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Teaching Philosophy

Teaching Meditation to Classes in Philosophy

Arthur O. Ledoux
Merrimack College

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ABSTRACT: In alignment with the overall theme of the congress, "Philosophy Teaching Humanity," this paper proposes that teachers of philosophy consider instructing their students in simple techniques of meditation. By meditation I mean the practice of mindfulness which typically begins by paying clear, steady, non-reactive attention to the sensations of one's own breathing, and then extending this attention to embrace all bodily sensations, feelings, moods, thoughts, and intentions. I discuss how to integrate meditation practically in the philosophy classroom and then respond to three objections that have been raised to that practice. I then discuss the potential benefits of the practice, arguing first of all that meditation has academic benefits, especially in courses in Asian philosophy. But of much wider application is the wisdom of non-attachment which the mediation naturally evokes primarily through the experience of impermanence. The potential benefits of the paradigm are then briefly indicated as related to our experience of body, mind, society and nature. I conclude by commending the proposal as a small but important practical step philosophy teachers can take to help our fellow humans navigate the challenging transformation of our time.

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I. A Proposal: Situating the Need and Proposing a Response

The grand theme of our Congress is "Philosophy Educating Humanity". It is heartening to see philosophers from all over the world pondering how we can be of service to our species; refocusing on the root meaning of "philosophy" as "love of wisdom", we seek to be of real help in a world in the throes of many transformations. Those of us who teach philosophy in formal academic environments are already in a position to make a direct difference in the lives of our students; like it or not, we are at some level opinion leaders in our communities--what we teach and how we teach matters. And so we ask ourselves how can we best use the power that we have?

Clearly we can help our students and fellow human beings by teaching them skills of discursive rationality; when we can define our meanings precisely, use our terms consistently, argue coherently, and adhere to high standards of evidence, then we are better able to avoid dogmatism and bring an effective intelligence to bear on the problems of living that face us. These skills will always be a precious resource philosophy can offer humanity.

And yet there is much more to philosophy than this. Even in the classic European tradition there is vision as well as analysis, the intuitive as well as the discursive, noesis as well as dianoia (Plato ), intellectus as well as ratio (Aquinas ), meditative thinking as well as calculative thinking (Heidegger ). The classic Asian traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are, of course, even stronger in their emphasis on meditation as a path to wisdom. As we seek to inspire our students with a love of wisdom, then, we need to convey both dimensions of philosophic thought.

And that brings me to my particular proposal: I propose that teachers of philosophy seriously consider instructing their students in simple techniques of meditation. Competency in basic meditation is not that difficult to achieve, and the long term benefits of conveying this skill and perspective to a wide spectrum of people is potentially very great. I believe that the benefits that can be gained are academic, personal, social, and potentially even planetary in scope. I have been exploring the uses of meditation in the undergraduate classroom for 13 years now originally in connection with courses in Asian philosophy and would like to 1) share some thoughts on how practically to integrate meditation into a philosophy classroom and 2) sketch out some of the potential benefits just alluded to.

II. A Model: Introducing Meditation to the Classroom

By meditation I mean the practice of mindfulness, training the mind to focus in a steady and non-judging way on the different phases of human experience. Mindfulness is an ancient practice cultivated strongly in Buddhist traditions but which overlaps contemplative practices in many other traditions. Mindfulness practice typically begins by paying clear, steady, non-reactive attention to the sensations of ones own breathing and then extending this wise and compassionate attention to embrace all bodily sensations and then feelings, moods, thoughts, and intentions. One way to describe the goal of mindfulness is the cultivation of bare attention: the ability to focus on any aspect of life whatsoever with this calm concentration.

Introducing students to meditation takes some careful preparation; turning the lights out and asking them to sit up straight, close their eyes, and pay attention to their breathing would otherwise be distractingly strange to them. I have found the following process to be successful. On the first day of class, after presenting the syllabus, I mention my intention to offer meditation as part of the course give a brief rationale for doing it. The second day of class I devote entirely to meditation. I spend the first 20 minutes or so presenting meditation in as accessible and non-threatening a way as I can. I refer to the medical research done by such people as Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, and I show a video from Bill Moyers' series Healing from Within that focuses on Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. There is something comforting to many students about hearing meditation prescribed by what they see as establishment doctors; the message is that "it's good for you."

