Jan 172013

mirror-reflection-in-sphere2The image of a mirror can be very helpful in understanding contemplative experience, because it is the nature of our consciousness, of our minds, to reflect.   The term ‘reflect’ not only refers to the act of pondering upon something, but refers even more directly to the way the mind works.  All the images we see in our minds –  whether images of things in the world around us, of memories, fantasies, or inspired visions – are representations of things and not the things themselves.  This process is also true for all our other senses, but nothing represents the reflective nature of the mind better than the way a mirror works for the sense of sight.  Even when a person attempts to think of his or her own mind, the thought is only an image of the mind, and thus is an action or a part of the mind, but not the mind itself.

It may be that in those last statements you can see how thinking about something can actually interfere with our ability to be as authentically present in the moment as possible, and thus to more completely observe and perceive its greater reality or truth.   As an example, consider the well know phenomenon that thinking too much about doing something, like dancing, while actually trying to do it, gets in the way of dancing as well as we might.  Another example can be found in the obsessive shutterbug, one who can’t stop taking pictures of something long enough to simply be present in the more direct experience of it.  The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it, whether it is something we regard as external to self or something as internal as our most secret thoughts and feelings.

When practicing silent or contemplative prayer, one sits in greater openness to whatever arises in consciousness, whether a sensory perception in response to something external, or thoughts and feelings arising in other ways.  This kind of prayer is practiced in faithful acceptance of whatever actually is, filtering and distorting it as little as possible with expectations, rules, analyses, or judgments. It means opening our awareness  more completely to the immediate fact of God’s creation and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.  We therefore see more clearly the truth of things just as they are in the present moment, and less as though in a cloudy mirror.   According to 1st Corinthians 13, seeing more clearly like this happens in the context of our maturation in love.

One of the most common experiences in this kind of practice is a greater awareness of the whole of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  Furthermore, most of us aren’t pleased to observe how much of a crazy mess is going on within us.   We discover that we aren’t nearly as rational, centered, well balanced, practically competent, emotionally secure, intellectually certain, spiritually enlightened, or morally virtuous as we like to pretend to others and ourselves.   In fact, anyone who practices like this for very long eventually comes to see in oneself the seeds, if not the seedlings, or even the flowers, of every sin ever committed by anyone.

There are many ways we can react to looking in that mirror.  I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession.   Those sorts of fears should be respected for the individuals gripped by them, because too much raw truth can be harmful  when we’re unprepared to cope with it.   Yet, for others, the initial shock and horror of their existential disillusionment eventually gives way to deeper and more authentic reverence, humility, gratitude, compassion, kindness, and selflessness.  We get past being entirely captivated by all the frailty, confusion, fragmentation, dishonesty, and negativity of our own humanity and that of others, and we see that these things come and go within a greater context, the beautiful wholeness of our being and becoming.  Our own looking inward upon the mirror of the soul, releasing our illusions and accepting what is, in turn leads us to see others more clearly and to love them more freely.  This is how contemplative practice serves the Great Commandments to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves.


  14 Responses to “The Mirror of Contemplation”

  1. Hi Chuck,

    I really enjoyed this work. It was very uh….relaxing! (Lol). I doubt that I could tell anyone exactly “what” contemplation is, or its lesser stepchild – meditation. I’ve read all the books that tell me these things, followed the instructions, but I still honestly don’t know what either actually are. And, I’ve been doing this off and on (mostly on) for over 25 years.

    I have also not been able to grasp any real distinction between meditation and contemplation. That could be because I’ve just never experienced contemplation, but there is a type of meditation referred to as “placement” meditation that sounds a lot like Christian contemplation. The difference is that one is Buddhist and one is Christian. In any case, the labels, definitions, instructions and what religions or traditions avail themselves of this, are less important than knowing what we are about.

