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Action and Contemplation

 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  Ephesian 2:8-10

When we speak of a contemplative life, some people mistake that to mean a life of inactivity, of continuous meditation, or one of staring aimlessly into empty space. While some who consider themselves contemplative may follow such a path, an effective contemplative life is one of action guided by contemplation. The two paths are not contradictory; they are complimentary. In biblical terms, contemplation helps to build our faith, and action produces our works. The former is a type of prayerful understanding, and the latter refers to active doing. Ephesians 2 states that we are saved by faith and that faith is a gift of God so we cannot take personal credit for it. A contemplative life does not create faith, but it illuminates and strengthens the God-given faith already present in each of us. Even works, according to this passage, are not cause for arrogance. God created us for good works to be the product of our lives. They are not a way to earn God’s favor but are a natural expression of who we are. Good works grow out of faith, and right action grows out of contemplation.

Whether we consciously chose it or not, our lives are a combination of action and contemplation. Even monks who choose a life of solitude and silence have jobs around the monastery they must accomplish. We only differ by degrees. The typical Western life tilts heavily to the action-side of the scale, largely neglecting a contemplative focus. The downside of this pattern is that our actions tend to become unconscious reactions to whatever we experience, as opposed to consciously determined actions that have a plan and purpose behind them.

Yet, if we believe contemplation is only about planning and purpose, we deceive ourselves. Contemplation is about aligning ourselves and our actions to the unique expression of God we were created to become. It is about applying a holistic knowledge to our lives, utilizing the totality of our God-given centers of intelligence. Such knowledge develops from information collected by our heart, body, and mind. While it is true that contemplation is largely an intellectual exercise, it is only effective to the extent it is informed and guided from the entirety of our being. Heart knowledge is emotional intelligence. It derives information from emotions present in the environment. Head knowledge comes from thinking and processing what we experience.

Bodily knowledge is knowledge from the senses – what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell. For most of us, this is our least developed intelligence center. Our body is the only intelligence center that keeps us grounded in the present moment. When we focus on information coming through our senses, we are in the moment. The type of information received from the body is intuition. We know something to be true, but there is little emotional or intellectual backing for it. Our head and heart centers easily fall prey to past longings and regrets, or future worries and anticipations, removing us from the moment. Each center of intelligence takes in, processes, and responds to information from the environment in unique ways. People in close relationship often misunderstand each other because their primary centers of intelligence process and respond to the same environment in different ways. One is not better or smarter than the others, only different. Each center by itself, however, provides only part of the truth – a partial glimpse of reality – and limits the range of responses we are likely to consider.

There is a saying among carpenters, “Measure twice, cut once.” It means to gather and check one’s sources of information before taking an action that may be difficult or impossible to undo. A practical contemplative life receives information from all centers of intelligence as it considers the most effective action to take. Awakening our lesser utilized centers is part of what contemplative practice seeks to accomplish. Contemplative knowing is holistic knowledge that helps assure the actions we take will be consistent with our status as God’s children. Contemplation and action are two sides of the same coin, given to us by God for the purpose of accomplishing God’s good work.

This is the 3rd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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Knowledge vs Experience

 Should the wise answer with windy knowledge, and fill themselves with the east wind? Should they argue in unprofitable talk, or in words with which they can do no good?        Job 15:2-3

I am a life-long lover of knowledge and learning. There are usually several books on my nightstand and other reading materials scattered throughout the house with which I actively engage. My interest in the spiritual nature of creation has dominated my curiosity since early adulthood. I am not as interested in organized religion as much as in the connection between spirit and body, the point where the tangible and visible merges into the ethereal and invisible. That point seems to be a nexus from which magic arises.

A thirst for knowledge in the written word, however, cannot provide the experience the words describe. By overly focusing on head knowledge, we neglect our other two centers of intelligence – the heart and the body. It is common to focus on one of the three and have only a partial life experience because of it. Too often, I anchor myself to head knowledge at the expense of the rich, emotional life of the heart and the visceral, sensual life of the body. I reach a point where my learning stagnates. For a well-rounded life experience, I know I need also to feed my heart and body, and book-knowledge alone cannot make that happen. This manifests in modern-day religion when we confuse God’s living, dynamic Word with the words written in the Bible and other spiritual texts. If we do not allow God’s Word to permeate our mind and heart and body, we come to know the words on the page but never the living experience the words describe.

The anonymous 14th Century mystic and author of The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote, “I encourage you, then, to make experience, not knowledge, your aim. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but this humble feeling never lies to you.1” This author makes a not-so-subtle accusation that knowledge lies to us, but experience does not. It is not that knowledge provides something that is not true, but rather that head knowledge only provides part of the truth. We miss a lot when we live in our heads. One illustration is the difference between reading about the fragrance of a rose and actually holding the thorny stem between our fingers and smelling the flower. The former is only a description of the actual experience – perhaps not a lie, but certainly not the whole truth. There is another slap in the face to knowledge-obsessed folks like me from this author: “Knowledge leads to arrogance.” This is illustrated in the passage from Job. We can actually obtain an intellectual grasp of written materials, so we feel we have mastered them, that we own them, that we know everything about them. In reality, we cannot master, own, or know much about anything in its essence. The more we experientially learn about something or someone at its core, the more we realize there is actually very little we can put into words. One of my teachers, Jim Finley, says that we can say a lot about someone we do not know well. But once we’ve known someone for a very long time we do not know what to say about them. Words cannot contain such knowledge. Deep and sustained experiences humble us.

The fact is that head knowledge is a collection of words, and words are metaphors with no immediate contact with reality. Words represent something, but they are not the thing itself. While they are important and necessary, words provide only partial truths. Head knowledge without heart or body knowledge is an intellectual exercise subject to becoming shallow and deceptive. Bodily experience without intellectual context or loving guidance from the heart can lead to all sorts of heathen, abusive tendencies. Living from the heart without intellectual context or bodily grounding leaves us in emotional turmoil, paralyzed by the seeming insensitivity of the world around us. A contemplative life actively works toward the integration of mind, body, and heart.

A contemplative life, then, is a balanced life. It experiences what is with the head, heart, and body, requiring that we sometimes pause to allow one or more of the intelligence centers to catch up. In my case, my head jumps ahead of my heart and body when I am not intentional about being present with the entirety of my being. The purpose, meaning, and beauty of human incarnation is found in the total experience.

This is the 2nd in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

[1] The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counsel, trans. Carmen Acevedo Butcher (Shambhala: 2009), 224-225.

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