If you would like to try a contemplative practice, but you’re not sure how to begin, we suggest you check out the Tree of Contemplative Practices. The Tree shows many examples of contemplative practices, and you may feel drawn to one or more. Follow your instincts and explore one or two practices that you find intellectually interesting and spiritually comfortable. Each practice listed on the Tree links to a page full of links and resources for learning more.
Cultivating a Regular Practice
Try to commit to regular, perhaps daily, practice sessions. If you cannot stick to a regular schedule, persevere as best you can. As with most activities that have not yet become familiar and routine, it’s common to postpone engagement with contemplative practice because circumstances are not to your liking. It’s easy to make excuses about lacking materials, supplies, or adequate time and space (“if only I had a nice meditation cushion; if only I had a dedicated yoga room, and an hour free after work–then I could really do this…”). If you notice yourself doing this, try to use the situation as an opportunity to face your discomfort. Begin your practice. Really, you probably already have everything you need!
You can make things easier for yourself by committing to brief but regular sessions. For example, if you decide to take up a silent meditation practice, it is perfectly fine to begin with just a few minutes per session. After you’ve become accustomed to your short sitting periods, honestly and gently assess how that amount of time is serving you, and increase your practice time if it feels right to do so.
It is common to feel twinges of guilt or self-indulgence when you’re beginning a practice. For many of us, time is precious, and we face many demands from family, friends, and our jobs. In those moments when you question your priorities, remember that contemplative practices are not distractions or diversions from our daily activities, but are opportunities to get in touch with what is deeply meaningful to us. Have we lost the ability to be at peace in our moments of rest? Cluttered schedules not only constrict the time we have, but also manipulate our understanding of value and worth. It is crucial to remember the simple value and beauty of life as it is, not as it is used. The simple awareness cultivated by contemplative practices can bring us back in touch with this beauty, enriching our interactions with others.
Here are some suggestions from the Contemplative Mind staff for supporting a regular practice:
- Keep a “practice journal” of your thoughts, experiences and questions. If you attend workshops or retreats, take notes on what is said; if you read a good book, write down what moves you. Then, when you feel bored or discouraged, re-reading your journal can help connect you back to your practice and your intentions for undertaking it in the first place.
- Join a local community of practitioners at a studio, meditation center, house of worship, etc. Regular meetings with others help keep your practice consistent in your daily life.
- Take your practice into a new setting; spend time outdoors. Slowing down to observe the natural world can help order your priorities and is an easy way to re-engage your senses.
- If you are able to get away, a retreat can invigorate your practice, or deepen an already strong one. Retreat Centers are usually simple places with few distractions. You can also “retreat” at home, which will present you with the interesting challenging of focusing on your practice while being surrounded by your typical distractions.
- Remember that intentionally disengaging with the desire for exciting and interesting experiences can be an important contemplative practice, in and of itself. Let go of your goals and desires for certain outcomes, and simply practice.
Additional Support and Guidance
While books and the internet do provide a lot of helpful information, it can be especially helpful to have someone to talk to—a teacher, spiritual director, counselor or other guide—for individualized instruction. Local or online groups, congregations, and meetings can also be rich sources of support.
Contemplative practices are not always peaceful and stress-free. In fact, while some may be more gentle and others more rigorous, all practices are intended to be somewhat challenging. Learning often happens through coping with difficulties, and the contemplative path can be intense, radically transforming your sense of self and identity. While this could be a largely peaceful and pleasant process, it is quite common to experience periodic ups and downs, and most contemplative traditions recognize that difficult periods may need to be “worked through.” In such times, the guidance of a teacher or therapist can be invaluable, so it is important to consider how you might receive such support.