Contemplative Practice: Balancing Inner and Outer By Thomas A.C Weiser

In contemplative practice, the practitioner observes that all activity has effect upon the actor as well as upon the object; internal and external depend on one another. Therefore, the contemplative practitioner attends to the external, or objective, manifestations of the practice, as well as to the internal, or subjective, manifestations of the practice.  For instance, the contemplative taiji practitioner attends to both the external shape of the taiji form as well as his or her internal psychophysical state of tension and relaxation.

Of course, it is possible to perform a practice in a “one-sided” manner, focusing on either the internal or the external manifestations of the practice, and still gain benefit from the practice.  A yoga practitioner who focuses only on the external form of the postures may develop greater physical coordination, a pliant body, and more awareness of and control over their physical movements.  A meditator who focuses only on his or her mental states may develop greater serenity, a pliant mind, and more awareness of and control over their mental processes.

And because external activity affects internal states and internal activity affects external states, it is possible to perform a practice in this “one-sided” way and still fell benefit in the aspect that was ignored. For example, the yoga practitioner who focuses only on the external forms of the postures without attending to his or her internal state, might find, at the end of practice, that he or she had become more tranquil and alert mentally.  And a meditation practitioner meditator who focuses only on his or her mental states might find, at the end of practice, that he or she had become more tranquil and alert physically.

However, the practitioner that pays attention only to one aspect – either inner or outer — of a practice, and fails to pay attention to the other aspect of the practice, will not learn how to skillfully manage the interplay of the two. This kind of practice is like a black box: the practitioner knows, for instance, the kind of external activity the put in, and they observe internal results they get out at the end, but they don’t know how the internal and external interacted in real time. If a practitioner remains ignorant of the present moment interaction of internal and external, that practitioner will not be able to gain skill in managing that interaction.  Without skill in managing the interaction of inner states and outer activity it’s possible for the relationship can go awry. So while it’s possible that outer activity and inner aspects will remain concordant and mutually supportive, they may instead become discordant and mutually antagonistic. 

For example, a meditation practitioner may practice internally quite well, but fail to pay attention to his or her “external” posture.  Over time, that practitioner’s body will not be able to sustain the poor posture, and will begin to negatively affect the practitioner’s mental and emotional state. At this point, the practitioner will no longer be able to practice well internally. Conversely, a taiji practitioner might practice the external aspect of taiji well, but in the dogged attempt to release all physical tension that practitioner might become mentally obsessive and agitated.  Over time, the practitioner’s mental agitation will affect his or her body in such a way that the practitioner will not be able to fully relax physically regardless of their external efforts.

In order to undertake an activity contemplatively, the practitioner must develop awareness that faces outward towards that activity and also inward, towards their psychophysical states and process.  Only by being at the same time both internally and externally aware can the contemplative practitioner develop the skill of managing the interaction of inner and outer.

As that skill is developed, the contemplative practitioner can learn to undertake the activity in a “virtuous cycle” in which internal and external manifestations of the practice support one another. The outcome of a successful contemplative practice, therefore, is a psychophysically healthy practitioner who has developed the skill of sustainably undertaking an activity and who produces authentic manifestations of that activity.

This skill is transferable.  Once a practitioner understands how to practice contemplatively, and develops skill in a contemplative practice, that practitioner can apply that skill to any practice.  Of course, being a good contemplative taiji practitioner won’t make you a good singer, but it will give you the skill to approach singing in a contemplative manner.