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  • Andrea Sangiacomo

Contemplative practices in public education

'Contemplative practices' is an umbrella term that can be used to refer to a number of various methods, generally aimed at inducing some sort of personal transformation in the practitioner (which is what any 'practice' would do) based on a feedback mechanism between deliberate actions and a reflective attitude about those same actions (which expresses the 'contemplative' component implied in the term).


Contemplative practices should not be understood in opposition to 'active' forms of engagement in the world, since contemplative practices mostly reject the practical-theoretical divide (and also the idea of 'passive contemplation' vs. 'active action'). In some case, contemplative practice might take a decidedly 'quiet' tone and it could reveal little action taking place at the outside of the practitioner. Nonetheless, this is often because, in these circumstances, the practitioner is engaged with very subtle layers of activity, mostly rooted at the mental and intentional level, which are best tackled when grosser, external actions are suspended.


What is more distinctive of contemplative practices is the idea of taking ordinary experience (or the fact of having any experience at all) as a sort of laboratory, which could be used to investigate, deepen, and challenge various ways in which the practitioner usually understands, interprets, and deals with that experience. This is done by applying specific devices, which mostly consists in creating certain restraints on how the fundamental ingredients of experience (the body, the breath, feelings, perceptions, intentions, thoughts, consciousness itself) work, in order to reveal underpinning and otherwise hidden mechanisms, or simply alternative possibilities.


Most contemplative practices developed within what are now regarded 'world religions', including Hinduism (the modern heir of ancient Brahminic culture), Buddhism (in its multifarious branches), Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and surely many more local and small-scale 'religions'. Oftentimes, the historical records show that contemplative practices were developed first, and later integrated in more institutionalized religious structure, and perhaps it is possible to envisage forms of religion (e.g. the Greek or Roman official cults) that do not necessarily include contemplative practices.


Since the early modern period, the West had been struggling with a progressive divorce of political and religious structures, which can go under the broad notion of 'secularization.' Today, in most Western countries, political and religious institutions are regarded as separate and standing on independent grounds, although this does not prevent (nor forbid) the fact that they can interact or clash with one another. One domain in which this divide has become particularly apparent is surely that of 'public' education (although there are also certain institutions working in public education that do endorse religious values, more or less explicitly or thoroughly). Hence, the question arises: isn't it the case that by introducing contemplative practices in public education, we're also blurring the divide between secular society and religion?


This is an important question, but in order to be answered properly, some qualifications are necessary. First, why should (and not just could) contemplative practices be introduced in public education? The long answer will have to wait for another occasion, but the short answer is this. Public education should aim at fostering the flourishing of young human beings in their full potential and spectrum of possibilities. However, this goal has been increasingly twisted towards a more technical and informational approach, in which public eduction actually consists in providing graded amounts of information and developing skills needed to manipulate that information and fulfill current societal demands (especially, if possible, in terms of job market or other financial demands).


This is not necessarily a problem per se, but it can become worrisome when it is taken to the extreme of neglecting the simple fact that human beings are not just technical apparata and their potential goes far beyond what is immediately 'useful' (in economical or societal terms). There is a rich and complex dimension of being human, which concerns metacognitive skills (how to pay attention, how to interpret one's own experience), emotional intelligence (how to recognize, interpret and enact emotions, how to select among them), and ultimately a sense of freedom (personal, intellectual, emotional), which must be included somehow in the education process in order for the more 'useful' skills and information to find an appropriate context, receive meaning, and be handled in sustainable ways. Contemplative practices contribute to develop precisely these 'soft' skills, and that is why they should be included in public education.


Second, it is also important to reiterate that the Western construction of a more secular and religious-free education can be regarded as an important achievement, that needs to be defended and fostered. Any religious ideology inevitably rely (in a way or another) on some form of group-formation, and hence inevitably entails also some form of group-exclusion. If secular public education has at least one benefit, it is that of aiming (at least in theory) to be more inclusive and capable of addressing all new members of the young generations on an equal footing, for what they are as human beings, and not for who they are as followers or members of this or that particular religious group. This inclusiveness is even more dramatically needed today, as our Western societies start to acknowledge that in fact they are extremely diverse (and perhaps they have been so since awhile already).


But then, again, wouldn't the introduction of contemplative practices in secular public education undermine the value of inclusiveness in the name of cultivating 'soft' skills?


The core move to make in order to answer, is to resolutely dissociate contemplative practices as such from religion. To use a working definition, religion is a social phenomenon (mostly modeled on Western paradigms) in which a certain social structure is constructed around core commitments, beliefs, ideas, and often charismatic leaders (past or present). This structure is underpinning by a specific hierarchy, a bureaucracy, an ideology, and possibly by specific events, rituals, and other devices used to support and foster group identity. Contemplative practices might be included in this construction.


However, contemplative practice can also be dissociated from religious contexts and organizations. There is surely a way in which religious institutions might create pressures on contemplative practices, creating a sort of feedback in which the practice is used to confirm or lend validity to the institution itself. Nevertheless, most practices have been developed before the institutionalization of religions, and ultimately deal with basic components of experience that are so general that can hardly be associated with a particular religion more than with anything else in human life. Moreover, it should be noticed that historical transmissions are often gappy and (ideological claims for the contrary notwithstanding) very few religious traditions today (including contemporary Buddhist traditions) can claim that what they practice has been transmitted through an unbroken chain from their origins up until today.


