June 7th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics -- maybe; religious language, for sure; contemplation [cover term]...

I was asked, far too long ago, to take up the topic of whether contemplation [cover term here for a variety of contemplative and meditative and prayerful practices] is of any use in this world other than for the individual contemplator. The question was essentially, "Does contemplation have any real world effects other than its effects on the individual doing the contemplating?"

I've been putting off starting this discussion because the topic is so blasted hard to write about, because the vocabulary for writing about it is so inadequate, because the topic (including the vocabulary) has been so badly contaminated by endless popbabble about "positive thinking," and because you [youall] are so fastidious about everything posted needing to be festooned with Evidence. You have every right to that stipulation -- I in fact approve of it and respect you for it -- but it's meant that I've spent a great deal of time searching for suitable articles and research studies that I could provide links to .... and I haven't been able to find anything that I feel comfortable with. If you do a quick Google search you'll find that lots of descriptive material is available, as well as a lot of material reporting on the current research demonstrating the health/wellness benefits of contemplation for the individual contemplator. But I have had no luck so far finding what I really wanted: a well written, coherent, non-polemic, ecumenical article providing an overview of the evidence for contemplation's effects beyond its effects on the individual. If you know where an article of that kind is to be found, please let me know; I can't find one.

gramina posted a comment saying: "I do think that contemplatives are important, and that the task they undertake is valuable not only to themselves but to the world as a whole. ... Unfortunately, the reasons I believe that contemplation and contemplatives are valuable to the world as a whole are largely faith-based reasons, so I'm not at all sure how useful the conversation might be to you. I believe that any creature that has a will is able to align their will with that of the Godhead, or not; and the more the wills of the world are aligned with the Godhead, the more power is put behind that amazing willing-well of God toward the world. I think that contemplatives are able to practice this more clearly than the rest of us -- if only because they literally have the chance to practice more. I believe in the efficacy of intercessory prayer, basically, and I think it's good to have people engaging in it -- just as I think it's good to have people doing the work of God in the world."

I agree with gramina, even when the term "God" is not understood precisely as it was meant in the comment. But I can't prove it; I can only say what I believe to be true.

There is of course one obvious beyond-the-individual effect. The regular practice of contemplation, almost always, leads to a person who is healthier physically and emotionally and spiritually, and such people tend to be more useful in the world. Because emotions are contagious, such people tend to spread positive emotions to others around them, who then pass those positive emotions along to others around them, ad infinitum -- which is in itself a good thing. I don't think that's controversial, and I think it's enough in itself to prove the point. But it's not what I mean when I say that I believe contemplation has real world effects that go beyond the individual.

I believe that our thoughts have power, not just within our selves but in the "outside" world. I believe in emotional weather. I believe that when someone deliberately and voluntarily focuses his or her entire attention on compassion, or on unconditional love, or on joy, and maintains that focus of attention over at least a modest period of time, it increases the level of those emotions in the real world -- not just in the contemplator -- and helps to offset the levels of hatred and prejudice and selfishness and miserableness in the real world. I believe that doing that is real work, real activist work, and just as valuable and important and effecacious as demonstrating in the streets or any of the other traditional "protest" activities. I believe that each one of us is responsible for the effects of our thoughts, and that if we spend all our time focusing our attention on misery and hatred and selfishness and the rest of the negatives we are at best letting down the side and failing to pull our own weight, and at worst are doing real harm. And although I agree with gramina that these beliefs are faith-based, I don't believe that they have to be based on any one particular religious faith, nor do I believe that they are necessarily linked to the "supernatural." I'm perfectly willing to believe they are linked to a wholly natural process (or set of processes) that just is not yet well understood.

Perhaps that will do for a start.