“Contemplation: the act of reflecting on one’s studies in order to connect them satisfactorily to that which is already known and to discover their significance in one’s pursuit of wisdom.” Author’s definition.
Robert is older than the other students. Challenge III will likely be his last year in Classical Conversations. He was seventeen when he graduated from Challenge B two years ago and he is ready to finish with Challenge III. It is time to move on, but the appeal of dialectic discussion with peers draws him back for one more year. He expressed concern, however, as he reviewed the work load. “Where is the room for contemplation?” he asked.
Reader, you will sympathize with him. Most people feel they do not have time to process. However, while the Challenge program does demand a lot of our students, they can find ample opportunity for contemplation. I suggest three strategies for contemplation: find alone time, perform menial work, and think on paper.
To begin, it is necessary to find a way to be alone. This is done in two ways: one by finding a quiet place, the other by finding a quiet time. A teen’s bedroom can be that sanctuary if there are not too many distractions. (It goes without saying that the Internet smothers the quiet inner life and I will not belabor the point. Let us shut it down and walk away.) Some prefer the clean space of the family’s best room. Others find a favorite place outside: a porch, a bench, a garden, a forest path. Many people take a regular walk in the afternoon and mull over what they are reading. Others relax in a bath. Find a private place inside or outside the house.
If this is impossible, you may need to find a private time. In a house full of activity, every corner may feel public, but when the household sleeps, even the most public place is private. Contemplation does require us to withdraw from chatter and clutter in order to hear our thoughts. Some of us rise early to braid the soul for the coming day, while others review the day to tease out the knots before bedtime. Will your student be free on Saturday after chores? And surely on Sunday we can find time for contemplative thought. We all need private time.
Second, find contemplation time in the repetitive, mindless activities you find for your hands to do. (This is especially for our teen home work force; listen up!) If the work does not require full attention (washing dishes, raking, mowing, shoveling, stuffing envelopes, stacking firewood), you have an opportunity here. There is a story of Lincoln tucking a book into his shirt to read when he plowed to the end of each row. What was he doing when he put the book away again, turned the plow, and walked the next row? And do not overlook the shock value of this strategy. Amaze your parents! Startle your siblings! Volunteer for the boring jobs.
Third, and this is most important, contemplate through writing. Keep a private journal; carry a pocket-sized Moleskin notebook at all times; start a nature journal. The very act of moving pen across paper pulls thoughts from chaos the way Rumpelstiltskin spun a thread of gold from straw. In order to write a sentence, vague thoughts have to coalesce into a subject and predicate. This is when the writer makes judgments, declaring this noun relates to the world in this way.
I know what Robert will say. He will point to his list and make a case that he can work hard at his studies or he can reflect, but not both. And, he will retort, no one will ask if he contemplated, but they expect to see all his assignments done! True, he does have a great deal to do, but a habit of contemplation can be cultivated. One reads reflectively. The highlighting system for marking a book features the blue highlighter, used to identify outstanding passages. Why did you choose that passage? How does it strike you? It takes two minutes to write a note in the margin. That is contemplation. (In fact, the Merriam Webster dictionary defines contemplation as “an act of considering with attention”.1) Also, we can look at the studies we do in the middle of the day as seeds for our quiet time later. We gather memoria (a collection of facts) that we draw upon to make connections at a later time. Our studies do not squelch contemplation; they nourish it.
Another student might laugh at the idea of taking time for contemplation. While Robert tends toward inner dialogue, others would rather keep busy exercising their gifts. Be honest: do we parents not feel lazy when we just sit and think? We have so much to do! And yet, if we live an uncontemplated life, we are just ticking days off the calendar, moving inexorably to our final one. The habit of contemplation makes us wise, for it not only satisfies the curious mind, but informs the conscience. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds through attentive study.
To summarize, a full schedule does not preempt contemplation for the student who regularly gets apart, makes the most of simple labor, and meditates by pen on paper. Challenge students who contemplate bring the ore of their thought to peer discussion where it is smelted into gold, gold that endures long after the books are closed.
- “contemplation.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 9 Aug. 2014.