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Self-Emptying

Self-Emptying

Saturday, December 19, 2020
Summary: Sunday, December 13—Friday, December 18, 2020

In our consumer culture, even religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behavior. Yet authentic spirituality is much more about letting go. (Sunday)

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be— “Not my will but yours be done, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit.” —Cynthia Bourgeault (Monday)

Jesus was uncompromising in his belief that all human beings were equal in dignity and worth. He treated the blind, the lame and the sick, the outcasts and beggars with as much respect as that given to those of high rank and status. —Albert Nolan (Tuesday)

When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. (Wednesday)

Let us for now refer to emptying of the self in a twofold sense: as a breaking down of our cherished self-identities, wants, demands, and ego struggles; and as an openness of being, where all the doors and windows of the soul are thrown back to allow in the splendor of life. —Beverly Lanzetta (Thursday)

If we’re not trained in letting go of our pain, transforming it, turning crucifixion into resurrection, so to speak, we’ll hand it off to our family, to our children, to our neighborhood, to our nation. (Friday)

 

Practice: Remaining in Place

What if the challenges of the current moment are actually offering us an invitation to let go of our ideas of freedom and mobility and to consciously participate with reality in a new way? In The Great Within psychologist Han F. de Wit invites us to consider the discipline of stabilitas loci (or remaining in place) as a liberating practice. He writes:

Many contemplative traditions contain the rule of not abandoning the monastic community or the place of retreat for shorter or longer periods (sometimes for life). If one follows this rule, it is almost always preceded by voluntarily taking a vow to keep to it. In the Christian tradition, it is known as the vow of stabilitas loci (remaining in one place). This place can, for example, be where one goes into the solitary retreat. The practitioner then vows not to leave this place before he has completed a specific spiritual practice or attained a certain realization. This approach can be found in the Hindu tradition: the yogi draws a certain line around her place of retreat and vows not to step outside it until she has completed a certain practice (sadhana), until she has reached enlightenment, or until death has reached her. A well-known example of this in the Buddhist tradition is obviously that of the Buddha himself, who finally sat down under the bodhi tree and vowed not to leave that spot until he had reached enlightenment. . . .

Why do people do this? What is the function of such a discipline? . . . The contemplative psychological function of this physical stabilitas and of the adherent vow is that we let go of the idea that we have an alternative, we give up the possibility of withdrawing. As we know, one of the characteristic aspects of ego is that it always wants to have alternatives available: ego reflects a mentality that always wants to keep an exit open and therefore can never come to complete surrender and acceptance. Through the vow of stabilitas loci, we confront and surrender an important part of that mentality. We say, “This is my place, my situation, and that is what I want to work with, however it develops, for better or for worse.”. . . The limitation that this discipline imposes on ego proves to have another element: a flourishing of self-confidence and strength of mind that enables us to be in the situation we are in without any reservations. What may seem claustrophobic or restrictive actually turns into vast and hospitable space. [1]

Richard again: Speaking from personal experience and my many years in Lenten hermitage (where I stayed in one small place for the forty days of Lent), I found a deep inner liberation in “giving up” my freedom to come and go as I chose. I am experiencing some of that same freedom in my hermit-like life necessitated by the pandemic. I cannot “fill” my life or myself up with outside experiences; I must simply “be” with myself and God.

Reference:
[1] Han F. de Wit, The Great Within: The Transformative Power and Psychology of the Spiritual Path (Shambhala Publications: 2019), 263–264.

For Further Study:
Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambala: 2008).

Beverly Lanzetta, A New Silence: Spiritual Practices and Formation for the Monk Within (Blue Sapphire Books: 2020).

Beverly Lanzetta, The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life (Blue Sapphire: 2018).

Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books: 2006).

Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis (Sounds True: 2010), CD.

Richard Rohr, Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction (Franciscan Media: 1987, 2005), downloadable audiobook.

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing: 2009).

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

Letting Go Is Liberation
Friday, December 18, 2020

In talking about letting go, we are really talking about liberation. It’s a type of liberation theology for a Global North country, if you will. Here are the proper questions: What is it we need to be liberated from, and what is it we need to be liberated for? And who is the liberator?

I think we need at least six kinds of liberation:

  1. Inner liberation from ourselves (letting go of the centrality of the small self)
  2. Cultural liberation from our biases (which involves letting go of the “commodity” culture and moving into the “personal” culture) [1]
  3. Dogmatic liberation from our certitudes (letting go of the false self and discovering the True Self)
  4. Personal liberation from the “system” (letting go of dualistic judging and opening to nondual thinking)
  5. Spiritual liberation for the Divine (some form of letting go happens between each stage of spiritual growth)
  6. Liberation for infinite mystery (the mystery that what looks like falling is in fact rising), which is really liberation for love.

