Lotus of the Heart > Path of Spirit > Contemplative Living


The Wisdom of the Contemplative Life

Oct 5, 2021

Saying For Today: When we stop, become quiet, and bring awareness to this moment, space opens up. In the spaciousness, presence and wisdom arise.

Winterberries Hanging Out Together

Winterberries Hanging Out Together

First, many of us live in what could be called cultures of action addiction. This does not apply to how much action occurs but the clinging to action. One may cling to action in doing little or much. In clinging to action, there is avoidance. It is sticky. If we cannot not act, we can ask, "What am I running from?" Yet, this habit energy may be, also, due to conditioning. Regardless, it is an unhealthy attachment, limiting receptivity to life, for the habitual, mindless rush closes up the space that would allow the inflow of fresh life. Such tyranny of action controls one, and that means one becomes its captive. I have referred to this elsewhere as "the tyranny of busyness."

Rather than clinging to action, we want action to flow through us; we want to flow through action. We want to be one with action, so there is no separation between self and act. In this is harmony, and joy. Then, there is a fresh atmosphere in which self and action together arise.

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The Catholic Church has a history of referring to two ways of spiritual life: the contemplative (inner), the active (outer). This is partly true, but not entirely. These ways are two orientations, and each includes the other. Likewise, it has often valued the contemplative, practiced by few, primarily monastics, as superior, even as it made virginity a superior lifestyle to one of sexual engagement. This is an error of dualistic thinking. These ways of life inter-are, so it is a matter of orientation, not an exclusion of the other. The other is not the opposite, it is complementary.

The contemplative needs the active, and the active needs the contemplative, and neither is superior. The contemplative will be challenged to express the fruit of solitude in service to others. Otherwise, she will experience an unhealthy attachment to inwardness - this has been humorously referred to as "navel-gazing." Her solitude will become stale, if not simply sentimental self-bathing. The active will be challenged to pull away to go within, so her work will arise from her center. If she does not go within regularly, she will attach to the outer life, her work losing the vitality and freshness that arises only from within. Then, even the religious becomes more a humanist in her good works for others. Both the contemplative life and active life are to arise from the center, or Center, however one images that Reality. The Center is the Life and Vitality of each.

Yet, below, I somewhat defend the contemplative life, for it has been misunderstood so and mostly not recognized as a valid way to live, including by much of the religious culture. We postmodernists are enamored by and bound to busyness. This is a detriment to spiritual life and has consequences for our mental and physical well-being, as well as our relationships. We need the wisdom of the contemplative way as a corrective to the imbalance we are caught in, an over-active lifestyle leading to shallowness and away from depth, from spirit to ego - even if that ego is doing a lot of good for others.

And besides, it is a wrong done to others to use them to avoid ourselves. In solitude and silence, we see ourselves, so that we may see ourselves in others. If we cannot be present alone with ourselves, how can we respect the inborn aloneness of the other?

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A Gospel Story: Gospel of Luke 10.38-42
The 'Inhospitable' Sister

Now, as they walked on, Jesus entered a village. A woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary, who continued sitting at the teacher's feet and listening to his teaching. This while Martha was distracted with all the meal preparations. So, Martha approached Jesus and said, "Teacher, do you not care how my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her, then, to help me." Yet, the teacher answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about much, while one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken from her."

A Zen Story
The 'Useless' Father

A farmer got so old that he could not work the fields. He would spend the day sitting on the porch. His son, doing the farmwork, would look up from time to time and see his father there. "He's of no use anymore," the son mused, "he doesn't do anything!"

One day, the son got so frustrated that he built a wood coffin, dragged it over to the porch, and told his father to get in it. Without saying anything, the father got inside. After closing the lid, the son dragged the coffin to a cliff at the edge of the farm. As he neared the drop, he heard a light tapping on the lid. He opened it. Lying peacefully, the father looked up at his son. "I know you're going to throw me over the cliff. Before you do, may I recommend something?" "What is it?" asked his son. "Throw me over the cliff, if you like, but save this wood coffin. Your children might need to use it."

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The Gospel and Zen stories present us with the question of worth and usefulness. What does it mean to be useful? Worthy? In surroundings that define our worth by what we do and how much we do, is such a sane perspective? Is there some wisdom in the aphorism, "Haste makes waste"? If so, there is a lot of scrap in a culture that is spinning on the merry-go-round of do and do-goodism - it does not make for merry at all. Likewise, such busyness is how we hide from ourselves, becoming like machines moving robotically from task to task, complaining but addicted like victims of dis-ease we keep choosing and chasing.

