A famous quote in contemplative circles reads “the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” What this refers to is our normal tendency to be pulled this way and that way by the incessant stream of unconscious thought.Instead of using our minds when necessary, we are mostly used by our minds and kept in a kind of mental prison. Some of us nurse and rehearse our resentments, some of us obsess over our never-ending to-do list. Some of us stay steeped in our losses, limitations, unfulfilled needs, dreams, or fears about the future.
The offer of contemplative practice is to lay all that aside and simply be for a little while. In that simple presence, it’s as if all the mind activity is held within a container, against an immense backdrop of peaceful awareness, grace, and gratitude.The little dramas diminish.As Christ put it, “consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin” and elsewhere “do not lay up treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume.”
In each case, it’s our need to preserve a small self, an ego with its need for approval or stability or status in various forms, that unconsciously creates the attachment and anxiety to the things around us: relationships, stuff, jobs, identities, and so on. These are the places we play out our dramas and through which the ego seeks to maintain its hold.The contemplative path is about dropping that false self on an ongoing basis and living out of a state of a more fundamental level of truth. But with our hectic lives, demands on our time and person, it can be difficult to maintain the clarity. Most of us even long-time practitioners go in and out of that state of awareness.We can lose the thread. Here’s a quick checklist for reference when it comes to staying the course:
Maybe it’s a walk. Maybe the gym, tai chi, yoga, walking meditation, energization exercises, but movement and the simple act of exercise is one of the least emphasized aspects the spiritual path. The less we are in the habit of exercise, the less we can regulate mood, pay attention to our own tendencies, stay disciplined with our practices, and choose our responses. With a weak core, for example, simple meditation can become much harder and strain the back. Movement is essential.
This is the heartbeat of the contemplative life. As with, say, Centering Prayer, 20 minutes twice a day is the recommended minimum. Ideally, first thing in the morning, and again in the evening. But for most of us, with or without relationships, parenting, and jobs, this has to stay flexible. Sometimes we only manage once a day. Other times we have to skip entirely. Sometimes, we add two short sessions in the afternoon. But making a firm commitment to regular cessation of our mental-emotional patterns is essential on this path.
Some observe the practice of regularly getting quiet and asking “who am I?” as a self-inquiry practice. Others study frameworks like the Enneagram or personality inventories to guide their thinking here. The idea is not simply to place oneself in a category, but, on the one hand, to develop an awareness of one’s nature, essence, or True Self, and on the other hand, to trace the day to day manifestations of the obstacle to that awareness – the habits and tendencies of the small self, the better to be able to override its toxic forms when they appear.
The practice of deep acceptance is connected to the other practices. In ways large and small, on macro and micro levels, there are things we normally resist that cause inner tension, rigidity, anxiety, depression, suffering. Understanding our own wounds, needs, and mental tendencies, while engaging in regular practice helps us detach from the incessant push and pull of the mind. We can accept the reality we find ourselves in, our own role in that process, and make sober decisions out of that state, rather than adding more drama and suffering.
Nature moves to its own cycles and rhythms. We live in a self-constructed world largely abstracted and disconnected from those rhythms. It’s reinvigorating for the body and calming for the mind to immerse ourselves in nature with its appeal to the senses: new scents and colors, exposure to life and movement and process outside of our influence is at once invigorating, humbling, and connective, as well as providing a space for solitude and quiet.
Counterintuitive, to be sure. If the idea is to get beyond the mind, why should we train the mind? Reading and study in the contemplative traditions helps guide, formulate, introduce, shape, and facilitate our process. We often miss the first bit of the quote above. The mind is still a wonderful servant when we put it to good use. The point isn’t to memorize dogma or arguments, that’s for a previous stage of development. The point is alignment with the pure truth. Others have walked that path, whether centuries ago or right now. This helps refine our understanding, and deepen our commitment to the process. Having someone clearly and succinctly articulate what we’ve only dimly intuited moves us a good ways along the path.
This one can be difficult when it comes to the contemplative path. Most of us think that short of joining a monastic order, there’s not much to be done here. And in truth, there is a need for solitude on the contemplative path. But there is also the need for mutual reinforcement, the ability to be present for others on their path, and the impact of connecting with a community of practitioners for learning, contribution, accountability, and deepened experience. Some connect with regular groups, like, say, a local Centering Prayer group. Others attend regular retreats and find their sense of connection and sanctuary within that community. The danger here of course is turning this into one more ego identification and a forum to play out our unconscious dramas. Preventing this often takes deep wisdom on the part of both the community leadership and its members.
A natural result of the above practices is the recognition of interconnectedness with others, and a natural increase in both humility and grace. We tend to bring our natural gifts and resources to help others. We tend to put ourselves in position to be of service. However great or small, the acts of service further remove the barriers we normally place between ourselves and others. From feeding the homeless to taking responsibilities in the communities you’re already a part of, or engaging in broader activism, service is the natural outgrowth of the process of refinement on the contemplative path, and, if done with awareness and humility, allows the soil we’ve diligently tilled to become more fruitful.
Episcopal priest Matthew Wright on his journey of self-inquiry
New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton