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!
As a child growing up in an Evangelical context, Catholic depictions of Jesus fascinated me. One especially striking image was that of the Sacred Heart in which Christ touches his chest with his heart aglow.
Maybe it seemed archaic or too formal or stoic on the one hand or too simplistic or too melodramatic. Maybe it seemed too obviously metaphorical and therefore a little bit dangerous. But maybe the most striking aspect of it was it seemed too vulnerable.
Yesterday my son asked me why Sunday is called Sunday. Was it named after the sun? I said I thought so. Monday sounded like the word for “moon” in several languages. Hmm. We should look into it!
Turns out each day of the week corresponds to the planets according to Greek cosmology, but filtered down through the Roman pantheon and Germanic language. The days in order refer to sun, moon, Tiw (a Germanic god of combat or war), Wodan (or Odin), Thunder, Frig (the Norse equivalent of the goddess Venus), and Saturn (or Zeus’s father Cronos).
Growing up in a pastor’s family, it’s fair to say my spirituality has gone through several distinct phases. The first phase in childhood is connected mostly with place. The sense impressions and experience of the church building. The sounds, the look, the feel, the texture of the place. Not just songs and sermons, but the minute particulars – the curve of the piano, the verbal and non-verbal tics of the preachers, the musicians, and the congregants.
Later, in adolescence and early adulthood, the search for answers came to the fore. I wanted to understand how to reconcile the suffering in the world with a just God. And later, part of going to seminary was to set aside time to reconcile the belief system I was raised in with life as I experienced it, or at least to understand how they diverged.
As a kid, I waited a lot. With two older brothers, we’d all huddle around the Nintendo as my brothers passed the controller back and forth. My forays were unskillful and therefore brief. It would be a long time until another turn came around. During my late teens and early twenties, again I waited a lot – this time for trains and buses, the occasional airplane. In Frankfurt, I’d sit in the cold of a train station heading to school or basketball practice waiting, hands in pockets, listening to a mixtape, breath crystals forming in front of me.
Later, when I moved to the US, I would travel back home for Summers and Christmas, usually with one or two layovers from the West Coast back to Frankfurt. To travel is to wait. We wait in line for security, for the plane, for take-off, in customs, and even for the body itself to acclimate to the time change. Layovers extend the process. Strange then that this season of Advent and light is also one of waiting, which we so often associate with boredom and frustration, with unnecessary delay.
One of the things about Christianity I found frustrating during a particular time when I was looking for things to be frustrated by was a certain lack of specificity. We’re invited to take up our cross and walk. To pray without ceasing. To be wise as serpents. To be image-bearers. Um, ok.
But what does any of that mean? Much of it is either metaphor or abstract language. People seemed to repeat the phrases often enough within a religious community to act like they knew what they meant. The ambiguity can also create an over-dependence on leadership figures who claim, implicitly or explicitly, to have it all figured out. One of these oft-repeated concepts, by way of example, is that of grace.
One of the things I noticed early on in my marriage is that my wife and I have a very different natural relationship to time. By that I don’t just mean she’s goal oriented and I’m more process oriented, which is also true, but no, this was something else.
By way of example, by the time I woke up, my wife would have already run through a mental list of what had to be done that day, in what order, why it had to be done, the potential obstacles, possible costs involved, and so on. Psychologically, she’s future-oriented.
One of the trickiest things about contemplative practice is the strict rhythm it demands. This is one of the first thing that turns someone off to the practice, even if they are enthused about the real benefits of emotional balance, acceptance, and inner growth. It takes a commitment.
The minimum in most traditions is at least 20 minutes a session at least once, but usually two sessions a day, often first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. But so often, with the way our lives are structured, even a strong commitment doesn’t make it happen.
One of the more overlooked parts of the contemplative traditions is the physical aspect of it. Most contemplative practices involve sitting quietly for 20 minutes a day at least, and then expanding from there.
Most involve specific methods, maybe a sacred word to return to rest in the presence of God, like in Centering Prayer, focusing on the breath in Vipassana, repeating a self-inquiry mantra like “Who am I?” in the lineage of Ramana Maharshi, and so on.