Contemplation: Accessing the Source of Life Energy, Compassion and Wisdom

Everyone can engage with the spiritual dimension through contemplation

Posted Sep 05, 2011

What is Contemplation?
Thomas Merton, the great twentieth-century American writer on spirituality, began his book New Seeds of Contemplation (1961, New Directions) with the suggestion that contemplation is, "The highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual life". "Contemplation", he wrote, "is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life..."

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Merton was something of a mystic. For more ordinary mortals, contemplation may not be such a deliberate activity. It may just happen; when we are taking a bath, for example, weeding the garden, or going for a walk. Sometimes a contemplative mood is triggered by an event, something someone says or something we read, perhaps by a dream or a memory. It simply involves holding something in mind, studying and musing over it. The subject, however, is usually something worthwhile and important, pertaining to life and meaning.

Contemplation, in this sense, is a common activity. The kind of thinking involved has an open, intuitive and holistic quality, looking at things from different angles, rather than in a strictly rational, exclusive, linear, ‘either-or', ‘right-or-wrong' kind of way. Also during contemplation, people tend to take more account of emotional experiences and reactions. Emotions may themselves become the focus of contemplative attention. Troubling feelings may soften, becoming more bearable and better understood; equanimity and clarity of mind are restored. This brings about a kind of emotional healing, and allows a person to resume life refreshed, with new ideas and new purpose. Peter's story illustrates this.

Peter's Story
Peter's family had been aware for several months that he was unhappy. His mood was often irritable. It seemed to improve towards the weekend, then deteriorate as Monday approached. One Sunday evening he erupted angrily over a trifling matter, shouting at his wife and frightening his two young children. The following morning, driving impatiently to work, he became angry again as the traffic built up. He yelled through the glass at a driver whose vehicle was moving slowly, and made a sudden, dangerous manoeuvre to get past it. Having done so, his fury was aggravated when the next light changed to red, forcing him to brake hard.

It was sixty seconds before the light turned green. During that brief period, aware of the slower driver coming up behind him, Peter began to feel guilty and ashamed of his actions. He also remembered his wife saying, the night before, that he was behaving uncharacteristically and asking what was wrong. He had denied any problems, but now began to think about the situation more objectively.

Peter began to consider his present anger and his general unhappy mood, asking himself what could have been going awry. After the lights changed, he pulled off the road to contemplate, to consider the matter for a while.

Peter's boss had been promoted and replaced a few months earlier. The new manager was very efficient, seemed fair to most of his colleagues and even likeable. Thinking about it, though, Peter realised that the change of personnel had upset him. The new boss reminded him of his authoritarian father, who had always seemed to demand more effort and seldom gave any praise. Peter realized he had been dreading the managerial meetings every Monday morning. Despite improving results each month, he felt increasingly exposed, imposed upon and frustrated.

Stop, Reflect, Proceed

Peter sat in his car for several minutes until he felt calm and in control again. Armed with the new insight into what had been troubling him, he formulated a plan. The first part involved telephoning his wife to apologize for his recent moodiness, arranging a dinner date with her the following Friday, and a special treat day out with the children on Saturday. He was going to make it up to them all. Peter was determined that family life would regain priority over his work, even if it might eventually mean switching jobs.

The second part of the plan was to use time after the morning meeting to say something, calmly and privately, to his new manager about how he had been feeling overstretched and undervalued. This began a new and happier phase between them as his boss admitted that he was in awe of Peter's record and had been thinking of him as a rival rather than as a colleague. In the days after their discussion, the manager took Peter into his confidence and asked his advice more frequently. They were able to work much better together as a team, and soon set about ensuring that others among Peter's colleagues felt fully appreciated for their work contributions and no longer taken for granted. The productivity level of their department quickly improved to superior levels, to everyone's satisfaction.

Going Deep
Contemplation involves a kind of reflective activity that goes very deep. When a person becomes still and highly focused as they ponder, the ego dissolves temporarily and contemplation becomes increasingly like formal meditation. Anyone, whether religious or not, may engage with the spiritual dimension from time to time in this way. (See my July 30 post on spiritual skills, including meditation.)

Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton said that contemplation involves, "A vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. It knows the Source..."

Merton was a Christian monk, and it is no surprise that he interpreted the idea of Source as 'God'. Contemplation, he said, "Knows God by seeming to touch him. Or rather it knows Him as if it had been invisibly touched by Him... Hence contemplation is a sudden gift of awareness, an awakening to the Real within the real. A vivid awareness of infinite Being at the roots of our own limited being".

Peter may not, at the time, have felt touched by God, but his life - at work and at home - was certainly blessed by, and grateful for, those few moments he spent in contemplation that morning. Renewed energy and purpose, compassion for his family, and wisdom in handling his new boss, were the immediate fruits. Anger flagged up his need, and provided the trigger, but being angry does not always mean we are completely in the right.


Copyright Larry Culliford

Larry's books include ‘The Psychology of Spirituality', ‘Love, Healing & Happiness' and (as Patrick Whiteside) ‘The Little Book of Happiness' and ‘Happiness: The 30 Day Guide' (personally endorsed by HH The Dalai Lama).