Contemplative Reading: Some definitions and examples*

 

Contemplative reading helps us practice being compassionate with ourselves and others. When we read contemplatively, we read with the aims of achieving sympathetic understanding of the text. We aim to see what the text can teach us. We are open to transformation.

Contemplative reading is both a skill we practice and a disposition we choose. We read contemplatively when we intentionally bring an attitude of curiosity and openness to texts.

Example: “I wonder what this means? I wonder why it is said this way? I have never thought about it that way before and I want to learn more about these ideas.”

Rather than: “I don’t know why I have to read this. This has nothing to teach me. This is not relevant to my life.”

We read contemplatively when we seek to find ways to connect with a text, to find both what is familiar and what is strange about it and to move into those spaces with inquisitive minds.

Example: “I don’t understand why this story has so much x in it. Let me see what I can learn about why and how this author or these characters have so much x, and why I am confused.”

Rather than: “I have no idea what this person is talking about and so can’t understand anything. I am giving up.”

We read contemplatively when we notice our own feelings and thoughts as they arise through reading a text and when we own them, rather than projecting them on to the text.

Example: “Wow, I am getting really angry/bored/happy/excited at this passage. What is it about me and my assumptions that is making me so angry/bored/happy/excited?

Rather than: “This text is boring/stupid/fun.”

Critical thinking and critical reading practices are essential for helping us become independent thinkers, for helping us discern rhetorical strategies so we may become informed and responsible citizens able to make our own choices about what is right and wrong, true or false, good or bad. Often, when we read critically, we are suspicious of the text or wary of what it is trying to say to us. We critique it, dissect it, and analyze it to find where we agree or disagree with its ideas and why.

Contemplative reading and writing complement critical thinking and reading. When we read contemplatively, we seek connection, communion, and understanding. We step into another person’s shoes and perspectives to better understand them and ourselves.

Contemplative reading and writing practices encourage us to explore our deeply held values, biases, and preferences so that we can move through and with them into compassionate engagement with the Other—be it a text, person, situation, or idea.

Contemplative reading is a practice within contemplative pedagogy, which, in my courses, has three aspects:

Meditative: Noticing, mindfulness, presence; moment-to-moment awareness of what is arising for us internally so that we may consciously act with what is before us rather than unconsciously react to or against what is before us.

Reflective: Exploring values, purpose, and questions of meaning; reflecting upon what we believe and why, noticing the relationships between our beliefs and actions, understanding our motives.

Active: Aligning behaviors with beliefs; bridging theory and practice; applying what we learn to a variety of circumstances beyond the classroom; practicing agency and receptivity.

*This blog post is a slightly modified version of a document I created for undergraduate students in two contemplative General education courses, which explore Creative Thought (“Curiosity, Playfulness, Creativity”) and Past & Present (“Curiosity, Perspective, and Shakespeare”)

 

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