Contemplative Studies Initiative and Concentration


Contemplative practices abound in societies throughout human history and are an important part of the very fabric from which people build meaningful lives.

While various methods to attain contemplative states of consciousness can be found in such religious practices as chanting, prayer, ritual performance, and meditation, such states can also be found in a wide variety of non-religious practices such as music, dance, drama, writing poetry or prose, painting, sculpting, and even the intent observation of the natural world.


As we and colleagues around the world work to develop this exciting new emerging field of study and our working definition of contemplation.

The focusing of attention in a sustained fashion leading to:
  • deepened states of concentration, tranquility, and insight;
  • a broadening of the awareness; and
  • self-contextualizing experiences that are the basis of pro-social virtues such as empathy, compassion, and altruism.

Contemplation occurs on a spectrum from the rather common spontaneous experiences of absorption in an activity to the most profound experiences deliberately cultivated in religious traditions.

Contemplative Examination

South and East Asia

The major meditation traditions of Hinduism, Daoism, and Buddhism have concentrated on the contemplative examination of the mind in all its aspects.

  • in Hinduism this includes, for example: Patanjali, Shankara, and Vivekananda;
  • in Buddhism: Śakyamuni, Linji, and Hakuin;
  • in Daoism: Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Huainanzi.

Western World

In the Western world, there are great mystical thinkers: 

  • in Christianity this includes, for example: Meister Eckhardt, Theresa of Avila and Thomas Keating; 
  • in Judaism: Abraham Abulafia, Moses Hayim Luzzatto, and Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi 
  • in Islam: Al-Halaj, Ibn-Arabi, and Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan.

Philosophers and Scientists

There are also philosophers and scientists who have been exploring various aspects of contemplation for over a century: 

  • Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a philosophy of the nature of subjective experience called “Phenomenology. ” 
  • William James, the father of modern psychology, pioneered the search to identify all psychological states including those that arise through contemplative practices 2 
  • Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has persuasively argued that many cultures create activities—from religion to sports—to deliberately induce the concentrated state of mind that he refers to as the “flow condition.”


In Contemplative Studies we not only teach about these perspectives, we also teach how to actually practice them. This not only gives insights into contemplative practices and their historical and cultural traditions, it often gives students the direct personal benefits demonstrated by evidence-based research such as: 

  • supporting existing treatments for physiological and psychological diseases and disorders 
  • protecting against burnout in high-stress groups, including college students, medical students, and graduate students. 
  • contemplative experiences provide a window into the fundamental operations and potential of the human mind and consciousness. 
  • contemplative practices help students develop a sense of meaning and purpose in life, feeling greater happiness and satisfaction, along with giving us a sense of what kinds of experiences grant that kind of satisfaction to human beings more generally.

How we Pursue These Lofty Goals

  • In addition to being grounded in the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of contemplative experience as a third-person study wherein the observer is fully separated from the object of study, the Contemplative Studies concentration emphasizes the “critical first-person” study that is often found in the in the performing arts (music, theater, visual arts, etc.) and involves the ability to communicate and then assess internal states. 
  • This “critical” faculty is developed through students engaging directly with a wide variety of contemplative techniques in the classroom that provide for measured introspection and awareness of internal states and impressions without any need for prior commitment to a belief system or untested faith in their efficacy. They then step back and appraise their experiences in order to gain a deeper appreciation of their meaning and significance. 

In Contemplative Studies courses, students learn to identify contemplative states of consciousness both as objects and subjects of study and are able to discuss and explore the nature of such contemplative experiences as mindfulness, concentration, intuition, tranquility, and “flow” as they occur throughout a wide variety of human experiences. It is through studying and experiencing the contemplative aspects found in these various disciplines, through critically examining their relevance and significance, and through applying them to their own lives that students will discover important dimensions of their natures as human beings and their engagement with the world around them. It is through this dual approach of third-person and first-person study that students will learn how to cultivate the clarity of concentration and breadth of critical understanding through which to better understand contemplative experiences and cultivate them in their own lives. 

Through “critical first-person” perspectives developed in our classes, our students are also able to identify the internalized effects of cultural stereotyping and conditioning on themselves and on others. This better enables them to comprehend the role they play as individuals in reproducing these stereotypes and thereby gives them the social and emotional tools to break free, to develop new pathways of understanding for themselves and for others as they promote a more just and equitable social order. 

Contemplative Studies at Brown

No one department or concentration at Brown has the breadth of vision to embrace the various aspects of human endeavor through which contemplative states are attained or to even formulate the questions to systematically investigate them. The multi-disciplinary field of Contemplative Studies provides a meeting ground for the disciplines and methods needed to fully explore the depths of this complex aspect of human experience. If these are your interests, we urge you to consider a Contemplative Studies Concentration

Additional Information

Contemplative Studies is an exciting new interdisciplinary academic field that we have pioneered here at Brown.