The Unique Self in a Contemplative School

Summer 2015

By Kathleen J. Brownback

As practices promoting mindfulness and embodiment become more prevalent in contemporary society, a natural set of questions emerges among educators: What role should contemplative practices play in the academic curriculum?

For much of the modern era, the answer to this question was no role whatsoever. Mind-body practice was generally linked to particular religious traditions, and so was understood to lie outside the objective goals of academic study.

But the last 40 years or so have brought a new understanding of mindful or contemplative practice as embodied self-awareness. These practices involve the movement of the mind and body in ways that are not primarily cognitive, centering on the use of the breath and the stilling of the “monkey mind.” Think of yoga or meditation, or solitary walks in nature, or dance, or the playing of a musical instrument with this focus. Their central goal is to draw us into direct awareness and experience of the present. An increasing number of people are choosing contemplative practice as a way to relate to others differently, to manage strong emotions such as anxiety and anger, to live a more centered and less reactive life, and to find a clear sense of focus and purpose. There is nothing abstract or philosophical about these goals. They emerge from the heart, from questions about human nature and direction. Students ask them of parents and teachers; teachers and parents ask them of themselves and each other. Thus the growing interest in schools.

Contemplative practice has everything to do with how we experience the world. As Judith Simmer-Brown and Fran Grace point out in their excellent essay collection Meditation and the Classroom, “Conventional teaching aims, almost solely, at requiring students to ‘think about’ rather than to ‘know from within.’”1Yet simultaneously, as a teacher, I hear these underlying questions all the time:

  • People keep telling me to be myself, but I don’t know who that is. I feel pulled in so many directions.
  • Do we actually have free will? I’ve often heard we are totally determined by our genes and conditioned by our environment.
  • Why are so many people angry and dissatisfied — even people who have tons of money or talent? Can I avoid this?
  • Why is there so much addiction? Why is there depression among people who have so much to offer?
  • I haven’t found any kind of God I can believe in, yet I somehow feel there is something more to life. What are your thoughts?
  • Are science and religion looking at the same world? They seem utterly contradictory.
  • I’ve become aware of so many problems in the world that I feel completely stuck. I almost feel as if I don’t care, because I have no idea what to do.
When students pose these kinds of questions, they are in some way asking if there is a map or framework they can trust, one that might give them a reliable sense of direction. The maps that their parents and grandparents grew up with are not enough, and there don’t seem to be others around that describe the territory well. In school, we may teach them critical analysis and fluency in different ways of thinking, and they have all the tools of technological connection that the modern world can offer, but we haven’t always equipped them with a reliable “inner GPS” that can help them navigate contradictions, answer troubling questions, and find their way. They are looking for a way to know “from within.”

Adults may have a different set of questions, but they are still related to concerns of meaning and purpose. When adult educators ask such questions, they, too, are wrestling with issues of identity — as individuals and as teachers. They are grappling with contemporary culture’s effects on themselves and their students. They want to know how to feel better about their lives and their work and how they can best help students navigate the cultural river to adulthood. When launching Brown University’s Contemplative Studies initiative, Brown professor Harold Roth wrote: 
Our scientific knowledge of how the world works has never been stronger, but our ability to use it to transform our lives to create greater personal and social harmony remains relatively weak. We can use our technology of the outer world to treat previously incurable diseases, but our mastery of the “technology” of the inner world is so rudimentary that we can barely con­tain the passions that lead us to destroy the very human life that we, par­adoxically, struggle so hard to preserve.2
What does all this mean for schools? First, it means that we need to consider seriously the idea of infusing contemplative practices into our communities. Second, we need to offer students a framework for better understanding the self — not just as a separate entity but as part of an interconnected whole.

Seeking a Framework for Contemporary Education

What does contemplative practice do for students? It fosters the ability to focus and enter into a subject without distraction. It can help a great deal with stress reduction. Over time, it develops the capacity to hold contradictions in tension, without immediate dismissal of one side. It encourages students to listen to the ideas of others from a less egoic perspective — and to see connections between disciplines. It sharpens the awareness of the senses and provides space for creativity and inspiration in fields ranging from the arts to science. Contemplative practice has the potential to help students “know from within,” to reconnect with a deeper sense of purpose, meaning, and value in their lives. It makes real compassion, service, and listening possible. It teaches true interdependence with others. More than any set of moral rules or directives, this sense of engagement is the basis for the active sense of responsibility that a great school hopes to awaken in its students. 

Former Wellesley College president Diana Chapman Walsh notes that, “Effective leadership comes from an inner core of integrity, and yet is not fixed or implacable. Leaders we trust are eager to hear responsible critique, knowing that differences of perspective are a crucial part of learning. In any group, the voices from the margins hold the buried wisdom that can alert us to our self-deceptions.”3

Such a capacity to lead and respond requires a strong center. Yet much of our teaching leaves the inner life behind, along with the kind of wisdom that it helps us to develop. Higher education (and the preparation for it) in the Western tradition is primarily based on a model that emphasizes the capacity for reason. “The Enlightenment” in Western thought (quite different from the understanding of enlightenment in the East) is synonymous with the development of conceptual reason and the independence of the individual. Under this model, the purpose of education was in large part to help students find their place in understanding this world through abstract thought. The scientific revolution then focused our attention on the empirical world and impersonal forces of nature, with objective observation and measurement as its tools. But neither reason nor science sought to develop the internal subjective mind. 

