A little more than two years ago, I set out on an inner adventure. Contemplative practices came and went over the years, but I was ready to commit. A few things conspired to motivate me. A deep dive into neuroscience convinced me that our brains are malleable, and that with intention and practice we can literally die to old neural pathways and live into new, healthier neural pathways. A second realization was connected to my pace of life and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, which served me well in the first half of life but seemed insufficient, at best, and just plain unhealthy, at worst. Finally, I was on the verge of my first sabbatical, and rather than writing a book I intuited that this season required something far more difficult – a wrestling match with my “many selves,” as Elizabeth O’Connor might put it. I needed to venture into the dark wood and die. Sounds like a fun sabbatical project, huh?
These are my reflections on the good, the bad, and the ugly of this two year odyssey.
At 47, I feel more at home in my being, held inexplicably and unfathomably in Love. The paradise of God is not a destination, it is within. It is not acquired, but realized as gift, as already ours. On a cruise a week or so ago, I could not help but look around at the tropical beauty and feel as if I don’t need to travel 1500 miles for it – beauty resides within, the paradisal temple is as near as our own breathe. Augustine says, “Why are you always rushing out of doors but are unwilling to return to your own house. Your teacher is within?” The “interior castle” is not some faraway place, but the center of our being.
My contemplative practice usually involves 20 or so minutes of silence, breathing, and dwelling in Love, like a sponge in the Ocean of God. A line from a Cavanaugh poem accompanies me – “Me I throw away, me sufficient for the day.” Silence opens you to every inner obstacle to union, and the distractions pummel you like hail on an April day in Michigan. The ‘many selves’ have been large-and-in-charge for years, and in my case they’ve served me well. Our “false self,” as Merton puts it, isn’t bad, it’s just stubborn and egocentric. And in these 20 or so minutes, I’ve felt the grip of these imposters loosening, maybe just a bit, giving way to Self, in Christ. Old neural pathways which led to destinations called Envy, Comparison, Control, and more are giving way to new pathways which lead to Love, Rest, Belonging.
That’s the good. Some call this “experiential union,” and it feels like a daily bath in Love. Me-sufficient-for-the-day was a ‘me’ that pushed hard for a very long time, burying my shame under a mound of achievements, constantly creating, producing, and never able to turn off the inner after-burner. I returned to my colleagues after sabbatical without some major accomplishment. (Some say self-publishing ‘Falling Into Goodness’ served as that, but writing that felt like rest to me). Rather, I had this palpable sense, maybe for the first time, that I belonged, to them, to God, to the world. I’ve always felt like I was born on the Island of Misfit Toys. My Enneagram 4 inner narrative has repeatedly whispered, “You don’t belong. You’ll be found out as a fraud.” And I’ve continually tried to do as much as I can to make myself invaluable, even uniquely special. But emerging from sabbatical, there was a sense of – it’s ok. You are here. You are held. Be here now. Show up as you. You don’t have a shiny ‘sabbatical report’ to present – you have you. That’s enough.
So, that’s good, right? What’s the bad, then?
‘Bad’ is not the best descriptor. ‘Challenge’ might be better. The challenge is this – if I’m not my drivenness, what am I? If I’m not accomplishing, who am I? One of the messages of my false self (selves!) is that I need to create a sense of worthiness. A challenge of contemplative prayer is simply to sit in a way that isn’t doing, accomplishing, or mattering in the typical way, but simply being. It is inefficient. And it opens you up to the ugly demons you’ve been running from – shame, depression, insecurity, anxiety.
People see me (mostly) as winsome and confident. My highly intuitive friends and students can see through this sometimes, and sense my anxiety and insecurity. However, in the past couple of years, I’ve had to greet these old companions, facing them, acknowledging them, inviting them to be held in Love. Depression and anxiety have lived just below the surface of my life for decades. And my drivenness, living always a few feet off the ground and above my limitations, has kept them at bay. That…and Zoloft. But the Lenten invitation to return to the dust of my limitations reminded me that I’m only human, that in my mid-forties I can no longer push as hard as I used to, that my strategies are unsustainable. And through this practice of contemplation, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the ‘me’ that is emerging, at times. The question is: will you like me? That’s been the age-old question, I suppose.
I was speaking with my two good friends who sit with me every Wednesday afternoon in a space where we can show up with these questions. I shared with them that I’ve felt less comfortable in the classroom this year. My other selves could show up as funny, sarcastic, sage-like, academic (for whatever occasion!)…but who am I when I’m not wearing the dressing of the false self? I’ve felt young and insecure, at times. In trying to befriend my depression, I’ve been melancholic instead of witty, flat instead of manic. A great gift in this season has been yoga, but yoga puts you in touch with your body, and it, too, conspires to prevent me from avoiding what lurks underneath. Sometimes, I’m not sure if the ‘me’ emerging from the transformative chrysallis is a beautiful butterfly or an ugly moth.
The dying sucks. Living this contemplative journey, however, feels like the only authentic way. It is a journey into and through the dark wood, so controlling the narrative, controlling the process, controlling the outcome isn’t possible. Merton writes, “There is in us an instinct for newness, for renewal, for a liberation of creative power. We seek to awaken in ourselves a force which really changes our lives from within. And yet the same instinct tells us that this change is a recovery of that which is deepest, most original, most personal in ourselves. To be born again is not to become somebody else, but to become ourselves.” What if the new self isn’t special? Isn’t cool? Isn’t relevant? What if the new self is an ugly duckling? What if the new self is rejected?
I fear that the disciples didn’t recognize the Resurrected Jesus because they were looking for someone else. We’re always looking for something else, someone else, someone more spectacular. The first contemplatives used the wilderness temptations of Jesus as the basis for contemplative prayer – we do battle with our demons, with our ‘many selves’, with every voice within which seeks to rival the true self. Jesus knew who he was, though, refusing to become spectacular and powerful. He was Loved, inexplicably held in an embrace that allowed him to walk toward suffering. Jesus is the ultimate ‘grown up’ in this sense, and I want to grow up too – to become myself, hidden with Christ in God. The work is hard, though.
Two years ago, I committed to these practices in earnest. Every damn day, as they say. Parts of me are still rebelling – “What are you doing, Chuck? – we had a good thing going.” I’ve become convinced that there is no other way, though. You can’t think or theologize your way there. You’ve got to submit to the dying-and-rising, even when parts of you cry out in rebellion. I’ve called this in my writings the journey to “wholeheartedness,” oneness and worthiness in Jesus. It’s beautiful, as I said at the outset, and it’s scary as hell.
I feel compelled to write more about this ‘growing up’ – I’ve been hesitant, and just wanted to honor the journey for some time. So, if you’re up for it, I may write some more in the coming days and weeks. For now, a sacred love poem to God from Rilke that has become a prayer for me, and maybe can become a prayer for you.
“I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.”