I was sitting with my teaching assistant yesterday at a local coffee haunt near our campus. As we chatted amiably, I mentioned that her workload would be a heck of a lot more next term. “When I’m teaching,” I said. She cocked her head, looked puzzled, and said, “Aren’t you teaching now?” I hesitated and half-laughed, “Oh yeah, but my classes are Hebrew and contemplation, so it doesn’t feel like teaching.” I feel more like a student, translating a language I love and learning to slow down, listen, and be mindful.
This course on contemplation—it’s a real delight because it is so counterintuitive. I chatted with my students yesterday about this. So much of college is about learning how to squeeze the most work into the least amount of time.
Meditation—contemplation—is about the opposite, though it takes much more discipline to meditate than it does to fall from one job to another, one task to the next. I compared meditation (in a stroke of brilliance!) to the Hebrew letter, nun. Butted up against a hard Hebrew consonant, this letter disappears. It doesn’t exactly disappear, but it turns into what’s called a daghesh, a dot in the next letter. Poof, before you know it, before you’ve pronounced the word, the nun is gone.
That’s what happens to contemplation, I explained, when you don’t make deliberate plans. Like the Hebrew letter nun, your opportunity to contemplate evaporates, squeezed out by more urgent demands—the rush and tumble of life.
That’s why each week I ask my students to write a reflection, which boils down to answering two qustions.
How did your practice of contemplation go last week?
How would you like it to go next week?
While they’re writing in their journals, I place a schedule of the week at their feet. They use it to plan their week: when they intend to contemplate, be still, imagine, dream, breathe.
There are, in fact, several parts to cultivating a life of stillness in the midst of frenzy. As I prepared for class this week, I realized I could capture these with the letter P.“Take a P this week,” I tell my students. (They humor me, laughing.)
P = Plan. If you don’t plan to pray, meditate, contemplate, you probably won’t. Write it in your schedule, the way you would a committee meeting, a coffee date, an essay due. If you don’t plan it, you won’t get to the joy of contemplation.
P = Place. Sometimes we don’t slip away to meditate because we have no inviting place to slip away to. So I’ve asked my students to create a space for contemplation. Yesterday, we showed before and after photos to illustrate how to create a sacred space. One student took a storage closet in a dorm, ironing board and all, organized it, and set a pillow, blanket and plastic candle (I’d given each student a plastic candle and journal) in it. Another simply cleared a desk, placing his candle there with a straight line of pebbles—like God in the Bible’s opening lines, creating order out of chaos. Sometimes creating space may mean simply tucking one of those plastic candles in a pocket or drawer and pulling it out for ten minutes in a quiet spot. It’s hard to imagine that $1.50 worth of plastic candle can transform no space into sacred space.
P = Practice. Think of spiritual practices as a tool box for contemplation. Each week in class we are learning new ones. The labyrinth. Lectio divina (reading the Bible slowly three times—but more on that another time). One on-line tool—an incredibly beneficial one—called Pray-as-you-go, is a gift to us from British Jesuits. Every day, you can escape to this place, this practice of stillness for about twelve minutes.
There you have it: a simple guide to contemplation.
P—Plan your day and week to include meditation.
P—Create a place that invites you.
P—Choose a simple practice, like Pray-as-you-go.
Now for the kicker. You know how much twelve minutes take out of your day? A student in class yesterday figured it out.
.8%. That’s 8/10 of one percent.
Less than one percent of your day given to contemplation. And that less-than-one-percent will reorient you, relax you, refresh you and—let’s not forget this—delight God. Not a bad way to spend eight-tenths of one percent of our otherwise stressful, busy lives.
So be sure to take a P this week.