In many recent conversations with my friends, we’ve been thinking about justice, what is ours to do, and contemplation A LOT. I don’t have good answers for any of this, but various contingent places that I land, depending on the day. I suppose I write here today on my discernings of what it means to be contemplative, and, what it means to be a listener.
Something I read recently by Thomas Merton has been challenging me around contemplative practice – the danger of it becoming an introverted practice of navel-gazing: “He will make contemplative faces at himself like a child in front of a mirror. He will cultivate the contemplative look that seems appropriate to him and that he likes to see in himself. And the fact that his busy narcissism is turned within and feeds upon itself in stillness and secret love will make him believe that his experience of himself is an experience of God.”
I recall something else I heard Sr. Joan Chittister say, that one could sit on a cushion every day for their entire lives, and nothing good would ever come of it if they weren’t also engaged socially in a compassionate way.
What is arising for me is that, besides the danger of not responding to the challenges of what is happening around us today in love and compassion, there is also the danger of doing so out of a place of self-interest. For me, that shows up as appearing like I am doing the right thing to others; a show of wokeness and moral posturing. Similarly, there is the danger of being so caught up in the appearances of spiritual practice that one becomes a caricature involving the lighting some incense and chanting an om.
America is crazy right now, with the inept and politicized handling of the pandemic, and the uprisings around racial injustice. I’ll acknowledge that I’ve engaged in activism on multiple levels for most of my adult life; yet even today, I still find myself wondering about the ways I use my energies, and what is it I am supposed to be doing today, and am I ever doing enough? Should I be making art, or should I be marching? Should my art always be overtly political? Whom should receive my donation dollars? Should I be selling everything I own, giving that money away, and living out justice in a more direct way?
Whatever I have done in the past, it is not enough. And whatever I do in the future, it will not be enough.
And yet, I am compelled to move ahead, to evaluate what are worthwhile ways I can offer myself in solidarity to marginalized and exploited people, and in resistance to injustice? And how am I misaligned from what is on my heart to do? Here’s one basic example – I own a home in North Seattle – on stolen indigenous land, and racially segregated. I did not personally steal the land, or create the segregation covenants, but I have benefited from them because they were never made right. We live in a society of open wounds.
We’ve inherited a world built on brutal systems which have taken much from others. My life is built on white privilege. I don’t have to do anything about this, if I don’t want to. I can choose to pass off these wounds to future generations, or I can work to begin healing now.
I am no savior to others here – this is my own spiritual health that I am talking about. Whether I myself can be liberated of these debts depends on how I respond. On how I live.
As I engage these practices, what is awakening in me is the desire to share them with all people, and that these spiritual practices be available to all beings. If people are unable to pursue their own spiritual paths, and are suffering because of unjust systems, then I cannot ever fully enjoy my own meditations.
There is no contemplation without action. Or more accurately, contemplation and action are really the same thing. An integrated life must seek the flourishing of others.
What is ours to do?
When the BLM protests started after the murder of George Floyd, I found myself wondering what I should do. These protests were becoming exceedingly violent due to police aggression. Should I jump into the fray? Go get myself arrested, or put myself in harm’s way through breathing some tear gas or taking a few rubber bullets? That I didn’t go out into the streets right away made me feel cowardly. I justified not going and doing these things because I had other work to do – with SDI, as a provider for my family, as an artist. Were these justifiable, or where they excuses?
The protests kept happening. Every day, there was something happening in the streets. One organized by BIPOC women, as a gathering in grief for black lives lost, finally clicked for me. I felt, as a white guy who is training to be a contemplative listener, that I could find a place at a gathering like this. But not as someone with a demand, but as a listener. Rather than bring a sign demanding to defund the police, or fire Trump, or whatever – I made a sign that said “I’m Here to Listen”. And I listened – to the organizers and speakers, all BIPOC women, all grieving mothers, who sang and cried and lamented the lives lost and the reality of the world that makes their sons and daughters so vulnerable and fragile. As we marched, I listened, by reading as many signs as I could see. I stopped at one point and as the other protesters walked along, I read signs and offered prayers, attempting to hold space as a listener to the collective voice of this protesting body.
I’ve since been to a couple of other protests, but this first one awoke in me a way of authentic “being-with” that I could inhabit. What is my role in this historical moment, as a white person of privilege? I cannot appropriate the cry of these mothers, or make their grief my own. But I can listen to them and feel my heart open to the deep suffering that is experienced all the time in this country, and sit with the discomfort of that in my own spiritual practice.
There’s so much evil in the world, and in this country it feels especially amplified right now. I don’t know if we’re in a moment where everything is coming to a head. It feels like a massive, if painful, opportunity to collectively discern: do we as humans have the ability to share a collective consciousness that is rooted in love and compassion? I hope it is, and so in a way I am grateful for this particular moment of pandemic and political insanity. I sense that all these injustices are interwoven. Climate justice affects racial justice. Corporate and financial exploitations affect poor people and the environment. Justice for First Peoples also alleviates suffering of the environment. I feel the discomfort of the suffering of so many, and have a deep anger at those who perpetuate that suffering. I also acknowledge the ways I have aligned my life to be humble, live simply, and give of my time and resources to causes I care about. It is a moment in which a white man may do best to not talk, but to learn to listen, and so I lean into this listening practice. Perhaps through listening, the voices that need to be heard will be amplified, and the outcomes of what these voices are crying for, that I have so longed for, can be achieved.
The art featured here is an illustration I recently completed for SDI’s Listen, which is coming out this week. In it, a series of visual vignettes is collaged together, and held by the outline of a labyrinth walk. Each of us is required to walk this path, to discern what is ours to do, in sacred activism and in being with one-another. We are finding that we don’t have a choice. Rather, history is springing itself upon us in unavoidable ways. These spiritual tools awaken us to what is happening and equip us with many appropriate ways to respond.