In contemplative teaching, we tend to understand the process of inner transformation as follows: non-judgmental inner awareness – that is, watching your own mental-emotional processes without judging – leads to greater compassion and wholeness over time.
But this doesn’t just happen in and of itself. It takes practice. It takes the act of taking a break from our habitual mental processes to get a little space to even be able to observe them. That’s contemplative practice.
In contemplative teaching we talk a lot about structures and stages, about mental habits and patterns, about awareness and self-observation, about attachments and letting go.
And making a daily practice of contemplative prayer or a similar meditative practice certainly helps create the conditions for the peace that passes even the ability for understanding, when we begin to see that false self, the ego for what it is – a contrived system, a distraction.
In one of his many stories from the East, Jesuit Anthony De Mello describes a man being chased by a tiger, coming up to a cliff, then climbing down to catch hold of a small branch jutting out of the rock face.
With the tiger above and thousands of feet below, the man sees berries growing on the branch in his hand. In his final moments he picks one, and as the story goes, it tasted so sweet. At the moment we accept death as inevitable, life takes on fullness and freshness.
As a kid growing up in churches (and even later as an adult), there were frequent announcements for upcoming events like youth camps, retreats, concerts, Christmas pageants, outreach, and so on. Often, it was promised that if you attended, lives would be changed, and indeed some often were.
At conferences or leadership gatherings, one of the most common buzzwords is revival. Embedded in that very term is the idea of returning to a former state, an initial essence or vitality that has been lost.
Several years ago, Fr. Richard Rohr taught a Summer intensive at a nearby Seminary and gave an evening talk as well with a Q&A session.
Among the many topics touched on that night, he explained to a group of Protestants something of how the Franciscan lineage functions within the greater Catholic tradition. He clearly identified with the tradition and was proud of the work of Franciscans both lay and monastic.
There’s this idea in certain circles that we create the world we live in. It’s one of those sources of conflict between the more spiritually minded and the more practically minded.
What about the bombs that drop on innocents. Or the shots fired at the underprivileged. Or the death caused by natural disaster. What about infants that die of disease. Can we just think those away? Can we wish them away? Can we pray those away?
One of the ways that the contemplative path tends to affect change is in interpersonal relationships. This has less to do with any particular relationship, but instead changes the way we relate to the world in general.
In an unconscious state we’re made up of our desires, drives, fears, and anxieties. Our interpersonal relationships become a forum to act those out, to meet our needs.
After engaging in contemplative practice for about seven years, in mid-2014 I had an awakening experience and for about 3 months it seemed like I had superpowers.
Things that would normally eat at me just fell by the wayside. I had a sudden burst of energy and wrote most of my book during that stretch. I had insights into questions I’d long been diving into. It was like a bubble had burst and I could see relationships, the outside world, and the inner landscape with sudden freshness and clarity.
Traditionally, on Easter Sunday, we identify closely with a person who suffered, died, and rose again. In the Christian tradition, Christ’s resurrection is kind of the whole point.
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.