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


Why I am attending the Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium…

Exploring contemplative practices within Higher Education during times of social, economic, and environmental turmoil

By Steven Stanley

This event on Contemplative Pedagogy  in August 2018 is an excellent opportunity for educators, students and professional services staff in further and higher education to come together to discuss meanings and applications of ‘contemplative’ practices – such as meditation and mindfulness – within universities and colleges during times of social, economic, and environmental turmoil.

‘Mindfulness’ has become a buzzword especially in educational circles and is being sold as a panacea for the ills of competitive consumer capitalism, rapidly being implemented across educational institutions for diverse age groups, to address worsening mental health amongst learners and workers, and to additionally promote ‘wellbeing’ and ‘flourishing’. Much of the discussion of mindfulness and meditation in higher education has revolved around their potentially beneficial therapeutic effects and ability to enhance academic attainment. Yet, the substantive, curriculum, and pedagogic aspects of meditation, mindfulness, and contemplation – as embodied, social, and relational processes and practices – have been largely neglected in popular and academic literatures. The social conditions and contexts of contemplative practices in education, along with their potential meanings and functions in relation to broader historical changes in further and higher education, have also received scant attention. This event provides an excellent opportunity to discuss the social, cultural, economic, institutional, and political contexts and functions of contemplative pedagogies in contemporary higher education. Can discussions of contemplative practices go hand-in-hand with informed analyses of our studying and working lives, as well as the wider conditions and contexts in which education is embedded?

Discussion of such questions have now become urgent. Contemplative practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, are now being promoted by some university managers and Vice Chancellors for the purpose of enhanced performance and efficiency – cultivating ‘self-care’, ‘work-life balance’ and ‘resilience’ to further institutional goals, often during Universities UK-sponsored ‘wellbeing weeks’. Some VCs even hope for their University to become a ‘Mindful University’. Yet such initiatives are often implemented without democratic debate about the conditions and contexts which arguably give rise to the distress and suffering so common to our contemporary studying and working lives in the first place.

Recently in the UK, proposed cuts to university staff pensions prompted unprecedented industrial action on a massive scale, with many staff and students posing profoundly challenging questions about the nature and purpose of higher education:

  • How can we create cultures of care and value in the academy?
  • How can we reclaim and democratise ‘the university’ as an institution in the face of managerialism and marketization?
  • How can we challenge and rethink metrics, grading and rankings in increasingly competitive times?
  • How can debates about worsening student and staff mental health be better tied to discussions of the conditions of ‘academic capitalism’, neoliberalism, precarious and casualised labour, and endemic inequalities and injustices?
  • How can we foster and sustain staff-student solidarity and resistance, with members of other affiliated trade unions, in the face of ‘austerity’ and ongoing attacks on public services?
  • And how can we ‘decolonise’ our educational institutions, research and teaching?

Critics of ‘academic capitalism’ and ‘neoliberal’ reforms of universities, such as in critical university studies, have been slow to propose practical alternatives to ‘business-as-usual’ in higher education. Yet practical applications of alternative, popular, progressive, radical and critical pedagogy abound globally. For example, the University of the Future Manifesto sets out an alternative vision for what our universities should be . For many educators and students in the UK, the strike opened up rare and valuable spaces for practically rethinking universities outside of ‘business’ models, as well as considering alternatives to marketization, such as in ‘teach-outs’ organised up and down the country. However, such critical debate and discussion is rarely connected in a meaningful way to the increasing attention given to wellbeing, mindfulness, and contemplative practices. This event on contemplative pedagogy in higher education allows a potential space for connecting contemplative practices and pedagogies up with our current educational climates – contemplating and reflecting on the impact of the strike for all, not only those staff who were on strike, but also for those who did not strike, as well as for those students who supported the strike and stood in solidarity with university staff.

Critics of mindfulness and the expansion of therapeutic cultures within our contemporary institutions sometimes appear to be dismissive of the potential benefits of such practices for those who are suffering the most – especially those at the intersections of damaging classed, raced, and gendered dynamics. We will discuss critiques of ‘McMindfulness’ in education as well as attempts to develop social, civic and critical versions of contemplative practices, including ‘socially engaged’ mindfulness, public ‘flashmob’ meditation protests, integrations of mindfulness with anti-oppressive pedagogies, and ongoing research attempting to understand the social functions of contemplative pedagogies in institutional settings. For example, what happens when mindfulness goes ‘on strike’?

