Action and Contemplation: Week 1
Contemplation AND Action
Friday, May 13, 2016
I used to think that most of us must begin with contemplation or a unitive encounter with God and are then led through that experience to awareness of the suffering of the world and to solidarity with that suffering in some form of action. I do think that’s true for many people, but as I read the biblical prophets and observe Jesus’ life, I think it also happens in reverse: first action, and then needed contemplation.
No life is immune from suffering. When we are in solidarity with pain, injustice, war, oppression, colonization—the list goes on and on—we face immense pressure to despair, to become angry or dismissive. When reality is split dualistically between good and bad, right and wrong, we too are torn apart. Yet when we are broken, we are most open to contemplation, or non-dual thinking. We are desperate to resolve our own terror, anger, and disillusionment, and so we allow ourselves to be led into the silence that holds everything together in wholeness.
The contemplative, non-dual mind is not saying, “Everything is beautiful,” even when it’s not. However, you do come to “Everything is still beautiful” by facing the conflicts between how reality is and how you wish it could be. In other words, you have to begin—and most people do in their adult years—with dualistic problems. You’ve got to name good and evil and differentiate between right and wrong. You can’t be naive about evil. But if you stay focused on this duality, you’ll go crazy! You’ll become an unlovable, judgmental, dismissive person. I’ve witnessed this pattern in myself. You must eventually find a bigger field, a wider frame, which we call non-dual thinking.
Jesus does not hesitate to name good and evil and to show that evil is a serious matter. Jesus often speaks in dualistic images, for example, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). He draws a stark line between the sheep and the goats, the good and the wicked (Matthew 25:31-46). Yet Jesus goes on to overcome these dualisms by what we would call the contemplative mind. You are honest about what the goats are doing, maybe too honest for most people, but you do not become hateful nor do you need to punish the goats in your life. You keep going deeper until you can also love them.
Beginning with dualistic action and moving toward contemplation seems to be the more common path in the modern era. We see this pattern in Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, and Jean Vanier. These people entered into the pain of society and had to go to God to find rest for their soul, because their soul was so torn by the broken, split nature of almost everything, including themselves.
The most important word in our Center’s name is not Action nor is it Contemplation, but the word and. We need both action and contemplation to have a whole spiritual journey. It doesn’t matter which comes first; action may lead you to contemplation and contemplation may lead you to action. But finally, they need and feed each other.
Gateway to Silence:
Adapted from exclusive video teaching within the Living School program.