Monks on a mountain with temples in background

The contemplative life

In Coaching, Counselling and Personal Development by Michael LewinLeave a Comment

I used to think that a contemplative life belonged to monks, nuns, and those living in silent orders in remote places far away from the ‘real’ world. I know better now.


“Contemplation is life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being.” [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation]

There was once a time when I would have struggled with the idea of ‘contemplation’. For me, it had too many religious connotations that seemed strange and bewildering – touching on esoteric. I very much saw it as relating to contemplative lifestyles that belonged to monks, nuns, and others who were pursuing a life of the renunciant, often in silent orders in remote places far away from the ‘real’ world. To me this was a denial of life; a wasted opportunity to fully engage with its dynamic. Life was there for me to live fully self-directionally, to achieve all the goals I had set myself, and that was the package I bought into. I neither knew nor wanted to know anything else. While I pursued what I thought would empower me in the materialistic world, my life seemed to have clarity and certainty.

I know better now…

I discover contemplation

My life was coursing in the direction I set and all was right with the world until one day, adversity paid me a visit. I didn’t see it coming and was devastated by its impact. I hadn’t expected a big change of direction at this juncture in my life, and yet here I was, powerless to stop it. In time I gradually came around to accepting the challenge of fundamental change. This took me deeper into understanding and reconciliation.

At this vulnerable time I started reading the works of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton and become inspired by his journey and what he had to say, especially about contemplation. Merton wrote about his experience living in New York City as a post-graduate student enjoying all the fruits that this life could offer but growing increasingly disillusioned with this materialistic existence – what he would later describe as a hedonist lifestyle. On feeling a deep calling to join a religious order he gained entry into the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky where he lived for 27 years until his untimely death at age 53.

Merton had an undoubted special gift for writing and was well received, both within the Catholic Church and beyond. Eventually his writing became recognised as some of the most profound spiritual works of the twentieth century. Of the many rich subjects Merton explored, it was contemplation that most inspired me. In a totally unexpected way, it took me deeper into myself. For the first time I became relaxed, meditative, and found an inner peace that I had never known before.

What is contemplation?

“Contemplation cannot be taught. It cannot even be clearly explained. It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized. The more objectively and scientifically one tries to analyse it, the more he empties it of its real content, for this experience is beyond the reach of verbalization and of rationalization….” [Thomas Merton, ibid]

The process of becoming contemplative

My contemplation journey has been greatly influenced by some key elements. They are:

  1. Reading 

My slow, attentive, mindful reading helped me make a profound connection with Merton’s work. I felt a strong desire to take my time, slowly savouring every word. This was in contrast to my normal reading pace, which was fast, almost scan-like, but because I wanted to pay honour to what he was saying I somehow slowed down. In the Benedictine tradition, monks undertake Lectio Divina (meditative reading of the scriptures) to deepen and refresh their understanding and comprehension. This is something I have tried to develop in my reading of special, significant works that incorporate literature , poetry, and the arts in general.

  1. Writing

Unexpectedly, many years ago, I took up writing and found it a great source of comfort. Spending time on my own in a thoughtful presence somehow resonated with me and allowed me a chance to explore my deeper feelings, to give them a voice. Since then, writing has become a daily practice that relaxes me and enables me to express that which I need to express.

  1. Solitude

I found solitude to be an essential prerequisite to supporting any contemplative period. Time alone in silence, preferably in natural surroundings, became a respite for me away from the busy urban life I was leading. It became precious time to me, a time of repose and restfulness where I could disconnect from the frantic everyday routine of urban living and go deeper into thought and reflection. I found this relaxing, calming, and most of all, healing.

  1. Detoxing from the media

One thing I found surprising at this time was my ability to disengage more from the media. I’ve always had a keen interest in politics and current affairs, but too often this swallowed up my attention. I increasingly felt that I might be ‘overdosing’ and, with negative consequences. I made a decision just to take in the bare essentials.

Fairly soon I became much more positive and less liable to get ensnarled and angry over some political matter. Social media and devices keep us informed about the news 24/7, but all this can increase our chances of reaching overload (not to mention alienation), thus removing the opportunity to seek deeper truths within ourselves.