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The Gospel story does not fit in a hurried and harried culture. This means we really need to listen closely to it.

To Martha, Mary is neglecting the sacred duty of hospitality. Mary is not sharing in meal preparation for the esteemed rabbi and his students. Martha is left to do it all alone. According to custom, Mary's non-action is a demonstration of inexcusable insensitivity. Hospitality is a sacred practice in the culture. Women prepare the meal. It seems so sensible for Mary to help and so not right for her not to help that Martha crosses the line in telling Jesus what to do - "Make Mary get in the kitchen!"

Jesus surprises Martha. He breaks with tradition. The teacher concludes Mary is engaged in something more important than what her older sister is doing in the kitchen. In Buddhist terms, Mary's non-action is the more important action. Those in Buddhist Dzogchen speak of "hanging loose." Mary is hanging loose, while Martha is hurrying and scurrying, tied up in knots.

Another Buddhist reference pertaining to this Gospel story is "deep listening." Here, you listen with your whole being, and you listen to hear what is not merely on the surface. With our entire being, we listen to the entire being of the other. It is a form of communion.

We may hear someone, but by slowing down, there is space to listen more deeply. Recently, I was invited by a man to speak with him online. He wanted to inquire about my spiritual path. I had prepared to sit and give him full attention. When we connected virtually, he was driving. We could not be together in a manner deserving of the matter he wanted to inquire about. I had no interest in speaking with him again. If we cannot stop to listen deeply to someone, we are too busy. Martha was too busy preparing fodder for the body. Mary was sitting at the teacher's feet, receiving the Bread of Life for the spirit. - In fact, the words "her part" can read "her portion" (ESV) and refer to spiritual nurture. So, Jesus is serving Mary wisdom-food, and it is lasting, while material food passes through and is lost from us. - Mary provides a look at deep listening. She has chosen space to be fully present with the teacher, Jesus. When we stop, become quiet, and bring awareness to this moment, space opens up. In the spaciousness, presence and wisdom arise.

Jesus is not saying Martha preparing meals is wrong. He is saying that at the moment, not preparing a meal but sitting quietly, listening is what would be best for Martha to do. Martha is seeing the moment through her past conditioning. Mary is discerning the need for the present. Mary steps out of what her entire past had prepared her to do, and she does not forfeit this precious opportunity.

There is a time to get work done, and there is a time to stop, be quiet, and open the mind and heart. Those who are over-busy need quieter, contemplative persons to be signs of the importance of this stopping, relaxing, deep seeing and deep listening, and simply being.

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Sometimes, there is work more important than getting the job done. Relaxing task orientation gives space to return home to oneself, be present to oneself and others, and remind oneself that we are not human doings but human beings.

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In the Zen story, the son decided his dad was useless and, so, disposable. This reflects how many view those who live a contemplative path in an outward-focused, rush-rush culture. I speak from experience in such a society, receiving misunderstanding and usually total lack of interest, while I have lived a vowed contemplative life for the last 25 years. The contemplative life is, in some sense, a useless life - wonderfully so. And, so, it is very useful.

I realize I do not fit in the society I live in. I see my life has much value in its own quiet way. I know the society I live in needs persons walking the path I have chosen - not necessarily vowed as I am but integrating the wisdom of a contemplative, mindful life into everyday life. It appears many about me are unable to enjoy breathing consciously, walking and eating mindfully, cherishing the moment, and listening and seeing others with patience and silence. This does not mean my way of life is the only right way to live. Still, it is a path and highly underappreciated but much needed as a sign of our need for regular silence and solitude, prayer, mindful breathing, heartful listening, and gentle seeing, along with the joy of just-being.

If your spiritual path is contemplative, I encourage you to grow in it. Live from within. Find ways to apply it in serving others through kindness and compassion. If your way is active, I urge you to integrate the wisdom of the contemplative way into your daily life; you will be glad you did, for your work and relationships will be enhanced thereby.

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* Brian K. Wilcox, 2021

*Brian's book, An Ache for Union: Poems on Oneness with God through Love, can be ordered through major online booksellers or the publisher AuthorHouse. The book consists of poems based on wisdom traditions, predominantly Christian, Buddhist, and Sufi, with extensive notes on the poetry's teachings and imagery.


Lotus of the Heart > Path of Spirit > Contemplative Living

©Brian Wilcox 2021