The Contemplative Way

We all have a way of being in the world.
Every way is a response or reaction to reality – or our perception of reality.
How we see the world depends on the lenses through which we look.
How we are in the world is influenced by our sense of what we want, what we need, what we feel is important for survival, security and belonging. 

The contemplative way of life offers a way of being in the world that enables us to be freer, clearer and more grounded in a deeper reality, a bigger picture. Living contemplatively opens up new possibilities for freedom within and authentic expression of ourselves in the world. 

The word ‘Contemplation’ is connected to ‘looking’ – to seeing afresh, to looking thoughtfully and slowly. It is about being able to see things as they truly are and letting things be – allowing. When we look contemplatively we are freed from seeing everything in relation to the self and needing to draw everything into the needs of the self.

When exploring a contemplative way of life in can be helpful to understand some of the ways we have already established for being in the world. It can be helpful to become aware of unconscious habits of mind and action. 

We explored the work of Richard Rohr and Rowan Williams in regard to one set of lenses, through which we tend to look at life, that profoundly influence our actions and decisions. Following is the material that we discussed: 

Ways of Operating
As a natural part of our development into adulthood, we look for ways to be in the world, ways to behave and operate. People tend to use various modes of operation but often have one more dominant way, reflecting our perception of what we need and how we need to act to meet this need. As a generalisation, there are three driving forces – the need for approval, the need for security or the need for control. In daily ways, each of us may be able to identify what drives our actions – the need to be admired, accepted, well-regarded and liked by others? The need to feel secure and confident, often to the point of being anxious or fearful? The need for control, such that we manage everything in some detail and can even dominate or manipulate others or situations? Author and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr further describes these, calling them our ‘three basic programs for happiness’. Unknowingly we are usually deeply attached, even addicted to operating this way, to achieve perceived happiness, success and certainty.

 The survival and SECURITY program: Those attached to this approach like to secure their lives against scarcity and risk. They might focus on accumulating wealth, plenty of supplies, superannuation, and property. They worry about being caught out, caught short and not having enough. They are often concerned with safety and security in terms of risk managing, securing property, insuring against the unexpected and high levels of ‘just in case’ thinking. Security addicts need ‘just that little bit more’ to feel safe and so happy – or so they think.


 The CONTROL program:

Those who are adherents to this program are sometimes described as ‘control freaks’. They’re the ones attached to being in control, perhaps through knowledge – wanting to know everything or have life ‘figured out’; perhaps through power – enforcing the rules or dominating people. When needing to be in control is a high priority, a person can be domineering or manipulative – both are ways of trying to make others behave how they want so that they reduce unpredictability and feel in control of all situations.


 The APPROVAL program:

This way of negotiating the world revolves around seeking attention and affirmation, being praised and appreciated. Approval addicts will do almost anything, so long as you keep liking them, admiring them, telling them they’re alright. Approval addicts work very hard to make sure you’ll never disapprove, and if you do, they’re devastated. This type can be particularly sensitive to criticism and measure their worth by the regard of others. They can become dependent upon feeling the positive energy of others towards them.

When we see the world through self-oriented and acquisitive eyes – seeking to prop up our vulnerable sense of self, seeking desperately to be liked and safe and successful –our understanding and our responses are always distorted. We see neither our self nor others clearly. We are captive to fear. Most of what we take to be reality is illusion; most of what we think is action is reaction (Rowan Williams). Contemplative practice is, in the first instance, about sobering up – in Richard Rohr’s words, it’s about sobriety, detoxification; it’s about letting go the things we think we need to secure our self in the world, and learning to rest into a deeper ground, to receive our life as gift rather than trying incessantly to acquire or possess it.

Why a contemplative life?

A contemplative life enables us to see ourselves differently, others more kindly and spaciously, and the world more truthfully. Learning to live contemplatively offers us a way through our habitual patterns to this deeper ground, bigger picture, wider reality. We can begin to receive our life as gift and live from a free-er place.

A contemplative life offers us a clearer perception of things and the capacity to be with what ‘is’ in a free-er way – less threatened or anxious. We learn to be comfortably and truthfully with ourselves – neither having notions of grandeur or constant self-loathing but a right attitude to self. This frees us to relate well to others and the world we are in. We are able to offer the same freedom to others to be themselves, our actions are less compulsive, we are able to be more spacious and unhurried, we have a stronger sense of enjoyment and gratitude. 

Descriptions of a Contemplative Life…

There are many ways to describe what a contemplative life is like – what it feels like, looks like, offers… we explored some descriptive words and then chose one or two that resonated with us. We used these word to inspire a creative response about what a contemplative approach might offer us in our current life stage or particular circumstance.


Creative responses included poetry, drawings, collage and 3D origami. Some people enjoyed a quiet walk in the park. When we regathered, people shared their ideas about living in a way that is more mindful of how they might ‘be’ in a day, how they might develop more spaciousness in their approach to life, how they might be more open-hearted. People talked about what stillness might look like for them or how the still-point within themselves might matter. We shared ideas about being present to our lives, kind towards ourselves and the importance of supporting each other as we live in ways that are often counter-cultural. 

The Tree of Contemplative Practice

To conclude the afternoon we looked at the Tree of Contemplative Practice – a visual aid that helps us recognise the ways that contemplative living spreads into all aspects of life. The tree shows how contemplative living is a rich, thoughtful, present and intentional way of living; and how contemplative living involves deliberate practices and actions as well as intentional spaces and stillness.

IMG_1189(Available at

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