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The Vita Activa And Vita Contemplativa

I recently attended an event hosted by the University of Chicago, at which several speakers talked about German philosopher--Hannah Arendt--and her concepts of the Vita Activa and Vita Contemplativa. A lot of the back-and-forth was over my head, but there were a few ideas articulated, that sparked my mind and engaged my attention.

In Arendt's view, human life can be divided into two broad categories: The practical and the theoretical--"doing" and "understanding". Up to that point (which was pretty early) I was following the discussion fairly well, but I had also begun to ruefully recall why I didn't major in philosophy.

The event was promoted as a discussion of action versus contemplation (which tweaked my interest), but the fact that it was considered a matter of philosophy and religion--and was to be held at the U of C--should have been two big clues. Unfortunately, the clue bus ran right over me, without so much as a bump.

That said, as the speakers pirouetted gracefully around the ideas of action and contemplation, I found myself listening for two words: Mindfulness and meditation (once again demonstrating the wisdom of the adage: "If you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail"). And guess what? The subjects of mindfulness and meditation both came up! Sadly, I wussed out, when it came to Q & A.

I poked around the Internet afterward, and found a piece entitled, Balancing The Vita Activa With The Vida Contemplativa written by a student for the Charles Center Summer Research Blog. The piece started with a wonderful quote attributed to Cato (the younger, I believe) stating: "Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself". As you will have already guessed, I kept reading!

Quoting directly from the conclusion: "As I've reaped the benefits of the self-reflection and contemplation caused by [my] research, I [have come to realize that I retain those same benefits] even as I move away from my research. I don't want to just do. I want to grow --to learn truth through my actions. In the words of Hannah Arendt, I want to "think what I am doing". Only when I quiet my mind enough to think what I am doing, am I able to learn from my action by [understanding] the truth that presents itself amidst complete human stillness" (emphasis added). Good on you, kid!

Query: Can mindfulness and meditation boost our capacity for action or contemplation? Absolutely. They're not at all the same thing, but just like lifting weights will strengthen our muscles, so too will mindfulness and meditation strengthen our minds. Observing our thoughts, or contemplating our thoughts-- a strong mind can do both.

Turns out, there's a lot to be said about balancing the Vita Activa and the Vita Contemplativa. They sound a lot like mindfulness and meditation to me. Both speak to action that quiets the mind and encourages contemplation--kind of like a long walk in the woods.

Meditation or contemplation--they're wonderful and rich traditions that are more similar than different, and they both enable us to better know our minds!


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