How to create a space for contemplation in your life

The contemplative life is the path of ‘not doing’, of a conscious retreat from the world, the better to gain deep understanding. This may seem appealing when you feel pulled in different directions by competing demands or when the world seems to be spinning too fast. But it’s not an easy route and it’s not for everyone. However, if in turbulent times there’s a requirement to be in the thick of the maelstrom, there’s as much to be learned from doing less. Here, we take a look at the contemplative path, where the challenge is to stay quiet in a world that never is.

WORDS: Stephanie Lam

How do people live a contemplative life in the modern world?

Throughout history, people have retreated from the world. Laozi, the assumed author of the Tao-te Ching (the text is also thought to be the work of many people), was said to have been a recluse who shunned worldly life.

However, Chinese spiritual recluses have a long history, one that continues today. The Zhongnan Mountains in north-west China have provided a home for Daoist hermits since the Qin Dynasty. Today, there’s a community of around 600 yinshi, or hermits, who welcome visitors seeking respite from a fast-paced world.

Meanwhile, in Hinduism, vanaprastha – which translates as ‘way of the forest’ and refers to hermitage – is one of the four key stages in human life. Hindu legends also abound with recluses, including the sage Vyasa, who is arguably one of the most important figures in Indian history, credited with writing the epic Mahabharata. Recluses are common in the faith, and sects have formed with an element of withdrawal at their core – for example, the Sadhus. These are people who renounce worldly goods and live apart from society to discover their spiritual focus.

The appeal spans continents and has made hermits of people not necessarily considered likely for such a way of life. And, in 2019, it was reported that a former US-based investment banker from Japan was to be made a Mahamandaleshwar, or great Hindu spiritual leader, after a period of hermitage. The 57-year-old woman had been traumatised after the 9/11 terror attacks and had travelled to India on a spiritual quest to find peace. She was one of the first non-Indians to be given the revered title.

Why the contemplative life can be so appealing

It could be that, in the 21st century, the contemplative path contains a renewed appeal for some. When headlines are crammed with disaster, war is a daily reality and social media feeds are awash with intolerance, withdrawal may seem like a good solution. Likewise, although bookshops and the internet are full of advice on how to discover inner peace, perhaps what’s needed is to go within and trust your inner wisdom, rather than blindly following the words of others.

You don’t even need to travel far to do so. Julian of Norwich didn’t – she lived (along with her maid) a stone’s throw from the city centre – although becoming a cell-dwelling recluse is an extreme way to retreat. While living apart from society might not be for you as a life choice, if you’re searching for answers from others, rather than listening to the calm voice within, perhaps travelling the inner way for a little while is the solution.

So, climb off the hamster wheel and look for the road inside. It’s a quiet route, decorated with those tiny pleasures that you never notice when life’s moving fast. Close your eyes, listen to the birdsong, smell the freshly cut grass. Open your heart to wisdom and truth and take your first step along the contemplative path.

Three ways to create space in your life for contemplation

Spend time in nature

Many recluses have taken themselves off into nature, to better commune with a higher wisdom. Most of these retreats have involved a deliberate removal to somewhere far away from the bustle of the world. Mount Kuruma, in Japan, is one such example. It’s the site of a Buddhist temple and also where the founder of reiki, Mikao Usui, meditated for 21 days, on a spiritual quest to achieve enlightenment.

But choosing to spend time in nature – whatever that looks like for you – can be small-scale and just as mindful. Deciding to take an hour or two away from people and your phone, while listening to the rustle of leaves in a forest or the wash of sea against shore, enables your mind to relax. It’s going inward while remaining connected – in the most natural sense.

Take a silent retreat

When you stop talking, you allow your mind to become still. Being with others who have also chosen to be quiet for a while enables a human connection, without the distraction of chatter. The Buddhist tradition values silence, so consider a few days away to experience a silent retreat, along with meditation.

If your budget or desires don’t allow this, then experiment with the power of silence for a day or two, especially if you’re a chatty sort. If you’ve ever had laryngitis and lost your voice, then you’ll know that being silent can feel both disconcerting and surprisingly powerful. Thankfully, you don’t need to suffer inflammation of your vocal cords to do this. Tell people in advance that you won’t be speaking and spend some time going into the quiet.

Breathwork and journalling

Meditation can take many forms, but breathwork is an accessible way to still your mind and become present, without the stimulation of listening to another’s voice.

Commit to a set amount of time with any form of breathwork (such as box, heart-coherence or conscious-connected breathing), and keep your journal nearby. Afterwards, write any affirmations, insights or emotions that come to mind. It doesn’t matter what occurs, it’s the time spent being contemplative that counts.


You can read more articles about mental wellbeing and mindfulness in the latest issue of Breathe magazine.