The contemplative life is subtle, nuanced. As humans we charge through life, often unable to see what is right in front of us, and suffer for our inability to detect the disjuncture between a person’s godliness and their mortal limitation. The contemplative life is also practical. It is not an idealized life where everything is rosy; everything is beautiful all the time. Rather, it ushers in an awareness of reality, in all of its multiplicity and a piercing discernment—wisdom—to sort through what is appropriate, what is real, what is possible in this time and place. It is a view in and from the whole. It is an open and free consciousness. It is a compassionate consciousness. It is a silent consciousness that sees and knows. It is a very aware, observant, non-judgmental, and discerning consciousness. In the Buddhist sense, contemplative mind simultaneously discerns samsara, conditioned reality, and nirvana, enlightened reality.
This compassionate consciousness cannot exist in a state where we hold onto our beliefs with willful ignorance or where we become so rigid in our thinking that the subtle nuances of this new reality go unnoticed. Which brings me to the second attribute of a contemplative life: emptying of self, or giving oneself in unconditional love to the Divine Nature. Giving one’s self away—being a fool for God. Standing on the precipice of consciousness and leaping off. Learning to live on the fringes of reality, in the place where dying gives rise to birth, where letting go is liberation. I mention these things initially, and in a very happy voice, to instill in us the joy that happens when one embarks on this path. It may be a quiet joy, it may be exuberant joy, it may be a sorrowful joy; it may be even an unnamed or unfelt joy in the moment. The more you embark on this path the more little bubbles of happiness grow inside, because you are doing the one thing necessary.
But emptying the self is not easy. You have to pull up the roots of craving, of ignorance, of false attachments. It means being really honest with oneself, being honest with one’s true nature. It means being willing to go through the fear that you do not have a true nature, the fear that you are nothing, worthless, and that there is no wellspring, no river of unity underlying everything. The only remedy for this is to practice—to keep leaping off the cliff, divesting your self of platitudes and conventional notions—to keep moving in faith, even when you cannot see or do not believe. Are there absolutes? No, there are no absolutes in the spiritual life in the sense that we think of absolute—we have arrived, we have achieved, and the journey is over. In that sense, no. There are degrees and progressions of being. There are states where one has come to the end of the long tunnel of paradox and is infused with the Divine Mystery. Even in those states there is always more.
A contemplative consciousness is one that sees reality from the perspective of the whole. It is not considering fragments and particulars, but the unity, the oneness. In this way, we hold under the auspices of unity the eternal and the ephemeral in order that we may see reality—person, event, relationship—in its limitation and in its infinitude. Many of us get in trouble because we actually see the eternal but do not see the temporal very well. We tend to think that it is easy to detect flaws and negativities, and not to see God in each other, but I would imagine that you have suffered because you have seen the eternal in someone and did not see their limitation.
To this end, in your own spiritual practice, become aware of what motivates you. Is your practice being motivated in order to – as Gandhi would say “see God face to face,” or is it motivated because it is developing your sense that “I am a good person and can then ignore all of the other aspects of my personality that I have not worked on.” We use our wills to keep down the unpleasant, the negative, and what we consider to be the unholy. Is there anything that your ego is holding onto that is preventing you from keeping communication open with the Divine?