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Fostering a Contemplative Culture

by Beck Tench on March 3, 2018

Guest contributor BECK TENCH is a PhD student at the University of Washington in Seattle. Contact Beck at tench@uw.edu. Beck is currently reading Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong by Norman Fischer.

Editor’s Note: Recently, Skokie (IL) Public Library was blessed to have Beck Tench as visiting scholar for two weeks. During her time with us she discussed and assisted staff and patrons in understanding and utilizing mindfulness/contemplative practices. A topic of concentration was “strategies for being intentional with your attention online and off.” I think this is a great topic to discuss in a column titled the Wired Library and have invited her to share her knowledge.—Mikael Jacobsen, Wired Library Contributing Editor

Before we get started, I’d like to settle us on some terms. We hear words such as mindfulness, contemplation, contemplative practice, reflection, and space-making floating around the workplace, and for some they mean very specific things. Reflection may be a specified process one goes through to review past actions. Mindfulness may be an Eastern philosophy or simply a way to be especially thoughtful. For this column, I’d like to flatten them all into the following common definition: “awareness of the present moment.” So, for example, “I’m contemplating,” means, “I’m aware of the present moment.” (As opposed to thinking deeply or ruminating about the past or imagining the future.) For me, these words all point to a way of being instead of doing. And I’m especially interested in how librarians can be more, instead of do more.

Now, on to Skokie.

I asked nearly everyone I met in my two weeks at Skokie (IL) Public Library (SPL) the following question, which I’m now asking you: How would your life be different if you had more space and time to reflect?

Would you be more focused? Would you prioritize differently? Would you connect with others? Would you learn more from your experiences? Do you think you would make the same choices?

I asked this question because I wanted to acknowledge that making more time and space is hard, not only because we live in a culture where we feel we never have enough, but also because of what happens when we finally do make the time to simply be with how and who we are in the present moment.

Magazine racks and online ad decks suggest that mindfulness increases attentional capacity, connects us with others, improves relationships and physical well-being. While those promises can be true, they fail to address the complexity of being truly present to ourselves and others. Thomas Merton has better words for this than I do, “Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish, or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many wounds that cannot stop bleeding.”1

But I suppose that’s a bit of a hard sell.

Still, I led with that question because I didn’t want SPL (or you) to think that only positive, easy, improvement-oriented things await those who choose to be more intentional about their time online and off. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons we find technology so compelling is because it often distracts us from being attuned to the present moment, especially when that moment is boring or uncomfortable, but even when that moment is joyful and captivating—think about the last time you snapped a photo of something you didn’t want to forget.

Mindfulness, contemplation, being is hard work. But from my point of view, there’s no time like the present to confront that conflict, anguish, and doubt. And I also believe there’s hardly a place better than the library, where people from all walks spend time sharing a common space that invites contemplation.

So, strategies. The rest of my time at SPL was spent in conversation and in practice with librarians and members of the public around making time for contemplation in work and life. We went on walk-and-talks; we discussed cultural messages we receive about productivity, uncertainty, and discomfort; and we brainstormed ways that we could make meetings, workspace, and interactions more present-focused. And over the course of the two weeks, several strategies emerged. Here are three that boiled to the top of my list.

Strategy 1: Challenge Cultural Messages of Productivity and Growth

Productivity and growth are two words that generally go unchallenged in our society and work culture. They are seen as universally good things, but they are actually complex ideas, full of nuance, sacrifice, and even manipulation. Society has accepted both of these ideas as a sign of value and worth, which means that we may feel as if we have less worth to our library, or even as a human, if we aren’t being productive or growing (another word we often use here is learning). I’d like to challenge every one of these ideas. Humans need time do absolutely nothing. It’s a need like going to the bathroom and eating lunch. We do not constantly grow like a line chart. As a part of nature, we are as cyclical as the seasons and circadian rhythms that pulse through us. Denying these truths creates a tension to prove ourselves through work, exhaust ourselves by not prioritizing rest and boredom, and burn out trying to serve more and more with less and less.

Strategy 2: Put Yourself in Contemplative Arenas

The present moment is always available to us. While I’m writing this column, and while you are reading it, we can attend to the sensations, emotions, and social experiences around us. But depending on where we are and affordances of that environment, that might be challenging for good reasons (for example, while I’m writing this sentence a flight attendant is announcing benefits to the inflight-only offer of an airline credit card). One strategy is to put ourselves into environments where attending to the present is more likely, or even inevitable. James Finley has outlined the following eight “contemplative arenas.”2 At SPL, we examined these ideas and imagined how we could structure our work and life so that we each had more exposure or excuse to be in them.

  1. When you’re in nature and connecting to stillness or natural phenomena.
  2. When you’re truly connecting with another human.
  3. When you’re completely alone.
  4. When you experience art (broadly defined).
  5. When you’re in meditation or prayer.
  6. When you’re viscerally aware of your own suffering (physical or mental).
  7. When you’re aware of healing from whatever you were su ering from.
  8. When you’re reflecting philosophically about something.

Strategy 3: Practice Constantly, Forgive Readily

Let me be completely honest with you: If you take any of these strategies to heart, you will fail. It is difficult work to challenge cultural norms, to wrap your mind around boredom and “doing nothing” as a good thing, and to be with the di cult emotions and physical sensations that come with being human. To cope with this inevitability, I recommend the following two things: (1) Consider each and every attempt to be present as practice (not performance); and (2) consider each and every failure as an opportunity to forgive (instantly, no questions asked). Like a dumbbell provides resistance to our bicep as we lift it, failures are actually the very things that build our strength. Realizing this may not make failure easier to experience, but it will help you appreciate and accept it.


I biked away from SPL on the last day of my residency wondering if and how libraries can foster a contemplative culture. The question heaviest on my heart and mind was about community. A lot of what I’ve written might sound like self-work, but I know in my bones that it won’t work if we don’t figure out how to do it in community. As much as we need to experience and understand who we are in this moment, we need now more than ever to understand who we are together.


  1. Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (NewYork: New Directions, 1961).
  2. James Finley, Thomas Merton’s Path to the Palace of Nowhere (Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2004).

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