Contemplation Turned Outward

CPTBy Mark Van Steenwyk, the executive director of the Center for Prophetic Imagination

Part of what makes contemplation important, both as a a regular practice and an overall posture of life is noticing inner thoughts, images, ideas, and stories that lead us away from deep connection to the Spirit, each other, and the rest of creation.

However, in a society where we have learned to disconnect mind from body and spirit from politics, there is a danger in contemplative practice. I’ve begun to increasingly suspect that many engage in spiritual practice in a way that is disassociative—they use spirituality to disconnect from anxiety and pain, rather than to allow them to give attention to suffering.

History shows us that spirituality can be used to bypass difficult feelings. And it can be used to obscure suffering and oppression around us. That is why, as we develop spiritual practices, it is important that we don’t use contemplation merely as a way to cope, but as a way of deepening our perception.

Contemplation allows us to look inward at the myths, images, and ideas that lead us away from deep connection to the Spirit, to each other, and to the rest of creation. But it also allows us to give our attention to the world around us, so that we can see the world as it really is.

In this way, prophets are mystics who turn the contemplative gaze outward. Not simply peeling away layers of inner myth, they reject social myths that enslave the people. In this, they are apocalyptic and always unsettling.

Suggested Practice: Walking Attentively

One of my primary spiritual practices is walking attentively. I find it helps connect my inner and outer experiences of the world, helping me to be a more holistic person.

1) Walk around your neighborhood or anywhere you may see a lot of human activity. Give your attention to what is happening around you. Notice anything that agitate you, that reminds you that the world isn’t as it should be. Do not shy away from negative feelings and thoughts. Shying away from painful thoughts to focus on only positive thoughts is often a form of spiritual bypassing.

2) Notice not only what you notice outside of yourself but what comes up for you internally…how you feel, where you notice that feeling in your body. As thoughts or feelings come up, notice them in a non-judgmental way.

3) As you notice things internally, return to giving your attention.

4) After your walk, sit and reflect. Notice what came up for you. Invite the Spirit to illuminate your experience and reveal any invitations to deeper life.

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