Some of the essentials for contemplative living

I’ve spent New Year’s Day 2016 compiling a list of the key essentials for the contemplative life which keep coming to me when I meditate. I’m sure there are compilations elsewhere, but I wouldn’t know where to find them. Elements that are important to me are usually missing from other people’s writings. These include the importance of the body (implicit in the incarnation) and of emotional and physical experience, and the importance of actively teaching people how to become aware of their intuitive contemplative self and nurture that self in ways that are so simple that people find it difficult to believe they really work – until they try.

Contemplative practices are as old as the world’s religions; they are practical, radical and transformative; every major religious tradition includes forms of contemplative practice; they have been widely neglected in catholic and reformed traditions since the Reformation.

I’ve compiled this list with the help of contributions to Contemplation Nation: How ancient practices are changing the way we live, edited by Mirabai Bush. The list opens with a distillation of Thomas Merton’s four key principles which I believe are fundamental to the spiritual health and future of the Church as the place where people expect to encounter the living Christ and discover how to deepen their own selves in response. I share with many the possibility that the Church is not going to wake up to the crisis it is creating for itself - and to the neglect of the world’s salvation.

Key principles from Thomas Merton’s thought

  • Our everyday life is our spiritual life.
  • It is every person’s primary vocation to be fully human, aware of who we are and how we relate to others.
  • Our spiritual formation cannot take place in isolation. It is grounded in the experience of relationships and community.
  • Personal transformation is the foundation for societal and cultural transformation.

Contemplation is:

  • . . . simply “being there,” “soaking,” or “resting” in and with God, a relational experience of no-time in which self-awareness and awareness of surroundings drop away, opening to a rich experience of intimate connection with God.
  • . . . intuitive.
  • . . . living in unified relationship with oneself, others, nature, and God, free of the illusion of separateness (The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living).
  • . . . an important dimension of human nature that is necessary for personal balance and integration, particularly in a culture that is addicted to activity and external stimulus.
  • . . . a way of listening and responding to our everyday experiences by consciously attending to our relationships with self, others, God, and all of nature.
  • . . . the simple act of gazing, paying attention, which can open up a space in the soul, a space where the world may live and move in us.
  • . . . involves the cultivation of a simple, spacious awareness of the whole that may help us rediscover what it is to live in the world with purpose, meaning, and depth.
  • . . . seeking to bring together natural phenomena and the experience of the transcendent as part of a single, unbroken reality.

Contemplative practice:

  • . . . is designed to open the heart and deepen connection to others directly to foster love and compassion.
  • . . . involves the training of the inner psychological capacities of intention and motivation, attention and awareness, reflection and concentration of mind, devotion and the shifting or transformation of the subjective self-sense, receptivity and being in pure consciousness.
  • . . . refers to the interior actions, skills and methods that open us to the non-conceptual experience of God.
  • . . . enables us to engage the living world not merely as an object but as a subject – as Beloved Other in which the self can rediscover its own authentic ground, a ground shared with God and all living beings.

Contemplative practice differs from current prayer practice

  • Rather than being centred in directing something to God or acting for or on behalf of God, contemplation points to a stance of being open to receiving from God whatever emerges, and highlights capacities of awareness, waiting, listening, and noticing – a non-judgmental beholding – a long, loving look at the real.
  • Active prayer and faith-based approaches tend to reinforce pre-existing religious, spiritual, and psychological beliefs. Contemplative practices, in contrast, emphasise direct experience and cultivate receptivity and openness.

The growing attraction of contemplation

  • There is a growing, spontaneous, grass roots, diverse engagement with contemplative thought and practice in contemporary society.
  • It is congruent with the Christian Church’s apophatic Biblical and mystical tradition.
  • The desire to give oneself to interior practice and contemplation is growing because ritualised, verbal religious practice has so disappointed people.
  • There is a longing for a deepening of the spiritual dimension in many people, both within and outside the Church, but people don’t know what it looks like.

The necessity of contemplative practice

  • A sustained commitment to contemplative practice may well be crucial if we are to discover again an authentic sway of living in the world, rooted in attitudes of reverence, reciprocity and responsibility.
  • As we become aware of the unconscious depths of our current environmental predicament, there is a sense in which the broken, unhealed dimensions of our inner lives is contributing to the destruction of our world.