Last week I discussed that the first attribute essential to living a contemplative life was to see God in everything or to love God alone, to have love of God alone. This love is the Divine communicating with you in the hidden depths of your soul, and the contemplative is one whose deepest desire is to keep open this communion. Since the contemplative exists in a constant relationship of receptivity with the Divine Mystery we need to address those obstacles to spiritual practice that close the door to this interior communion, thus moving you away from contemplation. Contemplation is then an intention of heart—a heart that longs to be ever receptive to God within—and not merely a state of meditative awareness. The Divine never closes the door. God’s communion with the soul is constant, even though in certain aspects of the journey we may feel that the Divine is absent, or we are lost and in the dark. Nonetheless, the divine-human communication is always occurring; it is only when we close the door, when we reject the light that shines in our souls that we close the channel of mystical communion. We consciously are not aware of the inner relationship or we have pushed it away.
Oftentimes, as you grow into the spiritual life you discover that seemingly external obstacles are actually much deeper in the psyche and spirit. Thomas Merton, an American Catholic writer and mystic, said that none of us want to be beginners – at least our egos do not want to be beginners, and yet inside we are always beginners because we are always moving further and further into Mystery, which is unending. From my years working as a spiritual director, I see four main obstacles that people encounter on this path.
- One of the obstacles to spiritual practice is “spiritual inertia,” or a sort of letdown that happens when meditation and practice get serious. Some of you may never experience any of these obstacles and some of you may have experienced one or all of them. One of the things about spiritual inertia – this sort of letdown feeling that you are not doing it right, you are doing things wrong, you cannot get ahead, your spiritual life is taking you nowhere, in the past you saw progress, but now your spiritual practice is just going around in circles. One antidote to spiritual inertia is the realization that you are dividing your life too much. Your inner life and your outer life are divided. The deeper self, the spirit is calling you to a quiet life – a life that is more centered or balanced and there is a war going on inside you that is translating as a kind of inertia. You might want to keep an eye on that. The fracturing that is pulling in two directions creates a stalemate or impasse in your inner self. We tend to think that the interior life is not available to us or that it is hidden, but, in fact, what is ripping us apart is that the deep self is crying out to be heard and we are not listening. The deep self is traumatized or wounded and its cry is pushing out through the psyche, seeking to be heard. This sometimes results in a type of inertia.Sometimes too, inertia may be the result that you are contemplating yourself instead of God. In other words, you develop a spiritual practice, you get it going, but really you become so internalized and so convoluted in your own journey that you are actually meditating and contemplating yourself instead of meditating and contemplating God. This kind of practice develops its own form of security and dread and risk of submission to something greater than self. Ideally, spiritual practice passes through the false self to that deeper, more serene place of consciousness. In a future class on suffering, I will talk about meditative practices that are designed to liberate us from suffering. What I am talking about here are not those practices to liberate ourselves from oppressions, but rather the practices by which we observe how contemplation and meditation have gotten off track, and have become an avoidance of the inner self, of deep surrender.
- Another obstacle is “discouragement,” which is related to inertia, but is a feeling that we are not getting anywhere. We are not going anywhere. Where is that sense of passion or overwhelming longing we used to feel? People will say: “I felt God but now I am just not progressing. What is going on?” We find here, too, loneliness, despair, anguish. If the Spirit or God, has been your closest friend for many years and now all of a sudden you do not feel connected, what happened and why? A sense of abandonment or betrayal may arise, where we feel we cannot depend on our experience or knowledge. We become discouraged, listless, uninterested. But this too is a stage of growth leading us away from our knowledge and our experience into God’s own life.
- Another obstacle is “confusion” and “helplessness.” Some of these emotional states have to do with the dark night experience where you are growing deeper into your spiritual life and you almost feel crazy, because nothing is making sense. The spirit goes into a kind of confusion or helplessness. The obstacle side of confusion or helplessness is where we get bound up in our egos, so we are imprisoned in our constructs and we are not going anywhere. We are confused. Here we need to discern whether confusion and helplessness are the result of being bound by or stuck in the ego, or whether they are part of a dark night experience where the Divine is drawing you deeper into faith, where you cannot see or know. This can lead to certain forms of paralyses of the spirit.
- Another obstacle is “avoidance” and “fear” of deeper truths. I am always amazed at how afraid people are to see themselves, because it is so much easier to confront oneself and go through it than to resist, and yet we have learned so many remedies for resistance or diversion that oftentimes we do not recognize that our diversion or resistance is what is impeding us. If you get into this place where you are avoiding – doing repetitive practices, doing things that are just rote, because there is resistance to delve more deeply, then this is the time to suspend your practice. Let it go and begin to pray about why it is that you have resistance. The adage “as you ask so shall you receive” is quite true and it is always helpful in situations such as this to turn the whole thing around and to directly address what is bothering you and pray about that. Offer a prayer: “help me to break through this” or “help me to understand why I feel in despair or why I am in resistance” or “show me my resistance.” Just go directly at it instead of feeling that you are letting God or the Divine Nature or yourself down. In this way you can transform the obstacle. Sometimes we forget the simplest practices because we tend to believe that the spiritual journey is “out there” and we are going toward something, instead of realizing that all our struggles are part and parcel of the transformative process within The Divine is pushing things out from within the unconscious into consciousness so we become aware of impediments and have the capacity to change them. Whatever comes up is an important tool for your spiritual growth and the remedy that I suggest always is to directly pray to know and address the cause. If you feel lost, if you feel hopeless, if you feel discouragement, if you do not feel the same presence that you used to feel, then that is where your pray goes. Suspend the old practices and pray directly for realization.
Our understanding of contemplation, then, moves beyond the idea of a meditative exercise, to an orientation of one’s entire being toward openness. Come here, come in, I long for you. I am listening. I may not want to listen, but I am listening. I may not want to hear, but I am hearing. I am afraid to listen. Help me to listen. I am afraid to be this open. Help me to be this open. I am afraid to be this vulnerable, this intimate. Show me the way. The progression of being more and more open to divine communion is the deepening of the contemplative life.