A couple weeks ago, I had to run some errands locally and my son was in the middle of a riveting episode of PJ Mask. I didn’t have time to wait until the end of the episode to leave and he was expectedly upset.
In the car ride he was emotional and determined to veto everything. No music! None of the lunch options are good! I’m not going to eat anything! We’re not going to do anything and we’re not going to go anywhere! In being upset he adopted a default resistance energy.
He’d had his show interrupted and now no one else was going to enjoy their afternoon, him least of all.
There’s a similar kind of energy at work in many of us right now. Many of us are determined to drum up resistance energy, though the enemies we’re determined to resist might differ here and there.
One of the difficult things to do in stressful times is to maintain a sense of balance, to return to a quiet still center, out of which we can find perspective and choose wisely. Right now with turbulence and uncertainty nationally and globally, it’s easy to have our anger and anxiety triggered.
And for others, it’s easy to scoff at those whose anger and anxiety is triggered. Either way, it’s ego energy at work. It’s the false self in action. What 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart called the “me and mine,” or the ego and the collection of things it identifies with. It’s very far from the spiritual imperative to love. But how do we get there from here?
One quote that has stuck with me in my contemplative practice is from Anthony De Mello: “To comes to the land of love, it is necessary to pass through the pains of death.”
Christ himself says “unless a grain of wheat dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” So what gives with all the dying?
First, maybe part of the problem is with the term love as it’s used here. Better than the fluffy word love, which especially we Americans tend to overuse and drain of meaning, maybe the biblical agape is more appropriate.
From a contemplative perspective, this kind of love is right action in alignment with the egoless, transcendent perspective. Of course, for Christians, this is most clearly demonstrated by the life, teaching, and sacrifice of Christ.
Pursuing Christlikeness is a fairly common phrase in church circles, but if it doesn’t involve this ongoing ego divestiture, it’s pretty toothless, meaning either something more like “be more obedient to authority figure x” or “be nicer.” Pursuing ego death doesn’t have quite the same ring.
From a contemplative perspective what dies, what has to die for love to achieve full flowering in and through us, is our false self. The evidence of this ego energy ranges from simple complaining and subtle bragging to putting down others to more extreme forms of interpersonal violence.
All this is ego consolidation behavior. It’s about making sure we remind ourselves about me, mine, and our righteousness project. We usually want to feel superior, or feel like a victim. Agape-love says we’re neither.
It’s the inner state that gives rise to this distorted attitude. We haven’t had the necessary catastrophe, some decentering experience that knocks us sufficiently off of our perch to see ourselves and life itself from anything other than this narrow egocentric position. We haven’t been able to look squarely at conditioned point of view we take for granted that prevents us from seeing through the eyes of agape-love.
There’s a death that needs to take place. A death of “me and mine.”
There’s much going on right now that threatens “me and mine,” both through pro-active crazy-making by the new administration, in part to consolidate power, in part to misdirect, in part to create and exploit the economics of oppression and shock. We don’t need more righteous indignation about ongoing obfuscation and malignant narcissism. That’s a given at this point. But beyond the noise, beyond fear, beyond anger, beyond self, the question becomes within my sphere of influence, what has to happen in this moment in the service of life? Maybe something simple, maybe something radical. But not out of reactive ego energy. That can simply fan the flames of hatred and counter-hatred.
So, what’s left then, if we allow this construct to dissolve, to be dismantled, to die.
Yes, contemplative practice is a practice of detached observation, of disassociation, and letting go from our habitual mental formations. But what results is, paradoxically, greater perspective, greater immersion, but from a balanced place.
But to adopt a default posture of any sort, including resistance, however warranted it might seem on the surface, is to adopt tunnel vision. It means limiting our ability to see and act.
It hardens our hearts and makes us incapable of tender, gentle action, which may be needed. It prevents us from seeing those we disagree with as human. It prevents us from listening, from making subtle differentiation.
What’s the alternative? Right action or Love-in-action.
This kind of open-ended, open-hearted posture allows for possibility, not rigidity. If we see the laws of life, dignity, and care being trampled on we take action.
Maybe we do march locally or in Washington or register as Muslim in solidarity, should it come to a discriminatory registry, but at all times with a fresh perspective out of the demands of love, not resistance as an inner state. It is harder to be for something than against something. And harder still to be open-hearted, especially in the face of clear injustice. Instead of reactionary and punitive, we can engage creative faculties and work strategically toward inclusive solutions.
In the service of unconscious ego energies, it won’t bear much fruit. Unless it emerges out of love and works toward transcendent inclusion, resistance energy begets the very evils it resists in the first place.
But this balance is a posture we have to cultivate. There is a quiet inner space beyond the events of the day. Timeless. A refuge. A space within which we can recharge. That’s contemplative practice.
For me lately, it’s been helpful to think of this space as beyond language. I’ve noticed in my practice it’s fairly easy to identify distracting thoughts in the form of images, whether memory or daydream, and let them go. But distracting phrases still echo in my mind, and of course our inmost essence is beyond our conditioned language and the categories and systems it implies.
We enter into this time of silence, a calm in the storm, letting go of images, of the structures of language, and the unconscious categories we create and use to organize ourselves and those around us, letting go of resistance energy, letting go of our conditioned impressions of the world for a moment.
We create space for something new to arise.
Interestingly, in the gospels when Christ’s disciples woke him up as their boat was ravaged by a storm, the first word he speaks to the wind and waves, even maybe to the frightened men of the boat was: silence. And the storm died down. Our task is to become the silence within which the storm dissolves. Then we’ll be much better able to steer the ship.