The practices of mindfulness and meditation are known to almost everyone these days. But what exactly is contemplative practice or contemplative studies?
Contemplative practices reflect a wide variety of individual and group activities wherein there is close, careful examination, consideration, and/or experience of focused and sustained attention and/or awareness. Fundamentally, we are committed to the study and practice of a broad array of activities that can help generate meaning, create transformation, and cultivate insight and connection, not just within individuals but across the entirety of human society.
Contemplative practices entail such things as meditation, prayer, chanting, purposeful movement, and ritual activity. Any number of day-to-day activities may also create the conditions for and/or cultivate contemplation, including but not limited to dance, poetry, art, music, writing, listening, singing, and gardening. It is important to note, however, that passively allowing the conditions for contemplation/insight to arise is not the same as intentionally setting out to cultivate contemplation. While we are open to a broad array of contemplative practices, we are most interested in those with an intentional focus on sustained introspection (contemplation) and where there is an authenticity and commitment to practise in an ongoing way. By authenticity, we are referring to practising towards some greater good as well as the values of a tradition or philosophy.
When it comes to claims about health and wellbeing, we emphasise empirical study. To say that something can be studied empirically does not mean that it cannot be subjective or individual but rather that it can be observed and measured and is not theoretical or solely a function of belief. We believe that contemplative practices in the public domain, funded by public monies must be backed by evidence. We also believe that such information should also be available to individuals and corporations. A critical distinction is that while evidence should be weighed heavily in the public domain, individuals and/or private companies have the right to choose to operate on other bases. Of course, we are also aware that some practices are about spirituality, self-transcendence, or something beyond health and wellbeing. We know that such practices are not always amenable to empirical evaluation. Within such contexts, careful consideration is needed regarding how practices align with goals, as well as how these practices are understood among those who practise them. It is in such contexts that we believe it essential that people know what they are agreeing to do and what they might expect from their practice.
Contemplative practices have played a prominent role in many of the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions and have also played a significant role in many aspects of philosophy and science dating back to some of the earliest civilisations. However, it is worth noting that these practices were often part of a bigger context aimed a facilitating a particular (ethical) way of life. Rarely were they used as standalone practices to enhance attention, facilitate focus, or many of the other uses to which they are often put today. Of note within Buddhism is that meditation was historically only undertaken by a select few and was only one part of a multi-faceted set of commitments and practices (see Gethin, 1998).
While there are many points in history where contemplative practices have played a prominent role in day-to-day life, global emphasis on their potential application to a broad array of areas such as health, productivity, meaning, spirituality, education, and more, is a relatively modern phenomenon. The secularisation of these practices such that they might be used outside of spiritual, religious, or other practices is also a relatively modern invention.
While our Centre is based within the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at the University of Melbourne, the practices in which we are interested are by no means the specific purview of psychology or medicine. As a result, we have a firm and fundamental commitment to interdisciplinary and inter-tradition work. It is only via this inclusive work that we believe the value of contemplative practices can be ascertained with clear guiding principles regarding the goals that they can best address and for whom they are most helpful.
Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.