Inception and Contemplation

By now I suppose everyone who wants to see Inception will have done so. But if you want to see it, and haven’t yet, don’t read any further, as this post does contain spoilers. The story of Inception is built around a simple, powerful idea: that simple ideas are powerful, and that one simple idea has the power to change a life. Metaphysical folks say that “thoughts are things” and maybe they’re on to something here. The plot of Inception revolves around the efforts of a team of “dream spies” to enter into a wealthy man’s subconscious and plant an idea — that will forever change the way he thinks about his childhood, his father, his wealth, and his corporation. The motives may be less than pure — they were hired by a rival businessman who wants to see the corporation dismantled — but what emerges is a sort of Faustian bargain, in that the new idea promises to give the man something that had eluded him up to then: a sense that his father loved him.

I think about how the old paradigm of religious institutions — at least within Christianity — are in decline, even as a new (or, renewed) spiritual emphasis on the unconditional love of God has spread so widely in our time. Thanks to spiritual practices such as meditation and contemplation, Biblical ideas such as “be not afraid” and “God is love” are no longer just thought about, but actually experienced by increasing numbers of Christians. We are coming into our fullness as confident children of the Divine Lover, but one of the perhaps unintended consequences of this emergent spirituality is a declining interest in the church as structured institution.

Perhaps this is a good thing. Perhaps the institution was built on the backs of people’s fears (“obey us, or God will send you to hell”). But even though I am such a strong advocate of contemplation, the shifting demographics of the Christian faith community are a little unnerving to me, simply because it’s happening so fast. Conservatives insist that the future of the church is in Latin America and Africa, where robust church membership is marked by a theological conservatism that most progressive Americans would find troubling. Some progressives counter that this is due to economic disparity, and as the “developing world” catches up with Europe and North America, their theology will likewise liberalize — and church membership will probably decline. The experience of Ireland over the last thirty years might be indicative of this expected trend in other parts of the world.

Okay, I’m digressing. Back to Inception. What I find particularly interesting is this thought: if an idea can be so powerful that it can literally change the face of a religion, what kind of power can be unleashed in a mind where ideas are held lightly? For this, after all, is the promise and goal of contemplation: where we learn to step back, so to speak, from our thoughts and emotional complexes, watching the drama of the mind in the same kind of way that someone standing on a mountain watches the ever-changing patterns of the weather. Knowing that the mountain is stable whether it is raining, sunny, or in the midst of a blizzard or a powerful thunderstorm can empower us to watch the weather come and go with a kind of relaxed but detached interest. So, too, contemplation anchors us on the “mountain” of God’s eternal presence, and from that vantage point enables us to watch the “weather patterns” of the thinking mind and feeling body, with a gentle interest rather than an enmeshed engagement. We are liberated not by our ideas, but by the silence between the ideas.

I believe contemplation can take us to a place of simplicity and power beyond what any thought or feeling or idea could ever reach. And it is a “place” where we always and already are. We simply have to breathe through the curtain of our monkey mind long enough to see.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.