Contemplative Pedagogy

Contemplative pedagogy involves teaching methods designed to deepen awareness, concentration and insight.

Mindfulness and contemplation foster additional ways of knowing that complement the rational methods of traditional liberal arts education. As Tobin Hart states, “Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness…. These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing….” This cultivation is the aim of contemplative pedagogy, teaching that includes methods “designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.” Such methods include guided meditation, journals, silence, music, art, poetry, dialogue, and questions.

In the classroom, these forms of inquiry are not employed as religious practices but as pedagogical techniques for learning through refined attention or mindfulness. Research confirms that these practices can offset the constant distractions of our multitasking, multimedia culture. Thus, intentional teaching methods that integrate the ancient practice of mindfulness innovatively meet the particular needs of today’s students. [Vanderbilt University]

The Tree of Contemplative Practices, produced by the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, illustrates some strategies used in educational settings:

Tree of Contemplative Practices
© The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
Concept & design by Maia Duerr; illustration by Carrie Bergman

Contemplative practices in the classroom, adapted in part from Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching
The abstracts and links below provide examples of contemplative practice and classroom exercises across various disciplines and within the broader scholarship of contemplative pedagogy:

Mindfulness: “Mindfulness is a Western invention, although based in the contemplative traditions of Asia. It consists of moment-to-moment, nonjudgmental awareness and is most commonly applied to the breath. One gently rests one’s attention on the breath and maintains attention undistracted on the breath for several minutes. If one’s attention wanders, which it invariably does, then without judgment one sets aside the distracting thought or emotion and returns one’s attention to the breath, again and again. Counting can be an aid to maintaining attention on the breath. With each exhale, one counts up to ten (1, 2, 3, . . . 10; 1, 2, 3, . . . 10).” (Zajonc)

Meditation: The research article “Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of the Research“, Shapiro, Brown and Astin (2008) is a helpful place to start to review the scholarship and emergence of contemplation in higher education. The article demonstrates that “these practices may help to foster important cognitive skills of attention and information processing, as well as help to build stress resilience and adaptive interpersonal capacities.”

In addition, this paper “illustrates how meditation complements and enhances educational goals by helping to develop traditionally valued academic skills. Additionally, the practice of meditation can support important affective and interpersonal capacities that foster psychological well-being and the development of the ‘whole person’.”

In-Class Contemplation: “What we know of learning is that the predominant factor is not merely time on task; it is the quality of attention brought to that task. If our attention is somewhere else, we may have little capacity to be present. Paradoxically, we may need to not do for a few minutes to be more available for doing the task at hand. At the beginning of class I might turn the lights off and instruct students: ‘Take a few deep, slow, clearing breaths. Let your body release and relax; let any parts of you that need to wiggle or stretch do so. Now feel the gentle pull of gravity, and allow the chair beneath you to support you without any effort on your part. Just let go and allow yourself to be silent and not do anything for a few minutes. You may want to focus on your breathing, allowing it to flow in and out without effort.’” (Hart)

Listening in Difficult Conversations: “At the end of the course, students are required to find someone whose religious commitments (or lack thereof) are different from their own or someone about whose religion they don’t know. Outside of class, with phones turned off and no interruptions anticipated, the student and the interviewee carefully answer a series of questions such as ‘What’s your fondest and oldest memory related to your own religion or your secular ethics/values? Why is this such a fond memory?’ and ‘What’s your most painful memory related to your own religion or your secular ethics/values? What makes this memory so painful?’ Each person answers all the questions and has at least three minutes for each one. …If the speaker uses only one minute of the three, the listener still waits patiently, making eye contact, waiting for any more words the speaker might want to share. Both students spend time as listener and speaker as they go through the questions. This kind of conversation can be awkward and exhausting. Students often report that they realize through the experience how little they actually listen. Often in conversation, they are instead remembering something or planning what they will say next. (So conversations are generally more about them than about the person with whom they’re conversing.) This new kind of listening is different and differently rewarding. Students are frequently surprised by the depth of intimacy they achieve with another person, how close they feel. And, in some cases, how much a person can love another and still utterly disagree with her worldview and ethics…. Refraining from judgment, if only for a few minutes, opened the door to peaceful, honest, and directly spoken disagreements.” (Brown)

Beholding: “With other art historians, I have begun to practice and teach ‘beholding,’ experiencing works of art ‘face-to-face,’ as Susan Wegner put it. ‘You stand in front of [artworks], hold them in your hands, look them in the eye, awed by the scale of them, or drawn in by the intimacy of their tininess.’ Beholding is a counter both to the usual two-second walk-by experience that characterizes much museum looking and to the analytical dissection of art. …beholding often leads to another kind of encounter. My own love of Islamic manuscripts and calligraphy has grown from this kind of sustained beholding.” (Haynes)

Journaling: Writing at the beginning of a class can provide each student with something to say in discussion and writing in the middle of a class can provide a time for reflection and calming in the midst of a challenging or intense discussion.

