I looked for myself and found only God. I looked for God and found only myself.
-One of my favorite Sufi sayings
On January 1st, I did a special two-hour New Year’s meditation with my wife Pam and a friend. We wanted to center ourselves, acknowledge this new year and cycle of time and also, in my case, seek some inner guidance that would direct me in the year to come. As it happened, in the last half hour of the 2 hour meditation, I went to a very dark place that was painful and also frightening, as these dark places often are. However, from what my experience has taught me, I have a growing faith that these places are not only part of the spiritual journey but essential to it. The intuitive voice that arose from this place said something to the effect that “God is found in the depths.” Ruminating on this message afterwards, I interpreted this as a personal call to deepen—deepen my practices, my writing, my relationships, my life.
A few days later, Pam and I traveled for the first time to St. Benedict’s Monastery outside of Snowmass, Colorado for a three-day retreat. St. Benedict’s is a Trappist monastery and the home monastery of the Integral luminary Father Thomas Keating. Prior to this, Pam and I had been using another monastery in the southwest part of the United States for our retreats. This other monastery is a very Blue/Amber Catholic fundamentalist type of monastery. That said, it is located in an absolutely gorgeous place and the architecture is spectacular. But I always had a sense that I had to spend the first couple of days transcending the fundamentalist Blue/Amber field of energy at this monastery.
In contrast, at St. Benedict’s I felt immediately at home. Instead of having to struggle with the fundamentalist field of energy, I felt met right where I was at. The outward evidence of this was in St. Benedict’s wonderful bookstore and library, where almost everybody who matters in the contemplative Christian, Buddhist, and Integral canons was well represented, including most of the works of Ken Wilber. This was really good news for me as I have a habit, whenever I’m in a religious facility or in somebody’s home for that matter, to immediately scan the book collection. I do this almost unconsciously, but it supplies tons of useful information to help me understand what’s going on in a particular place. All that to say, throughout the next 3 days, I engaged in a deep, contemplative, meditative journey, in which I meditated or prayed (prayitated, my new word) on an average of four hours a day. In addition, I also practiced yoga, reading of sacred texts, and journaling. I went to some pretty deep places and emerged with some new insights.
Firstly, and something that I’m still resonating with as I write this, is the difference between meditation and contemplation, which seem to me to be very similar but also distinct in certain aspects. When I say contemplation, I am speaking in a Christian context simply because that is what seems to be arising in my inner work. Most of us are aware of meditation as a process in which we slow down and move into deeper states of meditation (and deeper brain wave states), and bring pure awareness to all that arises. This includes an awareness of awareness itself, which in many cases eventually leads to the Aha! breakthrough realization that pure awareness is what I AM. In some schools of thought, this is said to be enlightenment itself. Contemplation, on the other hand, is similar but it seems to be different in that it is not just a practice of emptiness, but a practice of opening oneself to the presence of God. These experiences are very similar, and I seem to move through both of them in my personal practice.
But let me talk about contemplative practice as I am currently understanding it. The first step is simply becoming aware of one’s own inner personal ego landscape. This would include one’s thoughts, one’s fears, one’s shadows, one’s self-narratives, conditioning, karmic knots, etc., etc. The second stage in the contemplative process is where the contemplative simply opens his or herself up to the presence of God and waits in faith, with the attitude of “Lord, make me an instrument of peace, and not my will but thy will be done.” In this stillness and in this waiting, grace can happen. What this grace might do or look like can be almost infinitely varied, depending on the individual, the context, and, dare I say it, God. At this point, profound healing and transformation can occur, deep insight and wisdom can arise, as well as descent into the darkness, crucifixion, death and rebirth.
At this point, I believe we can experience that which is perhaps the deepest part of the Christian mystery and faith, the Paschal mystery. In a nutshell, Christ died and Christ arose. On our personal Christian contemplative journeys, this translates as the soul must die in order to be reborn. It is in this opening in faith to the deepest levels of our own personal suffering and the suffering of the world, if not the universe, that I believe that transformation and rebirth can and do happen. And perhaps also the healing of the world, because it is only at these depths of opening to our deepest human despair and suffering that we can be reborn into a larger, transformed self, a deeper wisdom, a greater connection, and deep forgiveness. I am becoming more and more convinced that ultimately the only way our species will survive is if this path of forgiveness and reconciliation becomes realized between individuals, peoples, nations, and tribes, etc.
In my personal experience while I was at the monastery, in my practice of prayer and contemplation, I experienced a deep inner light that seemed to penetrate all parts of my being. On the last day, as I was engaged in an hour and a half meditation, my experience became very terrifying and painful. At first I thought I was getting physically ill as I was feeling nauseous and sick. But soon it became apparent that it was not physical illness, but some sort of inner space that I was moving into that was making my body feel as it did. The experience mirrored the pain that I had felt on the first of the year, but this time it was more powerful and more profound. The darkness and pain were very intense and it was all I could do, by the grace of God, to stay with it. My breathing came in sharp and shallow, rapid gasps and there was very little mental activity. Just the darkness, the depths, and the suffering. And a sense that this darkness was something beyond my own personal suffering and that I had entered into a pain that was collective with the human family of all times and places, and perhaps even Creation itself. In short, I felt as if I were being crucified.
At the end of the meditation, this experience passed. I was left with a deep stillness and a sense that I had participated in a mystery that is at the center and the heart of the Christian tradition and transmission. This all builds on the intuition that I have for the Integral Recovery process that we must go into the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves in order to find the healing, transformation, and rebirth that is, at the deepest level, the heart of the recovery process.
As I write this, I feel a deep sense of gratitude and humility and a sense that this process is not over.