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Loriliai Biernacki is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is the author of Renowned Goddess of Desire (2007) and The Matter of Wonder: Abhinavagupta’s Panentheism and New Materialism (2023). She is also co-chair of the Contemplative Studies unit at the American Academy of Religion. 

Conducted by Erin Burke, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and a Research Assistant at the Journal of Contemplative Studies (JCS).

JCS: What is contemplation and how do you understand contemplative practices? 

Loriliai Biernacki: This is a great question because it’s an emerging field. And as an emerging field, there’s a lot of different people coming from different traditions. And many traditions have their own forms of contemplation. Here, we’re trying hopefully not to do too many appropriative, neo-colonial imperialist, or perennialist moves of trying to lump everything across traditions into one or under one rubric. But I think there is a core of becoming aware—aware of oneself, aware of one’s surroundings, just being attentive to one’s reality. And it’s something that basically comes through practice. It’s this capacity to be more attentive, be more aware of what’s happening. A contemplative practice changes a person’s being in the world. I noticed something when I had to go to a meeting about how to use iClicker technology. The guy’s talking about it, and I ask him a question, and I ask him another question. At a certain point he’s like, “you don’t miss a thing!” I was thinking it’s because I’m actually meditating every day. By doing that, having a stable practice, it makes it so that you’re able to be more attentive in the world around you on a daily basis. So, what is it? I don’t think it’s something necessarily connected to any particular tradition per se. I really don’t. I think that contemplative practices arise out of a human need—I want to even say it’s an evolutionary human need. It’s humans growing. If you want to think about it on a small scale, or on a species scale, or think of it as a cosmic growth of consciousness. It’s like that famous Bergson quote, “the universe is a machine for the making of Gods” or perhaps I might say for consciousness to discover itself. So I think contemplation is a way we can use the tool, the instrument that is the mind to actually tap back into this capacity for becoming aware.

JCS: And how does contemplation intersect with your research?

I think that contemplative practices arise out of a human need… it’s humans growing.

LB: Well, I am thinking phenomenologically about the texts that I read, so that when I read these texts by Abhinavagupta, I am seriously asking what is he actually trying to say? Can I understand it in an inner, embodied, lived sense? And I think that contemplation has genuinely helped me to understand some of what he’s talking about, some of what these texts talk about. I do think that these folks had a much more robust appreciation and sense of contemplative activities, whether it’s mantra practice, puja, or just meditation. I think they had a much more robust sense of doing these kinds of practices and we’ve lost that some. But to do [actual practice] allows us—gives us a little bit of a way of understanding precisely what it is that they’re talking about. So that’s one way that contemplation helps my research and that contemplation is phenomenologically present in my research. I can think of lots of different times when I’m trying to understand a concept or where I have an experience and I see them talking about something, and I’m like, oh, that’s what they’re talking about. Abhinavagupta talks about the oscillation of a fish which he connects with this notion of spanda. I’m like, oh, that’s actually a phenomenological experience that comes through a certain kind of contemplative practice. This mudra being both inward and external at the same time, it creates this oscillation, I think, and contemplative practice allows one to experience this, to think, “ah, that’s what they’re talking about.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that when you start to see correspondences with what they’re saying in the text and what you experience, it’s just really helpful for understanding, particularly medieval, textual practices.

JCS: And you’re referring to the book, [The Matter of Wonder,] that just came out this year.

LB: Yeah, I mean, I don’t talk about these concepts at all [in the book]. But I do think that contemplative practices have helped me to think about what these medieval philosophers and thinkers were saying. And [this has helped] correlate it to what we experience in our world today.

When you start to see correspondences with what they’re saying in the text and what you experience, it’s just really helpful for understanding.

JCS: So, what excites you?  Are there any future projects for you or any things you’d like to see other people do in the field or things you think that are right for Contemplative Studies in the future?

