Contemplatives tend to make pretty radical claims about the transformation on offer through our simple practices.
Thomas Merton put it in strong terms: “Contemplation is the highest form of prayer. [It] is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully alive.”
But what is the inner experience of this movement? What actually changes?
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.
In contemplative teaching we talk a lot about structures and stages, about mental habits and patterns, about awareness and self-observation, about attachments and letting go.
And making a daily practice of contemplative prayer or a similar meditative practice certainly helps create the conditions for the peace that passes even the ability for understanding, when we begin to see that false self, the ego for what it is – a contrived system, a distraction.
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?
One of the ways that the contemplative path tends to affect change is in interpersonal relationships. This has less to do with any particular relationship, but instead changes the way we relate to the world in general.
In an unconscious state we’re made up of our desires, drives, fears, and anxieties. Our interpersonal relationships become a forum to act those out, to meet our needs.
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.
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.
A famous quote in contemplative circles reads “the mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.” What this refers to is our normal tendency to be pulled this way and that way by the incessant stream of unconscious thought.
Instead of using our minds when necessary, we are mostly used by our minds and kept in a kind of mental prison. Some of us nurse and rehearse our resentments, some of us obsess over our never-ending to-do list. Some of us stay steeped in our losses, limitations, unfulfilled needs, dreams, or fears about the future.
I recently had a day where things just seemed out of alignment. I was supposed to teach an evening class on poetry and was struggling to wrap my head around the topic and fashion it into some coherent experience.
The multiple interviews I had lined up for positions I’m looking to fill in my workplace either canceled, postponed, or went poorly. I was away from my normal home office and forgot my phone charger, rushing to my car every hour or so to get a bit more juice. Then I got a call that my son had pink eye and would need to be picked up from school.
Whether in contemplative circles or the culture at large, the terms enlightenment (more antiquated) or awakening (the more contemporary use) carry with them a radical or seemingly unattainable quality, some kind of perpetual “mountaintop experience” of perpetual wisdom and bliss once we’ve broken through. We might think of some distant sage, revered by followers, doling out wisdom untouched by worldly events.
But for most, the experience, at least from the outside, looks far more ordinary. One of the temptations on the spiritual path is always to romanticize or fetishize an entirely other order of life, rather than imagining a transformed version of our existing everyday context.
Late in college, I sat in student housing in Seattle with a fellow English major watching a movie for class. A fall storm moved in and once the movie was over, the rain fell thick on the roof of the second story apartment, the windows vibrating from thunderclap. With a head full of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, I had a sudden impulse. Let’s go for a walk!
It was dark and cold and pouring. We’d be drenched. That, of course, was the point. To situate oneself into the experience of natural intensity, to experience it bodily, with the sense impression of the wet earth and grass, to feel the rain on the coat and the skin, to see it pass through streetlight or passing cars, to hear raindrops ricochet off the concrete. Here was an opportunity for a poetic moment, an intense experience. My companion was more pragmatic: Are you crazy? We’ll get soaked!