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Contemplative Practice: Unpacking the Definition
By Thomas A.C Weiser
Definition: A contemplative practice is an activity undertaken in such a way that the practitioner develops awareness of his or her psychophysical states and processes; awareness of the interplay of those psychophysical states and processes with the activity undertaken; and skill in managing that interplay. Contemplative practice is an activity. It is an action or series of actions performed by the practitioner: it is experiential, not merely theoretical. While there may be a phase of gathering and digesting instructions for the activity, and a phase of reviewing the outcome of the activity, these are supports for the contemplative practice, not the contemplative practice itself. Talking about aikido, for instance, may support the contemplative practice of aikido, but it is not the contemplative practice of aikido. It is the practice of talking. Contemplative practice occurs in the present moment of the activity.
Any activity may be undertaken as a contemplative practice. It is the manner of undertaking the activity, not the activity itself, that determines whether or not the activity functions as a contemplative practice. Of course, some activities may be more amenable to contemplative practice, and others may be less amenable to contemplative practice. However, even an activity designed to be a contemplative practice may be undertaken in such a way that it fails to function as a contemplative practice, and an activity that seems to be quite inhospitable to contemplative practice may be undertaken in such a way that it functions as a contemplative practice.
Self-awareness is an essential component of contemplative practice. In a contemplative practice, the practitioner develops present-moment awareness of his or her psychophysical states and processes. While retrospective awareness based on analysis (“I must have been feeling this way…”) is a useful support, contemplative practice awareness is primarily concerned with present-moment awareness (“I’m feeling this right now…) Without present-moment self-awareness, an activity may look “contemplative”, but it does not function as a contemplative practice.
Awareness of the external activity is also an essential component of contemplative practice. In a contemplative practice, the practitioner develops not only an awareness of his or her internal psychophysical sates, but also an awareness of the interplay of those internal psychophysical states with the external activity. The practitioner’s psychophysical states change in interdependence with the activity and vice versa. The practitioner’s psychophysical states and processes influence the manifestation of the activity; the flow of the activity influences the manifestation of the practitioner’s psychophysical states and processes.
The awareness that the practitioner cultivates is therefore one that faces both inward and outward. Without an outward facing aspect of awareness, the practitioner will not gain skill in the activity, will not be able to develop awareness of the interplay of the activity and his or her psychophysical states and processes, and will not gain skill in managing that interplay. The practitioner may gain self-awareness, but will not gain skill in applying that awareness to an activity that manifests in the outside world. As practitioners gain familiarity with this interplay of inner and outer they develop skill in managing it. As their practice matures, they will be able to undertake the contemplative activity competently even when they are experiencing challenging psychophysical states, and they will be able to maintain healthy psychophysical states even when they are undertaking challenging activity. The practitioner will develop the skill of undertaking the activity in a healthy, sustainable way. Since the practitioner is connecting his or her inner states and processes with the outward expression of the activity, the manifestation of that activity will be authentic.
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.