Friday, February 5, 2016

The Meaning of Silence

One of the blessings of teaching is the chance to continue to read good books.  And often, it means the opportunity to re-read some of my favorite books.  In spite of our society’s penchant for the new and novel, I learned some time ago that there are classics that stand the test of time and continue to speak to humans in all walks of life.  Obviously there are classics in music, in architecture and in books.

One of the classics I have had a chance to read again is Quest for God by the great 20th century Jewish rabbi and theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Heschel is one of the theological giants who came to this country as a result of the Nazi craziness of the 20th century.  Heschel was born in Poland in 1907.  He was educated in Berlin, Germany.  When he was lecturing in 1938 in Frankfort, Germany, he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland.  He was encouraged to leave before he would be killed.  So he fled to London and in 1940 arrived in New York City.  He spent five years in Cincinnati teaching at the Hebrew Union College, leading Reformed Jewish Seminary

In 1946, Heschel left for New York where he spent the rest of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University.  He died in 1972.  I read Heschel when I was in college and continued to follow him until he died.  The thing I most liked about him was his spiritual journey was not simply about being a theologian.  He was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, and just as involved in protesting what he felt was an unjust involvement in Vietnam.  He was deeply steeped in the Old Testament Prophets and, like Isaiah and Jeremiah of old, felt like he had to be a prophetic witness for the civil rights of African-Americans and the withdrawal of US troops from Southeast Asia.  Seared in my mind is a picture of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. marching side-by-side in a civil rights’ march.

Heschel was also a deeply spiritual man.  This is the side of him that comes out in the book, Quest for God.  The range of spiritual issues he addresses is impressive, but one that struck me in my recent reading was his word on silence.  About silence Heschel says, “Twofold is the meaning of silence.  One, the abstinence from speech, the absence of sound.  Two, inner silence, the absence of self-concern, stillness.  One may articulate words in his voice and yet be inwardly silent.  One may abstain from uttering any sound and yet be overbearing.”  Let’s unpack this rather dense quotation.

The first level of silence that Heschel describes is the easier one to understand.  The first level is simply the human gone mute.  This level hears no sound.  There is no speech; silence eradicates all else.  It is clear to me that most folks do not live in this level of silence—almost ever.  Ours is a noisy world.  Much of the noise is fabricated by humans.  If you live in an urban area, there is the constant din of street noise.  Individual people normally have music playing in their ear or constant talking on the phone. 

This is not soulful.  The soul needs some silence.  The soul craves “sound-less bites” in contrast to the cultural use of sound bites.  The constant drumbeat of sounds provides no respite---no space for rest.  There is no opening for something more profound to enter the picture.  This is what Heschel addresses in his second level of silence.

This second level of silence moves from the external sounds to the internal place of silence.  At this level the idea of silence becomes metaphorical---“inner silence,” as Heschel calls it.  At this level of inner silence, we move toward stillness.  I like the way he describes stillness: as absence of self-concern.  It is at this point Heschel becomes more complex.  What does he mean by absence of self-concern?

This is where silence becomes spiritual.  To become spiritual, we move from the ego to the soul.  By definition the ego is self-concerned.  After all, for the ego it is all about me!  Self-concern keeps the ego up front and in control.  The ego speaks---continually speaks.  It may be literal words, or it may figuratively be the ego demanding that it all concerns me.  For Heschel this is the world of sound.  That is why he counsels that we solicit silence.

The spiritual quest and journey necessitate both levels of silence.  Certainly we need those times of literal silence.  We need the occasions where we unplug: turn off the phone, turn off the tv, and take the music device out of our ear.  Quiet and be quiet.  The absence of sound becomes the crucible for the Divine to begin working on our soul.

This Divine working will be transformative.  This work will lessen our self-concern.  This work will lead us into deeper places of stillness.  In that place of stillness we are prepared to hear a Word bigger and better than any words we ever will use.  At that still place in the heart we will know we have come to our center, the primordial meeting place of our soul and the Holy One. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Creation, Innovation and Renovation

