There’s this idea in certain circles that we create the world we live in. It’s one of those sources of conflict between the more spiritually minded and the more practically minded.
What about the bombs that drop on innocents. Or the shots fired at the underprivileged. Or the death caused by natural disaster. What about infants that die of disease. Can we just think those away? Can we wish them away? Can we pray those away?
Suffering seems awfully persistent.
So why do mystics and contemplatives claim “all is well!” Are they naïve?
According to scholars, there are three general stages of consciousness, or ways of relating to the world. Of course these can be endlessly subdivided, but in general, they are pre-conventional (or egocentric – I’m looking out for myself), conventional (or ethnocentric – I’m looking out for my group), and post-conventional (or worldcentric – I’m looking out for everyone).
Most of us still operate according to the conventional stage. It’s not quite egotistical per se, but really just one degree removed.
Interesting that in the passage on “consider the lilies of the field, they neither toil nor spin” Christ didn’t mention the lepers, or the floods, or the dying children. Certainly, infant mortality rates and systemic oppression were far worse in 1st century Palestine than 21st century America.
It’s a taller order to consider becoming peaceful in the face of tremendous suffering.
And yet, the contemplatives insist, peace is always and everywhere available. How?
It happens at the level of mind. The contemplative, through long and deep practice, recognizes the relationship between experience and the conceptualization of experience.
There’s what happens, and then there’s what we make of what happens. Very few of us have the direct ability to alter what happens, but all of us have the capacity to alter our response, only most of us are truly stuck in unconscious reactivity.
For the contemplative, who usually has a deep encounter with their egoic complicity in their ongoing suffering, the mind becomes steeled up. We recognize more and more what’s out there, and what’s in here.
Personal suffering purges the contemplative of the vestiges of ego and allows greater and greater compassion, understanding more deeply the suffering of others.
When we become aware of others in pain, it serves as motivation to take whatever action we can, and to alleviate the mental-emotional suffering brought about through awakening.
As we identify more and more with that greater contemplative state and the space that goes by different names: the numinous, the Spirit, Logos, that’s characterized by non-attachment, neutrality, and receptivity, and through which balance, wholeness, and shalom become manifest, we hold all of the events in the phenomenal world in an objective perspective, even ourselves and our own mental-emotional patterns.
This is the space of divine spirit that allows joy to be an ever-present reality, alongside the very real pain and suffering in the world. One doesn’t cancel out the other, nor is one a prerequisite of the other. It’s a causeless, non-contingent joy as a quality of our very being.
The world as we see it is a function of our state of mind, of the eye that sees. Influenced by our inheritance of the Age of Reason and modernist lenses, we pretend to an objectivity, without understanding that all seeing and perceiving occurs within a state of consciousness.
It’s that state of consciousness that is transformed in the spiritual path. As Zen teacher and author Wolfgang Kopp writes on the influence of Christ: “Jesus is Christos, meaning he who is filled with divine spirit. This spirit is a fullness of life and the joy that, through him, becomes the hope for salvation in people with whom he comes into contact. They are finally able to breathe freely. Oppression falls away from them and joy shines forth.”
And in the absence of practicing or receiving that way of being, we worry: “Worrying is a disease of fallen people who out of a lack of trust in God attempt to construct their own destiny. They look to the future full of fear and to the past wistfully or full of guilt, thus individuals lose their ability to perceive the presence of divine being that is always already there. No longer aware of the music of life, they only hear the disharmony in the world. Like a mirror that reflects only the face that looks into it, the world we perceive reflects only our own state of mind.”
Contemplatives do in fact take action in the world and work toward positive change as they feel called in ways large and small. That is, in fact, the very purpose of organizations like Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation – to provide inner spiritual resources to those activists who might otherwise quickly become overwhelmed and burn out.
But an even more foundational part of that work is changing the world we see, is accessing the divine aspect of life that transcends the contingent, relative, everyday life situations we find ourselves in. Contemplatives first change the world by changing the consciousness that sees the world, by opening it to the peace and inherent joy that are its birthright.
Wolfgang Kopp’s Free Yourself of Everything
Jesuit teacher Anthony De Mello on Becoming a Changed Person
Lawrence Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development