What I Talk About When I Talk About Contemplative Practice
There are lots of names and ways to enter into contemplative practice.
Unity and Oneness
Connecting to divine Love
The first time I meditated I was a senior in college, taking a yoga class to fill an elective. The class met in the rec center’s golf studio, a room painted totally—floor, ceiling, and walls—the verdant shade of the Green Monster at Fenway Park. Long swaths of black nets draped the room to make cages for golfers practicing their swings, but they reminded me of fishing nets or trapeze artists’ safety nets.
My yoga instructor was patient and calm. Dozens of times each class she’d remind us, “Observe without judging.” She’d ask us to stand on one leg in tree pose, and when we inevitably toppled, she’d say, “Observe without judging.” She’d instruct us to cross one leg in half-pigeon pose, and let our other leg release back behind us in a straight line while our thighs burned: “Observe without judging.” She’d guide us through alternate nostril breathing as we sat cross-legged: “Observe without judging.”
The only thing that seemed to come out of those seated meditation sessions were knots in my shoulders and back that lit up in pain the longer I sat. There must be something wrong with me, I thought. I don’t know how to do this. I didn’t just observe, I judged.
It wasn’t until 10 years later when I ended up at a Quaker meeting that I discovered the true power of contemplative practice. Quakers described their worship as “waiting in expectant silence.” By becoming very still and quiet, these Friends realized they could open a channel to receive spiritual wisdom. They were humble about it, though. Sometimes communication got garbled. Sometimes things got in the way of the transmission, but there was never any judgement about it. They also sat in comfortable, straight-backed chairs, which helped too.
Contemplative practice is deeply listening, openly accepting the moment exactly as it is. It’s noticing and letting go of anything except the present. It’s practicing presence—being fully present with myself and all that I experience as it is. And it’s never perfect. When I expect it to be, I miss the point.
A few months after I started regularly attending the Broadmead Friends’ meeting in Toledo, Ohio, we had a special meeting for worship—our regular meeting house was booked—so we held silent worship at the lodge in the Wintergarden Nature Preserve. It felt a summer camp mess hall, except that it was winter. Picture windows wrapped around the meeting room, and the intricate forks of tree branches surrounded us, like patient sentries, watching and waiting with us too in the silence (Another attribute of contemplative practice is its ability to reveal my connection to all living things).
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash
I don’t remember if I received a message that day, or if I grew frustrated because my mind kept wandering, but I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Greg after the meeting. In his late 30s, Greg and his wife Diane, were younger than most members. Greg had a boyish crew cut that needed a trim, and he was very tall.
“The thing about silent worship,” he told me after the meeting, “is it’s an entirely experiential practice.” I nodded as I craned my neck up to meet his eyes, while outside the window fat snowflakes tumbled silently from the sky. “As a spiritual being you are capable of directly experiencing the Spirit and no one can invalidate that experience. It is yours. It is your truth. You are a conduit.”
That’s where writing and practicing contemplation merge for me. When I write, I realize I’m a conduit, too, channeling the truth of my experience into words that make stories and paint images in my readers’ minds. I just have to get quiet enough to listen first, then I have something worth saying.
Where in your life is it the hardest for you to observe without judging?
What noise do you have in your life that you’d like eliminate?
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