Contemplating The Teachings Of Thomas Merton

Photo by Melina Reuter

Photo by Melina Reuter

“A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.”—Thomas Merton


In the hours before his unexpected death, Thomas Merton gave a speech quoting the Dalai Lama, “The time has come brother, when we must stand on our own feet.” Although the Dalai Lama was referring to the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Merton recognized this as a universal message we all should hear. He believed that this quote demonstrated grace. And that even though structures, institutions, organizations and teachers have a purpose, in the end we must all walk alone. I believe that through personal intention, discipline and grace you can awaken and discover your true identity. And that every one of us has unshakeable resiliency, freedom, happiness and love residing deep within.

Merton invested much of his time contemplating the higher truths of reality. He called that reality “god.” He taught that through the practices of contemplation, meditation, solitude and prayer you can change the climate of your mind and shape it into a reality constructed of love. “Your life is shaped by the end you live for.” Meaning, how you stand at the end of your final hours will be shaped by how you invested your time. Challenges will always arise. It won’t matter what you go through, it will matter how you got through it.

Merton was a mystic, monk, poet, social activist, a literary legacy and a bridge between religious cultures. He was described as “the greatest Catholic of the 20th century” and “a voice for this country in the next century.” "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions,” declared Pope Francis.

In perhaps one of his most loved books,Seeds Of Contemplations,” Merton defines contemplation as: “...not trance, ecstasy, nor the sudden unutterable words, nor the imagination of lights. It is not the gift of prophecy nor does it imply the ability to read the secrets of mens’ hearts. Contemplation is no pain killer. It is a spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is an anguish of realizing that we no longer know what God is. It is an intuitive awakening in which our free and personal reality becomes fully alive to its own existential depths, which open out into the mystery of God.”

Spiritual contemplation is often projected as being “woo-woo” and/or having little rational thought. If your spiritual practice is not shaking you up and constantly getting you to think and evolve then it might be worth questioning. Like Merton said, it is “no pain killer’ and there can be a feeling of anguish in letting go of what we think life is all about. There are times when I have experienced great pain because I realized I no longer agreed or liked who I was. Thankfully, I have come to appreciate that this process is a form of awakening, where my reality becomes more fully realized.

Thomas Merton was only 53 when he died. In his lifetime, he wrote over 70 books. His contemplations on spirituality led to one of his most famous quotes: “Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true.” I find it comforting that monks who spend all their time contemplating life say these things. We want to believe that life is this simple and that the divine is transparently shining, but this is not the common experience most of us have. “It doesn’t suffice to have someone else tell you—we want the direct experience,” is what my teacher always says.

How can you cultivate this kind of direct experience? Merton’s prescription is to get quiet, get still and cultivate an interior life through contemplation, meditation and solitude. “Our being is silent, but our existence is noisy. Yet when our noisy actions stop, there is a ground of silence always there.” Merton was a monk who got to enjoy the gift of time that many of us householders don’t have an abundance of. Although many of us cannot fathom the idea of living a life of solitude there is much to be gained from considering the contemplations of the ones who did. The “Merton’s” of the world are like “spiritual athletes.” They repeatedly claim that true sustainable peace can never be found in the world of change. Can you look to the ground that they are pointing to? The ground of silence, that does not change?

If you truly desire to experience the “ground of silence that is always there” then heed Merton’s words. “Don’t let all your time be devoured by activities and strangled with attachments. Learn to be alone. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly and not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps.”

Physical isolation, contemplation, meditation and prayer comprised, what Merton believed, the ultimate medicine. Whether these things are done in increments of 10 minutes, 30 minutes or an hour, everyday or only twice a week does not matter. Personal retreats radically shift our perspectives. People sometimes think this sort of activity can be selfish—that it is about an “escape” or a narcissistic way of running away from responsibilities. But understood correctly, it is actually quite the opposite.

“We do not go into the desert to escape people but to learn how to find them; we do not leave them in order to have nothing more to do with them but to find out the way to do them the most good.” Merton was strongly against the idea of alienation and did not want people to be confused about what solitude and silence meant. He went on to say that there are two kinds of silence: negative and positive. In his book, “Love And Living” he said: “Silence has many dimensions. It can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity, and we lapse into daydreams or conjure anxieties. Positive silence makes us whole. You realize who you are, who you might be, and the distance between the two.”

In my own personal moments of silence, I have experienced this to be absolutely true. I have gone on long silent meditation retreats that have radically transformed the way I see myself and others. The time alone helps me see what I cannot see when I am caught in the wheels of the “social machine” back at home. During moments of deep meditation, I have experienced tremendous amounts of love, patience, compassion and insight. I have also experienced the fake masks I wear, my shortcomings, barriers and the poor choices I have made. My teacher calls it “shakti,” Merton called it “grace” and others call it “love.” Labels aside, there is an invisible support that can be unconsciously channeled and will continue to evolve your being if you let it.

When I think about personal-development I think of a Baron Baptist quote. “Death is coming to a body near you.” Many esoteric traditions believed this and so did Merton, which might explain why he accomplished so much in his short time. Life is short and you can learn to overcome its challenges if you can invest your energy and time wisely and not squander it on meaningless moments.

Energy follows attention. Contemplation, meditation, solitude and prayer are practices not just for monks but for everyone. These practices, done regularly, shape your energy and reveal your true self. In the words of Thomas Merton: “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”


A Yoga Unplugged collaboration - written by Jennifer Reuter, edited by Sarah Burchard