In contemplative teaching, we tend to understand the process of inner transformation as follows: non-judgmental inner awareness – that is, watching your own mental-emotional processes without judging – leads to greater compassion and wholeness over time.
But this doesn’t just happen in and of itself. It takes practice. It takes the act of taking a break from our habitual mental processes to get a little space to even be able to observe them. That’s contemplative practice.
Thomas Keating touches on three theological principles that serve as a framework for the contemplative life and that help us along the way, at least in the Christian contemplative tradition.
The first principle is faith in the divine indwelling. We consent to the presence and action of God within who is always already there. In a sense, the term “getting closer to God” is a misrepresentation. In contemplative practice, we’re laying aside the habitual distortions and distractions that create the illusion that God is distant.
This principle is essentially Trinitarian. Following Teilhard de Chardin’s teaching in the Divine Milieu, the trinity is mysteriously present down to the level of the atom and the quark, infused in creation and in us from the moment of our birth.
The second principle is Christological, meaning we follow Christ’s model and invitation to rid ourselves of conscious and unconscious motivations. We let go of those distorting preoccupations. In the joys and sufferings brought about by the prayer itself – there is usually a period of confronting our pain as we release those stored up emotions – is a participation in the passion, death, and resurrection.
This requires us to be willing to feel those emotions of grief, anger, despair, depression, anxiety, and whatever else is lurking beneath the surface that we’ve accumulated over time. We feel it, accept it, and let it go.
The third principle is ecclesial. That means, through the practice and watching our own junk over time and letting it go, we become attuned to that process in the human family as a whole. If we recognize the divine indwelling in us, we become attuned to it in others, even with our various ego trips and degrees of distortion. Grace flows from that. Greater love becomes possible as we allow our mental-emotional lenses to get cleaned up.
Taking time to connect to the sense of the divine presence allows us to understand with our humanity even more so. This gives us compassion for everyone else going through their own process of purification and refinement.
These principles serve as a foundation or framework for the movements of this practice, that, over time, lead to the graces or four stages of freedom. The freedom from our particular issue: lust, anger, narcissism, whatever. Next is the freedom from the tendency or desire to indulge in whatever our unskillful habit is. Then is the freedom to love unconditionally. Finally, there is just freedom.
More on these principles – transcript from Thomas Keating’s lecture at Harvard Divinity School
Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu
More on Contemplative Practice from Contemplative Light