To help motivate people on their spiritual journey, I used to hear a pastor friend of mine say “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
And the point is clear enough: if we’re not integrating practices for alignment, inner renovation, health and wholeness, we revert to our defaults – anger, addiction, selfishness, whatever. Fair enough.
We have the same experience in our physical lives. No exercise means muscles atrophy, weaker immune systems, poor sleep – in my own case, massive crankiness – you get the picture.
In in a superficial sense, we want to grow all the time. That default sense of lack or insufficiency or restlessness stems in part from a deep need to grow, to expand. And unconsciously we focus on expanding our sense of self. We might call this ego expansion.
We get a new car, we get a new house, a new job, a new partner, a raise, a promotion, an award, travel to a new city, or we even just take a trip to the mall for some new shoes. We invest a sense of self in those objects or titles or labels or experiences. In a very superficial way, we grow, or expand.
We experience a short-lived sense of pleasure from that expansion. Until of course that becomes the new normal and we want more. And heaven forbid something we have invested a sense of self in is threatened or taken away. It can be as simple as a point of view we’ve adopted, an abstraction, a thought-form – I’m right and you’re wrong.
Couples especially can fall into this dynamic, fighting for the survival of the point of view they’ve invested in.
Then there is what we think of as spiritual growth – prayer, reading, reflecting, time in service or spiritual community – a good in and of itself, but one which often comes with two built in dangers.
The first is private or compartmentalized “spiritual growth” in which we learn new principles or participate more actively in a life of faith over here in private, but see no reason to allow that to change how we behave in the public sphere, with our time, with our consumption, with our money. It can become a new ego-identity we’re prepared to do battle over, not a newfound way of relating to the other with humility and compassion.
Or it can be tied to organizational status and roles and become a different form of ego expansion.
So how is the contemplative path any different?
Usually there’s some kind of awakening experience that initiates someone into the contemplative path as a committed life rhythm. Maybe it’s occasioned by a profound loss, a deep humiliation, or maybe it’s after a gradual shift over time, but either way, there’s a wholesale revision of what we think of as reality, who we think we are, and how we relate to the world around us. We become reoriented.
This comes in part because we’ve had some deeper insight into how we conventionally operate in our darker parts and come to a new understanding of how these operate and how to deal with them. With no shadow left to hide, there’s no scapegoat we need to project it on to.
The metaphor for movement along the contemplative path might be more appropriately described as excavation, and of course we’re familiar with the Eastern term emptiness. It’s the hollowing out, the letting go, intentionally severing those ties, it’s the recognition of where our attachments are that keep us tethered to illusion and ego that lead to inner freedom.
And that’s where a daily practice comes in. Left to our own devices, we will continuously and unconsciously keep grabbing hold of new objects and experiences for ego expansion, whether it comes in the form of materialism or even “spirituality.”
So many contemplatives seem to embrace a life of simplicity – deeply aware the possessions they need are few, and not tied to their happiness at all. Many also have a lightness to them, aware it’s not their morality or righteousness that helps them mature, but this very quality of emptiness, of spiritual poverty, so to speak.
The contemplative life offers a wholesale revision at the level of the inmost self. The self beyond status, role, and personality. It’s a space beyond name, beyond even breath. It’s the aspect of yourself that is untouchable and intertwined with the timeless now. That is already complete.
Now where we can grow is in awareness of that space, of that presence, of that reality.
Over time we identify less and less as the doer addicted to outcomes, as teacher Roger Castillo puts it, and find ourselves more and more being lived as we bring ourselves into alignment with the divine presence.
A short video on Moving From Ego to No Self by Thomas Keating