This inspiration is rooted in a rather serendipitous time I recently had with some athletes, coaches and a professional music composer.  While it is not unusual for me to hang out with athletes and coaches, there typically is not a music composer thrown into the mix!  But he added a tremendous leavening effect to the dialogue and spurred me to thinking about things about which I normally would not. 
The intent of the meeting was straightforward.  If people who are not in the same fields or who are not alike spend time together, new and different conversations are likely to happen and, possibly, new ideas arise.  I am sure we would have to do it more than one time, but that one time was enough to suggest the possibilities.  And they were exciting.  And even more, it was a great deal of fun.
I was fascinated to listen to the music composer describe his work.  I would not know the first step about composing a piece of music.  Whatever musical ability I have is latent---totally unexplored.  I have been assured I am not a good singer.  Unfortunately for me, music and art were not popular subjects in grade school.  I trust the current younger group is more mature than I was.  So it was a great learning experience to hear a professional composer talk about being creative.
He writes notes on a page that the musicians can “read” and make music.  The only thing I can compare it to is the writing I do.  I begin with a blank page and have a zillion words from which I can choose.  Choosing words, developing sentences, paragraphs and, then, making a whole piece must be like writing music.  Even though I know what I said and meant, sometimes another person reading what I wrote understands it differently.  Once the words are on paper, I have no control over what the reader takes away from those words.  So it is with the composer: once the musicians begin to play, his music might sound different than he intended.
I have been creative, but not in that musical sense.  The fun part was to begin to relate creativity to innovation.  I have been involved in the world of innovation.  A couple basic ways to see innovation is to create a new thing or to figure out a new way to do an old thing.  When I put it this way, it is easy for me to see a significant relationship between being creative and innovative. 
When we add the third element, namely, renovation, again it is easy for me to see how related it is to the other two.  Renovation is little more than an application of the innovative process dealing with an old thing.  For example, we talk about renovating an old house.  In the end the structure of the house may be unchanged.  From the outside it looks just like it always did.  But inside, the transformation might seem unbelievable.  In many ways renovation takes creativity and innovatively applies it to the old thing.
While this may be interesting, does it have anything to do with spirituality and the spiritual journey many of us are walking?  The answer is a resounding “Yes” for me.  Let me elaborate.  As I thought about this set of ideas, it occurred to me the three key words in the title of this piece could be used to summarize much of my Christian understanding of my spiritual journey.  And I think, most of it is applicable to other major religious traditions, like Judaism, Buddhism, etc.
A key piece of my understanding of God is that God is creative.  Even though I opt for some form of evolution, I still understand God as Spirit being creatively involved in the process of the world coming to be and continuing to be.  All of us creatures are dependent on that life-giving Spirit continuing to support our lives.  Evolution itself is a form of innovation.  Most of us would claim some relationship to the ape world.  Apparently I share a very high percentage of my DNA with mice!  I might claim uniqueness, but there is a great deal of relatedness, too.  And as a human being, my own life has been innovative.  I keep doing new things and old things new ways.
And a final big piece of my spiritual journey is the honest recognition that I have often screwed up and done things badly.  The old theological language for this is sin.  Even if I want to get rid of that word, I cannot deny the reality of sin---things gone badly.  That is where renovation comes into the picture!  The same creative Spirit of God is also the renovative Spirit of God.  Again classical Christian language might call this reconciliation or use a variety of other words, the effect is the same as the renovated house.
When I have messed up, I still look like the same guy who was the good guy before messing up.  The renovative process does not change my looks any more than the renovated house looked different.  But that process transformed me and makes me whole.  If I am with coaches, we might talk about changing the way we play the game.  Perhaps the music composer can use language of tempo change and other avenues to make new music from an old song.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Spirituality of Nature

