Yesterday my son asked me why Sunday is called Sunday. Was it named after the sun? I said I thought so. Monday sounded like the word for “moon” in several languages. Hmm. We should look into it!
Turns out each day of the week corresponds to the planets according to Greek cosmology, but filtered down through the Roman pantheon and Germanic language. The days in order refer to sun, moon, Tiw (a Germanic god of combat or war), Wodan (or Odin), Thunder, Frig (the Norse equivalent of the goddess Venus), and Saturn (or Zeus’s father Cronos).
The days of the week we use all the time are a hodge-podge, almost a history lesson of European heritage and mythology in itself. Earlier in the week he asked about numbers on a road sign.
Obviously, a similar process of development holds true for the Hindu-Arabic numbers system we’ve adopted, and the Greek alphabet (see David Abram’s fantastic Spell of the Sensuous on this). They were developed out of earlier systems, passed along through trade routes, and became standardized.
We tend to treat systems like calendars, numbers, and the alphabet like they’re ahistorical – like it’s just always been that way. They’re such a basic part of our social and mental infrastructure.
The past is with us all the time in ways we don’t even think about. We simply accept it as the norm.
This is how we are conditioned. This is how we are socialized. This becomes the standard mental overlay we all use to interface with the world around us.
The same holds true for our mental-emotional patterns.
The invitation of the contemplative path, though, is to no longer take those inner processes for granted. To assume our regular and habitual thought patterns, reactive patterns, our fixations and fears, our reactivity, are normal.
Yesterday, for example, a couple minutes after settling in for an afternoon Centering Prayer session, using the Centering Prayer app, a got five notifications in rapid succession. My cell phone buzzed with each one.
My wife was out running errands. Was this an emergency?
Nope, just notifications from Twitter, Starbucks, and several from Yelp, notifying me, among other things, that a former colleague had just (wait for it…) signed in to Yelp. (Mental note: change notification settings).
I heard myself say “this makes me very mad!” out loud as I put the phone back down. Who was I talking to? The phone? God? An abstract facsimile of the good people at Yelp? Then I had to laugh, because this is the very unconscious process the practice is meant to make us aware of.
First of all, there’s a me here. And how dare the little self and its projects get interrupted. To consolidate that sense of a separate self that wants all the things it wants – peace, affirmation, a sense of progress, maybe – the me judges the situation. By doing so I’m hardening my sense of self, creating distance, creating dissonance.
There’s a resistance to what’s happening. This stupid phone and these stupid companies with their stupid notifications are intruding on my precious little sacred space here! There’s emotional build up that then clogs the mental arteries. This kind of angry fixation prevents the posture that is receptive to growth, to understanding, to beauty.
I’m out of alignment.
But this whole process is what we engage in unconsciously all the time.
It can’t “make me mad,” unless I either let it, or am in a state of unconscious reactivity. But we take this for granted. People don’t measure up to our standards or behave in a way we were taught not to behave, and we get upset. We expected to find a parking spot much sooner. We didn’t expect the red light to last so long. We didn’t expect the child to spill the drink or the spouse to neglect our emotional needs. We get caught in dualistic seeing: me vs. the situation, or me vs. them.
This is not the transcendent, inclusive perspective that leads towards wholeness.
That’s why awakened people tend to have a kind of x-ray vision as Richard Rohr puts in The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. They can see not only the surface reality but the mental-emotional infrastructure at work that most of us take for granted. And the stakes of not doing so are actually pretty high.
This is the wide way Christ speaks of that leads to destruction and war. The wide gate of egocentrism and fault-finding is what leads to destruction on a mass scale. The narrow gate of dying to the self and its entrenched perspectives leads to life. As Merton puts it in the classic New Seeds of Contemplation, war is an attitude, a condition of the heart.
As long as I can continue to say of anything “this makes me very mad,” there will continue to be the conditions of war in my own heart and therefore in the world. This week I lost to the smartphone for a moment. And there’s quite a bit more I still need to lose.
As an exercise: Think of three characteristics that describe or define you. Gregarious, anxious, determined, whatever it is. Then consider how those mental concepts about yourself are a limitation, and how they can prevent being alive to what is. Think of a trait you think is negative and commit to watching it for three days, without judging, without beating yourself up, just observe, even accept, and see what happens.