We will launch the ‘Social Mindfulness Toolbox’ – an online resource for students, educators, change agents, and activists, within and beyond universities – and discuss the ‘Mapping Mindfulness’ Leverhulme Trust research project, which is a landmark social study of the mindfulness ‘movement’ in the UK.

Dr Steven Stanley, Lecturer in Social Sciences, Cardiff University

Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium

Meeting ‘uninspiredness’ through community

Recently I have had cause to reflect on what it means to feel ‘inspired’. That lovely feeling of flow when energy for a project seems to bubble up without much effort, a natural sense of confidence just arises and the next steps seem clear.

In the organising of our symposium in August, I have, over recent weeks, felt anything but inspired. Instead of the wonderful energy and enthusiasm that came with the conceptualisation of the project I have found doubt and impatience. What needs to be done nestles within and competes with everything else I have to do both at work and at home.  Resentment builds.

Instead of flow there is a sense of ‘blockedness’, of being up against a wall I can’t see around, as ideas for blogs dry up and I lose sense of why I thought any of this was important in the first place. Also within that, more subtly, is an underlying loss of faith in my own capacities – everyone else seems to be doing amazing stuff so my contribution won’t matter/ won’t be as good/ isn’t worthwhile.

Negotiating with this has been interesting! It has been very easy for me in the past to get into increasingly tight mental states in which I become frustrated and impotent and ever more withdrawn as ‘others’ become increasingly threatening. A line gets drawn in the sand between the competent, brilliant ‘others’ and the incompetent, uninspiring ‘me’. However, on this occasion, I have found that reaching out to the contemplative pedagogy community with an honest reflection about how things are going and where I need help has been revolutionary. Being vulnerable enough to say ‘this isn’t going quite as we’d hoped, I need some support’ has brought with it much kindness, energy and inspiration from others. I no longer have to be my own inspiration generating machine and neither do I have to be intimidated by what else is going on around me. I am able to take a step back from the wall, look around and re-evaluate my judgement of what is going on and how to respond in relation to it.

There has not been some miracle shift, but subtle changes that have re-established space, enabled me to identify what I can do and thus move forward.  I have been reminded by others of why the event is important and this has been key. At first glace it seems ironic that organising events that incorporate ideas such as contemplation and mindfulness should be accompanied by difficulty and stress. But there is real danger in seeing this work as some how easier or distinct from the complexity of the rest of human experience.  I therefore felt inspired to share my experience of ‘uninspiredness’  🙂

I am particularly grateful to Dr Mariana Funes for this great graphic and look forward to meeting some of you in August.

Warm wishes


Contemplative Pedagogy Symposium





The quest for meaning and transformation in higher education


I am pleased to share my recent keynote presentation at the Mindfulness in Education Symposium at the University of Vienna in February which was kindly hosted by Dr Karlheinz Valtl. You may be interested in taking a look.

It is my attempt to pull together and develop thoughts about the importance of contemplative pedagogy in higher education and how it may help us and our students engage in meaningful and transformative learning.

Contemplative pedagogy, meaning and transformation in higher education

Since doing this talk I have realised that I am particularly interested in how contemplative pedagogy can support the development of new perspectives, in both educators and students, that question the status quo and help us see beyond accepted social norms.

If you are interested in the questions raised in the presentation do think about coming to our four day symposium this summer: Coming to our senses: embedding contemplative pedagogy in higher education’

I have included my notes for completeness and I am happy to discuss them, but please do not cite them.

Best wishes








Reflecting on Phd research with a contemplative technique

Many thanks to Dr Geoff Taggart for contributing this very helpful and practical blog on a contemplative activity that supports PhD students to reflect on and deepen their understanding of their research process. If you have any comments or questions for Geoff please comment below.

I recently ran a session for new Phd/EdD students in all disciplines called ‘making the most of your Phd journey’. Participants came into a room where carpet tiles were set out on the floor and they were asked to ‘make a picture’ of their Phd using the stones provided (of various shapes, sizes and colours). The idea was to help them think more holistically about all of the different elements involved.

