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The rise and rise of contemplative studies


This weekend, I was at a conference in Boston called the International Symposium on Contemplative Studies. I know  – sounds pretty niche, maybe two monks, a chakra healer and a shaman with maracas?  Well, it was enormous – 1600 people, 300 presentations, including ones by some of the leading psychologists in the world, and the Dalai Lama.

It was epic – fascinating presentations, free yoga and meditation sessions every morning, Sufi poetry, Qi Gong dancing, and a lot of unusually impassioned and warm academics. ‘What journey brought you here?’ one lady asked me as I stood in line for registration. Well, er, Virgin Atlantic if you must know.

The field of contemplative studies is still pretty new in the US (it barely exists in the UK). It first emerged in the 1970s, when a handful of scientists started to study and practice Buddhism and yoga – including the biologist Francisco Varela, the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, and the psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. They founded something called the Mind and Life Institute 27 years ago, based on small-group dialogues with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan monks. Two years ago, it began to hold much bigger public conferences – this is the third.

Daniel Goleman and Jon Kabat-Zinn with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s
Jon Kabat-Zinn (left) and Daniel Goleman with the Dalai Lama in the 1980s

‘It was pretty lonely in the 1970s, there were only around 10 of us’, Davidson remembers. ‘We were the lunatic fringe’, recalls Kabat-Zinn. He invented the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction course (MBSR), an eight-week course in mindfulness and yoga, which he and others then proved was clinically beneficial for a whole host of emotional and physical problems. Davidson, meanwhile, used brain-scans of monks and new practitioners to show that meditation changed the physical structure of the brain. In the UK, Mark Williams and John Teasdale of Oxford developed mindfulness-based CBT.

These pioneers helped to create the contemporary boom in mindfulness, which has spread to schools, universities, hospitals and therapy centres, the military, prisons, companies and beyond. Back in 2007, a survey by the National Institutes of Health found that 10% of Americans had tried meditating – it has grown a lot since then. ‘I get the feeling it really exploded this year’, says Francis McKay, a University of Chicago anthropologist studying the rise of mindfulness.

Among other things, contemplative studies is revolutionizing the 20th century model of academia.

243436Francisco Varela thought that contemplative studies could combine third-person accounts of consciousness from neuroscience with first-person accounts from phenomenology (by interviewing people about their experiences). Finally, a bridge would be built between science and the humanities, between facts and values, between third-person objectivity and first-person subjectivity. It was a new model for the academic, grounded in wisdom practices, which would create a new, secular, evidence-based ethics for the modern world.

This strikes many in academia as heretical. There is a belief in academia, which arose in the late 19th century, that academics should be rigorously objective, which means they should suppress their own views, biases, preferences, and moral and metaphysical beliefs. The sociologist Max Weber summed it up well in his lecture Science as a Vocation: academics should critically investigate, and resist the temptation to preach to their students from the lectern.

But this means that ancient wisdom practices can be studied, but not practiced. It would have been very strange, 20 years ago, for an academic philosopher to suggest Stoic practices actually work (thankfully this is changing). It’s still anathema in most of academia. I was struck by this when I went to a seminar on Christian mystics earlier this year. Not one of the participants ever discussed if they had tried out contemplative practices for themselves to see if they were true. That would be weird, or ‘unobjective’. The first-person perspective must be ruthlessly suppressed.

The result of this false dichotomy, alas, is a moral vacuum in the humanities, combined with an ever-greater reverence for the hard certainty of the sciences.

Some prominent figures in the humanities have called for a more explicit promotion of virtue ethics in the university, including Nigel Biggar of Oxford and Baroness Onora O’Neil, both of whom I saw speak on this issue last month. But they had no practical idea of how actually to promote virtue ethics in their students, besides lectures and tutorial feedback on essays (this, they claimed, would promote intellectual virtues like respect for the truth).

This is in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Virtue ethics is based on a deep transformation of one’s core beliefs, emotions and habits. Ten minutes of essay feedback once a week, or more likely once a term, simply won’t do it. It won’t scratch the surface.

I was acutely aware of this while at Oxford, where I got a first in English despite suffering from PTSD and social anxiety. It is perfectly possible to be a successful humanities scholar while also being a complete moral and emotional mess – this is as true of academics as undergrads.

Plato_and_Aristotle_in_The_School_of_Athens,_by_italian_RafaelWhen Plato founded the Academy, 2400 years ago, it was designed both to create reliable knowledge about the world, and also to promote wisdom about the self. That involved not just teacher-feedback, although there was a lot of that, but also contemplation and ‘care of the soul’  – this was at the core of the Academy. Likewise in Aristotle’s Lyceum – Aristotle thought theoria, which originally meant contemplation, was the highest good for man, and was necessary for all the disciplines, from ethics to politics to metaphysics.

