Becoming a contemplation activist

A huge thank you to Mariana Funes for writing this thought provoking blog, that really gets to the heart of what contemplative pedagogy is about.

I have been reading the beautifully titled article by Sandra Braman ‘When nightingales break the law: silence and the construction of reality’ and it has made a big impact on me. I teach online insight dialogue at the Mindfulness Studies Masters at Lesley University. Contemplative Pedagogy is integral to my work and what makes it interesting and challenging is that all my teaching is online inside a Learning Management System; designing and delivering a course that enacts contemplative dialogue on this kind of system is a non-trivial task.

At times I feel very alone, against a tide that privileges the social over the contemplative.
Sandra’s paper speaks beautifully to the need for a balance between these two different ways of meaning making,

“Strikingly, theorizing about digital technologies has led us to recognize many habitual subjects of research as figures against fields that are also worthy of study. Communication, for example, becomes visible only against the field of silence. Silence is critically important for the construction of reality – and the social construction of reality has a complement, the also necessary contemplative construction of reality.”

Yet, we do not act in the world as if these two realms where equally valuable. Instead, we seek ways to distract ourselves when a rare moment of contemplation becomes available in a busy day. We are born to distraction and must cultivate attention. So Sandra encourages us all to protect our moments of silence,

“Finding ways to protect silence as an arena of personal and social choice is particularly poignant […] at this frontier moment for the human species.”

This put me in mind of the idea that attention and how we use it is a moral and a political act. Iain McGilchrist synthesises this well when he tells us that “Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes other recede.” Attentional choices often requires us to work against habit and ease, we need to become contemplation activists. Fighting to ‘protect silence as a personal and social choice’ often means taking the inconvenient course of action. Why bother?

We bother because we are losing the battle with mind chatter. We are being weighed down by too much information and too few inconvenient choices. Our mind chatter has become an inner landfill and unless we cultivate attention, distraction will win and our cognition will (is already?) suffer. We want permanence and yet all we have is a reality that is dialectical in nature; oppositional constructs that are held in tension and, paradoxically, only temporarily permanent. Silence and conversation. Stillness and movement. The social and the contemplative. And we see this flow over time only if we cultivate our attention and stop being seduced by distraction.

So I am now calling myself a contemplation activist. I remind myself daily that:

  • I need to cultivate fluidity to see background and foreground beyond motivated reasoning
  • I should ask: What is not being attended to?
  • Remember to pause to see the world as it presents itself to the eye not just seek to impose a shape on it
  • Mind chatter is the boundary of conscious and unconscious, I train the mind to access it when I cultivate silence and pause
  • Else, fast will always win

These ideas are summed up from the work of David Levy who I also have to thank for the term Contemplation Activist. I highly recommend that you read his work as well as Sandra’s article if these ideas appeal to you.

This is not about picking ‘the right way’; it is about living with ambiguity and impermanence,

Dialectically, social and contemplative practices can oscillate, feeding into each other, as a cycle of activity and respite; a pulse for everyday life. Mara Adelman

We need silence to hear the pulse of everyday life oscillating moment to moment. So how do we bring contemplation (back) to the fore?

  • Know we embody the obsolete in mind chatter – train the mind
  • Protect silence as a personal and social choice – inconvenient choices
  • Anthropomorphising the clock to blame it for our lack of time, brings only temporary relief
  • Every decision excludes (or should) as much as it includes

David Levy talks about how he tackles distraction one student at a time. I say that is a worthy goal not just for my teaching but also the rest of my life – tackle distraction one moment at a time by privileging the pause a little more often each day.

By Mariana Funes, May 2017
Braman, S. (2007). When nightingales break the law: Silence and the construction of reality. Ethics and Information Technology, 9(4), 281-295.
Funes, M (2017) The contemplative construction of reality. Haiku Deck created for my students. You can find it here:
Funes, M. (2017) The contemplative construction of reality.

2 thoughts on “Becoming a contemplation activist

  1. Mariana, thank you for this. I need to sit with your words for a while as there is some very deep and profound thought here. However, the notion of countering distraction is attractive and as the father of four millennials, vital to my mind for the future of a compassionate society. I too work mostly online with an international audience of distance learning students and am intrigued as to how this plays out in a virtual medium. You have invigorated/reoriented my Friday morning into requiring me to sit a while – I am in control of my day, not the clock on my phone! Best wishes, Stuart, (Edinburgh, Scotland)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I come back home after a long day in London in the rain to find your kind comment, Stuart. Thank you very much. It helped a great deal to have the frames I explore in this post situating my own work. I also must admit to a wee (as you say in Scotland) giggle every time I describe myself as a contemplation activist! I have yet to try it as a conversation starter over a dinner party 🙂

    You raise the important issue of future generations and compassion, something I see incompatible with some of the economic models our society cherishes. There is not getting away from the inconvenient truth that moving away from distraction and finding time for compassion in human time, has a cost.

    You say: ‘intrigued as to how this plays out in a virtual medium’. It is something I have a little pride about! Designing this course on Blackboard has been challenging but has helped me shed the inconsequential and focus on what matters in creating an intentional learning environment in spite Blackboard’s push for me to attend to fragmentation rather than the whole….I am very happy to talk with you some more, privately, if it would be of use in your work. Meantime, thanks again and lovely to meet you here (forgive me if we have met elsewhere and I have forgotten, your name sounds familiar). Find me on Twitter at @mdvfunes


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