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Center for Action and Contemplation

Radical Transformation

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Action and Contemplation: Week 1

Radical Transformation
Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mature religion teaches contemplation as a path to true transformation. But before we are ready to be shaken and changed at our roots, we need religion at its lower levels to help us develop a healthy ego. Ken Wilber describes religion’s different roles along the spiritual and developmental journey:

[Religion] itself has always performed two very important, but very different, functions. One, it acts as a way of creating meaning for the separate self: it offers myths and stories and tales and narratives and rituals and revivals, that, taken together, help the separate self make sense of, and endure, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

This is good and needed. That’s how you get started. As psychology would say, you have to have an ego to let go of an ego. You have to have a self to move beyond the self. But most religion stops at this first function, simply giving you a positive self-image and identity—that I’m religious, moral, dedicated, or whatever my sense of worth and belonging might be. Wilber continues:

This function of religion does not usually or necessarily change the level of consciousness in a person; it does not deliver radical transformation. Nor does it deliver a shattering liberation from the separate self altogether. Rather, it consoles the self, fortifies the self, defends the self, promotes the self. As long as the separate self believes the myths, performs the rituals, mouths the prayers, or embraces the dogma, then the self, it is fervently believed, will be “saved”—either now in the glory of being God-saved or Goddess-favored, or in an afterlife that ensures eternal wonderment.

We’re never totally sure what “saved” is supposed to mean, but everybody uses the word rather glibly. I suppose in most Western Christians’ minds it means going to heaven, that I’m going to get some reward later for behaving or believing in a certain way. It sounds like a very bad reward/punishment novel. It’s preposterous that anybody believes this could be the Great God’s simplistic agenda, but if you haven’t really worked with it (and I’m fortunate that I have had time to work with it), you believe it because everybody else does. You figure this many people can’t be wrong. They must be right that life is a giant reward/punishment system, and if you jump through the hoops properly, you’ll get the reward. It’s not really about becoming “a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). You don’t have to be transformed; you just have to play the game right. This is first half of life religion. It deals with the small self, the false self, and is all about requirements.

Wilber goes on to explain the second function of religion:

But two, religion has also served—in a usually very, very small minority—the function of radical transformation and liberation. This function does not fortify the separate self, but utterly shatters it—not consolation but devastation, not entrenchment but emptiness, not complacency but explosion, not comfort but revolution—in short, not a conventional bolstering of consciousness but a radical transmutation and transformation at the deepest seat of consciousness itself. [1]

This is true religious conversion. This is second half of life religion, although it can happen at any age. The experience occurs when God or life destabilizes your private ego, usually through some form of suffering. It will feel like dying because it is the death of the false self. The small, separate self is shattered, and your True Self is revealed. The True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. It’s not about being correct; it’s about being connected, which you always were—you just didn’t realize it. This is the self that is capable of contemplation because it no longer reads reality from an egocentric position.

Contemplation is indeed radical because it’s a way of being in the world, walking in the world, and seeing the world that is absolutely different than the daily grind of ideas and contests.

Gateway to Silence:

[1] Ken Wilber, One Taste: Daily Reflections on Integral Spirituality (Shambhala: 2000), 25-26.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Contemplative Prayer (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download.

Image Credit: Still Waters Dock and Lake (detail), by Joelle Chase. CAC archives.
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