Contemplative Practice



"Seeking unity consciousness is like jumping from one wave of experience to another in search of water. And that is why "there is neither path nor achievement." ... We are not really searching for the answer we are fleeing it. ... And so we arrive at an essential point of the major mystical traditions, namely, that special conditions are appropriate (but not necessary) for the actualization of unity consciousness. And further, these conditions do not lead to unity consciousness - they are themselves an expression of unity consciousness. ... Even if, in our spiritual practice it appears we are trying to attain enlightenment, we are actually only expressing it.... Thus by all accounts, our spiritual practice is itself already the goal.

Spiritual practice forces this fundamental resistance to surface in our awareness. We begin to see that we don't really want unity consciousness, but that we are always avoiding it. But that itself is the crucial insight, just as the understanding of our resistances on every other level was the pivotal insight. To see our resistance to unity consciousness is to be able, for the first time, to deal with it and finally drop it - thus removing the secret obstacle to our own liberation."

Ken Wilber No Boundary

Contemplatives are people who have made the choice to modify their lives in response to their own unitive experience or from a internal resonance which they feel when hearing the accounts of others. The certain knowledge or hope that life can be experienced very differently leads them to search for ways to return to this new way of being and to extend it into more areas of life. 

Unitive experience often results from a "letting go" rather than a direct effort. It therefore requires an intentional effort to move toward a radical openness to life as it is in the present moment. 

Contemplative practices are necessary since most of our lives consist of conditioned responses, and our perceptions are distorted by our desires and fears. These practices direct our attention in a way that modifies, or at least makes us aware of, the ways in which we are continually constructing our view of the world. It is likely that these mental constructions are what George Fox called notions.

The Ethical Context

Often we think about practice in terms of formal meditation or prayer techniques; as if there is no life context in which they take place. As we read about these formal practices it is important to remember that contemplative traditions assume that the practice is taking place in the context of a morally grounded life. 

In Western practice there was a great emphasis on purity of heart. Monks and nuns took vows. At Buddhist retreats each person is asked to follow the precepts which outline ethical or moral relationships to others. The contemplative life is built on an ethical foundation. (Eightfold path, testimonies, vows, etc.)

As we know from therapy and drug treatment; making fundamental changes in our behavior, emotions, and thought processes is not easy. If we are to move beyond the ego, which we have defended for most of our lives, we should not think that the task will be easy. 

On the other hand the disciplines often sound so simple that it is hard to believe that they can work, again probably only experience can convince us of their value. As with any art, there is no substitute for practice.


Formal meditation is a good entry practice for most of us and has at least two general forms.

The first is called concentration meditation.

Out of a foundation of conscious conduct, the first steps of the mindful way, grows the second aspect of the path, which is called the development of samadhi, or steadiness and concentration of mind. As we bring the grace and harmony of virtue into our outer lives, so we can begin to establish an inner order, a sense of peace and clarity. This is the domain of formal meditation, and it begins with training the heart and mind in concentration. It means collecting the mind or bringing together the mind and body, focusing one’s attention on one’s experience in the present moment. Skill in concentrating and steadying the mind is the basis for all types of meditation and is in truth a basic skill for any endeavor, for art or athletics, computer programming or self-knowledge. 

In meditation, the development of the power of concentration comes through systematic training and can be done by using a variety of objects, such as the breath, visualization, a mantra, or a particular feeling such as loving-kindness. We will speak much more fully about the art of concentrating the mind in later chapters, since it is so important. Most fundamentally it is a simple process of focusing and steadying attention on an object like the breath and bringing the mind back to that object again and again. It requires that we let go of thoughts of the past and future, of fantasies and attachment, and bring the mind back to what is actually happening; the actual moment of feeling, of touching the breath as it is. Samadhi doesn’t just come of itself; it takes practice. What is wonderful is the discovery made by the Buddha and all great yogis that the mind can actually be trained.

Jack Kornfield  - “Seeking The Heart of Wisdom”

A second type of meditation can is often called insight meditation, bare attention meditation, or receptive meditation.

"Bare attention is defined by two technical paradigms: a particular form of attention deployment and a particular way of managing affect. Cognitively, attention is restricted to registering the mere occurrence of any thought, feeling or sensation exactly as it occurs and enters awareness from moment to moment, without further elaboration. ...

Again in contrast to conventional psychotherapy, attention is kept "bare" of any reaction to what is perceived. The meditator attempts to attend to any and all stimuli without preference, comment, judgment, reflection or interpretation.

If physical or mental reactions like these occur, they themselves are immediately noted and made the objects of bare attention. Even lapses in attention - distractions, fantasies, reveries, internal dialogue - are made objects of bare attention as soon as the meditator becomes aware of them.

