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Home > Blog - In All Things > Brendan McManus SJ > Coffee house contemplation

Coffee house contemplation

I know many people who are surrounded by busyness and activity, and who long for a quiet place to ‘give their head peace’, as they say.

I hit on this idea, which I use myself, to create a quiet, uninterrupted space in a coffee shop. It has the advantage that many people come in alone, it normally only requires the price of a cup of coffee, and you get left in peace (someone gave me this tip: put earphones in, it signals to others that you don’t want to be disturbed and it cuts out the often distracting music playlists). I also find it helpful to be able to look out the window, it helps the ‘contemplative gaze’!

First of all, normally the signal that you need some time out is the unease and mental turmoil that accompanies too much frenetic activity and not enough time out, a common complaint.

Secondly, is the comfort that with this contemplative process, your body/mind knows what to do and will reward you eventually with a greater sense of peace and calmness.

Third, is the knowledge that the essence of contemplation is allowing things to settle, seeing clearly and connecting to your deepest self. Inevitably, this involves the temporary ‘pain’ of slowing down, changing gear, and letting what is inside come up. The good news is that there is a path through this process if you are prepared to stick with it and the rewards are many.

1. The process is a bit like drinking a cup of coffee, as I am doing now writing this: it is best enjoyed over a period of time, say 20 minutes. Remember, it is possible to bolt it down in a few minutes but it’s not really enjoyable as it is to sit over it.
Step #1: Give yourself time. It may be an idea to switch off your phone, create a digital-free space for yourself.

2. Let your mind wander in a constructive way, though the hardest thing is often dealing with the persistent and often intrusive thoughts that torment: “I should be working”, “I have to get back to such a person” or “I’m afraid of what will come up if I stop”. So the first thing is often facing into these thoughts and finding a way through them. Find something to be grateful for is a good start which gives perspective.
Step #2: I am not my thoughts, there is a deeper place in me that I want to reach.

3. Take time to taste the coffee, smell the aroma. What does it taste like? Is it good coffee?:  too bitter, too milky, just right, etc. This focusing on something outside yourself allows you to break out of the endless thoughts. Anytime you get distracted, just come back to this: I’m here drinking a cup of coffee, this is enough for now.
Step #3: Smell the coffee!

4. Think about the wonder of coffee; all the growers, pickers, roasters and distributors that have made this coffee for you. Good things take time. Likewise, allow things to surface. This can feel a bit frightening, facing the unknown, so it is best to connect yourself to your ‘higher power’ (whatever you believe that to be) and making some petition such as “there is nothing I can’t handle with help; give me the strength and courage to face whatever comes”. This has the advantage that it’s not just about you, you are asking for help, and it makes things more manageable.
Step #4: Ask for help, there is good in the world and a way through problems.

5. Contemplation means to observe, consider or think deeply. Notice that this involves a level of detachment or ‘sitting outside’ yourself, which is the essence of ‘good’ thinking, seeing clearly and gaining perspective. The modern day trap is the illusion that thinking in and of itself can solve everything; unfortunately it can often tie you in knots, create impossible dead ends and destroy your peace. The deeper thinking in contemplation puts it outside yourself, creating a critical distance that allows for ‘outside’ or divine help, getting perspective on issues and hopefully finding answers.
Step #5: Solutions will emerge like froth on a cappuccino, they will come to the surface.

6. Finally, it is important to look back or reflect on your ‘time out’ and see what worked for you and what didn’t. Gradually improve the quality of your ‘coffee contemplation’ over time by making small adjustments (e.g., a favourite corner, better coffee, ways of stilling the thoughts) to what works for you. Be grateful for small things; remember the centuries it took to discover and refine coffee, apparently it’s from Ethiopia in the 11th Century.
Step #6: Look back to look forward to the next coffee.

A tribute to Colombian fair-trade coffee.