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I’m a big fan of relaxation. I’ve lived through too many years of little-to-no rest to ever want to go back to a workaholic lifestyle. But over the past few years, as I’ve discovered this need for rest, I’ve also discovered something else: I don’t know how to do it.
Sure, I could pull up another episode of “Chopped“ or re-watch all five seasons of “Downton Abbey” to shut my mind off and forget about the work I still have to do. But is this really what my “rest time” consists of? Is it merely a time for me to shut off and wind down, only so I can go back to work again? I think we’re missing the point.
The sad truth is, this is how most of us view our time of relaxation: as time to recharge the batteries so we can go back to work.
In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle makes this statement:
For Aristotle, rest is good and meaningful in itself. And to know what it means to rest well, consider this one word: contemplation.
Yes, contemplation. Sounds exciting, right? Okay—so when I first heard this, I felt a little deflated. It just doesn’t sound great. It sounds a little like cross-legged Buddhist style meditation to me. Not very exciting.
However, thanks to German philosopher Josef Pieper, an expert on this topic, we can see what it means to live out contemplation.
The best definition of contemplation I could glean from Pieper’s writings is this: gazing into the inner reality of things. Sounds a little heady, right? Layman’s translation: “drinking in the beauty.” Most of us use this phrase when referring to a beautiful landscape we’re looking at. Pieper, however, enumerates many experiences where the inner reality of things clearly presents itself to us — we just have to carve out a little silence in our lives to make space for them.
Here are 5 ways to “drink in beauty” — and really relax:
1. Music. Careful here – maybe Uptown Funk isn’t the best song to gaze into inner realities. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, though? Absolutely. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Some composers really understood this. Even by listening to their music for a short time, you can tell they did. Even if classical music doesn’t really sound like your thing, turn on the Ludwig van Beethoven station on Pandora for an hour, and I bet you’ll be hooked.
2. Art. The whole purpose of art is to express the inner reality of something. You’d be surprised at what looking at an artist’s rendition of a landscape will tell you about it. My go-to artist is Caravaggio. Not much of a landscape painter — but if you want to know what meeting Jesus was like, check out The Calling of St. Matthew or The Incredulity of St. Thomas. Talk about inner reality.
3. Creation. Of all the things listed, this should be the easiest. While we may excuse ourselves for not being into classical music or art, there’s something downright ungrateful about refusing to recognize the beauty of creation. Get outside and look at the mountains, fields, and flowers. You might be surprised to find they are real, they exist, and they’re beautiful. Amen? Amen.
4. Literature. Stories are potent, people! We have to read – especially fiction. Until you’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, The Divine Comedy, and Lord of the Rings, don’t come to me saying there aren’t any good books any more. Because it just ain’t true. Reading good fiction like this gives us fresh perspectives and allows us to see the beauty of life through an entirely new lens. If you need a reading list, look here.
5. Sub-creation. The last thing on this list is the most active. As mentioned in #2, the whole purpose of art is to express the inner reality of something. In sub-creation, you create as you contemplate. As a flower or landscape moves you inward, try to sub-create that image in a painting, poem, or song. And in the process, your understanding of that flower or landscape will grow tremendously. Trust me.
It’s important to note that this list is not exhaustive. There are lots of things you can do to “gaze into the inner reality of things,” but some things lend themselves better to this than others. What’s important is that we don’t just get sucked into experiencing mere amusement, which isn’t bad in itself, but without moderation, turns us in toward ourselves. This is the trap most of us fall into. We don’t know how to rest, so we might as well entertain ourselves somehow. Netflix, games, sports, and the like become easy outlets to turn to…because then, at least we’re doing something. But then we become numb to beauty.
Contemplation turns us outward, beyond ourselves, and opens our eyes to the beauty around us.
Drew Maly writes for the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) blog where this article was first published. It is reprinted here with kind permission.