The scientific study of contemplative practices, their mechanisms and effects has provided significant insights into aspects of the human mind and behaviour. When Jon Kabat-Zinn insists that mindfulness is not a technique but a way of being, he is echoing how the world’s wisdom traditions commonly have conceived of the path towards realization: it involves one’s entire existence. In seeking to understand what contemplative traditions have to offer and how their transformative potential may be realized today, research is needed that provides a more comprehensive account of
the varieties of contemplative life, historically as well as contemporarily. Taking an anthropological perspective and drawing on a range of sources from different traditions, historical as well as contemporary, this presentation suggests elements for the development of a more differentiated view of contemplative life. Shifting our attention from meditation techniques to contemplative lives, including intentional communities, relationships, institutions, experience, meaning, and practices, demands long-term research collaborations between the sciences and humanities, and between scholars and practitioners. It also entails the incorporation of first-, second- and third-person perspectives. This kind of research is likely to be slow, difficult, at times frustrating, but ultimately, hopefully, rewarding in helping to provide a more adequate understanding of contemplative life, practices, and their effects. It may also help us to remain more careful about what we claim science has shown about the workings and effects of contemplative practices.

Martijn van Beek, PhD

Aarhus University, Denmark


Martijn van Beek, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and based at the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark. He lived and worked among … MORE