After graduating High School overseas I was at a loss as to where to go next. I had family in the Pacific Northwest, a girlfriend in Australia, and friends scattered across the US and England. I decided to spend a year living with my brother near Seattle to take my time with the decision.
As a missionary kid from a humble family background attending a prestigious international school in Europe, I had enjoyed an illusory sense of social standing. Now the cold reality set in. We lived in a basement in a working class town and earned little at our jobs.
With friends at Oxford and their education covered by the German government, I felt my own reality living in a basement in a small town unfairly daunting and humiliating. Instead of hobnobbing with the European upper crust like some of my peers, I was waking early to wipe bird droppings off the restaurant windows, sweep the perimeter, and begin setting tables for the breakfast crowd.
In a matter of months, my social life had dwindled from hour long phone calls with any one of a number of close friends to the brief exchange with the checkout clerk at Blockbuster once every few days. I’d practice witty exchanges ahead of time.
The car I bought for a thousand dollars died at the same stop light every day. My brother was struggling with his own depression and those I felt closest to were scattered far and wide.
Whatever confidence or pretense I had acquired from grades, athletics, family, friendships, and world travel quickly evaporated. On many different levels, I was completely disoriented.
Besides the obvious lessons – the challenges to the ego, a shifting self-image, moving from a sense of being exceptional to ordinary, or even in exile, there was another way in which I unconsciously compounded my suffering. This lesson took a lot longer to learn.
An even bigger problem than the challenging life situation I found myself in was the inner resistance I brought to the situation. Every day I carried around thoughts that had their own energy, like a 50 lb. weight. The ego says this should not be happening to me. I don’t deserve this. This is horrible. I became an expert level wallower.
To maintain a sense of exceptionalism and separateness, our ego so often wants to find a superior vantage point. That way, when our life situation doesn’t provide the recognition, status, or affection we crave, instead of accepting reality as it is, we go into fault-finding mode. It’s this person’s fault, or that institution’s fault, or a parent’s fault. Or we can get down on ourselves.
This manifests itself in everyday life. Every little complaint we express is a subtle ego positioning. Every judgment statement setting ourselves in the position of the judge.
As Eckhart Tolle puts it “To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
The contemplative path invites us to witness without judging. Such a simple act. Such a difficult discipline. It requires that we become aware of the tapes in our head. That we attend to our habitual mental energies.
It’s so ingrained in us in our ego-driven consumer society to evaluate all the time. Our cars, our wardrobes, our houses, our education, the sermon, the lecture, meal, the TV show, the coffee. Everyone we meet we often subtly evaluate. We are in non-stop evaluation mode. As a mental practice, whether conscious or unconscious to evaluate is to compare what is with what ought to be.
The contemplative practice is a daily ritual of removing judgmental thoughts and simply witnessing, ourselves first of all. Non-judgment of others and of our life situations follows after.
There’s a paradox here. A criticism of the contemplative life from outsiders is often that it’s passive, it’s escapist, it’s navel gazing.
Far from it.
To let go of our mental models of what ought to be is to give up our distorted, culturally conditioned notions of morality and attend to what the poet calls “something far more deeply interfused.” We let go of abstract notions of Truth that we usually fixate on and instead become aware of truth-in-action, necessary truth of lived experience, our responses – physical, mental, emotional – always in fluid and appropriate response to the situation.
That right action, unmotivated by ego, is what mystics call love. Not an emotional entanglement, nor a sentimental posture, but direct, clear-sighted action meant for the transformation of others into a state of greater wholeness. First we have to comprehensively accept what is. Only then can we “love the world.” This doesn’t happen from a posture of self-righteous judgment.
Not as a default posture where we have our favorite self-righteous responses to our favorite morality projects.
It is a move from unconscious to conscious responsiveness.
I don’t know of any other practice more effective in bringing about this state than daily meditation practice.
Prior to engaging my own practice, nearly every aspect of life triggered inner resistance: college didn’t provide the depth of friendship I deeply desired, Seminary didn’t provide the academic rigor or career opportunities I wanted, marriage didn’t satisfy my emotional needs the way I thought it should. And don’t get me started on teaching. In each case, resistance energy froths into resentment. In each case reality crashes into my hardened, calcified notion of how it ought to be. At several points in life the resistance itself became all consuming.
What if there was a practice that could dissolve and dismantle this whole mental drama?