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Center for Action and Contemplation

Watching the River

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Action and Contemplation: Week 1

Watching the River
Tuesday, May 10, 2016

To live in the present moment requires a change in our inner posture. Instead of expanding or shoring up our fortress of “I”—the ego—which culture and often therapy try to help us do, contemplation waits to discover what this “I” consists of. What is this “I” that I take so seriously?

To discover the answer, we have to calmly observe our own stream of consciousness and see its compulsive patterns. That’s what happens in the early stages of contemplation, which does not yet feel like prayer. We wait in silence. In silence all our usual patterns assault us. Our patterns of control, addiction, negativity, tension, anger, and fear assert themselves. When Jesus is “driven” by the Spirit into the wilderness, the first things that show up are “wild beasts” (Mark 1:13). Contemplation is not first of all consoling, which is why so many give up. Yes, the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.

Most teachers insist on at least twenty minutes for a full contemplative “sit,” because you can assume that the first half (or more) of any contemplative prayer time is just letting go of those thoughts, judgments, fears, negations, and emotions that want to impose themselves on you. You have to become the watcher, where you step back from those things and observe them without judgment. You separate from them and you watch them “over there” until you realize that feeling is not me. I’m over here watching that over there, which means it isn’t me.

Thomas Keating teaches a beautifully simple exercise to use in contemplation. Imagine yourself sitting on the bank of a river. Observe each of your thoughts coming along as if they’re saying, “Think me, think me.” Watch your feelings come by saying, “Feel me, feel me.” Acknowledge that you’re having the feeling; acknowledge that you’re having the thought. Don’t hate it, don’t judge it, don’t critique it, don’t, in any way, move against it. Simply name it: “resentment toward so and so,” “a thought about such and such.” Admit that you’re having it, then place it on a boat and let it go down the river. The river is your stream of consciousness.

In the early stages of beginning a contemplative practice (and for the first few minutes of each new contemplative experience), you’re simply observing your repetitive thoughts. The small, ego self can’t do this because it’s rather totally identified with its own thoughts and illusions, which are all the ego has. In fact, the ego is a passing game. That’s why it’s called the false self. It’s finally not real. Most people live out of their false self, so “they think they are their thinking.” They don’t have a clue who they are apart from their thoughts. What you are doing in contemplation is moving to a level beneath your thoughts: the level of pure and naked being. This is the level of pure consciousness. This is not consciousness of anything in particular; it’s simply naked awareness.

You may be wondering what’s the point of such contemplation. The point is that if God wants to get at you—and my assumption is that God always does—if God wants to get through your barriers and blockages, God has the best chance of doing so through contemplative practice, quite simply because you and your limited mind are finally out of the way!

Gateway to Silence:

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (The Crossroad Publishing Company: 1999), 75; and

Contemplative Prayer (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: Still Waters Dock and Lake (detail), by Joelle Chase. CAC archives.
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