Contemplation for Busy Lives

Yesterday I rounded out my two-day/four-talk visit to Villanova with a lunchtime talk on Contemplation for Busy Lives and an afternoon address on Catholic Social Thought and Just Wage.

The lunchtime talk was informal, and allowed time for discussion and contemplative practice, but I began by talking about why making time in our busy lives for contemplation is important. There has been increasingly interest in mindfulness meditation for secular aims: mindfulness improves productivity and concentration, lowers blood pressure, etc. But my interest is in the value of contemplation for our spiritual growth.

I suggested three reasons it is imperative that we make time for silence in our lives. First, we need awareness to act with freedom. Viktor Frankl once said, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” I say Viktor Frankl, but that has always been a common Buddhist saying.

For many people, the idea that one can choose whether and how to respond to a stimulus is a radical one. We so often behave as if there is no choice, reacting automatically to whatever the stimulus is. But when we react without choice, we react without wisdom, and we react without the benefit of God’s grace. And we know the risk when that happens: How many times do we react automatically – particularly when the stimulus in question is something negative (for example, someone criticizing us or otherwise saying or doing something we don’t like), and then later wish we could have the reaction back? Part of the benefit of a regular prayer practice is that a habit of contemplation helps teach us that there is space between action and reaction. There is space for wisdom, for grace, for choice.

Second, we need reflection to be able to learn from our experience. We lead busy lives. We spend much of our day multitasking. And even if we do one thing at a time, we experience too many things, too many feelings, too much happens for us to process things as they are occurring. We need the time to reflect on our experience. To see where I noticed God. Where I didn’t. Where I acted with more or less freedom….compassion..widsom. Indeed, that is the primary goal of the Ignatian Examen, which has been part of my daily prayer for over a decade.

Finally, mutuality in our relationship with God means we need space to be able to hear God. At the heart of contemplation is the encounter with God/Holy One/Ground of being (whatever name you wish to use). In today’s lives, taking time out to noursih that mutual relationship is more more important than ever.

From there, we talked about how we organize our priorities and I made some suggestions for incorporating various practices into our daily lives. Fittingly, we ended by stopping our talking and sitting in the silence.