But often we turn it into a mental story of something out there. We think of it mechanically in a sense, it’s something that happened and if I respond thus and so it means I don’t have to die or go to hell when I die or however we conceive of that. It’s as if a fact we either accept or reject, and that determines our afterlife.
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!
Hey, in Germany they call it the second Christmas Day, so what the hey. I thought I’d drop a little note. So, there’s a phrase in the Judeo-Christian tradition that often gets translated as “the Fear of the Lord” as in “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” an understandable theological turn-off for many. After all, didn’t the angels show up in Bethlehem telling everyone to not be afraid? And isn’t there enough to be afraid of without making it a divine mandate? I should think so.
Interestingly, the original reads “Yirat Adonai,” much closer to an injunction for reverence, awe, and wonder, say, at the beauty and intricacy of the created order. It might be closer to what we experience in the face of what the Romantics called the sublime.
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.
Since beginning down the contemplative path several years ago, I go in and out of extended periods of that state of being that contemplatives call the kingdom – a neutral zone of fulfillment, contentment, and sufficiency. Not grasping, not striving. Just being.
That state is accompanied by a subtle awareness of both internal and external processes, physical, mental, and emotional. As Thomas Merton puts it, non-attachment doesn’t mean insensitivity. This is because, in the contemplative tradition, attachments refer to those things we usually cling to for identity and ego-fulfillment. Letting go of these means being aware of an entirely different set of processes.
One of the things I enjoy listening to in my downtime is a podcast by writer and TV personality Bill Simmons on sports and pop culture. In contemplative terms, it’s a far cry from, say, St. Basil the Younger, but it’s thoughtful, it’s light, it’s entertaining. On a recent episode, one of the ads was for an app that helps people with meditation. During the ad read, the terms “mindfulness” and “meditation” were basically used interchangeably, as these terms sometimes are.
Not a huge deal. It’s a sports and culture podcast hawking an app. No biggie. But I think as a culture, it speaks to some of the misconceptions about contemplative or mindfulness practice.
A couple of years ago, I felt stuck in place. I had been teaching in the inner city for a number of years, and along with administrative duties, tutoring, and coaching, my well was simply dry. And I also had a nagging sense I wasn’t living out my true vocation. Unconsciously, a deep inner resistance set in. I hit the level of the perpetual malcontent.
On the other hand, this was a profession I was improving in, with the stability of pay, vacation, benefits, overtime, community, and so on. Jumping into anything else seemed like starting over at the bottom. But even more deeply, to leave felt like some kind of abandonment, dereliction of duty, a failure, giving up.
Recently, my wife and I were discussing where to send our son to school, closer to where we live or closer to where he goes to pre-school now at my wife’s church. At some point the conversation shifted to a discussion of our son’s personality and social skills. When he’s in his comfort zone, he’s gregarious, outgoing, and sociable. At his Summer camp, though, out of his element, he’s more of a loner.
My wife reflected on her own experience in school. She remembered the in-crowd seemed to have some kind of bond or a secret language and it was hard to break in. Then it hit her, their parents all knew each other. These kids knew each other outside of school. The solution? I would have to step up and initiate social contacts to help smooth the path for our son when he started school. Not the most attractive of tasks. As a general rule, if I can avoid small talk, I will.
A few weeks ago, in a moment of honesty and self-awareness, a friend of mine confessed to feeling less excited than they expected about the recent spike in national dialogue about systemic injustice.
Even though this person both studied this problem deeply and worked as an activist for several years, they asked “what if I was passionate because I got something out of it? Years ago, I was one of the few white people I knew actively organizing against systemic racial injustice. Now it seems like common knowledge, less unique. Is that why I’m not as passionate now?”