For anyone who has juggled the demands of an active life - work, home and leisure - the frenzied quality of our lives can cause us to cry "Impossible!" when asked to add a contemplative life into the mix. How is it possible to maintain contemplation in a society that encourages a busy, outward-based life?
A quick glance at history would reveal that society was not always so outward focused. In the ancient world of Plato, contemplation was valued more highly than action. The masses pursued the active life solely to stay alive, and society was designed to support the elite whose primary service was thought and reflection. With the rise of Science and the Industrial Revolution, activism became more valued as people realized that work was not merely for survival, but for changing reality. This dominance of activist values has brought about a reaction now in the 21st Century. Our lives have become unbalanced and there is a renewed interest in contemplation. It seems contemplation and action are at war.
Separation of Contemplation and Action
In The Active Life, Parker Palmer says that this historic tug-of-war need not be the only way. A wisdom perspective sees contemplation and action as poles of a paradox that must be held together. Seen properly as "contemplation-and-action", both have one aim: to celebrate the gift of life. Our culture tends to have it as either/or - action flies off into frenzy, or contemplation flies off into escapism, but Wisdom says that one cannot exist without the other.
Palmer says that we go through three stages as we work out this paradox in our lives. First, we are separated, forced to choose between contemplation and action. When the likely choice of action makes us frantic and exhausted, we move to the second stage, alternation, where we need to retreat to refresh ourselves, only to move back into pure action.
Integration of Contemplation and Action
Some people, either through wise choices or more likely through exhaustion, move to the third stage of integration, where human efforts to manage our lives are abandoned, and they fall into the sustaining power of paradox. Here, like the symbol of the yin-yang, action and contemplation are intertwined. Work becomes infused with the wisdom of contemplation. Contemplation is not simply inaction, but is any way that illusions are unmasked. Seen this way, action is not simply movement. It is also the re-formation of our world and ourselves. So if someone acts in a way that penetrates illusion, that action is contemplative. An example of this third way is John Howard Griffin, a white man who in the mid-fifties darkened his skin with chemicals and traveled as a black man in the south, unmasking the racism of his day.
Action is risky because when we act, we may fail at many things and stand face-to-face with the age-old question, "Who am I anyways?" When we take courage, this is also action's greatest joy. The deepest question becomes, are we willing to grow and learn from whatever new truths our actions may reveal? There is a vast conspiracy against contemplation in our society because true contemplation strips us of our illusions. But if we pay attention, life provides us with contemplative moments constantly, where disillusionment is a hopeful word, not a curse.
The Wisdom of contemplation-and-action may be summed up in this saying:
A task without a vision is drudgery.
A vision without a task is a pipedream.
A task and a vision
Is the hope of the world.