News, Science & Research

Contemplative studies examines future growth, addresses past criticism

Mindfulness research at University studies effects of meditation on mental, physical well-being

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, April 23, 2018

For 11 hours a day, Lan Anh Pham ’18 meditated under rigorous Vipassana tradition in rural Wisconsin as part of a 10-day meditation retreat during her sophomore year. Upon returning to Brown, she was confident that she wanted to study contemplative experiences. “I was blown away by how much I could change my perception of myself,” Pham said.

At Brown, Pham has the unique opportunity to engage in practices and studies typically confined to an ashram, or a monastery. Originally a biology concentrator, she switched to contemplative studies, one of Brown’s newest concentrations and a pioneering field of research for the University.

The Contemplative Studies Initiative — comprising University faculty dedicated to fostering academic discussion about contemplation — formed in 2004. The group established the first undergraduate concentration in contemplative studies at a major North American research university in 2014.

The concentration involves studying a “particularly important subset of human experiences,” said Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and director of the initiative. These experiences of “being focused in the moment, undistracted, calm and tranquil” are normally attained in religious contexts such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness and prayer, he explained. At Brown, however, the concentration also looks at how these moments arise spontaneously in activities such as sports, music, art and science.

Faculty involved with the concentration have backgrounds ranging from theatre and performing arts to political science. For example, “the whole art of acting — putting yourself in a role, setting aside normal elements of self-identity and projecting yourself into the identity of a character — can be a very fulfilling contemplative experience,” Roth said.

This interdisciplinary approach has established Brown’s program as a model for other universities, such as the University of Virginia, the University of Miami and the University of Mary Washington, Roth said. “Brown is part of a national movement,” he added. “I really see this as a wave of the future.”

Before the concentration became official at the University, faculty in the Contemplative Studies Initiative advised 16 independent contemplative studies-related concentrations. The initiative has steadily grown and hopes to have over 50 concentrators in contemplative studies by 2023, according to a 2017 internal presentation.

Start of the program

Over 20 years ago, Roth told his then-student Srinivas Reddy ’98, visiting professor of religious studies and contemplative studies, that he was “thinking of a doing a class where we read texts on meditation and have meditation labs,” Reddy said.

At the time, having people meditate wasn’t a part of the curriculum and carried controversial religious connotations, so the “class” was “totally hidden and under the radar,” Reddy said. “We would meditate in his (office).”

After Reddy graduated, he embarked on a multidisciplinary immersion in South Asian philosophy and music. While training as a professional concert sitarist, studying classical Indian texts and teaching abroad, he kept in touch with Roth, occasionally performing contemplative music recitals when in Providence.

As contemplative studies at the University started to build momentum, Roth asked Reddy to teach a class in August 2017. Reddy currently teaches COST 0035: “Saints and Mystics of India” and COST 0100: “Introduction to Contemplative Studies.” Through his teaching, he hopes to inspire students to learn about the world and themselves, he said.

Criticism and considerations

A common criticism of studying Eastern religious practices in university settings is cultural appropriation, or the adoption of aspects of one culture by another, especially when there is an unequal power dynamic.

In Pham’s opinion, “cultural borrowing has always been happening” in human history. As Buddhism traveled from India to other countries, newly exposed cultural groups understood and practiced Buddhism within their cultural framework, she explained.

“An interesting phenomenon of Buddhism and Buddhist practices traveling to the West is its integration in our rigorous scientific culture,” Pham said. Scientific research looking to identify how Buddhism changes our mind and body is an infusion of Buddhism into Western culture, she added. “For me, appropriation is when we are taking away pieces of tradition without respecting it.” Pham doesn’t believe appropriation is occurring.

The concentration aims to deliver this respect through combining “third-person approaches and critical first-person approaches” in its pedagogy, Roth said. This combination gives equal weight to historical cultural context as well as the effects those practices have on an individual, he explained.

However, the contemplative studies program has come under criticism for cultural appropriation in the past. In 2016, a group of students protested a performance by Carrie Grossman ’00 titled “An Evening of Devotional Music.”

