Contemplative Practices in the Sciences

To the modern ear, "contemplative scientist" sounds like an oxymoron. Scientists in this century are supposed to deal with the objective, through methods that do not admit of the personal.  We imagine contemplatives to sit at the opposite pole, taking up the transcendent and the immanent, through methods that are intensely personal. Our present society struggles with this conflict between science and the transcendent, a tension between seeing the world as a collection of objects and beholding the world as infinite and unknowable.

Why incorporate contemplative practices into a science curriculum, even into courses that are designed for majors, ones that inherently must  a rigorous introduction of the student to the core of her discipline?  At the most superficial level, there are immediate pedagogical benefits to be reaped.  Contemplative practices have the potential to help students develop stillness and the patience that it fosters; to improve their focus and attentiveness to what they are undertaking; and to extend their grasp of the verbal and visual dimensions of their work.  Research on the brain makes an increasingly stronger case for offering students such practices to enhance their learning and professional development. 

More fundamentally, a curriculum that includes contemplative practices has the potential not to merely produce scientists, but to allow scientists to engage in forming themselves.  Science touches nearly everything we touch, the world therefore deserves scientists who do not see themselves solely as masters of nature, able to trick the natural world into doing their will, but as those who can listen attentively enough to the world to hear what needs to be done.  The world cries out for reflective scientists, who can intentionally create a space in which to see their work in its full context - scientific, cultural, political and personal.  Embedding contemplative practices, then, not just in any course, but in a course that is seen as rigorous and fundamental to the discipline, lets students grow as scientists in a culture that acknowledges that such ways of seeing and relating to the world are useful for their work and not incongruent with what a scientist should be.