June 9, 2023

Hirshberg Presents at American Academy of Religion Meeting

Dan Hirshberg, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Contemplative Studies program, presented a new paper, “Where is my mind? Teaching critical subjectivity at an inclusive university,” for the Contemplative Studies Unit at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

The paper highlights the unique features of UMW’s Contemplative Studies program, the roots of which extend back to 1999 with its first practicums offered by Professors David Ambuel and Angela Pitts in 2012, and presently culminates in a minor and two recently approved Special Majors. It then surveys Hirshberg’s contemplative pedagogy for training and sustaining “meta-awareness,” the cognitive ability to establish a critical separation from mental content. Rather than automatically identifying with thoughts and feelings, the meditator centers attention and observes that content as the object of contemplation.

There is consensus in current psychological research that, for many people, mind wandering is closely connected to a range of negative emotional impacts, and that meta-awareness is closely connected to many of meditation’s therapeutic outcomes. Despite the cogency of meta-awareness in the contemporary discourse of the contemplative sciences, its primary functionality is vague and often disputed in classical Buddhist phenomenologies of mind – a topic of Hirshberg’s ongoing textual research.

Hirshberg introduced the acute relevance of these pedagogies for UMW’s current student population, as demonstrated by the results of a 2016-18 controlled study completed with Professors Miriam Liss and Mindy Erchull on UMW’s introductory Contemplative Practice course (CPRD 104). It documents statistically significant decreases in anxiety, depression, and disassociation, and statistically significant increases in attentional awareness, self-compassion, and non-reactivity, among other positive outcomes, for students who completed the course. He also addressed some of the risks of contemplative practice.

The audience of the conference panel (60-80 people) had an especially enthusiastic response to Hirshberg’s design of a contemplative exercise to closely observe the personal impact of smartphones in our present environment.

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