Exploring the “Inner Wasteland” (Why Contemplation is Revolutionary, Part Six)

On the summit of Stone Mountain, GA. Photo by Fran McColman

On the summit of Stone Mountain, GA. Photo by Fran McColman

This is part of a series on “Why Contemplation is Revolutionary.” If you want to start at the beginning, follow this link: The Archbishop and the Community Theologian.

Yesterday we looked at a quote about contemplation from Anglican theologian Kenneth Leech. Following his assertion that “contemplation has a context,” we looked at how the many social, political, and environmental concerns of our time form the milieu in which a life of silent prayer must occur. Unlike some critics of contemplation (and its traditional setting of monasticism) who charge that silent prayer and meditation are forms of escapism, practitioners of contemplation recognize that it is actually the opposite of escapism, because one of the purposes of contemplation is to heighten our awareness of things as they are, which includes the many challenges and problems of our lives, on both individual and collective levels.

We also began to look at the fact that our “inner” problems (distractedness, fear, anxiety, cynicism, despair, and so forth) are integrally related to the “outer” problems of war and violence, economic injustice, environmental devastation, and so forth. This brings us to the next statement by Ken Leech, which we shall consider today:

It is within this highly deranged culture that contemplatives explore the waste of their own being.

Although we may not be used to thinking of it this way, contemplation points us to a new way of understanding life and the world we live in, where our inner and outer lives are intimately bound up together and in fact influence and shape each other. The reason why we experience our inner life as “a waste of our own being” is because we simultaneously experience our outer life as a wasteland as well. As the old Hermetic priniciple maintains: “As above, so below.” Yet in a contemplative context, that might be best rephrased as “As within, so without.”

At first glance, this could seem counterintuitive. “I’m not affected by the wars and inustices and environmental problems facing the world today; in fact, I’m opposed to all those things!” Such might be a reasonable statement that many of us could make. But I think the link between our “highly deranged culture” and “the waste of our own being” is not necessarily obvious or direct. Here are ways to think about how inner and outer can be connected.

  • Life’s problems seem overwhelming (outside), so I’m easily distracted (inside);
  • The world seems like such a violent place (war, crime, abuse), so I become fearful and cynical (inside);
  • There’s so much economic inequality (outside), and I’m always thinking about what I “need” to buy or “want” to eat (inside);
  • Someone I love is dying (outside), and I’m angry at God, or I’m not sure God even exists (inside);
  • Climate change, widespread extinction, etc. (outside), really bothers me, and I find I get angry at the oddest little things (inside).

Clearly, each one of us is unique, and the correlation between our inner turmoil or lack of centeredness (in whatever form it takes) and the concerns or problems we see in our external lives, will differ from person to person. But there seems to be a pretty clear correlation. We do hurtful and selfish things to one another, driven by the inner emptiness, fear, cynicism, or greed that emerges from within. So “inner” shapes the “outer,” and what is true on a micro-level seems to be also true on the “macro-level” (as we saw in World War II, where an entire nation that was comfortable with anti-Semitism colluded with a corrupt political leader to commit one of the worst incidences of genocide in human history). So the wasteland within us, individually and collectively, shapes our highly deranged culture; but it goes the other way as well, for so much of the fear, anxiety, anger, depression, distractedness, cynicism, and loss of faith that troubles us is inspired, or at least exacerbated by, the external problems we face.

On one of their early albums, October, U2 sang, “I can’t change the world, but I can change the world in me.” I see it slightly differently: I can change the world, but only by changing the world in me. Or as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we want to fight injustice, or social ills, or war, or environmental devastation, we have to begin by healing the injustice and violence and waste within ourselves. Without doing this kind of inner work, social action becomes just an oppositional dynamic, where the forces of injustice fight the forces of anti-injustice and from the outside it’s hard to tell which is which. Idealistic young people who become social or political activists without a clear grounding in the values and worldview that motivates them to work for change run the risk of becoming cynical, bitter, or otherwise victimized by the very energy they are trying to use to make the world a better place. Find an angry conservative and an angry liberal, and talk to them; it won’t take long to see that they really are just mirror images of each other, each fueled by their hostility toward the other.

So in contemplation we explore the waste of our own being. This is painful. We come face to face with how scattered and distracted we are, or how angry and fearful we are, or how invested we are in ignoring the great issues of our day. Whatever our particular strategy might be, contemplation shines a light on it. This is painful, yet it is also the path for inner transformation. And thus, it is a necessary part of the journey.

But how does contemplation change “the waste of our own being”? This is a question we will explore in the next segment of this series, when we look at the relationship between the pursuit of the vision of God and the conflict at the core of the contemplative search.


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In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
Catholic Meditation and Contemplative Prayer: What's the Difference?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
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.

  • http://www.alifeitself.com Dana Young

    “If we want to fight injustice, or social ills, or war, or environmental devastation, we have to begin by healing the injustice and violence and waste within ourselves.”

    This is so very true, Carl, and thank you for explaining how contemplative practices are anything BUT escapism! I know this from years of meditation and my more recent practice of Centering Prayer. The hardest work we do is sitting with the muck within, learning to make peace with ourselves, and accepting gratefully that we are God’s beloved ones.

    I practice and teach Reiki, a Japanese spiritual healing art. The practice includes the external laying on of hands healing technique most Westerners are familiar with in a therapeutic context, but also meditations, chanting, energetic breath-work and other contemplative practices well-known to the monks of esoteric “mountain Buddhism.” (And contrary to much misunderstanding about the practice, it is not about “channeling” energy, but allowing the Divine to work within by being present, holding a space of lovingkindness.)

    As I tell my students, if you commit to self-practice daily, you will have already changed the world in a positive way, even if you never offer Reiki healing to another person. Energetically, we are interconnected to and therefore, influence everyone and everything around us. I might rephrase your statement of “As within, so without” to “As within, so outside” because the inner work we do for healing and re-connection to God frees us – and helps free others, directly or indirectly – from the waste and violence we see in the world.

  • Ann Dayton

    Steady on, Carl, that was a bit of a sweeping inditement of the German nation, to say that they all

    colluded with Hitler. It is possible that many did not know what was going on, but even if they did,

    it would be at considerable risk to themselves to protest. There is a book “Dying We Live” which contains letters from prisoners under sentence of death for their opposition to the Nazi regime.

    I often dip into this book to wonder at the wisdom and strength of these people, many of whom were

    quite young, in their acceptance of their imminent death. I know, to my sorrow, that if I had been

    in their position, I should never have had the courage to protest.

    • Carl McColman

      Ann, thanks for your message and I am sorry if I have inadvertently suggested that all Germans supported Hitler and his policies. Anyone who knows the stories of heroes like Sophie Scholl or Dietrich Bonhoeffer know that this is simply not true.