Quick. What do you identify with? What groups do you belong to? And who do you feel attacked by? Who do you prepare to do battle with?
Most of us have these categories in play somewhere in the background of our everyday awareness. White, black, progressive, conservative, American, Canadian, pro-life, pro-choice. Maybe it’s none of those, and you identify more with your family. Or your church. Or your town. Or your country. Or your team. Or just the way things used to be.
There’s this crazy idea the mystics have that we are spirit having a human experience. Notice the singular: spirit? There’s this mystery of multiplicity-in-unity and unity-in-multiplicity. Beneath the surface veneer we’re drinking from the same well, animated by the same source.
A couple weeks ago, I had to run some errands locally and my son was in the middle of a riveting episode of PJ Mask. I didn’t have time to wait until the end of the episode to leave and he was expectedly upset.
In the car ride he was emotional and determined to veto everything. No music! None of the lunch options are good! I’m not going to eat anything! We’re not going to do anything and we’re not going to go anywhere! In being upset he adopted a default resistance energy.
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).
I recently watched a video of two spiritual directors discussing how the role of the spiritual director is different from the clergyman. Whereas the clergyman is communicating established truths and doctrine, a spiritual director’s job is to help us to be attentive to the God’s action in the moment, to pay attention to that which wants to become manifested in us.
One of the aspects of ourselves that changes as we continue on the contemplative path is our relationship to time, specifically psychological time. That is, our regret or nostalgia about the past and our hopes or anxieties about the future gradually dissolve more and more as we learn to truly attend to the present moment.
The contemplative process of waking up has granted me several sudden insights. One of them: I’m an ass. But allow me to explain by way of example in a social setting, say, going to church. Now, this same dynamic I’m about to describe holds for just about any social setting, but there’s more structure in a church context, so some of the ego dynamics are more obvious there.
I’m an introvert by nature and fairly reserved in social settings. I don’t particularly stand out in a crowd, have a medium to low affect most of the time and have never been accused of being terribly charismatic.
As an avid reader of harder literature and a former inner city school teacher, I sometimes like to think there’s not a whole lot that can shake me up. But there were two stories I came across this week that got to me. One was about a former professional football player getting out of prison after serving his sentence. His crime? He was convicted of hiring a hit man to kill a woman carrying his child. The woman died. The child survived, but grew up severely brain damaged and is now 17. The other story, more widely reported, was ISIS’s use of the citizens of Mosul, including young boys, as human shields, and their later systematic execution.
As I reflected on why these two stories struck me deeply, the answer was fairly simple. In this season of life, with a four-year-old son, part of my ego-identity is that of father. And beyond that, it took us years to be able to conceive going through several rounds of testing, tracking, and fertility treatment. If there’s a greater gift in life than parenthood, of being a caretaker and nurturer of a life, I can’t think of it right now. So to have these two stories, one part of an ongoing war, the other more domestic and intimate, of this level of desecration, was jarring.
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.
Recently, I was in a funk. Sure, some of it had to do with four nights of interrupted sleep and a weekend sickness, but some of it was just cyclical stuff. I get off track. The risk of that happening is much greater when I’m out of rhythm, but it can happen just the same. Getting stuck in negative thought patterns.
For me, it manifests mostly in interior monologue. The mental garbage. Resentment about a direction life took at some point. A memory will flash of a moment from the past that seems much better than whatever’s going on right now. Mental arguments with family members who aren’t even in the same zip code. Sometimes the voice in the head positions itself as a victim. Other times as the vindictive one imagining payback for some old slight.
Growing up, my parents seemed to throw around the word joy a lot. So did some of the church communities I was a part of. At some point the idea lost its luster, like something parents try to pass on to kids to hold on to their innocence a little while longer.
The older I got the more joy seemed an emotion relegated to Hallmark cards and nurseries. For a time, unless a sermon or movie or TV show acknowledged the unbearable tragedy at the heart of existence, it just rang hollow.
As summer winds down, the contemplative in me is looking forward to a little more structure, a little more rhythm. During the summer months, there is travel, family visits, and the kids are home from school. This year I was in different cities in multiple hotels and time zones. At times it’s simply not possible to find twenty minutes of quiet solitude twice a day and maintain any kind of spiritual practice.
One of the trickiest elements of the contemplative path is the discipline involved in maintaining a consistent rhythm. When I’m out of rhythm, I’m back in default ego mode. I’m irritable, judgmental, and egocentric. The volume on my mental tapes of past hurt, self-protection, and even aggression is cranked back up. I can hardly hear outside of that echo chamber.