Each day moments arise when messages or cues are given which must be read and responded to properly. Such cues come in many forms and for many purposes. Imagine a mother observing and responding to the cry of a hungry baby, or a child responding to a stern look of a parent. Other cues may be sensed internally, like a hunger pang or thirst. The way we respond to these ordinary messages can and does determine our success in relationships, jobs, health, and even survival. Likewise, such behavior can also be observed in animals and even plants. Imagine a spider responding to the tugs on its web, or a sunflower turning its head to face the sun. Yet, there are fundamental characteristics that distinguish humans from animals and plants. According to Aristotle, the distinction of a human being is the ability to act rationally (Aristotle). Action cannot by itself produce the greatest of human goods if it is not is coupled with rational thought and feeling.
Twentieth century philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that there are three fundamental categories that distinguish human behavior from that of something less human. First, labor is the idea that there are basic needs to sustain biological life such as shelter and food. Second, work is the act of transforming something natural into something artificial or synthetic. This is the idea that humans are creative, visionary, and imaginative. As a result, humans are capable of designs and inventions from symphonies to sandwiches. Lastly, humans act. Action describes activities between one human and another. Action includes political activity, communication, and relationships. Arendt summarizes these three fundamental characteristics of the human condition as the vita activa (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958).
Based solely on the standards of work, labor, and activity, it is arguable that as a race, humans have never been more developed than at present. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, it is widely believed that human knowledge was doubled every 100 years. By the time Arendt wrote The Human Condition, knowledge was being doubled every 25 years. Today, it is believed that knowledge is doubled each year (Schilling, 2013). Undoubtedly, the advances that have taken place over the last century have resulted in significant increases in the average life span, reduced child mortality, momentous human rights advances, as well as innumerable technological achievements. With the advances that modern society has provided us, new challenges also arise and perhaps even threaten certain human behaviors that have been foundational components of the individual and societal moral structures for millennia.
Rather than a lack of action or knowledge, Hannah Arendt believed that the challenge to the human condition is the lack of thinking. Arendt was sharply critical of Marxism and Nazism because they detracted from humankind’s freedom to act and think for themselves. Arendt regarded thought as the “highest and perhaps purest activity of which men are capable” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 1958). Clearly, this would suggest that action, while necessary, is insufficient for one to realize one’s humanity; that requires action directed towards purposeful contemplation. In other words, the vita activa is a dangerous condition if not coupled with the vita contemplativa which includes introspection, conscience, and morality. The vita contemplativa is the dialogue with oneself in which one feels the need to give an accounting of actions, “[which] tells me what I cannot do if I would remain friends with myself” (Arendt, Vision and Visual Perception, 2014).
Clearly, Arendt viewed mankind’s ability to think and to feel as some of the most important characteristics a human can possess. Similarly, Aristotle surmised that “the good of man is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue” (Aristotle).
From the gospel perspective, the act of accounting for one’s actions and conforming the soul to act in excellence or virtue is the essence of what we call repentance. The word “repentance” comes from the Greek word metonoein, which is a conjunction of the Greek preposition meta-, meaning after, and noeo, meaning to perceive, observe, or think. The entire compound could be understood as “to think differently after” – further, not only to think differently but to conduct ourselves differently, resulting in a change of mind and heart.
Many scriptural and historical accounts of repentance demonstrate the basic principles of the vita contemplativa, specifically; thinking and feeling. When Joseph Smith recalled the events prior to the First Vision he wrote, “I pondered many things in my heart” and he continues, “my mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became convicted of my sins” Joseph Smith History 1:5, 7-13). In the Book of Mormon, Enos wrote about what he called a “wrestle” before God, prior to receiving a remission of his sins. He goes on to describe words sinking into his heart, his soul being hungered, crying in mighty prayer for the welfare of his soul, and praying and laboring “with all diligence” (Enos 1:12). Notice, that in both cases they are not just pondering in their minds, but they use the word heart; implying that the ‘act’ —the essence of the vita activa—is fully realized when it is conjoined with thinking and feeling—the essence of the vita contemplativa.
Alma the younger describes an equally dramatic emotional and sensory state:
“And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.We see that a primary stage of repentance is sensitivity to one’s self and state of being which promotes the quiet inner dialogue described by Arendt as well as the less subtle inner “wrestle” described by Enos. The result of a heightened awareness and a greater spiritual sensitivity is a process of personal refinement. Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin described this process when he said, “To soundly plant good seeds in your heart requires prolonged, intense, unremitting pondering. It is a deep, ongoing, regenerating process which refines the soul” (Wirthlin, 1982).
“Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
“And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was -harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more” (Alma 36:17-19).
Beyond just sensitivity to one’s own emotions, perhaps a defining characteristic of a spiritually minded person is the ability to sense and observe things in one’s fellow men and the world in which we live. Reverend Brian Combs describes Christians as “a people who are easily astonished, who practice awe, who indulge in wonderment” (Combs, 2014). In other words, a follower of Christ must be someone whose actions stem from a cultivated ability to listen and to feel things that are not always loud or obvious. It takes careful observance and diligent practice to improve our ability to identify God’s hand and the Spirit’s voice in our daily lives.
