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Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Contemplative Moment

Contemplation, in my language game (ethics of integrity) is a sense of presence--being here, now, with. It is the point at which the real meets the ideal.

Contemplation is an experience that is always with, in, among us even when we are not reflecting on it. It is background to all other experiences of ourselves, of others, and of the world. As long as we are not brain dead, that contemplative moment exists. Yes even in dreaming (day or night), even in focused, concentrated activity, even in committing acts of love or hate, even in believing or disbelieving.

That contemplative moment comes out of the background into the fore at certain times and places which we call "ecstatic," or "religious" or "transcendent,"or "insightful." Let me point to some of those times in my own experience: upon reaching the top of Half Dome, at orgasm with the person I love, on awaking with the solution to a problem with which I have been wrestling, at a demonstration for justice with a hundred thousand people, in hearing a wonderful concert or sermon, while jogging with an emptying mind, while sitting and paying attention to my breathing, in a team meeting in which everything seems to gel, in a lucid dream in which I overcome gravity, in an experience of a magnificent piece of art, a drama, a dance, a sculpture, in visioning an ideal community while engaging in the real one I inhabit.

The contemplative moment as a fundamental experience of presence is also an experience of transcendence. Since we are at the point of where the past is in tension with the future, where our interior life of thinking struggles with our exterior life of acting, where individuality of the person contends with the sociality of the others, and where the real meets the ideal, we are always passing on and beyond. We discard our beliefs, we surpass our ideas, we make up additional words, we think new thoughts. We transcend. Our experience of our presence is at the same time our experience of transcendence. As the scientist philosopher David Deutsch suggests: all problem solving through inquiry, hypothesis, and evidence (i.e. science) is a perception of the infinite.

And when we try to articulate in words or formulas or teachings our contemplative moment, we both reveal and obscure that moment. There are those of us who are gifted with words, who can use words to lift up those moments. Think of John of the Cross, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Merton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, certain Zen Buddhists and Sufis. But most will admit that their words only point to and do not capture the basic experience of human existence and transcendence.

And here is the failure of religions which claim to be final or absolute or complete. Their very claim undermines their validity. They deny transcendence and the infinite in these claims. This is why it important to deny their gods while at the same time affirming them as images, symbols, representations of valid human experiences. The mystic and contemplative is always a heretic and must be condemned by or made over by the established church. The mystic and contemplative is always an atheist who will never let an image or idea of the transcendent be final.

And we are all mystics and contemplatives at least in germ. We all have the experience of presence and transcendence that underlies all we think and do. But we can easily "forget" or at least be unmindful of that fundamental experience of being in between, in tension, in transition by pretending to know, to be saved, to be found, to believe. We pretend or claim that our experience of presence and transcendence as it has been formulated by the church or the state or the culture or our own philosophy is ultimate. It seems easier that way--less confrontational, less painful, less depressing. But I don't think it is.

But while I think it is always important to retrieve one's original sense of presence and transcendence over against the words in which it is being expressed, I do not think that contemplation is a matter of authenticity or being "true to oneself" because I think the sense and acceptance of presence and transcendence excludes an authentic or true self or Self to whom we are to be in conformity. The acceptance of presence and transcendence is the acceptance of unknowing, of un-finality, of in-transition, of tension and intention, of contingency, of irony and humor. This is the contemplative way in all we think and do.