Skyline, Summer - 2008

By Diane Pendola

Contemplative Presence

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What is Contemplative Presence? First of all, it might be helpful to share with you how I'm using the word "contemplative". When I use the word contemplative I mean to convey an attitude of openness, of receptivity. It's a quality of attention, of listening. So I can imagine you might ask, to what or whom are we being open and receptive? To what or whom are we listening?

Every spiritual tradition has a contemplative dimension. I believe that spirituality is essential to our wholeness as human beings and to our healing as individuals and as an earth community. When I speak of spirituality, I don't necessarily mean religious faith or belief in God– although for you it may entail these things. I mean an openness to that which lies beyond or beneath our personalities or our ego identified selves, with a small "s", to an openness to what I like to call the Larger Self of which we are a part. My professional training is in ministry and my life-long dedication has been to the study and practice of the spiritual life. I like to find those places within our spiritual traditions that unite us rather than divide us. One area where we can discover a unity within the various religious and wisdom traditions is within their contemplative dimensions.

Which brings us back to our initial questions: to what or whom are we open, receptive, attentive? For the Christian it would be to the indwelling Christ, the Holy Spirit dwelling within. For the Buddhist it would be attentiveness to the objects arising in awareness and openness to what lies beneath that arising: one's Buddha Nature or True Nature. For the Native American it would be a receptivity to the Great Spirit who moves in and through all things. The contemplative dimension is unifying because it is based not on dogma or doctrine, but on experience. And this contemplative dimension is not exclusive to religion, but is part of the nature of being human. That's why it shows up universally in all of our wisdom traditions. We can be contemplative and not believe in God or Jesus, Buddha-nature or the Great Spirit. Because the contemplative attitude is one of openness, it is open more to what we don't know than what we know. It is less about "belief" than it is about openness and inquiry. Albert Einstein might be considered a great contemplative. His spirit of inquiry and openness to discovering what was not yet known is instructive to all of us.

So when I talk about a contemplative attitude, I am referring to a dimension of our own humanness, our own depths, our own desire to know and to love. This dimension of ourselves doesn't find much support in contemporary society. Even religion doesn't give it much support because so much of religion is about dogma and the content of belief that it can obstruct this deeper inquiry into the unknown.

The contemplative attitude emphasizes "being" rather than "doing". It emphasizes silence and receptivity over discursive thinking and activity. We don't get much support in our churches or our workplaces or our families for just "being." There is certainly not much cultural support for "silence." And yet I would venture to say that every spiritual tradition teaches its adherents that it is only when "doing" stops, when all the outer noise and inner chatter quiets, that the aspirant can truly experience God's presence or their True Nature. So what we are about here at Skyline is supporting this contemplative dimension of our human nature.

The following poem, which is a native American teaching story adapted by the poet David Waggoner, illustrates the contemplative attitude. An elder is instructing a young person on what to do if he or she ever finds herself "lost" in the forest. This teaching poem is about receptivity, awareness and openness to those powers and numinous forces that are so much greater than our small, ego-identified selves. It is a poem about contemplative presence. The poem is called: "LOST"

Stand still.
The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost.
Wherever you are is called "here" and you must
treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it
and be known,

the Forest breathes, it whispers,
I have made this place around you. If you leave it
you may come back again saying "here".
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree of branch does is lost on you
Then you are surely lost.

Stand still.
The Forest knows where you are.
You must let it find you.

-David Waggoner-

What is being asked of us in this poem? First we are being asked to stand still. We are being asked to stop our busy-ness, our frantic activity, our self-absorbed thinking and doing. We are asked to come into silence and open to a greater reality in which we find ourselves. We are asked to recognize that we are entering the unknown. As we enter into the present moment, "here", we are entering sacred space and there is an unknown quality to this space. There is Power in this space and in the face of this powerful Presence we find ourselves in an attitude of surrender, even supplication. I could imagine myself kneeling in the presence of this "Powerful Stranger" asking permission to know it and in the process coming to know prior unfathomed dimensions of myself.

Contemplative presence is a listening at the deepest level of our being, not with our ears but with our hearts and our souls. Through contemplative presence we come into awareness of the world beyond our small world. We come out of the preoccupations of our small self and enter the larger Self of which we are a part. As the poem suggests, without this ability to drop down below the pre-occupations of our personality, our fears and plans and ambitions, into the awe and stillness of the greater reality that holds us, then we will surely be lost. Of course we do leave this place, to do the shopping, go to work, negotiate traffic, do our taxes. But in order not to get lost in the small details of our life we need to know how to come back to "Here",  to "Now":  I have made this place around you. If you leave it you may come back again saying "here".

How many of us experience this feeling of being "lost" these days? There is so much pressure from the outer world. We are awarded for workaholism and can feel guilty when we do have free time that is not filled up with productivity or meeting other people's needs. In this time of rising fuel costs, economic anxiety and the tragic consequences of extreme weather how many of us feel "lost"- without a sense of place within the larger nature of things, without an anchor, without a lodestar to guide our way?

The poem suggests that we will surely be lost if we cannot see beyond ourselves to a greater reality that holds us, sustains us, gives us life, in which we share life with every other life. And the clincher in the poem is: You cannot find it! You must let it find you! If you go looking for it with your mind, with your personality, with your belief system intact, as though you already know all there is to know: what is right and wrong, true and false, you will not find it. What is required here is humility. What is required here is surrender. What is required here is the faith and the courage to enter the unknown and wait.

Stand still. The Forest knows where you are. You must let it find you.

©Diane Pendola, Summer 2008. You are welcome to print or make a copy in electronic form for personal use or sharing with interested persons as long as the copyright notice is not removed or altered. Please do not print it in any other publication, or sell it, by itself or as part of another work, without express written permission of the author.

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