Likewise in the Stoic school: ‘We may be fluent in the lecture-room’, warned Epictetus, ‘but take us to practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked.’ The early proto-universities of the Middle Ages were also places where third-person objective research was combined with first-person contemplative practice – a good example is the Abbey of St Victor’s in Paris, where a broad liberal arts curriculum included contemplative practices at their core.

Now, thankfully, there is a revival of the study and practice of wisdom in academia – and it was championed not by the poor, cowed humanities scholars, but by psychologists, who rediscovered the therapeutic wisdom of ancient Greece and Asia, and thought, let’s try it out, test it, and then disseminate it to the general public. Thank God for their pragmatism.

This revival of ancient wisdom is transforming medical education. Jon Kabat-Zinn started researching mindfulness at U-Mass medical school in the 70s. Today, 33 US medical schools have mindfulness research centres, and many more provide mindfulness courses for students, staff and patients.

The more doctors practice meditation, the more they understand the connection between the mind and the body. That’s transforming medicine, and will helpfully lead to a shift from a narrow biomedical model, in which any physical or emotional problem are treated with drugs, to a more holistic model that incorporates wisdom practices.

It’s also transforming life for the average undergrad. I suffered in silence throughout my time at Oxford. Today, students can get free mindfulness courses, thanks to the Oxford Mindfulness Centre run by Mark Williams, which pioneered mindfulness-CBT. Earlier this year I interviewed Mary, a seminary student at Oxford, who learned to heal herself through PTSD thanks to free mindfulness training.

At some US universities, ‘contemplative studies’ is not merely a wellbeing add-on, but part of the main curriculum. Brown University launched a ‘contemplative studies’ curriculum course this year, in the face of strong institutional opposition. ‘The most hostility came from the Religious Studies department’ remembers one academic from the programme. ‘They thought it would undermine objectivity, it would lead to Sunday school sermonising.’

safe_imagePotentially, contemplative studies could transform many disciplines, not just medicine. Both Brown and Virginia’s new contemplative studies centres, for example, are interdisciplinary and bring in the arts and humanities. At the conference, there were presentations by physicists on using contemplation of nature in their work; architects on how buildings can trigger contemplative states; literary critics on the poetry of Blake and Emily Dickinson as an exploration of consciousness; economists on contemplation as a part of well-being economics; musicologists on drumming and trance states, and so on.

The big hope, at the conference, was that ‘contemplative studies’ could actually provide a new ‘secular ethics’ for the world, and help us through the enormous political challenges we face. ‘There are one billion non-believers in the world’, the Dalai Lama said. ‘They won’t listen to a monk talking about inner values, but they might listen to scientists, if they prove a connection to well-being.’ He’s right – mindfulness has become sort of a secular ethics for a happiness-obsessed modernity.

Challenges for the field

But there are big challenges for contemplative studies. I’ll outline five:

Firstly, there is a limit to what can be measured empirically. Contemplative studies, like Positive Psychology, hopes that science can measure how to make someone more virtuous, more humble, more compassionate and so on. But this is not that easy. As the Dalai Lama put it: ‘To know what’s in a person’s heart you need clairvoyance. Or you need to spy on them closely for, say, a year, to see how they behave.’ ‘That’s easy in a monastery, less so in a psychology lab.

A second challenge for this new ‘secular ethics’ is whether ancient wisdom practices can be simply ripped out of their original context and brought into secular modernity, without important stuff being lost. This is as true for Stoicism as it is for Buddhism. ‘Whatever works’, said the Dalai Lama, and there’s something in that, but ethical practices can easily become instrumentalized, demoralized and hijacked by capitalist culture.

Maharishi-University-of-Management-FE7DC0E8A third risk for contemplative studies is that academics lose their objectivity. They get high on their own supply. Academia becomes what it often was in the Middle Ages – dogmatic, culty. It over-hypes its product. I wonder if this has been the case at the Maharishi University, which produces reams of research on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation (it lowers blood pressure, it reduces crime, it stops wars), but hardly any research that’s critical of TM or its founder Maharishi Yogi (peace be upon him).

It was a little weird when the entire hall stood up in reverent silence for the arrival of ‘His Holiness’, and how senior psychologists like Paul Ekman told us how ‘His Holiness instructed us to explore’ this or that research area.

Brown’s contemplative studies centre looks more hopeful in this respect. It is working on a controversial project originally called the Dark Night project, now renamed the Varieties of Contemplative Experience, which explores the difficult experiences people can have in meditation – the return of repressed feelings or memories, insomnia, involuntary physical twitches, depersonalization, loss of self (this can be very scary) and even psychosis and hospitalization. Sometimes these negative experiences lasted for several years.

