Contemplative Life reinvents the wheel?
In designing, populating, and driving a massive Web initiative that brings together teachers and practitioners of all the world’s contemplative practices in one centralized hub, how is it that Contemplative Life is really just reinventing the wheel? Well, we’re not. We’re doing something entirely new. But we do walk in the footsteps of a great lineage of human inventors, from the moment a frustrated Neanderthal said to herself “How am I supposed to cut this meat without a knife?” to the day Gutenberg’s boss blurted “I need thirty copies of this document by noon,” our brilliant species has been creating tools that transform life as we know it.
The timeline of human history is marked by stunning evolutionary sprints each time a group of forward-thinking individuals decided to use their XL-sized brains to solve a problem. You probably learned about the boring ones in elementary school: the agrarian, industrial, and technological revolutions. The digital revolution we’re currently experiencing may be a bit sexier than Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Henry Ford’s assembly line, but it’s nowhere near as amazing and significant as the spiritual revolution that’s happening simultaneously. Just as Mark Zuckerberg and friends initiated a social revolution riding on the back of the digital revolution, my partners and I at Contemplative Life stand at the intersection of technology and spirituality with a vision to help millions of people connect with one another and, more significantly, connect more deeply with their truest selves. This is nothing short of revolutionary.
What was the inspiration and vision behind Contemplative Life?
The inspiration for Contemplative Life was born out of a vision that incubated for many years before it was launched. When my co-founder and I incorporated as a non-profit in 2015, to my surprise, I noticed that I had acquired the URL http://contemplativelife.org twelve years prior. Some entrepreneurs might be frustrated by that realization, but for me, it confirmed that Contemplative Life is part of a larger movement that is actually part of one of our specie’s evolutionary sprints. Like Thomas Merton describes in New Seeds of Contemplation, “When you are traveling in a plane close to the ground you realize that you are going somewhere: but in the stratosphere, although you may be going seven times as fast, you lose all sense of speed.” This has been my experience as I bear witness to the ways “contemplation lifts us beyond the sphere of our natural powers.”[i]
The seeds for this inspiration began in my youth. Even as a child, I was deeply interested in the inner life. My curiosity about the similarities and differences associated with various contemplative experiences drew me into monasteries, ashrams, temples, and working with a Native American elder and a variety of different teachers. I wanted to understand these practices, not just as an academic observer from the outside looking in, but as a practitioner who engages with a practice long and deep enough to receive the gift it offers.
One of my teachers who greatly influenced the vision of Contemplative Life is my dear friend Brother Wayne Teasdale. This great modern-day mystic coined the term “interspiritual” in his seminal book, The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions, in which he wrote “Contemplation is a way that grasps the common ground between the inner and outer in the depth of mystical consciousness.” He went on to say that “The real religion of humankind can be said to be spirituality itself…” Brother Wayne’s vision is both a harbinger of and an inspiration to the vision unfolding in Contemplative Life. I wish he had lived to see it come to fruition, but his spirit is certainly present in everything we do.
Contemplative practice is also central to everything we do. It’s the foundation of my personal and professional life and it’s relevant to every phase of life. I’ve worked with children and teens with regard to contemplative practices, as well as with end of life issues while serving as a hospice volunteer. And I’ve served as a board member for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, which works to foster contemplative pedagogy and practices in higher education.
Here is a link to a 3-minute video entitled A Contemplative Life.
Who does Contemplative Life serve?
Everyone is contemplative, but not everyone knows it. We’ve all had mystical experiences throughout our lives but we may not have recognized it at the time. The frequency and intensity of experience may vary, but everyone has tasted life’s great mystery. The main difference between those who tap into the contemplative dimension continuously, as opposed to those who witness it only periodically, tends to be the presence of some kind of deep and sustained daily practice.
All of the world’s religions include practices such as prayer, meditation, music, song, movement, art, and other rituals. The moment of silence—perhaps the greatest modern example of universal practice— transcends language and culture, evoking a common sense of unity and humility. And such practices exist for everyone. Some practices come from antiquity, others are contemporary. Some are religiously oriented and others are more secular. I have personally witnessed the profound impact of deep and sustained practice in my own life and in the lives of many others I’ve met along this path. I’m continually awestruck and humbled by the great gifts it offers.
Recently, Contemplative Life created a 9-minute film entitled A Practice for Everyone that profiles nine people of different ages and backgrounds. Each person shares their unique approach to practice and talks about how Contemplative Life benefits them individually. I imagine we could have included 90 or 900 individuals with just as many unique stories to share, but I think you’ll agree that these nine people offer an interesting cross section of humanity.
What impact is the mindfulness movement having on the spiritual landscape?
In recent years the benefits of meditation and mindfulness have been all over the media. Even as the mainstream media covers the subject with great interest, specialized news, television, radio, and digital media outlets are emerging to meet the needs of the growing population engaged in contemplative practices.
