For some time, I have been considering a thesis that I have assumed to be true, but could not quite put my finger on. I believe that people experience contemplation relatively early in their spiritual journey. However, I also believe that such experiences go unnoticed or people tend to think of them as “not a big deal.” In the Catholic tradition, contemplation gets described in a variety of ways. For the sake of this article, I will describe it as a state of “rest” in which the natural faculties of the intellect and will are not actively engaged.1
I was considering this thesis, when yesterday a friend helped me to discover an insight. He explained that sometimes in prayer, he zones out. When asked to describe this experience, he described a state in which his mind is turning, but he is gently not paying attention. He also explained that sometimes the mind was not even turning. As we discussed it more and more, we both agreed that spending time is such a state is incredibly relaxing and peaceful. We also agreed that zoning out is not something you can actively do. It is a lot like falling asleep, it just happens.
I think this may form an important bridge between natural and supernatural contemplation. In religions such as Buddhism, there is an experience in which the mind rests which bears much in common with the Catholic understanding of contemplation. However, there is a key difference. Christian experience is always tied to a concrete relationship with someone, namely Jesus Christ. Furthermore, our relationship with God is beyond our natural ability. This is why Jesus Christ became man, to establish us in a relationship with God that is beyond our grasp.
Certainly, Buddhist meditation is able to produce experiences of calm and relaxation. This is practically an empirical fact. It also seems to help people to sort through their interior life and experience greater amounts of human integration. None of this is “bad” or “evil.” However, it is incomplete. In a certain sense, Christian meditation takes up these natural goods and puts them at the service of Christian love which is beyond the natural order. The call to communion with Christ and the unconditional love which is the sign and fruit of that communion is beyond our abilities. In short, we need God’s grace. Meditation disposes us to receive this gift.
My idea is that there is a connection between zoning out and the “rest” of contemplation experienced by both Buddhist and Christian meditators. I need to work out the details of this proposal, but I am curious your thoughts and feedback. In terms of your prayer life, I want to make two proposals. First, I propose that if you are meditating, and you start to zone out, that you simply rest in this experience. Second, I am curious to hear your experiences of zoning out and how that has taken place. Did you find it relaxing to zone out? Did you find that you went back to your daily life refreshed and renewed?
image taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modern_sculpture
1For more information on contemplation, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2709-2719 http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c3a1.htm
Great insight. Yes I agree but have never considered that “zoning out” was a positive. I usually consider it “lacking focus”. Thanks for this perspective.
This is a great perspective, as yours always are. When I zone out it is usually in adoration.
In the beginning (of my journey in adoring) I felt like I had to be “doing something” in adoration (i.e. praying). In time, I learned to just rest (although sometimes I still feel compelled to do something and sometimes I have to surrender the want to rest when I am busy juggling a toddler just outside the chapel door).
Actually, I think that resting has helped me to recognize that even when I am stuck outside the chapel door, I can let my heart and mind remain inside by directing my thoughts towards Jesus even when my body is elsewhere. Does that make sense? This resting, which I now realize is mediation, has such a powerful way of renewing me in mind, body and spirit. Thanks for this bit of direction!
I completely agree. I don’t really think of it as contemplation, but I tend to have the greatest insights and “aha” moments when I am driving.
Zoning out sometimes happens to me when I am thinking or reading about God or talking to Him. I’ll start drifting into an almost a dream-like state, and it is there I hear His voice most clearly. This brings me great joy and peace, and at times startling clarity of thought. Sometimes, If I’m sitting in my favorite chair or lying in bed, I fall asleep, but when I wake up, the memory of His voice is there, and I want to go back to the moment when I heard it. Of course, I live in the present, so I have to move forward. But this ‘zoning out’ is the sweetest, most treasured part of my spiritual life.
Thanks everyone for your comments. Very helpful.
I tend to think that certain temperaments are more inclined to this type of thing. If you take the Myers-Briggs categories, for example, the NTs (intuitive thinkers) will be more likely to go off this way, I think, because of a natural inclination for interior thought. (I am such an NT). But I realize there is a peaceful place of this, and there is the kind of mental agitation which is my mind hard at work.
I know there are many times that if I am in this peaceful place it can lead to a sort of interior “dialogue” or exchange (that I tend to think of as prayer) that can be moments of communion or God’s communication to me in the depths of my spirit. It can also entail the sort of thing where I can suddenly not be sure whether I just “said” something out loud or within me, which can certainly shake me out of such a state, say, if I am working within earshot of others.
But I think there is another sort of zoning out that I experience when, say, I’ve had too much noise going on around me, my kids asking me too many things at once, and I’m tired, and then it really is just a defensive retreat.
Thanks so much for your comments. About your last point, I think that this is an important lesson that is bigger than you might think. I often believe that people would be better served when they are tired and stressed out to turn towards meditation. People hesitate to pray when they are tired because they associate prayer with doing. The desire is not to do but to rest. Thus the tendency is to turn towards television and pleasure, but I think this idea of “zoning out” might help people to grasp how to use meditation when they are tired. So I would recommend, when tired and busy, take 10-15 minutes to zone out.
Interesting! I find that it is almost unavoidable to shut down, and that it takes me great attention to actually be present then to those people needing/wanting my attention. I think it was Susannah Wesley who would just put her apron over her head when “closed in” with her kids and say, in effect “Mom’s going to go away on a break right now.”