The other day someone said to me, "I hear this word, 'contemplative' often these days; it's associated with spiritual practices. And it seems like I'm supposed to know what it means. But I don't, and since everyone else seems to know, I'm often embarrassed to ask. So, I'm asking you, What does contemplative really mean anyway?"
Contemplative spiritual practices have a rich history across religious traditions. They are not something esoteric or woo-woo, but in the best sense of the word are immensely practical for daily life.
Here's my little definition:
"Contemplative" comes from two Latin words, con and tempore. Con can mean "with". And tempore is the word from which we get "temporary", "temporal", "temperature", and so on. It means "time" or "moment". So con-tempore means "with the moment". Living contemplatively means learning how to live with ourselves right here, right now--fully present to who we are in this time and place, and to the world right around us. Doing so is an art that transforms the way we live, love, and experience the gift of our "one, wild, and precious life" (Mary Oliver).
Honestly, most of us spend most of our time everywhere else but where we are. What I mean is that, we live much of our lives north of the neck, that is, in our heads; 98% of the time we're thinking about the past, wondering about the future, or preoccupied in some other way.
It's really unusual to be focused here and now. But here and now is all we've got, really. Being here, present now doesn't mean we forget the past or ignore the future. But it means that we don't neglect the present. And so, when we get to the future, we'll be there, not somewhere else.
What this means, for example, is that we look the other person in the eye when we're talking with them. And that changes the whole encounter. We smell our coffee. We taste our food. And revel in these simple gifts.
Think about the last time you felt someone was really present to you and how you experienced their presence. Think about the time you felt really focused--like your energy was fully concentrated on what you were doing. Such moments are rare, but when we're there we feel really, really alive.
Contemplative practices (like meditation, Centering Prayer, or yoga for example), teach us how to be more fully present so that we live life more fully.
Contemplative practices root us in daily life.
Long ago, I read this telling saying in Thomas Merton's anthology called The Wisdom of the Desert (I don't have the little book here where I'm writing, so this comes from memory):
If you see a monk trying to climb into heaven, grab him by the heel and pull him back to earth.
Contemplative practices are proven ways to keep us connected to the earth and therefore to keep us more fully human and, therefore, more fully alive to the Divine.