One of the more overlooked parts of the contemplative traditions is the physical aspect of it. Most contemplative practices involve sitting quietly for 20 minutes a day at least, and then expanding from there.
Most involve specific methods, maybe a sacred word to return to rest in the presence of God, like in Centering Prayer, focusing on the breath in Vipassana, repeating a self-inquiry mantra like “Who am I?” in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, and so on.
But what is often underemphasized is the physical context of these practices. Exercise is key to the contemplative lifestyle. To sit for extended periods, it helps to build a strong core, for example.
For myself, it’s easy to forget that aspect of the practice. I have work to do, family obligation, creative endeavors. Much of the rest of the time I spend, for better or worse, in my head. Part my attraction to contemplative practice is a recognition for balance and movement in this area – trying to let go of the constant barrage of thoughts that keep me preoccupied.
I recently got some blood work back that revealed some problem areas and made it a priority to get up at 5:30 AM three or four times a week, have my morning Centering Prayer time, then head to the gym for a run, stretching, sauna, the occasional pick up basketball game.
The difference in energy, mood, focus, concentration, and so on are always remarkable when I’m maintaining that healthy physical rhythm.
In the 6th century St. Dionysius the Areopagite outlined his three stages of the contemplative or spiritual life: purgation, illumination, and union. It’s interesting to note that, for novices, performing regular exercises to train the body was part of the first stage, purgation.
Of course we’re used to caricatures of this in the form of extreme asceticism, self-flagellation, and so on in popular culture. Properly understood though, the physical aspect of contemplation is less about destruction of the physical and more about alignment of the physical. Managing physical health with diet and exercises lays a stronger foundation to progress along the contemplative path.
Strengthening the body helps strengthen the mind and we are far better equipped to handle stray thoughts, the clashing emotions, and our daily stresses.
Yes, the contemplative path consists of ever greater degrees of intimacy with the divine, and the gradual dissolving of destructive habits and egoic patterns. That’s the goal. And in our culture we tend sometimes to overemphasize the physical for superficial reasons. But in fact getting physically healthy helps rein in the monkey mind and smooths out the contemplative path.
I’ve certainly recognized a marked difference in my daily practice as the usual benefits are greatly enhanced by a little exercise throughout the week with greater capacity for acceptance and self-awareness.
One transitioning method into the contemplative space is a body scan. There are different kinds, some involving attending to the inner energy of different parts of the body from the feet up to the crown in sequence, for example. But one I’ve taken to lately involves directing a smile of gratitude toward different key parts of our body and making a quiet commitment to be a good steward of that part – the brain, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the lungs, the heart, and so on. Just a few seconds each. A few seconds of gratitude for these organs that make our lives possible. It also helps my decision making in other areas. Just one more thread interweaving the body and the practice.