    I liked your point that, while within contemplation, allowing thoughts, feelings, etc. to arise without judgment. It may be that some of these things will be disturbing, but if absolutely nothing is coming up for someone, they are neither meditating nor contemplating. They are probably simply “zoning-out”, which is fine, but fairly unproductive. We can zone-out at work on someonelse’s dime. I am aware of some Christians’ views that there is potential danger in meditation/contemplation. How that came about I will never know, because I know of absolutely no literature on the subject of contemplation leading to insanity or demon possession. However, if one does begin to experience troubling thoughts, feelings or behavior, it is probably best to seek out a qualified professional, because they probably have more serious problems than contemplating or meditating. There’s no point in making yourself miserable. That’s really not the purpose.

    Personally, I think the main problem people have when first attempting contemplative prayer, or even meditation, are preconceived beliefs and expectations of how it is “supposed” to be. For example, if someone has read a lot about various types of contemplation – infused, etc. a la St. John of the Cross for instance, they will automatically search for any sign of that while practicing. That goes for just about anything we experience in these states. We attempt to grasp and label them. That’s just the way the mind/ego works.

    I could go on and on about this topic, but I don’t want to make this longer than your original post! I will leave with this little tidbit that I’ve learned from my own practice of contemplation, or meditation, or whatever I’ve been doing all this time: The observer is the observed; the thought is the thinker; the experience is the experiencer. Not much for all of those years, huh?(Lol)



  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the kind words and additional reflections on contemplation.

    “The observer is the observed; the thought is the thinker; the experience is the experiencer.”

    Yep, no argument. What we are trying to reflect upon here is indeed something that doesn’t fit neatly into the duality of either/or. In some cases, the distinctions are more meaningful, and in other cases they are less so. In any case, the words can often be misleading.


  3. I appreciate this writing – The Mirror of Contemplation. It took me a long time to realise that the past present and future are simultaneous. I think the analogy of the river is perfect – everything is contained in the one.

    I do not like to advertise anything but I am currently reading a beautiful little book by Simon Small (who lives in Glastonbury in the UK) ‘From the Bottom of the Pond’ – The forgotten art of experiencing God in the depths of the present moment. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in prayer, contemplation and meditation. I would put an extract here but I am wary of breaking copywrite.

    The blurb reads: “This is a book about knowing God. It is for those for whom just believing (or not believing) is no longer enough. Through personal experience, anecdote and story, a priest shares an ancient, but neglected aspect of Christian prayer. Contemplation takes us into the depths of the present moment, the only reality there has ever been and so the only place where God can be found. It takes us at different times into mystical oneness with the All, into profound self-knowledge and reveals love in the midst of the world.

    Contemplation is the universal experience at the heart of all religions. It is the place where their differences fall away and their uniqueness is celebrated. ‘From the Bottom of the Pond’ says nothing new, but it says it in a new way: a way rooted in our western culture and history. It suggests that the essence of the great and wonderful enlightenment teachings of the East was always here, hidden in plain sight. ”

    Chuck, the book so much reflects what you have written here and the synchronicity of my reading the book and your own writing touches me deeply. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Very good Chuck! Looks like that synergy thing is about to show its head again…
    Like Steve, my first impulse is to start elaborating the topic (pros, pitfalls, peaks, and paths.) I think the fact that you mostly left those out of your post speaks volumes to a living example of freedom and awareness. To your point about “contemplation leading to insanity or demon possession,” I agree that when people initially begin contemplative practice they can become aware of some very disturbing, seemingly embedded, habits of thought that have been quietly influencing their day-to-day walk, perhaps from times long forgotten. Regardless of how shockingly these revelations may be individual felt, it’s my opinion that the path to freedom from demonic influence or a lifetime of “being the mirror” is further development of awareness through; you guessed it, contemplative prayer. Okay, so I elaborated a tiny bit, sorry!

    I have been reading and rereading “I and Thou” lately. Even though I have the “modern day” version it has taking a few passes, the first read out of curiosity, the second to understand Buber’s word usage, and the rest to soak up the wisdom. One of the most striking points Buber makes, he makes without assertion. He doesn’t go into much effort about explaining the practice that lead him to his state of awareness, but simply acknowledges the relationships between awareness, the ‘mirror’ and ‘God’. His discussion are more along the lines of “The way from the living God and back to Him again, the metamorphoses of the present, of embedment in forms, of objectification, of conceptualization, dissolution, and renewal are one way, are the way.”

