By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
Contemplative practice is, for the most part, a wonderful, relaxing, and peaceful endeavor. Engaging in it makes us feel refreshed and rested. This is wonderful, but can be a trap. We can use it as another in our arsenal of tactics to escape from a reality. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity.
Our lives are generally full of problems, from work, to family, to relationships, to health, to the challenges of getting it all done in a 24-hour day. In addition, we bring baggage from the past in the form of unresolved issues from childhood, or traumatic experiences, or deep emotional hurts. We also are confronted with fears and anxieties about an uncertain future. The totality of all of these problems can be overwhelming.
A frequent response is to try to escape them through various distractions such as the media, the internet, sports, alcohol and drugs, etc. It is useful to give ourselves a break once in a while and relieve some of the stress. But, if this is all we do, then it prevents us from addressing the problems and these distractions become an additional problem.
Our contemplative practice should not be added to the list of escape tactics. Indeed, contemplative practice is not an escape. Many people believe that spiritual awakening, aka enlightenment, will be an escape from their human problems. That is simply not the case. After awakening, all our problems are still there.
Contemplative practice should be employed to quiet the mind and allow for space for the emotions to be fully and honestly experienced. This sets the stage for being able to confront our problems, contemplate resolutions, and work through unresolved issues with a calm clarity. With the mind’s incessant chatter at least slightly muted and the emotions reduced to manageable intensity, we have to opportunity to honestly address our problems.
Contemplative practice is not the time to try to address the problems. It is the time to set the stage for addressing the problems. So, do not enter contemplative practice with the intent of thinking about the issues. Enter it as a time to allow the mind and physiology to settle and to enter into a present moment mindset. Regardless, the mind will inevitably wander and our deepest issues will emerge.
This can be seen in the amplified context of a silent meditation retreat. Here we cannot escape from our problems. They frequently emerge with full force and we are forced to confront them. Retreat can be an emotionally wrenching experience. Most can deal with it and benefit greatly by bringing them into the light of day and confronting them. But others can be overwhelmed. Retreat must be entered into with caution and with the presence of an understanding and experienced staff, to help us when the emotions become too strong to handle.
Hence, contemplative practice is not another escape but a means to get us prepared to fully address our deepest issues.
So, engage in contemplative practice and engage in dealing with the problems of life. The two endeavors complement each other.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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