A few weeks ago I found myself unable to perform my regular Centering Prayer practice for much of the week. My schedule was very unusual, including two sleep studies, one at a sleep lab, and several night’s sleep interrupted by my young son.
At the same time, I faced setbacks in several projects at work. And irregular circumstances required I stay at the ready for much of the week and skip my regular work out times. The fogginess from the lack of sleep only made matters worse. In the midst of this general slog, I received a co-worker sent me an antagonistic, disrespectful email.
It was like a triple whammy. My regular practice helps me stay serene and balanced, even-keeled. Sleep and exercise help regulate mood and emotions. In effect, my guard was down. I was far from that state of deep awareness the mystics and contemplatives speak of.
Call it default consciousness. Entangled in the False Self and its limited perspective, I went through the usual emotional response.
First came defensiveness, which quickly gave rise to anger. Unconsciously, I began to conceive of how best to get back at my antagonist in petty ways along with all kinds of internal monologue: “How unprofessional! If this kind of thing is allowed, I can’t possibly work at a place like this! Don’t bother asking for my help on any more projects. You better hope I don’t become your supervisor – you’ll be the first one who gets the ax!” and so on.
This is the kind of limited, dualistic thinking that gets us caught up in power struggles. It is egoic energy. “How dare anyone talk like that to me?” is a thought that betrays an underlying illusion: that there’s a me in the first place. One with a reputation and status to be protected.
That False Self fears loss of status, public disrespect, ultimately, it fears annihilation.
After several days I had a flash of insight: this way of interacting is the only way this person knows how to influence their situation. That’s their understanding – a sense of powerlessness to affect change unless they belittle and disrespect others to manipulate them into doing what they want.
People operating at that level of consciousness are often mired in a state of inner turmoil. Seeing through the surface behavior helps us see the underlying fear, the underlying wounds of those who antagonize us. Awareness leads to compassion. And at its best, the contemplative path allows us that insight right in the moment. We don’t have to go through the mental and emotional pinball before arriving there.
For myself that’s become a kind of litmus test. How am I doing with my practice? With my spirituality? I know by how I respond to antagonistic situations. If I’m becoming mentally and emotionally preoccupied with it, I’m in a low level of consciousness. Even becoming aware of that is itself a step in the right direction.
Why? Because this allows us to become more aligned with the observing presence than the victimized self.
But full awareness is characterized by that move from victimhood to compassion, to sensing what pain causes the other person’s unskillful behavior. I’m calling the time between the behavior itself and an insightful, compassionate response the compassion gap.
The greater that gap, the more I know I need to return to healthy rhythms to observe what attachments I’m clinging to – reputation, status, respect, esteem – that need to be dropped to return to a state of unconditional happiness and absolute contentment. The mystics live out of that state of awareness and are able to see through the surface down to the underlying pain instantaneously.
In a state of balance we can walk the daily highwires with absolute calm and serenity. We can see through the underlying desires, fears, and wounds of those around us. We can speak life into their situations and move them toward wholeness to whatever extent possible.
I’m still returning to regular rhythms, still finding my footing, still waiting for an opening to connect with this co-worker in a meaningful way. But whatever the interaction, I want it to be shaped by an awareness of his full humanity rather than egoic reactiveness.
And in the future, I want to be able to see the situation as it fully is as quickly as possible. I want to reduce the amount of ego I’m importing into the situation. I want to reduce the compassion gap.