About twenty years ago I was sitting at a dinner table in in Adelaide, Australia. Shortly after another election in which Bill Clinton had been elected for a second term, the conversation soon turned to America, its politics, and its influence in the world. As was not uncommon in such conversations, much of the conversation circled around our combination of arrogance and ignorance.
Someone at the table pointed out, “Well, they’re the biggest. They’re the most diverse, ethnically and ideologically. They’ve got the best, and they’ve got the worst.” In this political season, it’s been pretty easy to situate oneself on one end of that spectrum and one’s political enemies on the other.
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.
A few months into my marriage I wrote my wife a letter of complaint. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. Nothing I had been able to express in person seemed to be getting through, and I thought it a letter at least worth a shot. This way I could shape the message before the conversation became emotionally charged.
Early on in college I had the good fortune to take a literature class taught by a contemplative practitioner. The college itself was a conservative one, but here was clearly someone with a different state of awareness. He didn’t seem particularly concerned about defending Christianity, or getting people to convert, or about revival on campus, or winning the city for Jesus.
With a gentle depth, he seemed more interested in whether people were moving toward wholeness than the brand of faith they were practicing, or even the fervor with which they practiced. With disarming graciousness, he was clearly present and interested in what his students had to say, though his education and intellect vastly surpassed ours. He was humble. Students experiencing a crisis of faith or elsewhere in their lives sensed in him a safe presence in which to confide.
Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle tells his story of awakening as follows. He struggled repeatedly with acute bouts of depression throughout his life. One night in particular he struggled with intensely suicidal thoughts. He kept repeating the phrase “I can’t live with myself anymore.”
Then he suddenly realized if there’s an “I” that cannot live with a “myself,” there must be two components of the self. He then wondered who this “I” and this “self I can’t live with” were. He soon felt himself drawn into some kind of vortex of intense energy, and heard the words “resist nothing” as if from inside him.
When I was nine my family moved from the U.S. to Germany as missionaries. At the time, the Berlin wall was still up. Cold war tensions were still very real and the highways had what looked like speed limit signs for tanks on them. The extended family were praying for us. If World War III kicked off, we were going to be on the front lines.
Thankfully, history took a different course, but in moving overseas one opens oneself up to other kinds of risks, other transformations. After negotiating the initial culture shock, one of the changes that occurs is the ability to understand multiple perspectives. People you know well and respect might hold views that no one would express back home, at least not in the Christian subculture. I found myself having to defend America a lot from teachers and classmates.
The biggest charge, besides Empire building, was usually our hypocrisy. It was pretty much universally decried that this self-proclaimed global force for good had been the only ones to drop an atom bomb on another country, and worse, we pretended it had been unavoidable, when the war was clearly already over. That can throw your average patriotic 11-year-old for a bit of a loop. Whether you agreed or disagreed, you started to question some of your assumptions. You had to wrestle. Experiences like these allow for a heightened awareness of cultural conditioning, of unconscious assumptions, of where values come from.