PhD Research contemplative task

Contemplative, therapeutic activities with stones, beads and other materials have been known to help access more creative and archetypal aspects of consciousness (e.g. Jung). Afterwards, I gave them a sheet with these questions

  • What is at the centre of the picture board and why is this so important compared to other things which could have gone there?
  • What sort of stone are you? Why this size and shape?
  • What sort of stone is your supervisor(s)? Why this size and shape?
  • In the picture, what is the distance between the student stone (you) and the supervisor stone? What might this show?
  • How is the subject matter represented? (e.g. one stone or many, close or far apart, irregular or in a pattern) What might this show about your research?
  • How are the following represented:
    • University services (e.g. library, study advice, graduate school)
    • External services (e.g. British Library)
    • Other PhD students, friends and family?
  • Is the picture a snapshot of the connections today between you, your supervisor and your subject? If so, how could the picture show the research being carried out? (i.e. Why have you produced a picture without the dimension of time?)
  • Does the picture show a series of stages in your research, such as your research plan being followed? If so, does it also show in enough detail the complexity and subtlety of the research topic and how the different elements relate to each other? (i.e. Why was the dimension of time emphasised in your picture?)
  • Do you feel that anything is missing from your picture? If you were to do this again, how would it be different and why would this be?

I then asked them to think about the questions and then talk about their picture with a fellow participant working in a different discipline. Feedback sheets suggest that this was the part of the session they liked best!

By Geoff Taggart, University of Reading

Post-truth heartbreak and no hope!

I wanted to take this opportunity to send my good wishes to you all and thank you  for your on-going commitment and engagement to this blog and pursuit of contemplative pedagogy.

This is a picture from the blog’s stats page showing how the number of visitors (in dark blue) and views (mid blue) have increased year on year with just over 2000 visitors and just over 4000 views in 2017.

Cntemplative pedagogy stats sml

I have really enjoyed seeing these numbers increase with each year, and whilst on the one hand we shouldn’t get too dependent on statistics to provide a sense of purpose, it does fill me with excitement about the future.

And lets face it  – that’s not an easy feeling to invoke after what many of us have experienced as a particularly bruising year. At no other time have I felt as shaken by world affairs as I do now. The challenge in my eyes is not to sit, powerless, paralysed by horrified anxiety, or shut ourselves away, but be willing to look, feel and respond.

At this time of the year with the huge emphasis placed on being ‘happy’ and ‘merry’ I doubt many blogs will mention heartbreak but it seems relevant to me. To engage with the challenges we face, in fact to fully engage with life, heartbreak is unavoidable. Palmer (2009) usefully draws out the difference between ‘a heart broken into a thousand shards…that sometimes become shrapnel aimed at the source of our pain…’ and a ‘heart ‘broken open’ to the largeness of life, into a greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy’.

So whilst this year has been difficult, as result of it I feel a deepening sense of urgency. It seems my ability to turn away from what ails us is diminishing.  I know that I am not alone in this sense. 2018 needs to see the development of discussion about how contemplative pedagogy can help prepare us and those we teach for the inevitable heartbreak of being human and how collectively we support each other through that. It also needs to directly engage with the challenges of a post-truth, post-expert world in which views are aggressively expressed and offence easily taken. In particular I am interested in how contemplative pedagogy can become more critical and, slightly ironically, become more aware of itself, the way it both questions and reinforces the status quo. Is there a danger in teaching the importance of becoming quiet and still when what we really need is noise and action?

Anyway all of that aside, like many of you, I am tired. I am looking forward to sometime away from my computer and hope that you all find some time for things that restore you in readiness for the new year.

I’ll leave you with this poem excerpt:

‘Let’s stop making deals for a safe passage:
There isn’t one anyway, and the cost is too high.
We are not children anymore.
The true human adult gives everything for what cannot be lost.
Let’s dance the wild dance of no hope!’

(An excerpt from the Darkini Speaks by Jennifer Welwood)

Warm wishes


Creating the time and space to learn together

In the midst of this rather hectic end to the term it is a real joy to take a few moments out to let you know that our plans for a summer school type event have come together. This is the blurb for the event:

Coming to our senses: embedding contemplative pedagogy in higher education

This four-day event at Emerson College will bring together educators working in higher education to explore, experience and study contemplative pedagogy. It will be a valuable opportunity to connect with like-minded people, learn from what others are doing in their classrooms and reflect on our own contemplative practice and how this impacts our teaching and conduct.