Postmodernism revolted against these abstractions of reason and the impersonal domain of science, leading its followers to question the very notion of fact and objective truth. Elitism was challenged in the humanities and in science. The importance of individual perspective and experience emerged, along with significant contexts such as race and gender. But no sense of connection joined the individual and the whole. The old narratives about what is true or good died in postmodernism, and the idea reigned that there should be no new ideals, no “lux et veritas” guiding our knowledge. 

The philosophical value of reason, the scientific approach, and the postmodern emphasis on perspective all coexist in many of our minds as teachers. Despite the value of each, we and our students need something more — to experience our own identities distinctly and from the inside, both the individual perspective and our undeniable connection to the larger whole, without contradiction. This is the direction of a contemplative path.

Contemplative knowledge expands our understanding of the self, with interdependence and connection as its core awareness. Embedded in this sense of self is the ability to see beyond the confines of our separate identity, and yet — this is sometimes misunderstood — it need not require us to give up the vast significance of our individuality. Told that contemplative practice will enable one to “merge selflessly with the all,” students will generally respond by saying that this falls “somewhere between undesirable and impossible.” Told that their own fullest individual identity depends on outgrowing their sense of isolation and separateness, students recognize something that they want to develop. Our framework for mindful or contemplative practice has to be clear on this essential point.

Many models and maps of the self are described in modern developmental psychology, from Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to Robert Kegan and Carol Gilligan, and in religious contexts that date all the way back to the Upanishads of early India. The one that I have found most valuable in integrating the educational values of the Western tradition with the values of a contemplative model is called the “evolutionary unique self,” developed by philosopher Marc Gafni, often in dialogue with integral theorist Ken Wilbur. Gafni underscores the essential role of uniqueness in relation to community and articulates a path toward full development of the interdependent self.

The Path of the Unique Self 

The personal awareness of the unique self evolves over six phases, the first three of which are commonly understood in much of modern psychology, and the fourth in contemplative teaching. The fifth and sixth are Gafni’s work over the last decade.
  1. The prepersonal nature of the very young child, merged with the fullness of the mother or primary caregiver. The mother and baby are a complete picture of Eros, not in the purely sexual sense with which the erotic has come to be associated, but in the fullest sense of merger with the source of one’s being.
  2. The necessary development of the separate self or personal ego, the mature independence of which is the distinctive feature of the Western enlightenment. Without this, the individual would have no sense of specific identity or agency in the world. This development begins early in infancy and carries on into adulthood.
  3. The false self (or persona or mask), a distorted identity taken on to cover up the pain of separation. The exciting discovery of independence is often overwhelmed by the vulnerability of separateness. To recapture the earlier security of union with the mother, the false self seeks a kind of false fullness, often attached to drugs, work, money, pornography, gossip, self-absorption, escapism, and other addictive behavior (and often supported by modern consumer culture). This is called “false Eros,” designed to manage anxiety but never really able to do so. The false self is necessary to some extent, but with practice one begins to recognize it for what it is.
  4. An emerging awareness of the deeper true self that connects all beings and of which each being is a part. This is the distinctive feature of a contemplative or mindful practice, a connected awareness that is the basis for empathy and compassion toward all sentient beings. It is often described in an impersonal way, the realm of “no self,” or the complete submersion of the self in the all.
  5. The unique self, the dimension of personal uniqueness that emerges with the deepening awareness of true self. The unique self is the personal form of the true self — the inherent expression of personal essence, particular to each individual. It centers and clarifies the personal distinctiveness of the separate self with a unique perspective that is fundamental. It is actively sustained by true Eros or life force. It is profoundly creative and relational, forming a connection to the world that is beyond the capacity of the separate-self ego. It has the capacity to love and be loved, apart from self-interest.
  6. The evolutionary unique self that is committed to the growth of others as much as to itself, and to social structures that advance both. Here the unique self values the uniqueness of others, even in times of conflict, and has a desire to work (and play) with difference as well as similarity. The commitment is toward the growth of situations and structures that enable deeper community with uniqueness as an essential dimension of the larger whole.
Drawing in part on a framework of the psychologist John Welwood, Gafni summarizes the unique self’s practice of development in this way:
  • Wake up — to the nature of consciousness beyond the separate self. Among the countless practices that have developed in secular and spiritual contexts, most begin with a focus on the breath and the present-time awareness or mindfulness of the body, and gradually awaken a sense of connection to and compassion for others that extends beyond the individual self.
  • Show up — with the willingness to learn and act on one’s unique perspective, gifts, identity, and obligation, as well as to see one’s unique shadow. This is a path of personal inquiry, and of stepping into full individuality and responsibility. We might think of Martha Graham in her letter to choreographer Agnes de Mille: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”4
  • Grow up — to the awareness of larger spheres of social reality, moving from the egocentric bubble of the separate ego to a world-centric ethical perspective that seeks to know, engage, and value the uniqueness of all beings, in as wide a circle as one can encompass.
Gafni uses the metaphor of a puzzle piece to help clarify the difference between the separate ego and the unique self. The separate ego is a puzzle piece that has no larger puzzle to which it belongs. It has interesting qualities, but is fundamentally isolated and painfully self-conscious. The true self is a puzzle in which the recognizable lines separating the pieces have been erased — a unity that allows no distinctions among the parts. The unique self has all the dimensions of an individual life, but recognizes it is part of a larger and more dynamic puzzle, and engages with others to create new and vibrant wholes. 