Mindfulness has also recently become a focus in Silicon Valley with corporate leaders such as Google, Facebook, and Aetna leading the way. Google has launched a hugely successful corporate program called “Search Inside Yourself” , while Facebook and Aetna both have company-sponsored meditation rooms in the workplace. We’re also seeing higher education embracing contemplative practice with initiatives such as University of Virginia’s Contemplative Sciences Center and Brown University’s Contemplative Studies Initiative.
What exactly is Contemplative Life?
Contemplativelife.org is a non-profit organization founded on the principle that deep and sustained practice transforms people, improves health and well-being, enables increased attention, and inspires kindness and generosity. The mission is simple and clear: connecting people and communities with transformative practices. The Contemplative Life platform serves as a bridge that helps users find practices that cultivate the inner life, reduce stress, improve health, foster community, transform the heart and mind, and invite compassionate action.
How do I use the platform?
Contemplative Life features many different practices and communities. The centerpiece of the web platform is the Practices page which is organized into a “Body of Practices” consisting of Heart, Mind, Body, Spirit, and Relational centered practices. These practices are also divided into 34 different themes to help users easily navigate the growing body of content available on the site.
For people who are primarily interested in religious and interspiritual practices, Contemplative Life offers a separate network that is exclusively focused on practices associated with the Great Spiritual Traditions. In this part of the site users have the opportunity to choose practices based on a religious tradition rather than a theme.
What problems does Contemplative Life solve?
In recent years, since the mindfulness movement has entered the mainstream, there has been an explosion of new practices emerging. Simultaneously, significant numbers of young people are moving away from organized religion. The Pew Research Center published a study showing that the number of Americans not affiliated with any religion is growing rapidly. This group, referred to as the “Nones”, consists of 20% of the adult public (30% of those under 30). This is the highest percentage ever recorded and it’s growing rapidly. In fact, in the last five years alone this group has grown by 15%. However, a person identifying as religiously unaffiliated does not mean they’re not spiritually-inclined. To the contrary, this same group expresses significant interest in genuine spiritual experience. They are looking for something that is authentic, meaningful, and experiential—a pursuit that naturally lends itself to practice.
We live in a world that is excessively busy and is showing no signs of slowing down. According to recent surveys, 94% of professionals work a minimum of 50 hours a week with almost half working more than 65 hours. Furthermore, 60% of those who use a smartphone are connected to work for 13.5 hours or more a day2. Couple this with the demands of relationships, parenthood, finances, and more and it’s no wonder that 44% of Americans report that they are under more stress than they were even 5 years ago. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress is the basic cause of 60% of all human illness and disease and is linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.3Most alarming of all, the American Psychological Association tells us that teenagers are the most stressed group in America.
Young people are also less likely to seek solace by following in the traditions of their parents. According to Pew Research, 35% of millennials are not religiously affiliated4. They are, however, interested in experiential practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and yoga. But they also face a problem. People are increasingly confused by not knowing where to go, what to do, which practice is right for them and, if and when they do find a practice that’s a good fit, they’re not sure who is qualified to teach it.
Finding the right practice and community can be a challenge, especially for young people. The internet is the obvious resource of choice, but the vast and diverse opportunities available can easily overwhelm even the most digitally-savvy seeker. Recognizing the need for a centralized online hub, we created a solution that makes it easy for people to go to one place to learn about a myriad of different practices, teachers, and communities and simultaneously connect with others of like mind.
Qualified practice leaders, teachers, and communities also face a problem. Developing a path on the inner journey takes many years of practice, study, and experience. Consequently, those that have acquired the depth and wisdom to guide others in deep practice tend to be of the older generations that are less likely to keep pace with technology. As a result, they’re often representing their work in outdated modes. And so, they’re not effectively reaching the large millennial audience with a great need for and interest in the practices they teach. In short, the gap between people interested in practice and qualified practice leaders is widening. Contemplative Life serves as a technology solution to help create a bridge between these two groups.
What are the benefits of practice?
There is a growing body of scientific research documenting the benefits of practices such as meditation and mindfulness4. The list of benefits is impressive and includes the following:
- Treat ADHD, addiction, high blood pressure, eating disorders, fibromyalgia, and heart conditions
- Increase creativity, memory and empathy, healing from anxiety, depression, and chronic pain
However, before individuals can experience any of these benefits they must first find and adopt practices that are right for them personally. It’s not as easy as it sounds. When it comes to practice, there is no “one size fits all.” What’s right for one may not be right for another. The right practice depends on questions such as: are you in crisis or are you in flow? Are you a head, heart, or hands person; an introvert or an extrovert? What is your cultural or religious background? All these questions and more impact what might be the right and appropriate practice for a person at the time.
How does Contemplative Life engage users?
People are beginning recognize that developing a daily practice is as important as regular exercise and a healthy diet. Yet very few people actually make the leap from grasping this idea to actually committing to a daily practice. It takes time, discipline, and support to begin. Understanding that developing a practice is a process, Contemplative Life engages users in three ways:
1. Information: Contemplative Life offers information on a myriad of practices so that you can explore and compare to find the ones that are right for you personally.
