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Why the Contemplative Path

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Spiritual Director (SD): Please come in. Thank you for reaching out.

Seeker: Thank you for seeing me. I don’t really know if I am the right person to come to Spiritual Direction since I am not a believer. The ritual in the church and its symbolic language doesn’t carry meaning for me, but I am intrigued by good things I see being done by people of faith working for social justice and fairness.

SD: You are at the right place. Spiritual Direction is not for those who have everything all tidied up and their beliefs in nice neat boxes. Just the opposite. I am reminded of a quote from Henry van Dyke’s “The Story of the Other Wise Man” — The enlightened are never idolaters. They lift the veil of the form and go in to the shrine of reality, and new light and truth are coming to them through the old symbols.

Seeker: I guess I am stuck with the veil of form and nothing is coming through the old symbols. In fact the symbols seem a little silly. Maybe you can help me understand how to lift the veil.

SD: Some traditions teach the name of God is never to be spoken. To refrain from naming God is to suggest that our inner exploration to discover the meaning of this word/symbol starts by admitting it’s beyond rational definition. Or put another way that our capacity for knowing is more than a mental process. The meaning of the word God is illusive in part because the word God is correctly a stand-in word for everything —Reality, truth, the nature of the universe. Our image of Reality, truth, God creates who we think we are— either opening up a path to open-hearted wisdom or constricting our capacity to grow in love.

Seeker: Are you saying that whatever someone, believer or non-believer, assumes to be truth, Reality, God defines how each of us perceives ourselves, the world and guides our interaction between them.

SD: Yes, let’s explore this deep connection between how we perceive Reality, truth, God and how we see ourselves and the universe. For many people God is Reality with a Face—which is the way most humans know how to relate to anything. Why does there have to be a face? Why are children most drawn to stuffed animals that have human like faces? The need for ultimate truth to have a face is both a problem and the beginning of understanding.

Seeker: I can feel how putting a face on something that is more than human is a problem, but not sure I understand why.

SD: This is a problem because with a face our idea of God, of ultimate reality, then also carries our object relations projections.

Seeker: I have had some psychology. But tell me what our object relations projections are.

SD: Object relations are the psychological term used to describe how children develop an ego identity based on how they learn to seek love, care, security and control. We unconsciously carry these patterns into adulthood and without awareness focus our energies on trying to meet these needs for love, care, security and control in ways that mimic our initially learned childhood patterns.

Seeker: Okay, I think I understand.

SD:The need for ultimate truth to have a face is developmental. The problem arises when this face reifies our object relations projections. How we think about out there is actually shaped by our own learned internal needs to feel comfort, safety and security. This is not all bad in that it opens us up, once we have an experience of being loved by our parents, to longing for a heart experience of truth, of God. We begin to intuit that knowing can occur in a non-mental way because our experience of seeing the face of a beloved parent, a lover, or our child allows us to experience falling in love with a particular piece of reality, which in turn makes it possible for us to intuit we might fall in love with all Reality. However, absent the mutuality of a relation of beloved-ness our perception of Reality will remain on the surface and we experience life only its appearance as random, disconnected often cruel events. No one can be in beloved-ness with arbitrariness.

Seeker: So it is important developmentally for children to put a face on God, in the same way they first build a love connection with their mother by seeing her face.

SD: Yes, this is essential developmentally. It is also essential that we learn at some point to go beyond the unconscious learning we attach to this symbol/face.
Because we give God a face, most people’s operative image of God, as we have said, is initially a subtle combination of their learned object relations patterns from their mom and dad, or other early authority figures. Without an inner awakening much of religion is largely reinforcement of this childhood conditioning that formed the ego self.

Seeker: So you are saying that in coming to see you and maybe unconsciously questioning why I disbelieve — I may be doing this because I want my idea of God to provide me a sense of being cared for by a loving parent?

SD: Maybe that is true. Recently I ran across a quote from Carol Ann Duffy, UK Poet Laureate, author of “Prayer” — I don’t believe in God, but one of the things that I think would be lovely about believing in God is this sense that somebody is listening.

The hope for someone to listen to us is an unconscious longing for God to have a face and our desire to be understood by a nurturing parent. Those who reject faith are often doing so because they are reacting against religion which seeks to reinforce childhood learned object relation patterns that don’t fit them as adults.

Seeker: Both of my parents are deceased. I miss them greatly and so I get a sense of how powerful this longing might be.

SD: We all must outgrow belief in a reality that is a reflection of a small child’s learned perceptions– the good-enough parent, God as Santa Claus or the not-so-good parent as a harsh punitive Avenger.

