In contemplative circles, we often talk about cultivating ongoing practices. Given what the term “contemplation” means for so many with no training or familiarity with the tradition, this seems antithetical.
“Wait, doesn’t contemplation mean sitting and thinking about something for a very long time?” It’s inactivity par excellence. If you fool yourself long enough into thinking that kind of inactivity matters in the world, well, you turn it into a lifestyle and call yourself a contemplative.
Far from it.
More experienced contemplatives tend to understand the practices involved are thorough, sometimes wrenching, and require ongoing diligent attention and rigorous discipline.
But they are subtle. From the outside looking in, for example, the practice of contemplation, or resting in the presence of God, can sure look a lot like inactivity.
Instead the field of attention has shifted from the external, phenomenal world, to the inner one.
People drawn to contemplation are often already emotionally driven introverts, precisely because these people already see the inner life as the primary arena of experience: thoughts, emotions, and the interior life are already pre-eminent.
There are many different kinds of contemplatives, to be sure: one of the most famous living contemplatives, Father Richard Rohr, is an extrovert, and a blustering one on the Enneagram.
But for many not predisposed to the inner life, it takes some radical in-breaking to elevate the importance and practical value of contemplation.
And in practice, contemplation involves alert attentiveness to the present moment, where, as we say in the contemplative traditions, is where God always is anyway.
Rather than locate God in our theology, spiritual texts, or denominational affiliation – all of which exist at the level of mind – the contemplative is after the direct mystical experience of God.
In practice, there is an upsurge of joy and contentment, a balance and a renewed unselfishness. The habitual concerns and preoccupations dissolve and a boundless peace and joy and rest are available.
But this experience ebbs and flows, depending on where we are in the process, in part depending on how diligently we make ourselves available to it.
That’s precisely why at Contemplative Light we’re focused on the ongoing practice, and the quality of contemplative awareness rather than achieving any particular outcome or advocating any particular tradition.
For example, I come from the Christian contemplative tradition, but have found practices from other traditions extremely beneficial over time. One practice I’ve found extremely helpful in recent months is simply called noting.
In the practice of Centering Prayer, we choose a sacred word as a symbol of consenting to the action and presence of God within, then during a given sit, we say the word whenever we notice ourselves becoming preoccupied with our thoughts.
It’s a gesture of release. Teacher Cynthia Bourgeault calls it a kenotic gesture, following the passage on Christ’s kenosis in Philippians 2:7.
I’ve found it helpful during my sits to gently say the sacred word during an exhale as I release both the breath and the thought-bundle simultaneously.
And it takes a diligent awareness to notice ourselves becoming preoccupied with what are generally egocentric thought patterns and let them go.
The additional practice of noting I’ve come to adopt recently adds a small component to this and has also helped bring the contemplative mind from the 20 minute practice into the rest of the day.
As the thoughts come up during the sit, we simply note what kind of thought it is. I might catch myself going through my to do list for the day, or, say, coming up with an idea for a post, then gently say “Planning mind. Planning mind,” as I let it go.
Or I might catch myself remembering an old lover’s embrace and say “Desiring mind. Desiring mind,” as I let it go. Or I might remember a recent conversation in which I misspoke and worried I said something inappropriate and say “Self-conscious mind. Self-conscious mind,” as I let go.
Then, throughout the day, if I’m feeling small or offended or angry or whatever, I can repeat the small phrase from the practice, recognize the thought or emotion that has me out of equilibrium, and return to center. To balance. To now. At peace.
For contemplatives, it is these little practices where we attend to the subtle inner shifts that make the difference between a violent mind and by extension, a violent world, and a peaceful mind, and by extension a peaceful world.
Cynthia Bourgeault on Kenosis
Poet and Contemplative Stephen Levine on Noting
Marc Thomas Shaw’s book Dante’s Road: The Journey Home For The Modern Soul