Over the last year I’ve worked closely with the sick and the dying in the context of hospice as a chaplain. Mostly though, I have sat with caregivers still often wrestling with the shock of being flung into their current circumstances, many of whom are either, completely overwhelmed at the prospect and realities of care, coupled with the incipient grief of imminent loss, or, completely overwhelmed with gratitude at the beauty and privilege of caring for their sick and dying loved ones, with its intimate, though at times terrible, experience of embodied wonder.
Typically, both poles of this spectrum are held at some level. The difference lies in who’s driving the vessel of the human being.
Either the ungrounded mind is driving, while imposing brakes on the moving and emotional center, or, the mind entrained in the heart is driving while the moving center follows in moment by moment trust, with the intellectual and the emotional centers hanging and balanced, like supportive wings for the flight of faith.
Through death’s built in constriction, immediacy invites a choice that we actually all live with every day of our lives. The choice to lean into the unforeseen challenges as invitations for our own inner work-the proof of which is borne in our lives as service-or, allow the incessant mind in isolation to crank down on making rational sense out of the real or perceived surrounding chaos. Feeding the flames of more of the same in the process. The mind, being on its own, a punctured flotation device in the seas of life. Which currently rage.
Though this fact does not let any of us off the hook. Choice remains. The choice to raise ourselves to the highest possible ideal inside of the circumstances of our lives, or not.
Though of course fear, and perhaps fear of death, and its denial have us all up in arms, some of us literally, and others of us, literally masked, with our righteous judgements. Can we not own that we’re all generally terrified of being on the wrong side of things?
No right action can come from this fear nor the arrogance that assumes we are in fact on the “right side of things.”
We are all aware on some level of being guided together on this planet, towards ourselves, towards the earth’s inherent, balancing and reckoning intelligence, towards the webbed consciousness of all species, towards the “holiness of plants, animals and humans”[i] and towards more responsible stewardship of our chronological time here. A responsibility, taken seriously or not, that only our children can judge.
To acknowledge this guided convergence is in itself a courageous confession. For to make this confession would place responsibility on us for the collective situation we find ourselves in, our powerlessness to fix it (at least within a timeframe our industrial military complex would like to pat itself on the back for), and most importantly, our heart’s capacity to read, coincide with, and indeed shape, an expanding and unfolding universe in concert with its sustaining intelligence for the common and highest possible good.
It’s not that we can’t solve many of the problems we have individually and collectively, it’s that we won’t. The cost seems too high. And when our individual chronology is the only context we’re banking our life’s meaning and purpose on, or at best the chronology of our legacy in the eyes of our children or children’s children, then of course the cost is too high.
“If the spatial self-the waking ego-in a material world is all that we are, then of course we are terrified by the thought of it coming to an end.”[ii]
To be fair though I don’t believe this is only a question of having ego-centric values. I think we also lack the maps expansive enough to then follow the heart’s knowing that make the hard work of being able to live the simplicity of moment by moment trust attractive, let alone feasible.
What if your life was more than what happens to you? What if you’re not your story? What if there is no hero? Nor villain for that matter? What if the best thing you can do for someone else, isn’t help them in the ways your brain is attracted to? What if your purpose for being here is what all of our great spiritual and philosophical traditions have pointed to: to produce subtle, qualitative, though powerfully real, energetic foods with the raw materials of our eating, sleeping, working, daily lives.
In this place though, most of the time driving with the brake on, bracing ourselves against the unknown, we have to acknowledge-if first just to ourselves-that we’ve all had experiences of sensing a deeper sense of selfhood that knows we are more than what happens to us during the years we inhabit these bodies. We can physically remember being released from our clutching, defending, justifying and obsession over personal preferences, opinions and where we are in the pecking order of the species in these moments.
Like death, these momentary glimpses of something more, often are incited by, and veiled in, the beauty of normal everyday life. Things like art, nature, sex, shared meals and laughter. The mutual energetic exchange of kinship and deep connection with the earth and its fruits, deep connection with ourselves and one another, and the deep connection borne through creativity in all its dynamic manifestation. The diaphaneity of the divine shines most intimately as relationship through the materiality of our lives. There’s no denying our inter and intra connectivity in the eco-system of evolved nervous systems. We are currently looking over the edge on the cusp of its next great leap. Trembling together shoulder to shoulder. Invited to reach out to one another hand in hand as we are gathered and pulled forward into the void. Trusting the awaiting presence our hearts know as their home.
The universe’s intelligence is revealing itself and veiling its latency in, as, and through the personal. The human heart is the chalice of its reception and its outpouring, the fulcrum of its balance, and the beacon of its conscience. Personal, particular, infinitely shaded and shrouded in the pigment of flesh. Woven as a tapestry of an energetic web dedicated to cosmic service by the means we’ve left mostly untried by commoners. Reserved for the saints. At once enjoying the distance between those groups, something we can no longer afford to ascribe even exists. All such categories are hereby erased.
Contemplative prayer is no longer a luxury; it is an absolute necessity. Up to now, many have thought of contemplation as a devotional wellness or personal transformation practice. We’re not just doing our meditation to chill out and get right with the world. We are trying to bring to bear a structure of perception, as system of consciousness, that allows us to empathize and relate to each other without fear, judgement, demonization, or division.
