Paddling Through Contemplation and Action

Integration of two sides of the spiritual coin—the inward life and outward action —served as the focus for this year’s North Pacific Yearly Meeting (NPYM -, the annual gathering of Quakers in these parts. For four days in mid-July, a couple hundred of us from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana met with Friend-in-Residence Michael Birkel (an Earlham College professor, writer, and John Woolman scholar) and worshiped and shared around this theme. Michael presented evidence from the writings of both Woolman and Margaret Fell of the need for both contemplation and activism.  Learning to balance these two in my own life continues to be central to my spiritual journey.


At the closing worship at Yearly Meeting, someone suggested that Spirit is a bird—with one wing contemplation and the other, action.  “Contemplation without action,” she said, “and action without contemplation, keeps Spirit from flying.” I know the perils of trying to keep Spirit airborne with only one wing. For many years, I valued action over contemplation.  Awakened to injustice in the world, specifically health care for the poor, I devoted myself to public health.  I felt so compelled to fix the brokenness I witnessed that I neglected my own spiritual nurture. There was always more to do, and do, and do. Eventually, I could do no more. 


I took a long break from caregiving and experimented with a more contemplative life.  I discovered how parched my soul was and that I was being called to new work, more inward work, as a writer.  Now I sometimes wonder if I’ve swung too far to the side of contemplation; I worry that my writing is not the kind of outward action that is needed in the world.  While I yearn to have both contemplation and activism at work in equal measures in my daily life, I have yet to achieve the kind of steady balance I see in the eagles, herons, and gulls in flight near my home. Since returning from Yearly Meeting, I’ve been considering that paddling my kayak may be a more apt image for my efforts to integrate my inward, contemplative life with the pull toward outward action.


On my 49th birthday, I bought a kit to build a wooden kayak. Over the next year, I assembled the dozens of pre-cut pieces of mahogany plywood to construct a 17 ½-foot, single person kayak. I spent hours mixing epoxy, gluing, nailing, and clamping the jigsaw puzzle together; layering fiberglass and varnish; then sanding and varnishing, sanding and varnishing, and several more rounds of sanding and varnishing until the boat’s deck glistened like honey. I sanded and primed the hull, too, then painted it a deep purple that I had created by mixing red and blue marine paint.


Late afternoon on the day I turned 50, I launched this vessel I’d built with my own hands (along with considerable help from a boat-builder friend, as well as the loan of a couple dozen of his C-clamps). Every time I take it out in the saltwater for a paddle, it nourishes and instructs me.


I’m a fair-weather kayaker, preferring the time for quiet and reflection that paddling on calm water offers.  I didn’t install a rudder on my kayak—didn’t want the complexity of cables and foot pedals to turn a plastic blade on the boat’s stern. Instead, I use my paddle and the shift of my body to steer and balance. As I glide into the bay, the only sound is the lapping of the seawater against the hull and the dip and swish of my paddle. When the wind and currents are flat calm, my paddle’s rhythmic slice and pull through the water, first on the left, then on the right, repeating the alternating motion, keeps my boat balanced.


Even in that gentle sea, though, I have to vary my rhythm and pattern. Sometimes I paddle hard on one side to avoid tangles of kelp and seaweed. Unlike the eagle overhead lifting and lowering its wings simultaneously, at times I bend my torso to the other side, salty droplets sprinkling off one blade of my paddle as the other digs deep to turn my bow out of the path of a seal that pops up just beyond my bow. This seems more like the rhythm of my spiritual life—sometimes steering more toward action, at others, quite fully in contemplation.


For now, I’m following the pull to focus my outward action on my own community and writing for the wider world. However, I remain alert and open to the currents of other forms of action, praying that I’ll be able to lean into them, maneuvering with attention to both the inward and the outward life.



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Comment by Jim Wilson on 7th mo. 28, 2011 at 1:47pm

Thanks for this illuminating post.  Thomas Merton published a book that addresses this.  It's "Contemplation in a World of Action". 


If I may make a few observations:  To my way of looking at things, it seems to me that Friends have gone too far in an activist direction, to the point where the contemplative presence is difficult to find.  Why do I say this?  I say this because the contemplative life is seen as a means for a more effective activism, rather than an end in itself.  My sense is, and my experience is limited, that at this time it's OK to be contemplative only if this results in a more deeply felt and stronger activist commitment.  It can work that way, and Woolman is an example of this kind of pattern.


But the idea of a contemplative life as sufficient unto itself does not have much (or any?) play among Friends at this time.  And I think that is regrettable.


I have been spending a lot of time with the 19th century Quaker contemplative manual "A Guide to True Peace".  One of the things I have noticed about it is that it implicitly regards the contemplative life as sufficient.  There is nothing in the manual about using contemplation in order to become a better activist.  There's nothing written against it either; but the absence in the manual itself of this kind of justification for contemplation is striking and contrasts with contemporary views I've heard.  Howard Briton's 'Introduction' does make such a connection; but that is a late addition to the work.  It was not originally part of the 'Guide'.  And it strikes me as an add-on and not something that the original authors would have necessarily agreed with.


Just a few thoughts to share.






Comment by Alice M Yaxley on 7th mo. 28, 2011 at 11:10pm
Thanks for writing this post. Sounds good to me. I think the sign of what is right is the attention to the pull - if we are praying, attentive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are probably going the right way. I know it's not within my human power to fix a broken world, or even my own life - I have to rely on God doing that. My part is to listen, to get to know the voice of the Holy One,  and do what I feel I am being prompted to do.
Comment by Iris Graville on 8th mo. 3, 2011 at 12:06pm

Thank you, Jim and Alice, for your comments. I've been reflecting on them for several days.


Jim, I appreciate your reference to Merton; he's a contemplative I've looked to for models of balancing contemplation and action.  I hadn't heard of his book you mention; I'll look for it. I'm continuing to ponder your thoughts about the contemplative life and will look for the guide you mentioned as well.  I agree with your assessment that we Friends tend to value contemplation as a prerequisite to activism, rather than inherently valuable.  That's certainly the view I encountered and embraced early in my faith journey.  It fit well, too, with my yearning for approval and seeing myself as "good enough."


Both of you have reminded me of the importance of deep listening and obedience to the voice of Spirit.  


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