The Radical Challenge of the Contemplative Path

Recently, I was in a funk. Sure, some of it had to do with four nights of interrupted sleep and a weekend sickness, but some of it was just cyclical stuff. I get off track. The risk of that happening is much greater when I’m out of rhythm, but it can happen just the same. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns.

Radical Challenge of the contemplative path

For me, it manifests mostly in interior monologue. The mental garbage. Resentment about a direction life took at some point. A memory will flash of a moment from the past that seems much better than whatever’s going on right now. Mental arguments with family members who aren’t even in the same zip code. Sometimes the voice in the head positions itself as a victim. Other times as the vindictive one imagining payback for some old slight.

Much as we might think we’d like our worries to disappear and life to be smooth sailing, the truth is we contrive much of our problems ourselves. Underlying this process is the need for the ego to posit a separate self, an inner desire to see ourselves as unique, different, whether superior or inferior. As Thomas Keating reminds us, there’s as much ego in saying “I’m the worst!” as “I’m the best!” In both cases, there’s an “I” struggling to differentiate itself.

Complaining is one of the most common and subtle forms this takes. This person doesn’t show us enough attention. That person is too slow. This person isn’t meeting our expectations. That one isn’t meeting our needs. If we complain about it, when we suggest that others fail to live up to our lofty standards, we imply our own superiority. That’s the ego at work.

Contemplative teachers speak of deep acceptance to allow the ego to dissolve, which takes ongoing practice and moment to moment diligent awareness. This doesn’t mean allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. Instead it refers to a kind of deep insight about the unconscious or distortions at work in other people that cause them to act unskillfully. And if we are in fact mistreated, we have the inner balance to take action, without being vindictive or malicious, or victims.

Much of the purpose of contemplative practice – by that I mean the 20 minutes of sitting enveloped in silence twice a day – is to pull the drain on the mental sewage, to evacuate the habitual thoughts that drain energy. With this perpetual thought-layer suspended, we can surrender to reality such as it is.

The radical challenge of the contemplative path is this: we take full responsibility for our inner state. If we’re angry, it’s our doing. If we’re bitter, it’s our doing. If we’re annoyed, it’s our doing. If we construct a narrative in which we’re the constant victim, it’s our doing. If we’re in a funk, it’s our responsibility to observe the inner processes at work, and practice deep acceptance of our emotional state moment to moment.

Perpetuating a state of misery, of complaining and victimhood is literally toxic. It accelerates the aging process and infects those around us. But usually, by the time we’re in that mode, we don’t have the awareness to take a step back and consciously examine what’s happening. The ego’s in control again and we’re back to complaining about that this person did to us, or what that person didn’t do for us.

The daily practice introduces a new variable altogether. For a little bit of time each day the mind isn’t in control. With nothing to cling to, that toxicity is removed. But in and of itself, sitting quietly is not enough. That’s the practice. That’s the momentum-builder. It cultivates awareness and makes it possible. The real changes start when we bring that awareness into the rest of our daily lives.

We begin to recognize even subtle ways in which we resist the moment and give away our peace and balance. Browser won’t open? “Damn thing!” Oh, wait, I just gave away a little bit of peace over nothing. Son won’t listen right away to put on his pajamas? “What are you doing?!” Barista slow to get us our drink? Traffic jam? Not enough attention from a partner? In an unconscious state, we identify with the emotions these bring about and allow it to trigger the negativity. We resist the situation and bring about inner tension. Maybe even act out in response.

In a deeper state of awareness there’s every bit as much substance and energy to the thought and emotion as there is a table or a phone. We perceive it quite clearly, and can choose how to respond. Do we pick it up, or drop it?

For most of us, getting there and sustaining this level of awareness requires an attentive and committed practice. Bringing that practice to bear in daily life usually involves the following stages:

  • Self-observation: what are my triggers for a negative spiral? When do I tend to get stuck in mental-emotional negativity? What are my favorite things to complain about? Honing into this layer of behavior, thought, and emotion usually takes some time, especially to be aware of emotions and thoughts as they occur.
  • Deep acceptance: we differentiate between our life situation – the world we find ourselves in – and our inner state, or how we assess, evaluate, and relate to that life situation. Am I resisting my life situation? Is there even residual resentment and a sense of being wronged or a sense of lack? Acceptance and surrender on the mental-emotional level corresponds precisely to our sense of balance.
  • Other-centeredness: One of this biggest hallmarks of inner growth is genuine greater concern for the health, well-being, and wholeness of others over and above oneself alone. This can manifest in ways big and small, depending on our temperament and gifting, but consists of more than a good deed here and there. It’s an overall orientation.

The contemplative path is a transformational journey from egocentrism to unitive seeing. Most of us have to diligently engage in practices to facilitate that process, or better, to open ourselves to it. And it’s by no means linear. But whether in fits and starts or for extended periods, it’s like getting access to life itself.

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