A few weeks ago, in a moment of honesty and self-awareness, a friend of mine confessed to feeling less excited than they expected about the recent spike in national dialogue about systemic injustice.
Even though this person both studied this problem deeply and worked as an activist for several years, they asked “what if I was passionate because I got something out of it? Years ago, I was one of the few white people I knew actively organizing against systemic racial injustice. Now it seems like common knowledge, less unique. Is that why I’m not as passionate now?”
There’s a deep bit of insight there.
In working toward wholeness, whether for ourselves, our families, churches, communities, or country, it’s just as important to ask why we’re doing something as it is to determine what it is we ought to do. Our motivation matters. If it’s ultimately about us, that will show up eventually and subtly or not-so-subtly undermine our efforts.
At the deeper levels of contemplative practice, mental and emotional events – thoughts, impressions, memories, and our responses to them – become as vivid as physical objects in the world around us. That’s the level of attention we can bring to them. That’s the level of self-awareness that’s possible.
Our patterns and mechanisms become clearer to us. The more we observe the less we live in a reactive state. We gain a measure of both inner and outer freedom.
Whether religious or not, most people find something of value in the invitation to “love your neighbor as yourself” or even to “love your enemies.” This is the kind of radical move it takes to bring about healing on a broad scale.
Of course following the invitation means taking a look at the word itself. What kind of love is meant here?
The ancient Greeks distinguished between the earthly or natural loves and a constant or divine love. The first three are storge – familial love or empathy with like-minded people or communities, philia – a bond of deep companionship between intimate friends, eros – the sense of bond with a deeply intimate partner. According to writers like C.S. Lewis, for example, this is more comprehensive than physical intimacy.
In our culture, we usually think of love as an intense emotional attachment or of one of the above kinds of love. The other kind is called agape. The mystics speak of this ultimate kind of love as only being fully possible once we’ve let go of all of our own ego projects, our desires and attachments. Otherwise, they will creep into any relationship and subtly undermine the path toward wholeness.
Agape means seeing through externals and surface appearances. For most of us, it’s something to strive toward vs. something we’re fully capable of unless we’ve done profound inner work to release our own unconscious desires. This is the process of maturation, of becoming whole. If we can ask “what is required right now in this situation to move toward wholeness?”
The tricky part is to do so without fixating on any one role that will distort how we see, think about, and treat anyone else. If we feel self-righteous, for example, we’ll constantly be on the look out for flaws in others to feel morally superior. Instead, we want to ask: what are the obstacles to wholeness for the victimizer and the victim? For the neighbor and the enemy? What is acute and behavioral? What is chronic and structural? What can I contribute?
This also requires an abiding vigilance into our own issues and egoic patterns. What are our weaknesses? One powerful spiritual practice is to simply observe ourselves without introducing guilt or shame, the annoyed look, the unkind word, the judgmental thought, the inner tension, acting out of resentment or selfishness or frustration or fear.
This allows us to increase our insight of what needs to change in our own lives. We start to realize what we need to let go of. And we’re much better equipped to help clean the dust around us once we’ve taken hold of that log in our own eye. We become more capable of agape, or clearsighted love-in-action.
A friend recently asked how we engage in the first three loves if we’re going about the process of “self-emptying” or “non-attachment” that the contemplative path calls for. For most of us, the contemplative life doesn’t eliminate our relationships or roles as parents, partners, friends, and so on. But we are able to see how our emotional needs and ego attachments negatively affect those relationships.
With practice, we can let go of some of the pettiness and unskillful things we do in relationships to get our needs met. We’re after insight, clarity, and the ability to act in truly other-centered ways. The fourth love has more to do with clarity than emotion, though the state out of which it comes is joyful and generous.
Maybe my activist friend will rediscover a passion for their work once they’ve taken stock and done some inner work. Maybe they’ll invest in other areas, work to bring about wholeness in some other way. But it will be out of a deeper awareness and alignment with what is, rather than an ego pursuit, which always limits the effectiveness of the work of transformation.