Counseling and the Context of Contemplative Practice

Published on 12 March 2024 at 12:41

In this essay, I dive into the importance of understanding the context of contemplative practices when using them in academic disciplines, such as counseling or counselor education. I focus on mindfulness and Buddhism in order to highlight how certain ideas and assumptions―such as Buddhist exceptionalism―can filter into research and practice if we are uncritical in our approach.

Counselors, Contemplation, Context―oh my!

Counselors are taught to understand that the context (e.g., history) of approaches to therapy are crucial in delivering quality care. So, counselors-in-training study theorists, and in the process they decide which "theoretical orientation" resonates best with them. This approach to teaching counselors derives from the fact that effective counselors provide their clients with feasible explanations for their thoughts, behaviors, and concerns that they bring to session (Wampold, 2015). "Feasible explanations" for psychological stuff is the whole point of counseling theory in the first place!


I think this holds true for using meditation as a counselor or educator. In other words, given the growth of mindfulness-based interventions within the "third-wave" of cognitive behavioral therapies (Corey, 2017), I firmly believe that understanding the context of contemplative practices are vital for interested counselors to practice ethically and safely. Indeed, every contemplative practice comes from a rich context. Whether religious and spiritual (e.g., centering prayer), or therapeutic and secular (e.g., mindfulness meditation), each contemplative practice has a history and conceptual framework which provides the practitioner (e.g., meditator, counselor, educator) with a guide to practice.

Knowing the context is crucial for understanding how a contemplative practice functions psychologically. Han de Wit, a pioneer in the field, defines contemplative psychology as:


[T]he psychological insights, knowledge and methods that we find within contemplative traditions themselves… [I]t contains and seeks to impart practical and psychological insight into the methods or spiritual disciplines that help the practitioner to transform his or her mode of experiencing reality and way of action in the direction of the contemplative way." (de Wit, 1)

Another way to phrase this point, and perhaps more powerfully: Contemplative practice is the individualized enactment of the beliefs, understandings, and insights of a contemplative tradition. These practices constitute a vital aspect of the "lived traditions" that are still with us today―including the "tradition" of mindfulness-based interventions, which are currently a powerful force for counselors and therapists.


These points, though perhaps obvious, are essential for counteracting a prevailing force which has popularized contemplative practices such as mindfulness: that meditation is a "science of the mind," or that an individual can "experiment in the laboratory of their mind." To the contrary, these practices are not scientific; they are existential reconfigurations of one's relationship to the world and their self. This is not to say that they cannot be studied, but only to say that an individual meditator is not undertaking some form of scientific (i.e., intersubjectively verifiable) experiment in adopting a specific meditative practice.

A common reaction here―especially among dedicated western meditators―is to curl up and emphasize how their brand of meditation technique "doesn't ask you to believe anything," like what any "good scientist" would do. However, claiming that contemplative practices are not scientific does not exclude the fact that these practices provide us with unique knowledges, especially about the function or composition of our minds. Many good counselors understand that the trajectory of client healing is not a scientific enterprise; rather, it is an interpersonal endeavor of exploring insights, trying out new behaviors, and changing environments in the pursuit of "wellbeing," "growth," or "recovery." 

In this vein, secularized and therapeutic mindfulness is a practice of pursuing these very human, existential goals, in the hopes that your relationship to some aspect of your existence is positively changed in the process.[1]


Certainly, the reaction itself, of a meditator feeling threatened by pursuing an activity that is not purely or verifiably scientific,[2] speaks more to the supremacy that our western culture has bestowed on scientific knowledge―and often to the detriment of other forms of knowing and being. This rhetoric of "contemplative-practice-as-science" was carefully argued and refined over the past century and a half, as different religious and spiritual practices vied for space in the secular-materialist culture of the 20th century. In other words, non-Christian contemplative practices "from the East" were only able to become popular through adopting scientific rhetoric and proving themselves to be different, or better, than just a religious practice (McMahon, 2008). Among these contemplative traditions were the varying schools of Buddhism that entered western popular consciousness, including Zen, and Tibetan and Theravadin Buddhism (Harrington & Dunne, 2015). Indeed, in the case of Theravadin Buddhism, the argument was not that these practices were not religious; it was that the religion itself was more scientific than the Western monotheistic alternatives (Braun, 2016).


These "streams" of Buddhism―and their interaction with western scientific, philosophical, and psychological cultures―provide the crucial context necessary for understanding how mindfulness entered into and functions within therapeutic practice.


So, this focus on Buddhism is an important gateway toward understanding the larger fields of contemplative studies, contemplative science, and, in the field of professional counseling, mindfulness-based interventions. In fact, the rhetoric I have hinted at here is perhaps most eloquently criticized by philosopher Evan Thompson in his book, "Why I Am Not a Buddhist."


In the exploration below, I focus on how Thompson's arguments have impacted my understanding of contemplative pedagogy, which is the specific use of meditative practices in the higher education classroom. This work is especially important to me, as I am actively working on understanding how to integrate contemplative pedagogy into training future counselors. As I have found, and as you may experience in the post below, interdisciplinary work is messy and talks across conceptual scaffolds, often in roughshod ways that don't always land. However, if you're interested in how to use contemplative practices for counselors-in-training―or in contemplative studies and counseling more generally―some of the ideas below may prove invaluable for reflecting on your intentions and potential cultural blinders.

