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Monk in the World guest post: Susan O’Connell

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Susan O’Connell’s reflection “Listening and contemplation.”

Listening to the silence is truly one of the great spiritual practices, in which we tune into a deeper level of being and of experience. Silence in nature can facilitate that deeper connection to ourselves through allowing us to listen more deeply to our hearts and bodies. Nature or wilderness can provide a holding environment so that we can relax the ways we chronically constrict ourselves. (Hutton, 2003, p. 250)

small orange sky and walnutHaving an affinity for communication and service, it came as a surprise to me how much my soul yearned for quiet.  In response, I began to dedicate time to contemplative practices such as yoga, meditation, creative expression and nature walks. These slow and quieting practices enabled me to reach deep into the well of silence. They assisted me to listen to, and trust, subtle ways of knowing beyond thought. Contemplative practices created space to explore the Divine mystery, to become aware of my soul’s longing, and to be fully present to others, often recognizing an unspoken meaning.  I began to have glimmers of understanding about Longaker’s (2003) words regarding the “spaciousness,” and “unbounded gratitude” found through meditative practices (p.8).

The contemplative practices holding the deepest meaning for me take place in nature. As long as I remember, I have felt a connection with the natural world. At the time of my upbringing, children were encouraged to be outdoors a good part of the day and into the evening. I was allowed the experience of being alone in a sensual natural world. My child’s heart and body felt connected to earth when I was surrounded by the beautiful, singing, and creative world. My imagination came alive when I witnessed the crashing waves, the trees dancing in the wind, and the pelicans in flight. Further, I was drawn into the mystery of life, recognizing both a sense of self and the Sacred. It was in nature that I most easily experienced well-being, wonder and joy. Today, I am aware how deeply nature has informed me throughout life.

To return to dedicated nature engagements in adult life is a blessing. My favorite contemplative practice involves walking in nature. Being in nature assists me to empty my busy mind which creates a spacious opening for image, soul and the Sacred.  When I stay faithful to my daily walks, I feel my senses opening in alignment with the natural world and all beings.  I notice an inner sense similar to a burst of color, texture, and joy, as when coming out of a dark, dense forest and being surprised to see a green meadow carpeted in wildflowers and interwoven vines. As I bear witness to, and absorb, the diversity found in nature, I am called to offer back care for earth and those beings that live in the wild. These experiences serve to awaken me from sensory slumber and I sense a re-kindling of life love. These sparks of light grow to flames that nourish me.  I understand that for me the natural world offers a portal to the Sacred. This is all very quiet, yet powerful.

There seems to be an invitation from the sacred regardless of the contemplative practice chosen. Within months of returning to contemplative practices, I noticed a resurgence of creative energy. It became clear that nature inspires my creative expression. This occurs organically through listening, which offers space for the unknown, and through walks in nature, which provide image, rhythm, and diversity.  My imagination is enlivened through a cross pollination of practices.

One way I explored the healing aspects of nature and creative expression was in addressing the grief that accompanied my father’s death.  The image that spoke to my sense of sorrow was that of a bleak, snow-laden landscape with no growth as far as the eye could see. The sky above was steely gray and unmoving. The sound was muted, and the air was icy cold. I pictured myself lying on the cold snow facing the gray sky while snow softly fell from the sky. I was exposed to the harsh elements even as the world turned around me. Visualizing and then painting this image offered comfort as I fully received and digested one of nature’s cycles.

The gifts of contemplative practices and listening are varied and subtle; offering an avenue for inner and outer growth and expression, as well as experiential recognition of the Sacred. Thomas Merton writes beautifully;

‘When I am liberated by silence, when I am no longer involved in the measurement of life, but in the living of it, I can discover a form of prayer in which there is effectively, no distraction. My whole life becomes a prayer. My whole silence is full of prayer. The world of silence in which I am immersed contributes to my prayer.’
(In Dear, 2001, p. 29)

As my openness and receptivity expands so too does my calm center merge into my everyday life until I experience a sense of belonging and unification with all of life. I feel released from many self-imposed and learned constrictions. All this invites me to offer myself to the world in a new way, and I am grateful.

Today, I continue to follow the call to engage the many ways of listening through contemplation practices knowing this as a lifelong learning process. I notice how contemplative practices influence the way I navigate within the context of communication. As I stumble along this learning path, my language broadens even as it decreases, and I have come to appreciate open, non-valuing queries and comments. These changes enable me to be more compassionately present to others, regardless of where they find themselves in life. I notice this benefits both the speaker and the listener when deep listening encourages reciprocity and rapport, which enables communication to flow trustingly from one heart to another.  I begin to understand Ausburger’s beautiful meaning; “Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people don’t know the difference (In Brady, 2009, p. 15).”


Abram, D. (1996). The spell of the sensuous. New York: Random House. Cameron, J. (1998). On the path to creativity. Shambala Sun 6(5), 36-41.

Dear, J. (2001). Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplative and Action. Doubleday Religious Publishing

Hutton, M. (2003). Listening to the land. In M. Brady (Ed.), The wisdom of listening (pp.243-260). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Lawrence, Brother. (Ed.) (2003). The practice of the presence of God. Boston: New Seeds Books.

Longaker, C. (2003). Listening with presence, awareness, and love. In M. Brady (Ed.), The wisdom of listening (pp. 7-22). Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

Muller, W. (1999). Sabbath. New York: Bantam Books.

susan oconnellSusan O’Connell, MTP serves as the Creative Expression Certificate (CEC) Director at Sofia University where she also teaches Creative Expression and Ecopsychology. Susan serves as Co-Chair for IEATA where she was awarded the professional credential of Registered Expressive Arts Consultant/Educator (REACE). She also serves through a multi-cultural ministry.


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