Annie Dillard describes the long and painstaking process of learning to adapt in order to view wild animals undisturbed in their natural habitats. At the end of her many attempts and tedious attention to detail she simply states, “And revelation is a study in stalking” (Dillard, 1974). Perhaps the greatest threats to one’s spiritual well-being is not the act of sin itself but the numbing effects that result from sin, which prevent us from being capable of sensing the nuances and necessary adjustments that are required in order to abide in the places where the spirit and revelation reside.
In 1900, David Starr Jordan, then the president of Stanford University addressed the numbing effects of sin when he said “Vulgarity is an expression of arrested development in matters of good taste or good character. Vulgarity weakens the mind, and thus brings all the weakness in its train. It is vulgar to like poor music, to read weak books, to feed on sensational newspapers, to find amusement in trashy novels, to enjoy vulgar theatres, to find pleasure in cheap jokes, to tolerate coarseness and looseness in any of its forms. …The basis of intemperance is the effort to secure through drugs the feeling of happiness when happiness does not exist. Men destroy their nervous system from the tingling pleasures they feel as structures are torn apart” (Caldwell, 1900)
President Jordan’s statement corroborates with recent studies where a correlation is found between men who view pornography and men who develop erectile dysfunction. In some cases, up to 30% of young men in the study population showed symptoms of pornography-induced erectile dysfunction (Mialon A, 2012). Pornography is only one of many examples where overstimulation results in a lessening of physical and emotional sensitivity. In 2009 Elder David Bednar warned members of the church about what he called the, “sense-dulling” effects of a high-fidelity cyberspace (Bednar, 2010).
A recent study from UCLA involved observing a group of sixth graders and their response to basic social cues and facial expressions. Students who went 5 days without using a smart phone were significantly more adept at reading human emotions than their fellow students who continued viewing their smart phones during that same period. Patricia Greenfield, senior author of the study, stated that exposure to digital media, “decreased sensitivity to emotional cues” and that students are “losing the ability to understand the emotions of other people”. As a side note, the students in the study reported that on an average school day they spend four-and-a-half hours playing video games, watching television, or texting. This may seem excessive, but a recent study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that on an average day 8-18 year-olds spend 7 hours and 38 minutes using entertainment media. Additionally, much of that time is spent on more than one media platform, making a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content per day (Keiser Family Foundation, 2010).
A more extreme anecdotal example is demonstrated in the 2013 documentary Web Junkies, where young Chinese men undergo rehabilitation from what the Chinese government classifies as internet addiction. Some of the young men claim to not be able to distinguish reality from cyber-reality. Universally, the young men preferred cyber-reality to reality (Shlam, 2014).
As part of the foundational ordinance of being confirmed a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are told to, “receive the Holy Ghost”. Perhaps in addition to the conferring of the Holy Ghost, the word “receive” is an admonition to act in such a way that we might be capable of receiving the gift of the spirit that is being offered. In the October 2006 LDS General Conference, Elder Roger Merrill said that the act of receiving is not passive. It is an active enterprise which requires some degree of work (Merrill, 2006). There are many actions necessary to be able to “receive the Holy Ghost”, but it seems that the act of thinking and feeling is a prerequisite.
Anyone who has been in need of revelation from the Holy Ghost knows that it is not received without a great deal of soul-searching dialogue, quiet moments, repentance, and patience. Perhaps today the greatest threats to our spiritual well-being are the unchecked demands on our time and our attention which bombard and over-stimulate our senses. Elder James E. Faust gave a word of caution to members of the church:
“The Spirit’s voice is ever present, but it is calm. …The adversary tries to smother this voice with a multitude of loud, persistent, persuasive, and appealing voices.
“Today we are barraged by multitudes of voices telling us how to live, how to gratify our passions, how to have it all. …There are fewer places for serenity. Our young people are bombarded with evil and wickedness like no other generation. As I contemplate this prospect, I am reminded of the poet T. S. Elliot’s words: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” (Faust, 2006)
How are we to distinguish the gentle and often nuanced voice of the spirit when it tells us “this is the way, walk ye in it” if we cannot or wish not to separate our real lives from our cyber-lives. Real human beings are unpredictable. Despite certain video game commercials, we cannot control people with joy sticks. Real relationships require sacrifice, patience, vulnerability, and listening (including our relationship with the Spirit). Because the vita contemplativa is conducive to the Spirit, it helps us see things as they really are and it helps us develop the ability to observe cues that are constantly transmitted from people, nature, ourselves, and from our Father in Heaven. It is a practiced way of living that teaches us how to have a relationship with ourselves, so that we might have real relationships with those around us.
The standard of the Gospel is not just to teach men and women how to behave like sentient beings. The Savior has undeniably high objectives for his disciples: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).” A properly engaged vita contemplativa, which, in turn, gives rise to a properly motivated vita activa is perhaps the first step in the process of perfection.
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Full Citation for this Article: Linton, Erik (2015) "The Vita Contemplative," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Fall 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerLintonContemplation.html, accessed <give access date>.
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