Merton mentioned in a number of his letters that he rarely read newspapers and never watched TV. The sanctity of his monastery and the sanctity of his own mind meant that he had to distance himself from the media overload that inevitably serves up biased and inconsequential ‘facts’ for our daily consumption.

  1. Retreats

To deepen the contemplative process I have, in the past, undertaken retreats. This is a good opportunity to get away from everything and spend some time in surroundings that are more conducive to opening up richer thought processes. Even when undertaking just day trips in the country, I have managed to mentally reach calmer waters; relaxing my mind from its tendency for habitual chatter.

  1. Meditation practice 

Many years ago I became involved with a number of Buddhist groups and started meditating with them in set sessions. Being part of a group (a ‘sangha’) was of great benefit to me. I had previously meditated on my own but what I found was that in a group setting I came to deepen my practice. I became much more relaxed, more able to lengthen the process, and much more able to reach some inner peace and calm with the emergence of fresh insight.

  1. Active contemplation

Often, in the pursuits of some activities, certain moments arise when we forget all about our normal, everyday preoccupations and enter a different ‘time zone’, a different ‘space’ where we enter a phase of self-forgetfulness. Art and craft activities and physical pursuits like walking and gardening can all induce this. The American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written extensively about this process of flow. His work highlights the degree to which we can become completely immersed and absorbed, in an energised and focused way, when undertaking certain activities. This, he argues, increases feelings of well-being and happiness.

Although contemplation can reap a rich harvest, in many ways it can be considered a gift, not something we can enforce despite all our best efforts and attempts. In my experience when it appears it creeps up slowly, unannounced and unexpected and as soon as we acknowledge its presence, it’s gone, leaving only a trace.

 The benefits of a contemplative life

What then are the benefits of pursuing this elusive thing that we label ‘contemplation’?

In my experience, in the initial stages there is the benefit of securing relaxation, inner calm, and peace that can mysteriously start to clear away our everyday preoccupations to leave a fresh opening for us to explore. It is here that I have found a physiological change taking place. My body is inhabited in a different, more pleasant way. A certain slowness of actions starts to emerge and I become more focused on what I’m doing in the moment to the exclusion of all else. Any one task feels like an all-consuming affair that I should attend to fully, leaving no space left for distractions or competition.

The experience has, in the past, taught me profound personal truths. First of all, when my mind is still and calm there is a corresponding relaxation in the body. The two somehow systematically synchronise into a harmonious whole.

Secondly, when contemplation is deepened, over time I find I have a number of ‘eureka’ moments, and certain problems or concerns that may preoccupy me are somehow resolved. I find that I’m in a space where a different mental perspective starts to surface, bringing with it certain insights and solutions. This apparent independence of detachment, if that is what I can call it, seems to summon up a fresh level perception that supports me in new appraisals without me ever being consciously aware that I was in anyway engaged with the process.

Finally, and very importantly, when prolonged, this process can lead to greater awareness. Our normal habitual thinking, which can border, at times, on the anxious if not neurotic, is slowly dissipated and released to allow for a much calmer state to develop. The seed-bed conditions that have been prepared in the seven practices above will sustain and nourish further growth that can flourish into quite profound experiences or ‘epiphanies’. This will open us up to new territory and new landscapes of thinking and being.

No going back

Merton’s contemplative life was a struggle at times, full of slips and mishaps, which he himself duly acknowledges in his writing. He kept his faith and remained loyal throughout, knowing that it was the only life he could lead. There was no going back; his quest remained constant: to discover the truth of who he was and what his place was in the world. This journey was never going to be easy, but he would penetrate the depths and share in his immense collection of writings the wisdom he found, which is still of great pertinence and relevance to us today.

“Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from anguish or from doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many questions in the depths of the heart like wounds that cannot stop bleeding. For every gain in deep certitude there is a corresponding growth of superficial ‘doubt.’ This doubt is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious ‘faith’ of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.“ [Merton, ibid]

Michael Lewin is presently engaged in simplifying his life. His writing practice continues to guide, teach, support and nourish him. His book, ‘Buddhist reflections on death, dying and bereavement’ was published recently.

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