Contemplative First, Writer Second
by Richard Lehan

Being a writer is a solitary, demanding endeavor with no guarantee of publication or recognition. Abandoning the work for a myriad of less taxing diversions is an ever-present temptation. For these reasons, you need to come to an understanding on where writing fits into the core commitments in your life. This is particularly important for someone like me who began writing more consistently after my recent retirement. I also made a concurrent commitment to contemplative prayer, a discipline that I’ve experimented with before. I am now in year three of making prayer and writing a regular part of my life. And what I’ve discovered is that thinking of myself as a contemplative first, writer second, has sustained and deepened my writing in meaningful ways. Let me explain.

Verlyn Klinkenborg rightly observed in his book Several Short Sentences About Writing: “The problem most writers face isn’t writing. It’s consciousness. Attention. Noticing.” For better or worse, consciousness shapes a writer’s stance toward the world. Attention, in turn, determines the quality of a writer’s engagement with everyday reality, including the aftereffect: memories—a key source of inspiration and creation. Absent a personal “wellspring” fed by attention, a writer’s work can suffer from a lack of care, depth, and authenticity. But in the age of the smartphone as appendage, developing an attentive posture rarely happens without an intentional effort. It calls for a daily praxis centered on training the mind, spirit, and even the body to concentrate and see plainly.

Beginning a contemplative practice can be a deflating experience because it confronts you with your own chaotic mind. The challenge is not to lose hope but to reframe that reality check as the first step in the rehabilitation process. Contemplative prayer also seeks to declutter the mind but is directed at making way for the unobstructed gaze. My approach is the one recommended by the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th-century treatise on contemplative prayer:

Cover your distracting thoughts in a “cloud of forgetting.”

Gather all your desire into a prayer word and aim it, like a loving dart, at the “cloud of unknowing” that lies between you and God.

Do not cease come what may.

In practice, the experience often resembles a busy daydream, but occasionally the static gives way to a spacious silence. And the more regularly you sit, the more anchored you become.

But the contemplative way is not defined by a dedicated sitting alone; it strives to be a seamless discipline that roots one in the prayerful ground of ordinary life. In some ways, maintaining a contemplative posture is more difficult than the sitting because it erases the artificial boundary between practice and being. Both modes of practice reinforce and nourish each other.

Being a contemplative first makes paying attention a prerequisite for being a writer. Contemplation trains you to bring your “bare” focus to the act of writing and to persevere in the face of the blank page, terrible first drafts, and rejected submissions. It takes a multitude of fruitless writing “sittings” to embody the truth of Samuel Beckett’s dictum: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Moreover, the contemplative imperative to remain present in the unfolding moment is essential to developing a writer’s eye. A creative vision arises from truly beholding whatever lies before you, untainted by the impulse to consume it as writing “material.”

Patience is another lesson learned from contemplation. In her essay “The Right Use of School Studies,” Simone Weil wrote: “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” “Attention,” she counseled, “consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty and ready to be penetrated by the object [being attended to].” Similarly, contemplation and writing both require one to sit patiently while remaining receptive to what emerges. Just as a contemplative continues to trace their breath amid a flurry of distractions, a writer must resist the pull to escape from the rigors of composition and stay with the thought, word, or line before them, ready to reject the easy formulation in favor of an expression that is ripened by waiting and revision. When a contemplative-writer maintains a posture of patient rootedness, the work emerges organically through a sustained but unhurried effort. The piece is allowed to evolve its own arc and ending. When that happens, nothing is wasted. The writer has made use of every failed attempt to discover the sought-after words and meaning.

Finally, an authentic contemplative practice is not to be judged by its “usefulness.” Strictly speaking, contemplation is a waste of time. To the committed practitioner, it is infused with a spiritual worth that is its own justification. Viewing writing in a similar way—as an openended “vow” of communication instead of a set of self-regarding “projects”—draws upon the same contemplative wisdom. In a journal entry on April 14, 1966, Thomas Merton equated the work of writing to the simple job of being, explaining that the act of creative reflection and awareness helped life itself live in him. “To write is to love,” he wrote, “it is to inquire and to praise or to confess or to appeal . . . not to reassure myself that I am (‘I write therefore I am’), but simply to pay my debt to life, to the world, to other men.” When this realization becomes writing’s guiding principle, it liberates the writer from the self-imposed or outside measures of success that can undermine or defeat his or her commitment to write. Writing, like contemplation, then becomes an end in itself, an oblation that bears witness to a world saturated in beauty, suffering, and mystery.

To be a contemplative first, writer second, fosters an unencumbered but purposeful commitment to writing. It leavens the work in hidden ways. When contemplation becomes the unum necessarium discipline, writing is simply another expression of its flowering. The numinous is at play in this relationship but only time, effort, and trust can bring it to fruition. ♦

Richard Lehan is a writer living in Massachusetts. Most recently, he had a Reader’s Note published in Ruminate magazine.

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