In this piece, I’ll recount the experience I’ve had with practicing contemplation or meditation, or whatever you want to call it, and the way it effected my personal and professional lives.
Update (29/05/2020): It’s worth noting that I don’t take meditation very seriously these days. At the minute, I’m questioning a lot of things. That being said, I thought it would be better to keep this up because otherwise I’d be a bit of a revisionist and those types can get annoying.
I. Note on Method.
I’m intending this piece to fit within the broad tradition of qualitative research in the phenomenological tradition. Without getting overly technical that means I intend to be as precise as possible about my own experience in the hope that it will be knowledge bearing, in the hope that it might be useful for someone else.
In our day to day lives, we are often perfectly happy to act on a piece of observational simply because the observation is interesting or relevant. The inclusion criteria of a personal observation into this discussion is simply that it seemed noteworthy to me. If you also see my observations as noteworthy, I encourage you to experiment with the ideas I present later on.
I absolutely see the epistemic status of any conclusions I draw here as: something to consider, rather than something you must absolutely accept. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what would constitute ‘something you must absolutely accept…’
II: The Basic Observations.
A. Contemplation and Skill.
Let’s get into the idea that contemplation involves some skills. But first, what do I mean by contemplation? I’ll offer you a model that is synthesized from my study of a few different traditions and my own experimentation. This is my view on contemplation.
Contemplative practice is any regularly pursued exercise that involves a posture of stillness, solitude, silence in-as-much as is possible, a bodily orientation, and calm. The aim of a contemplative practice is to still yourself to such a degree that your attention is naturally drawn towards personal content that is usually inaccessible.
However, in order to achieve the sort of calm that is required for contemplative practice, it is also important to develop the ability to focus quite cleanly. Focus is also a kind of stillness. You can learn focus in plenty of different ways. You can learn it by focusing on your breath, or by sitting perfectly still. Kierkegaard would probably call focus ‘willing one thing.’ Erich Fromm highlights the ability to will one thing as an essential part of switching into the being mode.
I think ‘willing one thing’ is probably a more important or useful way to understand the quality of samadhi than ‘focus’ is. The reason for this belief of mine is that in my own case, trying to focus is associated with a whole bunch of baggage from my time in school, etc. Focusing is something you force yourself to do. Willing one thing is something you let yourself do.
So here’s what you do in contemplation: you will one thing until you are quiet and alone enough to notice things about yourself that you’ve never been able to notice before. It sounds kind of simple, right? Well, what do you notice?
In my case, I started to build skills around my automatic emotional responses. I found that certain bodily responses were associated with emotions and thoughts, and that thoughts could lead emotions to arise, and that bodily responses could come before either in some cases. I found that certain tensions in the body were associated with certain persistent thoughts and feelings, and that a simple effort to relax the tension in the body sometimes resulted in the thought or the feeling passing away as well.
It’s difficult to describe the phenomena as if there was any sort of taxonomy I could make, or any set of if-then propositions. As far as I can see, what happens when you learn how to contemplate is that you acquire a sort of judgement about and intimate familiarity with your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as well as their relations.
Beyond that, in the process of trying to learn how to contemplate, you’ll have to learn how to will one thing, which is by no means easy. There is a reason that traditional meditation teaching starts with samadhi before it moves onto vipassana or ‘insight.’ I don’t like the term insight either– I feel like it implies some sort of sudden light-bulb moment which isn’t necessarily how change will occur in you, if any does at all.
One problem with learning to will one thing is that it is incredibly powerful, and that contemplation is ultimately a morality-neutral practice. I do not have nearly enough evidence or science in order to start commenting seriously on visualization as a practice, which may be another instance of using the ability to will one thing. That being said, I have suspicions. If it’s just a coincidence, I don’t think it’s a meaningless coincidence that so many skilful athletes and artists cite visualization as a contributor to their success.
In my own practices of Tango dance and climbing, I think I can attribute a good amount of my progress in either case to visualization, and therefore to my practised ability to will one thing.
B. Skill and Outcomes.
But back to contemplation: I want to talk a little bit about how the skills I learned through the whole practice of contemplation have emerged as useful for me in my life.
I’m current pursuing an odd and difficult career in psychology. This means that I have committed to leave myself hanging in professional limbo for the period of time it will take me to gather enough relevant experience to be admitting onto the program. It also means that intend to become a trained therapist, and that I benefit from studying therapeutic literature in my day-to-day contacts with clients.
