Contemplation and the Unreal World (Why Contemplation is Revolutionary, Part Three)

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

This is part of a series. If you’re just joining the conversation, begin with The Archbishop and the Community Theologian and then proceed to Why Contemplation is Revolutionary (Part One) and (Part Two).

Today we’re looking at the third of ten points drawn from what Archbishop Rowan Williams and Father Kenneth Leech have said about contemplation. Today’s point, quoting the archbishop directly: contemplation is “the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.”

Yesterday we considered how contemplation can liberate us from the addictions that arise from consumerism. Today’s point is really an elaboration on that. In addition to freeing us from the grasp that the consumer lifestyle has on each of us individually, today we ponder how contemplation can free us from social structures that keep the consumer lifestyle locked in place: our financial system (Wall Street), our marketing culture (Madison Avenue), and — the stimulator of our “chaotic and unexamined emotions” — our entertainment culture (Hollywood).

New York and Los Angeles may be the two largest cities in America, but even so, only a relatively small percentage of us live in either location, and even most of those folks don’t deal with Wall Street, Madison Avenue or Hollywood directly. The point is not how these three lynchpins of our consumer culture may directly affect us, but rather how they contribute to “the system” — the system of money, materialism, and amusement that keeps us hypnotized into being obsessive consumers rather than truly free. And Archbishop Williams minces no words: the systems of finance, advertisement, and chaotic (read: manipulated) emotions is “unreal” and “insane.”

Let’s look at those one at a time. First, “insane.” The word, in a legal sense, implies a state of being incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong. John Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan, and Andrea Yates, who killed all of her children while suffering from postpartum psychosis, both were found not guilty by reason of insanity. Of course, they did not just walk free — both were committed to psychiatric hospitals where they remain institutionalized. In addition to its connotation of severe mental derangement, “insane” also implies foolishness (“are you going to quit your job to become a full-time poet? You must be insane”) or outrageousness (“did you see Miley Cyrus twerking on Robin Thicke at the VMA Awards? It was insane”). What all these shades of meaning have in common? Simply this: that insanity points to a reality so far removed from what is sensible, practical, ethical, or just, as to be unacceptable to most reasonable people.

How does this track with the Archbishop’s comments? The world of money, marketing, and show business is a kind of funhouse, where we get lost in a room of mirrors, eventually losing perspective on what is sensible or foolish, what is outrageous or not, and even to what is right or wrong. Consider the recent uproar over Miley Cyrus’s provocative performance. Many people were appalled — but scholars like Dr Lauren Rosewarne of the University of Melbourne point out that much of our cultural dismay has to do with the fact that Cyrus is associated with a “wholesome” image from her child star days. As a culture, we conveniently forget that her raunchy behavior is largely celebrated in our society (for example, in Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video), just as long as the women whom we objectify do not remind us of children or those we cherish. Has our society become so insane that a young woman feels she needs to be outrageously sexually provocative to declare to the world that she is no longer a child? It appears so.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that all we need to do is banish overt sexuality from our entertainment culture and then all our problems will be solved. On the contrary, what I am saying is that the way the entertainment industry exploits sexuality and violence to shock consumers is intricately tied up with our entire financial and advertising culture, as the Archbishop pointed out. Trying to “clean up” Hollywood while ignoring the insanity of Wall Street and Madison Avenue is like doctors who treat symptoms without addressing the causes of the illness. Indeed the problem I have with the sexualization of entertainment — from tweaking to Playboy Magazine to the wasteland of pornography — is not that it is sexual, but that it is the commercialization of eros. Sex is created by God, and is good. But the commercial exploitation of sexuality is tragic, and is a great festering sore on our culture — but again, it is the symptom, not the cause. And the fact that so many of us fail to see this (with conservatives screaming for greater morality in entertainment while liberals push back with appeals to the first amendment, both sides ignoring that the real problem isn’t sex, but its commercialization) testifies to how insane our culture really is.

Which leads to the Archbishop’s second adjective: “unreal.” The problem with the Wall Street/Madison Avenue/Hollywood world is that it simply is a social construct, propelled by greed for money (which, frankly, is also a social construct) and using the fictions of advertising and entertainment to propel the beast. Think about it: what advertising and entertainment have in common is that they both stimulate feelings of lack, or desire, or want, that is based not in reality but in the advertiser’s (or entertainer’s) lust for our money. Those “chaotic emotions” of want and desire keep us in the consumption game, earning money as fast we can spend it, and so the entire carnival keeps running. It’s not anchored in the soil, in the intimacy of family, in the dignity of labor or the bonds that tie community to place. Such bonds are largely ignored by the money/marketing/entertainment machine anyway, which is why we’ve settled for increasingly un-nourishing corporate food, a despoiled environment, and the sacrifice of family and community ties to the quest for wealth and mobility — all while we are busy amusing ourselves to death, as per the words of Neil Postman.

So what does contemplation have to do with all this? Rowan Williams calls it “the ultimate answer” to the unreal worlds of finance, advertising, and emotional chaos. In other words, it’s an antidote — maybe the only antidote — to the fantasy-excess of our insane/unreal culture. In his book Shambhala, Chögyam Trungpa suggests that meditation helps to synchronize the mind and the body. What is true for Buddhist meditation is also true for Christian contemplation. In contemplation, we re-connect our hearts and our minds, our souls and our bodies. We live not in the fantasies of the fashion industry or show business, but in the reality of life, sitting still, here and now. We are brought back to our senses, literally. We gaze into the hidden face of God, but in so doing we also are brought back to what is real, and what is sane, about the earth and our community, our land and our bodies. This is not to say that we will all become hermits or beggars or otherwise totally disengage with the world of money and amusement — for better or worse, this is the world we have create for ourselves, and here we are. But contemplation invites us to function in the world without embracing the world’s values (what I was taught in Sunday school: “be in the world, but not of the world”). Consider Romans 12:2:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Contemplative practice cultivates inner transformation, at a level deeper than words or thought. It is a process of lovingly giving ourselves to God, so that we may love like God loves, see as God sees, and respond as God responds to the world in which we find ourselves. Obviously this does not happen overnight! Re-formation in Christ takes a lifetime. But every step on the journey brings us closer to our goal. Getting only halfway up the mountain still will completely transform our view. If we want to have any hope of bringing authentic transformation into a culture that has so thoroughly sold itself to the love of money, then contemplation is not only a necessary first step, but a necessary ongoing part of the journey — every step of the way.

Our next step on this journey will be to consider how contemplative practice teaches us how to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.


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