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?
One of the trickiest things about contemplative practice is the strict rhythm it demands. This is one of the first thing that turns someone off to the practice, even if they are enthused about the real benefits of emotional balance, acceptance, and inner growth. It takes a commitment.
The minimum in most traditions is at least 20 minutes a session at least once, but usually two sessions a day, often first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. But so often, with the way our lives are structured, even a strong commitment doesn’t make it happen.
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.
A few years ago I was going through a period of prolonged inner tension. For work purposes, my wife and I had lived apart for some time and developed our own rhythms. I had been on one career track and was changing course to live in a new situation, a new job, a new city.
There was both relief and renewed tension in this life change. We were also adjusting to life with a newborn and trying to find our footing. I had taken steps in recent years to address long standing destructive patterns and addictions, but here I was out of rhythm and found old mental-emotional patterns returning. Dark moods born from regret, resentment, or anxieties about parenthood were easily triggered.
In talking with a friend who’s a voracious reader at a recent get together, he confided a little sheepishly that he had about 600 books on his various reading lists. It reminded me of my own lengthy reading lists, most of which I will never get around to actually reading.
Over the years I’d go through phases of different interests: Zen, Russian Literature, Postmodern Theology, Myth, Anthropology, The Desert Fathers, various poets, literary criticism, and so on, gathering far more reading on my wish lists than I had time to finish. Any recommendations by well-meaning friends usually ended up somewhere between the 125-150 on the priority list.
When I taught High School, tutored, coached, and taught Saturday school, my wife and I also had very opposite schedules. The little bit of time we did have together we were feverishly catching up. After Seminary I was still wrestling with a lot of theological questions, but my schedule, hectic as it was, seemed to prevent any kind of inner work. A prayer life was non-existent. Time to pray seemed like pure luxury, even on rare occasions when desire was there. I hadn’t yet learned the importance of saying no and burnout was looming.
Welcome to Season 1, Episode 5 of the Spiritual Directions podcast. In this episode, I sit down with former naval officer and long-time centering prayer practitioner Steve Allman to discuss his contemplative practice, learning to accept the journey into the unknown, the search for meaning, and a method he learned to deal with anxiety.
How do we deal with transition and upheaval in our lives? For many of us, this brings about the related issue of anxiety. Steve Allman shares his life journey, lessons learned along the way, especially the lessons he learned in dealing with his transition out of military life, the support and values that helped him along.
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Since college, I‘ve been convinced of the value of contemplative practice, its capacity to help with awareness, with letting go, and with spiritual growth in general. But for years I had the same problem: I couldn’t stay consistent.
I would go through some difficulty: a break-up, a life change, conflict at work, whatever. The inner tension would mount and I’d pick up my contemplative practice again. 20 minutes of practice first thing in the morning, and again in the evening, and I’d feel a whole lot calmer.