There is one quality which is very useful for the pursuit of an uncertain future, and which is very important to an honest attempt at helping someone who is suffering deeply. That is the ability to tolerate uncertainty on a bodily level.
You’ll note when you feel anxious or angry or afraid that your body might seem to be on fire. From a psychological perspective, we’d call this a state of extreme behavioural activation. Your heart rate is likely higher than normal, along with your body temperature. You may start to sweat. If you have an anxiety disorder, you may recognize these signs and fear them due to their tendency to runaway into a panic attack.
As far as I can see, the point of these emotions– in their phenomenological quality– is to demand action. This isn’t always the best idea. It’s usually a pretty terrible idea if you’re doing any sort of fine emotional work with someone else or yourself. Imagine working on a watch or a circuit-board by hand, and then suddenly suffering a violent sneeze or muscle spasm.
That whole delicate order you had been trying to preserve for your purposed would disappear in a second. Or think about playing ‘Operation!’ during an earthquake. Sensitivity requires precision and patience, and both qualities require calm.
I’m illustrating the importance of this concept with my own life, but I can make it relevant to yours, too. If you hope to do anything with your life that requires risk, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty will be an asset. If you hope to have a relationship that involves intimacy and vulnerability on your part, then the ability to tolerate uncertainty is essential.
Every life-course worth living involves risk, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a relationship worth having that did not involve vulnerability. Your relationship to your world and your relationship to the people that are important in your life are joined by another important relationship: your relationship to yourself.
The ability to tolerate uncertainty is a consequence of your ability to tolerate your self. The psychologist Carl Rogers spoke about an important principle in the process of self-transformation: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself as I am, then I can change.”
III: Results and Interpretation.
Consider more the idea that contemplation refines the sensitivity of your instrument, and you get an idea for the range of applications of the technique: any domain that demands intellectual or emotional sensitivity will be more easily accessed if you are sharp. At the same time, any domain that benefits from a degree of non-reactivity is more easily accessed by a contemplative.
That’s just if we want to talk about the more mundane consequents of contemplative practice. But it doesn’t seem like spiritual consequents necessarily fit in this discussion, and I feel like I speak enough about them elsewhere, so I’ll leave them out for now.
One example from my own life: it is common in psychotherapy to talk about counter-transference. In the literature on borderline personality disorder, counter-transference is understood in terms of the emotional reactions, sometimes prompted by personal baggage, in the therapist toward the emotional content brought forward by the borderline client in the course of the session.
Having had my own one-on-one encounters with the emotional content of borderline clients, I can tell you without any hesitation that the ability to take a contemplative stance can save the relationship and the interaction.
This skill is by no means important just when it comes to borderline clients. Any time you are faced with exploring someone’s emotional world, you are faced with a situation where your own history and experiences might become present and obscure the reality of the person you’re faced with. In the worst case, this can end up in a complete misinterpretation of the person– with possibly disastrous consequences.
But it seems that even in the ‘best’ cases it can significantly hinder your ability to actually relate to the person. In any of these cases, the ability to ‘calm the waters’ is invaluable in getting a clear picture of what is reflected through them. Namely, the other person.
It can often be very difficult to focus your effort on setting your own emotional content aside for the purpose of understanding the person to whom you are trying to relate. In these cases, the ability to ‘will one thing’ is once again relevant. Our emotions are compelling for a reason– usually they prompt some sort of action that would be the best thing to do in a certain context. But that doesn’t mean that we should be led by them, rather they should inform us.
It is the ability to ‘will one thing’, and the ‘sensitivity of instrument’ developed by contemplative practice that allow us to do this.
IV. A Little Discussion
There is a notion that comes from Spinoza that power is not just the capacity to affect, but that it is also the capacity to be affected. In meditation, we get the ability to be sensitive from the ability to be still, and that is its own form of power. Affect and effect are interestingly different. I think the best way to distinguish them is like the difference between your heart and your hands.
When you’re meditating, you’re sitting perfectly still, which means you can’t do drugs or eat unhealthy food or hurt people or get irritated with those you love. If you meditate a lot, then you might learn how to remember what it feels like to not do all those bad things when you get the opportunity to. That might help you avoid doing them later if that’s the sort of thing you want to do.