Our lives want to tell us far more than our heads often allow. Richard Rohr captures this when he describes the affect of contemplation and reflection:
‘This awareness deepens on the cellular level, breathing level, hearing level, touching level, aroma level. This is what is being refined in a regular “contemplative sit.” the thinking level will be the last to “fall” because it always overstates its own importance and represses the other sources.’*
What these other sources allow us to be is more present to what is, when we’ll be required to find new words or to use old words in unexpected ways.
We can’t be in this “contemplative sit” all the time but to find times to practise it – there are many different ways and means including those we make for ourselves – makes it possible to take more contemplative perspective when we need to, when we’re in danger of mistaking the reality we find ourselves in and making poor decisions.
Hugh Macleod questions our hold on reality when the pressure is on:
‘It’s rare that urgent deadline is totally inflexible. It’s rare that need to take is as disastrous as you think. And the world? It’s never as serious as it seems.’**
Practising a contemplative way allows us to find different words for where we are right now. Words open up or close down possibilities. Yes and no are the most obvious but there’re many more. Words help us see things differently, as Ursula Le Guin describes for us:
“We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and to return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.”^
Rebecca West underlines how art is far more fundamental to human existence than we think:
“art is not a plaything, but a necessity … a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and tasted”.^^
Without these skills, we are, at best, responsive in a limited way, at worst. reactive to what is happening around us. With these skills, though, we become innovative and are able to reinvent and initiate. There feels to be a link here with what Nassim Taleb is imagining as movement from the fragile, through resilience, to antifragility.*^ The first breaks or is diminished under stress, the second manages to maintain integrity under stress, whilst the third grows. Le Guin underlines the possibility of learning such skills:
“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them We need to be taught these skills, we need guides to show his how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”^
This development of skills, though, demands our interaction with others. Just last night I was with some sixty or so people exploring hopeful conversations in which words will be used differently; we came into new worlds as we listened to how we each shared what made bad and good conversations:
‘Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.’^
In his novel about creation, Alan Lightman shares through his character Uncle Deva how important it is to see every thing’s essence without comparison, and I would say every one’s, too:
‘Why should you compare? said Uncle. Each thing possesses its own special essence, which has nothing to do with anything else. Understand the essence of a thing said Uncle, and you know everything you need to know.’^*
We need more words.
To describe the essence of a person requires even more.
(*From Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now.)
(**From Hugh Macleod’s gapingvoid.)
(^Ursula Le Guin, quoted in Maria Popova’s BrainPickings.)
(^^Rebecca West, quoted in Maria Popova’s BrainPickings.)
(*^See Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.)
(^*From Alan Lightman’s Mr g.)