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A Failed Contemplative

I come to contemplative writing as a failed contemplative. Hell, according to my beloved friend Suzanne, I don’t even pronounce it correctly (she wanted “con-TEMP-la-tive,’ while, unless I’m referring to a person, I generally use “con-tem-PLAY-tive.”) 

My failure at contemplation isn’t for want of trying. I’ve done meditation going all the way back to the transcendental type  in the ‘80s. Followed by mindfulness (including the Jainism version), centering prayer, sitting Zen (including at silent retreats), and a few yoga teachers who wanted us to be con-TEMP-la-tive while we bent and molded ourselves into evolved creatures. 

I adored the Zen teacher and the Jainism practitioner, but, really, none of it took. My greatest failure was centering prayer. I went to a workshop at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis. What I mostly remember is I was supposed to use a candle and meditate on the flame. Then I joined a centering prayer group led by videos of Thomas Keating telling us what centering prayer meant. We listened, because Fr. Keating was one of those who created centering prayer. His theory had us emptying our thoughts and going into a small black room in our brains. Don’t hold me to that description. But like everything else I studied, the practice was 100% internal. 

The traditions I studied cared deeply about how you arranged your body. Legs gently crossed, fingertips touching to hold in the Chi. Or back straight, feet flat on the floor—to this day when I hear, “Set your feet flat on the floor,” I respond, “Set your own stinking feet flat on the floor.”

A Turning Point in My Failed Journey

Then I remembered my writing teacher saying some of us need noise to write. She gave the example of her nephew who could’t sleep when a party was going on downstairs. So he descended the steps into the midst of the falderal and fell soundly asleep on the sofa. I don’t need noise for my writing, but I love coffee shop writing. Would that work for my contemplative practice?

I began going outside. I would sit and empty my mind of my thoughts while paying close attention to what was going on around me. The ambulance calling. The squirrel fleeing down the wire. The slightly-damp cushions. The smell of sweet olive, the boombox on the back of the bike, entertaining us all.

I let life wash over me, flow on by, while I sat in the middle of it. A three-dimensional world with me in the web. A tiny part, but a part. In that space, I immediately dropped into God. “Hello, God,” would rise into my brain. I was content. That was me accepting I had failed contemplation and doing it my way instead. 

The Consequences of Being a Failed Contemplative

An aside: funny thing, unlike my failing Christianity, failing contemplation carries no danger. No one threatens you for not doing contemplation right. You community doesn’t rise up to shame you for failing contemplation. No one wants to stone you, even though Jesus literally actually said, “Don’t throw stones.” Sure, they may give you the side-eye, but your life isn’t at risk from sitting Zen wrong. Go figure. 

Is It Really Failure?

For several years now, I’ve been going to offerings of the School for Contemplative Living. There, my Contemplative Justice Group read Cole Arthur Riley’s, This Here Flesh. She said the type of contemplation I was failing at wasn’t the only form of contemplation: “I am interested in reclaiming a contemplation that is not exclusive to whiteness, intellectualism, ableism, or mere hobby. And as a Black woman, I am disinterested in any call to spirituality that divorces my mind from my body, voice, or people.” This Here Flesh.

I spent twenty years practicing law. I believe I wore out my faith in intellectualism and the mind (my preoccupation with the brain is a different story.) Myriad ways exist to experience this world that have nothing to do with using the mind to clamp down on the mind. Defining the seat of God as the blank space in my mind isn’t for me. Let me release. Honor the physical. Rejoice in being part of the world.

Maybe the problem is I never actually understood contemplation. I don’t know. What I do know is that I love my contemplative practice, failed though it may be.

A winter's view of the beach with dark ecru sand, a tide ripple snaking through the center, and the mild Gulf in the background. If I'm a failed contemplative, the Gold if a failed ocean.
Life happens in this world. If that makes me a failed contemplative, so be it. (ps the Gulf is not a failed ocean)

Prior: a failed Christian

Next: a failed writer

a failed contemplative, Cole Arthur riley, failing my contemplative practice, how I failed at contemplative prayer

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