Contemplative Reawakening

This video clip is an excerpt from Cynthia Bourgeault’s talk at Shalem’s Contemplative Voices Award Benefit in November 2014.

DSC_8461“Contemplation was originally in the Greek and early patristic understandings reserved for a kind of higher or noetic knowing, knowing through the nous, the eye of the heart. Sometimes it takes the form of visionary seeing, images, but more typically it is simply a kind of luminous, situational knowingness that can’t be attributed to any outside source. It becomes part of one’s own being…

…We need to begin to claim the slowly growing collecting reservoir of noetic insight and draw on it consciously in service of the continuing evolution of humanity and the life of the planet.

Contemplative reawakening may have begun on the ground of personal healing and transformation, but it has now found its authentic wingspan in the prophetic and the collective.”

» To hear the rest of her talk, you may purchase access to view the recording.


Cynthia B photoCynthia Bourgeault is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, who divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is the founding director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School.

Photos by Susan Etherton

Six Ways to Experience Contemplation Online

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef

We live an increasingly virtual existence. We have ongoing conversations with our friends—sitting in our home, or from our office, or while standing on the street waiting for the bus—while they are in a different home, in a different office, or on a different street.

Person-Using-iPhone-4SNews and weather alerts pop up automatically on our phones, keeping us forever in the loop. We update our status so the world can know what we had for dinner, or so that not just family, but every person we’ve ever known can see a picture of our kids on their first day of school. We plug in to our devices to keep up-to-date on the news, choosing a website or newscast of choice. Sometimes, rather than looking out the window or stepping outside, we pull up our favorite weather app to decide if it’s going to be a short-sleeve or long-sleeve day. A number of us even work remotely—something increasingly normal in our ever-connected world.

So how does one maintain and deepen a contemplative stance in such a frenzied, virtual world? One obvious solution is to unplug. Put the phone away. Turn the computer off. Go for a walk. Keep the radio off on the commute to work. Don’t leave a window open with Facebook always tempting you to glance at the latest cat video or Star Trek meme. Even now you’re tempted (don’t do it!).

We all need to unplug from time to time. But I’ve also found that the Internet can be a place to deepen my prayer life and connection to God.

Here are six suggestions:

1) QUIET MUSIC — Find a station on Pandora, iTunes, or your favorite streaming music site, and listen to something that brings you into a contemplative space. I often find myself listening to the yoga, relaxation, or ambient radio channels on Pandora. If you have a favorite channel or artist—feel free to share it in the comments below.

2) PRAYER WEBSITE — For years, I have enjoyed going to Sacred Space, a website run by Irish Jesuits out of Dublin since 1999. It invites one into a quiet, prayerful space online, and leads one through meditative prayer culminating in a Scripture to sit with for as long as one feels led. There are other spaces to explore as well. I’ve even adapted a daily prayer session on Sacred Space for large group use – leading a congregation in a contemplative worship service, and reading the Scripture using lectio divina and silence.

3) MEDITATION TIMER—You might take some more time for silence and meditation if you had some help, right? That’s one of the reason we enjoy silent retreats or yoga sessions – because they provide us structure and give us permission be still. Turns out technology also provides some aids for meditation. The Insight Timer is probably the most famous. A simple app for your phone or iPad, the insight timer creates the sound of beautiful Tibetan singing bowls, gently and peacefully guiding you through your meditation session. With this, your attention can focus inward and with a timer that you set – you don’t need to worry about the clock. There is even an online community around the insight timer – you can check in online or tweet about your meditation session. For those wanting to go deeper – Insight provides guided meditations by teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, and Eckhart Tolle. Shalem’s meditation timer is available here: Shalem Timer.

4) AN ONLINE COURSE—There are an increasing number of us who take classes online. Some for college credit. Some for continuing education. Some for personal enjoyment or growth. There are a number of people who offer rich contemplative eCourses. Abbey of the Arts offers an 8-day Monk in the World eCourse, which explores some of the elements essential to a contemplative practice in everyday life. In October, Contemplative Journal is offering an eCourse on Aging as a Spiritual Practice. And Spirituality and Practice is always offering something new. An online course connects you with experienced spiritual teachers while giving you space to practice and experience at your own pace. If you search online, you can find extended, year-long courses, some for a few weeks, and even some one-day retreats. Shalem has several online courses enrolling now: Shalem eCourses.

5) ARTICLES AND BLOG POSTS—There are countless books available that offer rich spiritual wisdom. But sometimes you want just a nugget, an excerpt, maybe a few paragraphs of spiritual insight to feed your soul before you continue on with your day. Well there are a lot of good blogs out there. Where to start? I’ll suggest a few that I enjoy: Richard Rohr provides daily meditations that you can receive via email. Here’s a nugget from today’s meditation:

Contemplation is no fantasy, make-believe, or daydream, but the flowering of patience and steady perseverance. There is a deep relationship between the inner revolution of true prayer and the transformation of social structures and social consciousness. Our hope lies in the fact that meditation is going to change the society that we live in, just as it has changed us. It is that kind of long-term thinking that God seems to be involved in and kindly invites us into the same patient process.

