Carl McColman: How to Cultivate Your “Contemplative Ecosystem”


Recently I had a wonderful conversation with Kevin Johnson, who contributes to the Inner Room blog here at Patheos. Kevin shares my deep conviction that contemplative practice forms an essential aspect of mature Christian discipleship.

Among other things, we talked about how contemplative practice needs a supportive "ecosystem" so that meaningful attentiveness to God's deep silence can truly occur.

So what is a contemplative ecosystem? Well, like any other ecosystem: it's a habitat, an environment. Any living organism needs a friendly, supportive, nurturing homeland in order to survive and thrive. Humans cannot survive (without technological support) very long in places like Antarctica or the Sahara. As the word implies, an ecosystem is more than just a place, it is an entire network of hospitable support.

So to talk about a "contemplative ecosystem" is to say that contemplative prayer and practice needs its own supportive environs. Speaking about this from a faith-based perspective, contemplation - at least, Christian contemplation - requires more than just an isolated commitment to silence or meditation. A practice like silent prayer must be embedded in a larger practice of engaging with the stories and wisdom teachings of Christianity, the rituals and sacraments of Christian worship, and the ethics and morality of a life dedicated to humility and compassion and other virtues which support, and are supported by, the deep silence of a regular, sustained, contemplative practice.

The reason why we both agreed that something like a contemplative ecosystem is necessary? Well, because we live in a world where community and religious identity have become so fragmented, that it is possible to embrace contemplative practice (at least in theory) without simultaneously maintaining a commitment to the larger spiritual ecosystem. But such an "isolated contemplation" would be, in my opinion, a contemplation without roots, which ultimately runs too great a risk of remaining shallow, underdeveloped, and limited.

For an example of contemplation-without-an-ecosystem, consider the mindfulness movement - which advocates for contemplative practices like yoga or meditation, only in a secularized setting without attending to the religious/spiritual matrix out of which such practices emerge. The mindfulness movement certainly can be a profound blessing to many who turn to it for therapeutic benefits. So it's not a "bad" thing, by any stretch.

Still, the fact that it explicitly separates contemplative practice from its religious and spiritual roots means that mindfulness practitioners could easily miss the deeper treasures that contemplation offers us - treasures such as the gift of recognizing God's presence in the silence, or slowly being formed/transformed into the character of Christ - simply because they have never been fully initiated into the wisdom that accompanies religious forms of contemplation.

Obviously I'm writing as a Catholic Christian, but I think we could say the same thing about other wisdom traditions. I've been at conferences where Buddhists expressed dismay over how the mindfulness movement represents, as they see it, a secularized practice that lacks the moral demands, aesthetic beauty, or life-changing clarity that can be found in the dharma - the Buddhist teachings and worldview that normally accompany the practice of Buddhist meditation. That's a lot like my concern that contemplation, separated from the Christian wisdom tradition, likewise would lack the transfigurative power that comes, not only through immersion in silence, but also in studying the wisdom of the mystics, participating in practices like daily prayer and sacred scripture reading, and struggling with the challenges and joys of participating in a faith community.

In other words: you can practice something like centering prayer or Christian meditation, and it can be psychologically healing, a source of inner serenity, and even joy. But if you remove it from it's "ecosystem" than you are, in essence, cutting it off from its roots, and the practice will be far less transformational and/or spiritually nurturing than it would otherwise be.

So, what what do I need to do in order to cultivate my contemplative ecosystem? Here are five thoughts:

Immerse yourself deeply in one particular faith or wisdom tradition (even if you like to learn from multiple sources). Many contemplatives have a strong inter spiritual orientation, myself included. But that kind of work is must fruitful when it is anchored in a "home" tradition. I love to study Buddhist teachings, but I do so with a clear sense of my identity as a Catholic. Maybe you're the other way around - fair enough. But to discover the depth of contemplative wisdom, we have to stick around in one faith context long enough to dive deeply into its traditions and teachings.

Get to know the stories of your tradition. Learn it inside and out.  Sure, contemplation is about silence. But the relationship between silence and language is like the relationship between darkness and light. A healthy life needs all of the above. The stories, myths, legends, folklore, history, and central teachings of your faith tradition provide a framework for your spiritual practice. It's like the setting that holds a diamond in place. The diamond may be more precious than the gold - but gold is still valuable.

Supplement your contemplative practice with other ritual or devotional practices from your tradition. For Catholics, this means something like: don't just commit to centering prayer every day: balance your immersion into silence with practices like sacred scripture reading, praying the Psalms or other daily prayers, and frequent reception of the sacraments. Don't just dismiss such practices as "mundane" or "un-mystical." If you are serious about your contemplative work, soon even the most mundane devotional exercises will begin to serve as doorways to wonder. But to reach that point takes perseverence.

Work with a spiritual director, guide, or companion, preferably one who knows and shares your tradition. I tried working with a Buddhist teacher at one point, and we both ended up frustrated. Maybe some people can effectively engage in that kind of cross-tradition mentoring, but it didn't work for me. I think it's better to be mentored by someone who speaks the same spiritual language you do. It will keep you (and them) honest.

Participate in a faith community grounded in your tradition, and stick with it when the going gets rough. Sitting in silence is easy, compared to negotiating with a difficult person who worships in the same church you do. But guess what? Struggling to find a way to love, or at least be at peace, with that person is just as important to your spiritual unfolding as that hour a day you spend reciting the Jesus Prayer. It's hard work trying to be present to a church or other faith community in a consciously contemplative way. But that hard work will ground you in a rich and vibrant understanding of just how contemplation makes a real difference.

Pray every day. Be silent every day - such a commitment forms the foundation of contemplative practice. But embed your silence and your contemplative prayer in the words, rituals, and people of Christianity (or whatever tradition you call home). That way, your contemplation has its ecosystem - and it may not be easy, but in the long run it is more likely to thrive.

From Carl's blog at