As you have often heard me say, if you do not transform your pain, you will most assuredly transmit it. Healthy religion on the practical level tells us what to do with our pain—because we will have pain. We can’t avoid it; it’s part of life. If we’re not trained in letting go of it, transforming it, turning crucifixion into resurrection, so to speak, we’ll hand it off to our family, to our children, to our neighborhood, to our nation.

The art of letting go is really the art of survival. We have to let go so that as we age, we can be happy. Yes, we’ve been hurt. Yes, we’ve been talked about and betrayed by friends. Yes, our lives didn’t work out the way we thought they would. Letting go helps us fall into a deeper and broader level at which we can always say “Yes.” We can always say, “It’s okay, it’s all right.” We know what lasts. We know who we are. And we know we do not want to pass our pain on to our children or the next generation. We want to somehow pass on life.

This means that the real life has started now. It’s Heaven all the way to Heaven and it’s Hell all the way to Hell. We are in Heaven now by falling, by letting go, and by trusting and surrendering to this deeper, broader, and better reality that is already available to us. We’re in Hell now by wrapping ourselves around our hurts, by over-identifying with and attaching ourselves to our fears, so much so that they become our very identity. Any chosen state of victimhood is an utter dead end. Once you make that your narrative, it never stops gathering evidence about how you have been wronged by life, by others, and even by God.

Maybe this is why scholars have said two-thirds of the teaching of Jesus is, in one form or another, about forgiveness. Forgiveness is simply the religious word for letting go. Eventually, it feels like forgiving Reality Itself for being what it is.

References:
[1] For an expanded and helpful discussion on liberation from our biases, we invite you to listen to the newest CAC podcast Learning How to See with Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis, and Richard Rohr.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, discs 3 and 6 (Sounds True: 2010), CD; and

Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction, disc 1 (Franciscan Media: 1987, 2005), downloadable audiobook.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

The Wisdom of Presence
Thursday, December 17, 2020

We empty ourselves to let the divine flood us with love. We are empty so we may be full. —Beverly Lanzetta

It seems that one of the most difficult lessons for us to learn is that knowledge is not the same as wisdom. Even sincere spiritual seekers resist this truth: becoming “full” of all the information in the world does not of itself accumulate into wisdom. As Bonaventure noted, “Wisdom is confusing to the proud and often evident to the lowly.” [1] Wisdom is not the gathering of more facts and information, as if that would eventually coalesce into truth. Rather Wisdom is a different way of seeing and knowing. Nothing new—no perspective, no experience, nor even love can come to us when we are full of ourselves, our agendas, and our own points of view. That is why, as Beverly Lanzetta observes, self-emptying is so critical to any expression of authentic spirituality. She writes:

Defined as the releasing of selfishness and ego attachments, loss of self is a central characteristic of spiritual life. Let us for now refer to emptying of the self in a twofold sense: as a breaking down of our cherished self-identities, wants, demands, and ego struggles; and as an openness of being, where all the doors and windows of the soul are thrown back to allow in the splendor of life. Since in a body we will always have elements of personality traits, self-emptying is not an absolute state but the practice of letting go. And this practice of detachment, in which we experience the fluidity of presence [italics added] that is deeper than identity, becomes the medium for the great transformation of being that demarcates a contemplative life. . . .

I would go so far as to suggest that wisdom is precisely the freedom to be present. People who are fully present know how to see fully, rightly, and truthfully. Just try to keep your heart open, your mind without division or resistance, and your body not somewhere else. Practicing presence is the daily task of all mature religious and spiritual disciples. It is our very presence, open and available, that allows us to experience and participate in the life of God in the world. Beverly Lanzetta continues:

True emptiness is also an openness of being. It is an ongoing receptivity to the wonder of life. Having an ability to flow with what life offers, we are able to pass back and forth from the interior chambers where our soul and the Beloved meet into the world. Intimacy with the Divine offers a new quality of heart. The contemplative life teaches us how to sustain this openness that is natural to our natures, and how to employ spiritual disciplines to preserve and protect our vulnerability. Contemplative experience moves us from the intellectual idea of openness that we glimpse in fragments and in starts, to the meditative exercise of openness, and then to the orientation of our whole being toward surrender and receptivity.

References:
[1] Bonaventure, Collationes in Hexaëmeron (Lectures on the Six Days of Creation) , 2.12.

Beverly Lanzetta, The Monk Within: Embracing a Sacred Way of Life (Blue Sapphire: 2018), 149, 151.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Crossroad Publishing: 2009), 59‒60.

