When we think of the great religious traditions of the world, we tend to think in terms of symbols, a history of regional conflicts, of doctrinal distinctives. We think of surface differences.
The common bumper sticker challenging us to “Coexist” spells this out graphically. A crescent moon, a star of David, a cross. To some, common sense, to others, a hopeless compromise.
Growing up in an Evangelical Christian context, there was a lot of emphasis on conquering, on winning. Christ had conquered the grave. God was to defeat Satan in the final battle. We were said to be a chosen nation and more than conquerers.
There was a general sense and celebration of victory, of triumph. In seminary study we examined this kind of triumphalism and concluded it needed to be counterbalanced by an authentic appreciation of our struggle and our suffering. As a culture in general and in the Christian subculture in particular, we needed to learn to embrace the shadow.
Part of the instructions for the practice of Centering Prayer is to find a sacred word that signals a consent for the action and presence of God within. Some practitioners use “love” or “grace” or “light.”
The anonymous author of the 13th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing simply uses the word God.
In Jim Jarmusch’s movie Dead Man, the native American character Nobody or “He Who Talk Loud, Say Nothing,” quotes from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence in a moving scene:
Every night and every morn,
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night,
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
And some are born to endless night.
Most contemplatives, especially in the Christian tradition, are familiar by now with the basics of Centering Prayer. It’s a daily practice, ideally at least 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night, during which we open ourselves to the divine presence in the silence.
It’s a time to set aside the din and cacophony of everyday life and the workings of our monkey mind. That’s constantly looking for shiny new things to grab hold of.
Quick. What do you identify with? What groups do you belong to? And who do you feel attacked by? Who do you prepare to do battle with?
Most of us have these categories in play somewhere in the background of our everyday awareness. White, black, progressive, conservative, American, Canadian, pro-life, pro-choice. Maybe it’s none of those, and you identify more with your family. Or your church. Or your town. Or your country. Or your team. Or just the way things used to be.
There’s this crazy idea the mystics have that we are spirit having a human experience. Notice the singular: spirit? There’s this mystery of multiplicity-in-unity and unity-in-multiplicity. Beneath the surface veneer we’re drinking from the same well, animated by the same source.
“Take and accept yourself just as you are, where you are. If you are aggressive, lustful, fearful, or shy and passive, notice your feelings before, during, and after each incident, without emotional reactions of blame, shame, anger or discouragement. Let God work with your faults and limitations. Just recognize them and be with them, without trying to correct them directly. As you watch them, feel them, and accept them, their force and exaggeration will gradually diminish. Keep moving to the center of your being where divine love is and be present to and welcome whatever bodily feeling or emotion that is happening. The present moment contains all we need to be happy.”
Contemplatives tend to make pretty radical claims about the transformation on offer through our simple practices.
Thomas Merton put it in strong terms: “Contemplation is the highest form of prayer. [It] is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully alive.”
But what is the inner experience of this movement? What actually changes?
In contemplative teaching, we tend to understand the process of inner transformation as follows: non-judgmental inner awareness – that is, watching your own mental-emotional processes without judging – leads to greater compassion and wholeness over time.
But this doesn’t just happen in and of itself. It takes practice. It takes the act of taking a break from our habitual mental processes to get a little space to even be able to observe them. That’s contemplative practice.
In contemplative teaching we talk a lot about structures and stages, about mental habits and patterns, about awareness and self-observation, about attachments and letting go.
And making a daily practice of contemplative prayer or a similar meditative practice certainly helps create the conditions for the peace that passes even the ability for understanding, when we begin to see that false self, the ego for what it is – a contrived system, a distraction.