Buddhist Exceptionalism and the Rhetoric of Mindfulness

In "Why I am Not a Buddhist," philosopher Evan Thompson makes the point that, for many modern westerners practicing mindfulness meditation as a "spiritual" pursuit, there is likely a central tension of Buddhist exceptionalism running through their practice.[3] Otherwise stated, many westerners practicing mindfulness unknowingly adhere to a set of beliefs about meditation and Buddhism, religion and science. This exceptionalism asserts that Buddhism, unlike other world religions (especially Christianity), is uniquely superior in its compatibility with Western philosophy and science.


In general, Buddhist exceptionalism diminishes and decontextualizes the cosmology, philosophy, and ritualistic aspects of Buddhist traditions in order to sanitize meditation practices to fit modern sensibilities. Adherents tout that "Buddhism is compatible with science" or that "Buddhism is a philosophy or way of life, not a religion." These beliefs expose another core assumption common among modern westerners: Namely, that religion is "incompatible" with science, or that religion (so vaguely defined) is something to be discarded in modernity. Thompson disagrees deeply with these rhetorical moves and their underlying assumptions. He argues that Buddhist exceptionalism fundamentally misunderstands religion, science, and their intersection in the "secular" or "spiritual but not religious" practice of mindfulness. He writes that modern western Buddhism:


"encourages a kind of false consciousness: it makes people think that if they embrace Buddhism or just pick out its supposedly nonreligious parts, they’re being “spiritual but not religious,” when unbeknownst to them religious forces are impelling them. These forces include the desire to be part of a community organized around some sense of the sacred, or the desire to find a source of meaning that transcends the individual, or the felt need to cope with suffering, or the desire to experience deep and transformative states of contemplation" (18).[4]

While this is fascinating from a Humanities & Religious Studies perspective, its relevance also extends into any domain that seeks to utilize contemplative practices, such as professional counseling and counselor education. Certainly, for the counselor interested in contemplative practices—either as a personal practice, a formal practice with clients or counseling students, or as a topic of research—Buddhist exceptionalism still exerts its influence. Before moving to professional counseling specifically, it may be helpful to synthesize the argument of how unspoken assumptions of our contemplative practices―such as mindfulness―may enter into our work as counselors:


"The meditative practices of (mindfulness/yoga/my practice of choice) are compatible with—and may be integrated into—the modern counseling, psychological, medical, educational, and mental health professions."

Examining Mindfulness in Cognitive, Psychological, and Neuroscience Research

When we decide to use contemplative practices in higher education settings, counseling interventions, or as a subject of research, we must first clearly understand our intention and its implications (Barbezat & Bush, 2014). Yet scholar-practitioners often neglect to understand how the value systems implied by their contemplative practices impact their work. As hinted in the introduction, understanding the context of a practice means that you need a grasp of the tradition that the practice descends from. You don't just need time practicing; as an educator, you need to be able to provide a background for any practice you introduce into the classroom.


My academic background includes studying Buddhist modernism, especially in western countries and therapeutic settings. So, let's focus a bit more on mindfulness within the psychological research literature.

Much of the cognitive and neuro-scientific work on mindfulness meditation relies on psychological taxonomies that are mostly or entirely derived from Buddhist philosophy. This cross-pollination is fantastic, as Buddhist philosophy of mind is rigorously analytical. In fact, the insights of Buddhist philosophy of mind, which cannot be separated from the practice of mindfulness meditation, has fueled a new movement in cognitive science which focuses on the embodiment of cognition and the circularity of researching human experience.[5]  
There is, however, a rub: These Buddhist systems are often considered to be objectively relating fundamental truths of the mind.[6] Perhaps a Buddhist can make that claim; a scientist, on the other hand, cannot.

In counseling and psychology, "mindfulness-based" interventions are often lumped in with cognitive-behavioral therapy, which was essential in making it more palatable among the "evidence-based" community of practitioners. This, however, misunderstands the purpose of these systems of categorization: Buddhist theories of mind are normative and soteriological; that is, they make moral value judgments about how to achieve salvation or liberation.


Of course, this is to be expected of a religious system. Yet if you believe that Buddhism is not a religion, you may gloss over the ethical judgments implied by impermanence, suffering, and no-self, the three (Buddhist) marks of existence that often trickle into our psychological explanations of how mindfulness can heal human pathologies. As Thompson takes pains to demonstrate throughout his book, these conceptualizations of meditation practice are not value-neutral investigations of human cognition and phenomenology, which is expected of a human science. This transplanting of Buddhist soteriology (i.e., a salvation narrative) into psychological explanation―which is then touted as "scientific" fact―exposes a deep "buddhocentrism" in the study of contemplative practices, especially in therapeutic research literature (Komjathy, 2018).


