Compassion, Contemplative Practice, and Ethics in STEM | Elaine Yuen

Report from Elaine Yuen, PhD

I recently presented on Compassion, Contemplative Practice, and Ethics in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) at the Contemplative Mind in Higher Education Conference at Howard University in Washington DC.

You might think compassion and STEM have very little in common!  However, on our panel we explored whether a mindful practice can support ethical vision in scientific research. There were four of us on the panel from different disciplinary traditions (philosophical, psychological, engineering and Buddhist) – and we presented varying perspectives on how contemplative practice might interact with the narrowing and fragmenting of social and spiritual vision that STEM pedagogies often encourage.

We found agreement in acknowledging that compassion is the foundation of ethical action, and that underlying ethical thinking are interrelationships with other people. Ethical frameworks may help to articulate values, which in turn inform behavior. Contemplative practice may help to refine and acknowledge deeply held (and sometimes unconscious) value sets, as well as point out how contextualized relationships (with family, friends, society in general) may help or hinder in unpacking these values.

For an experiential case study, we contemplated relationships with our all-pervasive cell phones. For instance, cell phones are great for connecting and give access to information. However, cell phones may also be isolating, and reduce the ability to pay attention. We explored these issues by asking “questions without answers,” a modality that allowed participants to surface issues that hold a multiplicity of responses within it, without landing on a definitive “answer.”

It was also grounding for me to discuss these issues at Howard University, a historically black institution located in the downtown area of Washington DC. The theme of the conference was “Building Just Communities,” and many of the presentations and presenters hailed from urban and underserved areas. Naropa faculty and staff were widely represented, presenting in 14 sessions including “Reversing Spiritual/Somatic Bypassing of Racism,” “The Bow: Inclusivity and Justice Through Contemplative Ritual,” and “Musical Improvisation Fosters Awareness: Creativity and Teamwork in Engineering Students.”

It was gratifying to hear how mindfulness and compassion practices are being utilized in these diverse settings to bring about a larger social consciousness. In addition, it affected the bodily felt sense of my own identity—as an Asian American and minority—to be mingling with so many other persons of color.

About the Author

Rev. Elaine Yuen, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Naropa University. She is an interfaith hospital chaplain, and a Senior Teacher and Buddhist Minister serving Shambhala International in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa. A meditation practitioner since the early 1970’s, Dr. Yuen teaches meditation classes and workshops nationally and internationally. She has written and lectured on Buddhism, aging and meditation, contemplative approaches to chaplaincy, and religious diversity; and has been a regular columnist for the Living Religion Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Recent writings include articles on “Spirituality and Health Care,” “Meditation and Healthy Aging,” and “Spirituality and the Clinical Encounter.” She continues exploration of contemporary contemplative life through many activities as a parent, artist, researcher and teacher. ')}

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This is where experiential learning meets academic rigor. Where you challenge your intellect and uncover your potential. Where you discover the work you’re moved to do—then use it to transform our world.

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