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Martijn van Beek is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Aarhus University in Denmark. He specializes in ethnographic and phenomenological perspectives on meditation.

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

JCS: What is contemplation?

MVB: In my BA course at Aarhus University on Contemplative Life in Context, in Theory and in Practice, my colleague from the philosophy department, Professor Thomas Schwarz Wentzer teaches a class in which he goes through the notion of contemplation from the early Greeks onward. There are many shades of meaning and differences in emphasis. What I do is to use it as a kind of umbrella term that covers more than the concept of meditation. I usually refer to contemplative life or contemplative ways of living, rather than contemplation per se. 

Contemplation is an element in that, and depending on what we’re trying to communicate, we might consider it to refer to particular kinds of practices. In a broader sense, I think you could say it refers to a kind of orientation and to the cultivation of the innate capacity to be fully present to oneself and to what is — to the unfolding of life — in ways that make it possible for you to become more responsible and response-able, as Francisco Varela used to say. Contemplation is, in this broad sense, the contemplative life. Contemplative practice is aimed at developing this capacity and getting at this deeper possibility of being more oriented towards the whole of what we’re connected with — and how we’re connected. It’s a cultivation of a particular sensibility which is ultimately beyond language. That sensibility or capacity can’t be grasped; it can’t be defined in any way. But in practical terms in the context of a contemplative life, there’s a quote by Thomas Merton that I like where he says that we meditate with our mind, but we contemplate with our whole being, which really captures how I use the term quite nicely. So, it involves all aspects of your life and of your being ultimately, ideally. In that sense, a contemplative life is any life that has that project or that possibility or that horizon as an essential part of its understanding. It’s a guiding sort of horizon. 

JCS: Yes, like an orientation. 

Contemplation is, in this broad sense, the contemplative life.

MVB: Yeah. Brother David Steindl-Rast, another Christian contemplative, says something like it’s the quest for living from the heart. And somebody else says it’s not a matter of being in the heart, it is being as the heart.

JCS: So, the other part of that question is how do you understand contemplative practices. It sounds like you’re thinking of a life lived as a practice, but do you have other thoughts on practices? 

MVB: Contemplative practices are part of contemplative life. A lot of the focus tends to be on techniques, on practices that have a particular form, a particular script, particular techniques. Those are definitely part of it, but if we focus too much on individual practices, we miss that there is a very important existential component to it. Contemplative life is bringing that orientation into all aspects of our life — and all aspects of our life into this project. And the techniques are tools that can be helpful for different purposes, in different kinds of situations and at different times in order to foster that process of manifestation — the gradual uncovering of this potential or these capacities that we have. 

JCS: How does contemplation intersect with your research?

MVB: I am very interested in the fate of contemplative traditions, wisdom traditions you could say, in the encounter with modernity, or in the context of modernity. And within that, particularly encounters with science, and my particular focus has been on Tibetan Buddhist contemplative practice. What I’ve been interested in is what happens to those traditions when they begin to be looked at through the lens of science. By now there’s a large literature on this. People have pointed out a number of different challenges that are involved in that. But I recognize that there is a power of science, in the sense of Western science — disembedding things from their context and disaggregating them and looking at them in isolation and as part of systems is a real strength — and it has provided insights and benefits to many people. But it is also often at the expense of the larger picture. Things risk becoming isolated and treated as if their context, their connection to a whole, does not matter. So, part of what I’m interested in, and have been interested in, is how that happens in actual scientific research. 

I’ve been part of many conversations about what is lost — and how might we do better. Usually, the answer from cognitive sciences and behavioral sciences is that a more nuanced, complex perspective, such as the humanities tend to provide, brings in too many variables. But the problem is that the dominant way in which most research has been done so far has been using what Thomas Merton already warned against in the 1960s: a pharmacological approach to contemplation. The problem with that is that it kind of assumes we can isolate the active ingredient of a practice, and the rest is sort of filler. As David Germano said many years ago at an event I attended, that [kind of thinking] assumes we already know what the active ingredients are. And we actually really don’t know. We have little or no idea what work the context or the large existential circumstances of people’s lives, their world views, are doing in this work.

