Thomas Merton is one of my mentors in living a contemplative life. So, I thought I’d begin with his thoughts as a springboard for coming up with contemplative questions for this unique moment in history, when we are quarantined in our homes (if we’re lucky enough to have a home). Merton said,
“Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that 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. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source.”
This quote covers it all. It’s easy to be contemplative when we have time and money, when our family is well and thriving, or we live in a beautiful place with access to nature. In these times, we experience wonder and awe, appreciate the sacredness of life, and see the beauty that’s always there to be found. It’s not as easy in a time like this, when the uncertainty of life is front and center, when fear arises and we’re disconnected physically from others. But Merton says that contemplation is when we’re fully awake to life itself, whatever that is. And how do we do that now? I always come back to this three step process: pause, focus, and connect.
I’m always encouraging the pause, that is, to slow down, even stop for a minute, and check in with your body – physical sensations and emotions. Most of us normally find this first step hard to do. It’s counter cultural to be still and silent and just listen. It’s “unproductive” although I’d argue that it’s not. Well, like it or not, we now find ourselves in a forced pause. What will we do with it?
Creative ideas and possibilities can emerge from pauses, even forced ones, even ones we don’t want. Think of this as an opportunity, not necessarily to complete something that’s been on the back burner (although that may be what you’re called to do) but to look at this moment and take the time to see and listen to how you’re called to respond. Here are some questions to consider with regard to using this time of pause.
What is your body telling you? What are you feeling?
How are you changing and growing as a result of this experience? (Tara Mohr)
What can I learn from this quarantine? (Paul at Contemplify)
What helps you to cope? Do more of that? What doesn’t? Do less of that.
What are 3 or 4 core, foundational practices for self-care? Schedule those. (Tara Mohr)
Who do I want to be on the other side of this pandemic? What do I need to practice to cultivate that intention? (Paul at Contemplify)
“There are degrees of attention: the glance, the cursory look, the look, the long look (self-forgetting, therefore contemplative).” ~ Thomas Merton
Pausing to check in with your body and what you’re feeling offers clarity as to where you need to focus your attention. This is the step where you check in with your inward thoughts and your outer focus. Here are some questions to consider.
Where is your attention going? Inwardly, this is your mental chatter – thoughts, opinions, judgments, etc. Outwardly, it has to do with people, activities, information gathering, etc.
Based on your answers above, what would you like to let go of or spend less time focusing on?
Can you turn your fear into love? (Practice Tara Brach’s RAIN meditation)
Where do you want your attention directed? Make sure your core practices are scheduled.
Who needs your help? This is where Merton’s long look (self-forgetting) comes in. By self-forgetting, Merton means adopting a “we” rather than “me” mentality.
How can geese help? I loved this New York Times article which shows how to focus closely on something in nature to get out of your own head and experience for awhile.
”I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.” ~ Thomas Merton
This quote from Merton describes an epiphany he once had at the corner of 4th and Walnut, in Louisville, Kentucky. Surrounded by people, he suddenly saw how everything and everyone is connected. What happens to one happens to the rest of us. In this final step, you begin to see in terms of the interrelatedness of everything around you. Once you’ve paused for clarity and directed your attention to what’s most important, what will emerge is a response appropriate to the time and particular to you. You’ll reach out and connect with heart. Here are some questions to consider.
How can you be of service? (Tara Mohr)
Can you reframe staying home as an act of love? (Will Kabat-Zinn via Ten Percent Happier)
How are you reaching out to family, friends, neighbours?
What do you have to offer in this special time?
How can you support small businesses, healthcare providers, and all others who provide essential services?
How will you live moving forward so that all people and your environment are properly cared for?
I hope, as a contemplative yourself, that you spend some time with these questions. I’d love to hear how you’re coping with these strange times and what questions were most meaningful for you. Also, I invite you to join us for 30 Days of Perception in April (see below).
Would you like to practice with a group?
In 30 Days of Perception, we first practice noticing everyday perceptions by working with bodily sensations, then we notice how our mind is working, and finally we connect from a heart level. Join us in April on Instagram (sharing is optional).
Note:There is a free option available for those who’ve taken the class before and/or money is tight this month. Just click on the appropriate button.