Presidents, Pastors and Purpose Seekers: Finding the Balance Between Action and Contemplation

Matthew Dowd

By Matthew Dowd

Aug 15, 2013 6:00am

Throughout history, there has been a tension between a life of action and a life of contemplation, between lots of activities and times of rest, and between work and time off.  And in the end, every spiritual leader from Jesus to Buddha to St. Francis to Gandhi to Martin Luther King has lived and taught that we need both in our life – that we can’t lead our own lives and help lead others without a part of us that is in action and a part of us that is in contemplation.

As President Obama takes a vacation this week and he is, not surprisingly, criticized from the right (as George Bush was, from the left, when he took vacations), let us remember every person and leader needs time away from the role they play externally to concentrate internally upon themselves and their relationship with their higher power.

I hope the president, at this time, isn’t just filling his time off with more activities but is actually in quiet contemplation touching base again with his own purpose in the world.  Vacations only become contemplation and really useful if they aren’t about action but about centering.

As I walk the beautiful grounds of Serra Retreat in California, which is a Franciscan center, you can feel the peace and connection of St. Francis, who, as well as anybody, lived a life of both action and contemplation.  Statues of St. Francis dot the rolling hills here overlooking the quiet expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and they are a constant reminder of a man who was a peace-filled revolutionary in the Catholic Church.   He lived in the world simply and actively, helping the poor, caring for the sick, tending to the vulnerable and caring for nature.

But he also knew that in order to live out this mission from God, as he saw it, he had to have regular times of contemplation and rest and quiet.  It was those times of contemplation that kept him connected to his own gifts and to the grace of God.   Without the contemplation, his good works would have become merely manifestations of his own ego, and he would have not been able to serve others in joy.

We each are called, in some way, to use our talents in a life of action – however we believe our purpose manifests itself.  We are called to a sense of community apart from our own individualism and needs.  And while contemplation and rest is vitally important, it is in the good works we do based on our own value and resources that we truly become who we are meant to be.  A life of leisure, while seemingly what we all dream of, in the end won’t bring us the happiness and joy that service to others gives us.

However, only being a person of action in the world also won’t allow us to fulfill are deepest calling and dreams – whether it is in our personal or professional lives, or in our intimate relationships and the communities where we live.   We each need times of quiet rest, prayer or meditation, and soulful contemplation to center our lives on our priorities, to re-gather our energy, and to connect to our hearts outside the flurry of an active life in the world.

Some people think contemplation takes away our drive in the world. In truth, it enhances and deepens it.  It allows us to work in the world from a place of abundance rather than scarcity.

Finding that balance between action and contemplation today is often very difficult with all our distractions, demands and discussions.  It is difficult but it really is the only path to moving the world and ourselves forward to a better place.

Even in our personal relationships, we need to find that balance between quiet centering and times of action.  Many couples make the mistake of filling their life with all kinds of activities, especially on vacation, and then wonder why their relationship later on feels disconnected.

I have often thought for myself that a relationship isn’t tested in the crises or constant demands, but rather, it is tested in the quiet of life.  How do you both do just sitting quietly together, whether in prayer or reading or listening to music?  Is it peaceful and fulfilling, or are you looking for some activity to distract you from the calm?  I believe every couple should spend regular time together away from the hustle and bustle and reconnect to their shared values and center.   And if that is a problem, then there probably is a problem in the relationship.

Following the lessons of so many heartfelt leaders of history, like a 13th century man who left a tremendous legacy, let’s encourage our leaders and each other to both live an active, purpose-oriented life directed towards others, as well as to take regular time away to rest, recoup and reconnect in order to be in the world in an inspired and joy-filled way.

If we each can find that balance between action and contemplation, we can create a new world both in the small circles of our life and the large circles, globally.   As Thomas Merton, a modern contemplative who studied St. Francis, wrote, “The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is, then, a life of great simplicity and inner liberty. One is not seeking anything special or demanding any particular satisfaction. One is content with what is.”

Let us all be content with what is, as well as seek to help others fulfill their best selves.

Follow Matthew Dowd on Twitter – @matthewjdowd

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