Then it's down to technique, talking a minute or so about the practicalities of bodily posture; people stay right in their chairs--any attempt to sit cross-legged on zafus on the floor, even if they were available, would again make it seem too strange and is in any case unnecessary. So prepared I have found even crowded classes of 35-40 willing to settle down and give it a try. The meditation instructions themselves are severely simple: gently notice the feeling of breathing in your body and as often as the mind wanders away from that object simply to notice that it wandered and return simply and without judgment to the breathing. 12-15 minutes has proved not to be more than they can handle, as long as I quietly remind them every 3 or 4 minutes of the task at hand and encourage them in it.

I then remind them that the first 6-8 minutes of every class will be devoted to continuing and extending the practice of meditation. I make it clear that anyone who does not wish to participate for any reason need only come to class six minutes late. As the semester goes on and the novelty wears off and the pressures of others duties mount, more and more people take advantage of that loop-hole, unfortunately, but there is no way to avoid it-the meditation must be entered into willingly or there will be no progress. Occasionally someone will have religious scruples about doing meditation: I point out how compatible meditation is with certain forms of prayer found in every tradition. And if a student is already a practitioner of a style of meditation or silent prayer, I invite them to continue with that during the meditation period if they prefer.

Soon after the semester begins I announce what is in effect a lab in meditation. I arrange to use a small chapel on campus for a one hour session once a week for more intensive practice of meditation. I divide the hour this way: 15 minutes of the basic practice of observing the breath; 10 minutes of simple walking meditation; 15 minutes where the meditation is extended to a wider array of objects (sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.), and the rest of the time for any sharing or questions they may have. Only a handful of students will respond to the invitation, but those that do are the ones who will profit most from the course.

Let us look at some objections that could be raised to this use of meditation in the classroom and then offer some replies.

Objection 1: the amount of time devoted to classroom meditation would subtract from the presentation of material.

Reply: When the time involved is only 6-8 minutes per class, as I have advocated, the problem would seem rather minor. More generally, though, this question is but another example of the eternal tension between breadth and depth in classroom presentation: should fewer ideas be done intensively or more ideas in survey-fashion? In my judgment short consistent experiences of meditation so enhance students' appreciation of Asian ideas that it is worth the sacrifice of wider coverage. A first course in Asian philosophy should, like any good introductory philosophy course, give students a sense of doing philosophy and not just talking about what others have done. Meditation can bring to students a sense of the immediacy of some of these ideas and give them an experience of personal investigation that some find most intriguing.

Objection 2: meditation could introduce a hierarchy of learners into the classroom, a division between adepts and non-adepts that could compromise the candid exchange of ideas by undervaluing the contributions of those without meditation experience.

Reply: Such a division could happen and would be most unfortunate if it did. But this problem is no different in kind from teaching a class that has both majors and non-majors in it. There will always be different levels of ability and experience in our students. The instructor's responsibility is to make sure that all students feel welcome and their questions respected. The more detailed and complex questions will likely come from those with significant background in the area, but the fresh 'naive' question of a beginner may well be more challenging and profound.

Objection 3: Meditation may provoke emotional crises in students that may require the instructor to act in the role of a spiritual director rather than that of an academic philosopher; this confusion will detract from the intellectual rigor appropriate to the university classroom.

Reply: It is true that long-term or intensive meditation can soften repressions and so allow difficult memories to emerge provoking an emotional crisis. But in ten years of using the meditation in the short gentle way I have described, I have never seen or heard of such a crisis in any of my students. And to the extent that difficult mind-states occur, the meditator may, with guidance, be able to handle them in the meditation itself and so have a valuable opportunity to deepen their personal grasp of certain Asian ideas; what better way to grasp the Buddhist teaching on the Five Hindrances in the Satipatthana Sutra , for example, than by grappling with desire, fear, anger etc. in oneself? In the unlikely event of a truly major emotional upheaval, the instructor must, of course, be willing and able to refer the student to professional help.

