Growing up in a pastor’s family, it’s fair to say my spirituality has gone through several distinct phases. The first phase in childhood is connected mostly with place. The sense impressions and experience of the church building. The sounds, the look, the feel, the texture of the place. Not just songs and sermons, but the minute particulars – the curve of the piano, the verbal and non-verbal tics of the preachers, the musicians, and the congregants.
Later, in adolescence and early adulthood, the search for answers came to the fore. I wanted to understand how to reconcile the suffering in the world with a just God. And later, part of going to seminary was to set aside time to reconcile the belief system I was raised in with life as I experienced it, or at least to understand how they diverged.
But the search for answers often only led to tentative answers and further questions, each one with another range of possible answers, and so on. And even the answers I arrived at required an alarming amount of complex mental processes just to remember. And in the meantime I had decisions to make, a life to live, sometimes more skillful, sometimes less so.
While it is helpful to have a framework and to articulate one’s beliefs, at some point, I eventually realized the answers themselves didn’t really change much internally. They usually provided a temporary kind of mental-emotional relief, a framework, some direction, but not lasting transformation.
Eventually, I’d succumb to the same old fears, hang-ups, addictions, emotional patterns, most of which emerges from unconscious processes. That’s where healing needs to take place if it’s going to last.
At some point, I wasn’t much interested in new answers. I was interested in transformative practices and experiences of genuine transformation. Now, this didn’t come out of nowhere, but from an intuitive sense from those I met – whether professors, friends, or teachers – who deomonstrated a hard-won kind of wisdom. These were people who had done the internal work of examining their unconscious processes, of confronting their shadow, with a combination of deep insight, self-awareness, and emotional balance.
I felt a deeper peace just being in their presence, a combination of unconditional acceptance and a challenge to true inner transformation. These were people who challenged me to be better by their very being, through their dedication to humble service in the world, some to the working poor, some in spiritual direction, others fighting for environmental preservation, others serving the poor in developing countries. Whereas I held care for others as a value, I was too preoccupied with my own issues to genuinely care.
In many cases, I learned these people were engaged in contemplative practice of some kind. And it wasn’t answers or more reading that would help follow in their footsteps and loosen the grip of the ego. That could be a valuable starting point, but wouldn’t get me there.
I’d have to engage in some kind of disciplined practice to grow in the areas in which I needed to. For most of us, it takes more than the understanding and even the desire to engage in a deepening practice. It takes some kind of crisis in which we face our own limitations, our own immaturity, our own shadow.
We leave the known, the simplistic, pre-packaged answers behind on this process of encounter and transformation. In fact, answers – more words, more language, more thoughts – felt counter-productive in this stage.
As contemplative blogger Clint Sabom puts it in describing his own contemplative awakening “I didn’t want explanations. I remember that. I didn’t want to read words where people described this sort of quiet rapture or what it meant. Words were a block. Words would prevent me from seeing the process through. The way that can be named is not the way.”
Interestingly, in his study on spirituality in America since the 1950’s, scholar Robert Wuthnow identifies this same movement in American spirituality in general in the past sixty years away from explanation and toward a Spirituality of Practice. According to Wuthnow, we’ve moved from a Spirituality of Place to a Seeker Spirituality, and into a Spirituality of Practice.
Contemplative practice is an invitation to a process of radical transformation. Or as Thomas Merton writes “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.”
During this phase of spirituality, I’m far more interesting in identifying the inner areas that keep me out of alignment, that keep me rooted in desire, blindness, a small self, a false self.
The contemplative practices, like Centering Prayer and others, are intended to transcend the rational faculties, which are one more tool for the ego to fashion a separate, superior sense of self. It’s not one more formula to memorize, or a stance to take and defend. It’s not antagonistic. It doesn’t defend territory. There’s no formal membership.
Sometimes it’s just like an invitation to a dance. But to move skillfully, we have to practice the steps diligently, daily. Or an invitation to play our part in the orchestra, and again we have to practice. Or it can be thought of like an invitation to a journey, and we have to walk it daily, by recognizing and letting go of inhibiting, limiting thought patterns, by recognizing and letting go of inhibiting and limiting emotional patterns, of roles we play to get what we want. We keep practicing, keep walking, though the outcome isn’t certain – for certainty, we cling to fixed ideas – certainty prevents growth. Instead, we accept the possibility of change, we remain open to growth, even experience that growth directly as a greater capacity for joy, for balance, for graciousness.
That then fuels our commitment to the practice of growing into this ever-greater awareness.