2. Formation: Once you find the right practice, you can continue to gain knowledge of that particular method offered by a qualified Practice Leader or mentor.
3. Transformation: As you continue to sustain and deepen your practice, you can also build community with others of like mind, both locally and virtually through the Contemplative Life Community. As they say in the monastic tradition, “You keep the practice and the practice will keep you.”
Our vision is to foster a global community of likeminded people that are interested in living a more contemplative life.
How does Contemplative Life serve Practitioners and Communities?
Contemplative Life curates its content from experts in various transformative practices. We help teachers and community leaders boil down their offering to its essence and surface this content in an interactive way for users to engage with. Moreover, we enable them to connect with a younger, more diverse audience of users and invite them to participate in a “community of communities” with other practice leaders. Each week we feature different partners and new practices. We also offer our practitioners the opportunity to lead discussions on particular topics.
How does Contemplativelife.org differ from other spiritual sites?
The custom-built platform utilizes a simple and elegant design to connect people and communities with transformative practices. The interactive hub is unique in the way it brings together a diverse collection of transformative practices, teachers, and communities. It helps users to easily explore and compare different options and helps practitioners articulate their essential message while we do the technical heavy-lifting for them.
What are some of the challenges encountered along the way?
One of the first challenges we had initially was trying to articulate a vision of a genuinely new concept with no frame of reference. We realized that we first had to build a functional site (phase 1) before we could attract major funding.
After building the first iteration of the platform, the next challenge was to get user feedback to see if it was something they find useful and usable. Users liked the design and elegance of the site but wanted it to be more interactive. We then created an interactive practices page and a private social network for users to connect with others and build community. After testing and receiving positive user feedback, we launched the site to the general public. Every step of this process has been deeply intentional, patient, and collaborative.
Our current work includes getting the word out to more users, practice leaders, and communities. The organization has been supported by generous private donors and a few small foundations and trusts. Fundraising is ongoing as we build a path toward a self-sustaining platform supported by the community it serves.
How can I help?
You can help Contemplative Life and its mission in the following ways:
- Use the platform and share it with others.
- Connect with us and share us on social media
- Financial Support – Make a tax deductible donation.
Deep and sustained practice transforms people. However, the benefits of practice go well beyond the experience of the individual practicing. Practice also positively impacts family, friends, and community. By helping more people develop a practice (and find it earlier in life) the social impact of Contemplative Life could be staggering.
How do you see the contemplative movement changing in the coming years?
Historically, the social, professional and spiritual parts of our lives have been contained in separate silos. But the expansive use of social media has created new networks by which social and professional communications have become interdependent. The next major silo to become integrated with work and social life is the spiritual (or contemplative) life.
Contemplative living intersects all aspects of human activity. Consequently, the practices and activities associated with contemplative experience have taken on a variety of forms that differ widely among people of different cultural and spiritual backgrounds.
We are now seeing people engaging in practices in virtually every aspect of society. Contemplative lawyers are experimenting with meditation. Research hospitals are studying the effects of contemplative practices on health and medicine. Universities are studying Tibetan Lamas and master meditators to better understand brain activity and the scientific benefits of meditation.
Transformative practices are beneficial to everyone. These include spiritual and secular practices, mental, physical, emotional practices. There are practices for young and old, people in crisis or people in flow. No matter where you are in your life journey the right practice exists for you.
What is your vision for the future?
The contemplative domain has a unique capacity to serve as a diverse and inclusive common ground for humanity. This makes sense given that we are all, by our very nature, contemplative at heart. We all have an inner and an outer life. The contemplative dimension is unique in its capacity to simultaneously hold all of the great traditions with their differences and diversity. It also holds the spiritual and the secular, the traditions of philosophy and science. In fact, the very origin of university learning itself was originally a contemplative endeavor. Contemplation also has the capacity to include both ancient and modern technology. It serves as the great meeting place for the human essence, both on personal and on a collective level.
The vision for Contemplative Life is to foster a global community of people that are interested in living a more contemplative life and connecting with others of like mind. Perhaps it could serve in some small way as a catalyst for this larger collective unfolding.
A grand opportunity now exists like nothing before in human history. Imagine a future where spirituality and science, technology, and medicine are traveling down parallel paths. Imagine the possibilities converging platforms such as cloud, social, mobile, 3D, AR, VR, and AI integrating with the knowledge gained from mapping the human genome and the mind. Imagine synchronizing this with the insights now arising from our study the quantum field and integrating all this with the ancient wisdom of the mystics. Image the potential synergy that will arise by bringing together generations young and old with open hearts, minds, and souls to work collaboratively as instruments of the great mystery to bring about a quantum leap in both consciousness and love.
Such a vision may be difficult to conceive in the world we see portrayed on the evening news. However, throughout history, we have witnessed the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit and soul. For some mysterious reason, we human beings are often at our best when things are at their worst. Let’s reshape our world the contemplative way.
Please help us spread the word about ContemplativeLife.org.
[i] Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York, NY: 2007, p 240. (first issued in 1961 by Abbey of Gethsemani, Inc.)