There are many fringe benefits associated with what I do in life, namely, the chance to teach and mentor college students. The money I make is certainly adequate and now that my own kids are gone and on their own, I have more than enough. The fringe benefits are not monetary and that’s fine by me. One of the best spiritual lessons I have learned is if I have enough money, more does not bring more happiness or joy. I am glad I learned this lesson relatively young in life. I did not waste my life chasing something that ultimately does not bring satisfaction.
The best fringe benefit I get from teaching are the relationships that I develop. In fact I prefer to call the folks in my class friends, instead of students. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a student. After all, I still feel like I am a student of life. I hope I can always be a life-long learner, as they talk about it in college and the real world. I value the friendships I develop with the younger ones in my classes. They often become teachers for me---role reversal!
One of the things I am privileged to teach is a course called contemplative spirituality. I began teaching this because I very much wanted to know what it was and how it worked. So many of the historical figures I read and value were contemplatives. I count people like Thomas Merton, St. Francis and so many more live and write from this contemplative tradition. I also realized that many of the Quakers in my own tradition were also contemplatives. They just did not use that language.
Being contemplative is certainly not just a Christian thing. There are contemplatives in all the major religious traditions. I am especially helped by the Buddhists, who write from their perspective. I also have come to realize being contemplative does not even require a particular religious perspective. Having said this, it might be worth offering a very simple definition of a contemplative way of life. Let me simply put it this way: a contemplative is someone living with a keen awareness and someone living very much in the present. In my Quaker language it is a person who lives a centered life.
When I have the privilege of teaching this course, I provide a great deal of space for the students---my friends---to self discover and begin to find out for themselves what they can do to live with more awareness and to be more present to themselves, to others and in their world. Being contemplative is more art than science. There are not six easy steps to becoming contemplative. It is not a thing achieved---an accomplishment. It is a way of life and, as such, brings its own challenges and joys.
I appreciate being with my friends as they engage this process of learning to live contemplatively. Self-reflection is a significant part of that process. At other points things like commitment, discipline and the like become part of a longer-term process of making contemplation a way of life. Indeed, it will take a lifetime. But that’s ok. Life is a process, too.
My friends say things and write things that I find insightful and, often, very helpful for me. In this inspirational piece I would like to share one such insight that is very good to know. In a recent piece of reflection one student offered this observation. “I have been fortunate enough to learn…that learning to live contemplatively does not need to be problem-based.” I love the simplicity and profundity of this insight.
Unlike psychological counseling which typically is problem-based, the contemplative journey is an invitation into healthy spiritual growth. That is not a put down on psychological counseling. That is useful and, often, necessary for emotional health. Sometimes it can be an asset in the contemplative journey. But this contemplative journey is not merely psychological. It involves the whole person.
The contemplative spiritual journey is a journey into a life and lifetime of healthy spiritual growth. This journey is one that leads to emotional maturity and to spiritual wisdom. It is a journey of learning to love and being willing to accept love when it is given. Healthy spiritual growth will lead to a life of peace and simplicity. It always moves people to a life of service.
The healthy spiritual growth that contemplation cultivates is an exercise of putting our ego aside and inviting the Mystery whom I call God to become the center of our lives. A healthy contemplative will never be an egocentric person. While a healthy person needs to have self-love, he or she is not ego-based.
The good news is it is never too late to commence the contemplative journey. And even if one has been on that journey for a long time, it does not get boring or mundane. When you are connected to the Mysterious Source of life, you will feel the vitality and vibrancy of being on the way.