I can’t believe it has been close to a month since I had the privilege of attending the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society’s summer session on contemplative learning (special thanks to a friend from graduate school for recommending it to me—may she be showered with many karma points and synchronous wonders!). This center, C-Mind for short, is all about the cultivating “an education that promotes the exploration of meaning, purpose and values and seeks to serve our common human future.” So what does this mean? It means developing contemplative practices that allow us to explore and find solutions to social and environmental justice issues, while also valuing our need as educators and students to lead a balanced life that celebrates not just intellectual or concrete accomplishments, but our emotional and physical wellbeing. Cool stuff!
At this point, you might be wondering what contemplative practice means. According to The Contemplative Mind in Society, contemplative practices “cultivate a critical, first-person focus, sometimes with direct experience as the object, while at other times concentrating on complex ideas or situations. Incorporated into daily life, they act as a reminder to connect to what we find most meaningful.” This encompasses a whole bunch of experiences, from mediation and mindfulness, to dancing and deep listening (check out their tree to see all the wonderful things that fall into the category of contemplative practice). It can include everyday rituals or simply making a point to be active and present while you make dinner. Sound familiar? It should.
Contemplative practices is easily another term for everyday magic!
It was clear the moment I set foot on Smith College, where the sessions were held, that these were my kind of people. There was seriously SO MUCH WISDOM I took in over that week, including the importance of collecting what I call soul seeds for future harvest. A fellow C-Minder who regularly attends this summer session described this week as gathering seeds that will sprout throughout the year. We were to gather them throughout this week and allow them to manifest in our lives in their own way and their own time over the coming year. All in all, I was able to narrow down what I learned from this magical week into five life lessons that I look forward to meditating on this coming year.
Contemplative practices are a natural part of daily life. When we think of this sort of practice, we can sometimes make it more complicated than it actually is—mediating two hours a day, learning complicated yoga poses, and going off in search of enlightenment all over the world. Of course there’s nothing wrong with any of these things. I’ve certainly done all of them at one time or another! But it’s important to remember that we carry the tools for cultivating a more meaningful life within us and that we can connect to them in everything we do, however simple or routine. In fact, the routine of it—aka the intentional ritual—is where the magic happens.
So many people discussed their contemplative practices in terms of things that helped them relax, focus, and otherwise tune into life. For many, those things were as simple as playing with their pets, taking a walk, or enjoying a cup of tea. I was surprised to learn, then, that so much of what I already do is, in fact, contemplative practice: cooking, dancing, playing with my new kitten, having meaningful conversations with others—and actively listening and being listened to in return. These simple activities have felt richer now that I appreciate them for the daily contemplative practices that they are.
There is no woke, only awakening. Okay, let’s be real—in the realm of academia and other liberal spaces, it can sometimes be tempting to prove how woke, or socially conscious, you are. Then comes the shaming of others who are not as woke as thee. I’m not talking about people who are intentionally prejudiced, but those who, for lack of knowledge or exposure to certain ideas or experiences, aren’t as aware of ways in which they can be more sensitive to themselves and others. Calling them out for their error only serves to perpetuate a shame-based learning, instead of creating space to explore how we can all be more inclusive and celebrate what rich, diverse communities we occupy.
Social and environmental justice is about more than just trying to prove how much we know or how woke we are compared it others—it’s about widening the conversation so that we can all learn from one another. And if it’s REAL real talk here, we all have to acknowledge that we’ve been on both sides of this: the woke and the less woke. I personally have appreciated when someone has kindly educated me about things I’ve needed to be more woke about. Plus, the dark side of feeling too secure in your wokeness is that you stop being open to learning new things, as you must always be the one who know the most. I’d rather be in a constant state of awakening!
Contemplative practices are about hold space to grapple and engage with difficult issues so that we can find solutions. Like everyday magic, the contemplative mind doesn’t shy away from difficult topics or situations, but rather uses various practices to create space and explore these issues with the aim of finding a positive solution. And unlike the many stereotypes of mindfulness or yoga, where you simply bliss out and ignore important issues, contemplative practices encourage us to safely grapple with what we need to—personally and socially—so that we move forward in healthy, productive ways.
This was a particularly important lesson to me because mainstream culture teaches us two ways of coping with difficult topics: denial or despair. There is no in-between. This can be difficult for people who do, in fact, think there are real, achievable solutions to various problems and aren’t afraid to do the messy work it requires to transform self and communities. Which leads me to number four…
Learning to fly is ugly, messy work, but flying is beautiful. I’m butchering the quote here but I think the essence of it remains intact. We thrive on success narratives, which isn’t a bad thing. It can become toxic, however, when we get nice, clean narratives about famous or high-achieving so-and-sos that make it seem like their professional journey was clearly paved road dotted by interesting anecdotes and one accomplishment after the other. You see the problem? It feels unrealistic. Intimidating, when it should be inspiring.
This is because these narrative leave out all the ugly bits. Every failure. Every missed step. Every turn and twist in the road that upended The Plan. So when people inevitably confront these things in their own lives, they feel like they’re failing because it doesn’t match the tidy success narrative they’ve been taught. In reality, they aren’t failing. They’re just learning to fly. So enjoy the mess—it’s where the best stories come from after all. And when you do fly, enjoy the hard-earned beauty of it.
Receptivity is its own kind of power. This year as I explore the power of sacred simple pleasures, I find myself struggling to embrace more passive energy. It makes total sense now that I think about it. In order to establish myself professionally, I’ve had to focus on building a solid CV and go after concrete accomplishments. Nothing wrong with that. We all have to do that in one way or another to earn our bread and butter and continue growing in our fields. But when we become so conditioned to be extroverted achievers that we struggle with more passive ways of engaging with the world…then it becomes a problem.
These summer sessions taught me the importance of openness, vulnerability, and receptivity, as well as ways to safely open yourself up to less goal oriented forms of relating, thinking, or acting. The biggest thing I saw was how fruitful receptivity could be. Several times in our small group breakout sessions, we had a firm plan…that quickly went out the window as the agenda for the day developed organically out of our combined energies and discussions. If we hadn’t have been open to change, we wouldn’t have had such an important and impactful time together.
I have A LOT of fire energy in me, so part of me thrives on my extroverted professional life (a pretty big part!). Yet this time away also taught me how much I can push for more and expect too much of myself because those old devils Impostor Syndrome and Presumed Incompetence, which push many minority high achievers to keep reaching for the next gold star just to prove their value. Toxic much? You bet. But when I let go of what I have come to call Gold Star Syndrome, I can appreciate all my hard work and accomplishments, while also allowing myself to explore more flexible, creative ways of engaging withe the world both in and out of the classroom. I can also reframe what success looks like: a happy, healthy, whole person, not just an accomplished professional.
I hold these seeds, and many more, as I would the acorns scattered around Smith College (pictured below), and look forward to the future harvest of the magic they hold.
Enchantment Learning & Living is an inspirational blog celebrating life’s simple pleasures, everyday mysticism, and delectable recipes that are guaranteed to stir the kitchen witch in you. If you enjoyed what you just read and believe that true magic is in the everyday, subscribe to my newsletter for regular doses of enchantment. Want even more inspiration? Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. Here’s to a magical life!