The Promise of Practice

The Proven Value of Contemplative Practice

My day is full. And so is my mind.

I’m occupied with tasks, activities, frustrations, conversations, appointments, phone calls, and all the thoughts, feelings, speculations, and memories that come along for the ride. I handle these with a normal, everyday level of awareness that seems to do just fine. But the pressured pace of skimming from item to item can leave me feeling scattered and brittle.  

A contemplative practice offers me a chance to step off the hamster wheel, reflect, and build capacities that reconnect me to the depth of who I am and what I care about.

There are proven benefits to slowing down and learning to direct and sustain my attention. The list of enduring traits linked to a regular meditation practice include lower blood pressure, decreased inflammation, a healthier immune response, optimized telomere function (which slows aging), a stronger ability to focus, less reactivity, reduced anxiety and depression, more empathy for others, and an increased sense of well-being. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson review this remarkable body of research in their book, “Altered States, Altered Traits.”

Contemplative practice changes how we use our awareness by turning the lens of our attention back on itself. It’s a little like looking at your own eyeballs – instead of seeing the objects in your range of view “out there,” practice widens your focus by looking at the experience of looking, “in here.” When we become aware of being aware, we obsess less about details and can start to recognize patterns that were not obvious before.

Modern research on neuroplasticity demonstrates that how we use the mind shapes the brain. In his book “Aware,” Dan Siegel describes how intentionally directing your focus rewires the synaptic patterns in your brain, creating possibilities for new thoughts and behaviors. The key is to do it regularly to build a cumulative effect.

A contemplative practice is an intentional departure from our ordinary, everyday level of awareness. It changes the defaults embedded in the brain by our unconscious habits of mind. Common examples include meditation, yoga, and tai chi chuan, but a contemplative practice can be anything that intentionally directs the focus of your attention:  breathing, journaling, altering setting, ritual, chanting, nature walks, visualization, writing, and many more.

The quality of our awareness is different when we stop skimming and drop into the spacious openness of our reflective mind. From my experience, even a short practice will often make me more calm and clear. But there are also times when I feel resistance to practicing for reasons I can’t articulate. There are many factors that influence our mood and motivation, many of them hidden from our conscious mind. Contemplative practice makes us more aware of our internal dynamics, including feelings of discomfort.

Don’t let resistance stop you. The promise of practice is that there is value in staying with it and reflecting on your current state of being, whether it is calm, agitated, or something else.

According to Goleman, Davidson, Siegel, and thousands of other researchers, the most important step to training your mind and gaining the benefits of reflection is to stick with it. The cumulative benefits multiply over time. Commit to a regular contemplative practice, even starting with five minutes a day.

Every time you intentionally direct your attention, you build the fitness of your mind and nervous system. When your mind wanders, it does not matter. Redirecting your attention back to your intended focus has the same effect.

You are making progress every time, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Photo by Anthony Tori on Unsplash

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