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.

Confused? It’s no wonder. The terms contemplation and meditation often intermingle in Western philosophy.

For example, in his celebrated book Meditations, the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius proposes ponderings of this sort:

These things thou must always have in mind: What is the nature of the universe, and what is mine—in particular: This unto that what relation it hath: what kind of part, of what kind of universe it is […]

There is definitely a place for philosophical and spiritual musings in the three kinds of knowledge as presented in the Buddha’s teachings. They follow on the footsteps of the first kind of knowledge: listening or hearing.

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.

Is meditation a good match for you? Does it fit your world view? Are you interested in exploring further? Ready to commit to the discipline, at least for a time? Where might your practice lead? Are there any potential pitfalls? And so on.

When you ruminate about philosophy and world views, you might have grounds for debate. 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.”

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 leaves plenty of room for experimentation, assessment, readjusting and delving ever deeper.

Nobody can do the practice for you. But being part of a community of like-minded meditators is a great support. Like you, members of the Mindworks online community are motivated by listening, contemplating and meditating, and by applying the understanding that arises from practice to the challenges and joys of everyday life.