Contemplative Practice: A Harbinger and Sustainer of Wise Thinking

By Nichol Chase, Garrison Institute Fellow

A few years ago, I had an experience that forever shifted my perspective on life and served as a catalyst for everything that developed in my personal and professional life after.

It was sunny day in June, and I had just left the doctor’s office – my body trembling, my head spinning, my heart racing. I pulled my car to the side of the road to make a phone call.

My husband picked up on the other end and I said in a scratchy, labored tone, “My voice is injured, and I need to go on complete vocal rest, so this is the last time you will hear my voice for the next six weeks.”

I was filled with denial and disbelief. How could this happen to me?, I thought . . . I’m a trained opera singer . . . I know how to use my voice . . . how could this happen? How could I lose my voice? WHO AM I without my voice?

Once I was able to move beyond the initial shock of the news, and once I had the opportunity to grieve the (hopefully) temporary loss, I received a massive download of insight.

I had been telling myself my whole life that I didn’t deserve to have my own voice, so I lost it. I lost my voice in order to truly find it for the first time.

While this flash of recognition came in an instant, this isn’t nearly the whole story. For many years leading up to this event, I was dedicated to daily meditation and yoga practice. I was dedicated to creative expression through music. The positive influence of my accumulated years of practice allowed me to be present and accepting of what was. This is why I was ready for that message to come. My contemplative practice was the harbinger that enabled wisdom to come through.

As Louis Pasteur would say, “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” I would even venture to say fortune favors the prepared body-heart-mind. We all have these moments in our lives, and the more capacity we have to be present when these moments come, the more potential there is to learn and ultimately benefit from them.

Insights like these don’t always come through experiences that are challenging, painful or even traumatic. Sometimes they do. Hardship is not a prerequisite for wisdom, however, it is at least part of the process – and a very potent part, at that. We all have hardship in our lives. How we respond to hardship is what reveals whether or not we have developed wise characteristics. Helen Keller beautifully and succinctly puts it this way, “A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardship.”

So, what is wisdom? It is defined in many different ways. The Merrian Webster dictionary defines wisdom as the “Ability to discern inner qualities and relationships. . . . OR, accumulated philosophical or scientific learning. . . . OR, the teachings of the ancient wise men.” Some of the many attributes associated with wise thinking are intellectual humility, appreciation of broad perspectives, sensitivity to change in social relations, superior emotion regulation, prosocial behavior and compromise and acceptance of different opinions.

While there seems to be some degree of consensus about which characteristics can be described as wise, there are two different camps of thought about how wisdom is obtained: 1) you are born with it; 2) it can be learned. In the paper Wisdom and How to Cultivate It, research psychologist Igor Grossman states, “Throughout millennia, some have described desirable human characteristics or gifts as immutable essences that are hard to train and require innate potential.

In spite of this, empirical research has revealed that expert abilities, gifts or even wisdom are greatly influenced by the environment – which suggests that leaders are not born, they are also made.” He even further mentions that, “Buddha, Confucius, & Gandhi emphasized the role of explicit teaching of wisdom and its practice throughout one’s lifespan.” Igor Grossman’s thorough review with over 90 references strongly suggests that wisdom can be learned. This doesn’t seem at all far-fetched in an age where neuroplasticity – or the ability of our brains to be shaped and re-shaped throughout our entire lifetime – is increasingly becoming common knowledge.

Another important question is where does wisdom reside? Does it merely exist as a function of the mind or brain? Or can wisdom be found in the body? Is there a source of wisdom in the heart? There is a massive storehouse of wisdom in the body and in the heart (emotions) – the head, heart and gut are all classified as functional brains because of the complex neural networks that exist in all three. In order to fully realize our potential for becoming wise, we must cultivate wisdom in our mind, body and heart. Thankfully, contemplative wisdom traditions do take all of these into account and have practices to develop this kind of whole-person wisdom.

Through growing up in a Christian household, many years of study of yogic traditions and Buddhist meditation, and through comparing practices in different spiritual traditions, I consistently came back to three main components that make up spiritual or contemplative practice: Music, Movement and Mindfulness.

Practices within the category of Music can look like singing hymns in a Christian or Catholic church, Indian devotional bhajans or kirtan, or listening to the beautiful sounds made by birds. Practices within the category of Movement could look like walking meditation, Qi Gong, Yoga or dancing. Practices in the category of Mindfulness can range from formal meditation, to prayer, to mindfully eating or washing the dishes. These separate components or some combination of the three broadly describes nearly all devotional practices.

And while these practices alone are powerful and transformative, what I began to find in my own life is that they simply weren’t enough. I have gained invaluable lessons from traditional therapy. I have gained even more from studying and working with experts who specialize in Polyvagal Theory, Somatic Experiencing and Interpersonal Neurobiology. Polyvagal Theory teaches us about how our nervous system assesses risk and safety. Somatic Experiencing gives us the tools to become aware of and track our nervous system in real time, ride the waves of experience and consistently return to a place of calm and safety. Interpersonal Neurobiology helps us to put all of it into context and see ourselves as part of a larger whole.

Inspired by the impact of contemplative practice, and by these three scientific disciplines I began to develop practices that weave Music, Movement and Mindfulness and Polyvagal Theory, Somatic Experiencing, and Interpersonal Neurobiology together. What I have found is that practice becomes much more powerful when these elements are combined. What emerged is a comprehensive method for understanding ourselves – a method of cultivating inner wisdom.

A third key inquiry has to do with the scope of wisdom. Is wisdom something that can only be found within individuals? Or is it shared in relationship? In systems? In nature? The fact of the matter is that you cannot fully separate any one individual from the vast web of relationships – we are always in relationship; it is the very nature of reality. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Our ancient experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.” And in the words of the systems scientist Peter Senge, “The earth is an indivisible whole, just as each of us is an indivisible whole. Nature (and that includes us) is not made up of parts within wholes. It is made up of wholes within wholes. All boundaries, national boundaries included, are fundamentally arbitrary.” 

Wisdom lives within, between and amongst us. Individual practice can be the harbinger for wise thinking, but in order to sustain wise thinking, we must also practice together. What is needed to be truly wise is a comprehensive method that engages us in practice alone, in relationship, as a part of groups, and as a way of connecting with nature – a method of whole-person wisdom building. This is what the Wisdom Building Method is all about.


Nichol Chase, ERYT-500, YACEP, TSM, BM, is a teacher, musician, and yogi for whom singing and movement is integral to life.

Nichol’s yoga practice is informed by a vast and eclectic set of influences that blend invigorating flow with precise and insightful instruction and extensive study with a variety of innovative teachers. She is a Garrison Institute Fellow and a faculty member and teacher trainer for The Mazé Method. Nichol’s artistic experience includes more than a decade of Royal Academy ballet training and specialization as an operatic Coloratura Soprano, earning the Bachelor of Music degree with a major in Vocal Performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. Nichol’s study of yoga piqued an interest in Kirtan and Indian Classical music resulting in the addition of the harmonium to her repertoire for accompaniment. She continues to study Northern Indian Classical Music, Mantra, and Kirtan along with a vast array of Western musical styles.

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