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  • Dr. Shelly Harrell

Contemplative Practice, Meditation, & Mindfulness

Over the years of practice and study, my understanding of contemplative practice, meditation, and mindfulness have evolved. The ideas I am sharing here reflect readings, research, learning from my meditation teachers, conversations with numerous people about meditation (experts and regular folk), teaching meditation to others, and experience in my own contemplative and meditation practices. I have been drawn to contemplative practice since early childhood. Growing up as an only child, I spent a great deal of time alone and cultivated many practices which later I would understand to be contemplative. During summers, my family spent time at our cottage on Lake Erie in Canada (in an African American community of families from Detroit) where my connection to the natural world was nurtured. I have taught meditation in a wide range of settings, from elite youth athletes to women's groups to graduate students to psychotherapy clients and more. Most of my experience teaching mindfulness has been to groups that are predominantly Black and BIPOC. My sensibilities around meditation are tied closely to my own diasporic African and African American cultural influences.


I understand contemplative practice as a wide range of activities and strategies for deepening and expanding experiential awareness and critical consciousness by bearing witness to lived experience-- internally, relationally, and collectively. Contemplative practice invites connection with experiencing at multiple levels- somatically, emotionally, mentally, creatively, relationally, communally, and spiritually. I resonate strongly with The Tree of Contemplative Practices offered by The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. The roots of all contemplative practices are awareness, communion, and connection. The branches show the diverse forms that contemplative practice can take.


Meditation can be conceptualized as a type of contemplative practice. It includes a diverse set of intentional practices and techniques for training, directing, regulating, deepening, opening, or enhancing attention, consciousness, and energy. Meditation can be understood as a broader process involved in all contemplative practices such that all of the "branches" are meditative in nature. Meditation includes numerous strategies for opening up some temporal-mental-emotional-spiritual space for experiential presence-- to connect with, and bear witness to, embodied, lived, and/or transcendent experience. It is important to emphasize that meditation is not owned by any one cultural or spiritual tradition. The human need for creating this space for deep experiential presence and connection has been expressed in many different ways throughout human history. There are ancient meditative practices found in indigenous cultures, wisdom, and spiritual traditions across the world. A practice can be considered meditation if it is intentional in its technique for working with attention or consciousness. There are many formal meditation practices that integrate breath, mantras, chanting, visualization, textual passages, concentration on an object of focus, movement, and more. Meditation is frequently associated with creating a time for “quietude”, for slowing down, for turning down the volume of the noise of the world and the stories of the mind. However, meditation does not have to be still or completely silent. Placing meditation in a spiritual context, a distinction often made between prayer and meditation is that prayer is when you are speaking to God and meditation is when you are listening to God. Meditation utilizes attention and consciousness to cultivate conditions for physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and societal healing, transformation, and liberation, and facilitates the highest expression of our personal-relational-collective potentialities. The powerful impact of meditation is supported by


Mindfulness is a particular orientation to meditation that emphasizes here-and-now presence with moment-to-moment experiencing. It includes a variety of skillful means to increase experiential awareness and to meet our experience with acceptance and compassion. While mindfulness has been both secularized and psychologized, it has its roots in Buddhism. I often describe mindfulness as being present in the present and becoming woke to what is, infused with love, and in the ultimate service of liberation. Mindfulness is a way of orienting to daily activities and interactions (i.e., with presence and compassion), as well as characterizing specific meditation practices.

Here are a few of my musings on mindfulness. Mindfulness is an opportunity to take a sacred pause to visit with yourself and “feel what’s real”, to pay loving attention to the ebb and flow of what is happening in the now of your experience. Mindfulness invites more closely tuning in to both inner and outer experiencing-- from the most nuanced sensory experience, to relational experience, to what is happening in the world, to profound truths and inner wisdom, to what lies beneath words and beyond appearances. Mindfulness involves noticing and naming whatever is arising moment-to-moment in your embodied experience, in your inner world of emotions, thoughts, and images, as well as in your immediate surroundings. Mindfulness practice invites a compassionate, full presence and attention that greets the “what is” of your experiencing with openness, love, and acceptance of the truth of the moment. Mindfulness creates an inner spaciousness that makes room for all of our experience. Mindfulness is a loving and courageous “coming home” to ourselves and the truth of our embodied and lived experience over and over and over again, so that we can live in the world as more conscious, connected, and compassionate beings.

Over my 30+ years of experience as a therapist, professor, researcher, and meditator, I have come to believe, actually it is more than believing... I have come to KNOW that engaging in culturally-syntonic meditation and contemplative practices are empowering, liberating, and healing. This is the ground within which all of the offerings at The Soulfulness Center are rooted. Resilience and wisdom grow from this ground, and cultivating these practices bear the fruit of meaningful, transformative change.


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