Contemplatives tend to make pretty radical claims about the transformation on offer through our simple practices.
Thomas Merton put it in strong terms: “Contemplation is the highest form of prayer. [It] is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully alive.”
But what is the inner experience of this movement? What actually changes?
I recently went through a stretch where I just couldn’t practice. Either my son was sick or I was sick or someone was sick somewhere, and I woke up several times a night or could hardly breathe and woke up late or slept as long as I could and then had to take care of morning routines. Then it was straight to work.
Sometimes this is how it goes with the constraints of modern life. Busyness. Sleeplessness. Sickness. Even if we firmly hold a value that we do too much, it can sometimes be impossible not to get sucked in.
After this extended period, at night, head on the pillow, my head is buzzing, the mind reaching for answers to conscious and unconscious questions. Here’s a small sample of the thoughts racing around:
- Why is my son’s attitude so bad lately? I need to be a better parent and more strict about his behavior!
- I made two mistakes at work today. I hope no one noticed!
- I haven’t been keeping up with my practice enough lately. It’s starting to show in my attitude and my relationships!
- Why won’t this cold go away, I need to get some exercise!
- Summer’s supposed to be less stressful, not more!
- How do I respond to conservative attacks on contemplative teaching? What can I possibly say that they would be able to hear?
- I’ve been so tired lately. I’m tired of being tired!
- Because I’m sick and tired and not exercising and not practicing lately, I’m on the internet too much and watching too much TV. I’m too addicted to technology!
And so on.
My shoulders are tight with accumulated stress from the day and unresolved issues. Tomorrow there will be more. But I intuitively feel something is off. I know I’m out of rhythm and out of practice. I need to get back into my twice daily practice of Centering Prayer (even though that’s one of the debilitating thoughts!).
So I get up just a little earlier at 6 AM and set the app timer for 25 minutes, enough time for a transitional exercise and 20 minutes of sitting, introducing the sacred word as my thoughts stray.
I notice the change in about two days. If I had a couple fewer years less experience, maybe it would take a couple days more.
The shift is monumental. It’s a move from endless stress-filled preoccupation with mind stuff to simple presence and awareness.
Contemplatives talk about freedom and presence and inner peace and all that. But how does it manifest?
The tension in my neck has gone down considerably. I sleep through the night. I’m no longer desperately and incessantly grasping for answers to smooth something over or solve a problem.
Before, there is endless preoccupation with stuff that directly or indirectly makes me look bad. I’m consciously and unconsciously trying to solve the ego’s problems.
When I lay down at night, the difference is striking. Here are some of the thoughts that come up:
- I wonder how my friend’s relationship issue turned out. I’ll call him tomorrow morning.
- My wife could use some rest. I’ll get up a little early tomorrow, start breakfast, and let her sleep in.
- What’s a fun giveaway Clint and I can give to our subscribers at Contemplative Light? Once we have a little more content, maybe we can afford to give away that practices course for free.
- What if, instead of responding to the negative attacks in kind, I pick someone specific to give some encouragement.
And so on. Note the small difference there in mental preoccupation.
After practicing, some of the selfish and negative thoughts still come, too, of course. But I can take a breath, or focus on sense impressions from the environment, the chirp of a bird, the sound of a car, and get out of mind space. Even better, I can introduce the sacred word, and just let the issue drift away.
I’m free to take delight in something. A slant of sunlight through tree branches. An open sky. A slope of hill in the distance. A day moon. There are moments of causeless joy.
There’s a space around all the noise. A backdrop of silence I can turn to. When I’m not practicing, the ego’s noise and preoccupation is all there is. When I am practicing, all of that is framed, is set in parentheses, and mind stuff is no longer alpha and omega. The ego erodes inside the silence. Resistance energy lessens. Self-protection is less important. I’m free to care about someone else. Life can flow.
A Tree of Contemplative Practices from The Contemplative Mind in Society
Thomas Merton’s modern classic New Seeds of Contemplation
Thomas Keating’s Centering Prayer Course through Contemplative Outreach