Action and Contemplation: Part One

January 6th, 2020 by Dave Leave a reply »

Our Foundational Commitment
Sunday, January 5, 2020

The most important word in our Center’s name is not Action nor is it Contemplation; it’s the word and.We need both compassionate action and contemplative practice for the spiritual journey. Without action, our spirituality becomes lifeless and bears no authentic fruit. Without contemplation, all our doing comes from ego, even if it looks selfless, and it can cause more harm than good. External behavior must be connected to and supported by spiritual guidance. 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 as components of a healthy dynamic relationship with Reality. In fact, this relationship between Action and Contemplation is so important that it will be the underlying theme of my Daily Meditations for 2020, as I look at it from many angles.

I used to think that most of us 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, then needed contemplation. 

No life is immune from suffering. When we are in solidarity with the suffering caused by 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 absolute good and bad, total right and wrong, we are torn apart. Yet when we are broken, we are most open to contemplative consciousness or nondual thinking. We are desperate to resolve our own terror, anger, and disillusionment, so we finally allow ourselves to be led into the silence that holds everything together in wholeness. 

The contemplative, nondual mind is not saying, “Everything is beautiful” when it’s not. However, we do come to “Everything is still beautiful” by contemplatively facing the conflicts between how reality is and how we wish it could be. In other words, we have to begin with the dilemma of a seemingly totally dualistic problem. We’ve first got to name good and evil with some clarity and differentiate between right and wrong. We can’t be naive about evil. But if we remain focused on this duality, we’ll become unlovable, judgmental, dismissive people. I’ve witnessed this pattern in myself. We must eventually find a bigger field, a wider frame, which many call nondual thinking or “contemplation.” 

Jesus does not hesitate to dualistically name good and evil and to show that evil is a serious matter. However, he does not stop there. He often speaks in dualistic images, especially in regard to issues of wealth and power: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). He draws a stark line between the sheep and the goats, the compassionate and the indifferent (Matthew 25:31-46). Yet Jesus goes on to overcome these dualisms by the contemplative, nondual mind. We can and should be honest about evil, even at the risk of making some people uncomfortable; but we must not become hateful nor do we need to punish the “goats” in our life. We keep going deeper until we can also love them and seek their healing and transformation.  

Gateway to Action & Contemplation:
What word or phrase resonates with or challenges me? What sensations do I notice in my body? What is mine to do?

An Embarrassing Silence
Monday, January 6, 2020

When I first learned contemplation in my Franciscan novitiate, I was taught a practice of silent, wordless prayer. Over the decades, I have learned there are many paths to contemplation, a myriad of ways to access nondual consciousness. (The Saturday practices in the Daily Meditations are our own attempts to help spread the good news of contemplation in many forms.) Regardless how we practice—with stillness, breath, observation, chanting, walking, dancing, calm conversation—contemplation calls the ordinary thinking mind into question. We gradually come to recognize that this thing we call “thinking” does not enable us to love God and love others. We need a different operating system, and it both begins with and leads to silence. 

Even through practices full of sounds and words, contemplation helps us access a foundational silence, a deep, interior openness to Presence. One of our faculty members, Barbara Holmes, writes: “An ontological silence can occupy the heart of cacophony, the interiority of celebratory worship. . . . Silence [is] the source of all being. . . . Silence is the sea that we swim in.” [1] And yet we’re often oblivious to it. Thus, the need for practice.

In my book The Naked Now, I call non-silence “dualistic thinking,” where everything is separated into opposites, like good and bad, life and death. In the West, we even believe that is what it means to be educated—to be very good at dualistic thinking. Join the debate club! But both Jesus and Buddha would call that judgmental thinking (Matthew 7:1-5), and they strongly warn us against it.

Dualistic thinking is operative almost all of the time now. It is when we choose or prefer one side and then call the other side of the equation false, wrong, heresy, or untrue. But what we judge as wrong is often something to which we have not yet been exposed or that somehow threatens our ego. The dualistic mind splits the moment and forbids the dark side, the mysterious, the paradoxical. This is the common level of conversation that we experience in much of religion and politics and even every day conversation. It lacks humility and patience—and is the opposite of contemplation.

In contemplative practice, the Holy Spirit frees us from taking sides and allows us to remain content long enough to let it teach, broaden, and enrich us in the partial darkness of every situation. We need to practice for many years and make many mistakes in the meantime to learn how to do this. Paul rather beautifully describes this kind of thinking: “Pray with gratitude and the peace of Christ, which is beyond knowledge or understanding (what I would call “the making of distinctions”), will guard both your mind and your heart in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Teachers of contemplation show us how to stand guard and not let our emotions and obsessive thoughts control us.

When we’re thinking nondualistically, with this guarded mind and heart, we will feel powerless for a moment, stunned into an embarrassing and welcoming silence. Then we will discover what is ours to do.

Summary: Week Fifty-three

Summary: An Evolving Faith

December 29, 2019 – January 3, 2020

God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever evolving, yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. (Sunday)

For me, a true comprehension of the full Christ Mystery is the key to the foundational reform of the Christian religion. Understanding the expansive reality of Christ will move us beyond any attempts to corral or capture God into our exclusive group. (Monday)

Simply put, any notion of a future church must be a fully practical church that is concerned about getting the job of love done—and done better and better. (Tuesday)

One of the most promising things that has come out of the emerging church has been folks looking back and reclaiming the best of their traditions, seeing that it is not an either/or but a both/and—God is doing something ancient and something new. —Shane Claiborne (Wednesday)

This new kind of Christianity can only emerge as a trans-denominational movement of contemplative spiritual activism. —Brian McLaren (Thursday)

The most important aspect of this [new] form of Christianity in the future is simple, obvious, and yet radical: it is about love, as Jesus taught and embodied. —Brian McLaren (Friday)

Practice: Love and Compassion

As we begin a new year, I am delighted to share this beautiful practice from my friend and fellow CAC faculty member James Finley, who invites us to awaken to our oneness with love and compassion.

Meditation allows us to see the world through the eyes of compassion. This compassionate vision of the world impels us to live in ways in which our words and behavior toward others embody compassion. Compassion forms the essential bond between seeking God in meditation and all forms of social justice. For the more we are transformed in compassion, the more we are impelled to act with compassion toward others. [1]

When you sit in meditation, your breathing naturally slows. Quietly focusing your attention on your breathing is a way of slowing down and settling into a deep meditative awareness of oneness with God. Breathing out, be quietly aware of breathing out. Breathing in, be quietly aware of breathing in. Each time you realize you have drifted off into thoughts, memories, sensations, and other ego-based modes of being, simply return to your breathing as your anchoring place in present-moment attentiveness.

Your efforts in following the path of breath awareness might be enhanced by repeating a word or phrase with each breath. A practice I have found particularly helpful is to pair breath awareness with the phrase “I love you.”

As you inhale, listen to the incoming breath so intently that you can hear in it God’s silent “I love you.” In this moment, God is flowing into you as the source and reality of your very being. As you exhale, breathe out a silent “I love you” back to God. As you inhale, be aware of the air as being God flowing into you, as the divine gift of your very being. As you exhale, allow your silent “I love you” to be your very being, flowing back into the depths of God.

Simply sit, open to God breathing divine love into the depths of your being, as you breathe your whole being, as a gift of love, back into God.

This one practice alone, engaged in with heartfelt sincerity and devotion, can awaken you to God’s total and complete oneness with you as the giver, the sustainer, and the reality of the sheer miracle of your very being. As this realization of God’s oneness with you grows, you will begin to realize how foolish it is to imagine that God is, in any way, distant from you. You discover how foolish it is to imagine that you could in any way, hide from God, who is wholly one with all that is within your mind and heart, your very being. [2] 


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