Contemplative Education: A Pedagogical Approach of Compassion by Lache S.

green pathEven though I encountered wisdom literature when specializing in Hinduism during my Religious Studies doctoral program, through reading the works of Christian female mystics and the liberation theologies of feminist spiritual guides, it took a book I never encountered in my academic studies to give me a spiritual foundation that feels complete after my departure from Christianity: Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It led me to the place where I am now, practicing mindfulness, being aware of the ego, and attempting to live in the present. Now I can return to wisdom literature with a lens that helps it make sense. Although I did not know it when I began utilizing these ideas in the classroom, there is an entire pedagogy based on them.

Contemplative education is based on the observation that the world is in need of healing and the majority of people have not encountered helpful ways to deal with their suffering. Why not use the classroom for healing and to create healers? Contemplative education has five goals or elements: 1. deep, or critical, thinking, 2. constructive communication, 3. awareness of the global impact of our behaviors, 4. personal development/well-being, and 5. a non-sectarian admiration for and inclusion of wisdom literature and traditions. This last element is what really distinguishes this pedagogy from others. And I see how it shares a great deal with feminist practices as well, especially as feminist pedagogy honors experiential knowledge, self-reflection, and activism.

I teach an undergraduate composition class, so I have a lot of space to create a theme, reading list, and discussion questions that speak to well-being and compassion. The books I select very short readings from (in accordance with the fair use clause) to supplement their textbook readings (I choose the ones on the environment) include the following:

The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle
Most Intimate, Roshi Enkyo Pat O’Hara
Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, Nhat Thich Hanh
The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz
The Five Levels of Attachment, Miguel Ruiz, Jr.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong

Armstrong, in Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, lists “knowledge” as the 10th step to cultivating compassion. She explains that it is the “strident dogmatism that dismisses the views of others [as] inappropriate” (118) that is rooted in ignorance.

Compassion helps us enter into knowledge. Sometimes students enter the university classroom with unyielding ideologies and/or walls of defensiveness protecting the self. They might expect the classroom to be a struggle, with the professor using grades to reward and punish. In such an environment, it is difficult to learn. They might not be used to communication which is life-giving and heals, which is steeped in kindness. In our world, it is easy for many people to move throughout their day and not encounter kindness. Part of this may be that many people/of us are too consumed with our own thoughts to be kind and extend these gestures. I have to remind myself, when I am particularly lost or busy, to “see” others. So on the other end of my reading list and theme (which is usually “Change the World”), is me who tries to see them. I think it has taken me many years of teaching to get here, but I mostly just try to not take things personally. And while I set satisfying goals for my students, guiding them directly and clearly towards them, I am ultimately non-attached to the outcome. I still care very much, but my care is sans being demanding.

What I want for students is to be able to see the humanity of the authors behind the works we read and to not enter into literature defensively (especially when that literature might be about something unfamiliar or controversial), shutting down at the first inclination of difference and setting the whole of it up as something to attack as if the self were in jeopardy. These last two semesters I have taught composition online, so I am particularly apt to remind myself of the aggressive communication that happens via the internet both outside and inside the classroom. I want the students, as most professors do, to be able to recognize and create nuance in a conversation, to speak fairly about subjects, and to honor context, but to also converse with each other and myself in kind ways. One way to get them to that point is to first deal with their anger, fear, and self-hate. Then can we begin to listen.

Contemplative education takes a holistic approach to learning, focusing on, in addition to students’ acquiring of knowledge and skills, their general well-being. And the response has been really heart-warming, in my experience. At the end of one semester a year or two ago, I had one student come up to me almost in tears telling me that she only wished she would have encountered the reading on mindfulness and anger earlier in life. I understood exactly what she meant. I told her I wished I would have encountered it earlier as well.

Our earth, all the beings on it, are in desperate need of healing. Few of us learned how to develop healing practices at an early age, to find community, or be aware of our impact on the earth and each other. As adults, we live in a culture driven mainly by profit. What is advertised and promoted is not often what tends to our emotional needs and protects our bodies best. The damage we see to the earth to the point we fear there is no going back reveals how much we need to stop, to slow things down, and to rouse ourselves from this insanity. We seek a great peace we cannot purchase. Yet we live in a world where purchases are the most common relational transaction.

But wonderfully, as Pema Chödrön has said, we each have a natural warmth, natural openness, and natural intelligence within us. Just as we see the brilliant construction of sky, the movement of stars, and the cyclical sacrifice and regeneration of vegetation, we too share those energies, are made up of that instinctually creative material. We, humanity, as one aspect of living matter, have such glorious and kind attributes. I am grateful that the classroom is one of many spaces where this can be discovered and revealed and practiced.

I would love to know what readings you assign in class that have impacted students on a personal level or how you attend holistically to students’ well-being in the classroom or wherever you guide others.


LaChelle Schilling, Ph.D., graduated in 2014 from the Women and Religion program at Claremont Graduate University. She teaches composition from a contemplative pedagogical approach at Oklahoma State University. Currently, she is working on a book project titled Minimalism, Mindfulness, and the Middle Way, incorporating guidance from sacred wisdom literatures. She is also working on certification as a yoga instructor.

Categories: Academics, Activism, Books, Education, Healing, Literature

Tags: , , , , ,

27 replies

  1. Hi LaChelle,

    This is a great approach to pedagogy. A pedagogy of collaborative efforts producing shared ideas and insights. The competitive world we live in nowadays takes us away from the import of genuine interaction, permeated by love and acceptance.