Seeker: That makes sense to me.

SD: With awareness we grow toward liberation from our learned object relations patterns. As these learned obstructions lift we begin to see life clearly. An aid to this is a mature religion which includes reason, faith, and teaches us how to trust our own inner experience increasingly illuminated by our deepening awareness of what is real. A mature view of Reality, truth or God emerges from such spiritually mature people.

Seeker: I have a friend who had a horrible abusive father and after a lot of therapy he is an outspoken atheist.

SD: If our mother or father were punitive, our God is usually punitive too. That is a good God to reject. Or we can spend much of our lives submitting to that punitive God (never getting enough of what we don’t want). If our mother or father figures were cold and withdrawn, we will assume that God is cold and withdrawn too — Biblical wisdom, Jesus, and the mystics notwithstanding. If all authority in our lives comes through men, we probably assume and even prefer a male image of God, even if our heart desires otherwise. Whatever is given is always received in the way the receiver filters reality. Ultimately, and here I refer back to the van Dyke quote, if we don’t experience the world through its is-ness all our religious views are a form of idolatry, in which we are worshiping our own unconscious ways of perceiving.

Seeker: Do we have the same object relations issues in our culture?

SD: Our patterns of perception are mirrored in our political world views as well. Good religion makes for generous politics and positive social relationships. Immature religion based on our object relations formed needy egos makes for stingy politics, a largely reward/punishment frame, xenophobia, and highly controlled relationships. Indeed the worst of man’s inhumanity to man has been effected under the banner of a weaponized grandiose, authoritarian ego image of God.

Seeker: That really helps me understand why I feel this visceral reaction to religious figures and churches which are anti-immigration or homophobic. Makes me want to throw out all religion.

SD: Unfortunately, many people often feel there are only two choices: immature objection relations formatted religion or the rejection of the need for anything outside of one’s self to sustain one’s humanity. The first alternative, as we have suggested, leads to a form of object relations idolatry. The second constructs a small self-built altar of ego grandiosity. Neither gives us a way to fall in love with truth, with Reality so that we can experience that we, that life itself is held by a dynamic energy, a wisdom, a love that sustains us as a part of everything.

Seeker: I can identify with what you are saying. It raises the question for me of how do I get out of an immature story I am telling myself about what is Real, what is God?

SD: Story an important word. We are each telling ourselves a story about who we think we are, which is also telling us a story about who we think God is; and these stories mirror each other. The Bible says we are made in the image and likeness of God. Meister Eckhart goes further and says, The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. In Ruth Ozeki’s novel, “The Book of Form and Emptiness,” she says: God is a story…. I believe in stories, and God knows this. Stories are real, my boy. They matter. If you lose your belief in your story, you will lose yourself. We all are living within a story, which is hopefully evolving over time to help us to wake up to how it is shaping us. Our story is either increasingly opening us to an expansive, authentic way of experiencing life or narrowing us down to a frantic search for security and control.

Seeker: Okay, so maybe I am in a broken or a dead-end story. What can I do?

SD: One way out of the immature religion versus ego self sufficiency polarity is the path of Contemplative Christianity. This unbroken thread goes back to the Sermon on the Mount, was practiced by the early Desert Mothers and Fathers and kept alive in monastic wisdom and Celtic Christianity.

Contemplative Christianity teaches that through silence and solitude we can experience freedom from the learned object relations pattern of youth and experience Reality exactly as it is. Not on the surface where it often seems random or only suffering, but in the depths of the is-ness of each moment. We experience ourselves as part of the created world, moving and being as a part of its flow not as a stranger observing from outside of reality. We don’t just see a symbol and understand it metaphorically, we see beneath the symbol and experience the reality on which it’s based.

Seeker: I am intrigued, say a little more.

SD: In the experience of reality at depth the small ego-constructed self recedes into emptiness, as do the learned object relations patterns on which it is based. Then from within emptiness an ever expanding universe unfolds the beauty, goodness and truth of each moment. In that experience we fall in love not with a never-to-be-satisfied object relation, but with Reality, truth itself, or what those humbled by the heart opening experience of the mystery of emptiness/fullness often choose to call God.

The tools of Contemplative Christianity are ancient and are shared in various forms by other wisdom religious traditions. What distinguishes the Christian Contemplative tradition is its focus on the heart way of knowing. The path of experiencing that God is love.