    Yes, it’s easy enough to lose ones bearings if all one does is sit back and observe the mirror. Awareness without direction is dangerous or not, perhaps it can be harmless yet nonproductive, like placing the TV remote in the hands of two year old. Direction of course for the Christian Mystic is unity with Mystery, not to possess, but to love as we are loved. In that regard, contemplative prayer is very much an act of relationship with God.

    The flow between God, awareness, and mirror is just as beautiful and dynamic as the Brazos. All happening at the same time too 😉 Contemplative prayer, if nothing else is being present to presence.


    • Thanks, Greg!

      “Direction of course for the Christian Mystic is unity with Mystery, not to possess, but to love as we are loved. In that regard, contemplative prayer is very much an act of relationship with God.”

      That’s a beautiful statement, my friend! 🙂

      And, as you may know because you live in my neck of the woods, the original name of the Brazos River was “Rio de los Brazos de Dios” (The River of the Arms of God). Isn’t it interesting that the two major rivers here are the Brazos and the Trinity (“La Santísima Trinidad” [the Most Holy Trinity]).


  5. Chuck, thanks for such a great posting. I really liked Steve’s comment, “the main problem people have when first attempting contemplative prayer, or even meditation, are preconceived beliefs and expectations of how it is “supposed” to be. I had never heard of contemplation and didn’t even know such a thing was possible until I experienced it. If I had read about it or attempted it on my own, I may have had the question in the back of my mind if I’m mentally going nuts or somehow psychologically causing it to happen. No wonder why outsiders question the practice or even think those who are contemplative are nuts or demon possessed.

    What happened to me was so weird and made absolutely no sense to me, that it led me on a search. I found this website, started taking many classes and joined a small group within a charismatic/evangelical Protestant church, and started reading like crazy. I wanted to get many perspectives on things. The main thing I learned from my experience and later research is that contemplative prayer leads a person into a true love relationship with God. The feelings of love that I felt for God completely changed me in such a way that my way of thinking, my hopes & dreams, and desires of my heart changed in one moment. The more time I spend in contemplative prayer, the greater is my love for God.

    I absolutely love Chuck’s post and the quote, “The more we think about something, the less we actually experience it”. Just as a person who has only read and thought about dancing can’t really understand the experience, contemplative prayer can’t be understood fully just by reading & thinking. However, I have been inspired by some of the postings and books I’ve read, so they do have some spiritual benefit.

    I believe there are many people who just want some sort of supernatural experience, and there are those who just really desire to get to know God better and go searching for Him (although it’s really God that put that desire in their heart in the first place).
    Everyone experiences God in different ways as the individual needs and as God determines. I don’t think there is a “supposed to be” way of contemplative prayer or our individual relationships with God. He has created us all as unique and treats us all as unique. Just the fact God is with us and loves us is amazing in itself.


  6. Hi Chuck,

    There is quite a bit here that I can resonate with; although, I still do not consider myself contemplative or mystical yet; perhaps I am but just don’t know it. I loved Steve’s comments and have to agree with him in one sense and extracting a portion – “from my own practice of contemplation, or meditation, or whatever I’ve been doing all this time . . .” ha, lol – yes, me too.

    I can state I do know whatever it is I’m doing it is definitely a very closely-knit and tight “relationship” with God. It might be kind of sort of like Greg’s statement “Direction of course for the Christian Mystic is unity with Mystery, not to possess, but to love as we are loved. In that regard, contemplative prayer is very much an act of relationship with God.” I have the relationship, I do have a lot of mysterious experiences, but I still don’t think I’m a mystic or a contemplative – isn’t that rather strange to think that way considering all of my writings and what I’ve shared?