Again: None of this is to say that we cannot achieve a contemplative science, or that contemplative practices cannot be utilized for therapeutic and other secular benefits. It is only to say that we―westerners conditioned to scoff at religious practice and taught to laud science as the most preeminent of all human knowledges―often confuse our terms in our misguided and unexamined cultural biases.


It is precisely this intersection of a re-imagined religious tradition within contemporary mental health care that should concern the counselor or counselor educator.[7] The veracity of this claim depends heavily on how mindfulness, meditation, and ultimately Buddhism are discussed in the counseling and psychological literature. In other words, this gets to the heart of the matter: the decontextualization and re-contextualization (or appropriation) of contemplative practices.

Recontextualization or Appropriation?

This phenomenon—assumptions from Buddhist exceptionalism leading to a research literature which uncritically appropriates Buddhist philosophy and soteriology—threatens the contemplative scholar-practitioner's work. The trend of Buddhocentrism in psychology and counseling represents a larger threat in contemplative studies more generally, which is the decontextualization and recontextualization of contemplative practices (Komjathy, 2018). The "proper" use of certain practices from certain traditions must remain an ongoing conversation, as we cannot expect a final authority on the matter, lest we resort to a colonialist imposition of power and authority.


In other words, the process of taking contemplative practices out of their original context (tradition, cosmology, etc.) and placing them into new ones opens the door to new forms of appropriation and neocolonialism.[8] In many cases, the process of sanitizing these practices and integrating them into new environments may also serve a wealthy, elite class (Purser, 2019). The bulwark against such injustices is the process of critical-self reflection, often called critical subjectivity. Thankfully, the professional counselor has many tools at their disposal, as the centrality of social justice and multiculturalism as a fourth force of counseling enshrines reflexivity as a means of interrogating one's own biases and identities.

Deciding on the appropriate use of contemplative practices is a tricky game. Especially for those who are invested in the practices they research, the scholar-practitioner needs ways of navigating the myriad assumptions and biases they bring to the table. The practice of meta-reflection mentioned above is an invaluable component to our work; consequently, contemplative-studies seeks to more rigorously integrate introspective first-person experiences as valid objects of study in the research literature. This may utilize forms unfamiliar to the academy, such as the autoethnography as a bracketing and contextualization tool. Regardless, the use of contemplative practices as fair re-contextualization or unfair cultural appropriation will depend on several factors, including:


  • the scholar-practitioner's abilities of intentional integration,
  • the institutions in which these practices occur,
  • the inclusion or exclusion of the originating contemplative traditions, and,
  • the openness or opaqueness of the ensuing conversation.


As this research continues to unfold in counselor education programs, more specific forms and examples will take hold. For now, though, these suggestions leave open the possibility of a fruitful integration of contemplative practices into educating counselors.


  • Barbezat, D., & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. Jossey-Bass, a Wiley brand.

  • Braun, E. (2016). Birth of insight: Meditation, Modern Buddhism, and the Burmese Monk Ledi Sayadaw (Paperback edition). University of Chicago Press.

  • Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (Tenth edition). Cengage Learning.

  • Harrington, A., & Dunne, J. D. (2015). When mindfulness is therapy: Ethical qualms, historical perspectives. American Psychologist, 70(7), 621–631.

  • Komjathy, L. (2018). Introducing Contemplative Studies (First Edition). Wiley.

  • McMahan, D. L. (2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press.

  • Purser, R. E. (2019). McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality. Repeater.

  • Thompson, E. (2020). Why I Am Not a Buddhist. Yale University Press.

  • Wit, H. F. de. (1991). Contemplative psychology. Duquesne University Press.

  • Wampold, B. E., & Imel, Z. E. (2015). The great psychotherapy debate: The evidence for what makes psychotherapy work (Second edition). Routledge.


  1. This is also what makes secular and therapeutic mindfulness susceptible to cultural and economic appropriation. See esp. Purser, "McMindfulness."
  2. A much more common reaction than you may think, and one that I have struggled with in the past when coming to terms with the uniquely colonial enterprise that popularized mindfulness in western countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
  3. By extension, Thompson claims this is a core component of Buddhist Modernism. One may also claim (as I try below) that even the use of mindfulness in therapy and counseling brings some of the core assumptions of Buddhist Modernism. See McMahan (2008) for a fuller discussion of the many sprouts of Buddhism in modernity, including healthcare, education, and research. 
  4. See Thompson's blog post in Yale Books ( link) for a good overview of the argument.
  5. Thompson is again influential here, as he is a coauthor of the book which elucidates this approach: The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience.
  6. Again, Thompson's Why I am Not a Buddhist. If you're at all interested in this topic, his book is quite accessible as a survey of concerns relevant to contemplative studies more generally―and it is incredibly well-argued. 
  7. This post certainly cannot capture all of the hidden assumptions of Buddhist Modernism as they manifest in the research and practice of counseling and psychotherapy. In fact, the reason for this blog is to begin to uncover precisely this influence. McMahan (2008) explores this new religious trend at length, both historically and philosophically.
  8. Louis Komjathy makes this argument across his lectures and especially in his book, Introducing Contemplative Studies.

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