So, part of my work has been looking at this process of disembedding and the different ways in which people regard and talk about it. I take a kind of a meta-perspective, an anthropological perspective, on meditation research. And in that connection, one of my main interests has been: how do we bring in, for example, lived experience, contemplative life as a life lived rather than just techniques and starting from what we think we already know about how the brain works, what we think we know about human psychology. I start from [the question], what do people actually do? What is actually happening? What do they say about it — what can they say about it? And what does the tradition say?

Much of my recent work has been on exploring the affordances of microphenomenology —looking at the microdynamics of contemplative practice. For example, with a simple mindfulness instruction, if we say: “when you notice you’re distracted, bring your attention back to your breath,” what do people actually do? What happens in the moment of discovery that they’re distracted, and what do they actually do to bring their attention back? How do they know that now it’s back? And then what do you do, what happens? It sounds really banal, but in a way, what is interesting is that there is so much going on in such a simple gesture. When one does a micro-phenomenological interview, it provides interesting information to the researcher, but also to the practitioner. It usually reveals something to them about their practice. Of course, the point is not that they need to be obsessing about observing their practice while they’re doing it, but doing that [reflection], having that kind of mirror held up for you, can be very empowering, at least some people say. 

Together with Claire Petitmengin, who has developed this method and shared it, and other colleagues, I’ve been doing this kind of work for quite some time. The most recent development of that is that we are also increasingly interested in the inter-subjective aspects both of contemplative practice, but also of experience more generally. What is happening between people when they’re in contact? And of course, the microphenomenological interview is one special form of being in a particular kind of contact. So that’s quite exciting! 

I have another interest, but it’s difficult to bring into the conversation in contemplative science. There’s very little attention as yet paid to collective aspects of contemplative life. Of course, there is the conventional everyday kind of living together in communities. I live in a contemplative community myself, and there’s also all sorts of things that are interesting to look at there. And there is a literature on those kinds of communities, although I don’t find that there is a lot on the closer, lived experience of it. In the contemplative context, when people practice together in this broad sense and also in the context of specific meditation practice, what happens? What do people experience? Many people comment on the fact that practicing together or with their teacher adds something. For some people it may also be a distraction because there are many people present. But it can also enhance the practice.

A thread through all these things is, with respect to the traditions from which these practices stem, is to try and start from experience — bracketing many of the conceptual frameworks that we have already. We start from experience and bracket, as far as possible, our preconceived ideas and concepts and generalizations. Microphenomenology slows the process down and helps to focus on the microdynamics, the concrete sensations, micro-gestures, and so on. So, if you say, “I feel my heart opening,” what is it you’re actually feeling? And the interviewer keeps inviting you to go back again and again, to explore different synchronic and diachronic dimensions: how did it begin? Then what happened? What else was happening for you at that moment? And so on. What did you do that made it possible for that [experience] to happen. It is a very, very detailed, fine-grained form of inquiry.

My main interests has been: how do we bring in, for example, lived experience, contemplative life as a life lived rather than just techniques and starting from what we think we already know about how the brain works, what we think we know about human psychology.

JCS: Are you using the micro-phenomenology method on the communal aspect as well? Or is that why you say it’s harder to get at? 

MVB: No, not too much at this point. I think that would be really interesting. Microphenomenology is really good to do with one person about a particular episode, something that happened in the past, for example. I have also worked quite a bit with a particular contemplative practice or gesture right before and also during an interview. We may be practicing together for 20 minutes — you do the practice and then you tell me what happened. Then I’ll suggest, okay, shall we look at this? or what do you think about…?, or invite the interviewee to suggest something — I also depends on the focus of the project, of course — and then we pick, for example, a particular moment where something shifted in the course of that practice period. We may look at something that took 20 seconds or less, and we may talk about it for an hour. And we’re probably both quite exhausted at the end of it. To talk to a larger number of people who participated for example in a group practice at that level of detail would be difficult. So, I’m thinking about how we might combine this more detailed, very focused, very fine-grained form of exploration that micro-phenomenology allows — how could we bring that into a research process where other forms of dialogue also are involved, so that we can explore these experiential group dynamics and maybe pick a few people to go deeper with. It would be an interesting possibility to explore that.

