Although the word contemplative sounds fancy, everyone has been contemplative – you know, looking up at the stars, going to the ocean and getting a sense of the enormity of it all, or looking into your baby’s eyes and thinking, Holy Moly, how did I get you and how did you get me? All of that is contemplative. In addition to that, all the major religions have formal contemplative practices. But people can engage in contemplative activity without framing it in terms of a relationship with God or something like that.
The contemplative tradition I know best is Buddhism. It’s also the contemplative tradition that has had the greatest crossover with Western science; much of the research on meditators has been on Buddhist meditators. Arguably, though, the majority of research has been on those who practice TM, or Transcendental Meditation, which is nested in the Hindu tradition.
The field of contemplative neuroscience is just exploding, in tandem with the explosion of knowledge about brain science in general. People know twice as much about the brain today than they did in 1990, and I’d have to say science knows a hundred times more today than it did in 1990 about what happens in the brain when people engage in contemplative practices.