Contemplative Journal also provides a rich source of articles and columns—in fact, recently Shalem contributed a series of articles for Contemplative Leadership Week.

The Contemplative Society provides regular posts from Cynthia Bourgeault, who will be recognized with Shalem’s Contemplative Voices Award for 2014 this November. Cynthia is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, committed to teaching and spreading the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path.

There are many other blogs worth following but these are a few to get you started. Want to share some you enjoy? Please share with us below.

6) SOCIAL MEDIA —A final suggestion would be to find contemplative organizations and individuals you enjoy, and follow them on social media. Social media is a great way to connect with contemplative photography, audio teachings and meditations, blog posts, as well as connect to the ongoing contemplative conversation online. Any of the groups I mentioned above would be great to connect with via Facebook. There are also some regular contemplatives on Twitter such as our friend Carl McColman – follow him on Twitter to catch his latest thoughts, quotes, blogs and teachings. Do you have a favorite contemplative that you follow on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn? Is there a conversation group that you enjoy? Share with us below!

If you’re reading this post, you’re probably somewhat familiar with what Shalem offers for online contemplative connection. Seeking an online course? Check out our latest here. Shalem is quickly becoming a leader in providing quality online courses led by Shalem’s respected staff and faculty, and we have a 6-week course beginning this fall, as well as two online retreat days.

Looking for some social media connections? Shalem’s daily Facebook posts, comprised of contemplative photography and quotes, are enjoyed by nearly 6,000 people. Why not join them? Did you know that Shalem is also on Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, and LinkedIn? In each space, Shalem aspires to create offerings and moments of contemplative connection that expand awareness of the Spirit’s presence to all who cross our paths.

These are simply six suggestions that have nurtured and assisted my own spiritual practice. Whether you need a quick spiritual lift from a simple photo or quote, or you’re ready to explore contemplative life and practice in-depth, it may be only a click away. If you have something to share that has been particularly meaningful to you, please share below—we’d love to hear about it!


bryan1Bryan Berghoef is a pastor and writer who helps curate Shalem’s social media content and provides technical support for Shalem’s online courses. Bryan lives with his wife, Christy, and four children in Holland, MI. You can see more of his writing at pubtheologian.com.

Interested in taking an online course with Shalem? We have several enrolling now!

The Energy of Emotion

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

I sometimes sit by the ocean in the evening light when the air is soft and the clouds are pinky-orange. The youngest children have gone to bed. The sandcastles of this day are giving way to the fresh grainy canvas of tomorrow. Lovers walk holding hands. Vacationing families, freshly showered, gather in their white shirts and khakis for the yearly photo. There are a few gritty shore fishermen, beer in hand, hoping for a gift from the sea.

beach_blog_Christy

It occurs to me as I sit there how like the sandy shore our emotional lives can be. Often, seemingly out of nowhere, we are hit with wave after wave of emotion. It may be boredom and listlessness one minute, or longing and passion the next. Anger, sadness, loneliness, joy, love, elation, and disappointment all break upon the shores of our spirit sometimes relentlessly. Our emotions are a great gift, but I imagine there are times when we all wish we didn’t feel the way we do, or when it is simply difficult to balance the energy coursing through us. It is easy to understand wanting relief from painful emotions, but even the more desirable ones can be strong and overwhelming. I sometimes feel relieved on those days when the waves of feeling have been mild and the water warm.

The physicists have taught us that all matter is simply energy condensed into form. A baby is a beautiful example of the energy of desire becoming life and breath. Although we know physiologically how the process works, it all begins with energetic presence. We are learning there is “an energetic continuum running through all creation.” (Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing, p. 45) French Jesuit philosopher and biologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote that our suffering is actually potential energy that can be consciously offered to God as a gift. The energy of our pain becomes part of the “ascending force of the world,” fuel for the transformation of fear to love. This understanding also keeps us close to our elemental humanity, knowing that even our “failures” and setbacks are the instruments of grace on our behalf, enriching the soil of our lives from which we grow strong and beautiful.

