I have a violence in me. It’s my vice. After some years of gracious self-observation – one of the methods we advocate on the contemplative path – I’ve noticed this usually emerges when there’s a third stressor.
So if something frustrates me, I can see it, accept it, and move on after a while. A second layer of stress means I have to intentionally stop and breathe. A third stressor layered on top? Then I just want to take a chain saw to a piece of furniture – any piece of furniture will do. If we factor in caffeine, these three stressors can even be fairly trivial, like dropped keys or misplaced sunglasses.
Another observation after years of practice: my other vice, lust, is connected to the first vice. An addiction to lust means something is always out of reach. And when you have it? The lust addiction wants something else to lust after.
The net result is perpetual insufficiency, perpetual lack. What does that have to do with anger? Well, if the anger impulse wants something to destroy after the third stressor and there’s an undercurrent at all times of at least one layer of stress, the margin for error for me and everyone around me becomes very narrow.
It takes vigilance to not allow this to become my default state. What we learn on the contemplative path is that allowing ourselves to simply observe these kinds of things about ourselves impartially is part of the healing process.
We simply observe tenderly, graciously, lovingly, as if the dynamic were playing out in someone else – maybe a family member we loved and committed to. We learn that fighting the impulse – summoning resistance energy or what addicts call white-knuckling it might work for a bit, but not in the long run, and it simply adds a second layer of stress. It might allow us to function for a while, but it doesn’t lead to healing, to inner transformation.
For some of us these dynamics lead us to rock bottom. Some of us find a path toward healing.
The point here is that those who advocate the contemplative path usually come to it after some kind of prolonged suffering, or after an awakening experience brought about by suffering.
The wound is the inciting incident. We realize our lives had become unmanageable.
Some people are skeptical about contemplative practices, mystical theology. It comes into their sphere of awareness as an idea, an alternative set of beliefs to a beloved orthodoxy, possibly unsafe, threatening. The slippery slope of heresy, advocated by apostates like Keating, Rohr, Bourgeault, who got a little to big for their breeches or just want to make a name for themselves.
What some of us miss is that contemplative prayer is a means of divine healing. The search begins in pain, in a wound.
When I observe my anger, my lust addictions, or depression, or desire to escape, or whatever, I understand it’s rooted in a wound. I can inspect that wound or go to therapy, find language to define it, explain it, tell the story of the wound, which can be helpful to an extent, but it won’t necessarily lead toward wholeness.
That’s the offer of contemplative prayer. An avenue of grace, of healing and wholeness that touches the root of the problem – the wound itself. That’s the time of Purgation, of emptying out the unconscious.
But then we need to learn the healthy habits, usually modeled by some kind of mentor or community. Healthy contemplative community can be difficult to find – that’s one of the reasons we started Contemplative Light to begin with. We need to learn how to remain vigilant, how to continuously let go, and not everyone has the time, money, or gets their application accepted to The Living School.
One observation Richard Rohr makes in his book Breathing Underwater about 12 step recovery, is that people in 12 step groups, in their honesty, humility, mutual support, and genuine willingness to change, are often much closer to what the church ought to be than the church itself – in part because everyone there acknowledges their own wound.
In fact, for that brief time, the wound becomes everyone’s last name. It’s a family name. It’s the point of connection. The identifier. Of course, clinging to tightly to our wounds is another ego trip, another way of feeling important or adopting a victim narrative.
On the other hand, opening up the wound, letting down the defenses, and being transparent about our shortcomings and addictions without turning ourselves into a spectacle, is a path of freedom. There’s nothing left to protect, and our default self-obsession starts to become dismantled.
When we start to describe this process and capture it in language for others, though, it becomes another set of ideas for scrutiny and evaluation. That’s always the danger of religion. We tend to want to get people to conform to our mental map instead of seeing them whole without predetermining what that looks like. Contemplation is a threat to the structures we build for a false sense of security that actually keeps us trapped. Isn’t that what the violence is, even the lust, at its root? A security device? A means of maintaining control?
For people on this path, the process is a threat to the ego and the identities we build. For those outside the path, it can be a threat to the paradigm we’ve built based on our own wound, the way we have of organizing the world and keeping others in tidy categories, which end up keeping us divided from each other. We want other people to be whole, provided it looks like how we want it to look.
We don’t always allow for the fact that others are struggling with a different wound. That’s the next step: blessing the path to wholeness in others that doesn’t look like ours. In the meantime we put up an awful lot of defenses to protect ourselves. And contemplation is a huge threat to that.
Teresa Pasquale Mateus on Sacred Wounds and Healing
Richard Rohr on the Sacred Wound
Contemplative Light’s Little Book of Contemplative Practices