But once again, this problem is not unique to meditation. We have all, I think, heard stories of students being thrown into profound bewilderment and even despair by their first philosophy course when they hear how easily their long-cherished but unexamined beliefs may be criticized. Socrates, it seems, knew all about this . And here too the student's emotional crisis could conceivably be so intense that outside professional help would be required, though in twenty years of teaching I have never actually seen this happen. The proper response to this remote possibility is not to stop challenging students' ideas in philosophy classes, but to make use of their bewilderment to motivate deeper philosophical inquiry, along the lines of Socratic method; most painful experiences provoked by philosophizing can be handled within philosophy itself.

III. A Paradigm: Some Benefits to the Wisdom of Non-Attachment

The benefits of meditation in the classroom are, first of all, academic. The content of certain courses can be importantly clarified. In courses in Asian philosophy, for example, reading classic texts like the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and the Tao Te Ching often reinforces a western student's feeling of strangeness. One should, of course, draw analogies to traditions they are more likely to know something about such as Judaeo-Christian religion and Greek philosophy; for example Krishna as avatar is like Jesus as god-incarnate, the Dhammapada is similar to such wisdom books of the Hebrew scriptures as Proverbs, and the Tao Te Ching echoes themes of relativity and impermanence in Heraclitus and Plato. Useful though this is, I would also like them to have, in Bertrand Russell's usage, knowledge by acquaintance as well as knowledge by description; I would like them to "get it" as well as know about it. This is where meditation helps. Meditation is earnestly recommended by most Asian teachings as a way to wisdom, so it is consistent with the subject matter of the course. The texts are often written from the perspective of those experienced in meditation; they will be opaque to those without at least a taste of it but to those with some experience, the claims become intelligible or even obvious. The concept of non-attachment (see below), for example, as used in Hinduism and Buddhism makes more sense to people who have some experience with the 'attention without tension' that is part of meditation.

There are benefits to meditation that go well beyond the formally academic and yet are part of the wisdom philosophers can offer humanity. One could loosely but helpfully distinguish four areas of benefit: body, mind, society, and world. The fundamental themes that play through all four areas are how the wisdom of non-attachment leads to compassion and freedom, attitudes that meditation naturally evoke as practice continues. Let me first discuss these general themes and then briefly indicate their possible application to body, mind, society, and world.

Mindfulness meditation cultivates a clear, steady, non-reactive, non-judging attitude toward the full range of our experience; the intent is to simply notice experiences as they are with as little interpretation as possible. Over time the meditator typically gains a direct and personal sense of the pervasive impermanence of experience: sensations, feelings, thoughts, and intentions are ceaselessly changing; the transient and ephemeral character of life becomes abundantly and even shockingly clear. This insight into impermanence naturally encourages non-attachment which is a subtle attitude to express.

On the one hand is attachment which is the common human impulse to seek happiness by clinging to some object, person, or experience. Attachment is seen ultimately to be futile since all things are continually passing away. On the other hand detachment, its opposite, is also futile. Detachment seeks to avoid suffering by being aloof from life, cultivating a stoic indifference or even hostility to the complex demands life makes. But inaction is simply another form of action; it is an act of omission that, regardless of our intentions, has consequences for ourselves and others. Attachment is governed by craving, detachment is governed by fear; each attitude wants things to be different from how they are, each attitude is out of harmony with reality.

Non-attachment seeks a middle path between craving and fear by learning to attend with great care to the exact and specific reality of this moment while yet being able to let it go to experience the fullness of the next moment and the next and so on. Non-attachment savors life without clinging to it; non-attachment is in close appreciative attunement with the way things are and so is sensitive enough to intuit the appropriate response that this specific situation calls for. Out of close attention comes a wise, non-arbitrary response; out of compassion comes freedom. And though this may seem to be simply a string of bald assertions, it seems to be the experience of those who have practiced mindfulness meditation with enough patience.

The paradigm of non-attachment, with its union of compassion and freedom, can be fruitfully applied to many areas of life. Here are some very brief indications of how this might be so.