Epigraph: Lanzetta, The Monk Within, 148.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

Letting Go of Our Very Selves
Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The great task of religion is to keep us fully awake, alert, and conscious. Staying awake comes not from willpower but from a wholehearted surrender to the moment—as it is. If we can truly be present, we will experience what most of us mean by God (and we do not even need to call it God). It’s largely a matter of letting go of resistance to what the moment offers or of clinging to a past moment. It is an acceptance of the full reality of what is right here and now.

To be truly conscious, we must step back from our compulsive identification with our isolated selves. This may be the most difficult “letting go” of all, for the idea of our individual “selves” is the primary illusion of our lives. But pure consciousness is never just “me,” trapped inside myself. Rather, it is an observing of “me” from a distance—from the viewing platform kindly offered by God (see Romans 8:16), which we call the Indwelling Spirit. Then we will see with eyes much larger and other than our own.

Most of us do not understand this awareness because we are totally identified with our own passing thoughts, feelings, and compulsive patterns of perception. We have no proper distance from ourselves, which ironically would allow us to see our radical connectedness with everything else. Such radical connectedness is holiness itself.

Some degree of detachment is absolutely necessary to get started spiritually. “Detachment, detachment, detachment,” taught Meister Eckhart (1260–1328). [1]

When we meditate consistently, the sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we usually think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind.

Through regular access to contemplation, we become less and less interested in protecting this self-created, relative identity. Please do not attack it; that’s just negative energy. When we do not feed it, it calmly falls away and we experience a kind of natural humility.

If our prayer goes deep, “invading” our unconscious, as it were, our whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because we no longer live inside our fragile and encapsulated self. Nor do we feel a need to protect our small and fragile self.

In meditation, we move from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being fear-driven to being love-drawn. That’s it in a few words! Of course, we can only do this if Someone Else is holding us, taking away our fear, doing the knowing, and satisfying our desire for a Great Lover. If we can allow that Someone Else to have their way with us, we will live with new vitality, a natural gracefulness, and inside of a Flow that we did not create. It is the Life of the Trinity, spinning through us.

References:
[1] See Meister Eckhart, Misit Dominus manum suam (Sermon on Jeremiah 1:9–10) for “When I preach, I am accustomed to speak about detachment.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Just This (CAC Publishing: 2017), 31–32, 53–54, 66–67.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

Taking the Lower Place
Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Jesus’ life offered an example of humility and self-emptying, but he chose an additional model for his disciples: that of little children. Despite what we see depicted in so much religious art, it was not meant as a “cute” or sentimental gesture! As Albert Nolan shares, it was a radical revaluing of human dignity, based on nothing that society could see or quantify! Taken seriously, it is still a profound message for us today.

Jesus was uncompromising in his belief that all human beings were equal in dignity and worth. He treated the blind, the lame and the [sick], the outcasts and beggars with as much respect as that given to those of high rank and status. He refused to consider women and children unimportant or inferior. This turned a carefully ordered society of status and honor upside down—even more so when he advocated moving down the social ladder instead of striving to reach the top. [1]

When his disciples were arguing about who was the greatest, Jesus put his arm around a little child (Mark 9:36–37). According to Jesus, the least or most insignificant persons in the society are the greatest (Luke 9:48). In the society and culture of the time, the child had no standing or status whatsoever. The child was a “nobody.” The implication is that Jesus and those who want to follow him are “nobodies,” right at the bottom of the social ladder. For Jesus, the child was a model of radical humility (Matthew 18:3–4) [or what I am calling “self-emptying” this week]. Those who wish to follow him will have to become as humble as little children. [2]

Richard again: It’s difficult to hear, but Albert Nolan is simply quoting Jesus from several contexts—usually when the Twelve are all in their heads arguing. We cannot become humble by mere intellect or willpower. Pretending to be humble only makes us more self-absorbed and self-referential. All we can really do is become more aware of our pride or vanity by noticing how we respond to even minor slights or humiliations. That will be more than enough to let us know how self-centered we are and how meaningless our taking offense truly is in this infinite universe.

References:
[1] Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books: 2006), 52.

[2] Ibid., 119.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

Giving Away Every Gift
Monday, December 14, 2020

A focus on self-emptying or “letting go” might seem like a call to self-denial or “making do with less,” but as Cynthia Bourgeault points out in her description of Jesus’ teaching, it can also lead to radical generosity and abundance. When we cling to less—of our possessions and even our lives—we are free to give it away for the sake of others.