‘The western media promotes a narrative that mindfulness is a miraculous panacea for health and well-being, while ignoring what contemplative texts say about the very difficult experiences that are often part of the journey’, says Willoughby Britton, a psychiatrist who runs the project.

Fourth, the field of contemplative studies needs to widen beyond its narrow focus on Tibetan Buddhism. The biggest elephant in the room at the conference was that it almost entirely ignored western contemplative practices, besides a couple of fringe sessions by junior academics.

Tom Coburn, former president at Naropa University and a key figure at Brown’s contemplative studies centre, says: ‘Sooner or later, contemplative studies needs to deal with the fact that most contemplatives are theists. Most contemplative studies academics are probably agnostics, who rejected their Judeo-Christian background.’

It has been relatively easy to fit Tibetan Buddhist or Stoic practices into a secular, materialist context – you just leave out a lot. ‘In twenty years we have never spoken about reincarnation or the survival of consciousness after death’, the Dalai Lama said of his dialogues with the Mind and Life Institute.

That’s not a bad thing – it’s enabled meditation to help a lot of agnostics and atheists who were suffering. But it’s much harder to secularize and naturalize when it comes to theistic contemplative practices. I wonder if the field will eventually move towards a multiverse theory of spiritual realities – this is where William James, one of its founding fathers, ended up.

Finally, how do you make sure that contemplative studies does not become too inward-looking, that it does not become a bunch of ‘navel-gazers’ – the traditional insult for contemplatives.

In fact, it was obvious that the western academics of contemplative studies bring a very Judaeo-Christian emphasis on ‘saving the world’ to Buddhism. Contemplation, we heard, can save humanity from capitalism, from climate change, from extinction. In this sense, it is genuinely something new. In Buddhism, as in Stoicism, the world does not need to be saved.

For a western perspective on integrating ancient wisdom into modern life, come to the Stoicism Today conference at Queen Mary, University of London on November 29. Tickets here – much cheaper than the ISCS!

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

lrYoDsSIn my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up two weeks ago, I wrote this sentence: “Spiritual experiences tell us something about the cosmos,…the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.”

This sentence seemed to surprise some people – one reader asked what it was exactly I believed, while another reader who said reading my blog helped bring him back to Christianity promptly cancelled his subscription!

So what is behind that statement? Well, it’s a classic expression of something called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. All the surface disagreements, different names for Ultimate Reality, different myths etc are just window-dressing.

The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah were all pointing to the same God (they were almost excommunicated as a result). Leibniz also championed the philosophia perennis. You can see it flourishing in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau.

220px-PerennialPhilsophyThe idea then reached a mass-market through Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, and then in the 1960s it became almost the foundational idea of the New Age, spread through centres like Esalen, the California spiritual community that developed the ‘religion of no religion’.

I’d suggest the Perennial Philosophy is in some ways the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time, including in its ranks everyone from Sam Harris to Abraham Maslow to Ken Wilber to Prince Charles – yes, the future defender of the Anglican faith is a devotee of Perennialism (read this fascinating speech he gave about it).

‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).

The Perennial Philosophy is a much more natural attitude to me than the exclusivism and tribalism of Christianity, which I find strange and incredible. While my adventures in Christianity of the last two years introduced me for the first time to Christian wisdom and grace, I still have a deep sense of the richness of other traditions. And when I meet evangelical Christians who believe any other faith is demonic, I think they’re mental.

What I have been developing, this year, is something called the Wisdom Approach, which teaches ideas, practices and values from various different wisdom traditions. I think the idea of healing wisdom – Sophia – connects all the great wisdom traditions, including atheist ones like Epicureanism and Buddhism. The courses I run try to explore this common ground while also exploring the different destinations they attempt to reach.

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

This week, I read a book which made some trenchant criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy. The book’s called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, by Jorge Ferrer, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ferrer makes three main criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy approach:

1) All religions are not the same

The Perennial Philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. The Tao is not the same as the Christian God (the Tao cares nothing for individuals, as Lao Tzu says), nor are either the same as Buddhist sunyata or emptiness. The eternal now of Buddhism or Stoicism is fundamentally different to Christianity’s radical hope for the future. The mystics themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.

2) Perennialists tend to rank religions hierarchically

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others. Perennialists tend to rank religions, and even sects within religions. Shamanism is the lowest, then monotheisms like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then mystics within these traditions (Rumi is better than Mohammad, Meister Eckhart is better than Jesus), then Buddhism and Hinduism, and the peak of the mountain is non-dualist philosophies of emptiness like Advaita and Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen.

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others
All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

Christianity is usually near or at the bottom – Sam Harris says it has basically nothing useful to say about the human condition, Aldous Huxley said the Bible was an obstacle to evolution – and Tibetan Buddhism is at the top. Look at the Contemplative Studies conference I’m going to in Boston this month – I’d estimate 90% of the speakers are western Buddhists, hardly any are Christians, and the key-note speaker is, obviously, the Dalai Lama.