The body is a major focus for mindfulness practice. In compassion one comes to know the lived body in direct intimate detail. This attitude of gently exploring the body as a shifting field of sensation can lead to a joyful appreciation of its intricacies which in turn encourages health and healing. Even sensations of pain and stress can be fruitfully worked with, indeed these sensations can become the special focus of compassionate healing attention. And along with this wise action there is also the freedom to let go and the equanimity to accept illness, aging, and death as inevitable aspects of nature's impermanence.

The mind with its patterns of feeling and thought can be approached with the same non-judging attitude as one approaches sensations in the body. In compassion one can explore the joys of love and creativity as well as the painful realities of anger, fear, grief, and confusion. Especially with such difficult emotions one can develop poise and equanimity right in their midst, neither running away from them nor getting stuck. One can thus cultivate freedom and psychological health.

The social dimension of life can be explored in ways analogous to the bodily and the mental. One can cultivate a compassionate appreciation for the wonders of culture, language, and nurturing human support while remaining fully aware of the wide range of conflicts and painful difficulties societies have. By paying close, non-dogmatic attention to the specific realities of violence and injustice, one may discover fresh, creative, and more effective responses; there is the freedom to innovate. And there is the freedom to let go-attachment to the results of ones actions often leads to frustration and 'burn-out'; the wisdom of non-attachment can sustain steady appropriate effort over the long haul and so contribute to social health.

As the science of ecology is showing us in detail, we humans live in a wider community of all the beings on Earth. Careful compassionate attention can develop into a direct sense of wonder and communion with the natural forces of our planet. Such compassion makes it clear how many forms of ecological imbalance humans have caused and can motivate us to undertake the patient long term effort needed to enhance the health of the planet.

Please note that the benefits indicated here gradually accumulate over time for those who integrate a meditation practice into their daily lives. Meditation is not a quick fix, nor does it substitute for any of the other arts, sciences, and skills of life. But it can provide a paradigm for engaging the tasks and experiences of life in a way that keeps them all in perspective without neglecting their detail. Introducing our students to the basics of meditation simply opens an option for them which can encourage wisdom if they choose to pursue it. And as we philosophers ponder how we may "teach humanity", this proposal is worth some consideration. It may be the most practically helpful thing your students take from your class.

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(1) Republic VI. 509d-511e

(2) Quaestiones disputate de veritate, 15, 1.

(3) Discourse on Thinking (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966), p 46 ff.

(4) Cf. Daniel Goleman, The Varieties of Meditative Experience (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977).

(5) The Relaxation Response (New York: William Morrow, 1975); The Mind-Body Effect (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979); Beyond the Relaxation Response (New York: Times Books, 1984).

(6) Cf. Prof. William Garret's comments in the AAPT News (American Association of Philosophy Teachers), Nov., 1993, pp. 5-6.

(7) Cf. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginners Mind (New York: John Weatherhill, 1970).

(8) Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation and Healing: The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990).

(9) Cf. Plato, Symposium 217e-218b.

(10) Cf. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (New York: Delacorte, 1991).

(11) Cf. M. Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychology from a Buddhist Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

(12) Cf. Ram Dass and Paul Gorman, How Can I Help?: Stories and Reflections on Service (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988).

(13) Cf. A.H. Badiner, ed., Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays on Buddhism and Ecology (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990).


Aquinas, Thomas. Quaestiones Disputate de Veritate. Various editions.

Badiner, A.H., ed. Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays on Buddhism and Ecology. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990.

Benson, Dr. Herbert. Beyond the Relaxation Response. New York: Times Books, 1984.

_____ . The Mind-Body Effect. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

_____. The Relaxation Response. New York: William Morrow, 1975.

Dass, Ram and Paul Gorman. How Can I Help?: Stories and Reflections on Service. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychology from a Buddhist Perspective. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Garret, Prof. William. AAPT News (American Association of Philosophy Teachers), Nov., 1993.

Goleman, Daniel. The Varieties of Meditative Experience. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977.

Hanh, Thich Nhat. Transformation and Healing: The Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1990.

Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1966.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness. New York: Delacorte, 1991.

Plato. Republic Various editions.

_____. Symposium. Various editions.

Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind. New York: John Weatherhill, 1970.

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