Cultivating Contemplative Skills

Photo by Jeffery Erhunse

Contemplative learning and practice integrate introspection and direct experience, cultivating wisdom through the development of:

There are many kinds of contemplative practices, of which meditation is only one. At the Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, we see mindfulness as an essential component underlying all of these skills. We take a very broad approach, teaching stillness, movement, relational, creative, generative, activist, and ritual/cyclical practices, all arising from a foundation of mindful awareness and community connection. We also take an integrative approach, seeing compassion and ethics as components of mindfulness, rather than something separate or “extra”.

According to Buddhist psychology, ethical instincts, balance/equanimity, self-respect, confidence, lovingkindndess, compassion, sympathetic joy, and regard for consequences arise when mindfulness does. We believe this is also true for secular mindfulness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as heartfulness, you’re not really understanding it.”

…intuitive controls… come into play when there is mindfulness. They watch over our own mental states and how we interact with others: they prevent us from doing or saying something that could cause harm to ourselves or others. They are rather like inbuilt ethical instincts that come into action when mindfulness is present.Sarah Shaw

In fact, we see the teaching of mindfulness as an education in the fundamental skills supporting individual and collective wellbeing. Former Naropa University president Judy Lief said, “A balanced education cultivates abilities beyond the verbal and conceptual to include matters of heart, character, creativity, self-knowledge, concentration, openness and mental flexibility.” In the book Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, Author Harry L. Lewis discusses what has been lost in our traditional educational system. He argued that his ivy league university, “by focusing on competition for professors and financial support and a consumer model of education, has failed to live up to its primary mission of educating students to become responsible members of society.” This could also be said of our mainstream culture as a whole. The primacy of earning and winning for our very survival can blind us to the bigger picture. I recently learned the term “percepticide“, the mind-numbing sibling of heart-numbing compassion fatigue. Percepticide happens when, under stress, we lose our ability to think critically, adopting instead a view that supports our understandable desire for self-preservation. Essentially, we shift our focus from the wholeness of what is right in front of us to what we think will allow us to immediately escape pain, regardless of the cost. Contemplative learning and practices can help inoculate us against this phenomenon.

According to researcher Tasha Eurich, though most of us believe we are self-aware, only 10%–15% of us actually fit the research criteria for self-awareness. She said many studies have demonstrated that when we’re self aware, “we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies.” However, we haven’t been taught how to effectively cultivate self-awareness. Eurich said most people when introspecting ask the question “why”. Yet, since we often don’t have access to the information needed to answer why questions about our internal experiences, we tend to invent explanations that feel true to us and fall prey to our negativity bias. This inclines us toward rationalization and denial as our primary reactions. Eurich recommended asking “what” rather than “why”, which allows us be more objective and open to new information, making space for learning.

Recently, the Mindfulness Initiative published a document entitled “Mindfulness: Developing Agency in Urgent Times” outlining how “cultivating the innate capacity of mindfulness and its essential qualities such as attention regulation, receptivity, meta-cognition, cognitive flexibility, embodiment, emotion regulation and kindness could be foundational in responding to the complex challenges of the 21st Century.” They talk about how mindfulness can help us reclaim our attention from the myriad distractions of the modern age and consumer and political interests competing for our time: “Multiple interconnected crises call for skillful response at a global scale – but our capacity for intentional action in our collective best interest is underdeveloped and increasingly undermined.” They also speak of how the practice helps us interrupt reactivity, giving us space to choose our responses wisely. Mindfulness helps us broaden our perspective and connect to what’s most important. It can help us open to and thus better understand the world’s increasing complexity.

The aim of education should be to train happy individuals who will make up a peaceful society. It requires warm-heartedness and taking a broad-minded, holistic and far-sighted approach that enables people to cope, whatever happens. This entails focussing not only on self-satisfaction, but on the good of the community. Wise self-interest takes the needs of others into account. – 14th Dalai Lama

Contemplative learning and practices, including mindfulness, can re-humanize us, reminding us of our place within the great, interconnected web of being. They can help us become more engaged in our lives and with the world. Perhaps most of all, they can remind us to connect, again and again, with our deepest values. All of these factors incline us toward our best selves so that we might leave a legacy of beneficence, reaching far beyond our brief existence.


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