Engaging the Risks of Contemplative Practice

Across all great spiritual traditions, there are warnings about risks in contemplative practices. This article explores some of those risks and associated problems, all of which I have personally experienced to some extent.

The Problem of Results

I’ll begin approaching this issue from the observation that each of us has a tendency to judge some particular kind of experience as especially meaningful or rewarding, and so we can naturally focus our efforts on contemplative practices that we believe improve our chances of having such experiences, our metaphorical wages.  However, because very few practices have a 100% return of the desired results, the effect of partial reinforcement can push us toward a kind of addiction in which we feel compelled to try harder and harder to get the high, no matter what the cost.  In effect, we run the risk of our practice becoming a drug that we use to attain our particular favorite high. Casinos profit obscenely from this phenomenon, and so do some people in the spirituality/religion business, but I digress.

From this point, let’s consider different categories for experiences and practices people commonly consider meaningful or rewarding in their spiritual lives.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a good starting place and you are encouraged to add some ideas of your own.  It will probably be fairly easy for you to look at the list and pick out a few things at each end of your own like/dislike scale.

Intellectual – These experiences are about the discovery, acquisition, processing and communication of information, ideas, and insight.  Along with such effects through the usual academic pursuits, this category would include those from all forms of analytical, theoretical, and speculative thinking, as well as from visions and related psychic experiences.

Social – These experiences are dependent upon relationship with other human beings, and involve themes of acceptance, belonging, support, roles and responsibilities, status, esteem and power.

Physical – This category involves increased or decreased sensory stimulation.  Nature, art, ritual, ceremony, service to others, dietary observances, exercise, sex, austerities, and the bodily aspects of meditation and prayer all have relevance.

Emotional – Here we are speaking of heightened or lessened feelings, such as pleasure, pain, comfort, discomfort, satisfaction, frustration, excitement, sadness, happiness, anger, peace, confidence, anxiety, fear, release of tension, relief from boredom, and so on.

It’s apparent that these categories aren’t completely discrete from each other; they are interconnected.   In considering that interconnectedness, you might have already noticed how often the emotional category serves as the final arbiter of our choices.  We can contrive lots of rationalizations and justifications for pursuing one thing more than another, but the deeper we look the clearer we see that we’re more likely to follow through with something if we believe it promises some sort of emotional satisfaction for ourselves, whether it is comfort in having done the “right” thing or even a kind of masochistic satisfaction.  Even the continuation or cessation of our own physical lives is subject to this dynamic.

It’s not my intention to encourage self-flagellation about our very deep and powerful tendencies to serve ourselves.  I am convinced that emotional self-interest is an inextricable part of human nature, and any attempt to pretend otherwise only leads deeper into a life of unhealthy illusion.  These observations are instead made primarily to point out some of the most crucial dynamics leading to imbalance, disharmony, and fragmentation in our souls.  Likewise, they suggest that our choices about contemplative practice can actually contribute more to psychospiritual dysfunction than to wellbeing, even when they feel very good.

The Problem of Discipline

With regard to discipline, in observing my own practice and the practice of others, it’s obvious that consistency and persistence can be huge challenges. Quite frankly, I believe a large part of this problem is our wanting easy, low-cost, instant gratification. It might be a little reductionist, but it sometimes seems to me that we regard contemplative practice more like a form of entertainment than a way to greater awareness, wholeness, integration, and depth of being in ourselves, in relationship with God, and in our presence in this world.  Many of us also want our experiences to be intellectually or emotionally profound, and perhaps even socially or materially tangible.  Any practice that doesn’t seem to quickly produce such fruit can quickly be judged as unproductive and worthless, and then we flit off to something different; we can also imagine ourselves as having already “advanced” beyond the need for that practice.  It’s so easy to ignore how often the great saints and sages have asserted the value of enduring commitment to the most basic practices.  My personal observation is that it’s often in persisting through boredom with a contemplative practice that we begin to gain the most significant benefits, subtle though they may be.