    One of the areas you touched upon impressed within me my own experiences when I draw – the separation of the left-brain from the right-brain (which I’m sure you are familiar with and I don’t mean to insult your intelligence, but I beg your patience as I expound). My most recent drawing instructor mentioned when she was learning how to draw, her instructors made her turn the drawing pad backwards on an easel, focus upon the “information” presented (a still-life or a person’s “figure”) and draw that information without looking at the drawing pad.

    The “Gestalt” of it all in drawing presents the realization of taking in the wholeness of everything about the subject, the one drawing (me), and the universe in a sense – if I’m understanding that correctly. In this way, I grasped more or less what you’re getting at.

    In this manner, when one draws and allows the right-brain to just draw without the constant badgering of the left-brain trying to tell itself how to draw then there is a moment when the left-brain gives up and the right-brain takes over. It is a definite experiential “feeling” for lack of a better word. It is a more relaxed sense, a calming, a kind of oneness with everything and knowing that everything is as it should be and all is well. In that moment, one begins to “really” draw. And, the benefit of having the courage to try it allows one to realize the left-brain is still there but refuses to be involved – thus the fun in undertaking some of the more bizarre drawing exercises such as drawing subjects upside down and seeing “shapes” rather than “things”. Our left brain says it’s an apple, our right brain says it’s . . . . Our left brain says, I’ve seen apples, I know what an apple is, let me “tell” you how to draw an apple – and if we listen then we draw a “symbol” of what our left brain thinks it means in conveying “an apple”. And so, learning to just accept what you see is what you see and allowing the left brain to simply not think but ignore the right brain tends to come to the point of a door of opportunity opening.

    In experiencing this sort of occurrence I’ve found it to be very tranquil and therapeutic. As such, I gained a love for art. And even though I’m not a great artist, I stumbled onto something that presented itself so very different and opposite to my overwhelming left-brained analytic self.

    I think in this way, so it is with what you’re presenting here – the spiritual-left-brain versus the spiritual-right-brain. I can’t say I’m quite there yet, but maybe I am and just haven’t accepted it. Like Steve mentioned, reading about it, studying it, trying all the techniques, and still coming away with “zoning out” or just having that “wild man” running about in my head with all the constant thinking leads nowhere. Still, my time with God in prayer is most beneficial and accepting that is probably where God wants me to be for now is sufficient.

    It seems to me, God keeps allowing me to experience the spiritual side in the real world. So what am I doing here with you folks? All the angelic encounters, the healings, the miraculous, the dreams, the visions, etc. just present the wonderment of God’s abilities to step into our every day and make me laugh. Please don’t misunderstand, I mean that in the most sincere and truest sense of accepting the “holiness” attributions as being quite real and existing all around us although invisible to some they are quite transparent to others – isn’t that the most oxymoron of oxymorons, ha, lol. Still, walking in the spiritual realm is what I asked for and seems sometimes so much more real than our everyday existence – another looney tunes moment, but then again perhaps just a touch of grace and allowance by God.

    Be that as it may, I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon so you’ll just have to humor me.

    I laughed when you mentioned “I have no doubt that an intuitive sense of these possibilities, if not some actual experience of them, leads some people to consider contemplative practice too dangerous, and even speak of it as risking demonic possession.” I understand where you’re coming from and the reason I laugh is because when the demons realize one’s concentration cannot be broken or they are unable to distract a person, then they tend to give up. They may be back to nag, but in that, if one is so composed to pursue God in this intensity then surely He will find you and He isn’t going to allow demonic activity to interfere. Yes, it’s probably we more than the demons that are causing misgivings and fear. And so I go boldly where no man has gone before and possibly where angels do “not” fear to tread : )

    Yes, I agree, I can see where it would take a great deal of courage to take that step – no matter what happens.

    Perhaps, I’m trying too hard.


    • Hi Fred, and all,

      Thank you for your reflections on this topic, Fred. You said a lot of insightful and poignant things, but it is your last sentence that feels closest to a central part of what I’ve experienced and am trying to communicate about my own contemplative practice.

