One reoccurring theme for me over the past year has been the categories of past, present, and future. (No, I haven’t been visited by any Christmas ghosts!) Maybe it is because this year has been a year of transition for me: among other things, we bought a house, moved to St. Petersburg, and I transitioned to working from home. I have thought a lot about what has gotten me to this point, where the heck am I, and what does the future hold?

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In another sense, these three categories have also come to represent three primary areas where I am trying to learn the contemplative practice of detachment. For many, the past can represent either moments of regret or a propensity to live in the past – an unhealthy attachment to a phase of life that has come and gone.  The present can be full of many distractions and demands: bills, errands, projects, and chores – all of which can rob us of the deeper reality and relationships before us.  We should not let our life be defined as the sum total of all these day-to-day minutiae, though many do.  While the future may hold the potential fulfillment of our hopes and dreams, it can also create unrealistic expectations, which cause stress.  It is one thing to have goals and dreams for the future; it is another to live in the future with the pressure that these goals must be fulfilled or else life will be a disappointment.  I love to travel to exotic places.  But I have also realized that I can get so caught up in planning, hoping, and dreaming about the next trip that my daily reality becomes somewhat of a bore – this isn’t healthy!

While the present can certainly be filled with any number of distractions, part of the contemplative life is to live fully in the present.  Living in the present moment is being able to give yourself fully to those around you or to the task at hand, all the while being attuned to how God is at work in the present moment, because that is where we meet God.

Father Arico of Contemplative Outreach puts it like this:

If you are thinking about an event in the past you give yourself the wonderful gift of guilt, anger or joy.  Guilt at what you may have done to somebody, anger at what somebody may have done to you or joy, thinking about the good times.  If you are thinking about an event in the future, you give yourself a gift of fear, anxiety or expectation.

It is an odd way of stating this: giving yourself the gift of guilt or fear.  But I think what is being conveyed is that when we spend time living in the past or the future, we are choosing to give ourself something, be it guilt, joy, or anxiety.  There are moments where those gifts may be appropriate.  But when we dwell on the past or future – or focus on the wrong things in the present – we miss the gifts before us in each moment of the present.

Personally, this hasn’t always been easy for me.  But as the calendar turns to a new year, I am trying to be more fully present in each moment the next year holds for me.

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I really enjoy the writings of Thomas Merton and those he has influenced, sNew Seedsuch as Thomas Keating.  He has a way of writing that does not seem to revolve around any single profound idea, yet you find yourself profoundly influenced by a hundred little ideas that pepper you as you read his books.  Earlier, I wrote that his book, No Man Is An Island, was one of the books that has influence me the most.  So it was only natural to follow that up with New Seeds of Contemplation.

I’ll be honest, there is much in this book that is very personal and I am not ready to process in public space.  In Merton’s own words, contemplation “cannot be taught.  It cannot even be clearly explained.  It can only be hinted at, suggested, pointed to, symbolized.”  All this is very personal and unique to each individual.

Yet there is one very simple idea that I keep coming back to. It is not even a central idea, but its’ echoes are insightful.  It is an idea that speaks especially to our virtually connected world of social media.  It is this:

One of the first things to learn if you want to be a contemplative is how to mind your own business.  Nothing is more suspicious, in a man who seems holy, than an impatient desire to reform others.

I had to read it several times to get past the initial bluntness of this spiritual directive:  Mind your own business.  Yet what he is addressing is the gut response to a new, challenging idea to rush off and enlighten everyone else before fully internalizing it, letting it really sink in and begin to shape the way you live.

One of the areas this wisdom seems especially appropriate is in the area of social media.  It seem anymore like I cannot peruse my Facebook news feed without being told what I should think, eat, wear, support, or be in a panic over.  Social media is a great way to keep in touch, network, and even share ideas.  But it is not the best way to really influence and shape another person.  That is best left to discussion, personal interaction, and conversation.  Mind your own business.

It is also much more effective to let others observe the way a cause or idea has actually shaped your life, which is Merton’s point.  As others observe the change in your life, there will be opportunities to share soon enough.

And yes, I realize the irony of pointing all this out in a blog post!  But I do so with the same intent as Merton’s words of wisdom.  Thus, everything else in New Seeds of Contemplation I will continue to process through and keep to myself for now.