About Contemplative Practice

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One of my teachers tells a story about when he was younger and struggling with coming out of severe alcohol addiction and suicidal tendencies. He found help through the AA program, and was graced with finding a powerful sponsor who helped him through his hardest times. During one such time, my teacher was struggling with finding the strength to stay sober. He got in his car on a stormy winter day and drove out to his sponsor's land to ask him for help. His sponsor listened to him, then told him to go outside in the snow and stand by Cupcake. Cupcake was a very large buffalo. My teacher trudged out, the snow pelting his face. There he met Cupcake. Cupcake was standing still, his face directly into the wind. My teacher stood by him for a very long time, and he said that he began to understand. Cupcake just stood there and faced it. Solid. Unmoving. Cupcake did this all winter long.

In this post, we'll explore contemplative practice, what it is, and what we face through it. There is so much to talk about and experience with this topic. This post simply has a few things to consider when searching for a practice.

Things You Could Think About

THE TERM

Contemplative Practice is a term to indicate a consistent practice of contemplation. If you look at the root of the word contemplation, it means "going to the temple." In contemplation, we commit time and effort to go to the temple within.

Contemplative practices can include all kinds of things: meditation, prayer, a nature-based sit spot, ceremonies, yoga, tai chi, chi kung, sensory practices, etc.

THE REASONS

The reasons for a practice are discovered by each individual through practicing. Here are some that come to mind for me. I know there are some should's in here. Hold them as you will. It is your own practice and your own relationship with the world that you are courting:

To Reduce Suffering: The practice should take us out of fixed patterns where we are creating our own suffering. Suffering is different from pain. Suffering is a deep pattern of resistance to what is. A contemplative practice should always be bending us toward the acceptance of the reality of the moment as it is, not as we would like it to be. This might mean, as the Chinese say, tasting bitter before we taste sweet.

To Increase Consciousness: This is not an idea. The increase in consciousness should be directly experienced and identified. Through contemplative practices, we may increase our actual sensory awareness, our mental faculties, our awareness of our relationships, or expand our identity. For instance, with sense meditation we might use a technique to literally practice seeing new aspects of our visual field. In a thanksgiving prayer, we bring our minds to our connections with all living beings. When we do this fully, in those moments we will actually feel differently, most likely perceive differently, and it will change our sense of identity. There should be some noticeable subjective shift while doing a practice. This indicates a real shift in consciousness.

To Develop Mastery of the Mind: This term comes from a Pali term, samadhi. I like it because people seem to deeply enjoy the pursuit of mastery. If the term does not work for you, throw it out. You could called is "suspended attention" or "executive functioning." The important part is that it develops the capacity to give the mind a specific task, to hold the attention, and to gain increasing facility with the task. For instance, in a body-scan meditation, the first task is to feel any sensations on the body while sweeping the awareness slowly and methodically from the top of the head to the tip of the toes. We train the mind that if it wanders, it is lovingly and firmly called back to attention. Again and again. It is trained. It is a learn-able skill. We increase facility by sharpening the awareness of each sensation. We dissect and dissolve gross sensations until we can feel the more nuanced sensations beneath.

To Strengthen the Noticing Mind: This is the mind that is not the reacting mind. It's not being in the movie of your thoughts, opinions, and reactions about the world. It's being able to step back and see that movie. To see the surrounding world as it is more clearly. And then, with the noticing mind, to realize that you can choose different actions. Wonder, detached observation, and shifting identity can all help increase this faculty.

Compassion: The more we know about ourselves, the more we understand others.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS

Consistency: This is key. A contemplative practice is different than a peak experience or a class. It is committing to the "same" practice daily. Honestly, it has to be daily. Of course, if you beat yourself up for missing a day, then you miss the point. But if you are too lax, then it's time to stand by Cupcake and recognize the kind of strength and wisdom such a practice is developing. It's all there in you. This is just a very skillful way to develop it. When we practice on the good days and the bad and the mediocre, it teaches the mind that it can engage with the above reasons in almost any condition. We practice when we are tired and hungry and full and happy and goofy and bored. We learn that there is a mind and bedrock of our being that is not really affected by these conditions. This really helps us when we end up going through some major life challenges. The mind inherently knows, through training, that the conditions will pass and it can maintain some buoyancy through the storm.

Wonder: Not-knowing. Curiosity. Adventure. The world is strange and we don't know almost anything. A contemplative practice has the characteristic of revealing this and letting us step into the place of a kind of child-like discovery.

Empowerment: We feel empowered by the practice because, literally, our consciousness is bigger. We discover new attributes of ourselves, and we realize new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. This could be physically getting stronger with less pain or it could be developing our attitude of gratitude.

THE CHOICE

If you are just starting to establish a practice, it will probably be a process of courting something that you will actually do. This means paying attention to what you are curious about or drawn to. It often means testing out different things. Here are two suggestions:

Parameters: When you try a new practice, give it a fair trial and use the trial as a way to develop yourself. I suggest giving each one at least a 30 day trial. Do it daily. Choose an attainable goal. If thirty minutes a day seems impossible, then do 15. Start where you are. But stretch your edge. Make sure the parameter you choose is not too easy. And make sure that you are actually setting aside the time and space to fully do this one thing. You aren't doing tai chi while you are drinking your coffee, even if you are moving your arm mindfully. It's great to do that, but it does not replace the practice.

Know that, eventually, you'll get the most in your life if you dig into one practice for a very long time... maybe a lifetime. It's the best teacher. We just have to choose the one that works the best for us. All will have their flaws.

Traps: Beware of some traps. Too hard or too soft is disaster. The practice is, in part, teaching yourself the good balance here.

Too lax with your practice, and it won't really help you. If you are not "showing up" to the practice, it won't cultivate the benefits. Be ruggedly honest about whether or not you are doing it. Track yourself. Remember Cupcake.

Too rigid is just as much disaster. If you make it a commandment and use the practice as way to control yourself and your world, it will harm you and your relationships. You have to be able to adjust if you find that you aren't doing it, or that it is not working in your life. 

The middle way is best. The Chinese say, "Not hard. Not soft. Firm." Remembering the essential ingredient of Wonder will keep you on the middle path every time. I've just released an entire book about Wonder. Read it when you get a chance!

There is plenty more to say about Contemplative Practice. But this is at least a good foundation to work with. It is your journey, and it is actually a beautiful one. So much of you awaits discovery...

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Matthew Fogarty