2pm 27 August 2018 – 2pm 30 August 2018
Please visit the events page for more details and information on how to book.


For me personally this event seems to have emerged out of the efforts and enthusiasms of many different people over the last few years. The fact that we are even attempting such an ambitious event, for such a long period of time (taking four days out of work to attend a training event is a big ask), reflects the belief amongst the organising team (myself, Iddo Oberski, Siobhan Lynch and Steven Stanley) that there is growing interest in contemplative pedagogy. In particular that people are keen to learn relevant skills, explore their understanding of this approach and think about how they can embed it within their work with students and each other.

The event will embody what it is hopes to teach. We will be creating community, taking space, being quiet, exploring our internal experience as well as considering how our ideas and desires connect with the external world and asking how we move these ideas forward and enable ourselves, our teaching, our students and our institutions to be transformed by the deep learning that emerges from contemplation.

There is no quick way to do this. No short cuts to understanding. What I hope is that over those four days we start to feel less alone in our struggles, that we find the confidence together to wade around in the mud of not-knowing, share the embarrassment of our mistakes and the deep vulnerability that comes with risking being wrong and revealing ourselves in the pursuit of knowing something more deeply.

We will be doing this in good company, in a wonderful setting, in which we can get close to nature, eat nurturing and lovingly prepared food, laugh and have fun and learn from the unique offerings that we will all bring.

Please come, you are most welcome 🙂






Resilience, narrative and common humanity in self-care

This blog has generously been contributed by my colleague in the School of Health and Social Care at the University of Essex, Ness Woodcock-Dennis. Thanks Ness!

I have just returned from International Health and Wellbeing week at Turku University of applied sciences in Finland after giving a workshop to Finnish nursing students based on the theme of health promotion. My clinical experience delivering health promotion as a public health nurse taught me that as professional care givers, nurses are poor at self-care and promoting their own health.

Nursing literature considers this from the viewpoint of how resilience can serve the service and service users; but what does resilience mean to the individual? To understand this, an individual must first understand their own vulnerabilities, and to acquire an authentic understanding of this, must be able and motivated in understanding their own inner curriculum, which Ergas (2016) attributes to factors such as how we are influenced by our worries, bodily sensations and our ability to interact and respond to the world.

Narrative is widely used in nursing as the patient story is intrinsic to care, just as listening skills are if these stories are to be interpreted and accurately understood as a means of utilising a genuine person-centred approach. As educators we understand the importance of role modelling professional behaviours and compassion, but what about role modelling self-care?

The use of narrative in the classroom is a powerful tool for developing compassionate nursing practice and a staple of contemplative pedagogy, enabling students to realise their own proximity to a greater narrative through understanding their own story (Barbezat & Bush 2014). This interplay is the common humanity described by Neff (2003), and is the interconnection between things central in Buddhist ethics; it is also the kinship that is fragmented and missing from caring relationships between nurses (Ballat & Campling 2015). I think it is the glue that holds the wider concepts of compassion together.

When I was asked to speak to the Finnish students about health promotion, I reflected on the importance of narrative, even more so on how important it is to listen to our own, particularly if we are to understand the barriers to communication and care imposed by ourselves when we are overwhelmed. My own experience of burn-out as a clinician has enabled me to create a narrative which demonstrates my experience of vulnerability in an authentic way.

Communicating beyond ourselves and our immediate audiences is essential if we are to strengthen our sense of common humanity. Sharing my experiences enabled me to connect with others on a deeper level which was energising and humbling. Despite differences in health infrastructure and culture, common humanity was found through sharing my narrative. By telling my story, colleagues were motivated to approach me and share their experiences, enabling common humanity that I believe was cultivated by having the courage to be authentic and accept my vulnerabilities as a clinician and human being.


Ballatt J & Campling P (2015) Intelligent Kindness: reforming the culture of healthcare, RPsych Publications

Barbezat D & Bush B (2014) Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco

Ergas O (2016) Reconstructing Education through Mindful Attention: Positioning the mind at the centre of curriculum and pedagogy, Palgrave Macmillan: London

Neff K (2003) Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualisation of a healthy attitude toward oneself, Self and Identity, 2, p85-101