I recently had a day where things just seemed out of alignment. I was supposed to teach an evening class on poetry and was struggling to wrap my head around the topic and fashion it into some coherent experience.
The multiple interviews I had lined up for positions I’m looking to fill in my workplace either canceled, postponed, or went poorly. I was away from my normal home office and forgot my phone charger, rushing to my car every hour or so to get a bit more juice. Then I got a call that my son had pink eye and would need to be picked up from school.
This meant I wouldn’t have time to touch up my presentation. I’d have to juggle his care that day before heading to my class, trying to get to the doctor, get his medication, getting him to keep his hands to himself at the store, the pharmacy, the office, the room where the class was to be taught, with dwindling power in my phone, multiple calls to make, and a class yet to teach in the evening.
By the end of the day, my nerves were frayed.
But what had been more tiresome than the events of the day was actually my inner response to them with the running commentary: “don’t make the appointment if you’re not going to pick up,” “haven’t we had enough sickness this year?” “I’ve told him 20 times already to keep his hands to himself, why are we still running our hands along the juice bottles on the bottom shelf?” and so on.
And most of our suffering in life comes from precisely that place of inner resistance, whether great or small.
In her role as pastor, my wife is often asking for feedback on sermons, both before and after a service. And if there’s a guest preacher, the first question is usually “how did it go?”
That’s the most common mode we find ourselves in, consciously or unconsciously, “how is it going? How am I coming across? What kind of attention am I getting?” We’re in judgment mode.
The extent to which we’re in the habit of judging ourselves is usually the extent to which we judge others. We criticize, we situate, assign value. Immersed in healthy contemplative practice, all that flips around, and we extend the patience and openness we ourselves experience as a default.
When I’m keeping regular practice, immersed in the state of awareness of my own tendencies, observing them squarely, aware of the reality of impermanence the uselessness of something as fleeting as approval, in short, when I’m living out of the truth, there’s an ease, a flow, a grace at work.
No need for the subtle incessant self-criticism, the criticism of others, the need to be well thought of, to not offend, to stay in bounds.
This doesn’t become an iconoclastic non-conformity for the sake of defiance, but instead an immersion in moment to moment responsiveness. It’s neither posture nor ideology, but a response to what is rooted in love. When we’ve allowed ourselves to experience it, we naturally extend it to others.
It also doesn’t become passivity. One of the most difficult things to learn and teach in the contemplative path is the difference between acceptance and passivity. It can be helpful to think of judgment on the one hand, the evaluation of self and other based on preconceived notions usually organized by our own ego needs, and making distinctions on the other hand. Judgment is a form of psychological-emotional resistance, connected with a need to feel superior in some way. We judge out of a sense of superiority. We can make distinctions in the service of the overall health or wholeness of another, or of the community as a whole.
A mystic is usually one who has plumbed the depths of suffering, death, and love, and dealt with the obstacles to love in their own unconscious – the wounds, fears, desires, and attachments that keep us preoccupied so much of the time. Out of this space of wisdom they can speak truth to others rooted in acceptance and love, out of a desire for wholeness, not just to get them to adhere to a preconceived moral standard.
And while our modern society often pretends that thought and reason are detached and impersonal, we tend to use a great deal of thought and emotional energy to help our ego satisfy its needs, whether conscious or unconsciously.
The invitation of the contemplative path is to become more and more aware of those processes that keep us in bondage, to see them for what they are, to process them, accept them, and to let them pass on by. When we drop what we’re clinging to so tightly, we’re open to be filled with an ever-available other-centered love.
What the mystics leave out is the layer of judgment that is our common response to the events in our lives.
“God may be reached and held close by means of love, but by means of thought, never.” –The Cloud of Unknowing
Contemplative Consciousness by Richard Rohr
Thomas Keating’s Watching The River Exercise by Center for Contemplation and Action
The Cloud of Unknowing by Anonymous