An excerpt from Riven.
Note: I’m always on the lookout for resources concerning contemplative practice. Please feel free to send any recommendations over.
I’ve flirted with “contemplative practice” for over a decade, never quite abandoning it and never quite committing to it. Yet even such light, intermittent learning and experimentation changed me. Below are some resources I’ve found useful, some recommendations provided by others, and some avenues for research that I suspect would prove fruitful.
On Contemplative Practice
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English and Beyond Mindfulness in Plain English have been foundational. Thích Nhất Hạnh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness provided a good entry point many, many years ago.
Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living, and Shaila Catherine’s Wisdom Wide and Deep and Focused and Fearless provided thoughtful insight into mindfulness and meditation practice.
Mahasi Sayadaw’s Manual of Insight and Tina Rasmussen and Stephen Snyder’s Practicing the Jhanas helped me take baby steps into the realms of more advanced experiences.
James Nestor’s Breath focused me on nasal breathing, Wim Hof’s breathing pattern provided a simple, portable method, and years of movement training have taught me about breathwork during both stillness and motion.
Matt de Caussin provided a slew of recommendations: Rob Burbea’s Seeing That Frees, the work of Michael Taft, Loch Kelly’s The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, and the Monastic Academy.
Anyone venturing beyond basic contemplative practice is advised to explore the literature around the contraindications of different approaches and methodologies. David Chapman has compiled a page—Meditation risks, safety, goals, methods—that serves that purpose.
It is also worth stating that no resource—no book, no website, no podcast, no video—is equivalent to the presence of a good teacher and a group of compassionate peers.
On the History and Culture of Contemplation
Anthony de Melllo’s The Way to Love, Thomas Cleary’s Minding Mind and multiple works by Alan Watts (The Way of Zen, Still the Mind, The Wisdom of Insecurity) helped contextualise and strengthen the roots of my meagre contemplative practice. The compilation, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, yielded some narrative strength to the mostly abstract apparatus I’d assembled around the idea of contemplation.
Venkatesh Rao recommended Robert Ullman’s and Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman’s Mystics, Masters, Saints and Sages, as well as Richard Smoley’s Hidden Wisdom.
Patrick Atwater recommended Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, Tom Holland’s Dominion and Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (which seems related to Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things and The Master and His Emissary). He also mentioned Tobias Churton’s 1987 documentary series, Gnostics, and Hippie Inc: how the counterculture went corporate, an Economist article.
I suspect that much was lost in the translation of contemplative practices, from their religious and spiritual homes across to their secular, modern embeddings. I don’t have specific recommendations here but it is something I keep in mind.
On Things Indirectly about Contemplative Practice
There’s a surprising amount to learn about contemplative practice—and cognition, generally—in various works of science fiction and fantasy. For example, the Minds in Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and the civilisations that “sublime” raise provocative questions about human cognition. Magic and its users in Stephen Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (and the works of Ian C. Esslemont) portray many different relations with altered mind-states, particularly the boundaries.
Less speculatively, the fields of metacognition and embodied cognition are rich with ideas suitable for contemplative practitioners.
For the more technically minded, the accelerating developments around artificial intelligence are something to watch out for: machine learning, deep learning, natural language processing, and many other distinct and hybrid domains are colliding with ideas from computing, linguistics, psychology, biology and neuroscience. Most of the dialogue around these topics is confined to research labs, papers and loose-knit collectives, however, which makes staying current here a tricky endeavour.
Finally, adventures into systems thinking—Michael C. Jackson’s Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity is an excellent primer— will provide yet another lens through which to contemplate contemplation.