“In most of my classes we begin with a short period of journal writing, which is a time of silence and a contemplative few minutes in the beginning of class. I find that the students and I get centered by doing this. Then every few weeks I ask them to write a one or two page piece, called a ‘small writing,’ and then share that one small statement of where they are with the group. …There are three basic questions [for the journal]. The first question is, ‘What matters here?’ I tell them that if they ask that question of themselves in every class, they will get better grades. This question is about taking ownership for oneself in the world, and it leads to that. And that’s why this classroom is a community, because we are taking ownership for our role in the classroom. And I think it all goes back to caring. The format of this is to encourage people to care—care about the work and care about each other. The second big question is ‘Where are you now?’ This question has implications about maps, the map of our lives, where are you on the map. It’s psychological and emotional. Where are you with your feelings, where are you spiritually? The third big question is ‘What do you know now?’ This question is the question behind all traditional research papers. You’ve done the research or read the text, now tell me what you know, what you can say about it. I want the student to think about knowing on different levels, not just the intellectual level. So I’m trying to get them to write from their experience, to value their own experience.” (Heller)

Reading: Assigning fewer texts and reading the texts in more intentionally and contemplatively can foster students entering into texts in deep and transformative ways rather than using the texts for their information alone. Reading aloud and in different configurations can highlight different aspects of a text. Alternating readers by line, sentence, or paragraph provides varied voices and different emphases. Specific strategies such as echoing frequently used or significant words influences students’ attention.

Meditation Exercises

Curated and developed by Maughn Gregory, Professor of Educational Foundations

These simple exercises can be done for as little as five minutes. For each, sit comfortably on the floor or on a chair (both feet on the ground), with good posture, shoulders relaxed, eyes closed or only half open. Each exercise offers you an object to contemplate: the sound of a bell, the feeling of your own breathing, or particular words and images. Try to bring all your attention to object and when you find your mind wandering, recognize that this is exactly the moment of practice and bring your mind back to the object of contemplation, again and again.

Bell Meditation

Bring a bell into class or use one of these online bells:

Try to bring all your attention to the sound of the bell. When you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the sound, again and again. See how long you can keep the thinking mind turned off and just stay with the sound of the bell.

Breath Meditation

Try to bring all your attention to the feeling of your breath moving in and out of your body. Choose a place in your body where you can feel the breath: your nostrils, chest, or abdomen. When you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the sound, again and again. See how long you can keep the thinking mind turned off and just stay with the feeling of your breath. You help you concentrate, you may like to say to yourself “In” on the in breath and “Out” on the out breath, or to count your breaths, starting over each time your mind wanders away.

In/Out, Deep/Slow, Calm/Ease, Smile/Release, by Thich Nhat Hanh

From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, (Parallax Press 1998), by Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Not-Han;

Recite this poem to yourself, bringing all your attention to the words and images. When you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to the words and images.

Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.
In … Out … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I feel my breath becoming deeper.
Breathing out, I feel my breath becoming slower.
Deeper … Slower … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I feel calm.
Breathing out, I feel at ease.
Calm … Ease … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I smile.
Breathing out, I release all worry and stress.
Smile … Release … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment.
Breathing out, I know it is a wonderful moment.
Present moment … Wonderful moment … (repeat for a few breaths)

Pebble Meditation, by Thich Nhat Hanh

See video at

For this exercise you might want to find four small pebbles, and hold them one at a time in your palm as you recite each verse of the poem.

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.
Flower … Fresh … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.
Mountain … Solid … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I see myself as lake of still water.
Breathing out, I reflect things as they are.
Still water … Reflecting … (repeat for a few breaths)

Breathing in, I see myself as blue, open sky.
Breathing out, I feel spacious and free.
Sky … Free … (repeat for a few breaths)

Lovingkindness (Metta) Meditation

Try to feel the meaning of each line of this exercise in your entire being. Go through the lines a few times for yourself, and then go through them thinking of someone you love, a stranger you know (your mail carrier, a store clerk, etc.), and finally an enemy or someone with whom you have a troubled relationship.

May I/you/he/she be safe and free.
May I/you/he/she have peace of mind and heart.
May I/you/he/she have strength of body.
May I/you/he/she relax into wellbeing.

Contemplative Practices for Anti-Oppression Pedagogy has an archive of additional exercises.

Resources and References

Videos that Edify and Inspire

Fostering attention

Gratefulness, a video presented by Brother David, a Benedictine Monk, author, and spiritual leader.

Arthur Zajonc discusses the cultivation of attention and contemplative pedagogy

Gratitude, by artist Louie Schwartzberg

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh discusses perceptions, meditation, consciousness and spirituality

Hour-long video of a webinar introducing contemplative pedagogy

Links to Research, Programs, and More

Mindfulness Meditations links to several guided audio files to guide mindfulness practice.

Arthur Zajonc, Contemplative Pedagogy: A Quiet Revolution in Higher Education. New Directions for Teaching & Learning, 2013(134), 83–94.

Burggraff, Susan & Grossenbacher, Steven. “Contemplative Modes of Inquiry in Liberal Arts Education“, in Liberal Arts Online, Volume 7, Number 4, June 2007.

Hart, Tobin. “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom“, Journal of Transformative Education, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2004.

Brown, Sid. “Cultivating Wonder.” Sewanee Magazine, Spring 2008.

Haynes, D. “Contemplative Practice and the Education of the Whole Person“, ARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies, 16, 2, 2005.

Heller, Michael. “Case Studies“, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Bache, Christopher M. The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness

Organizations and Programs.

The Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education is a subgroup of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Their site provides event announcements, syllabi, information about training in contemplative pedagogy, and resources including research and teaching tools.

The Center for the Advancement of Contemplative Education at Naropa University aims to provide both local services and to contribute to the larger field of Contemplative Pedagogy. The center has a particular emphasis on cultural diversity and civic engagement.

The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown University includes faculty from a variety of disciplines who share a common interest in the contemplative experience.

For more information or help, please email the Office for Faculty Excellence or make an appointment with a consultant.

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