International Symposium on Contemplative Studies (ISCS 2014). The first two focused on the science side of the conference: what has been learned about contemplation contributions to healthy aging and about building a caring society. Now I turn my attention to the practice side of the conference with the question, What do contemplative practices add to well-being? Here’s what I experienced myself in one contemplative practice that you can conduct at home.Author’s note: This is my third article on what I learned at the
Contemplative practices are activities that engage us in deep observation or reflection. Although meditation has been a centerpiece in the field, many additional activities are being practiced and studied. The Center for Contemplative Practices in Society created this beautiful diagram to provide an overview of the many types of activities that could be considered contemplative.
Not all of the contemplative practices shown on the tree have been rigorously studied using scientific methods, although contemplative science is a rapidly growing field. At ISCS 2014, there were many scientific presentations on the effects of meditation practices and significantly fewer that featured writing, deep reading, yoga, t’ai chi and personal retreats. But there were also opportunities to experience some of the practices. I’d like to talk about my experience with Lectio Divina on the generative practices brance of the tree of contemplative practices.
Early Saturday morning more than two hundred ISCS attendees gathered to participate in Lectio Divina, or divine reading. The practice originated in early Christianity. Participants listened deeply to sacred texts being read aloud, identified a word or phrase on which to meditate, and prayed to better understand how to cultivate that sacred concept in life.
We participated in a secular adaptation of Lectio Divina. Our facilitator recited two poems aloud over and over, repeating and interchanging lines. The two poems are not religious, although I know some who would say both poems are sacred to them. The first poem repeated was Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese and the second poem was Rumi’s The Guest House. There is something both soothing and powerful about listening to meaningful words being read aloud! Both are included below. I invite you to read them out loud.
We all settled into relaxed breathing with eyes closed. Then the reciting of the poems began. After many times through the poems, or portions of the poems, we were left to silently meditate on the words or phrases that seemed significant to each of us. I was quite familiar with both poems. As I meditated, the phrases, “The wild geese are heading home again,” and “Meet them at the door laughing,” stayed in my mind most prominently. My meditation then centered on what it means to me to be home and to laugh as I greet those who arrive to visit.
While meditating, I considered the literal view of home, imagining myself in my favorite calm places in my house, especially my office and meditation space. The idea with Lectio Divina is to fully explore ideas, and so I also began to consider metaphors of home, landing on my center of authenticity as a metaphor of home that seemed rich with possibility.Mary Oliver’s wild geese became the thoughts racing in my mind, flying rapidly, but heading home to center and to stillness.
Rumi’s visitors, whom I greeted at the door, were my emotions and moods, as Rumi envisioned, but also my wild geese thoughts. I pictured myself greeting all my thoughts and feelings with a smile, with laughter, knowing that they are but visitors and guests in my “home.”
I found the practice to be quite powerful. It brought me back to the purpose of the conference, “How training the mind through contemplative practices may lead to valuable insights that promote a reduction in suffering, enhanced health and cognitive / emotional functioning and increased social harmony.”
My experience of seeing my thoughts and emotions as wild geese and as guests to be greeted with lightheartedness is an example of an insight that might be helpful in emotion regulation or in reducing anxiety. The net effect of two hundred conference attendees participating in this contemplative practice together did seem to facilitate social harmony among us. We softly smiled at one another, sometimes offering the Namaste bow that is common in meditation and yoga classes, as we shared these few beautiful moments together.
Home Practice of Lectio Divina
A version of the Lectio Divina practice is something that you could easily do at home by yourself or with a group of friends or meditation practitioners. It might be well suited for those who have struggled with the more basic forms of mindfulness meditation because Lectio Divina provides a focal point for contemplation. Here are steps to follow:
- Find 2-4 readings that speak deeply to some aspect of your life. I recommend readings that depict something you would like to better understand or to embody in your life.
- Find some beautiful music for the background. You might like to use music from your own collection, or meditative music you can find online.
- Record yourself reading the readings over and over again with the background music playing. Most phones have a recording function these days, if you don’t have designated recording equipment.
NOTE: If you don’t like the sound of your own voice once recorded, ask a friend with a soothing voice to be your reader.
My suggestion would be to record for no fewer than 10 minutes, with about 5 minutes of reading followed by about 5 minutes of just music. Begin by reading the readings through a couple of times. Then improvise – read one or more lines from Reading A and then one or more from Reading B, etc. Continue until you have filled about 5 minutes. The remaining time will be just the music playing.
- Once you have made your recording, set aside time for Lectio Divina. You may wish to incorporate a meaningful ritual prior to this practice. Lighting a candle could symbolize enlightenment or cultivating new insights, while the ringing of a bell might symbolize clarity of thought. Choose a ritual that is meaningful to you.
- Once your Lectio Divina meditation time ends, write about your meditative time. Consider the words that stay with you and what they mean to you. It is okay if you inadvertently remember a line / phrase differently from what the poet or writer actually wrote. This is a contemplative activity, not a memory activity. The most fruitful reflections might be what you misremembered or interpreted in your own special way.
- If you are with others, you may wish to discuss the experience. What was it like for you? What do you remember? What it easy or difficult? You may wish to share what you wrote with others.
Wild Geese by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
The Guest House by Jelaluddin Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
translation by Coleman Barks
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. Contemplative Practices.
International Symposium for Contemplative Studies, retrieved from
Oliver, M. (1986). Dream Work. New York: NY: The Atlantic Monthly Press.
Rumi, J., (2004). The Essential Rumi, New Expanded Edition. (Barks, C., translator.) New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher. (Original works 1207-1273)