Since beginning down the contemplative path several years ago, I go in and out of extended periods of that state of being that contemplatives call the kingdom – a neutral zone of fulfillment, contentment, and sufficiency. Not grasping, not striving. Just being.
That state is accompanied by a subtle awareness of both internal and external processes, physical, mental, and emotional. As Thomas Merton puts it, non-attachment doesn’t mean insensitivity. This is because, in the contemplative tradition, attachments refer to those things we usually cling to for identity and ego-fulfillment. Letting go of these means being aware of an entirely different set of processes.
And these different phases are to be expected. Author Carl McColman compares the rhythms of the inner life to those of the body, which experiences wakefulness, fatigue, sleep, dreaming, deep slumber, and awakening again.
Usually, what causes a change in my inner state is my inability for one reason or another to maintain a diligent daily practice. Then I revert to my default self, or false self, which is pretty cynical, entitled, angry, and belittling.
In such times, the former state of a kind of easy gratitude, of acceptance and openness seems like a dream, an unattainable goal, unrealistic. Just as in the physical life, I’m alternating between wakefulness and sleep.
The writings of Gustav Fechner, one of the fathers of the modern social sciences, describe not one, but three lives on earth, one of continual sleep before birth, another of alternating sleep and wakefulness, and a final one of eternal wakefulness.
Many mystics say that the only thing that keeps us separated from God is the illusion that we are separated from God. To eliminate the illusion is to wake up.
That illusion is made up of different layers, but each layer is a different kind of thought form. There are the obvious thoughts we have – the ideas, images, and emotions that preoccupy our inner landscape – but there are also collective thought forms that go largely unnoticed most of the time. You might call these infrastructural thoughts, cultural conditioning and inherited ways of thinking.
These shape our identity and relationships with others profoundly. For example, we label a collection of buildings and streets and businesses and houses with a city name: San Diego, Seattle, Chicago. We have a certain idea about the kind of places these are, what kind of people live there, and position ourselves in some relation to that idea, though at any given moment that idea is completely inadequate to encompass the intricacy and complexity of the place itself.
That idea about the place is not the place. It is a story we either made up or bought into.
The same goes for our countries. At some point, governments agreed upon artificial borders that do not exist in nature and gave a label to the place between the borders. Much of the things that occupy our thinking – places, institutions, nations, brands, teams, are complete constructs, complete fabrications. Through a complex psychological process, we identify with these different things, they become ego extensions. My family, my church, my team, my city, my country, my ideology.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying or celebrating these, but when we overidentify with them such they become a means of exclusion or superiority and divisiveness, we show our unconsciousness. All of these things are transient, provisional. Whereas the contemplative path affirms a transcendent reality, one with which we are interwoven. Most of the time, we forget that. We think we are this body we get to rent for a while. We think we are the thoughts we think or the emotions we have. In particularly immature moments, we think we are the car we drive.
There’s nothing superior about loving awareness. And where we still strive to be superior, even in subtle ways, that’s an indicator to us that we still have some areas for maturation.
What if the mystics are right and this little span of our lives are here for us to engage in what the Greeks called anamnesis, this unforgetting? All matter originates in spirit. Most of the time, especially we moderns with our desacralized worldviews, forget that. What would it look like if we remembered?
What if the mystics are right and God is right there in the natural processes, the whinnying dog I’m taking care of in my living room, the dying plants in my garden, the hum of the refrigerator, my neighbors chatting on the lawn. The mailman. The low sun outside the window. All encoded with spirit.
If all emanates from God and will eventually return to God, all of us bits of wax in the divine lava lamp, what would change in our everyday lives? What would be important? What would be unimportant? What would we spend our time on? What would we let go of?