      When I first started practicing the prayer of silence, I still had lots of expectations about what it was supposed to lead to. I know I am not alone in this. I was intrigued when I read or heard others say how the practice is about being more aware of God, or truth, or the Holy Spirit, or reality, right here and now in this moment, just as IT is. And they would speak of all the challenges and benefits of such a practice – words like I wrote in the original post above. And I now know that in those moments, somewhere in the corners of my mind, if not center stage, was the expectation, the hope, that if I was doing it right then this practice would result in some special event, whether that be some fantastic visionary experience, or a strong feeling of joy, or… something other than the most ordinary experience of just sitting still and letting everything be just as it is. That would be the sign that I was doing it right, or that God was reaching back to me, or something special. I was wrong.

      What I am saying about this kind of contemplative practice, and at least one of the realizations that can come with it, is that there is nothing holier, more sanctified, more attuned to God, than simply being present to our own lives – inside of us and outside of us – in this moment right now, just as it is, as ordinary and not special as it is, and, in a way, that’s pretty special after all. 😛

      So, yeah, Fred, those words about trying too hard ring clearly in my heart and mind. I have seen how so much of my “trying” to experience and know God were rejections of the ways God is actually present, and rejections that my own ordinary humanity is enough. God is never not present. We can want desperately to know God’s presence (or, more simply put, life, this moment, existence itself) only in the parts of the whole that we really like, but to do so is like not welcoming the whole of the Brazos River.

      Yes, Fred, peace. 🙂


  7. Great post, Chuck. The mirror metaphor is so true. It’s so simple and, yet, for us humans so terrifying. I also nodded along with your most recent reply, Chuck, in response to Fred’s point about “trying too hard.” Yeah. You free us all with your reminder that it’s often “the most ordinary experience of just sitting still and letting everything be just as it is.”

    I resonated with Chandra’s experience and found my own to hold both glory and terror. It is the terror I think that is at the root of those beliefs people have that such a practice is dangerous. Once made conscious, we call it the “practice” of contemplation. But before it’s conscious, it’s stumbled upon. That’s why I say “mysticism happened to me.” If such practices are ever chosen, it’s only because they’ve first been stumbled upon. But what happens in this stumbling? Is it merely awe, like soaking in a sunset, or do we also face what terrifies us? Even — and probably especially! — if what we’re seeing is in the mirror?! So I chuckled with Steve that he knows “of absolutely no literature on the subject of contemplation leading to insanity or demon possession.” Right: they’re not reading the literature! They’re just believing what their emotions tell them to believe. And I believe those emotions come from stumbling into the mirror, finding it terrifying, and choosing to avoid it through busyness. Let’s do lots of activities and take lots of pictures!

    Peace to all,

    • Thanks for connecting with me on this, Karina. Yes, stumbling into contemplation…, in various ways, it is indeed hard for us, or at least what we commonly think of as ourselves, to take much credit for contemplation.


  8. Hi Chuck,

    Thank you. I wanted to compliment you on your mirror analogies. It seems like we’re always returning to the mirror for one reason or another.

    From your quote: “That would be the sign that I was doing it right, or that God was reaching back to me, or something special. I was wrong.”

    Right, spot on! In that revelation you are so, so right. (A bit redundant on my part, but I loved that.) : )

    Two ordinary observations and two spiritual observations:

    1st ordinary observation: despite the final realization that it really doesn’t matter what we “try” to achieve to get there – it does matter because if we did not come to some recognition that there is such a thing as contemplation or any other worthy pursuit of God, then we would never have started the journey, let alone known about it. I commend you on your efforts and approach because in your manner of relating them here, it certainly speaks volumes to me at least of my own insignificant attempts to attain the impossible, ha, lol.

    2nd ordinary observation: in the knowing and the beginning of attempts there are always failures but it is the one who looks beyond the failures and rises up to begin again; and, with renewed vigor to move upward and forward knowing the goal, although unseen, is nevertheless worthy to be obtained. The overall goal being God of course.

    1st spiritual observation: I always find it most intriguing that God has chosen and wooed us. Why me, I ask over and over again, but I have learned to just accept it and go along with God, still I ponder.

