The Silver Thread: Spontaneous Contemplative Experience


Recently I was with some friends, all long-term meditators. We were discussing the number of times we had had transformative experiences while meditating, or while on retreats. All of us had meditated for over 20 years; none of us had had more than two such experiences in so many years of practice.

I recently have been studying the works of Christian Mystics, Thomas Merton and David Steindl-Rast. Both focus on the miracles we encounter in day to day life and their transforming potential.

Each emphasizes that our day to day experiences are largely filled with our thoughts about things. This is especially true when we are reflecting on events which transpired. And those thoughts are emanating from our ego. On the other hand, transformative experiences are wordless; we experience many events through our body, our feelings, and it is those experiences which transform us.

Not surprisingly, most of these experiences are with nature. James Finley, an acolyte of Merton’s, illustrated this experience well. He lives with a view of the ocean. Each morning when he gets up he goes to his porch and looks out and often feels transformed. He remarks, “I never look out and see the same old ocean. I never get used to it, I am never bored.”

I recently traveled to Ranthambore National Park in Jaipur, India. I went there to photograph tigers. For several days we jeeped through the park but only saw tigers from a distance, usually sleeping on the other side of a lake. But on the morning of the third day, a 12-year-old female was spotted. She walked around our jeep and played with us for about 15 minutes. I have seen tigers in captivity my whole life, but, as I reflected on it, the serendipity of the encounter and seeing a tiger in nature changed everything. However, the experience was beyond explanation. I felt a deep excitement followed by a feeling or lightness and joy. I looked around, and all my companions were also both elated and calm.

The Christian mystics call these “spontaneous contemplative experience”. They are not cognitive. They constitute a shift in consciousness, and thus an alternative way to experience the world. I think it is the encounter with the mystery that triggers that transformation. Events in nature and even meditative experiences, do not lend themselves to thought; they exist in a world without exploration.

There are no words, no thoughts in those experiences of nature. There are no names for the experience of the ocean. And because they are pure experiences without reason they open our hearts; our normal consciousness meets a dead end and is “forced” into a higher level of consciousness.

The famous Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, actually equates God with the mysterious. For him, God is the sense of mystery we feel, as God, like nature, cannot be experienced through ordinary means.

Once we have experienced this shift we become aware of another dimension of being. It’s a place to go in order to organize meaning in our life. When we view our lives through the transcendent dimension, the day to day ups and downs become softened as we understand, that, in the long run, they are meaningless. That true meaning only exists in the transcendent realm.


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