Contemplative Studies Initiative and Concentration

History and Mission

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

“ The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will... An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. ”

William James The Principles of Psychology (1890), p. 463

The field concentrates on the study of contemplative states of mind and body from scientific, humanistic, and artistic perspectives. A complete approach to both research and teaching in this field must be firmly grounded in both clearly demonstrated science and fully clarified cultural contextualization. Too often the scientific research that has clearly demonstrated the efficacy of contemplative practices ignores the cultural context and social implications of them. Also, far too often academic study of given topics addresses them from the critical “at-a-distance” perspective of the third-person “objective” observer. While we of course accept the importance of this perspective, we believe that the study of human contemplative experiences must be accompanied by additional and equally important perspectives.

“ Education, in order to accomplish its ends both for the individual learner and for society, must be based upon experience – which is always the life experience of some individual…There is no discipline in the world so severe as the discipline of experience subjected to the tests of intelligent development and direction. ”

John Dewey Education and Experience (1938) pp. 89-90

In Contemplative Studies we follow both James and Dewey in insisting that a complete education should include first-hand experience in the cultivation of attentional focus, a foundational tool in most of the world’s great contemplative traditions. We have therefore developed the method of “Integrative Contemplative Pedagogy” in which we give students instructions in how to do contemplative practices while clearly contextualizing them within their cognitive frameworks without requiring uncritical belief in them. Trying out these practices at the same time one is studying the writings of contemplatives gives significant additional insight into them. This balancing of traditional “third-person” perspectives with “critical first-person” perspectives has the further benefit to students of not only improving their attentional stability but developing improved self-awareness and emotional regulation resulting in what we call “contemplative intelligence.” Work in Contemplative Studies not only increases self-knowledge, it also raises the entire question of how the self arises, as the great Japanese philosopher Nishida clearly raises.

“ Over time I came to realize that it is not that experience exists because there is an individual but that an individual exists because there is experience. ”

Nishida Kitaro An Inquiry into the Good (1921, 1990)

Initiative and Concentration

The Contemplative Studies Initiative has developed at Brown during the past two decades, culminating in the establishment of a formal concentration starting in September of 2014. During the first decade and a half we slowly built a coordinated program of courses in this deliberately interdisciplinary field and developed a core faculty teaching in these areas. During that time we sponsored sixteen Independent Concentrations, and advised more than fifty students in developing a contemplative focus within existing concentrations. Starting in 2014 when we accepted our first concentrators, we have graduated students who have all gone into a great variety of fields, from the medicine to journalism, from contemplative psychology to religious studies, from neuroscience to law and from public health to yoga teaching. We have also, working with other departments and programs, organized more than 220 lectures, workshops, and concerts by distinguished scientists, humanists, artists, and contemplative teachers.

At Brown

In addition, we have built strong relationships within the University: with the Medical School Scholarly Concentration Program, with the Mindfulness Center at Brown, and with the Arts and Sciences programs in East Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, and Religious Studies. Finally, with colleagues in the department of Neuroscience we have built the Kerr Vital Energy Research program, named in honor of our colleague, the late Dr. Cathy Kerr.

Throughout the Country

We have also taken a leading role in developing the new academic field of Contemplative Studies throughout the country, being involved in organizing conferences and advising programs that are being developed throughout higher education. Our influence has resonated throughout higher education in North America with many other academic institutions developing programs in Contemplative Studies and with the establishment of the academic association entitled “The International Society for Contemplative Research.”