LB: It’s a nascent field for sure. And I do think that it’s exciting. I think we’ve lost some things as a culture through a secularization of our contemporary world that has forgotten how to train thought inwardly. Of course there are wonderful things that have come out of secularization that have helped us grow as humans, as a society. There’s no doubt about it. Many helpful and important things have happened as a result of separating church from state. There’s no doubt about it. One of the things we’ve lost though is a naturalized practice of contemplation. Our world doesn’t have it. And it’s even more difficult and exacerbated by the fact that we’re all getting addicted to our screens. One of the things that excites me about contemplation is that this movement had to happen because enough of us are aware enough to realize we’re missing something. People are saying, well, we need to do something because this is not working. We’re all addicted to our screens. We’re all walking around with our heads cut off. Not all of us, but many of us are recognizing that this isn’t quite what I’m meant to be doing as a human. This isn’t [all of] what humans can experience. And how do I get there? Contemplative Studies is a recognition of that, and yes, many people—scholars in Contemplative Studies—are looking to religious traditions of the past as a way to help figure out how people did this and what they were doing. There are also lots of new innovative ways of thinking about contemplative practices and hybridizations and syncretizations that happen with the modern world and trying to meet secular goals [like asking questions of] what people [should] do with drugs, et cetera. I think there’s a genuine desire and need for humans to figure out how to do this again, that we’ve done it before. Our species, through its religious traditions, we’ve done this before. And I think many of us know that and what’s possible with this. Contemplative studies as a field is trying to reclaim this. Now they’re trying to reclaim it in a secular way, because they’re basically thinking about it in terms of what we have in common, as humans. One can read this as William James’ project, and that was the beginning of a phenomenology of subjective experience. So, we’re thinking about it in that sort of a way. 

JCS: To do that again, like how we’re experiencing…?

LB: Well, now we’re living in a more secular world, and so perennialism was an initial opening towards the idea that there is some sort of core we all share. But I don’t think we need to go there, to espouse a perennialism. I think we just need to recognize that it’s something to be a human. What it means to be a human is to actually tap into and touch on these elements as well. It’s sort of recreating, or perhaps we might apply the terminology of “recognition” pratyabhijñā. Contemplative Studies is recreating, or recognizing a thing that we knew we had, that we know we know how to do, but it used to always be tied to specific religious traditions. And now we’re trying to revive that, but in a way which allows us to talk to people across different traditions, in a way that can still accommodate our specific traditions, across belief and practice systems and accommodate secularism as well too.

JCS: It sounds like you see that as a humanities project, but there’s also a lot going on in the sciences with meditation. Do you think that’s going to be a collaborative project in the future with Contemplative Studies? Like looking at what’s happening to our brains when we’re doing screen stuff versus meditation.

LB: I think you’re right. That’s why the sciences are so interested because they realize we need to do something for people’s brains. So I think you’re right about that. It’s just addressing the human need that has been lost and trying to get back to this thing that humans engaged in more readily in the past. 

Contemplative Studies is recreating, or recognizing a thing that we knew we had, that we know we know how to do. And now we’re trying to revive that, but in a way which allows us to talk to people across different traditions.

JCS: Yeah, okay. And are there any favorite books you have on Contemplative Studies or books that you think could address that need that you were just talking about?

LB: I like Judith Simmer-Brown’s book, Meditation and the Classroom. And I have a chapter in a book called The Psychology of Meditation as well. It was edited by Michael West. But I actually think that our society is too quick to grab a book to learn some kind of intellectual knowledge and that what we really need to be doing is practice, practice towards a kind of inward awareness and that books have a tendency to distract us from going inward and becoming aware of ourselves. Books are a way for us to not do the work we need to do. Not always, of course, but sometimes, and it’s easy to use books to do that. I think of how Jiddu Krishnamurti used to say, “truth is a pathless land.” And so, books tend to sort of give us a path. And that path is a way to not actually have to be present. Books are helpful, they’re really helpful. And sometimes you need a little bit of a path or something to think about. And that’s what most religious traditions are as well, a certain path. But ultimately, I suspect, it doesn’t even matter as much which particular path. There’s no path that’s necessarily going to be better than another path. It’s just that whatever path you do, it has to be a means that works for you to recapture a sense of attention of the self, awareness of the self, and presence.

JCS: Great. Well, thank you so much! 

What is Contemplation? is an ongoing series that interviews leading scholars in Contemplative Studies to address this driving question.