Exploring Contemplative Practices

The Tree of Contemplative Practices from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

I first heard of the term contemplative practices when reading the book A Fearless Heart by Thupten Jinpa. This involves approaching an inner problem without avoidance or distraction. By establishing some mental space, you can consider the problem without getting caught up in the thoughts and emotions that swirl around it.

Contemplative practices build meta-awareness, i.e. awareness of being aware. If you consider awareness as being right there in the middle of the pool with your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, meta-awareness is your inner watcher standing poolside, calmly observing what’s happening.

While Jinpa described contemplation within the context of Buddhism, it can also be found in other faith traditions, including in the form of contemplative prayer. The Contemplative Society offers some ideas for how to do this in a Christian context.

Features of contemplative practices

The Contemplative Resource Center at the University of Colorado Boulder identifies these features of contemplative practices:

  • cultivation of self-awareness
  • specific physical posture(s) or sequence of movement
  • focused, non-evaluative attention
  • a holistic approach to well-being
  • development of mental and physical steadiness and balance
  • fostering greater attunement, compassion, and creativity

Example practices

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has come up with this cool tree of contemplative practices graphic shown above. How could I not want to do a post with a tree like this? Its roots lie in awareness and communion/connection. The tree includes seven different types of practices, depicted as branches from the trunk:

  • activist
  • creative
  • generative, i.e. generate thoughts and feelings
  • movement
  • relational
  • ritual
  • stillness

It’s quite a diverse range of activities, from storytelling to yoga to singing to vigils and marches, and it’s interesting to consider how they’re all tied together through awareness and communion.

Finding space

Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.

This quote is often misattributed to Victor Frankl, but the actual source is unknown. Regardless, in that space is where meta-awareness thrives.

Restorative yoga (which is about rest, not exercise or being a human pretzel) was the practice that I found most conducive to contemplation. The watcher stood by as part of myself mucked around in the kiddie pool with my problems, and with that distance, I was able to see connections and answers that I had otherwise been unable to see. It was actually quite remarkable some of the insights I was able to gain.

The tree of contemplative practices offers some really good ideas for diverse ways to get into that contemplative frame of mind. I like that there’s an action component, kind of like joy/happiness being about actions and mindset rather than transient emotions. It’s also interesting that this is a way of thinking that can be found across faith traditions and is equally applicable in a secular context. If everyone’s doing it, maybe they’re onto something.

Is this notion of contemplative practices something that you’re familiar with? What types of practices do you engage in?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

28 thoughts on “Exploring Contemplative Practices”

  1. I don’t officially engage with these, but I have noticed that I do better with alone, quiet time to make any kind of decision or affirm a goal. While it’s sometimes nice to get input from others, I need to just “be” for a bit…

  2. I love the tree! I can’t say I engage in all of the activities but certainly a few. Meditation, walking, journaling, yoga are all high on my list. You’ve given me a few ideas. Thanks Ashley 🙏

  3. I love this tree. We used something similar with patients and to encourage their participation, I also worked through some of the practices. Patients said they found it useful, as did I.

  4. I love the tree. Going to print that later.
    I have experienced walking meditation in my pilates class, when I used to do that. A good experience, but not done since. But I do pilates at times.
    Mostly though, I do tai chi.

    I like to have quiet time to switch off. No chatting or listening at anything or anyone, so my hearing aids come out for that. I might read while I do this.

    I will do visualisation at times too. If I do, that’s if I do pilates, or prior to falling asleep in bed.

    I work. I used to voluteer, but had to stop with new personal commitments to come, when I am deputy.

      1. I recommend following David Dorian Ross. I use his dvd’s and find them easy to follow. There are You Tube videos to get an idea what he’s like.

          1. You’re welcome. You Tube was where I checked a few out, came across him and own 3 of his dvd’s.
            I have never been to classes and only first started Tai Chi many years ago when I came across a chinese bloke on tv in the early hours of the morning. Flash forward many years later when I wanted to get back into it and where I am now, with my dvd’s.

  5. People tend not to associate these things with Judaism and a lot of Jews end up in the East looking for them in other religions. They can be found in Judaism, but it’s not always easy (although some, like rituals and singing (pre-COVID!) are more prominent). They’ve been downplayed in recent centuries (and were probably mostly never part of mass spiritual practice in the first place).

    I’d like to do some of them more often, but it’s hard to learn the techniques without a teacher, which can be hard. I have some books and tried stuff, but it’s hard to learn from books. It probably doesn’t help that I tend to over-analyse things.

  6. I really like the ideas presented. It reminds me a bit of mindfulness from the western standpoint. Eastern philosophy has guided a lot of psychological practice, and I think we should pau more attention. Thank you!

  7. I must admit I understand nothing of this. I read the words and they have no meaning…I’ve been trying to understand mindfulness for years – some concepts simply elude me – these are those concepts.

    1. It’s a pretty nebulous concept to begin with, and it certainly doesn’t help with clarity that everyone and their dog seems to be talking it about it in their own way.

  8. Ive done most of these in some capacity. They all help me to feel more fully alive. Like a cosmic orgasm. Silent retreater for the first time September 2020… i am hooked. The week was healing and gave me a new push forward. I like to mix-up my perspectives in order to really hone in on me. Something i learned this weekend was a concept, The Flow, with Jason Silva. Absolutely terrific explanation of my many out-of-body experiences. (I hope I got his name right!) 🥳👋🏻🕯🙏🏼💞

  9. Great post Ashley – I think the branches of the tree are all aspects of life that help with being at one with oneself and the world and I love the way you’ve described it – great metaphors! Nature especially animals, yoga, and connecting with people I work with are my regulars but the tree is great for thinking about new ways and what might be missing. I know for a long period of my life I didn’t notice any of this stuff! Interesting all faiths have similar practices – spirituality is a universal that isn’t really about religion 💞💞

  10. What a trip – I vaguely knew that there was something called “centering prayer” when I decided just within the last week that the type of prayer I have begun to practice must be what goes by that name. Going to the site you link to, I see that it’s not exactly the same thing, but very close.

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