The Problem of Discernment

Here we are beginning to consider how confusion about the value of experiences can impair discernment about the value of a practice.  A major element of such confusion is assuming that the value of an experience, and therefore the practice that facilitated it, is measured by the magnitude of its immediate impression upon our conscious minds. Another aspect of this confusion is in taking an extraordinary experience too literally; there are countless stories of visionaries who have brought horrible suffering to themselves and others because of knee-jerk reactions to their own inner experiences. For example, strong desires can lead to mistaking an experience as a direct contact with something that the experience actually only represents.  More specifically, a flash of light experienced in the depths of meditation may reveal something to us about the presence and action of Spirit, but it does not necessarily mean that the light was the appearance of a particular spiritual being.  Similarly, just as the on-screen image of a movie actor is not the actual character portrayed, or even the actual actor, so too can dreams and visions about other beings be far removed from actual contact with them.  Even the images of these words are not the actual forms on the screen, let alone the actual thoughts in my mind, but are your mind’s perception of the words and the thoughts behind them.  Another potential confusion is taking the magnitude, frequency or total number of one’s experiences as an unquestionable sign of spiritual “progress.” Such an attitude is dangerously self-aggrandizing and a highly volatile fuel for wish-fulfilling delusions.

Mediating the Risk-Benefit Problems

So, is there some way to minimize these risks without turning contemplative practice into nothing but a heartless drudgery or abandoning it all together?

One generally useful guideline found is to carefully attend to the overall integration and harmony of the psyche’s different aspects and functions. Of course, this guideline is itself based upon a very deep, broad and persistent practice of honest self-awareness and caring self-acceptance.  Said another way, it is the practice of being lovingly present with oneself, and thus becoming increasingly aware of the very fluid interconnectedness of everything within us – head, heart, and gut.

Along with this practice of presence, all the great spiritual traditions recommend the mindfulness and application of certain virtues.  In Masonry we traditionally rely on the Four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice – and the Three Theological Virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (from caritas, spiritual love).  But it’s very important to understand that the practice of the virtues is not about forcing one’s external behaviors to conform to some predetermined model of perfection.  The object here is not to build up some new external facade of perfection in the place of being more consciously whole; in fact, when rightly understood, the virtues are first and foremost internal processes. When incorporated with the practice of loving self-presence, they shed significant light on the ways one is at odds with oneself, suffering from psychic fragmentation and compartmentalization, while also pointing out paths toward greater integration and harmony.

A third recommendation is to seek companionship and mentoring from others engaged in contemplative practice. While it is often advisable to avoid making one’s contemplative practices a topic of ordinary conversation, there are significant benefits in comparing notes with others seriously engaged in work similar to ours. This is especially true with people who not only have more experience with the work, but also impress us as having grown wiser and more loving in the process.

Being more fully present with ourselves, the checks and balances of the virtues, and the company of fellow practitioners don’t provide a foolproof guarantee that we won’t make mistakes, yet they can reduce the risks in making them.  When we do make mistakes, these guidelines can help us lovingly embrace them as learning opportunities and thus become even more meaningful experiences in our spiritual lives.  Beyond these very significant benefits, they may also facilitate a deepening awareness of something in ourselves and our relationships other than thinking, feeling, sensing, and doing – something quiet and still, and at first seemingly tiny and insignificant, yet more vast and powerful than we can comprehend, let alone control. Awareness of this perplexing presence can be fascinating and frightening – fascinating in its penetration into a very deep mystery of our being, and frightening in our awareness of the comparative smallness and powerlessness of that part of us we most often identify as “me.”


With contemplative practice, like the rest of life, let’s acknowledge that there is no way to totally eliminate risk; even in retreating to avoid some risks we fate ourselves to take others.

So the question I’ll leave you with is this: What risks do Faith, Hope and Love call upon you to take?

This article was originally created for The Laudable Pursuit and can be found at the link below:

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