I bought a yoga mat in Argentina. Whenever I had time to practice, I played my guitar. I created a blog for my time abroad. Whenever I had time to post something, the power went out. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the odds were against me. Particularly during finals, which seemed like the entire second half of the semester. I have plenty of stories to tell and thoughts to articulate, but given the limited time I have to write before this upcoming week (in a monastery, in silence and sans internet), I thought I’d share the first part of my final for Contemplatives In Action. It’s much better than my midterm. Still a little all over the place, but otherwise a decent description of my experience. The question was: “What does it mean to be a contemplative in action in the context of your time here in Argentina?” Enjoy.
A Submission To Exist
Much of contemporary society focuses on how the practice of meditation allows one to sleep less and be more productive at work. Upon further examination, it can allow for countless opportunities to fully experience the love of those around us. From a religious perspective, I believe this love is what many interpret and mean by God. From a physiological perspective, it’s the synchrony of mirror neurons and biochemistry triggered by touch and eye contact. It may come as a surprise, but these were all beliefs I held before I entered Casa. The issue was how I made use of this “information.” Love and God were definite terms I sought to pursue as means to an end, similar to society’s approach to meditation. Furthermore, I was quick to quantify these profundities in a scientific framework. The reason this semester is so revolutionary is because I learned a more thorough interpretation of contemplation and new ways to engage it. Though I have many examples of contemplative growth throughout the semester, the two I will focus on here are writing and music.
As an Advertising major, it is important to have a dynamic portfolio of various types of creative work (writing, photography, etc.). An increasingly important component of one’s portfolio is social media/internet fluency. With this in mind, I created a blog for my time in Córdoba as means to display my thoughts and experiences, but also to highlight my creative capacity as a potential part of my portfolio. Frankly, what I managed to produce surprised me, and if I am not mistaken, those who followed it as well. Photography was already a passion in which I versed myself over time, but the surprise came through written word. I never viewed my academic essays as particularly strong, so when family, friends, and acquaintances alike told me how much they enjoyed my posts, I was flattered and taken aback.
I reflected as to why my writing was better than originally thought. Did I really become a better writer in my time abroad? Was it the informal writing style that allowed me to seamlessly integrate my thoughts in a new and entertaining way? After some time, I realized the biggest contributing factor: the space in which I chose to write. I do not mean this in a physical sense; I do not write best outside or at a desk or in a cafe. I write best outside of Microsoft’s Word-processor. It is immensely difficult to write a first draft when the format, word count, and length all stare me dead-in-the-face throughout the entire process. I often write my essay’s first and final draft simultaneously; that is to say, I write one paper in one sitting, and rarely read it more than one time through to determine its quality. To write and rewrite are fundamental stages of any good piece of writing.
But was it that simple? Did I put so much effort into the posts, to create something of the utmost quality, with the sole intent of use for my professional portfolio? As the semester continued and I dove deeper into the analysis and critique of societies’ obsessions with “progress” (of which my career is undoubtedly a part), this thought crossed my mind. And it scared me. But now, weeks before the conclusion of one of the most revelation-filled periods of my life, the answer crystalizes in front of me. I submitted. I gave in. As I wrote, the critic in me took a back seat to my uninhibited flow of consciousness. I knew I would return again to edit and rework my current piece. Why worry about the end result or the reaction of others until it becomes a real concern, i.e. the last step of the process. Furthermore, I wrote in spaces without Internet, so my mind was forced to focus and never had the chance to interrupt the task. A funny thing happened as I practiced this skill: my thoughts began to present themselves in active voice, consistent tenses, and first- or third-person where appropriate. In other words, I did in fact become a better writer.
Another activity in which I explicitly noticed a change in my ability is guitar. Music is an incredibly complex and technical art. In the States, I researched music theory relentlessly (at least more than I ever put time into the study of good writing). I read about modes, tempo, form and technique far more than I actually applied those skills. I spoke to many musicians about the best way practice, time to practice, practice routine, but seldom found myself in a place of practice. I played, sure, but maybe only five hours a week. I cannot quite explain it, but once I arrived here, guitar became my number one priority. I went for it. I played constantly. Without Internet in the house, the endless number of lessons the web provides never temped me. It was just my guitar and I. As with my writing, I simply played. I lost my obsession with technique and the “best” way to practice and gave into my hands. Again, I submitted. I let my mind produce whatever it could without criticism. My creative appraisal subsided, and I improved. Albeit slowly, but enough my roommates say they notice a difference in my talent. A feeling of pride is evoked. It is a genuine, deserved pride elicited only by my desire to play, not a separate agenda to create something that pleases or impresses others. I worked towards becoming a better writer and guitarist for no one other than myself.