No doubt, one of the best things that happened to me when I went to college was my narrow provincialism began to be challenged and changed.  Provincialism is not inherently bad; it is just limited.  To be provincial is to be limited to one’s single province.  My growing up province was a rural Indiana farm community.  It was a great place to grow up---wonderful people and the values they held to, like hard work, honesty, etc.  I have been forever grateful for this nurturing culture.  But it also was provincial.
It was provincial for me because it limited my view of the world---my sense of the incredible diversity and complexity of the world.  Provincialism is a form of limited ignorance.  Very smart people can be provincial.  Smart people can be ignorant!  I was one!  I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  College began to change that and I have endeavored to keep growing ever since.  I have become more worldly and wiser.
As I grew, I discovered multiple religious groups and dimensions I never knew existed.  I found a diversity within Christianity about whom I knew almost nothing.  Even large groups, like Roman Catholics, were basically unknown to me.  The more I learned from books and from the adherents to these religious traditions, the more thrilling it became.  I was not put off; rather, I was pulled into the richness of traditions.
When I went to graduate school, I was provided an incredible learning environment.  For two years I lived next door to the university’s Center for the Study of World Religions.  That meant I had Jews and Buddhists in my back yard.  I felt like I began to share all the major religious holidays with a host of new friends.  I would join the Hindus in their celebration of the festival of lights---Divali.  That would happen in the same autumn season as the Jewish celebration of Sukkot, the occasion when Jews build a sukkah or booth, to indicate their precarious living situation in the time in the wilderness after their deliverance from the slavery of Egypt.  In my back yard I witnessed these rather small little tent-like structures being erected.
Throughout my education there was one major religious tradition I caught glimpses of, but don’t think I ever recognized it or took it seriously.  That tradition I would now call nature spirituality.  Of course, that was ironic, since I had spent so much time in nature when I was growing up on that Indiana farm.  Sometimes we are too close to things to recognize them.  Such was the case with nature and me.
It was Annie Dillard who began teaching me something about the spirituality of nature.  I often return to her 1970s book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  That book nearly blew my mind when I first read it.  It opened my eyes---which is exactly what it was supposed to do.  There is a rather long quotation at the end of the book that is a reflection on both life and death.  Let me share it with you to get a taste of the spirituality of nature.
“I think that the dying pray at the last not ‘please,’ but ‘thank you,’ as a guest thanks his host at the door.  Falling from airplanes the people are crying thank you, thank you, all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks.  Divinity is not playful.  The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest.  By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet.  There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see.  And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knew precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.”
There is so much in this paragraph that could be unpacked and analyzed.  A couple things stand out to me.  First, I would fondly hope that I can grow spiritually enough to be able to recognize the naturalness and inevitability of my own death and be ok with that.  I want to be one of those dying folks who at the end can pray “thank you.”  I am sure I can get to this place by attending to my daily walk and make that as deeply spiritual as I can.
Secondly, I want to know that Maker of the universe whom, I’m sure, is some form of Absolute Love.  I would like to think I am a product of Love and you, too, have been produced by that same Love.  A corollary of that awareness is that I must become a producer of love in my life and within my world.  And I expect the same from you.  If my life can be dedicated to this kind of love expression, then I am confident I can come to the end of my earthly life and say “thank you.”
The spirituality of nature pulls me into my natural world, asking that I open my eyes and see.  It shows me a world that is not fantasyland, but is both gracious and demanding.  That sounds a great deal about life.  My vow is to use this day as the first day in the classroom of nature.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016


I continue to work my way slowly through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World.  I find it to be engaging.  She is an eloquent writer who is helping me look at my world and notice things I have never seen.  She is helping me see how to develop new disciplines out of my ordinary way of living.  Her subtitle gives more clues: A Geography of Faith. 
In her introduction Taylor shares her hopes for what she wants to accomplish in her book.  “My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul.  What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, more trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.” (xvii)  Taylor offers a number of practices that help us “save our lives” through the normal living of our life.
Each chapter outlines a particular practice.  One of the chapters I found very helpful is entitled, “The Practice of Encountering Others.”  When I read this chapter, its truth resonated with me.  I realized I have been doing this for years, but never called it this.  And I did not think about understanding this practice as a kind of spiritual discipline.  In effect she has given me a new way and some new language to see and talk about what I already have been doing.
As I read the chapter, I was caught by a sentence that likely would not be a focal sentence for very many people.  Taylor says, “The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.” (91)  I am sure I was pulled into this sentence because for decades one of the key issues for me has been to learn how to live a meaningful life.  To me this is far more important than fame or fortune.
In a way Taylor’s distillation of the great wisdom traditions is simple.  But as I learned a long time ago, simple does not always mean easy.  She says a life of meaning results from a life that is not self-absorbed.  At the end of the chapter, Taylor articulates the main point with a sense of humor.  “The assignment is to get over yourself.” (105)  I really wanted to end that sentence with an exclamation mark!  I can just hear some old sage tell me: “Alan, get over yourself!”  Such is the path of wisdom.
As I ponder this, I realize I have wandered into the land of paradox.  In order to save myself, I need to become more human so that I can trust God even more in the ordinariness of my life.  And then she adds ironically, the main impediment---the big problem---of living a life of meaning is being too self-absorbed.  I laugh.  To have meaning in my life is to get over myself.  The most important thing I want from life is not about me.  No wonder so few of us ever gets to this point.  But I want to persevere.
Taylor is not telling us that we don’t matter.  To the contrary.  I am confident she wants us to know we matter so much that we won’t know the meaning of life until we know how much we matter.  We are people of worth.  We are worthy people---each and every one of us.  But we get to this truth only by paradox.  We get to this truth by getting over ourselves. 
There are many ways to develop this, but let me go this direction.  We get only by giving.  Of course, I know we can get by scheming, working and getting what we feel like we deserve.  I can “get” in the sense of fame and fortune.  I can even make a name for myself.  But ultimately this will be seen as shallow and unimportant.  There is no lasting meaning in this.  We get by giving.  And the best teacher of that is love.
Authentic love is the place I think I best understand how getting comes from giving.  I know that is not true of all kinds of loves.  We all know love can be selfish and possessive.  I am sure I have manipulated people to get love.  But most of us also know the purer forms of love.  Maybe it gets easier as I get older.  I had a ton of people help me.  Friends have been a godsend.  My own kids were a laboratory for me to learn a little about love.
Now I have grandkids to practice on.  Love with friends, kids, grandkids and others is the crucible where I try to get over myself.  They all come in my ordinariness.  They are there when I am high and when I am sick.  They see me all dressed up and when I am undressed---emotionally and maybe even physically.  They are the ones I have sinned against and, if there is hope, labor with me in the school of becoming a saint.
Authentic love allows no place for self-absorption.  True love is always self-transcending.  But transcendent love has a way of looping back.  At its best, it is circular.  What I give I get back in a form that is good for me.  This is hard to trust.  Real love is always a leap of faith.  But with my faith in God, who is love, I am willing to trust.  I am going to keep trying to get over myself---come what may.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Spiritual Giants

