When I was nine my family moved from the U.S. to Germany as missionaries. At the time, the Berlin wall was still up. Cold war tensions were still very real and the highways had what looked like speed limit signs for tanks on them. The extended family were praying for us. If World War III kicked off, we were going to be on the front lines.
Thankfully, history took a different course, but in moving overseas one opens oneself up to other kinds of risks, other transformations. After negotiating the initial culture shock, one of the changes that occurs is the ability to understand multiple perspectives. People you know well and respect might hold views that no one would express back home, at least not in the Christian subculture. I found myself having to defend America a lot from teachers and classmates.
The biggest charge, besides Empire building, was usually our hypocrisy. It was pretty much universally decried that this self-proclaimed global force for good had been the only ones to drop an atom bomb on another country, and worse, we pretended it had been unavoidable, when the war was clearly already over. That can throw your average patriotic 11-year-old for a bit of a loop. Whether you agreed or disagreed, you started to question some of your assumptions. You had to wrestle. Experiences like these allow for a heightened awareness of cultural conditioning, of unconscious assumptions, of where values come from.
A Contemplative Perspective
The contemplative path is a lot like taking time in a different country. Except it’s the soul taking a trip home for a little while. As we practice, over time an inner spaciousness opens up that allows for a new awareness. We get perspective on the country our soul lives in most of the time. We come to see our shallow ego identifications with family, city, country, religion, ideology for the collective projections of the egoic mind they are. We see the constructs, the social conventions with no true substance. We see the mind-made categories. Or as Blake called them: “mind-forg’d manacles.”
We begin to perceive the ways in which the battles we’re willing to fight are almost always rooted in unconscious pain, either ours or those we identify with.
Once we begin to transcend that limited ego awareness, we start to see the patterns of unconscious behavior, both our own and those around us. This gradually allows us to grow in spiritual freedom as we move toward our True Self.
The Role of Religious Traditions
Religious traditions can be a vehicle toward this degree of awareness, and they almost always have this kind of transcendent, transformative awareness at their core. Certainly this is part of what Christ taught. His central metaphor for this kind of awareness was the kingdom.
But they can also become a hindrance. They can become ego projects themselves. They can become carved into new mind-made categories, sprinkled with a dash of ego, and served up as exclusivism.
The litmus test is whether the practice of a faith tradition expands our hearts toward all creation, or whether we stay rooted in fear and want to find things to be offended by, and to attack others for. Is our project conversion or wholeness on every level?
Do we want others to be more like our False Selves, or more like their True Selves? It’s usually not just the tradition itself, but what we and our community make of that tradition that makes all the difference. How do we treat others and creation as a result of our participation in it?
We mistake the superficial labels of faith traditions as the boundaries of the kingdom. I’m in. You’re out. Let’s fight about it. When in fact the dividing line is between conscious love and unconscious fear. And the problem is, we have to practice alert attention to stay rooted in the kingdom, so we can’t every truly say “here it is” or “there it is.” We can have a taste and slip back into unconsciousness. We have to stay oriented, and constantly identify and let go of the obstacles that crop up.
Entering the Kingdom
But once tasted, we are never truly the same. Once we cross over to the shore of kingdom and drink living water, we begin to drop the labels we’ve identified with and categorized others by. Saint, infidel. Greek, Hebrew. Master, slave. Muslim, Christian. Catholic, Protestant. Man, Woman. Republican, Democrat. Gay, straight. Russian, American.
We might employ these labels in everyday life when useful, but with a clear understanding of their limitations. To enter the kingdom is to understand that all forms of ego identity are provisional, transient, and incomplete social fabrications. But it’s so hard for us to let them go. That’s what Christ told the rich man. He was under the illusion that all his possessions mattered. But the part that lasts, the part that matters, is the spirit.
As we grow in that ability a peace beyond mental categories, “beyond all understanding” grows on the inside. The things that used to knock us off balance no longer have any power. We’re no longer trained monkeys, dancing for approval or status, as Anthony De Mello puts it.
There are no Americans in the kingdom of God. Only spirits, mutual and co-inherent. The surface labels just won’t stick. That’s the awareness we’re invited into. That’s the good news and its implications are profound.