Listen, Reflect, Meditate
The Power of Contemplative Practice
If meditation in general and mindfulness in particular are so popular nowadays, it’s because the cat’s out of the bag: meditative practices are good for us. They improve mental and physical health. They support positive qualities such as patience, resilience and the ability to focus. They boost creativity and self-awareness.
But is meditation enough? When we think about it, most of us do have mindful moments (thank goodness), but then most people don’t spontaneously engage in formal meditation. There’s a science to sitting and an art to getting the most benefit from practice. That’s where attentive listening and contemplation come in.
Three Kinds of Knowledge
The discipline of meditation, as it is widely practiced in the West, has Eastern origins. In particular, mindfulness and awareness practices were extensively developed and taught by the Buddha and his followers. As the Buddhist teachings on meditation have spread—from his lifetime to the present—and adapted to different cultures, they’ve taken on many different flavors, but the core teachings remain the same.
And indeed, one of these core teachings centers on how to get the most out of meditation. It asserts that solid practice is built on a three-fold foundation of listening, contemplating and meditating. These are referred to as the three kinds of wisdom or three kinds of knowledge. In Buddhism the terms wisdom and knowledge cover a lot of ground, so some people use the Sanskrit term prajna instead of trying to narrow it down.
Whichever term is used—wisdom, knowledge or prajna—the idea is that there are three phases to an effective meditation practice: listening or hearing, contemplating or reflecting, and meditating. The first two involve intellectual or conceptual understanding, while the third is about direct experience through meditation, which is not based on thinking.
The terms contemplation and meditation often intermingle in English common usage or Western philosophy. But here they are distinct phases of learning. Listening is hearing teachings on meditation. The term listening can mean any form of acquiring knowledge, which includes reading. Listening, to be effective, must be focused. When you’re listening to a teaching on mindfulness, for example, it’s best if you’re listening mindfully. This may sound like a no-brainer, but in today’s Age of Distraction where multi-tasking is the norm, it’s anything but.
If you listen attentively to a teaching about the practice, benefits and goal of meditation, hopefully you’ll find plenty to think about. This is the next form of knowledge: contemplation. Here we actively think about and internalize what we’ve heard. Does the meditation practice as described make sense to you? Does it expand your view of yourself, or your world view? How does this particular teaching apply to you? Can you utilize this teaching to understand your mind, apply it your relationships or your life? And so on.
In the context of the three kinds of knowledge, however, reflection is meant to clarify your purpose and strengthen your resolve. This clarification can help you avoid some of the common misunderstandings about practice such as “Meditation is going to clear my mind of thoughts,” or “Thanks to meditation, all of my problems will soon be behind me.”
Let’s look at this common misunderstanding that we should try to stop thinking altogether. We are encouraged to do contemplation practice to ponder and ruminate over what we’ve learned. This is a useful tool for any form of learning, not just meditation. In hearing any teaching if we simply memorize what was said we’re just collecting data, filling up our hard drive. Or worse we don’t remember it at all. When we reflect on what we’ve learned, we create a bridge to our experience, and that bridge is the domain of insight. These moments of sudden awareness—aha moments—are signs that our contemplation practice is taking root. And yes, they can happen whilst listening or meditating too. In a real sense these three wisdoms, while often deliberately practiced separately, merge together in real time.
Once you’ve clarified your understanding of meditation, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road—that is, for your tush to hit the cushion (or chair). It’s not contemplation vs. meditation, it’s contemplation and meditation.
Once again, meditation is about direct experience. You’ve heard the instructions, you’ve thought about them and decided to put them into practice, and now you’re sitting. This third kind of knowledge is beyond understanding or insight into what you’ve learned. Now you’re truly integrating that wisdom with your mind directly through your meditation practice. We can call this actual experience, which is beyond theory or intellect. This kind of knowledge takes time, and patience. At some point we may notice, for example, that in the past we would have gotten angry in a particular situation, but didn’t. Over time, reduced negative, habitual emotional reactions are a sign that meditation practice is seeping into your very being.
All of this learning can happen through the skillful blending of the three types of knowledge. Think about it: without listening, we would have no idea where to start, without contemplating, we don’t see how the teaching applies to our life, without meditating, we miss the transformative power of what we’ve learned. Practiced together these three methods can be understood as a complete path to transformation.