Why do we practice?

“You cannot face German shepherds and fire hoses with your own resources; there must be God and stillness at the very center of your being. Otherwise, you will spiral into the violence that threatens you.” – Barbara A. Holmes, President of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and author of Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church

Unlike Barbara Holmes, I did not take an active part in the civil rights movement and have never felt my life threatened in the way she did by ferocious dogs and fire-hose-wielding officers. Nevertheless, her statement stuck with me for days after reading it in an article by Fred Bahnson in Harper’s Magazine.

What Holmes describes is simultaneously intimately familiar and completely foreign. Each time I re-read it I think, “Yes. This is EXACTLY why we practice.”

We face challenging situations every single day

While I hope from the bottom of my heart that you never find yourself in a situation involving such mortal (and moral) danger, I am certain in the depths of that same heart that you and I are in situations daily that challenge our desire to live as our best possible selves.

  • The moment a long-brewing difference with a family member boils over.
  • Your annual performance review with a demanding manager.
  • A frightening appointment with your doctor.
  • A shocking verbal blast from a total stranger in the parking lot.
  • The wave of self-criticism you inflict on yourself after messing up – big time.

We are hard-wired to react

Without some type of contemplative practice (yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, etc.), when life bites most of us will bite back. Our knee-jerk reaction to challenges like the ones above and others (bigger and smaller) is to get defensive. We allow the initial, totally natural, wave of feelings to dictate our response to whatever is upsetting us.

This doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human people. In other words, this is simply the way we are hard-wired.

Regular contemplation re-wires us

Setting aside time – whether 10 minutes, an hour or somewhere in between – each day to step out of the busyness of life to be silent, to turn inward, to tune into your breath, and maybe even to pray, literally changes our minds. It rewires us.

What are we doing when we practice contemplation?

What we are practicing during this inward time is the act of observing parts of ourselves that most of us mistake as who we are – our thoughts, our reactions, our feelings. The more we observe these parts of ourselves, the more we discover they are fleeting, ephemeral and infinitely changeable.

We realize as we practice that we can wait for the proverbial dust to settle. We can pause. We can take a breath. We can choose to mindfully act rather than react. We can wait – sometimes the waiting can feel endless – and the clarity we need will come.

Clarity comes from getting yourself out of the way

Clarity rarely (at least for me) feels like a lightning bolt, or the word of God, or even intellectual certainty. What it mostly feels like is that I manage to get myself – my feelings, desires, aversions, assumptions, and opinions – out of the way.  If I wait long enough, I can suddenly see the situation in which I find myself more fully.

  • I can see “the other’s” point of view.
  • I can see that having room to improve is true for all of us and even feel a little grateful for the invitation to grow.
  • I can see that fear of the unknown is always worse than knowing.
  • I can understand that the stranger’s behavior is almost definitely more about them than it is about me.
  • I can gently shush my harsh inner voice, choosing instead to approach myself as compassionately as I would another.

Contemplation helps us live as our best possible selves

In other words, a regular contemplative practice, whatever form it takes, helps us respond lovingly, gracefully, and mindfully no matter how furiously the winds of life whip around us.

This is why we practice. This is EXACTLY why we practice.

Looking to add a contemplative practice to your daily life? I’m happy to help. Just drop me a line and we can set up a call.