance’ and ‘movement’ and said for the first time she saw clearly the difference between them. A student writing about a poet linked ‘line’ and ‘shadow’ and saw a new way to describe how each line of the poet’s work casts a shadow, and the poet’s oeuvre also casts a shadow.

A wandering mind can be facilitated simply by asking students to stroll in pairs to discuss a given topic, or wander outside with a question in mind while looking for things that might present insights as metaphors or symbols. It can also be useful to discuss work habits that allow gaps in which insights can enter, such as making notes about a topic even before starting research and thereby priming the unconscious, or working on two or more projects at once to give each project time to rest, or leaving work to grow cold before revising.

Sometimes, asking students to simply sit and contemplate can be effective. At a workshop called ‘How to Write Convincingly About Your Art’, I guided artists through a relaxation meditation then dropped questions into the stillness: ‘Who’s it for?’ and ‘How does it help?’ and ‘Why now?’ Exercises like these may not yield results all the time for all participants; creative insight is a flighty little bird. But in every workshop several students tell me afterwards that they’ve had transformative ideas.

Embracing ‘bafflement’

Yesterday, on my way to deliver a workshop about creativity for the RLF, I got lost in the basement of the conference hotel and came across the following quote by the poet Wendell Berry, etched into a frosted glass window: “It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed.”

Learning to be baffled instead of irritably reaching after fact and reason is not only conducive to creativity but to realizing our potential as people. In the words of Paul Tritschler, ‘Whether our starting point is poetry, political philosophy or the process of psychoanalysis, negative capability is about personal discovery. Imagine what we might achieve if that discovery was unconditional love for all sentient life.’

Heather Dyer

Consultant Fellow, Royal Literary Fund

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Crisis, critique and contemplation

The inspiration for this blog come from reading a paper by Boggs and Mitchell (2018) who describe how the consensus of the current ‘crisis’ in higher education is papering over important debates which challenge the image of the university as ‘a good in itself, as an institution defined ultimately by the progressive nature at its core’ (2018: 434). Rather than enabling us to explore the university as it is shaped by and shapes the current social, economic and political landscape ‘the crisis consensus invokes the university as the protector of time-honored and -tested values’ (2018: 434) .

Boggs and Mitchell draw on a range of texts that approach this debate from different critical perspectives, including discussion of imperialism, power, economics, gender, class and race.  The reader is made painfully aware of how universities are reinforcing patterns of inequality and injustice. The historical perspective provided makes us aware that universities have been sites of the ‘production, legitimation, and dissemination of dominant ideas for emerging generations of the colonial elite’ (Boggs and Mitchell 2018: 451) and that slavery was perpetuated by this knowledge.

On reading this paper I had to note that I have been stuck somewhat in an idealised view of the ‘university’; as an organisation there to serve the public good through the creation of knowledge and the creation of educated, ethical citizens. In my mind, universities were good but were now being corrupted by neoliberal forces. I have found the development of Critical University Studies incredibly helpful for my own thinking and this paper is a valuable addition. It made me think more broadly about what we actually mean when we refer to the university. It is not that I want to lose sight of what the university could be, but I don’t want this hope to come at the expense of seeing it as it is (to the extent that this is ever possible!).

How is this relevant to contemplative pedagogy? Well, in the conclusion to the paper, given their observations, they discuss what we might do. It was in reading this that I recognised much of what we are already doing under the label of ‘contemplative pedagogy’. They draw out the importance of small acts in areas where we do have (at least some) freedom within academic life – how we design our classes, our courses, stage protests, express creativity. They cite Ferguson (2012: 232) who states that we need to engage in small acts that permit us to:

“imagine critical forms of community, forms in which minoritized subjects become the agents rather than the silent operations of knowledge formations and institutional practices”

Furthermore, they emphasise solidarity and collective effort. I feel that the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium in August was a form of critical community in which we (perhaps I should only speak for myself!) felt that we were more than cogs in a machine. There was a genuine, collective valuing of each other that enabled meaningful exploration of difference and power, that felt restorative. There are other examples where contemplative practice has been used to develop critical community, such as the use of mindfulness practice within the ‘Common Room’ initiative developed by Dr Steven Stanley at Cardiff University.

The authors conclude that we need to develop:

“avenues for imagining the university in relationship to social transformation from the minor and intimate workings of the classroom to the totality of the form of US higher education” (Boggs and Mitchell 2018: 462)

I would argue that for this to be meaningful, it requires individual educators to sense what it is that they deeply value and wish to manifest in what they do and the institutions they work within. Contemplative practice in many different forms can help in this regard, it can also help to support us when we feel drained and disillusioned. Not only that, contemplative practice can also make us more sensitive to the complex and interrelated factors that have led us to our current predicament and the part that we have played in that process. Rather than demanding simple answers, which do not exist, contemplative practice provides a space to hold complexity and apparent contradiction. I felt that the environment created at the symposium was testament to these possibilities.

