by Rev. Alesia Matson, D.D.
With the current renewed interest in the contemplative paradigm (meditation, contemplation and prayer), I'm still always a little taken aback when I see the puzzled looks that greet the phrase, "the Contemplative Arts." The two words are perfectly clear except when uttered in immediate proximity to each other, and so I'm often asked to explain or define it. An attempt to define the process would look something like this:
Contemplative Arts:The art of establishing and maintaining connection with some power or force that transcends the practitioner, and that remains resistant to any mundane form of contact.
It is much like any other art form in that most dabble in it at some time in their lives -- ever uttered a fervent "Thank God!" when some disaster was miraculously averted? Have you ever prayed for a desired outcome, or to avoid undesirable consequences for your actions? Perhaps you've taken a class in yoga, tai chi, breathwork, Vipassana meditation, or some other form of contemplative practice? And then didn't follow it up?
And, like any other art form, getting serious about
the contemplative arts requires a regime consisting of Training, Focus,
Discipline, and Practice in order to reach the stages where true break-throughs
in transpersonal development occur.
Training in the contemplative arts helps sharpen focus. It provides an incentive for everyday practice and a source of support for the beginner who often has a multitude of questions about the results of their early efforts in particular. The assistance of a good coach or mentor also helps instill the discipline necessary for continued progression upon the contemplative path.
Without training it is extraordinarily difficult to
develop the other traits needed for success as a contemplative artist, and
this is particularly true of the development of focus.
The ability to focus attention upon one thing to the exclusion of others is an inherent ability that each person possesses, in latent form, and which must be developed to some degree as we approach and enter adulthood. It is the human brain's frontal cortex that houses our ability to focus, an area of the brain that on average does not complete its maturation until the mid-twenties. Until fully matured, a human's ability to focus successfully upon something in the midst of distractions is limited. Even after full maturation, focus is a like a muscle that must be exercised to gain strength and endurance. The more you focus, the more you can; the stronger and more intensely you can bring your attention to bear upon a task or idea, the greater your ability to focus becomes.
The benefits of developing focus in contemplative
practice are obvious. Once concentration is set upon inner awareness, it is
ever more difficult for the outside world to interpose obstacles and
distractions. Neither ringing phones, arguing neighbors, yowling cats, nor
quarreling children can distract you from your appointed hour of ecstatic
communion, and the benefits of increased focus can extend into other areas of
your life. In addition, focus and self-discipline work together
synergistically to expand your abilities to achieve and maintain not only an
altered, meditative state, but greater success and enjoyment in all areas of
Unlike focus, discipline is not an in-born trait for human beings. Discipline is a force first applied from without, ideally so that we will learn self-discipline, the only kind that has lasting, meaningful value.
It is the development of discipline that differences a child from an adult, that separates the outstanding from the mediocre. It is discipline that makes a masterpiece of artistic _expression, discipline hones and perfects the master. More accurately, it is self-discipline -- the ability to form intentions, set goals, and the will to see them through to completion -- that carries every successful person to the pinnacle of their profession.
Practice has two meanings. In noun form, it refers to "a practice," that is, a particular type or kind of contemplative art. Most forms of contemplation seem to fall into one of two general categories. Though experts in the field sometimes disagree on the names for these categories and their benefits, they will at least agree that these two broad categories exist. One is the "concentration method" (e.g. mantra work, breath work, or Transcendetal Meditation), the other "insight techniques" (best exemplifed in Vipassana meditation). Both categories offer enormous value to the contemplative, and which technique one chooses is dependent upon lifestyle, temperament, mental functioning, psychological patterning, as well as previous religious and/or spiritual training.
As a verb, "practice" is just that -- day in, day out repetition of forms and procedures until they become thoroughly ingrained in one's consciousness. A musician repeatedly practices scales and arpeggios, going over and over them until he or she quite literally could perform them while asleep. Necessary? Certainly, as any master musician will tell you.
It is the same with the contemplative artist. Daily practice of the forms, whatever they may be, frees him or her of the need to concentrate upon them, and thereby allows the ability to fly free, into the very arms of the Beloved, and bliss.
The Power Behind the Experience
It sometimes seems that those who achieve the very summit or apex of achievement in their fields are driven to do so. But who, or what, is doing the driving? Why does the desire to achieve new heights, to explore new frontiers, to break through to new understandings so thoroughly saturate human endeavor? Why should it be so, that we are not content with things as they are, and that our discontent pushes us, individually and as a race, to aspire for something better, perhaps even perfection?
Mystics and philosophers throughout time have
postulated one answer: Our yearning for the
summit of success or worldly experience is a mirror for the yearning we have
for union with the Truth of the Ultimate Mystery -- God, by any other name.
This is also and especially true of someone who meditates now and again, and who without warning experiences some hint, glimpse or glimmering of the Ultimate Mystery. The dabbling becomes serious; once the contemplative gets that delicious taste of Union, the drive to establish and maintain that connection becomes paramount.
As with success in any field, the rareified
development of the true Master of a contemplative art results from some kind
of formal training, the development of focus, the growth of self-discipline
from external discipline, and everyday practice. Regardless of our internal
resistance or rebellion against the idea, mastery in any field of endeavor
necessitates the work, but it's the work that provides the rewards: Lower
stress, lower blood pressure, reduced pain, better relationships, and most of
all, a closer relationship with that which transends you.
Rev. Dr. Alesia Matson writes and teaches extensively on meditation, contemplation, prayer, and modern mysticism, and her new book on the subject is entitled 7 Mysteries: Contemplative Arts for the Modern Mystic. You can sign up for her free email seminar entitled 7 Mysteries: Path to Power by visiting the 7 Mysteries in 7 Cities sign-up page and entering your email address.