Adam Grant is a relatively young scholar.  He teaches at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  He focuses on psychology and management.  Anyone in the business world knows that Wharton is as famous as Harvard when it comes to business schools.  So professionally he is at the top of ladder.  However, the great thing about him is he has the ability to do interesting research and write about it in engaging ways for the non-expert.  Whenever he writes something, I want to read it.
Recently, he had an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times.  It had in intriguing title: “How to Raise a Creative Child. Step One: Back Off.”  Naturally, I jumped right into the reading of the thing.  The focus was on the highly gifted child.  They are the ones off the chart smart or talented.  They are prodigies---so far ahead of their peers it is ridiculous.  But where does it end?
Grant puts it pretty simply.  “Child prodigies rarely become adult geniuses who change the world.”  Instead of fame, they typically fizzle.  Grant thinks he has some reasons that explain this.  I like the way Grant describes their pilgrimage to normalcy.  He says, “What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original.”  Instead of being a creative kid who turns into an adult genius who might make the world different, the kid is not inventive or innovative.
Grant suggests the reason for this.  He claims “They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers.”  The ways in which they are fabulously gifted can be showy, but ultimately nothing is produced.  Again, Grant puts it clearly.  “But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”
They may well become leaders in their field.  But they are not the ones who figure out how to do things in creative, new ways.  Ironically, Grant maintains, “Research suggests the most creative children are the least likely to become the teacher’s pet, and in response, may learn to keep their original ideas to themselves.”  Grant then moves to try to explain why the really gifted child may never be creative and the not-so-obvious creative kid becomes the big innovator or one who transforms the world in some fashion.
Grant turns to the parents for part of the explanation.  Surprisingly, a key difference was the number of rules parents had for their kids.  Generally speaking, highly creative children had far fewer rules from parents.  Grant concludes, “Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart.”  It was simple: “By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves.”
As I have experience in the field on innovation, I find Grant’s perspective makes sense.  I can even point to my own experience.  While I obviously never would have fit into the gifted child category, I am sure I spent way too much time and effort pleasing both my parents and teachers.  I became good, but not great.  I thwarted myself.  I am not down about that because I also have learned in small ways, at least, to become more innovative.
There is much more to say on this topic, but I want to switch to the spiritual side of the topic.  While many may not see any spiritual teaching from this, I immediately made some connections.  No one doubts that there have been some spiritual giants throughout history and, even, in our own time.  Most adults today think of Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Tutu and others from the 20th century.
I am confident every one of them would not have said they were spiritually gifted young children.  Seldom would a young one aspire to be a saint.    In fact, I am not even sure what the career path to being a saint would look like.  But I also think there are some hints to what normally happens.
A spiritual giant is one who comes to know deep in her or his heart a God who becomes so real to them that they are transformed from an ordinary spiritual person into an extraordinary person.  The normally have enough commitment and discipline to see their way into new ways radicalizing the world for God’s sake.  Often they work miracles from the humility of their station in life.  Seldom do they have the power of the politician or prince.
Their work is divinity, not domination.  It is not unusual for them to be misfits in society and, even, in the church.  They don’t do rules very well.  Rather they have become their own person---often their own person is as a transformed person of God.  Indeed through them and their action, God is present in the world and, frequently proclaiming a new kind of world that is not simply a better version of what exists.
It would be easy to acknowledge this, applaud this like we do the athletic prodigy, and then go home.  But in the spiritual world each and every one of us ultimately is being called into spiritual greatness.  To settle for less is to say no to part or, even, all of God’s call on our lives.  Too many of us are the parent of our inner child—thwarting any kind of spiritual genius each of us possesses.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Thoughts on Faith