The shorthand expression for the result of breaking out of an ego based learned pattern of perceiving the world into greater freedom is called realization or enlightened consciousness. There are degrees of consciousness going from the occasional glimmers that we all have of a greater reality than that experienced on the surface of events to a realized enlightenment seen in the great wisdom teachers like Buddha and Jesus. In the Christian Contemplative tradition the focus is on stabilizing access to a higher level of conscious awareness. Stabilized consciousness is traditionally call sanctification. As our contemplative practices grow our awareness is not just fleeting but available through practiced ways of allowing the ego’s learned patterning to be surrendered. In the pursuit of consciousness we do our part through our practices to open the door to experience the unbounded dimensions of reality and then the dynamic unfolding process of life itself meets us in the manner and form of a greater wisdom, goodness and beauty. This way in which we are met is traditionally called Grace.

Seeker: I grew up in a church-going family, but what you are talking about I never heard about in church. Help me understand it a little better.

SD: An analogy might be to a beehive. We can be a bee and leave the hive and fly off on our own and experience the world as alienating with other creatures wanting to swat us. Or we can experience that we are part of a hive, we are part of something larger than our individual bee-ness and by opening to our experience as part of the hive we experience the flow of sweet honey. Traditionally the mystical expression for this would be — “you are not God, and you are not not God.” You are not the hive but you are a part of the hive and have both individual bee-ness and hive-ness.

Seeker: Tell me more about what realized consciousness is about.

SD: Consciousness is multi-dimensional. It occurs in all three centers of intelligence and perception: mental, heart and body. In the mental center when we access aware consciousness our mind is clear and open. There is space to be able to perceive and participate in the wisdom and truth of Reality. In traditional religious language we see clearly how God is leading us.

In the heart center, to have an aware conscious heart is to experience being a participant in a sea of love. Our hearts are open and vulnerable and we are able to experience that even in the worst personal and culture suffering there is a divine love that is sustaining everything.

In the body center experiencing aware body consciousness is all about being fully present in the moment. There is no anticipation of the future or clinging to the past. Awareness includes everything occurring in the moment.

In each center silence, solitude and simplicity are the lubricants for the conscious experiencing of reality and experiencing the revelation that everything is undergirded by love. We experience that we are living in a bigger story, that our life is participating in a bigger story than a small personal one.

Seeker: I think I have some inkling of what you are saying, but only as ideas. I don’t have any of this body or heart knowledge about them that you are describing.

SD: Yes, that is the problem with much modern religion; there is little teaching given about transforming consciousness. Instead it is fixated on reinforcing old authority-driven ego object relations patterns. If we are controlled by our object relations patterns, we are often unconsciously seeking the external authority of a parent figure, whether preacher or politician, to conform to or rebel against. This kind of religion does not produce people who are open minded and open hearted.

Seeker: How can Christian Contemplatives tell if they are freeing themselves from their object relations patterns and stabilizing their realization?

SD: In the Christian Contemplative tradition, Galatians 5 provides touchstones to access how we are progressing in stabilizing access to our realization — But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control.

Three of each of these characteristics go with each center. The characteristics of someone with conscious body wisdom are self-control, love and joy. The qualities of the realized heart are peace, forbearance and kindness. The realized mind is full of goodness, faithfulness and gentleness.
Seeker: This path of Contemplative Christianity seems like a lot of hard work.
SD: It is and it isn’t. It requires being faithful to a set of contemplative practices. But we don’t realize our own realization. The path to God is always one of continually interacting with the unfolding reality of life in each of our three centers where by Grace we gain greater clarity, more open-heartedness and the immediacy of presence.
Seeker: Are you saying it is all process and that the process is not drudgery but continually animating us in its moment by moment unfolding?
SD: John 16:33 says, In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world. I think what is being said is that the world is full of sickness, suffering and death and viewed from an either/or perspective it all seems like doomed struggle. But from a more unitive, realized gaze it is our human drama takes place in the context of an unfolding of love, beauty, goodness and truth. This new unitive perspective is what overcomes the pain and sorrow of the world. Or, again, as John puts it (John 15:11): I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. The gospel invitation from a contemplative viewpoint it to become a part of a larger story that sustains us because we actually experience that life is embedded in truth, goodness and beauty.
Seeker: So the contemplative path allows one to be joyful about life, despite all its problems, because we are actually experiencing and perceiving life differently, more fully and more truthfully.
SD: Yes, as we are on the contemplative journey, we are all bees opening more and more to (and falling more and more in love) with Reality’s sweet honey of love, goodness and truth in this hive that is our home.