One of the challenges of the contemplative life is understanding the relationship between the contemplative dimension of life – the cultivation of an interior silence that radically changes how we perceive the world and the self-in-the-world – and the bare facts of the practical lives we find ourselves in.
Philosophers call it the phenomenal world.
More poetically, Eastern traditions have called it the ten thousand things.
Often, early on in our practice, especially if we experience some kind of breakthrough, we clearly see a relationship between the two. A commitment to daily practice bears fruit in everyday life. In my own experience, one effect of ongoing practice was a genuine breakthrough, a burst of energy, vitality, and creativity, this fertile period of clarity and productivity.
But of course that is temporary, and attachment even to that, or turning it into an identity – I finally figured it out! – is an illusion.
As many of our students ask: “isn’t it misleading to think of the contemplative path as a series of stages? We spiral up and back and reality is far more complicated.”
Well, yes and no.
People who’ve traveled this road before – from St. John of the Cross to Evelyn Underhill – have identified some patterns to the inner journey and articulated these in ways we can make sense of.
And yet, of course, it’s only descriptive, not prescriptive. Part of the purpose of a model, like any map, is to situate us, to orient us. But where we find reality diverging from the map, we simply notice, revise our own map, and keep going.
We have also found it helpful to think in terms of centers of gravity. You may oscillate from a stage of maturity and balance back to small self egocentrism and acting out, but find behind that surface shift that the center of gravity has in fact shifted in a meaningful way toward a greater overall maturity.
The phase passes more quickly and we return to center much more readily.
That’s why instead of enlightenment – a singular event – we speak of awakenings, and there are many. And that’s why so many contemplatives speak of being born again…and again…and again.
After a turbulent period in my own life I’ve been able to recommit to daily practice and wake up at 5 AM to make sure I have enough time to not have to rush through the practice.
It’s such a refreshing way to start off the day.
Life creeps right back in. The ten thousand things. Dishes in the sink. My son is slow to get up. And wants to write letters to his friends in Kindergarten instead of eating breakfast. When it’s time to go, he’s still not dressed. Any attempt to communicate urgency is met with escalating resistance. By the time he gets in the car, I’ve had to be firm with him and he’s in tears.
And then the mind starts going: maybe he’s getting sick, maybe I was too harsh on him, I’ve got to get that shot today, don’t forget the doctor’s appointment, the contractor will be here at 10 AM, don’t forget to unlock the door, I’ve got to push that breakfast appointment tomorrow – all with the emotional residue of the conflict with my son still reverberating in my nervous system.
The dishes are still in the sink. The laundry is still in the dryer. Work starts in 45 minutes. Go!
We are right back in the thick of the ten thousand things.
But with the practice, there’s a crucial difference. I got up early this morning and practiced. I established a baseline of interior silence to return to.
Practicing over a long period of time does help me in the moment, but of course conflicts still arise. Where it more often helps is simply in letting go. In allowing that stressful experience to be saturated in divine silence. Situated against the backdrop of silence it doesn’t become emotionally all-consuming. I’m not carrying it with me nearly as long.
As a twelve-year-old in Germany I played a game of tennis against an older woman after school one day. I was fairly athletic and was among the better players in my class but she kept winning point after point.
Afterwards she gave me a tip: the good players know to return to the baseline after a shot. You kept staying where the last hit was and it put you at a disadvantage.
Morning practice is like finding the baseline to start the day, and the ongoing practice throughout the day is when the tricky shots come at us, we know where to return.
That very return is one of the key movements of the contemplative life. It’s a kind of metanoia, an inner turning on the micro-level of any given situation back to our center throughout the day.
A student of Centering Prayer confessed to the late Fr. Thomas Keating that she must be doing something wrong; no matter how hard she tried, throughout the period of silence she’d get distracted with 10,000 thoughts. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed. “That’s 10,000 opportunities to return to God.”
On the spiritual path there are big moments of turning, genuine movements when our center of gravity shifts from one stage of maturity to another. This usually involves some kind of relinquishment, some kind of death to enter into that new life.
It’s similar on the micro-level, with those daily little metanoias where we let go of whatever is preoccupying our thoughts and emotions and return to that grace-filled silence, that awareness that we are ever and always held by something far greater than our little selves and in turn become capable of a greater grace.
Richard Rohr on the ongoing process of conversion.
Contemplative Outreach on Consenting to God and “Holy Manure”
Contemplative Light’s introductory course on “Contemplative Practices: 5 Ways of Consenting to the Divine”