Patterns in Contemplative Life, Part 3: A Way of Being Versus a Thing for Doing

In Part 2 of this series, I mentioned the 24-inch Gauge and its relevance to cycles of labor and refreshment in contemplative practice. There are limits to that analogy beyond which some confusion might arise. For example, it might be easy to associate contemplative practice with only one or two categories of activity associated with this tool, rather than understand and pursue its applicability to all three: (1) our usual vocations, (2) service to the Divine and others, and (3) rest and refreshment. This may especially occur if one thinks of contemplative practice only as a particular set of activities to do during particular moments or situations.

One of the patterns I have observed among aspiring contemplatives is a process of realization that the greatest fulfillment of their hopes for contemplative practice comes with expanding it beyond the confines of times set aside for doing routine work, whether solitary or with a group. Whatever we seek – peace of mind, a richer experience of life, healthier relationships, transcendence of self, deeper awareness and participation in love, or communion with the Divine – our quest isn’t something we can completely fragment from the other parts of our lives. Just like the 24-inch Gauge, or lives are a continuous and interconnected unity, not a loosely held collection of separate unrelated pieces.

Note that the title of this series is about “contemplative life.” We’re talking about a way of being, not just something to do that’s added to an otherwise ordinary lifestyle (although that might be how we initially get things rolling). By comparison, our ritual makes it abundantly clear that Masonry is about far more than what happens in the lodge or among members of the Fraternity. The tenets and virtues of Masonry are meant to be integrated into how we think, how we manage our emotions, passions, and desires, how we treat others, and how we relate to the Divine; they are directed to every segment of the 24-inch Gauge and thus to every part of one’s 24-hour day. A Mason leading a contemplative life knows that every moment is an opportunity to actualize one or more of our Craft’s ideals.

To live this way is to both seek and radiate the light of wisdom in all that we do. According to a sadly too often neglected or forgotten charge at the opening of a lodge, “wisdom dwells with contemplation, there we must seek her.” Thus, to fulfill more of our potentials as Masons, contemplation should become more than something we do only in our private moments or in groups gathered to practice together. Furthermore, there is a dynamic relationship between (a) our times dedicated to meditation, study, or ritual and (b) how we interact with the world, the Divine, and our own selves in everything else we do. Our work in these two areas can and should support and refine each other.

So, let’s consider three contemplative practices that can be flexibly employed across many situations in our lives – mindfulness, prayerfulness, and reflection.

Mindfulness is about being more consciously present in whatever you are doing at a given moment, not just externally through your senses, but also internally with awareness of your body, emotions, and thoughts. It involves openness to experiencing what is actually happening as fully and clearly as possible, and a nonjudgmental acceptance of its reality. This is not to say that one never makes any judgments, but rather that we avoid making the kind of snap judgments that distort our perceptions, lead to misunderstandings, and produce poorly considered actions.

Prayerfulness is about openness to the Divine in the present moment. It begins with humbly acknowledging that one’s conscious personal awareness of self and the world is limited in scope, power, and intelligence. Prayerfulness is about remembering that we are always surrounded and interpenetrated by mystery, yet also constantly connected with parts of the soul that transcend the conscious sense of self, and that we are ever in communion with the Divine. Thus, prayerfulness keeps us open to the possibility of intuition, inspiration, and even revelation providing us with deeper awareness and understanding of any moment, its significance, and its potentials. It also helps us transcend narrow self-interestedness and be more fully awake to the interconnectedness of everything.

One way to help make mindfulness and prayerfulness more habitual is to establish cues for them, little happenings that remind you to be mindful and prayerful. The Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, used the example of the phone ringing as a cue to be mindful when answering and conversing with the person who called. I have conditioned myself to remember mindfulness and prayerfulness when I notice hearing bird songs or the hum of an electric motor, such as in a refrigerator or a computer fan. There are countless possibilities, and it begins by frequently repeating an affirmation to oneself: “Whenever ___________ happens, it will serve as a reminder of mindfulness and prayerfulness.” Eventually, the cue will automatically remind you, and frequent repetition of the affirmation will no longer be necessary, although it might help to come back to it from time to time.

Reflection is the process of taking time to carefully think back on an experience, recalling it as clearly as possible, and trying to gain even further insight about what happened, how we were affected by it, and what can be learned from it. Reflection provides us with the best opportunity to note the relationships between what happens in our dedicated times of meditation, study, or ritual and the other moments of our lives. We can then evaluate how well we are actually integrating the teachings of Masonry throughout the various parts of our lives, and consider how we can use that information to improve in this “progressive art.”

In essence, reflection is the practice of debriefing with ourselves, which can be done either quickly on the fly or more thoroughly in times specifically set aside for the purpose. With a little mindfulness, you can easily discern that there are many moments in our daily lives when it is naturally fitting to pause for a moment to reflect back on something with questions like these:

  • What just happened?
  • How did it affect me physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually?
  • How mindful and prayerful was I?
  • To what extent did I respond in ways congruent with the principles, tenets, and virtues I most value?
  • What could I learn and apply from this experience?

It can be very helpful to jot down notes about your reflections, even if you never look at them again. Just the act of writing something down helps us mentally anchor and clarify it.

I’ll begin wrapping up this article by noting that becoming more mindful, prayerful, and reflective commonly leads to slowing down, both internally and externally. Many of us have been conditioned away from such healthy ways of being; instead, we’ve become overcommitted and are frequently in a rush. We’re not only trying to get the present thing done as quickly as possible, but also anticipating the next thing we’ll be doing, and perhaps having lingering thoughts and feelings about the last thing we did because we didn’t give ourselves time to reflect on it before moving into the current thing. Thus, we’re rarely as fully awake to the present moment as we could be – we’re just doing, not really being. That lifestyle is so pervasive in today’s world that it can seem most acceptable, praiseworthy, and even comfortable in some respects, but it comes with great costs as we habitually and senselessly zip past the things that most of us, in our heart of hearts, believe are the most important parts of life. So, let’s end with these questions: What lifestyle best serves your deepest hopes, intentions, and aspirations, and most helps you avoid fragmentation and being at odds with yourself? What is your most Masonically inspired answer to that question? How can you move further into the way of life you feel most inwardly called to live?