Contemplation is a non-negotiable. If we want our world to come to oneness, each one of us must take on the responsibility of bringing the mind into the heart so we can become contemplatives not in lifestyle only, but in a complete revisioning and cleansing of the lens of perception. People at the non-dual level are much more useful, flexible, versatile, attuned, cosmic servants.[iii]
What if, like the anonymous builders of the great cathedrals, your life was meant to be a small yet crucial part of the brick laying of a collective edifice of conscience that could stand against and disarm the fear based desperation and violence sweeping the psyche of our planet…and here’s the catch…without getting any credit whatsoever for being a part of its construction nor getting the satisfaction of knowing if you’re even a part of the group that’s doing the construction, yet holding the conviction that it needs to be done and willingly throwing your hat over the fence in offering your life to the service of its completion-knowing you’ll never see its end-even while already seeing and somehow sensing its completed presence now.
Can you live from that place?
No, not without help you can’t. But yes, it starts with a commitment to anyways.
We’re all the emperor behind our own curtain colluding with one another in defending, justifying and denying our own culpability in the current state of affairs while avoiding the responsibility the moment calls for. The situation is in fact incessant and incestuous, often most troubling within the dark corners of our culture’s digitalized and demonic echo chambers. So, let me tread carefully here.
I believe it’s further fueled and enflamed by our inability and unwillingness to face fear which is inversely proportionate to our ability and willingness to trust and offer our lives as mercy. That is, as sacrifices for, and on behalf of, the whole. Most of the time quietly, serenely and brutally without fanfare, squirming in the gaps of our personal and collective integrity. Closing them through our blood, sweat, devotion and tears.
Society can never think things out:
It has to see them
Acted out by actors,
Devoted actors at a sacrifice.[iv]
Look, COVID is real. Evil is real. People have died and will continue to by racist violence. And unless we work on changing our very structure of perception, we will continue to tear down the very leaders we raise up for any blemish we deem that they have while sitting back in aloof or cynical observation. Either waiting for a later heaven that can’t exist without a more transparent, loving, earth, or, feeling helpless to even know where or how to start. Eliminating our association with the leaders we’ve chosen for ourselves (be it entertainment or in official office) for the sake of saving the faces of our most precious self-images. The world, the weak, and the future are now knocking at the door of our entitled, jockeying exceptionalism.
Our greatest failure is that we have collectively aborted the call of our species to develop something of substance that feeds all, in all realms, throughout all time, something, we have perhaps glimpsed the seeds of in our own lives or observed in the lives of those we most universally admire and hold up as embodying the ideals of what it means to be most fully human. Something we’ve been willing up to now, to mostly give lip service to within our great spiritual traditions. Thus, avoiding our own agency and highest potentiality. The time for this play has run its course. We must come to terms with being both the answer and the problem.
We are the possibilities of the ones praying and the ones being prayed for in this sobering prayer left by an unknown source at the body of a dead child in a Nazi death camp.
Remember not only the men and women
Of good will, but also those of ill will.
But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us;
Remember the fruits we have bought, thanks to
This suffering-our comradeship,
Our loyalty, our humility, our courage,
Our generosity, the greatness of heart
Which has grown out of all this, and when
They come to judgment let all the fruits
Which we have borne be their forgiveness.[v]
This seed of something more, we might simply refer to as conscience, is built on the foundation of our species abandoned purpose and uniquely positioned role. To build what the Western Wisdom tradition refers to simply as, being.
This project, its fruit shimmering and reflected in the words of the above prayer is something we can no longer afford to hold up as unattainable. And the only way to do this is to acknowledge the blood on our own hands and bear the pain of the carnage from which it has been drawn.
Drop the weapons. Loosen the grip. Put down the finger. And pay attention.
In a year of reckoning(and by “year” I count 2021 as no different than 2020 unless things actually change on a level these words are attempting to point towards)the time is ripe to be taught by the dying, by the suffering, by the little ones and rediscover the treasures that our great religious traditions have been housing all along-to really stop business as usual and look. What are we here for? How are we answering that question through our lives? What does it mean to be a citizen of conscience?
“A citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. That whole can be a city block, a community, a nation, the earth. A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not, wait, beg, or dream for the future.”[vi]
An unmanageable though exquisitely coherent context we are all swimming in beckons us forward to realize the faint, though real drumbeat, we recognize in the beacon of the heart, is more real than the stories we tell ourselves and one another about what is going on, out there. Time to stand up and be counted. To face the reality that the chaos is going on in here too. Finally equipped with the skillful means necessary to tackle the task at hand in order to lighten the sorrow of common Father.
[i] Words from a favorite prayer of J.G. Bennett
[ii] Jeremy Johnson, Seeing Through the World (Seattle: Revelore Press, 2019), 53.
[iii] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer (Boulder: Shambala, 2016).
[iv] Words from Robert Frost as quoted in: Alan Jones, Soul Making (New York: Harper One, 1985), 129.
[v] Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Way of Knowing (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003), 20.
[vi] Peter Block, Community (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2009), 63.
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Jonathan lives in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas with his wife, dogs and three children. His teaching blends the Christian Contemplative tradition, 4th Way spirituality and the teachings behind the Enneagram - with a focus on companioning others from the unified and collective field accessed through the heart. He is a life-long seeker who offers, retreats, workshops and private Spiritual Direction in person or by zoom, one-to-one or in groups.