I have thought about some topics for decades now.  But it is always wonderful to come across someone who can shed new light on an old subject.  One such topic I have pondered for years is faith.  Anyone who has engaged religion in any form probably has thought about faith.  I reckon I first thought about faith---what it is and how it works---as early as high school.  Perhaps I thought about it even earlier than that, but I can’t remember.  However, I am sure faith was involved in my life long before I thought about it!
To be sure, faith is a word that is usually involved with religion and the religious journey.  I would even use it with respect to spirituality, assuming there is some difference between religion and spirituality.  But faith is not simply a word used in conjunction with religion.  And I would contend, it is not a religious word.  Rather, I might call it a human word.  If you are human, faith is part of your vocabulary and part of your life.
My earliest forays into faith led me to believe faith was something people “had in God.”  Growing up in that Quaker context, I often heard people say they “had faith in God.”  In my na├»ve mind I assumed at first we did not have faith and, then, for some reason we came to have faith.  My little world assumed that everyone would come to faith at some point.  Sometimes people got it at a revival.  Some of us went to a revival, but never got it!  I belonged to this second camp.
I was helped the most when I went to college and, then, on to graduate school.  I learned some foreign languages, which oddly enough, helped me develop my faith.  There were days I wondered why I was bothering with Greek and learning more Latin.  They seem perfectly useless to most people and most things people were doing in the world.  But I plunged on.  And some bits of revelation began to happen.
One of the earliest things I learned was the fact that in classical languages, faith is a verb, as well as a noun.  When I read the New Testament in Greek, I realized there was a translation problem.  To use bad English to illustrate the point, I wanted to translate a sentence like this; “He faithed the gospel.”  Good English would have to say, “He believed the gospel.”  Typically, we have to use the word, believe to get a verb for “faithed.”  Or sometimes, we switch to the word, trust.  To say I have faith in you, I normally would say “I trust you.”
This made a big difference for me.  Of course, faith can be a noun.  I can say I do have faith in my two daughters.  But I also “faith” them---that is, I trust them.  I want both the verb and the noun.  It was a big difference because it enabled me to see that faith can be a process.  When I say it can be a process, I mean that it can extend over time.  It is not necessarily an event---that is, a one-time thing.  I never felt like I could lock in faith and never have to worry about it again.  For me, it seems like it is always in process.  I always have to keep believing.
This is where I was when I read a piece from a recent book by a poet, Christian Wiman, entitled, My Bright Abyss.  He says, “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life.  Those who try to make it into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures…so too faith is folded into change, is the mutable and messy process of our lives rather than any fixed, mental product.”  “Yes,” I wanted to exclaim, “That’s true!”
Wiman put it as I experience it.  Faith is not an unchanging thing.  Even if I wake tomorrow and seem to have the same faith I had today, it only looks that way.  If faith is a process, as I believe it is, then when I wake tomorrow, I will trust all over again.  I will need to “faith” God one more day.  This is not some minor thing.  I know people claim they have “lost faith.”  What this means to me is the process of trusting can be derailed or submarined…or whatever verb of losing you want to use.
If I do not wake up tomorrow and claim again that process of trusting---“faithing”---I will have begun the process of losing my faith.  I know that faith establishes a relationship---with God or anyone else.  Without some regular attention to the relationship, that relationship will begin to sour.  It probably won’t instantly happen, but the process of “losing faith” will have begun.
Although I gave this meditation the title, “Thoughts on Faith,” I confess that much of the faith I experience is not intellectual or cognitive.  This means that I generally do not consider faith to be just an idea.  I also do not see it as a doctrine of religion.  It is more of a heart-word to me.  Trust (faith) as a verb is a heart thing, not a concept.  I can talk about my faith when I objectify it.  But faith is not an object. 
Faith is a process establishing a relationship that needs to be nurtured and nourished.  Those are my thoughts on faith.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Practical Contemplation