I have in no way done justice to the nuanced arguments of this paper and these thoughts reflect only my initial response to it. I would highly recommended you read it yourselves. I’d welcome any discussion about it or regarding connections between contemplative pedagogy and critical university studies more generally.

Warm wishes



Abigail Boggs, & Nick Mitchell. (2018). Critical University Studies and the Crisis Consensus. Feminist Studies, 44(2), 432-463.

Roderick A. Ferguson. (2012). The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Reflecting on the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium

As many of you know, in August we held our first four day Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium at Emerson College. I had been thinking about the design of this event for several years but it took time for things to fall into place in order to make it a reality – not least having Iddo, Siobhan and Steven on board to help.

Despite having to be engaged in the running of the event, I found there was lots of time to join in. I will briefly make a few comments on some particular areas of learning for me.

Connection and community

I was particularly struck, even from the very early moments of the event, how grateful people seemed to be there.  The commitment of everyone who attended was palpable and I felt that there was a real energy and sense of importance in this collective exploration of contemplative pedagogy. I was struck by how moved I felt when others shared how much they had been looking forward to the event, it felt very affirming for me personally and professionally. More than that however, as the event progressed, I felt touched by the mutual sense of care that started to arise, even in the midst of very challenging conversations in which people held diverse views and had different experiences.

There were several times over the event that I was moved to tears, and whilst I know that I am often moved in this way, feeling that it was appropriate in the space of meaningful academic exploration and critical thought was new to me. Seeing this tenderness in others too, in this context, was a revelation. It made me feel that I was not wrong for caring about students and the education they receive, that it was OK to hope and that things could be different. To be moved, was not a reflection of sentimentality but the weight of the importance of the issues we were discussing.

Learning who we are

Before the event I had been reading about racism and had listened to a podcast on white privilege and white woman violence. This had been motivated by a study within my own department at Essex. I therefore had lots of questions about what this means in terms of education and how we make these issues visible within our classrooms without causing further division, blame and tension.

Over the event I learnt several different ways of doing this which I will share in another blog. However, what I most treasured from my learning on these issues, most notably from Michelle Chatman and Byron Lee is that this type of education can only start by encouraging students to explore their own experience, come to a clearer understanding of who they are; how they are connected with others; and how this then manifests in the world. It is necessary to move beyond the theoretical and abstract to help students see how the circumstances of their lives, and the privilege or disadvantage these have afforded them,  have shaped who they are, how they learn and what they go on to do.

In this safe yet challenging environment I started to see more clearly how my construction of issues and sense of what needed to change was by no means ‘neutral’ but emerges as a result of all my previous conditioning. My language and framing of racism as a problem suddenly seemed incredibly white, middle class and naïve.  None of us can magically stand aside to see what is ‘actually’ going on.  I was powerfully struck by my own need to do the work I ascribe to students in the paragraph above.

Hope and the future

I took away from the event that contemplative pedagogy, through which we not only learn about ourselves and the world, but about ourselves in the world, could offer an educational perspective which facilitates the creation of meaningful connection and deeper ways of knowing which then changes how we act in the world. I left feeling full of conviction that that might be the case – if it has been for me why not others.

Yet I felt at the end a note of caution, which has grown stronger since the event. We need to remain critical in our discussion of contemplative pedagogy. I realise I remain unsure of what contemplative pedagogy really is  – is it a pedagogy? is it a selection of practices? I am also unsure where my sense of its value arises from –  the evidence we have so far is quite limited. It may fit well with my view of the world but is that sufficient to warrant its use in my teaching?  Conversely, I am very critical of a dogmatic pursuit of ‘evidence based teaching’ and its underlying assumptions.

What I would like to see moving forward are conversations about research in this area and collaborative efforts to find out more about the effects of contemplative pedagogy in higher education, not just in trials of mindfulness interventions (although they have value) but in broader ways that employ methodologies which meaningfully facilitate the exploration of contemplative practice and it effects.

A huge thank you to everyone that came, especially to all those who presented and of course Iddo, Siobhan and Steven for supporting the organisation.

We will be in touch in due course with our plans for next steps and perhaps even an event next year!?

Warm wishes Caroline

Work in progress…

Hello this is just a warning that in a fit of inspiration I have tried to do some fancy stuff that will help us to connect as a community. However, it’s not going particularly smoothly so please don’t sign up or try to do anything for the time being until I have it straight.

Thanks for your patience