    There are so many that hear His calling but ignore it and with too much life and time on their hands become involved in the things of the world, the flesh, and the devil. They become stiff-necked and grow calloused hearts making it more and more difficult to hear God let alone tune in and answer His beckoning.

    But, to us, when He does call, each of those calls is deep within each person and is individualistic, and each call is unique in itself. Your call to contemplation is for you and you alone and possibly not for me or possibly not at this time but maybe later. My call to angelic encounters and spiritual experiences is for me and possibly not for you at this time but perhaps later. Don’t misunderstand, I’m just attempting to say something in words that is difficult to render in this limited means. I’m sure He has called us to “the impossible” altogether; but, in this, God knows exactly what it takes to get our attention and keep it. And He doesn’t stop there, He still reveals more glorious mysteries and in so doing allows us to investigate the areas of awe for those who are simply “desiring and willing” in whatever means they attempt to hear Him and know Him as long it is with Him as the author and not some idol-like manner.

    We do share, as with your group that join together in contemplative prayer (so wonderful). Or, like this site, there are many having the heart to seek some similitude of truth and show and reveal love and compassion on a much higher level than just the ordinary person.

    Why is that? Why has God called us? There have been a few postings about “the calling, what is my calling, etc.”; but isn’t “God Alone Is Enough”? Why should we struggle and harm our soul with such trivial matters when it is actually Him who has to perform what we have no clue where to begin. If He’s wooing us with love, then surely He will give us what we need with love and inspire us to come to know Him and continue walking with Him in love.

    Like Steve mentioned in one of his posts, many callings seem to be more vocations rather than callings. Perhaps the true calling of God is just to “loosen up” and be happy with knowing He called and we answered.

    2nd spiritual observation: it has to be God that begins and ends our faith. He is the author and the reader and so enjoys a good story which is what we are. As He copyedits, the story changes; we end up revised but never tossed away or put down. The story continues and allows the stories to share their stories with other stories. In a sense, we are the library of God. We are the wealth of information, experiences, knowledge, and wisdom which in essence is probably just one big book called “The Book of Love”.


  9. Within this broad theme I would highlight three approaches.

    Facing a real mirror.

    When we look at our image in a real mirror, and under certain conditions of loneliness and darkness and with the intention of “seeing within us.” In this observation involves all our normal senses and still that “sixth sense” of our physical field and ultra physical being. We can capture subconscious and unconscious influences, and even more: influences and presences of negative entities. This is often frightening. However, generally, if we face them, allowing to manifest them, letting to escape all their energy. We will feel a great relief on all levels (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.) For example: We may feel aggressive induction to make grimaces. It induced by our subconscious or some external negative entity. By leaving they develop with some freedom and observing that they will not hurt us eventually. We will get a lot of confidence because we will have the conscience that we can always dominate at the end. And this trauma or negative external influence, it will acquire the “consciousness” that cannot have control over us and in his attempt, only loses energy. That they will not get from us energy and “life” through a deep fear fueled by our ignorance.

    The mirror through meditation.

    I think that when a person has deep psychological problems and a bad conscience… Meditation can become an instrument against him/her, because he/she faces directly to them. I think the best way to begin to meditate on these cases, is through meditation in groups. Since energy and psychological strength of the group, help and support to overcome these situations extraordinarily. When it meditation is also well designed to be fully open to the infinite goodness of God and the recognition of our great smallness, that as children of about four years, we can open ourselves to the Father broadly. And we seek refuge in Him, in the confidence that He will direct our future steps.

    Meditation in loneliness.

    Though this is more difficult, is practical. Because we can approach to the divine spontaneously at any time. Undoubtedly, this discipline requires experience. But it is extremely comfortable and spiritually profitable, when one approaches to the divine through contemplation of a holy image, Christ on the cross, a flame, a Buddha… God in His broad discretion knows our deepest feelings and intentions and allows His holy light to reach us all. Good or bad, right or wrong. Just seeing that in the future, we will be like angels.

    Well, there’s a lot of this. Thanks for sharing.


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