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.
The underlying question to much of the discussion right now seems to be about what our country represents, what we stand for. Even though we’ve always carried within us an extremely wide range of worldviews and lifestyles, there seems to be a collective crisis of identity right now.What does the contemplative path have to offer here? How can it reframe our understanding and realign our vision?
One of the central teachings of the contemplative traditions is that of impermanence. Things are changing, all the time. Any relationship, ideology, or position is subject to change. Spiritual directors, in times of crisis, have a go-to phrase: This, too, shall pass. The divorce, the death, the loss, the pain. This, too, shall pass. Anthony De Mello, the spiritual teacher and Jesuit, and also a spiritual director, goes a step further. If we’re in a state of being upset, we’re still asleep, still not fully awake to the nature of reality itself.What has changed, the story in our minds, the vision people had of the future, the story we tell ourselves about our country changed.
The possibility of this reality was always there. The seed of it. Maybe this back and forth is inherent within our system of democracy. One party takes control, a large group feels disenfranchised, and mobilizes at the next election cycle. We’re seeing this pendulum swing between progressive and regressive energies, to a degree. But this feels heavier for a lot of people. And on the level of mind and mental constructs, it is. Something fundamental has shifted in our understanding, in our sense of collective identity.The shock experience exists to the degree we identified with that concept. We participate in that abstraction emotionally to the degree we invest it with meaning, to the degree we attach ego-energy to it. We say this is me. And this me has been attacked. Or this me is likely to be attacked, and we live in a state of heightened anxiety.
The mystics from different traditions are clear that in the state of deepest awareness, we slough off all definitions and labels except the most essential, that of our spiritual inner nature. We are partakers of that divine essence in our inmost being. That not only connects us to a divine source of joy and balance, but we realize, through it we are connected to everyone else, too. Even those trapped in ignorance. That inner essence is not socially conferred. Nor is it federally conferred. It simply is. The mystics hold this truth to be self-evident.When things happen on the surface level of existence, the question is always of sober-clear-sighted action motivated by the question, “what does love demand of me now?” Not how much self-righteousness, or how much anger, or righteous indignation, but what action is required, rooted in a peaceful, clear center?
Without a contemplative practice, I know very few people who can maintain such a center.And as I write this, the temptation is great. There are reports of threats and attacks carried out on minorities and women. Some feel they are righting the ship by putting the marginalized “back in their place” to restore their distorted vision of balance. In a state of awareness, we see this ego energy, this unconscious immaturity for what it is. The challenge is to protect, encourage, and stand with the victims without perpetuating unconsciousness and a cycle of violence.In crisis is always opportunity for growth. The task of the contemplative is to become fluid, like water. If we allow our own unconscious ego energy to be triggered and respond in kind from our hardened, staked-out position, however justified it may seem on the surface, we perpetuate a violent energy.
So often, if we don’t have a regular practice of devotion or meditation that helps us enter into that contemplative dimension and grow in maturity and awareness, by the time a crisis hits, we’re still trapped in unconscious processes ourselves. We are reactive. We don’t have the freedom to choose how to respond. We’re stuck in False Self logic of the blood feud, of retributive justice. With practice we become connected to a deeper reality beyond the surface level awareness.Admittedly, we may need a reminder to wake up to that reality. Maybe it’s a prayer bowl, or a bird chirping first thing in the morning. Maybe it’s a word from a friend, or a post from someone steeped in wisdom that helps us remember, that helps us wake up.
Breathe. What is your problem right now? What attachments are threatened? Is it an expectation? An identity? What attachments need to be let go of? What mental-emotional constructs do we have to let go of?The questions the night of the election seemed to be full of anxiety. The campaign had been fueled by fear on both sides. And now: what’s going to happen? Will the stock markets crash? Will hate crimes run rampant? Will there be secession, militias, civil war?Three contemplative principles undermine all of this: the compassion imperative, the practice of presence, and the law of impermanence.
The practice of presence and the compassion imperative are closely linked. Come back to the moment, emotionally. Much of the suffering is generated by the mind based on what we’ve attached to. Let go of those images and ideas that drag you into the future and create anxiety. Let go of those images and ideas that drag you into the past and create comfort or anger. Letting go allows us to be fully rooted in the present moment. What is that experience like?
I know it sounds like escapism from harsh realities for some, an invitation to ignorance, to putting the head in the sand. It isn’t. We’re talking about cultivating a sober inner space out of which right action, unclouded and undistorted, becomes possible. It’s an invitation to sobriety.Given the compassion imperative, what needs to happen now? What does wholeness demand right now? Maybe unjust laws pass. Maybe our country becomes a worldwide instrument of injustice. Maybe the economy tanks. Maybe we need organized acts of civil disobedience in response. Fear, hatred, and anger in those responses will only breed more unconsciousness. Anthony De Mello reminds us 20 wolves on a peace committee will not bring about peace. What if we could take demonstrable action with perfect inner balance?
That’s why Christ says “seek first the kingdom,” that space of inner balance and release, then take action. And also, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his lifespan?” Work diligently on behalf of justice, as the compassion imperative demands, and let go of the emotional need for results.This is dualistic thinking. This is unconsciousness. This is being asleep and entrapped in ego and the small self.
We dis-identify with the small self, the little me and its positions, and expand our identity to include that which is, the unfolding reality. We become the presence. Compassion and love extends to all of that. That’s the spiritual maturity touched on in the gospels.What has changed? Everything. And what has changed now? Again, everything. And now? Everything.“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now there’s a tall order.Breathe. Then feel the emotion. Then let it go. Then breathe again. Then love. And maybe that requires gentle action and maybe it requires firm action, but always in pursuit of a greater wholeness.