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

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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