I wonder if this wise Jesuit’s insight might provide a path of peaceful partnership with all our unwieldy emotions. Might we see our emotional waves as energy that once liberated from our fear, grasping, and attempts at control, can be offered for a higher purpose? Life is full of emotional conundrums. A dear friend experiences daily frustration working with a man who expects super-human effort and offers very little grace. A beloved son is drinking himself to death and his father is determined to help, but his love cannot be received. A woman feels great tenderness for a man whose heart is unavailable to her. A son watches his mother suffer with cancer, wanting to be present for her, but knowing there is little he can do about her pain. There are situations that can and should be changed, but when change is not possible or is slow in coming, we are left with our strong feelings and very little idea how to live with them. Sometimes our resulting actions come from a simple desire for relief. In the case of the woman wanting to love–a seemingly “positive” thing–she can attach her desire to the unavailable man, trying to force love and doing violence to both their spirits in the process, or she can choose to release her longing into the universe, asking that it be used for Love’s purposes. Who is to say what shape that energy might come to take? Who is to say what purpose our loving and suffering might serve and accomplish when joined with the great energetic Love that upholds the universe?

Unlike the shoreline, we are not powerless victims to the waves of emotion that crash through us. We can receive what comes, adding the power of our own consciousness, our willing surrender and the beauty of our own spirit, thereby offering our emotions as gifts of energy for Love’s purposes. We might also find, then, in the evening when the air is soft and the clouds are pinky-orange that our emotional shoreline has been renewed like the canvas, washed clean and ready for the work, play, and discovery of a new day.

Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

Ordinary and Spiritual Awareness

2013-10-08 18.51.41By Cynthia Bourgeault. One of Shalem’s Honorary Council members for the 40-hour Contemplative Prayer Vigil, Cynthia Bourgeault is a modern day mystic, Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally known retreat leader, who divides her time between solitude at her Maine hermitage and traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is the founding director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School and the author of eight books including The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Mystical Hope, and Love is Stronger Than Death.  She has also authored or contributed to numerous articles and courses on the Christian spiritual life. http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html

Those who come back from a near-death experience bring with them a visceral remembrance of how vivid and abundant life is when the sense of separateness has dropped away.  Those who fall profoundly in love experience a dying into the other that melts every shred of their own identity, self-definition, caution, and boundaries, until finally there is no “I” anymore—only “you.”  Those who meditate go down to the same place, but by a back staircase deep within their own being.

Deeper than our sense of separateness and isolation is another level of awareness in us, another whole way of knowing.  Thomas Keating, in his teachings on centering prayer, calls this our “spiritual awareness” and contrasts it with the “ordinary awareness” of our usual, egoic thinking.  The simplest way of describing this other kind of awareness is that while the self-reflexive ego thinks by means of noting differences and drawing distinctions, spiritual awareness “thinks” by an innate perception of kinship, of belonging to the whole.

I realize this way of talking is not easy to understand. It goes against the very grain of our language (which mirrors our usual thinking processes) and thus skitters off into the realm of poetry and mystical utterance.  The Christian contemplative tradition abounds with descriptions of the “spiritual senses”—these more subtle faculties of intuitive perception—but in language that is often so allegorical and dense it obscures more than it reveals.  Let me see if I can describe this same thing in a simpler way, in terms of an experience I came to know only too well during my years in Maine:  sailing in the fog.

On a bright, sunny day you can set your course on a landfall five miles away from you and sail right to it.  But in the fog, you make your way by paying close attention to all the things immediately around you:  the deep roll of the sea swells as you enter open ocean, the pungent scent of spruce boughs, or the livelier tempo of the waves as you approach land.  You find your way by being sensitively and sensuously connected to exactly where you are, by letting “here” reach out and lead you.  You will not learn that in the navigation courses, of course.  But it is part of the local knowledge that all the fishermen and natives use to steer by. You know you belong to a place when you can find your way home by feel.

All in all, this little metaphor is a pretty good analogy of how these two levels of awareness actually work.  If egoic thinking is like sailing by reference to where you are not—by what is out there and up ahead—spiritual awareness is like sailing by reference to where you are.  It is a way of “thinking” at a much more visceral level of yourself-responding to subtle intimations of presence too delicate to pick up at your normal level of awareness, but which emerge like a sea swell from the ground of your being once you relax and allow yourself to belong deeply to the picture.

Because of this visceral dimension, some writers speak of spiritual awareness in terms of the heart being “magnetized” by God, responding to a magnetic pull from the center just as the compass needle points to magnetic north.

… [O]ur spiritual awareness seems to be given to us in order to hone in on and not lose touch with that “point or spark of pure truth” at the core of our being, from which both the true compass track of our life and our existential conviction of belonging emanate.  That is what the magnetic pull is all about.  And as we learn gradually to trust it and let it draw us along, we discover that those core fears of the egoic level—that something terrible can happen to us, that we can fall out of God or suffer irreparable harm—do not compute in the deeper waters of our being.

Excerpted from Cynthia Bourgeault, Mystical Hope: Trusting in the Mercy of God Boston, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001.