My dear readers, first I need to apologize for being so late in writing my "New Year's" column. I had hoped to have a column like this online at the beginning, rather than the end, of January, but a rather unpleasant dance with the flu slowed me down, and then my father passed away—he was 89 years old and had been sick for some time, so my grief is tempered by gratitude that he's no longer suffering, but I still feel the loss. But finally, I'm just now sitting down to write my first column for the new year.
And while on the one hand it is tempting to think "It's too late for a New Year's resolution column; I had better come up with a more timely topic," I've decided that the more truly contemplative thing to do is to stick with my original idea. Think about it: don't we tend to follow the same pattern year in and year out—from mid-to-late December through maybe the first week of January, we pay lots of attention to all the ways in which we "resolve" to live a better life in the new year; whether that entails going on a diet, exercising more, spending more time with the family, de-cluttering the house, or whatever. But by the end of January, it seems no one is talking about these worthy pursuits anymore. Presumably this is because we've said all that needs to be said about our self-improvement projects, writers are on to newer and presumably more pressing matters, and we as individuals are left to our devices: we either successfully keep to our resolutions or watch as they fall by the wayside (hey, could you pass me the chips and dip?).
But contemplative practice is all about perseverance—making a commitment and sticking to it over the long haul. This means, it seems to me, that writing about contemplation means honoring and supporting our long-term commitments, even when it may be no longer fashionable or newsworthy to do so. One month into a new year, we either need to be congratulated for our new triumphs of discipline, or encouraged not to give up in those areas where we are struggling or faltering. Either way, it makes perfect sense from a contemplative viewpoint to revisit the promises we made yesterday, today.
So here are seven promises that I have made, to seek a deeper and more disciplined contemplative practice in 2013 (and, hopefully, beyond). As I share these thoughts with you, I invite you to re-consider whatever commitments you made to yourself a month ago, as you were preparing for the new year. How are they going? Do you need a pep talk? A reality check (yes, sometimes our ambitions for self-improvement are unrealistically high—or perhaps not challenging enough)? And if you did not make any resolutions for 2013, maybe these seven ideas will inspire you. After all, it's never too late to begin the contemplative journey.
- Slow down. Why am I in such a hurry? Why are we all rushing about so? It seems, at least in my life, that the frantic pace is not about survival (like making sure the mortgage gets paid) but rather about consumption (like making sure I'm seeing the latest movies and reading the latest books). Obviously, every life has its share of hustle, but living a contemplative life includes discerning when the pace can be dialed back, so that life can be more truly and fully lived, right here and right now.
- Be quiet. Obviously, contemplation is about silence, but that hardly means I've mastered the art of fostering silence in the daily flow of my life! Not only do I succumb to all manner of external noisemakers (from the TV to the computer to the iPod, etc. etc.), but I also keep getting caught up in the internal noise, what Buddhists call "the monkey mind." Teaching the monkey to calm down is not just a task for meditation or centering prayer: it's an ongoing opportunity, to let just a little bit more silence into my life, every hour of every day.
- Let go. Our "classic" ideas of New Year's resolutions—from losing weight, to spending more time with the kids, to getting rid of debt—all are variations on this basic theme: we allow ourselves to become too attached to elements in our lives that don't (or no longer) nurture us. Contemplation has always been about detachment: letting go of the need to grasp or control the things and details of life. As I let go of the busy-ness and noise within me in silent prayer, so too I prepare myself to let go of the toxic attachments that clutter my life.
- Seek solitude. "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you," instructs Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. While this has been traditionally interpreted as instruction for contemplative practice ("your room" signifying the hidden dimension of human consciousness), I think it is also an invitation to cultivate periods of solitude in life. Jesus went into the desert, into the hills, in gardens, and by the waterside to find times for solitude before the Divine Mystery. Surely, we who seek to follow him would benefit from doing the same.
- Cherish relationships. No, this is not a contradiction of the previous resolution but rather its complement. Solitude, like silence, is never an end unto itself, but rather a means for fostering intimacy with God, which in turn impels us to cultivate love for our neighbors "as we love ourselves." So one important relationship to cherish is the relationship we have with our own selves, in which we seek to imitate God—who loves us—by loving ourselves, in healthy and appropriate ways. Out of the twin fountains of healthy self-love and Divine love, we are empowered to love our neighbors—and even our enemies.
- Notice connections. Contemplative practice is about finding unity and nonduality in the reconciling love of God. What this means, practically speaking, is that devoting time to silently resting in the love of God can be a way of fostering a deeper awareness of how everything in life is connected: as the Lakota say, Mitakuye Oyasin—"all are related"—all things, all beings, are interconnected, which means that actions or efforts in one area of life have repercussions in other areas. Becoming more mindful of such connections can be a way to be more mindful in the choices we make each day.
- Keep promises. I said at the beginning of this piece that contemplation is about perseverance. This is what keeping our promises is all about: a stability of commitment that enables us to grow in and through the choices we make. If I make a promise to seek intimacy with God through a period of silence every morning and every evening, the true value of such a commitment will be revealed slowly, over time, as I anchor my life in honoring the choices I've made. Obviously, this has implication not only in our spiritual practice, but in our relationships and lifestyle values as well. Keeping promises does not mean that we can never change a commitment, but it does value commitment highly, implying that revisions to our commitments should only be made carefully after meaningful discernment.
Hopefully you can see how these seven commitments are interrelated, meaning that each one is a way of supporting all of the others. The goal is a life transformed by the mysterious presence of God, accessed through silence, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. I'm committing to such a journey. Will you join me?