Is Contemplation Boring?

“This article is boring.”

I don’t know of any writer who wants to get this type of feedback from a reader. It certainly isn’t the kind of comment that makes my day.

But when someone made such a declaration on an article I wrote, it caught my attention — precisely because it’s a question I ponder myself.

Not so much about my skill as a writer (hey, some people will love my work, and others won’t), but rather about the nature of my topic. In short: is contemplation boring?

“The Unexciting Life”

Think about it. The heart of contemplation is spending time in silence, for heaven’s sake. Where’s the drama, the sturm und drang, in that? Granted, when I give myself to contemplative prayer, I have to struggle with my distractions, my unruly thoughts, and my tendency to let my mind wander. Now there is an edge-of-your-seat conflict.

Or not.

Michael Casey, the renowned Trappist spiritual author, wrote a book on Benedictine spirituality and gave it this title: An Unexciting Life. As best I can tell, “unexciting” could be interpreted as, well, boring.

While so many Christian bloggers write about current events, theological controversies, partisan politics, and issues like the ongoing rancor between traditionalists and progressives on all sorts of hot-button church issues, I’m off in the corner, talking about medieval mystics and monastics and encouraging everybody to rise above dualistic, oppositional thinking and embrace the inclusionary, “everything belongs” mindset of the contemplative path.


So I must admit defeat, and note that my snarky critic was right: my article was boring, because, well, contemplation is boring.

Spare the Glamour, Please

And while it is a continual temptation to “sex it up” a little, maybe by making the case for a link between contemplation and a specific theological/political stance, I keep remembering that by its very nature, contemplative spirituality undermines our human tendency to draw lines and take sides.

Not that contemplation is wimpy or lacks conviction, but rather that it refuses to let oppositional dynamics have the final say.

Worldly politics looks at the opponent and tries to figure out ways to beat him or her down (before he or she does it to you). Alas, the behavior of so many Christians when dealing with church conflicts seems virtually indistinguishable from that worldly way of doing things. Contemplation comes along and says, “Hey, my opponent is made in the image and likeness of God, and the more silent I am, the more obvious it is to me. I can’t try to beat this person—I have to figure out a way for us to reconcile.”

It’s a great spiritual truth. But it makes for a boring narrative.

A Boring Pun

The more I thought about this, though, the more I began to play with the pun right in front of my eyes.

Contemplation is boring — because the subtle emptiness of silence (even silence obscured by distracted, wandering thoughts) has a way of “boring” in to us, of drilling down below the normal noise and chatter of what Martin Laird calls the “cocktail party” and the Buddhists call “the monkey mind” — in other words, the normal awareness of ordinary waking consciousness.

The brain is a thought generator, just like the heart is an organic pump and the stomach a digestion tool. This is to say, as long as we have functioning brains, our awareness will be shaped by the thoughts we think. But beneath, between, and beyond those thoughts is silence: expansive, luminous, serene, nonjudgmental, unitive, non-oppositional silence.

The purpose behind contemplative prayer is to “bore” through the scattered, distracted, wandering thoughts of the brain, opening our awareness out into the spaciousness that is always there as a sort of backdrop to our mental chatter, but that we normally simply ignore.

Silence? Yes. Emptiness? Maybe Not

Incidentally, a common misconception about contemplative practices like centering prayer is that they are intended to “empty the mind.” But it is no more possible to fully arrest thoughts than it is to stop the heart beating, and even if we could simply “turn off the mind,” what would be left is not emptiness so much as spacious silence — a subtle but crucial difference.

For it is in that spacious silence that we are capable of discerning a mysterious presence, what we Christians identify as the presence of God (who, being omnipresent, is always here, always there, but the question is, do we behold God’s presence or not?).

So contemplative silence really is boring—at least, if we do it right. It bores down beneath all the psychic defenses we normally employ to distract ourselves from the presence of God in our lives. Because, well, if we can distract ourselves from God’s presence, we can persist in the illusion that we are actually in control of our lives, are managing our conflicts just fine, and are fully justified in the ways we judge, reject, and try to defeat others. That in turn allows us to keep seeing our adversaries, competitors, and opponents as people we need to beat rather than as those with whom we need to work for reconciliation (even while remaining true to our values and convictions).

So I guess the next time someone tells me my work is boring, I ought to take it as a compliment. Maybe this means I won’t be nominated for a Pulitzer prize anytime soon, but if I’m being faithful to the subversive humility of true contemplation, that’s good enough for me.


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5 thoughts on “Is Contemplation Boring?”

  1. The heart is not just an”organic pump”It is also the place of” silence beyond thoughts” through which shines “the mysterious presence”

    1. Indeed. And many in the tradition would say it is the heart, far more so than the mind, which functions as “ground zero” for contemplative experience.

  2. Carl,

    I enjoy reading your posts and am bored only by the articles of authors that divine from the Bible as one would from tea leaves, as they shore up a particular theological or secular argument that they seek to push down their reader’s throat.

    It would appear that you take such unwarranted criticism in your stride as evidenced by your using the comment as an opportunity for insight rather than self-defence. So my comment here is not to provide unsolicited advice but rather just a self-reflection.

    I used to think it was important to develop a ‘thick’ skin to respond to the slings and arrows, but now consider that a much better strategy is to have ‘no’ skin. It is especially tricky with unjustified criticism where someone is obviously having a very bad day or life – and is using criticism of another to avoid looking within.

    It is my experience that my illusionary ego is caught up by the perceived injustice of such criticisms, railing against them, as it tends to its injured pride and seeks to restore its delusional self-image within the false tabernacle of one’s own mind.

    Nevertheless, such criticisms are an opportunity to be skinless! If the insult passes straight through me without wounding – it provides a real sign that I am truly embedded in that spacious silence. Unfortunately, it is something easier said then done!

    Keep up your silence-evoking work.

  3. Contemplation isn’t really boring if you do it right. Think of what we are contemplating: God/Christ. Think of how we are contemplating: with love and awe. Think of why we are contemplating: to realize that Presence in our lives. How can any of that be boring?

    1. I think it’s dangerous to start judging contemplation as if there is a difference between “doing it right” and “not doing it right.” As Thomas Keating points out, the only way to fail at contemplation is simply not to show up. We enter the silence and then what happens, happens. And what if what happens is profound restlessness, a sense of boredom? I agree with you that it’s not God/Love/Nondual Consciousness that’s boring. But just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so can boredom be — not in the giver of the gift, but in ourselves, the restless recipients.

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