Contemplative spirituality is a sub-set feature of most religious traditions. Rather than focus on doctrine and creeds the mystics within a religious tradition are interested in personal experience of the Divine and place considerable emphasis on spiritual practices such as meditation or manifesting in the world a virtue such as compassion.
Because there is less emphasis on the "content" of beliefs and greater emphasis on the "spiritual practice" there is great similarity between contemplative practises in Eastern and Western religions such as Buddhism and Christianity. Thomas Merton was one author to bring Buddhist insight and understanding to Christian living.
Religion and Spirituality
It is common in today's thinking to make a distinction between religion and spirituality. In many people's minds religion is seen as "the institution" which maintains the tradition and content of a religion. Spirituality on the other hand is seen as very personal and seen as part of life and the way we live, independent of any institution or organization.
Religion and spirituality have to do with how we are connected to that which is greater than or transcends ourselves. Religion is based on the question, “What must we do to please this ultimate reality that we call God?” The ultimate goal is atonement, or to be one with God, and this state is granted in response to our performing some task such as believing correctly, or being born again, or performing some good works.
In contrast to religion, spirituality is about how we are already connected to that which is greater than ourselves and that which is life-giving. Spirituality is about waking up to, and manifesting, what already is. Atonement is not some future goal – we are already one with God. The task of life is to wake up to this reality that already exists and, from this place of oneness, manifest God's love here on earth.
One way to differentiate spirituality from much of what passes as religion is to compare two neighboring Native American tribal societies, the Navajo and the Hopi, who have very different cosmologies that gave rise to very different types of religious practices.
Within the Navajo cosmology, there is no God or gods that can be appealed to influence or intervene in human events. The Navajo expression hózhó means "to walk in beauty." It has some parallels to the Christian idea of "going in peace." When a person is injured or has suffered some tragedy, they are no longer walking in beauty and need to be restored to beauty. Depending on the nature of the adversity, a trained Hataii (medicine man) will conduct one of the many healing ceremonies to restore the person to hózhó, the natural harmony and beauty of all things.
In contrast, in Hopi cosmology the people can appeal to many spirits that can influence or change the natural course of events. For example, the rain dance ceremony is performed to call upon the rain spirits to send rain to water the land and crops. If the rain spirits are satisfied with the quality and sincerity of the dance then they will make it rain. Great emphasis is placed on performing the dance correctly so that the rain spirits will be pleased with the performance and reward the people with rain.
Many Christians live the "Hopi" way of asking what we must do to please God so that God will bless us. For many, having correct beliefs is the way to please God; for others, it is performing acts of mercy and self-sacrifice. Suffering is often seen as an indication that God is displeased with the person. To end the suffering, the person needs to repent of their sin that caused the suffering. And sometimes God is treated like a cosmic janitor that is essentially ignored until some calamity occurs – God is then called upon and expected to clean up after the person has messed up.
Contemplative spirituality is more akin to the "Navajo" way. Although we believe in God, we do not believe that God is subject to human manipulation. The task is not to please God and get God to bless us but to become one with and manifest the blessing that already exists. Prayer is not seen as a way to change God's mind but to change our mind to the mind of God and to see things the way God sees things. This is the heart of contemplation: to see life through God's eyes, and to look with the eyes of Love and Compassion. What we find is that when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
We are indebted to Dr. James Finley, a student of Thomas Merton, for his teaching of the contemplative way. For more information please see
The Contemplative Way
Within the Christian tradition the following are some of the classic contemplative writers and teachers.
- Meister Eckhart
- John of the Cross
- Theresa of Avila
- Julian of Norwich
- Thomas Merton
Within the Buddhist tradition the following authors have contributed our understanding of the contemplative way.
- Pema Chodren
- D. T. Suzuki
Read more on the synthesis of contemplative spirituality and the Appreciative Way