The Rationale Behind Contemplative Studies

Contemplative practices abound in the societies people have constructed throughout human history, and they 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.

In South and East Asia, the major meditation traditions of Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism have concentrated on the introspective examination of the mind in all its aspects and have developed a considerable sophistication in the unbiased investigation of subjective experience.1 Indeed, some modern scholars such as B. Alan Wallace and Francisco Varela have concluded that these investigations constitute a valid science of the mind.2

In the West, not only do we find traditional mystical thinkers who have devoted their lives to contemplative explorations in Christianity (Meister Eckhardt, Theresa of Avila), Judaism (Abraham Abulafia, Moses Hayim Luzzatto ) and Islam (Al-Halaj, Ibn-Arabi), but there are also philosophers and scientists who have been exploring various aspects of contemplation for over a century.3 Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty developed a philosophy of the nature of subjective experience called “phenomenology,” and included the practice of “phenomenological reduction” as a specific technique to aid introspection.4 William James, the father of modern psychology, pioneered the search to identify all psychological states including those that arise through contemplative practices.5 More recently 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.”6 There is also a growing body of literature on the application of the “introspective science” of the Asian meditation traditions to Western psychotherapy, pioneered by such psychologists as Mark Epstein and Harvey Aaronson.7

During the past four decades, as neurological research on the mind has grown, a considerable portion of this research has been devoted to identifying the physiological substrates of various mental states that arise through meditative practices that are derived from Asian meditation traditions.8 Health practitioners have made increasing use of contemplative practices in all aspects of the treatment of disease and disorder.9 Cognitive neuroscientists have examined the impact of meditation on the development of positive emotions such as compassion.10 Physicists have also entered the picture with research on the role of observer on the observed, of sentience on the insentient world, and on the problematic relationships between the ontologies of the Asian meditative traditions and such new paradigms as quantum mechanics and string theory.11 These sources indicate that there is an extensive and serious scientific interest in the investigation of contemplative states of mind and a growing body of research in their methods and effects. It is this body of scientific research that will constitute the basis of our proposed concentration.

In addition to being grounded in the philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience of contemplative experience as a third-person study, the proposed concentration will emphasize the “critical first-person” study that is often found in the musical, dramatic, and visual arts and, to a certain extent, in many laboratory science courses. By “critical,” we mean that students would be encouraged to engage directly with these techniques without prior commitment to their efficacy. They would then step back and appraise their experiences in order to gain a deeper appreciation of their meaning and significance. Students will learn to identify contemplative states of consciousness both as objects and subjects of study and will be 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 endeavors such as those represented by the subjects of instruction of our core faculty. 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 lives that students will discover important dimensions of their natures as human beings. It is through this dual approach that students will learn how to cultivate the awareness of the present moment that is the heart of contemplative experience and the basis of compassionate action and will be able to understand its scientific basis and philosophical significance.

No single department or concentration at Brown is broad enough to embrace the various aspects of human endeavor through which contemplative states are attained. No single department or concentration at Brown has the breadth of vision to even formulate the questions that must be asked if contemplative states are to be investigated. And no single department or concentration at Brown encourages the “critical first-person” investigation of the meaning and significance of these contemplative states that has the potential to improve the quality of life for our students and for those to whom they reach out throughout the rest of their lives.


1.See, for example, my own study on the role of meditation in the origins of the indigenous Chinese religion of Taoism. Harold D. Roth,Original Tao: ‘Inward Training’ and the Origins of Chinese Mysticism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

2.B. Allan Wallace,The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness. Oxford University Press, 2000.; Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch.The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991

3.Important historical surveys of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Mysticism include Bernard McGinn, The Flowering of Mysticism. Herder and Herder, 1998), Gershem Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. (Schocken Press, 1946, 1995), Annamarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam. (University of North Carolina Press, 1975).

4.See, for example, Husserl, Experience and Judgement (Northwestern UP, 1973) and Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception (2 nd ed. London: Routledge, 2003).

5.William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience. London and New York: Longmans and Green, 1902

6.Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi,Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. (New York: Harper and Row, 1990). Csikszentmihalyi’s research and techniques have gained increasing acceptance in the business world, to which he has served as a consultant on establishing the conditions for “optimal experience” in the workplace. He has also established the Institute for Positive Psychology at the Peter Drucker School of Business Management at Claremont College.

7.Mark Epstein, Thoughts without a Thinker ; Harvey Aaronson, Buddhist Practice on Western Grounds: Reconciling Eastern Ideals and Western Psychology ( Boston and London: Shambala, 2004).

8.There is a voluminous literature on the neurological bases of contemplative experience. Excellent summaries can be found in two books by James Austin,Zen and the Brain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998) and Reflections on Zen and the Brain (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006)

9.Herbert Benson, The Relaxation Response (New York: Harper, 1975), pioneered the field of Mind/Body Medicine and established the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School ; Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go You Are There (Hyperion, 1995) established the Center for Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical School iln Worcester, MA.

10.Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin, does Neural MRI studies of the emotions. Initial reports of his work on the influence of meditation on the development of compassion can be found in the collection he co-edited with Harvard’s Anne Harrington: Davidson and Harrington eds., Visions of Compassion ( Oxford and New York, Oxford University Press, 2002).

11.Early attempts at bridging physics and the Asian ontologies have suffered from a lack of clarity about the distinctions among the Asian traditions and an overly reverent attitude towards them. These include Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics (4 th ed., Boston, Shambala 2004) and Gary Zukav, Dancing Wu-Li Masters (2nd ed. New York: Bantam, 1984). Newer works show significant improvement. These include: Arthur Zajonc (ed.), The New Physics and Cosmology ( Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2004), B. Alan Wallace, Buddhism and Science ( New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), pp. 281-416 and Choosing Reality: A Buddhist View of Physics and the Mind (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1996), and Michael Talbot, Mysticism and the New Physics(London: Penguin)