    Bertrand Leopeng

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I echo your thoughts exactly. The mindlessly competitive world does compromise relationships. We need spaces of healing interaction. They are hard to find. I am so grateful the university class can be one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I suppose it was because I viewed learning as having the potential to heal that I was told so many stories of sexual and physical abuse by my students. Thank goodness we had a talented therapist on our university staff to whom I could send them for help. Still, it was almost more than I could handle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have been noticing this as well, the sharing of our traumas. I love the idea that sometimes a village can begin to develop for communal help and support. It is difficult that there are indeed so many stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks LaChelle Schilling for your good article on Contemplative Education. I found your reflections share some of my wave length. The presupposition that we all need inner healing is very true. Joining our fellow staff I animate a course named Purnarita-Harmonious Integration & Mind Power empowerment. ( During those few days we start with Inner journey to identify the core-issues of life, then move to healing sessions using psychotherapy and other tools. The last two days are spent on harmonious integration in a spiritual way, it includes therapies like Logosynthesis and other meditative ways. As you have pointed out an integrated person will be open to other’s views, warm and compassionate towards all. Holistic integration is a continued journey, very few are on this track! Best wishes to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Lachelle,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. In a World Literature I class I often taught, students responded most powerfully to the poems of Rumi and the Bhagavad Gita. Many of them wrote about being completely surprised and gripped by Rumi–his authentic voice led them to their own. The Bhagavad Gita was harder to access, but when they “got it” they were deeply moved by Krishna’s teachings about yoga and non-attachment.

    Your students are lucky to have you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The classic vedic epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata exceed the Illiad in length by many thousands more verses. These are still performed by memory and with dramatization routinely in South Asia, yet Western academic literature appears not to even know that these traditions exist (despite numerous English translations). Similarly, Christian theologians and religion students often never learn the size of the written canons of Hinduism and Buddhism, (let alone learn how to navigate them) and do not easily appreciate “religions of the book” traditions that have vast books (what the Bible might have looked like had Jesus Christ lived until 88 years old?)

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kindness. I am warmed by it. I also find so much healing in the poems of Rumi, and yes, I had forgotten when I wrote this post how contemplate using them in my class. I have most recently been grateful for a collection of Rumi’s poems on “work” (trans. Coleman Barks). I am so glad you introduce these works of Rumi and the Gita in your class. It is amazing how powerful the poetry of Rumi is. Your students are so lucky to have you as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks Lachelle, a very well written and interesting post.

    On forms of contemplative education. Via email, I sometimes study with an amazing Zen Buddhist nun. She once sent me a picture of a slice of delicious looking pizza. And with that picture she enclosed this question — “Past mind cannot be grasped. Future mind cannot be grasped. Present mind cannot be grasped. With what mind will you eat this pizza?”

    Zen teachings can sometimes be full of playfulness and at the same time vigorously challenge your understanding of presence and reality. I love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! You have articulated this “playfulness” well. I really appreciate that aspect too. Ah, the middle way. Such peace. Thank you for your kindness. But now I am thinking of my attachment to pizza. Ha.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Lachelle, this was a great post. Regarding feminist spirituality, you may wish to look over my “Sophia’s Web: A Passionate Call to Heal Our Wounded Nature.” “Sophia’s Web” speaks to the unity behind the diversity of spiritual expressions. If interested, visit, Anyway, take a look at the site, if interested.

    Keep up the good work as an educator. We need for our young minds to continue evolving…..which in our day of corporations and television, etc is, in my opinion, being stifled.

    What would it look like for you for humanity to evolve……not revolve, as in revolution, but an evolution?


    • Thank you so much for finding this post and for leading us to this wonderful resource! What you have and are creating with your lives is inspirational. You very aptly point out aspects our of modern life that require our attention. Thank you.

      As for your question, yes, as much as I would like a revolution, and still hope for it, this slow, gradual sort of change is more true to my experience of humanity gaining consciousness. I have seen incredible transformation in my students during just the four months we are together. The classroom model and my own journey help me understand it looks like people becoming aware of how they/we contribute to suffering in the world and then learning the perspective and strategies to begin reducing and dealing with that. The consequences are that people are able to relate to each other instead of egos relating to each other, and so less violence and more peace happen. Perhaps eventually, better decisions made on how we structure our society and modify/use the landscape of the earth. . . moving toward permaculture, for instance. Speaking of this, I assign a reading on permaculture to my students.

      Thank you for your question. I hope in some way I answered it in the way you envisioned. But I am happy to expand or clarify if it wasn’t enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Happy to see this work, and wanted to point out a terminology issue that “contemplative studies” has its own area discourse at AAR also related to “contemplative science” and Buddhist practical theology and that therefore “contemplative education” will have different connotations in different research and writing contexts.

    For example, see the article “Contemplative Pedagogy” by Professor Anne Klein

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for this amazing resource and the information. The pdf is quite something I needed to be aware of. I have much gratitude for you bringing it to my attention. It looks invaluable. I have recently come to know that AAR has a section on contemplative studies. I need to investigate this further. It is wonderful.


  8. A very hope filled post, LaChelle. Thank you. I am so aware of people who are so angry, so defensive. I don’t teach academically, but try to live in a contemplative way and compassionate spirit. I do find they go together. Without teaching or preaching, I hope that living can lead others to a way of life that will be healing for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kindness, Barbara. I always appreciate it. I love the way you articulate your observations. Yes, it is very true. Thank you for your contemplation and compassion. It encourages me to be consistently this way in all areas of my life, which I try. Thank you for this inspiration and guide.


  9. As a college prof, this had me thinking about my own courses. thank you.


  10. That was a pretty touching article about learning from other cultures and bringing it to your students. If you would be so kind as to check out my blog and tell me what you think.


  11. Thanks LaChelle very much. How wonderful to extend your learning to your students! So needed – that they can see beyond their own limited boundaries – and learn of the richness of the world …


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