Contemplation is a many-splendid thing: it means many things to many people. Also known as centering prayer and mindfulness, contemplation is not the sole possession of any one spiritual tradition.
There are many ways to do contemplation and each practitioner molds it based on their worldview and what they deem valuable and what they hope to get out of the practice. There is, however, one fruit of any serious and disciplined practice of contemplation: silence. Life is most manageable from a silent psyche.
15 to 20 minutes of measured breathing without moving your body will go a long way in getting you to rest in God’s love and experience silence. If you are starting the practice of contemplation for the first time, start simply. Find a place where you can be alone and where you can sit in a comfortable chair. Set the timer on your smart phone to 15 or 20 minutes. Sit in the chair with your feet flatly on the floor and the palms of your hands turned down, resting in your lap. Once you get comfortable, stay in this position for the duration of the session. Do not move. Without moving the rest of your body, slowly and methodically inhale and exhale full, measured breaths that expand your diaphragm. Fill your lungs without hyperventilating. Where you sense tension in your body, mentally tell that part of your body to relax.
After sensing your body at rest, now listen to the sounds around you: the birds chirping, the rustling of trees, children at play, or even the sound of quiet. Pay more attention to the sounds than the thoughts in your head. In fact, ignore the thoughts as you focus on the intention of being present in the moment, in the now. Or, you can focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale measured breaths. Be aware of your breath: watch it with your mind’s eye, feel it and hear it. When you find yourself meandering in thoughts, return to an awareness of your breath.
You can never get rid of thoughts, so do not fight them. But, you can ignore them.
Some people have the idea that contemplation is emptying your mind and giving it over to the demonic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Contemplation is not about flights of fancy, or astro- projecting yourself around the universe. During contemplation, you are not looking for spiritual or theological insight; even those thoughts should be ignored. Contemplation invites you to be keenly aware yourself in the moment in which you are. Contemplation is about awareness of your physical self in the space and time that God has given you.
When you find yourself caught up in the tyranny of the past or the future, return to the sounds that you hear while breathing deeply. In time, you may develop a sacred word. Your sacred word could be spirit, love, peace, or Jesus—whatever puts you in the center of God’s love. You will become so adept at using your sacred word that when you find yourself in moments of anxiety outside your designated time for contemplation, that word will bring into that anxious moment the peace, love and joy that you experience during contemplation. Your sacred word encapsulates your intention of resting in God’s love. When your thoughts or feelings carry you away, mentally say your sacred word to yourself. You may have to say that word to yourself as many times as you get caught up in a thought or feeling.
Your sacred word will become special to you, as it puts you in mind of God’s goodness and love. Commit yourself daily to this practice. Contemplation is an apophatic, spiritual practice that invites you to sit and rest in God’s loving presence. On its face it sounds easy. Like most good things in life that are good for you, it is challenging and takes discipline to maintain, but the long-term benefits are life changing.
A caution: westerners, a.k.a modern thinkers, will expect tangible and immediate results from a 20 – minute session. They will be tempted to judge contemplation’s effectiveness by what occurs during a session. The real fruits of contemplation will be realized in your everyday life after your time spent in contemplation.
Slowly, imperceptibly, you find yourself responding and reacting differently to your life. Situations that would typically cause anxiety and stress will lose their tyranny, as you create a buffer zone where you can interpret situations and thus see life differently—a perspective from your true self in Christ. All this to say, don’t judge the progress of early efforts by what you feel during a specific session.
Contemplation is a holistic process. It is not merely a spiritual practice that is limited to a specific time and day in a ritualized form. It is a mindset that is created by your full engagement with your true self in Christ. In contemplation, you learn to be with that true self. After contemplation, you take that self with you into the world.
For Further Reading:
Keating, Thomas. Intimacy with God. New York: Crossroad, 1994.
Keating, Thomas. Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Contemplation. New York: Crossroads, 1992.
Keating, Thomas. Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. New York: Continuum, 2002.
McGinn, Bernard. The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.
McGinn, Bernard. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1994.
McGinn, Bernard. The Flowering of Mysticism. New York: Crossroads, 1998
Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism. New York: Image Books, 1990.