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.
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!
On a trip to visit an old friend recently, I stopped by the local bookstore to get some kind of keepsake, something I like to do on longer personal trips to mark the time. I noticed a new translation of a book I hadn’t read yet by one of my favorite authors, 19th century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and picked it up.
This particular book, Notes from a Dead House, is a fictionalized treatment of the author’s own experiences in a hard labor camp in Siberia. This was his commuted sentence after being granted a stay of execution from the Czar for being involved in a revolutionary group influenced by the writings of French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
I recently spent the weekend with an old friend who was going through a series of losses on several fronts. His grandmother, his mother, and his dog had died within a year, and he separated from his wife and was undergoing divorce proceedings.
Meanwhile, there are two small children to take care of on a tight budget as he wraps up an advanced degree program. On the surface, the challenges seem overwhelming.
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.
So in one of the odder passages in the New Testament, Jesus said, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. There are two striking elements here, beyond the obvious self-mutilation seemingly being advocated.
Think of modern day Middle Eastern law, in which hands can still be cut off for stealing and women stoned to death for accusations of infidelity. For the listeners in the 1st century, this form of justice would be a common occurrence: violent justice enacted externally, by the political or local authority. Jewish law allowed for four forms of capital punishment in cases of adultery, murder, incest, and so on: stoning, beheading, strangulation and burning. Lesser crimes brought about lesser punishment, but still severe by modern standards.
As I write this, we’ve experienced maybe the craziest year in our national sports and politics with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Cubs, Leicester City, Donald Trump, and now the New England Patriots coming back from extremely long odds to pull off improbable upsets.
As a nation that came into being by defying a global empire, we love to root for the scrappy underdog (ok, so the Pats weren’t an underdog going in, but down 19, a comeback seemed improbable). We value extreme competitors and achievers, whether in academics, business, politics, or sports. We value those hard-won victories.