For a fairly long time in my professional life I have been interested in contemplation.  As I so often comment, “contemplation” is not a word I heard while growing up as a young Quaker in Indiana.  I am confident I was not paying attention.  I don’t think Quakers I knew were using that word, “contemplation.”  So if I had been asked about it, I would have offered a blank stare.
I am sure I heard about the word, “contemplation,” while I was in school.  I may have heard of it in college, but more likely I first heard about it in graduate school.  I can guess I encountered it first in some kind of history of Christianity class.  Because Quakerism dates from the 17th century, we have a bad habit of skipping from Jesus to the 17th century.  I knew almost nothing about the sixteen hundred years between Jesus and the origins of my tradition.  Quite a bit happened during that time!
Early Christian contemplative tradition is rooted in the early Christian developments of monasticism.  After the first couple centuries, some Christians began to feel like the Christian movement had begun to be watered down.  You can almost hear some of them saying, “It’s not like it was in the good old days.”  Of course, in the good old days, you could die for your faith---you could be martyred!  I think I am one of the lukewarm Christians, too!
So some of these serious guys and gals headed to the desert.  In effect, they went to the margins of their culture.  They wanted to walk away from the superficiality of their environment.  They wanted a more rigorous way to live like they thought Jesus had lived.  They felt like Jesus had been counter-cultural and they wanted the same thing.  In effect, their goal was imitation Christi---imitating Christ.  They wanted to pattern their lives after his model of prayer, meditation, etc.  And so the monks set up a different way of life than most of their peers.
Part of that monastic creativity was the attention they gave to contemplation.  This is the part of monastic creativity that I have appreciated and tried to adapt into my own spiritual journey.  There are many ways to describe contemplation, but I like the way Gerald May does it in his book, The Awakened Heart.  May says, “It is most frequently defined as an open, panoramic, and all-embracing awareness, but it is really this all-embracing awareness brought into fullness of living and action, an attitude of the heart and a quality of presence rather than just a state of consciousness.”  Let’s unpack and develop some of the thoughts in this wonderful sentence.
Even though May goes further, he does begin with a basic definition of contemplation.  It is an awareness.  Contemplatives are very aware of themselves and of things.  Contrast this with the huge number of people who sleepwalk through life.  Many of us are walking robots ambling through the motions.  Contemplatives are aware; sometimes they are quite alert---paying attention to themselves and to others.
May describes with some detail the nature of this awareness.  It is an open, panoramic and all-embracing awareness.  I can resonate with the idea of openness.  I know it, if I am open.  Again, robotic living is not openness.  Going through the motions is not openness.  May adds to this the idea of panoramic awareness.  That is awareness in a broad sweep.  It is not narrow or minutely focused.  It is a kind of sweeping awareness.  And this awareness is all-embracing. 
The good news is we can cultivate this kind of awareness.  It can be practiced.  Others can help us.  And this sets us up for the rest of May’s definition of being contemplative.  This points to contemplation being a way of life and an action.  One misconception of contemplation is that it is a kind of navel-gazing, mystical experience that has nothing to do with real life.  May counters this stereotype by suggesting contemplation can be a way to live everyday life.  That kind of life is grounded in the basic kind of awareness just outlined.  This appeals to me.
May tries to offer one more detail.  This kind of awareness is an attitude of the heart---a quality of presence.  I like the idea that it is a quality of the heart.  I think of other spiritual qualities of the heart.  One such quality would be a loving heart.  It is not hard for me to claim that a contemplative is one with that kind of quality of heart---a loving quality grounded in the all-embracing awareness.
The final piece from May is my favorite.  I like his focus on contemplation as a kind of presence.  Again it makes sense to contrast this with the opposite: absence.  So many of us can live absently---absent-mindedness.  A contemplative is present and has a kind of presence.  I strive to do this.  I aim to be present and to be a presence in any situation in which I find myself.  To this end, I practice contemplation.