JCS: Yeah, I guess what I was imagining was doing exactly what you just said—focusing on one point of experience — but with a person who is among other people. But I can see how needing to focus on the multiple connections to other people that go into that experience would be so very difficult. 

MVB: In 2022, Mind & Life Europe hosted a workshop in France with about 35 people, mostly young and more established neuroscientists, philosophers and microphenomenologists. We were exploring intersubjectivity, and we were doing some different kinds of contemplative exercises. Using different kinds of settings, we explored, among other things, what happens when we shift our attention from a narrow focus on ourselves to allowing more awareness of the presence of others. It was a very interesting experience and experiment.

Contemplative practices and contemplative perspectives are spreading across education systems around the world to give students better opportunities to explore first-hand how they experience and acquire knowledge about the world as fully embodied beings.

JCS: Looking towards the future, or to others, is there anything emerging in contemplative studies that excites you? 

MVB: Well, one thing is, compared to like 15 years ago, there is so much more substance to the humanities part of the conversation. I’ve been attending a lot of Mind & Life events, and I’m on the board of Mind & Life Europe. There has been a necessary, and to some extent a really productive, dominance of the cognitive and behavioral sciences. And the humanities side of contemplative research hasn’t had the same kind of… — you know, the humanities don’t count, as the joke goes. I think that’s really changing, and I think that’s really exciting. 

The rapidly growing interest in microphenomenology is really adding something to the possibilities of bringing first person and second person perspectives into the discussions about what’s happening in contemplative practice, and what are people doing, and how does it work, and why — all of that.

A third encouraging development is how contemplative practices and contemplative perspectives are spreading across education systems around the world. Particularly interesting to me are initiatives where elements of a contemplative pedagogy are beginning to be offered in schools and universities in order to give students better opportunities to explore first-hand how they experience and acquire knowledge about the world as fully embodied beings — drawing on, e.g., an enaction perspective. In many disciplines, and arguably in all, we are ourselves ultimately the main instrument of research, so knowing yourself better and knowing your particular ways of perceiving and experiencing and so on is really useful. This is not just or particularly a matter of mental health, important as that is. The development of contemplative studies programs, actual degree programs, is really important, too. So, there is a lot going on that is encouraging. 

JCS: Do you have any favorite books, or books you’d recommend for people who are interested in contemplation? 

MVB: David McMahan’s books are really great. His The Making of Buddhist Modernism is an historical, and sociological account of the rise of Buddhist modernism and modern meditation. It is very informative, nuanced and balanced, I find. And his new book, Rethinking Meditation is also highly recommendable. If you’re interested in the dialogue between science and Buddhism, the Dalai Lama’s Universe in a Single Atom is still really good, as are the many edited volumes that have come out of the Mind & Life dialogues. For people who have grown a little bit tired of all the “Buddhism is best,” Evan Thompson’s Why I Am Not a Buddhist is a thought-provoking book by somebody who’s been an important participant in the field since the 1980s. It’s a critical and constructive look at both what’s been important about the development of contemplative science, the science of meditation, and so on. And it also offers a lucid critique of what may be some of the problems, particularly with regard to what he calls Buddhist exceptionalism. To me, it is really important to recognize the depth and richness of other contemplative traditions. There are, for example, profound contemplative traditions in Christianity that have been neglected and marginalized, also in Europe, for many hundreds of years, but there are places and people who have maintained those lineages of practice.

And finally, Anne Klein’s Being Human and a Buddha Too is an excellent, accessible and experience-near presentation of a graduated course of seven contemplative practices from the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist master Longchenpa. 

JCS: Great, those are excellent suggestions. Thank you so much for chatting with us.

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