I am excited to use these two examples to highlight my submission to the present. They provide a perfect gateway into my personal definition of a contemplative in action. We speak often of a contemplatives’ presence and their ability to live in the moment, but these terms are so abstract and difficult to tangibly comprehend. This is exacerbated when one seeks contemplative practices only to realize anything and everything can be, and is, a contemplative practice. What does that mean? How does one find the specific activities that work for him or her in the pursuit of stillness? “Everything” is a daunting concept; where does a person go with that idea? One’s mind is thrown into a chaotic whirlwind when he or she tries to grasp the image of “everything.”
Analysis of the chaotic mind is a necessary component to understand submission in regards to contemplation. The trick is to accept the inherent chaos of the mind and sit with it. To fight is to lose. To runaway is to fail. Our minds typically need stimulation and unfortunately, that stimulation often manifests itself in anxious thoughts. Anxiety can mean many things: negativity or jealousy towards others; judgment of the self; inability to achieve physical stillness and mental wholeness as well. The body and mind are split as one’s consciousness slips into the past, future, or otherwise absent thoughts. The anxious mind is discontent with nearly every situation that presents itself, and thus flees elsewhere. But the present is where one’s remedy for anxiety lies. Love and happiness comfort the soul as they allow for synchrony of the body and spirit. Pain and suffering expand one’s capacity to feel, to appreciate the lives of others in addition to his or her own. Both ends of the emotional spectrum expand as one experiences the present. It seems counterintuitive that a submission to discomfort actually makes life more bearable. But before long, in fact, life no longer seems like something one needs to bear; every moment and every encounter holds fruitful potential.
Contemplatives know this about life. They relentlessly engage with the world as it unfolds in front of them, no matter how difficult it may seem. Many use formal, disciplined practices to further hone their ability to live a contemplative, present life. But a regimented discipline is not a necessary part of contemplation. The theme amongst contemplatives is the recognition of the need to separate their critical or analytical thoughts from life’s moments that demand presence. They build in spaces to reflect and evaluate life, namely in regards to the decisions of the self and others. Two concepts from class encapsulate this cathartic release of thought and emotion: liminal spaces and kenosis. Mary Watkins and Helen Shulman define a liminal space is a place to share, reflect, and analyze one’s emotional experiences, particularly of a more negative nature. Matthew Eggemeier discusses the term kenosis as the act of self-emptying. Contemplatives employ the act of kenosis in a liminal space that can take many, many forms. Music and writing are two of those forms that happen to work exceptionally well for me.
A third form I was truly never exposed to prior to my time in Argentina is silence. I mean this in the sense of intentional silence, like that of what we participated in the silent retreat at Alla Arriba. That time provided a space for me to acknowledge and feel my emotions as they emerged rather than my normal tendency to categorize, rationalize, and explain them. My impulsive reaction to speak slowed as I saw my thoughts form in my conscious and was unable to voice them; I recognized their inessential nature and noted how much they inhibited my ability to hold true feeling. I experienced sensations in silence rather than my typical impulse to silence those sensations. My time in at Alla Arriba illustrated the importance of a time to talk and a time to be silent. One can never see the world in full if his or her orientation towards being includes the dialogue of the ego, the inner critic, and the chaos of the mind.
While on the retreat, I asked Doug (where I did in fact break my silence) about my tendency to ignore, even if it is inadvertently so, emotions that arise in my life. I realized in that conversation the place that holds the greatest potential for me to have a liminal space is songwriting. Lyrics are a perfect place to couple the power of instrumentation with the kenosis of the mind. In some sense, this encompasses both of the two skills I worked hard to hone over the past few months. I need to learn to channel my emotions into something that allows me to feel them rather than just rationalize them, and thus dampen their impact. I can further my contact with my purest form of being, albeit rare, through an expression of music and words. This is how I plan to work towards a more contemplative life upon my departure from the immensely unique semester that is Casa.
My time here showed me a beautiful experience through my expression of self through guitar and writing. I was liberated from the norm of a search for faults, an evaluation of each individual action as it unfolded. This is a fundamentally contemplative characteristic. For once in my life, I felt free of the restraints my mind imposes on my day-to-day life. But my exposure to being a contemplative in action has only just begun. Can I implement a more disciplined approach to contemplation through the practice of yoga and meditation? What less straightforward ways will I encounter contemplation similar to my creation of art? How can I share those moments of simple existence with others? These questions will only manifest themselves in time. It seems I will have to accept their unknown and unanswered state to be content, just as I must do with my life. Amen.