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When Ed Sarath, who teaches in the school of music at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, proposed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies, he faced extremely vocal resistance. “Some faculty members were very concerned that we were bringing spirituality into the classroom, that contemplative practice did not fit into credit-bearing courses, and that it would be impossible to grade,” Sarath told me. In the end, he persuaded two-thirds of the faculty to vote for the program, and it got off the ground in 2000.
Sarath began playing jazz at about the same time he began meditating in the Vedanta tradition, about thirty-five years ago. He’s always perceived “a very close relationship between improvisation and meditation practice, in that both are grounded in a heightened sense of the present moment. They also complement each other quite nicely, so for a long time I’d been wanting to create a curriculum that harnessed that connection.”
The program requires students to take four terms of a class in contemplative practice that combines “direct contemplative experience with an analytical consideration of the mechanics of contemplative experience and its role in overall human creative, spiritual, and intellectual growth,” says Sarath. Students who don’t already have a meditation practice are directed to receive instruction at one or more of the many organizations in Ann Arbor offering meditation.
“When I started the program,” Sarath says, “I was unsure how it would turn out, but it’s been highly successful. Students really get the connection between improvisation and meditation. They see the results in their music and can articulate them clearly. They find they’re much less tense in their playing and enjoy the freedom and expansiveness that comes from being more comfortable with their minds.” Sarath’s work led to the creation of a faculty network for creativity and consciousness studies, and he hopes the framework he’s created in the jazz department will be adopted campus-wide.
Harold Roth is a long-time student of Joshu Sasaki Roshi. When he began his academic studies more than thirty years ago, he was looking “for meaning and self-knowledge, but I wasn’t finding it simply by reading more and more books about the Asian tradition. I had to find a teacher. The Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown tries to bring these two things together—to have both traditional academic third-person inquiry and the first-person inquiry of the great contemplative traditions.”
The initiative began in 2002 with a visiting speaker series (the initiative’s website offers videos of presentations by prominent contemplative educators) and the development of a course integrating practice into the study of contemplative traditions. While Roth’s dream of a full-fledged major in contemplative studies lies farther down the road, at present students can do an independent study with a concentration in contemplative studies. Obtaining approval for independent study is time-consuming, so only two to three students each year become “independent concentrators” in contemplative studies. The introduction to contemplative studies course that Roth teaches, however, attracts more than eighty students each year, but to keep the course manageable (it was designed for a group of twenty), he caps it at thirty-five.