Integrating contemplative practice into life

In the following excerpt from Stephen Batchelor’s new book, The Art of Solitude, Stephen discusses the need to integrate what we do in meditation and contemplative practices into all the activities of our life.

Printed with permission of Stephen Batchelor and Yale University Press. To purchase a copy of the book, click here.


In the end, the only thing that really matters for me as a meditator is how well or badly I respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the situation at hand. If my contemplative practice fails to contribute to my flourishing as a person in my relationships with others, then I have to question the purpose of spending months and years practicing it. Every moment in life offers the chance to start afresh. I can embrace what is before me, let go of what holds me back, then speak or act in a way that is not determined by my fears, attachments, or egotistic conceits. Although I frequently fail in my attempts to live in this way, I am convinced that mindfulness, collectedness, and questioning are crucial to my ability to do so.

I likewise do not doubt that by training oneself in contemplative disciplines one can achieve non-ordinary states of mind that might sound incredible for those unfamiliar with these things. When meditation teacher Leigh Brasington describes dwelling for long periods of time in the jhānas and immaterial absorptions, I have no reason to disbelieve him. fMRI scans of Leigh’s brain in meditation have shown different areas lighting up as he enters different jhānic states. Yet I suspect that the ability to access such altered forms of consciousness is due to a range of factors other than formal training. Not only are some people more highly motivated to achieve such states, they may be more temperamentally and perhaps neuro-biologically suited than others to enter them.

“We had the experience,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Dry Salvages,” “but missed the meaning.” The meaning of contemplation must not be confused with the experience of contemplation. To be able to dwell in a deeply focused, ecstatic, and clear state of mind is in itself meaningless. You can train and develop your spiritual muscles to an exceptional degree without necessarily flourishing much as a person. Your meditation is meaningful to the extent that it contributes to your becoming the kind of person you aspire to be. And since an ethical vision is integral to your life as a whole, it will inform, suffuse, and transform your contemplative practice.

To integrate contemplative practice into life requires more than becoming proficient in techniques of meditation. It entails the cultivation and refinement of a sensibility about the totality of your existence—from intimate moments of personal anguish to the endless suffering of the world. This sensibility encompasses a range of skills: mindfulness, curiosity, understanding, collectedness, compassion, equanimity, care. Each of these can be cultivated and refined in solitude but has little value if it cannot survive the fraught encounter with others. Never be complacent about contemplative practice; it is always a work in progress. The world is here to surprise us. My most lasting insights have occurred off the cushion, not on it. (pp. 239 -241)


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