The aim is threefold: to come to know one's own mental processes; in this way to begin to have the power to shape or control them; and finally to gain freedom from the condition where one's psychic processes are unknown and uncontrolled."

Jack Engler - Transformations of Consciousness


"Receptive meditation is the practice of sustained nonselective alertness. In practicing receptive mediation, the meditator maintains the stance of an open and unmoving witness. Whatever emerges in or before the mind is observed crisply but not in any way acted upon or reacted to. The images, feelings, and thoughts that present themselves to consciousness are witnessed uninterruptedly and with full consciousness but without in any way being engaged. In receptive meditation, the meditator emulates the character of a polished mirror, which reflects objects clearly, without becoming involved with them. Important examples or receptive meditation are the mindfulness (satipatthana) and insight (vipassana) meditations of Buddhism and the corresponding "just-sitting" (shikan-taza) form of meditation (zazen) of Zen. Receptive meditation also includes forms of prayer, namely, all those exercises consisting of an open and unthematic posture of devotion and surrender."

Michael Washburn - The Ego and the Dynamic Ground


Movement Meditation

Most of us have watched the graceful movements of the Tai Chi player and resonated with the silence embodied in this movement. Others have joined in Sufi dancing. While Tai Chi or Sufi dancing may not be an option for all of us, we shouldn't overlook walking meditation which is available to most of us and offers us many of the benefits of Tai Chi. Recently Westerners have been introduced to walking mediation when attending Buddhist meditation retreats.

"Walking meditation can be very enjoyable. We walk slowly, alone or with friends, if possible in some beautiful place. Walking meditation is really to enjoy the walking. Walking not in order to arrive, just for walking. The purpose is to be in the present moment and enjoy each step you make. Therefore you have to shake off all worries and anxieties, not thinking of the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment. You can take the hand of a child as you do it. You walk, you make steps as if you are the happiest person on Earth.

We walk all the time, but usually it is more like running. When we walk like that, we print anxiety and sorrow on the Earth. We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on Earth. Everyone of us can do that provided that we want it very much. Any child can do that. If we can take one step like that, we can take two, three, four, and five. When we are able to take one step peacefully, and happily, we are for the cause of peace and happiness for the whole of humankind. Walking meditation is a wonderful practice."

Thich Nhat Hanh - Being Peace


Contemplative Prayer

Prayer is an openness to God in speaking or listening. P. T. Forsythe said that "prayer is to religion what original research is to science." Most of us are familiar with discursive prayer (speaking to God) which takes the form of prayers of thanksgiving, intercession, petition, or adoration. Less familiar for most of us are the contemplative forms of prayer.

First let's look at centering prayer which can be used as a bridge to contemplative prayer. Thomas Keating in his popular book Open Mind, Open Heart gives the following directions.

"Once you have picked a suitable time and place and a chair or a posture that is relatively comfortable, and closed you eyes, choose a sacred word that expresses your intention of opening and surrendering to God and introduce it on the level of your imagination. Do not form it with your lips or vocal chords. Let it be a single word of one or two syllables with which you feel at ease. Gently place it in your awareness each time you recognize the intrusion of some other thought."

"The sacred word is a way of reducing the ordinary number of one's casual thoughts and of warding off the more interesting ones that come down the stream of consciousness. . . . The sacred word is not a mantra in the strict sense of the word. We do not keep saying it until we drill it into our unconscious. It is rather a condition, an atmosphere that we set up, that allows us to surrender to the attractive force of the divine Presence with in us. . . . It's an exercise of effortlessness, of letting go. . . . As you quiet down and go deeper, you may reach a place where the sacred word disappears altogether and there are no thoughts."

Contemplative prayer can be thought of as opening to God. Here are three descriptions of this type of prayer.

"Stand guard over your spirit, keeping it free of concepts at the time of prayer so that it may remain in its own deep calm. Thus He who has compassion on the ignorant will come to visit even such an insignificant person as yourself. That is when you will receive the most glorious gift of prayer. . . . Do not by any means strive to fashion some image or visualize some form at the time of prayer."

The Cloud of Unknowing


"Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One's way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists."

Thomas Keating - Open Mind, Open Heart


"Beyond meditative prayer (what we have called discursive prayer), but never to take the place of active discourse with God, is the prayer of contemplation.

This has also been known as the Prayer of Quiet or of "Silence" and the Prayer of Adoration. ... In the Christian heritage it has been called an apophatic (passive) form of prayer as distinct from the kataphatic (active) form in meditation. The ideal is to be as open and passive as possible that God may act, to meet God in the "thick darkness" which is still God's "canopy", and to await there the recognition of the mysterious and ineffable union.

Some hold that any individuality, any identity of the self in this union is an illusion. The more constant testimony of the mystics in our tradition would hew to the paradox: "Never was I so much myself, never did I so completely lose myself. ... Again the greater weight of the accumulated testimony is that the prayer of contemplation, when it realizes its objective, is always a gift of grace, an experience of the Holy Spirit praying within us.

Properly conceived, the inner posture of contemplative prayer is one of "let go, let be" as Eckhart would have seen it. If one is faithful in meditative prayer, sooner or later one is inwardly summoned from the antechamber to the depths of the inner sanctuary."

John R. Youngblut - The Gentle Art of Spiritual Guidance

Awareness Or Presence In Action

In the Buddhist tradition this is the called mindfulness. The Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes in a simple yet elegant fashion about mindfulness.

"But during such times one's mind is inevitably distracted by other thoughts, and so if one really wants to keep one's consciousness alive (from now on I'll use the term "mindfulness" to refer to keeping one's consciousness alive to the present moment), then one must practice right now in one's daily life, not only during meditation sessions. ... If we're really engaged in mindfulness while walking along the path to the village, then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts like a flower, enabling us to enter the world of real.

Thich Nhat Hanh - The Miracle of Mindfulness

The Christian tradition has called a very similar discipline called practicing the presence.

"The most excellent method Brother Lawrence found for going to God was simply doing his everyday business with no view to pleasing men and (so far as he was capable) for the love of God. It is a great delusion to think the times of prayer ought to differ from other times. We are as strictly obliged to stay close to God by action in the time of action as by prayer in the season of prayer."

Brother Lawrence - The Practice of the Presence of God)


Prayerful Reading - Lectio Divina

The following two readings give a historical and a practical explanation of this practice.

"The method of prayer proposed for lay persons and monastics alike in the first Christian centuries was called lectio divina, literally, "divine reading", a practice that involved reading scripture, or more exactly, listening to it. Monastics would repeat the words of the sacred text with their lips so that the body itself entered into the process. They sought to cultivate through lectio divina the capacity to listen at ever deeper levels of inward attention. Prayer was their response to the God to whom they were listening in scripture and giving praise in liturgy.

The reflective part, pondering upon the words of the sacred text, was called meditatio, "meditation". The spontaneous movement of the will in response to these reflections was called oratio, "affective prayer". As these reflections and acts of will simplified, one moved on to a state of resting in the presence of God, and that is what was meant by contemplatio, "contemplation".

Thomas Keating - Open Mind, Open Heart


  1. "Begin with reading, stopping when a word or phrase really "shimmers", becoming a vibrant transparency of God for you. The intent is not to get to the end of a passage but to the bottom of it in God, to the word through which God touches you now, the word that becomes an icon for you. This is not always a strong awareness.

  2. Move toward an understanding of God in the word: the step of reflection. This step involves the use of your cognitive capacity to reflect on the possible spiritual meaning of the word for you life, and at times for the larger community's life. Do not try to force a meaning. 

  3. Move to active prayer: for your heart to open to God through this word in direct communion, and for your will to open to God in responsive action, as may be called for.

  4. Finally, move to a still presence in the spaciousness of God. Seek to simply rest in your larger identity in God, through and behind the images and feelings that may rise.

A rural Southern minister, not knowing this tradition technically but knowing it in his heart, summed it up succinctly when he was asked how he prays: "I read myself full, I think myself clear, I pray myself hot, and I let myself cool" (another version of his statement ends "let myself go")."

Tilden Edwards - Living in the Presence


Family Relationships As Practice

This is a practice that is ripe for exploration. Since most of us are not monks or nuns we must discover and share ways in which our family relationships can become a conscious practice. The following quotes are offered as a starting place for your own exploration.

"If I were to point to any part of my life as my most intensive practice, I would point to marriage. And that's been a quite conscious effort too."

Stephen Mitchell - No Enlightenment

"You see, the whole thing in marriage is the relationship and yielding - knowing the functions, knowing that each is playing a role in an organism. One of the things I have realized - is that marriage is not a love affair. A love affair has to do with immediate personal satisfaction. But marriage is an ordeal; it means yielding, time and again. That's why it's a sacrament: you give up your personal simplicity to participate in a relationship. And when you're giving, you're not giving to the other person: you are giving to the relationship. And if you realize that you are in the relationship just as another person is, then it becomes life building. A life fostering and enriching experience, not an impoverishment because you're giving to somebody else. Do you know what I mean?"

Joseph Campbell - An Open Life

Parenting offers an almost continuous opportunity to practice loving non-attachment.

"I have learned more about God by being a parent than anything else in my experience."

John Punshon - Encounter with Silence

And St. Teresa remarks how much easier it is to impose great penances upon oneself than to suffer in patience, charity and humbleness the ordinary everyday crosses of family life ...

Aldus Huxley - Perennial Philosophy

"We can learn to see here and now those places where we are afraid or attached or lost or deluded. We can see in the very same moment the possibility of awakening, of freedom, of fullness of being. We can carry on this practice anywhere - at work, in our community, at home. Sometimes people complain about how difficult it is to practice in family life. When they were single, they could take long periods of silent retreats or spend time in the mountains or travel to exotic temples, and then these places and postures became confused in their minds with the spirit of the sacred itself. But the sacred is always here before us. Family and children are a wonderful temple. Children can become fantastic teachers for us. They teach us surrender and selflessness. They bring us into the present moment again and again. When we're in an ashram or monastery, if our guru tells us to get up early in the morning to meditate we may not always feel like it. Some mornings we may roll over and go back to sleep thinking we'll do it another day. But when our children awaken us in the middle of the night because they are sick and need us, there's no choice and no question about it - we respond instantly with our entire loving attention.

Over and over we are asked to bring our whole heart and care to family life. These are the same instructions a meditation master or guru gives us when we face the inevitable tiredness, restlessness, or boredom in our meditation cell or temple. Facing these at home is no different from facing them in the meditation retreat. Spiritual life becomes more genuine when things become more difficult. Our children have inevitable accidents and illnesses. Tragedies occur. These situations call for a constancy of our love and wisdom. Through them we touch the marrow of practice and find our true spiritual strength.

In many other cultures the nurturing of wise and healthy children is seen as a spiritual act, and parenting is considered sacred. Children are held constantly, both physically and in the heart of the community, and each healthy child is seen as a potential Leonardo, Nureyev, Clara Barton, a unique contributor to humanity. Our children are out meditation. When children are raised by day care and television, in a society that values, money-making more than its children, we create generation of discontented, wounded, needy individuals. A key to extending practice into the demanding areas of child rearing and intimate relationships is bringing our heart back a thousand times. Nothing of value grows overnight, not our children, nor the capacity of our hearts to love one another. . . . .

Spiritual practice should not become an excuse to withdraw from life when difficulties arise. Meditation practice of any sort would not get very far if we stopped meditation every time we encountered a difficulty. The capacity for commitment is what carries our practice. In a love relationship such as marriage, commitment is the necessary down payment for success. Commitment does not mean a security pact where love is a business exchange - "I'll be here for you if you don't change too much if you don't leave me." The commitment in a conscious relationship is to remain together, committed to helping one another grow in love, honoring and fostering the opening or our partner's spirit.

In both child rearing and love relationships, we will inevitably encounter the same hindrances as we do in sitting meditation. We will desire to be somewhere else or with someone else. We will feel aversion, judgment, and fear. We will have periods of laziness and dullness. We will get restless with one another, and we will have doubts. We can name these familiar demons and meet them in the spirit of practice. We can acknowledge the body of fear that underlies them and, together with our partner, speak of these very difficulties as a way to deepen our love."

Jack Kornfield - A Path With Heart


There are many other activities which can lead one to unitive experience: reflection, resonating with the natural world, and deep aesthetic experience. Clearly practicing mindfulness can be worked into almost every activity, since it seems to have more to do with the intent and manner of practice than the activity.


Compassionate Action as Practice

This following paragraph says so well what I think many contemplatives and Quakers have felt when dealing with hard problems in trying to express their compassion using skillful means. Whether in meeting for business, clearness committees, peace and justice movements, and all of the other kinds of dedicated service work they have engaged in.  

"Many times the needs of others are what bring us to a state of sharp concentration.  

Whether it's because we feel very secure with those we're with or because we are functioning under conditions of extreme crisis, we find that in this state of intense concentration helpful insights arise on their own, as a function of our one-pointedness.  

In these experiences we meet a resource of remarkable potential.  While we may be frustrated in not having access to it all the time, these experiences lead us to inquire whether there might be something we could do more regularly and formally to quiet the mind, strengthen its concentration, make available the deeper insights that often result, and bring them into closer attunement with the empathy and compassion of our heart."  

For me, contemplative practice is the something we can do to extend these experiences into more areas of our lives."

How Can I Help by Ram Dass and Paul Gorman



Are you engaged in one or more of the practices listed above right now?
How are they going?

Which practices seem to fit your temperament and life right now?

If you are not engaged in a contemplative practice right now, do you feel drawn to any of the practices listed above?

Is there anything preventing you from starting to practice a discipline today or tomorrow?

People often find it difficult to keep a practice going.
What have been the obstacles along the way for you? Have you found ways to get around these problems?