As my running group gathered in a circle to prepare for a brisk morning run along the East End trail, a piercing wind moved across the bay. The force of the wind took me by surprise.
Our coach instructed us to find a stance and position ourselves on a fixed point. We caught our breath, paused and focused on our warm-up routine.
Despite the bitter wind, I positioned myself and focused on preparing my mind and body for a 3-mile run.
Later that morning, I read the opening chapter of Richard Rohr’s book, “A Level and A Place to Stand.” In his book, Rohr refers to the Greek philosopher and mathematician Archimedes, who proposed, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world.”
He describes Archimedes theory and uses it as a metaphor for contemplation and action.
Archimedes’ theory, according to Rohr, goes something like this: If a lever is balanced in the right place on the right fulcrum, it can move proportionally much greater weight than the force actually applied.
Archimedes envisioned a fixed point, a fulcrum, in space. He proposed that if the Earth rested on one end of the lever, with this fulcrum at this point, and he applied his weight on the other side, the force would be magnified by the distance from the fulcrum.
As a result, if the Earth was distance x from the fixed point and Archimedes was pulling down on the other end of a lever that was 1 million times x in length, then his small weight would be magnified a million times and the Earth could be moved.
If the lever stretched far enough and the fulcrum point remained fixed close to Earth, even a small weight at one end would be able to move the world at the other.
While I’m not a mathematician and I don’t claim to fully understand this theory, I am fascinated by the thought of moving the world. My fixed point – my place to stand focused and centered – helps me to stay grounded in the present moment. The challenge of living in the present is often met with spending time planning for the future and letting go of the past.
Rohr uses Archimedes’ fixed point as a metaphor for contemplation and action, with the fixed point as our place to stand in the world. It is a contemplative stance that is steady, centered, poised and rooted. To be contemplative, he says, we also must be a slight distance from the world.
It is an approach that allows time to withdraw while we also remain close to the world. In order to have the capacity to move the world, we require some distancing from distractions so we can become more fully present. This is no easy approach.
A few years ago, a conversation emerged in my prayer group regarding the difficulty associated with the daily monastic life of a monk who is “away from the world.” Some in the group thought it was difficult to lead a holy life of contemplation and prayer in a monastery, while others spoke of the difficulty being “in the world.”
There are those who say that true contemplation is down to earth and practical, not necessarily requiring life in a monastery.
Contemplation helps us to build on reality – as it is– without denial or fantasy. It is a different way of receiving the moment and life in general. In order for us to have the capacity to move the world, we need some of the distance and detachment that comes with contemplation.
St. Francis of Assisi and Thomas Merton were both radically critical of consumer culture yet also in love with the world. They were able to overcome the tension and find a “hidden wholeness.”
Contemplative practice is a daily withdrawing from projections, denials and obsessions. With meditation, we are unable to project our fears anywhere else; we learn to hold them and to face them.
Contemplation is no fantasy, make-believe or daydream, but the flowering of patience and steady perseverance. It is hard work, regardless if we are inside or outside of a monastery.
We sometimes believe things may be in conflict with each other or they appear opposite.
Some of us may remember hearing the song lyrics on Sesame Street: “One of these things is not like the other; one of these things doesn’t belong.”
Our tendency may be to rule things out as opposed to making a connection.
However, I find that many times there is value to bringing things together that don’t look like they go together at all, yet they may be connected at a deeper level.
The importance of an inner life grounded in contemplation combined with action in the world helps us to find a fixed place to stand and a fulcrum of critical distance to find our levers to move the world.
By establishing my fixed point, my place to stand, finding my center and withdrawing for a few moments, to distance myself, I was able to come back to the present moment prepared to complete my 3-mile run despite the wind and cold.
Teresa Schulz is a spiritual director, author, retreat facilitator and health care chaplain. She is the founder of Tools for Intentional Living and Transformation and co-founder of MaineSpiritus. She can be reached by email at: [email protected] blog: mainespiritus.com