Contemplating Calm Awareness

The contemplative psychiatrist, spiritual director, and author Gerald May wrote in his book Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology:

Water is a commonly used metaphor for consciousness and awareness in both Oriental and Western traditions. Sometimes consciousness is seen as a vast ocean, constant and unruffled in its depths, and awareness as its more variable surface, sometimes tossed about by winds and currents, sometimes still and calm… In the East, and especially in Zen, awareness is often likened to clear water in a bowl. In this analogy, the water ideally reflects all there is around it, clearly and without distortion. A favorite Zen example is that of water reflecting the moon with total accuracy. This “clear mind” of Zen is the pure and immediate awareness that we have called intuition. It does not really “perceive” or “take in” anything, but impeccably reflects all that exists within its field.

May goes on to point out that two problems can arise that can impede the clarity of the water’s reflection. First, the water might be turbulent: think of how a reflection is broken when a rock is dropped into a pool. Water that has been stirred up cannot accurately reflect with clarity until it settles back down. The second problem is if the water itself is dirty or filled with silt. Here, even if the surface is smooth, the cloudy quality of the muddied water prevents it from truly reflecting the moon (or whatever it is that it might be mirroring).

For contemplatives, this represents two qualities that we might seek when we enter silence. The first is calmness and the second is awareness. When we can maximize calm awareness, we are able to truly “reflect” the light in our minds and hearts that comes from the Spirit.

Turbulent water, in the bowl analogy, represents life that is stirred up by emotions and attachments. For many of us, this is our default setting. We are an excitable species, prone to powerful feelings such as jealousy, envy or rage. Even relatively “minor” emotions such as annoyance, self-consciousness or low-level angst can feel like a kind of inner turbulence.

It’s important not to assume, from this analogy, that emotions are therefore “wrong.” That can be its own kind of subtle dualism that can lead to thinking spirit = good and body= bad. It’s better to approach this is the spirit of Ecclesiastes 3: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Emotional and feeling-responses to our relationships and environment certainly have their place, but there are times when we attain greater clarity by discovering a way to be non-attached or non-grasping toward such inner turbulence. Like stirred up water, the “solution” to turbulent feelings is to find enough interior space to allow the emotions to gently calm down of their own accord. Resistance is not generally helpful — getting irritated at ourselves for feeling irritated generally just makes the inner stirred-up-ness worse rather than better.

As for the sediment that can keep water from being clear, that represents ways in which we dull our awareness. If stirred up water has too much energy, muddy water has too little. We can be lethargic or sleepy from not getting enough sleep, eating too much, not enough exercise, or simply feeling overwhelmed by how over-stimulated or distracted our live may seem. Many of us are chronically fatigued for medical reasons, but we might also suffer from ongoing sleep deprivation. Boredom or feelings of powerlessness or  hopelessness might also contribute to this kind of dulled awareness.

Cleaning and Calming Our Inner Oceans

The truth is, as May puts is, “More often than not in normal daily life, the water is both muddied and turbulent. Most of the time we live with awareness that is to some extent dulled as well as restricted.” In other words, this problem of being overly agitated and/or simultaneously dull and lethargic is something many people struggle with in our society.

So, if you find that your “inner bowl of water” is anything but calm and clear, resist any temptation to feel ashamed or to blame yourself. This is the default setting of our society.

Now, if your inner angst or torpor is caused by a medical condition, addiction, or a mental health issue, then please turn to the appropriate kinds of caregivers to help you address your concerns. Once again: no shame! When situations arise, we need to turn to those who can help us.

Assuming you aren’t struggling with an addiction or some other health concern, what can be done to move from agitated lethargy to calm awareness?

Speaking from the contemplative tradition, I believe there are three steps that can yield tremendous benefit. First, we need to establish or strengthen a daily discipline of silent prayer; then, we need to be gentle with our distractions and “bad prayer days,” and finally, we need to persevere, for both calmness and awareness yield their richest fruit over time.

  1. Establish (or strengthen) a daily practice of silent prayer. It’s been said that 90% of life is simply showing up, and this is certainly true of contemplative discipline. Making a commitment to prayerfully be still and silent in the presence of God, as a daily practice, is the single most important step on the path to calm awareness. Most contemplative teachers and traditions recommend praying twice daily, ideally for 20 to 30 minutes per session. Many people struggle with this ideal — like any other good habit, starting small is usually helpful. If you can’t swing 20 minutes a day, commit to 10. If twice a day is too difficult, try for at least once a day. Contemplation’s rewards are cumulative (see #3 below); but that hardly matters if we never start. So begin already! And if you’ve already begun, then see if you can stretch your practice a bit: maybe now is the time to go for 20 minutes each time you pray, and/or to open your practice to twice a day rather than just once. Contemplative prayer is a gift you give both to God and to yourself. Be generous in the giving.
  2. Be gentle when you experience distractions, sleepiness, or other less-than-perfect times of prayer. No one is perfect. That not only explains bad days at work and fights in an otherwise loving marriage, but it also should guide us in how we experience prayer. Some days will be better than others. Some days we just feel distracted and out of sorts. Other days we might be sluggish and sleepy. It’s important to recognize that imperfections are par for the course and that we will grow faster through encouragement than through criticism. If you have a “bad prayer day,” encourage yourself to try again later (or tomorrow). When you get lost in distractions, take time to breathe deeply and remind yourself that you seek both calm and attention. If you’re sleepy, take a moment to yawn deeply (get your lungs full of oxygen), stand up if you need to, maybe sing a verse of your favorite song. You can monitor your energy level, and calm yourself when you’re agitated or energize yourself when you’re lethargic. And if nothing works, you have another chance in 12 hours. Which leads to the final step:
  3. Keep on keepin’ on: Persevere, for the fruit of silent prayer emerges over time. Perseverance is considered a virtue for good reason. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither do we master contemplative practice in just a short time. It’s humbling to accept the fact that something as simple as silent prayer takes time for us to get the knack of; and yet, that’s just the way it is. Think of the psychological process of habituation: how we learn to ignore stimuli that doesn’t not benefit or threaten us. For example, I live less than a mile from a train track; when we first moved into this house, the train would wake me up in the middle of the night; now it no longer does, even though it still runs at all hours. I’ve become habituated to the sound. Likewise, over time we learn to be less distressed by both useless distractions and sluggish sleepiness when we pray. As our prayer becomes more and more undistracted, we begin to experience calm attentiveness more and more effortlessly.

A Final Point to Remember

As a type of prayer, contemplative practice is different from other forms of meditation. We don’t just do this to master a technique, but rather to deepen a relationship. We seek the calm, attentive stillness of interior silence so that we may lovingly enjoy the presence of a compassionate God. Being awake and alert while resting in a vast, oceanic calmness is a profoundly glorious way to “be still and know” the presence of the limitless, boundless God whose Holy Spirit has been given to us in our hearts (Romans 5:5). But it’s important to remember that this is not a race or a contest. God loves us, just as unconditionally, even when our prayer seems to be distracted or torpid. Keeping our gaze ultimately on the lavishness of God’s love rather than the quality of our performance is itself a devotional practice — a trusting way to highlight the very beauty we hope our stillness might reflect.


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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.