Perennialists tend to be western and tend to have rejected their Judeo-Christian background, and therefore rank Christianity low in their wisdom rankings. And of course Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, fits uneasily within a Perennial framework, with their tribal eschatologies and their faith in their unique revelation.

3) Perennialism often tends to the tyranny of empiricism and Cartesian reductionism

Perennialists like Huxley, Maslow, Wilber or Sam Harris tend to describe the Perennial Philosophy as a ‘science of consciousness’, providing empirical certainty for some of the claims of the mystics. Your mind is the laboratory, in which you can go and check these facts for yourself. This attitude, while understandable in its attempt to validate spiritual experiences within a hostile scientific materialist environment, tends to reduce such experiences to subjective occurrences in the individual brain.

Towards a participatory spirituality

So what is Ferrer’s alternative? He suggests that Perennialism often succumbs to an outdated ‘mental representation’ model of cognition: Divine Reality exists out there, and we experience it in our minds, like a camera taking a photo. Instead, he suggests a more participatory form of knowing. Our consciousness and imagination helps to create the reality we experience.

solaris-movie-poster-1020293406This is a somewhat trippy idea, but I’ve come across it in the last year through the writings of two interesting religious scholars – Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal. Both suggest that our relationship with Being is reciprocal, it responds to how we relate to it, manifesting in the attitudes or stories we project, playing with them, making them real. This reminds me a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of Solaris or The Zone – the magical force that projects our dreams back to us.

Kripal calls the intermediary between us and Being  ‘the Imaginal’ – an idea with its roots in Plato, in Sufism, in the creative transcendentalism of Coleridge and the Inklings (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield), and more explicitly in the psychology of Frederick Myers. Being responds to the stories we project onto it – this is why Kripal believes the humanities are fundamental to the study of consciousness (here’s a video of him talking about the Imaginal at Queen Mary, University of London earlier this year).

Ferrer’s ‘participatory knowing’ can be both individual or collective – we bring forth a special manifestation of Being collectively. We open a portal together, as the apostles did at the Pentecost. It’s not an individual experience so much as an event in which we participate.

Rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, Ferrer suggests ‘one ocean many shores’. The ocean is the starting point, which most great wisdom traditions share – the belief that we can liberate ourselves from our ego and connect to a more expanded consciousness and reality. However, from that ocean, we can reach many different shores. These will involve different spiritual experiences, and even (Ferrer suggests) different metaphysical realities.

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact
Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me, because we tend to think of the ocean as the end-point, not the starting-point. Let me suggest this – one rocket launch-pad, many different destinations. The rocket launch-pad of spiritual traditions tend to be similar ethical practices to go beyond the ego. However, spiritual astronauts then reach different planets, different space stations, different universes, where perhaps they encounter different beings (or manifestations of Being).

This seems to be more or less the position that William James reached – he coined the term ‘multiverse’ and suggested a ‘pluralist mysticism’ in an essay on the 19th-century psychonaut Benjamin Blood, who wrote: “Variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress. The genius of being is whimsical rather than consistent.” Through spiritual practice we reach ‘new worlds’, new manifestations of Being – and they may be places that humans have not yet reached. The Spirit is dynamic, ever-changing, playful.

portalI wonder if this idea of the multiverse is there in the multiple worlds of science fiction writers like CS Lewis or Philip Pullman, both of whom describe portals through which one can reach other worlds or universes, in which the Spirit will take different forms.

I wonder even if this is what the Bishop of London meant, when I asked him if one could get to God through other faiths. He replied:

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

There are other portals which may take you to different places…

But here are my questions for Ferrer’s spiritual pluralism, which perhaps Professor Ferrer can respond to, if he has the time.

If he believes there are different metaphysical realities, does that mean there are different destinies after death? That a Buddhist experiences reincarnation, while the Christian gets physical resurrection? Does he believe there are multiple eschatologies – in some realities Christ comes back, in others Valhalla burns, and so on? Are there multiple Gods, or is it rather that Spirit / Being is One but responds differently according to our different approaches? Is there one sort of ethical law or Logos for all the metaphysical realities, or might they have radically different ethical laws??

While Ferrer hopes spiritual pluralism will allow a more fruitful and respectful dialogue between faiths (and he may well be right), I wonder if Tanya Luhrmann has a point, when she suggests the real conclusion of this view is rather melancholy – we’re not just living in different belief-systems, we’re actually living in different universes.

But – more optimistically – these realities, these universes, aren’t discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. Perhaps in some way they connect together into a grand symphony. This is one reason not everyone in the west should become a Buddhist – it would be like everyone singing the same part in the symphony. We need some singing bass, some singing alto, and Richard Dawkins on kazoo.