Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Contemplative practice in the sciences

In 2011, I gave a presentation at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America annual meeting on contemplative practices and community engagement in the sciences. The following year, I published a short paper on a related topic "From science communication to relationship-building: contemplative practice and community engagement in the environmental sciences." In some ways, I wish that I’d detached the issues of engagement and relationship-building from contemplative practice and written two separate articles, but, well, hindsight and all that. Even with 20/20 backwards vision, I still feel like bringing up a problem (getting from communicating to relating) without a solution (the contemplation piece) isn't super productive, but I also see that for folks uncomfortable with idea of contemplative practice, I obscured the relationship building piece.

At that time, my own entry into thinking about a more relationship-centered approach to the natural sciences began with seeing how the contemplative practices that I’d developed well outside of my professional life came into play in my work. I had worked a lot in communities on natural resource issues and moved on to working for many years as a scientist in an environmental advocacy organization. My own contemplative practices - from reflection to journaling to yoga to mindfulness - became lifelines as I worked in environments that could bring up a lot of ego, conflict, and emotion, but where acknowledging any of those things being at play is largely taboo.

At the same time, my experience as a practitioner is simply that to get really good work done, being able to navigate your own emotional reactions to situations, and to understand what is happening with the people that you are interacting with, is at least as important as any scientific knowledge and skill you bring to the table. And yet we rarely ever talk about this aspect of engaging - we get so focused on "talking" better that we miss how important listening is (and how hard to do well), and that even silence has huge value in engagement. I really feel that some of the resistance that may come from some scientists around engagement has to do with the fact that it does bring up uncomfortable emotions and can put you in conflict-ridden situations you are not prepared to navigate. It certainly can for me. And in those cases, all the evangelizing in the world for the importance of outreach is not going to help without addressing the discomfort of doing it, and ideally providing some tools to work with the discomfort, which is where contemplation can help. (I should note that some people also get energy from engaging in conflict, which is simply a different side of the same coin.)

These days, mindfulness is one of the most talked about contemplative practices, and it's good stuff. Being able to notice your reactions to things and trying not to judge them is a great practice (and one that is plenty criticized in terms of its use in Western society). And, it's far from the only one - the "Tree of Contemplative Practices" from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society provides some sense of the breadth of practice. Whenever I talk about this topic, I try to convey that many people probably already have practices that they don't even realize are contemplative - maybe it's walking or running or surfing or playing the guitar or birding or whatever it is that allows you to access a "meditative" state of mind. For me, practice is about cultivating the ability to listen and deepen the relationship with myself in service of relating better with other people. It's also a practical tool for stress relief, and for mediating the deluge of information that comes at all of us these days.

As I've written about (e.g., here), other fields like law and medicine have much better developed foci on the value of contemplation in professional settings. I have started to think a lot about why that is, but that's a topic for another day. The main point is that particularly for individuals, there are a lot of resources out there for deepening practice, and it's much more normalized in some fields. I'd love to see us get there in the natural sciences.

The thing that I see as most challenging now is "scaling up" the value of contemplation. Broadening the benefits of individual practice to the community level is in my mind the struggle that faces us all, and is a much larger topic to explore.

Related posts:

No comments:

Post a Comment