English mystics describe contemplation as a “long, loving, look at the real.” It is slowing down sufficiently to get in touch with one’s illusions, biases, assumptions, worldviews. It is getting in touch with reality—the world’s and our own.
There is risk involved in engaging in contemplation. Sometimes we enter into it by choice; other times a crisis catapults us there. For whatever reason, when we engage in contemplation we become vulnerable. We are invited to let go of our usual responses, our usual thoughts as to the why’s and wherefores. We are invited to see with new eyes one’s self and the systems and structures within which we live. Such seeing can be painful or hopeful.
But before we can see in new ways we are invited to be emptied. In contemplation we experience “the divine presence without mediation of doctrine, sacred text, or sacrament” as Dorothy Soelle writes in The Silent Cry. We even have to give up our idea of God. Reflecting on Meister Eckhart’s saying, “And so I ask God to rid me of God,” Soelle states “The God who is known and familiar is too small for him. To know God like another object of our cognition means to turn God into something that is usable, at our disposal. There are many places in mystical piety where the call is heard to leave God for God’s sake….To leave God for the sake of God means to relinquish a figure of God, a way of God, a mode or manner of speaking of God.”
Thomas Merton in an article entitled, “The Significance of the Bhagavad-Gita”, describes a quality of one’s inner subjective life as “God-consciousness. Not concentration on an idea or concept of God, still less on an image of God, but a sense of presence, of an ultimate ground of reality and meaning, from which life and love could spontaneously flower.” He sees the absence of that in our Western culture and explains that the Gita, brings “to the West a salutary reminder that our highly activistic and one-sided culture is faced with a crisis that may end in self-destruction because it lacks the inner depth of an authentic metaphysical consciousness. Without such depth, our moral and political protestations are just so much verbiage.”
More recently, Beatrice Bruteau in The Grand Option, writes “Many people say that it is difficult to practice contemplation in our secularized society. But our society is “secularized” precisely because contemplation is not adequately practiced. These two work in a circle: the general environment of our consciousness either supports or hinders our contemplative life, and our contemplative life (or the lack of it) gives (or fails to give) spiritual dimensions to the surrounding world.”
So many crises—global climate change, trafficking, economic disparity—cry out for action. Yet, action without contemplation can lead to self destruction. It seems we are in need of God-consciousness once again. Found in all the great religious traditions this opening up to the Divine within is an art that needs cultivation.
So how to do it? There are many ways but I find helpful some of the thoughts that Pema Chodron offers in her book, When Things Fall Apart. She offers some advice as to our posture as we settle ourselves for a time of meditation and contemplation. She suggests to sit with your seat flat; legs crossed comfortably or flat on the floor; torso upright; hands open, palms down; eyes lowered but open; and mouth slightly open with the jaw relaxed to allow air to move easily through both mouth and nose.
Then you are ready to enter into meditation. Chodron offers us these insights for our reflection:
“We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives….(we sit) acknowledging whatever arises without judgment, letting the thoughts simply dissolve, and then going back to the openness of this very moment. That’s what we’re actually doing in meditation. Up come all these thoughts, but rather than squelch them or obsess with them we acknowledge them and let them go. Then we come back to just being here.”
“So right from the beginning it’s helpful to always remind yourself that meditation is about opening and relaxing with whatever arises, without picking and choosing. It’s definitely not meant to repress anything, and it’s not intended to encourage grasping, either.”
As we gather in the Circles we are building trust so that we might together “take a long, loving, look at the real” and enter more deeply to name our illusions. Doing it communally provides the support needed to risk seeing anew and acting accordingly. For in Soelle’s words “mysticism and transformation are indissolubly interconnected.”
Written by Nancy Sylvester, IHM
©2003-2012 Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue
Reprint with permission firstname.lastname@example.org
For Further Reading:
Bruteau, Beatrice. The Grand Option. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press,2001.
This is a collection of essays and talks which Bruteau shared with the Monks of Gethsemani over twenty years. Bruteau is a lay contemplative and pioneer in the integrated study of science, spirituality, philosophy, and religion. Her work, far ahead of her time, is a contemporary reflection on a new social order based on universal inclusiveness and the unique value of each person. She does so by exploring the central Christian symbols
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston, MA: Shambhala Classics, 1997.
Chodron teaches us how to approach suffering in a way that is not usual for Western culture. She is an American Buddhist nun and draws on that tradition to offer us a way of moving toward pain and suffering with a curiosity and friendliness that relaxes us into the depths of that situation. This is an excellent book and offers very practical advice for those searching for holistic ways of engaging the difficult situations in life.
Merton, Thomas. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New York, NY: New Directions Book, 1973. (The essay cited appears as Appendix IX in the book.)
This journal reflects Merton’s fateful journey to the Orient. It is a record of the people he encountered and the myriad impressions of the places and landscapes. But as with all of his journals there are philosophical and theological reflections throughout. In this journal you experience his great desire to explore, experience, and interpret the similarities and differences among the great religious traditions. He died accidentally on December 10, 1968 in Bangkok.
Soelle, Dorothee. The Silent Cry—Mysticism and Resistance. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2001.
This is an excellent book for anyone who is trying to integrate contemplation and action. Soelle draws from her experience as well as from many world leaders in mysticism and non-violent resistance. She explores how the religious impulse of mysticism, the “silent cry”, is at the heart of all the world’s religions. Soelle argues for the importance of mysticism in countering the destructive aspects of ego, group bias, materialism, and violence. Religion in the third millennium, Soelle argues, will either be mystical or it will be dead.
Additional resources and web sites can be found on the first Contemplation reflection page under For Further Reading.
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