I recently watched a video of two spiritual directors discussing how the role of the spiritual director is different from the clergyman. Whereas the clergyman is communicating established truths and doctrine, a spiritual director’s job is to help us to be attentive to the God’s action in the moment, to pay attention to that which wants to become manifested in us.
One of the aspects of ourselves that changes as we continue on the contemplative path is our relationship to time, specifically psychological time. That is, our regret or nostalgia about the past and our hopes or anxieties about the future gradually dissolve more and more as we learn to truly attend to the present moment.
But what about the times that isn’t the case?
The ego dynamics, or our mental-emotional patterns, are extremely persistent. That’s why the contemplative practice is ideally a daily one.
The experience of a state of depression is usually only identified after an extended period in that state, by someone else, or somehow after the fact, in a moment of clarity. It is to look at the world through a particular lens in which we feel: what’s the point, no effort will amount to anything, I’m not getting anywhere, my actions have no purpose, none of my dreams will be achieved.
In a sense, we’re stuck psychologically. Maybe we’ve fixated on some kind of state or outcome, and we feel, either consciously or unconsciously, it will never be achieved. We lose hope.
All kinds of factors can contribute to that perspective: genetics, sleep, diet, exercise, weather, relational dynamics, and so on. We’ve depleted the serotonin somehow and the world turns grey.
Several aspects of the contemplative perspective help here.
The first is simple awareness. One of the benefits of contemplative practice is to observe oneself as if from the outside, and to see what’s going on and to be able to call it out accurately. “I’m reacting out of anger,” or “I’m depressed.”
The second is to accept the reality of it, to observe and examine instead of striving to fix it immediately. What’s the root of the situation? What are the dynamics in play, or at least some of them?
A third is the ability to create a spacious awareness that surrounds the negativity like a cocoon of sorts. Yes, depression is there. But the further we go down the path of contemplation, we don’t even over-identify with the self in the same old sense of thinking “I am this body, this bundle of thoughts, feelings, memories,” and so on. This is what allows Jesuit writer Anthony De Mello to write “Have you ever considered that it may be possible to feel depressed AND experience peace and contentment at the same time?”
Fourth, the contemplative practice itself consists of watching thoughts, feelings, and images come, and thoughts, feelings, and images go. That breeds a deep awareness of transience, or the law of impermanence.
It’s Winter now. Post-election, a country still in turmoil. End of the year. Looking back at the acts of war, acts of terror, deaths, and tragedies of this year, and with much anxiety about what’s to come, many are feeling overwhelmed. We can get stuck in that story of despair, over and above whatever personal struggles we may be experiencing.
It’s imperative to keep in mind the thousands of acts of daily kindness, gentleness, generosity, lovingkindness, even the simple bravery of saying “I’ll do it better tomorrow.” That’s where most of us are.
But even that is still an intermediate way of thinking and being. Ultimately, that outer conflict that we see in our country and in our world is rooted in that inner conflict. The desire to acquire more, to feel superior to others, to fight anxiety and fear, to find someone to project it onto.
We’re creating a mental story of ourselves and turning that into something to defend, a reason to attack, and so on. Even the labels of tragedy and bravery are secondary ways of seeing. They’re mental constructs. They provide fodder for the ego to either identify with, or judge and reject. Either path consolidates the separate self sense.
There’s an even deeper peace.
I strongly urge you to keep a diligent practice of resting in a generous silence. Maybe it’s in sitting meditation, in Centering Prayer, maybe walking meditation, maybe something even simpler, but allow some kind of interruption in the perpetual-motion faculty of thought. Open yourself to the greater spaciousness to allow that inner conflict, the inner hopelessness, to come in, be seen, drift across, and slip away.