The Importance of Framework

The philosopher Charles Taylor has said that we all live in “inescapable frameworks” of meaning.5 We all have a way of putting the world together, a map that tells us who and what really matters. If that map is not a conscious one, which is the case for many students, it is readily supplanted by whatever is dominant in the surrounding culture. It is easy for students to come to believe that their lives are genetically determined, or dominated entirely by the struggle for survival, or unconsciously governed by the ferocious beasts of the id, or entirely defined by “what the colleges want,” or guided solely by one or another meme of popular consumer culture. A real framework — one that truly affirms who they are and can become — has to give students another place to stand. It has to connect the inside and the outside dimensions of their lives.

For the Love of Life and Learning

In the unique self framework, that connection is created by the quality of Eros — the energy and vibrant force of the unique self. Eros is that sense of vitality so present when we are fully involved — and so noticeably absent when we are not. It is a fluid quality of heart — of being on the inside, fully present, part of the whole, and desiring fullness. Gafni writes, “Eros is revealed when you realize in your very being that you are part of a larger whole. But not only you. Eros reveals that every part is part of a larger whole…. It is through your very uniqueness that, like a puzzle piece, you fit into and complete the larger whole. Separation creates alienation. Uniqueness creates integration…. It is the currency of connection.”6

It should be clear that the cultivation of uniqueness is not opposed to the more impersonal dimensions of rational thought and modern science. It is an awareness of the human experience that actually deepens one’s capacity for nuanced thought and acute observation, but includes forms of personal expression beyond the purely conceptual. It creates a deep and lasting connection to one’s own sources of motivation and love of life. 

If a school values the dimension of contemplative practice and makes time for it, it will find its way into the lives of its students. Contemplative practice may not be a primary element of many academic classrooms, although increasingly there are ways for creative inclusion. But a teaching philosophy that supports it can be embedded in the larger school context.7 At my school, Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), some religion and philosophy classes explore contemplative practices, and teachers and coaches often emphasize the mind-body connection in the arts and in athletics. English and religion classes place a strong emphasis on personal narrative and reflection. A school-wide seminar pedagogy favors listening and collaboration. A highly skilled Insight meditation teacher leads an active group on campus as part of the school ministry, and the required health curriculum includes the mind-body dimension. The inclusion of yoga as a sport option has made a difference, and students on their own find their way to local yoga and martial arts studios. Many academic teachers have personal commitments to one practice or another. But we are considering ways to do more.

The experience of introducing Gafni’s unique self into the classroom is illuminating. For many students it renews a sense of potential about their own significant contribution in the world and gives them a path to realize it. For others it opens a way to inner knowing and subjective truth, without sacrificing science and other kinds of knowledge. Some students change the way they respond to others: Since the unique self begins to unfold only with the awareness of the true self that connects all beings, it leads to a true valuing of others. 

For some students, the development of the unique self is already within their perception. But others may open to the unique self only after they have begun to experience the suffering of the separate ego. It is then that the conscious awareness of this practice begins to emerge as a relief, and then finally as a kind of compass toward another way to live. Either way, a good school has a great responsibility here — to help define this extraordinarily significant choice of direction between the egoic self and the unique self, from which so much will follow.


1. Judith Simmer-Brown and Fran Grace, Meditation and the Classroom, SUNY Press, 2011.

2. Harold D. Roth, “Contemplative Studies: Prospects for a New Field,” Teachers College Record 108 No. 9, September 2006.

3. Diane Speare Triant, “Farewell to Wellesley’s President: An Interview with Diana Chapman Walsh,” WellesleyWeston Online, Summer 2007. See also the Walsh 2006 Fetzer essay, “Trustworthy Leadership: Can We Be the Leaders We Need Our Students to Become?”

4. Agnes de Mille, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, Random House, 1991.

5. Charles M. Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, 1989.

6. Marc Gafni, Your Unique Self, Integral Publishers, 2012, p. 161.

7. Several resources on mindful teaching (among many): the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, the .b Mindfulness for Teens curriculum developed by the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Project, and Mindful Schools. Ongoing academic and popular work on the unique self can be found online at the Center for Integral Wisdom: Evolving a Global Ethic for a Global Civilization, founded by Marc Gafni with integral theorist Ken Wilber, CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey, author and teacher Sally Kempton, and other leaders in the field.
Kathleen J. Brownback

Kathleen J. Brownback teaches religion and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy.