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One of my take-away lessons from presenting the Centering for Wisdom Assessment at Oxford in January is that the term “contemplation” conjures up a wide array of meanings, connotations, and personal responses.  I find myself in workshops using the clunky phrase “mindfulness, meditation, or contemplative practices” to refer to a variety of practices.  I remain convinced that there is a common element to these human ways of being and of engaging the world, but I have yet to fully articulate how we might capture what is most essential.  Thus, I have begun a quest to develop a working definition of the term contemplation.  I would absolutely love to hear feedback and comments from readers so that this becomes a collective endeavor.  Please submit any comments or additions below!

Part of the challenge in developing this working definition is that it will need to be concise enough to capture what is essential about contemplation, while also being open enough that persons from a wide array of disciplines (e.g., the humanities and the natural and social sciences) as well as persons from a wide array of spiritual and religious traditions, could find it applicable.  No small task!

To begin, I simply offer the following list of definitions or descriptions of related terms, which I have been collecting for about a year.  I make no claims that this list is exhaustive, and it is admittedly heavy on the Christian tradition, which simply reflects my training and identity as a Christian theologian.  In compiling this list, I hope some common elements might emerge that can help to narrow our inquiry down toward a working definition of contemplation:

“Resting quietly in the presence of God”

– St. Gregory the Great (6th century, Christianity)

“An awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

–  Jon Kabat-Zinn (Medicine)

“Paying attention to what’s naturally arising in the present moment with kindness and curiosity.”

Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (Education)

Contemplation is “a third way of knowing that complements both the rational and the sensory…designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.”

– Tobin Hart (Education)

“Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality.”

– Thich Naht Hanh (Buddhism)

Being present in “an open, kind and discerning way”

– Shapiro & Carlson, 2013 (Psychology)

COAL – Curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.

– Daniel Siegel 2017 (Interpersonal Neurobiology)

“Consciousness is that which is most intimate to our experience—that which lies beneath thought and feeling. It is awareness itself, the experiencer. ”

– Hari Sharma & Christopher Clark. (Ayurvedic Medicine)

“Yoga [union] is the control (or cessation) of the modifications of the mind field.”

– Patanjali, Yoga Sutras (Yoga philosophy)

“For contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love”

– Saint John of the Cross (Christianity)

“Contemplation is a wordless, imageless prayer into which God invites the Christian who has devoted himself or herself for a prolonged time to discursive prayer. Contemplation, as John [of the Cross] says, is precisely a general, loving knowledge of God”

– Mark O’Keefe, O.S.B. (Christianity)

“the transcendent experience of reality and truth in the act of a supreme and liberated spiritual love…contemplation is [the human person’s] highest and most essential spiritual activity”

– Thomas Merton, O.C.S.O. (Christianity)

“Finding God within”

– Unknown

“Mysticism” is a modern word for what the Christian tradition previously called “mystical theology” (a life-style, not an academic discourse), or “contemplation.” I prefer to speak of the “mystical element,” which is a part of a concrete religion, such as Christianity or Judaism. I have described this elsewhere as follows: “…that part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of what the mystics themselves describe as a direct and transformative presence of God”

– Bernard McGinn (Christianity)

“the soul collects its faculties together and enters within itself to be with its God”

– St. Teresa of Avila (Christianity)

“In the mystic way, reality is neither seized nor deciphered.  Nor can it be committed to ideational formation.  Instead, it is engaged – delicately, knowingly, and passionately.  It is engaged by being loved”

– Walter Capps & Wendy Wright (Christianity)

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