7 min read

“Spirit Medicine: Toward Ethical and Decolonial Psychedelic Research and Praxis,” a panel co-sponsored by the Cognitive Science of Religion, Contemplative Studies, and Indigenous Religious Traditions units, juxtaposed the universalizing force of Western perspectives with particular Indigenous perspectives on practices and terms, such as “shaman.” Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato proposed a methodology of encountering Indigenous art with respect and a spirit of healing, rather than an extractive or objective one that seeks to define the art as “artefact” or to “discover” its significance. Ari Brouwer and F. LeRon Shults took a cognitive science approach in their research of psychedelic, spiritual, and psychotic experiences and suggested that their human subjects experienced a particular kind of stress response in each, based on the role of the types of cognitive dissonance and agency involved. Yuria Celidwen referenced an article she recently co-authored on ethics for the use of psychedelics and spirit medicine and pointed out problems that arise from removing spirit medicine from its cultural contexts, which include violations against rights to heritage and diminished efficacy of treatment. She proposed regulation at the state and institutional levels and pointed out the economic and racial inequities that have been observed in the use of Indigenous medicine in Western research and therapeutic contexts.

“From Knowledge and Liberation to Unbounded Wholeness through The Great Bliss Queen: In Honor of Anne C. Klein” – a roundtable discussion sponsored by the Contemplative Studies and Tibetan and Himalayan Religions units – convened current and former students of Anne Klein and scholars influenced by her to discuss the multiple epistemologies at work in her most impactful publications. The contributors celebrated Klein’s contributions to Tibetan Buddhist studies and Contemplative Studies, her generous mentorship, and her extensive collaboration and co-authorship with Indigenous Himalayan scholars. Michael Sheehy opened the panel by welcoming an atmosphere valuing human connection over solely academic approaches, a suggestion Martijn van Beek took up in reflecting on Klein’s work and their long-term friendship. Sarah Jacoby celebrated Klein’s ability to lead by example in making space for women and gendered qualities associated with women, such as emotion, in the academy. She also acknowledged Klein’s pioneering efforts to break the binary between scholar and practitioner and to foreground the expertise of Tibetan scholars in her work. Renée Ford and Learned Foote both expressed gratitude for Klein’s sensitive and insightful guidance as a mentor to graduate students and highlighted her attention to the “felt sense” of textual elements and their reverent and expansive connotations. Kali Cape lauded Klein’s decolonial “edgework” and noted its importance to her when she entered the academy as an Indigenous woman, lama, tulku, and historian of religion. Finally, drawing on the epistemologies of perfection Klein takes up in her new book, Being Human and a Buddha Too (2023), Jue Liang reflected on how Klein influenced her own thoughts on aspects of her identity as a woman and a scholar. In her closing response, Klein expressed gratitude for her chance to learn from Tibetan lamas and to experience friendship in the academy. 

A panel titled, “Beyond Insider/Outsider: Theorizing Practitioners, Scholars, and Critical Methodologies,” sponsored by the Tantric Studies and Contemplative Studies units, sought to examine the identity of scholar-practitioner and methodologies associated with it, such as foregrounding subjective experience in the context of fieldwork, scholarship, and pedagogy. The four participants spoke about their own forms of insider and outsider status and how the intersections of both have motivated and challenged them throughout their careers. Both Sravana Borkataky-Varma and Meera Kachroo identified the authority and freedom being ethnic insiders with high-status gotras afforded them in their research in India. They and Anya Golovka also acknowledged the initiations into contemplative and ritual practice traditions they had received as scholars but agreed that the details of their own practices differed from the ones they study. Anya Golovka added that by giving attention to the lived practices of her subjects, she was able to provide a more accurate portrayal of goddess traditions than scholars who protected their “outsider” status. Running through the conversation was the understanding that until very recently, these participants could not have admitted to being a scholar-practitioners without endangering their careers. Seth Ligo suggested that becoming a scholar is a kind of training or practice in itself. He encouraged scholars to bring the issues of being a scholar-practitioner, in whatever form that takes, into the light of day. All four emphasized the benefits of contemplation to pedagogy, research, and one’s own well-being. 

Finally, “Heart Openings: The Use of Micro-phenomenology in the Study of Religious and Contemplative Experience of Love and Associated States,” was co-sponsored by the Contemplative Studies and Cognitive Science of Religion units. It convened scholars who use principles of micro-phenomenology (MP) in their research on love and associated states encountered in contemplative practice. Anthropologist Christian Suhr introduced the five-year Heart Openings project, commenced in Fall 2022 under the auspices of the European Research Council to study cross-cultural experiences of love. He shared clips of films made during fieldwork in Egypt that incorporated micro-phenomenological interviews (MPI). Renée Ford, also a PI on the Heart Openings project, presented findings from her MP interviews with Tibetan nuns in Nepal. She explained her methods of analyzing and cataloging the feelings that arose when the nuns were asked to think of their religious teacher. The scholar who developed the MPI technique, Claire Petitmengin, compared meditation, a soteriological pursuit, with MPI, a pragmatic technique. She argued that both lighten the attachment, or “tension,” on the object of experience, resulting not in a reorientation on something more subtle, but a dissolution of the boundary between the interior and exterior. Martijn van Beek emphasized the benefit of MPI for both the interviewer and the interviewees. Whereas Dzogchen teachers generally caution their students against describing their meditative experiences, he found that interviews allow the interviewee to reach a more nuanced understanding of their meditative process. Similarly, as the interviewer, he is also practicing a kind of contemplation as he evokes the memory of the experience with the interviewee.