The performance was “not an exclusive and official event of the contemplative studies concentration,” Roth wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. It was organized by the student groups the Yoga and Mindfulness Group and the Contemplative Studies Departmental Undergraduate Group and funded by YAM, the Office of the Dean of the College and the contemplative studies program. Roth added that Grossman had previously performed classical Indian music at Brown in an official contemplative studies-sponsored event in summer 2015 with Reddy, a trained sitarist.

A co-leader of the protest, Sohum Chokshi ’18, wanted to draw attention to “the fact that (Grossman) wasn’t trained in classical hymns and was mispronouncing words,” demonstrating a “very infantilizing notion of what Hindu meditation is,” Chokshi said. “If the contemplative studies department isn’t vigorously attacking standards of producing and sharing knowledge, then it’s not doing its job,” Chokshi added.

Roth also wrote that the program has long been mindful not to culturally appropriate. “Since our beginning, we have made it a point of working hard to make our concentration and the events we organize very sensitive to questions of diversity and inclusion,” he wrote.

These steps include organizing and funding a year-long lecture series in 2016-17 titled “Mindfulness, Science and Society.” Courses in the concentration, such as COST 0100, COST 0410: “Engaged Buddhism” and COST 1950: “Senior Concentrators’ Seminar,” also include vigorous discussion about cultural appropriation, Roth wrote. Furthermore, though the concentration technically does not need a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, as it is a program and operates administratively under the Department of Religious Studies, it is currently working on one to be published by the end of the summer because “we think it’s important,” he added.

Though critical, Chokshi acknowledges that the presence of contemplative studies in the University is significant. “It just has to be done in an accurate, historically represented way,” Chokshi said.

The emergence of contemplative studies at the University also promises opportunities to “support scholarly work on Southeast Asia,” according to a message from the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative to The Herald. “One of our goals as the Southeast Asian Studies Initiative is to convince departments to hire faculty who study the region, and contemplative studies should have an interest in such faculty.”

The Chinese Students Association, Asian/American Political Alliance and Hindu Students Association did not reply to a request for comment.

A growing department at Brown

Over the next decade, the Contemplative Studies Initiative hopes to sustain its growth and establish an Institute for Contemplative Studies, modeled after the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. A key goal of the initiative is to bring core elements of its teaching to several fields at Brown, creating opportunities for multidisciplinary research.

For example, examining the medical potential of contemplative practices is a burgeoning sector of University research. In September 2017, the University launched a new Mindfulness Center, which brings together a diverse array of researchers who are investigating early findings that mindfulness could positively impact mental and physical health.

The center is directed by Eric Loucks, associate professor of epidemiology, who studies the relationship between mindfulness and cardiovascular health. He, alongside Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and Jared Lindahl, visiting assistant professor of religious studies, received a five-year, $4.7 million grant in 2015 from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of mindfulness-based interventions on people’s abilities to follow medically recommended lifestyle changes.

Other research areas related to mindfulness include neuroscience, cognitive science, clinical science and positive psychology. Including the NIH grant, the Contemplative Studies Initiative has raised over $7.5 million to fund projects related to studying the effects of mindfulness on ailments such as asthma, stress, fatigue, chronic pain and depression.

Additionally, a large portion of the multidisciplinary nature arises from contemplative studies students’ work, Roth said.

Pham, for example, wants to be a nutritionist and bring together the “triangle of mental, emotional and physical health to enhance people’s well-being.”

In a different vein, Micah Thanhauser ’13 melds an artistic approach with his contemplative studies background. At Brown, he graduated with an independent concentration in “Contemplative Studies: Creativity and Consciousness,” combining his interests in religion and art. “I wanted to look at how art-making and appreciation of art can in itself be contemplative and meditative. … I really look at my time in the studio making pottery as a contemplative time,” he said. Beyond Brown, Thanhauser also worked for the Prison Mindfulness Institute, a nonprofit where he facilitated mindfulness courses in prisons and shelters. He currently works as a potter in Asheville, North Carolina, and teaches pottery and meditation.

Knowing how to use a contemplative studies background in the workforce is not always clear, Thanhauser said. However, contemplative studies, like other liberal arts, teaches skills applicable to any field — “how to think, problem solve, learn quickly and interact with people.”

“The most important part of meditation, or what I got from contemplative studies, is that you can actually cultivate and practice being more aware of life,” Thanhauser said.