[Jesus] certainly called us to dying to self, but his idea of dying to self was not through inner renunciation or guarding the purity of his being but through radically squandering everything he had and was. John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified because he banqueted, drank, and danced. The Pharisees were horrified because he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with women and disreputables, people known to be impure. . . .

What seemed disconcerting to nearly everybody was the messy, freewheeling largeness of his spirit. Abundance and a generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of both his teaching and his personal style. . . . When he feeds the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, there is not merely enough to go around; the leftovers fill twelve baskets [John 6:13]. When a woman anoints him with expensive ointment and the disciples grumble about the waste, he affirms, “Truly, I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Matthew 26:13). He seems not to count the cost; in fact, he specifically forbids counting the cost. “Do not store up treasures on earth,” he teaches; do not strive or be afraid— “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness, so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.

It is a path he himself walked to the very end. In the garden of Gethsemane, with his betrayers and accusers massing at the gates, he struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be— “Not my will but yours be done, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit.” [1]

Richard again: Jesus came into the world and gave himself fully into a poor life and a humiliating death. As Cynthia writes, he was “squandering himself” [2], which is really what the entire Trinity does: each self-emptying into the other! He revealed the poverty of God, who gives everything away. Yet most of us would probably not think of God as poor at all.

References:
[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambala: 2008), 69–70.

[2] Ibid., 70.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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Self-Emptying

Less Is More
Sunday, December 13, 2020
Third Sunday of Advent

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, 
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8)

Kenosis, which means “letting go” or “self-emptying,” is clearly the way of Jesus. My spiritual father Saint Francis of Assisi lived kenosis passionately, and it is key to my own teaching. I believe all great spirituality is about letting go. Yet many associate letting go with Buddhism more than with Christianity.  Sadly, Christianity seems to have become more about “saving your soul” or what some now call “spiritual capitalism.”

Francis of Assisi (11821226) profoundly understood this Gospel reversal. He let go of his life in the upper class and joyfully lived in solidarity with those at the bottom, especially the sick and the poor. But you and I have grown up with a capitalist and individualistic worldview, not a Gospel or Franciscan worldview. That doesn’t make us bad or entirely wrong. But it has severely limited our spiritual understanding—and Christianity’s power to transform culture and history. We tend to think that “more for me” is naturally better. South African Dominican writer Albert Nolan viewed our Western crisis of meaning with clarity:

The cultural ideal of the Western industrialized world is the self-made, self-sufficient, autonomous individual who stands by himself or herself, not needing anyone else . . . and not beholden to anyone for anything. . . . This is the ideal that people live and work for. It is their goal in life, and they will sacrifice anything to achieve it. This is how you “get a life for yourself.” This is how you discover your identity. . . .

There have been plenty of people in the past with inflated egos—kings, conquerors, and other dictators—but in the Western world today the cultivation of the ego is seen as the ideal for everyone. Individualism permeates almost everything we do. It is a basic assumption. It is like a cult. We worship the ego. [1]

In our consumer culture, even religion and spirituality have very often become a matter of addition: earning points with God, attaining enlightenment, producing moral behavior. Yet authentic spirituality is not about getting, attaining, achieving, performing, or succeeding—all of which tend to pander to the ego. It is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need anyway, although we don’t know that ahead of time.

The great Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (1260‒1328) said, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] True spiritual wisdom reveals that less is more. Jesus taught this, and the holy ones always discover it in one way or another. Think of the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, and the generations of nuns, friars, and monks who intentionally took a “vow of poverty.” I did so myself in 1965.

Sadly, like so many things that we call Christianity, we find that if we scratch right beneath the surface, it isn’t very much of Christianity; it’s just our local religious culture. Thankfully, there is a real longing today to clarify what is of Christ, what is essential Gospel, and what is historical or denominational accident.

References:
[1] Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom (Orbis Books: 2006), 15, 16.

[2] Meister Eckhart, Existimo quod non sunt condignae (Sermon on Romans 8:18). Original text is “Nihil apponendo, sed subtrahendo in anima invenitur deus.”

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Art of Letting Go: Living the Wisdom of Saint Francis, discs 1 and 2 (Sounds True: 2010), CD; and

Letting Go: A Spirituality of Subtraction, disc 1 (Franciscan Media: 1987, 2005), downloadable audiobook.

Image credit: Ajanta Caves (detail mural of the Buddha), Aurangabad, Maharashtra State, India.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: When we meditate consistently, a sense of our autonomy and private self-importance—what we think of as our “self”—falls away. Little by little, it becomes unnecessary, unimportant, and even unhelpful. The imperial “I,” the self that we likely think of as our only self, reveals itself as largely a creation of our mind. —Richard Rohr
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