A Contemplative Ego?

After engaging in contemplative practice for about seven years, in mid-2014 I had an awakening experience and for about 3 months it seemed like I had superpowers.

A Contemplative Ego?

Things that would normally eat at me just fell by the wayside. I had a sudden burst of energy and wrote most of my book during that stretch. I had insights into questions I’d long been diving into. It was like a bubble had burst and I could see relationships, the outside world, and the inner landscape with sudden freshness and clarity.

But of course, as happens with awakening experiences, the fallen, relative perspective of the ego-mind creeps back in. There was a sudden realization and an unleashing of inner energy, but I couldn’t maintain it.

That’s when the contemplative path starts in earnest: when you’ve experienced that inner opening and know it’s real through direct, first-hand experience.

So many people I’ve met, connected with, built community with, and coached since then have reiterated much of the same thing. They’ve had some sort of genuine awakening experience where the veil was lifted, but ordinary dualistic awareness crept back in. And so did fear, annoyance, and disequilibrium.

Thomas Keating writes about new converts to faith shifting their false self patterns from an old context to a new one, and if these patterns aren’t addressed, in spite of an initial euphoria or sense of belonging, nothing is really changed. If someone used to be competitive on the job, now they’re competitive about their spiritual discipline and dedication.

They still carry the seed of discord and conflict without unearthing the underlying wounds that give rise to their destructive unconscious processes.

The same dangers exist for contemplatives.

Once my idea for a book fell into place and seemed to flow smoothly from chapter to chapter, I looked into how a work on some combination of the hero’s journey, myth, and the contemplative life could get published widely. The process had felt more like gift than effort, and naturally, I wanted to pass on the gift.

Everyone I met with in the publishing world mentioned the need to build a platform. A well-known author suggested I read up on Michael Hyatt. One thing leads to another. You need a web site, you need a blog, you need an expensive theme, you need a subscription for motivational, educational platform-building coaches. While helpful, it’s big business, it’s cross-promotional, and becomes a huge time and attention suck.

You need the right content for the right audience. How many Twitter followers do you have? What’s your Facebook strategy? Do you have a Mastermind group? How much money have you made so far? Are your back-end subscription services priced to attract the right kind of client? How many people are on your email list?

Pretty soon one is very far afield from providing a heartfelt guide to the simplicity of contemplative practice. There are new illusions to identify with, new ways to find status and worth. A new playground for the false self.

Partnership. Strategy. Subscribers. Services. Social Media. Money. Who’s who, and are you one of them? And if you’re not, then you need to listen to the motivation podcast, and subscribe to the LinkedIn Money Making coaching course, and the Facebook Marketing guru, and the Twitter one, and the podcast one, and if you run out of time and energy, it’s probably a self-worth issue, there are gurus for that, too.

At the same time, you want to be widely read in your field, too, not to mention putting what you’ve learned into practice.

Obviously, none of these things are negative in and of themselves: someone has expertise and they’re monetizing a service to make a living. But the unconscious ego can quickly turn it back into whatever one’s inherent vice is: competition, self-doubt, greed, superiority, inferiority, the need for approval, fixation on achievement, all the usual suspects.

Nevertheless, I still deeply sensed there was something very valuable to be transmitted. Some gift to be passed on. So many friends, family, and acquaintances seemed to struggle with a sense of spiritual inertia, dryness, a tepid life, or sometimes more acutely with anxiety and depression. There’s a path forward. A path home. And I felt I had stumbled on a unique way to articulate that process, taking what are at times difficult and inaccessible writers like Dionysius, St. John of the Cross, and Meister Eckhart, and articulated in an accessible, enjoyable, but also transformational way.

I’m still in process and experiencing the movements between Purgation, Illumination, and Union, and am still bringing awareness to the ways in which my ego wants to grab onto new identities to gain affection and approval. Having readers, followers, reposts, and so on are great as a means to an end: helping move others toward greater wholeness. They’re not an end in themselves, an identity, a signifier of purpose or success.

As I’ve connected with other contemplatives and gone on to co-found Contemplative Light, we are having these conversations. As long-time contemplatives, practitioners, students of the Christian mystics, we pool our collective training in everything from Evelyn Underhill to Wilber’s Integral Psychology to ultimately help others. We recognize the need for companionship, reflection, perspective, and guidance along the path.

We are mindful to put what’s important first: are we staying rooted in practice? Are we maintaining the disposition of openness, awareness, receptivity along our contemplative path? Are we able to speak honestly and impactfully to people’s core issues with our trainings, courses, and spiritual coaching in a spirit of humility and service? Are we staying mindful of our own tendencies and allowing the unhealthy emotional programs for happiness to be dismantled? Are we opening ourselves to deep presence?

Are we letting the old patterns of attachment and ego-gratification to die off?

As one teacher puts it, when people convert to a new faith they quickly want to convert others instead of doing to difficult work of identifying and letting go of the ego’s patterns.

We don’t want to fall into the trap articulated by teacher of Zen and Christian Mysticism Wolfgang Kopp, “some followers of the spiritual way feel all too quickly called upon to spread their half-digested truths to others and succumb to the temptation of letting themselves be celebrated as spiritual teachers.”

We don’t want to be seduced by the contemplative ego, but instead offering what support, perspective, companionship, and insight we have, not out of a desire to be celebrated, but out of gratitude, fully understanding no teacher can walk the path for another person. The best we can do is share, is pass on a seed. It’s still up to each of us to cultivate the conditions for receptivity, for openness, for grace and for growth.

Going Further

Spiritual Coaching with Contemplative Light

Contemplative Light’s Expansion Kick-Off Go Fund Me

Wolfgang Kopp’s Free Yourself Of Everything

Evelyn Underhill on Purgation, Illumination, and Union

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • chrismanion

    Thank you for articulating the same experience I have just been walking through. In my late thirties, I began having mystical experiences and colloquy with God. In the midst of holding these experiences gently before the indwelling Trinity, and allowing these experiences to open my spiritual senses, I was given the knowledge that I was to write about them. That took twenty years of discernment, transformation, and purification. I am a contemplative Christian Catholic layperson. My book was published this Valentine’s Day and for the past year, I’ve been inundated with the plethora of marketing approaches as you listed in this post. It agitated my spirit. I am in the process of simplifying and leaning in to the Holy Spirit more deeply to discern God’s will of how to share His book and the story of His pursuit of us. God’s Patient Pursuit of My Soul is the product of my journey thus far. http://www.tinyurl.com/Godispatient. I’d love to send you a copy. I’d love to join in solidarity with you in some way for the energy of the Spirit cannot be contained. Fr. Keating talks about the recovery of the contemplative tradition of Christianity in his book, Mediatations on The Parables of Jesus. Community is what is most important. It was Jesus’ deep prayer before ascending: that we may all be one. How do you suggest we connect?
    Chris Manion