What we actually have are historical records (open to public informed scrutiny), and contemporary traditions more or less explicitly inspired by those records. In several cases, contemplative practices remain interpretations and constructions (sometimes very faithful, sometimes quite inventive) of what older practices might have been. But this issue of seeking the 'origins' should not concern someone whose aim is not that of ensuring a ground for trust in the 'purity' of the lineage of their own religious affiliation, but rather that of seeking what works and what doesn't in terms of better understanding experience and skillfully manipulating it for the sake of greater mental and personal freedom.


In this sense, the introduction of contemplative practices in public education should not pose any threat for the secular and inclusive nature of the latter, provided that these practices are approached in their own right, rather than as means for religious proselytism. However, for this to work, a few extra constraints need to be in place:


(1) abide by the historico-philosophical method: in most cases, the root sources for certain practices can be found only in ancient texts, which usually inspired various different lineages, in which the same practice might be articulated differently. These differences are not to be rejected a priori, of course, but they are best assessed when confronted with the root texts. In turn, these texts cannot be understood on a purely philological and historical basis (although this basis is necessary). Contemplative practices deal with human experience, and it is impossible to make any step further if we do not assume that human beings roughly share a very fundamental experiential makeup, which is surely open to huge variations and alterations due to various parameters (historical period, social context, cultural and intellectual milieu etc.), and yet remains the same in its fundamentals across all these differences. For instance, if in reading the discourses of the Buddha we do not assume that the Buddha had a similar human make-up to that of someone living today in the West, we're stuck in historical isolationism, and nothing in the interpretation of the discourses will move beyond the level of a sheer semantic game. But if we do take into serious account this shared experiential background, then the constraint with respect to which we should interpret historical sources is how they relate to what can be actually experienced.


This is a tricky point, because contemplative practices are practices, namely, they require time and commitment to bear fruit, and one should not be too quick in dismissing something as 'not working' for the simple fact that one is not actually practicing it (or did not practice it enough). How to assess sources against experience luckily remains an open-ended question, but this is an important question, perhaps the most important to keep in mind when dealing with contemplative practices.


Nonetheless, abiding by the historico-philosophical method should also make one suspicious of too simplistic attempts at just extrapolating certain practices from complex historical contexts and repackage them in a secularized form, now easy to spread and to sell. There is nothing wrong, per se, in innovating or being selective. Something goes wrong, though, when this is done either within an aura of bad faith (in which the part that has been extracted is sold as the whole to which it used to belong), or for purely commercial purposes (making something 'easier' or 'smoother' so that 'everybody can benefit', but actually meaning 'everybody can buy').


(2) do not dissociate intellectual insight from emotional components: in most cases, contemplative practices include an intellectual component (they require the practitioner to 'understand' something), but they also involve more or less subtle emotional aspects. This can include the need of restraining certain emotions, cultivating others, or simply allow oneself to be moved by emotion and explore what that entails. A common way in which intellectual insight and emotional components are joined is through devotional aspects that can be involved in practice.


For an hyper-secularist gaze, devotion is just another name for religion. But this is false. Devotion has nothing to do with organizing social groups and creating hierarchies around belief systems or leaders. By itself, devotion is a mental attitude that combines opening, commitment, and surrendering. The devotee is open in the way a student is open to learn, usually acknowledging some lack of current understanding, but not necessarily for the sake of cultivating guilt and a sense of inadequacy, but just as a way of seeing that there is room for growing, developing, moving farther. Devotion also requires a degree of commitment, which consists in one's determination to stick to a certain practice and pursue a certain training no matter what happens, even when things get occasionally confused or seem to collapse in nonsense. Surrendering is perhaps the core of devotion and consists in an attitude of relinquishment of one's own attachment to be right, to be the supreme judge and controller of one's experience. In a sense, surrendering is both the beginning and the end of any contemplative practice.


Of course, devotion can be tricky, and openness, commitment and surrender can aim at completely disastrous goals or be addressed to the wrong targets. But this is more likely to happen when devotion is directed towards very human (all too human!) institutions or figures, with more or less explicit interests and agendas to defend. If devotion is tempered by a sincere philosophical interests for better understanding and living experience, and checked by a careful examination of historical sources, some of these risks can be minimized. And obviously, the least money is involved in all of this, the better. This does not mean that religious devotion is necessarily wrong or misguided, but it surely mean that devotional elements of contemplative practices might be cultivated perhaps even more safely in a more neutral and inclusive environment such as that of higher education. In any case, they should not be dismissed a priori or feared.


(3) this is not 'spirituality': the term 'spirituality' is often used interchangeably with 'religion', although it most often denotes (especially today) the effort of taking distance from institutionalised religious forms, somehow 'savaging' their inner core of experiential insights. 'Spirituality' today tends also to be more individualized than traditional religious forms, somehow offering to different people a choice between various methods, worldviews, or rituals that might fit better their needs. This attitude betrays a certain capitalist mentality that seems to have infiltrated the use of the term 'spirituality'. Moreover, the term was actually popularized by proponents of specific religious cults (especially Theosophy and New Age), which aimed at a more ecumenical and universal construction that those achieved by previous religious institutions—but a religious construction nonetheless. In short, spirituality seems to be either yet another name for 'religion', or a commodification of religious aspects for market sakes. Contemplative practices can be appropriated by 'spirituality' in the same way in which they can be appropriated by 'religion'. But they should be kept separate from it in the context of public education for the same reasons mentioned above.



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