Navigating the world and ourselves through contemplation

By Alice Yin, FIMS Communications Staff

August 26, 2021

Headshot of Professor Ajit PyatiHow can we live freer and more conscious lives, while also working to build a more just and humane world? This is the guiding question for Faculty of Information & Media Studies Professor Ajit Pyati.

Pyati is currently doing research in the area of contemplative studies, an emerging interdisciplinary field in academia, and he's interested in injecting a contemplative perspective into library & information science, media & communication studies, politics and pop culture.

"I would describe contemplative studies as a field that looks at how contemplative practices interact with personal, communal, political, and socio-economic factors in the world," says Pyati. "As such, meaning, purpose, introspection, transformative potential, and renewed engagement with the world are at the heart of this field."

Pyati will explore the role of contemplation through his upcoming research endeavours at FIMS, after returning from sabbatical in British Columbia. While on sabbatical the past academic year, Pyati studied Thomas Merton's work - a Trappist Monk, mystic, social activist, and prolific writer who wrote on topics ranging from monastic spirituality to civil rights, nonviolence, and the nuclear arms race.

"On a philosophical level, I have drawn much inspiration and insight from Thomas Merton's work, with many of my recent pieces making reference to him."

Pyati was particularly focused on Merton's understanding of issues of alienation and how inner and outer change can be connected. As a visiting scholar at the Vancouver School of Theology during the 2020-21 academic year, his research plans involved the Merton Reading Room, although COVID-19 restrictions limited the availability of this collection of Merton's work.

Now back from sabbatical, Pyati will continue his study of contemplative perspectives at FIMS. He's working alongside Professor Pam McKenzie and LIS PhD student Janet Allen in a new research project supported by the FIMS Undergraduate Fellowship program. Pandemic, Stress, and Overload: Cultivating Space for Contemplation in the University, looks at how both undergraduate and graduate students at Western have experienced 'information overload' and other information and technology related stressors during the pandemic.

"On this project, we are particularly interested in understanding how students cope with these pressures, potentially identifying contemplative strategies they may be using," says Pyati, who hopes that the findings from this research can inform recommendations to university staff and administrators on how to better support the inner lives of students.

Starting in the fall, Pyati will also be supervising research on 'contemplative infrastructure,' done by his incoming LIS PhD student Hugh Samson. The concept of 'contemplative infrastructure' relates to the types of infrastructure in society that can support contemplative insights, promote introspection, and potentially lead to transformative possibilities in how we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world.

"In this framework, technological infrastructure can be included, as well as institutions such as libraries and other types of public spaces," he says. In fact, the role of libraries in the wellbeing of its patrons is a topic Pyati knows deeply about, having recently published an article in the Journal of the Australian Library and Information Association on the public library as a contemplative space.

Pyati's interest in contemplative studies is a fairly new direction in his academic work. He notes his previous research involved an eclectic mix of a variety of fields, from critical theory, to information policy studies, to postcolonial theory, and more.

"In one sense, what I am currently working on is a completely new research direction," he notes. "However, there are some common themes I have always been interested in, such as societal inequities, social justice, and helping to envision a fairer and more humane world."

Questions as to who gets to define contemplation, who has the time and space to be contemplative, and how certain contemplative practices get heavily commodified and fetishized, remain hugely important to Pyati, especially as the pandemic has highlighted inequality in society - with poorer populations and people of colour disproportionately affected.

And his interest in contemplative studies continues to evolve. His next publication uses contemplative perspectives to critique academia - specifically how university culture promotes an egocentric, immature culture. In this forthcoming book chapter in Reflections on Valuing Wellbeing in Higher Education: Reforming our Acts of Self-care (June/July 2022), Pyati argues for a more mature culture rooted in contemplative wisdom, to embrace the natural human life cycle.

"There is so much interesting ground to cover in the field of contemplative studies, and I am curious how my work will continue to evolve over the next several years."