Patterns in Contemplative Life, Part 2: Labor and Refreshment

In Part 1 of this series, I spoke about responding to perceived resistance to our practice from the world around us. One of the implicit factors in that reflection was the need to have a discipline in contemplative life, or commitment to a routine with a certain amount of frequency, duration, and consistency in one’s contemplative sessions. In this article, I draw on Masonic ideas of labor and refreshment to address some issues with discipline and routine, including certain attitudes that may or may not be helpful.

Every serious teacher of contemplative practice asserts the value of such discipline, and every sincere practitioner has some sense of what seems ideal to them. Commonly, the expectation is for at least one session every day, with some minimum amount of time spent doing a particular practice. Depending upon the system or tradition in which one practices, there may also be an understanding that with progress there should generally be an increase in frequency and duration of sessions.

So far so good. Contemplative practices such as meditation, mindfulness, and devotional ritual are like anything else that requires actual experience for the refinement of skills and understanding. If you want to be a good dancer, musician, painter, boxer, surgeon, or stonemason, then you have to work at it; only through labor will you more fully realize and actualize your potentials.

These analogies can be very helpful for a number of reasons. First, they illustrate that you are not likely to jump into any contemplative practice and immediately experience the kinds of states or effects known by journeyman practitioners, let alone seasoned masters. Second, they allude to the importance of focus in one’s work. For example, it might be natural to be simultaneously interested in boxing, surgery, and stonemasonry, but it would be nearly impossible to do justice to any one of them by flitting back and forth between them. Priorities must be established if noteworthy progress is to be made in any art, craft, or science. Third, they suggest the invaluable benefits of working with the counsel of someone who already has a considerable amount of experience and understanding with the practices you wish to engage. Books and audiovisual media can be helpful, but, due to the complexity of real-world application and individual differences, there is no substitute for spontaneous human interaction. Fourth, they help communicate that the work has ups and downs, periods of apparent progress contrasting with times that seem like plateaus or even regressions, and phases of enthusiasm and excitement versus others of tedium and boredom.

Noting all these parallels with more ordinary labors can sometimes be discouraging. Such a reaction can relate to the extent that a desire for escapism and/or entertainment are among one’s motivations for contemplative practice. I suspect those motives are present for most people to some extent; in my experience, becoming more aware of them and others is always part of the work. These analogies can also be discouraging because we perceive our lives to already be filled with demands on our time and energy. Under these circumstances, a committed practice can sound like just another thing to add to a crowded to-do list, and might raise the difficult decision of rearranging schedules and perhaps even sacrificing something. Without any judgment at all, it is easy to see why many people simply choose to not pursue a contemplative discipline.

There is also a particular attitude that can be a huge impediment to making a commitment to practice – all-or-nothing thinking. For one reason or another, people can get the idea and communicate it to others (intentionally or not), that if you aren’t willing to go all in with maximum devotion and discipline, then you shouldn’t even bother. Now, if one wishes to become a monastic or a hermit, then there is some reason for this belief, but that is not what Masonry calls us to do. We are to be workers in the ordinary world, and by working on ourselves in virtue and love we aim to become more beneficial to the world around us. It’s worth noting that the first tool we are given for that work is the 24-inch gauge, teaching us to manage our time wisely among three primary categories: (1) our usual vocations, (2) service to the Divine and others, and (3) rest and refreshment. Contemplative practice can be interwoven with all of those categories in different ways, but the idea of constantly sitting in meditation or prayer, or performing studies or ritual, is obviously far from what the lesson of this tool intends. Of course, the extreme example is already irrelevant for most us, yet we must each address the problem of balance in our lives and determine what a genuine commitment entails within our own contexts.

Just as the questions of frequency and duration of sessions call for a dose of realism, so does the matter of consistency over longer periods of time. Here again there is a kind of proscription for a truly committed practitioner to never miss a day, let alone a week, a month, or longer. Surely there are some individuals who have managed to structure their lives in ways that make it possible to rarely miss even one day, but it’s my experience that a majority of practitioners leading ordinary lives do indeed go through varying periods of less contemplative activity. Sometimes life throws unexpected obstacles in our way, and we have to adjust on the fly, recognizing that for some length of time our own values urge us to prioritize something else over contemplative practice. Other times, it may be that something internal is encouraging us to take a break, and perhaps for reasons we don’t fully understand, yet the urge is undeniable.

In any case, the idea of calling ourselves from contemplative labor to refreshment can be accompanied by feelings of fear, shame, and guilt. Indeed, such feelings are sometimes invoked by people attempting to motivate themselves or others. But my observation is that such tactics really are not very productive, and I wish more long-term practitioners would be more transparent about their own twists and turns with frequency, duration, and consistency. One benefit to such disclosures would be showing that all is not lost when one steps back for a while. Depending on the extent of the interruption, there will likely be some time needed to “get back in shape” upon returning to labor, but it will be possible to regain lost ground and begin again to make progress. In fact, I have witnessed with myself and others that a burst of progress can sometimes come on the heels of a hiatus. We’re complex multidimensional creatures, and sometimes there are dynamics occurring at deeper levels that we can’t consciously grasp until after they have outwardly manifested, if even then.

To conclude this article, here are some suggestions on how you can start, or restart, a commitment to a contemplative routine. Begin with something small, such as a single 5-minute break at roughly the same time every day. Rather than a specific time on the clock, seek a convenient moment like just after getting out of bed, just before going to bed, or immediately before or after one of your meals. For those few minutes, do a simple contemplative activity that has immediately tangible rewards, like relaxation, breathwork, chanting, or silent prayer. If noise around you is an issue, consider using earplugs or noise cancelling headphones with meditative instrumental music or white or pink noise. Another aid to consistent practice can be communicating with one or more people who also value contemplative routine, perhaps even meeting online for a weekly meditation together. Aside from these ideas, be creative and ask yourself how you might be successful at establishing contemplative practice as one of those things you do on most days, like taking a shower. No matter what, just keep trying in whatever way makes sense for you, even if it’s constantly shifting. Like taking care of your physical wellness and hygiene, you might miss some days of being intentional about it, but doing something more than nothing still has benefits. Finally, let yourself feel good about your effort, even if it’s less than you would prefer. Those positive feelings are good for you, and they can actually help you move toward greater fulfillment of your aspirations.