Balancing the Vita Activa with the Vita Contemplativa

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” - Cato

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.” – Cato

It may seem ironic to my blog readers that after a long post about the importance of action, I’m writing a post about the importance of contemplation. However, spending so much time trying to digest my research material has caused me to spend a lot of time contemplating the importance of contemplation.

We live in a culture whose constant technological advances consistently threaten the length of our attention spans. I’m amazed at how hard it was to sit still and read as a full time job each day. For most of my research period, I was sitting with a book on my lap, restless and ready to move on to something less mentally engaging – something less still.

Hannah Arendt introduces The Human Condition with a call to “think what we are doing.”

This sounds so simple.

Her book is focused on a call back to action, thus she intentionally does not spend most of her time praising the life of contemplation, even though she speaks of it as “the highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable.” At the end of her book she returns to contemplation, stating that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable,” and “it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think.” In modernity, humans feel that they can only find truth through action. However, Arendt argues that “truth can only reveal itself in complete human stillness.”

I often struggle to sit still and focus my mind on contemplation. However, when my days are full of back-to-back activities, even though I am enjoying myself, I find that I yearn for some stillness. I feel that I am unable to reflect on, learn from, and digest my experiences if I can’t find the time to be still, to really contemplate.

I’m discovering that stillness is a balancing act. Too much stillness and I find myself restless and yearning for action – yearning for something to be able to reflect upon. Too much activity, and I feel that I am not learning and growing from my actions and conversations because I haven’t had time to reflect upon them.

Sometimes I find that my thoughts wander when I try to be still. I honestly think that I’m just bad at being still. When I find that my life is lacking contemplation, I often journal to try to focus my thoughts. Nicole Johnson, a passionate advocate of journaling, writes:

“Starting my first journal was the cup of fresh-brewed life that woke me up to creativity. Today it is a cup that keeps me awake to God and to myself. Without it, I wouldn’t be savoring my life or reflecting on my journey… A journal is a tool… it can hold your dreams, record your life, challenge your thinking, refresh your soul, make you laugh, and redirect your path.”

If I stop here, Johnson sounds like she’s advocating some written version of the Aristotelian life of contemplation as our chief goal. However, Johnson says later in her book: “Should I lock myself away to write about living a fresh-brewed life while that life is calling me to join it? … Your journal can remind you that you must make a life worth recording.”

For me, the research process is an exercise in being still – in consistently contemplating and self-reflecting as I engage with the texts I’m reading. While at times the research process has felt like a frustrating amount of contemplation and mental engagement, the time I’ve spent researching has been time well-invested because, as I move on to a more active lifestyle, it’s provided me with a way of understanding and reflecting upon my actions from this moment forward. As I’ve reaped the benefits of the self-reflection and contemplation caused by this research, I have become more motivated to ascertain that I’m creating time for self-reflection and contemplation even as I move away from my research. I don’t want to just do. I want to grow – to learn truth through my actions. In the words of Hannah Arendt, I want to “think what I am doing.” Only when I quiet my mind enough to think what I am doing am I able to learn from my action by reaping the truth that presents itself amidst complete human stillness.

Practicing the vita contemplativa

Practicing the vita contemplativa

Comments

  1. This may sound odd coming from someone who has dedicated his “vita” to contemplation, but I think that contemplation and physical activity are actually much more similar to each other than either is to a different kind of stillness: the sort of mental stillness that Taoism emphasizes, a quieting of the mind. I’m not at all good at that, and perhaps it’s for that reason that I find it so attractive, but I think it’s important. Jane Austen says of one of the characters in her novel *Persuasion* that she “has no resources for solitude”, and I think that’s true of a lot of people today, that they are too afraid to be with themselves (and in this context even contemplation is usually an activity that takes you away from yourself).