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
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:
- generative, i.e. generate thoughts and feelings
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.
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?
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.