For this week’s post I thought I would share a sample of a paper I recently submitted as part of my Prairie Jubilee coursework on the topic of contemplation.
Hope you enjoy,
The Contemplative’s Handbook
A Practical Guide to Living in the Mystery Without Feeling like a Flake
There have been times in my life where I have run across a concept that, despite how much I read about it and think about it and research what others have to say about it, it simply will not sink in. There is no felt sense of knowing what the concept really means; it’s stuck in the abstract.
This has been my experience with contemplation. I have not been able to get it to move into that deeper level where there are no questions or rationalizations or justifications — just knowing. It has been like an airplane that is persistently hovering in circles above the airport for hours, refusing to land and release its passengers.
I read a lot about what the experts and mystics have to say about contemplation, yet still wasn’t ‘getting’ it. Thomas Merton, for example, was a renowned writer, Trappist monk and true mystic. He has written books on contemplation, describing it as, “the experience of God in a luminous darkness,” and, “the transcendent experience of reality and truth in the act of a supreme and liberated spiritual love.” Here’s one more: “Contemplation is a flash of the lightening of divinity piercing the darkness of nothingness and sin.”
Merton says that contemplation “suggests lingering enjoyment, timelessness and a kind of suave passivity.” I admire and respect Merton and have been inspired by his teachings, but his description of contemplation as a kind of suave passivity is, well, too passive (or maybe too suave!) for me to wrap my head around.
Almost every religion and spiritual path recognizes the importance of contemplation in some form. But what is it, really? In Eastern Christianity, contemplation literally means to see God or to have the vision of God. They describe this as a state of beholding God, or being in union with God.
The idea is that once someone is in the presence of God, they can begin to properly understand, and there ‘contemplate’ God. Within Western Christianity, contemplation is often related to mysticism as expressed in the works of mystical theologians such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
American spiritual teacher Adyashanti says contemplation has the power to transcend beyond the limits of analytical thought and logic and open consciousness up to an order of wisdom and Truth that can only be described as revelation.
For me, all of this research resulted in a fairly opaque, disembodied understanding that existed only in the head. However, I am no longer interested in living from my head. I spent most of my life doing it (and attempted to continue the pattern in my spiritual work — unsuccessfully, thank God) and can only conclude that while it is a good entry point, it is not enough. I’m not interested in learning about or figuring out any more spiritual teachings. If I can’t embody it — i.e. integrate it into my being at a cellular level so it infuses and informs my life on a moment-to-moment, hourly, daily basis as an effective and measurable tool of transformation — then I’m not interested.
This is what led me to come up with my own list of five approaches to contemplation — not as a practice or single action, but as a way of living. In this paper I will list these approaches and describe how I’m trying to live them out in everyday life. It is still early days, but from my experience so far I feel this has led to the strongest glimmer of true understanding of what contemplation really means.
Before I present my Five Practical Approaches to Contemplative Living, let me explain how they came to me. Not surprisingly, it was by meditating or contemplating on the word, contemplation (or rather, staring at it on a blank page while squinting). My goal was to see what words within the word jumped out at me. I have used this practice before. If a word isn’t making sense, I try to look at from a higher view — almost like trying to make it blurry and imagine you can’t make it out so you have to squint to see what it means.
Five words sprang out at me. They are: