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) and (Part Three).
We’ve been considering the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who suggested that the Christian practice of contemplation is a powerful antidote to the insanity and unreality of our world, dominated as it is my greed, acquisitiveness, and the fantasies spun by the triple threat of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood.
Today we will shift gears and consider contemplation in itself, and why it is in itself such a good thing.
The Archbishop said,
To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.
Put a bit more simply, contemplative practices teaches us how to live truthfully, honestly, and lovingly. I’m reminded of a few verses from the Bible; first, John 8:32, the words of Jesus:
You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.
And, of course, from the first Letter of John, 4:16:
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
So Christian spirituality is about abiding in love, and knowing the truth. And here’s where I believe contemplation comes in: it brings these two key elements of spirituality together.
In our culture, we tend to think of the mind and the heart as representing two dimensions of consciousness. Our thoughts, our ability to reason, to discern and use logic: these are all functions of the mind. Likewise, our capacity to love, to express compassion and care, are said to be functions of the heart. This is even enshrined in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, where “thinking” and “feeling” are considered two complementary functions or “types” of personality, just like “extraversion” & “introversion” or “sensing” & “intuition” or “judgment” & “perception” are complementary pairs. In the Myers-Briggs understanding of the personality, thinking and feeling represent ways in which we discern or process the raw material of our experience. Thinkers are more likely to rely on rational processes, while feelers rely on the emotional content of their experience, relying on empathy and relationship in their way of arriving at insight or decisions.
You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in psychology to begin to see the problems with this way of separating out thinking and feeling. For one thing, just because the mind deals with logic and rationality does not make the heart illogical or irrational (no matter what Mr. Spock may have thought). Likewise, just because the feeling function is typically concerned with empathy does not mean that the thinking function must be cold or distant. Still, a stereotype is a stereotype, and it looms large in our cultural identity — take, for example, The Big Bang Theory, where much of the humor involves the frequent misunderstandings between Penny (who is all heart) and her neighbor Sheldon (who is all head).
Yesterday I talked about how the Buddhist author Chögyam Trungpa suggests that meditation is a way to synchronize the body and the mind. I think he’s right, and I’ll take it a step further: in meditative practices (including Christian contemplation), we gently allow the mind and the heart to become one. The word “allow” is important, because on the surface, contemplation is not about “doing” anything other than sitting in silence, and stillness, with a calm attentiveness and an open heart. So we do not “make” the mind and the heart synchronize, but by engaging in the gentle silence of contemplation, we allow mind and heart to re-connect with each other. In the silence of meditation, the mind tends to the natural silence between its thoughts, and the heart becomes tender, receptive, and available. And the heart becomes more open and receptive to the spaciousness of the mind, and the mind becomes more open and receptive to the empathy of the heart. It’s a significant shift from our normal way of seeing things, because the thinking mind normally trades in dichotomies, divisions and oppositions — hey, not unlike the Myers-Briggs with its separation of feeling and thinking. So the ordinary habitat of the thinking mind is to “think” separation between the head and the heart, which the heart “feels” as judgment and condescension (again, look at how Sheldon treats Penny). But in the silence of contemplation — of being still and knowing God (Psalm 46:10), the heart recognizes its own natural intelligence and the mind recognizes its own natural empathy. In contemplation, heart and mind are not-two.
Rowan Williams praises contemplation for teaching us how to live truthfully, honestly, and lovingly. This is a natural consequence of how contemplation erases the socially constructed firewall between mind and heart. The mind becomes tender and compassionate: more loving. The heart becomes discerning and authentic: more truthful. Together, they foster honesty. For the truth of a contemplative is not just the truth of careful thinking, but a more holistic truth that integrates logic and empathy. Likewise, the love of a contemplative is not just the embrace of a compassionate heart, but a more inclusive love that embodies good will as well as natural harmony. Love is most fully expressed when it is both embodied (heart) and intentional (mind). Likewise, truth is most holistically lived out when it integrates the strength of our convictions with the clarity of our values. An honest life — a life powerful in its authenticity and presence — is a life where love and truth, heart and mind, soul and body all come together in unity and shared purpose and identity — a process we learn, slowly and gradually, in the silent crucible of regular contemplative practice.
Like everything else about contemplation, this doesn’t happen overnight. Contemplation is not mastered in a weekend (I’m not sure that it is ever appropriate to speak of “mastering” contemplation). It is, to use Eugene Peterson’s richly evocative phrase, “a long obedience in the same direction.” But this obedience is not about submission to some capricious human authority, but rather the deep, present listening that is central to the contemplative act. Listening for the “sound of sheer silence” in which we discern the voice of God. Listening for the spacious silence always present between and beneath every thought and every heartbeat. The word “obedience,” after all, comes from the same root word as audio — so true obedience is true listening. And as we listen, day by day, over time, to the still small voice of God’s whisper, we are trained in the art of truth, love, and honesty. The revolution, after all, begins at home — in our own hearts and minds.
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