The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Workplace
reviewed by Mandy Krahn - August 22, 2014
Title: The Contemplative Practitioner: Meditation in Education and the Workplace
Author(s): John P. Miller
Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Toronto
ISBN: 1442615532, Pages: 200, Year: 2013
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John Millers The Contemplative Practitioner is an updated re-release of his book by the same title, originally published in 1994. Through the combination of descriptive definitions, practical examples, and detailed research, Miller highlights the importance of drawing upon meditation in education and the workplace. He aptly shares how contemplative practices have made an impact in his own life, the lives of his students, and in the lives of contemplatives throughout the agesalways both personally and professionally. Broken into seven chapters, the book is organized in a manner that allows readers to enter into the text at any point that suits their needs. Each chapter offers a different focus, and while many do not change greatly from the original version, Miller makes a point of adding updated research to emphasize his ideas more poignantly.
The first two chapters call for a turn inward in order to move beyond the purely external world, which often seems to be the realm given prime recognition in education and the workplace. Miller outlines qualities and characteristics that comprise contemplative practices, mostly in a way that resonates yet at times turning slightly didactic in listing the benefits of contemplation and meditation. The trivialization of meditation practice as a way to reduce stress/pain, cope with events, and deal with emotions, for example, places this practice in a self-help category as opposed to recognizing it as a way of being in the world. Mindfulness meditation and contemplative practices are best taken up when they are not viewed as short-term, quick fix, band-aid solutions, poles which the author seems to vacillate between at times. Miller expresses the importance of having Presence in life, providing many examples of how this unmediated awareness (p. 24) may manifest. He states that, Presence has been called the Self (Jung), the Atman (Hinduism), our Buddha-nature (Buddhism), or the Soul (Moore 1992) (p. 23). Throughout the text it is made evident that contemplative practices may be found in and through multiple religious and spiritual traditions, as well as through contact with the natural world.
The third chapter details various types of contemplative practices, while the fourth highlights the lives of myriad contemplatives and describes how their practices have carried forth to the present time. Miller outlines what a contemplative stance may consist of and shares many forms and practices of meditation. This chapter is particularly useful for the novice practitioner seeking to find a style of meditation that will fit with their lifestyle, as it is very accessible and clearly explained. Miller follows this in Chapter Four with details about the lives of eight different contemplatives, as a manner of highlighting that there are many ways to step on to the contemplative path. Readers are bound to find one (or more) sources of inspiration in this section. These contemplatives represent various faith traditions and embrace different approaches to meditation (Miller, 2014, p. 98), which the author points out to demonstrate the accessibility and inclusivity of contemplative practices.
The fifth chapter discusses The Invisible World and various conceptions thereof. Miller showcases the work of Plato, Dante, Swedenborg, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, Carl Jung, David Bohm, as well as wisdom found in the Tao and in Indigenous ontologies. Readers will not find it difficult to recognize much overlap in each of these different understandings and explanations of the invisible world.
Chapter Six, The Mindfulness Movement, is the one part of this text that caused me to question the reason for its inclusion. The very title is concerning as it demonstrates the reach of the market into the domain of contemplation, characterizing mindfulness as a movement. The chapter highlights various organizations that are rooted in a desire to bring contemplative practices to the masses. While there is no doubt in the importance of this endeavor, I cannot help but wonder at Millers motivation to single out a handful of organizations at the expense of numerous others that may also be founded upon similar principles. By focusing on certain organizations and by referring to how people are embracing contemplative practices as a movement, it feels as though both meditation and mindfulness are cheapened. Is not their very essence that of allowing humanity a richer experience of life itselfindividually and collectivelyrather than a mass production of what that might look like?
The book ends with a beautiful chapter where Miller shares about his own life and experiences in being a contemplative practitioner. His story is but one example of how meditative practices can be embraced holistically in life so that they may become a part of who one is at their core, and not only practiced as an add-on activity. Millers book was timely in 1994, and it remains timely now. While the majority of the text draws upon work conducted pre-1990s, much of this content is timeless.
The core of The Contemplative Practitioner centers around how engaging in meditative practices has the possibility of greatly enhancing ones life in unforeseen ways. Students of Miller demonstrate the thematic benefits of these practices: personal effects included feeling calmer and more relaxed, a softening that made them more gentle, and aiding with personal relationships (2014, p. 145). Some professional effects included being calmer in the workplace (2014, p. 145) and the ability to be less reactive.
Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (2006) states that the main tool if you are going to be left on a desert[ed] island and you can only have one, its this practice of meditation. It trains you to stay. It trains you to be gentle with yourself (disc 3, track 3). The ability to stay present to ones current circumstanceno matter what the situation may beis essential in responding wisely. Millers The Contemplative Practitioner provides practical wisdom on how one might learn to stay. It also builds on his previous writing on holistic education and contemplation. In my own teaching and research, I have repeatedly come to recognize the importance of relationships and interconnection in order to experience the world more wholly and deeply. Miller (2011) clarifies how [o]ne way to see the interconnectedness of things is through contemplation. In contrast to analysis, which breaks things into parts, contemplation allows us to see the Whole and the relationship of the part to the Whole (p. 91).
Education and the workplace as a whole would do well to have educators, pedagogues, and practitioners who are increasingly mindful of their way of being in the world. As Miller points out in The Holistic Curriculum (2007), [e]ducation specifically has done much to sever the relationship between the head and heart (p. 4). Throughout every chapter of The Contemplative Practitioner, an attempt is made to suture that relationship so that the hearts voice may once again be heard. The search for wholeness is at the core of this text, and the author is convinced that wisdom can come from teachers working on themselves through various mind-and-body practices (2014, p. 156). In this way, every human being has the opportunity to become a contemplative practitioner of, in, and for life.
Chödrön, P. (2006). Stop kicking the wheel. On Getting unstuck. [CD]. Louisville, CO: Sounds True, Incorporated.
Miller, J.P. (2007). The holistic curriculum (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Miller, J.P. (2011). Transcendental learning: The educational legacy of Alcott, Emerson, Fuller, Peabody and Thoreau. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.
Miller, J.P. (2014). The contemplative practitioner: Meditation in education and the workplace (2nd ed.). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.