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Archive for November, 2018

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Our Ego vs Our Essence, Part 1

 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  Mark 8:34-37

Who am I? And who is God? Francis of Assisi, a 12th Century Catholic Saint, pondered these questions regularly. Indeed, such questions plague us throughout our lives and are seemingly unanswerable. When we are infants, we almost completely identify with our support system – those who feed and care for us. Our world is small, and we are vulnerable. As we grow and become increasingly independent, we realize we have a measure of free will – we can manipulate our environment to better meet our needs. We increasingly find ways to gain control over our lives and cease to accept without question that which our support system offers. Thus begins our identity as a separate and independent being. As we reach adolescence, we become increasingly dissatisfied with those who provide for us. We want our freedom, we want to live life on our terms, and we no longer want to be held back by the seemingly uniformed wishes of parents, teachers, and others who retain annoying levels of control over us. By the time we are in our late teens, most of us have developed a strong and entrenched ego. We find this growth process recorded allegorically in Genesis in the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. They rebelled against God and left paradise to live as beings separate and apart from God.

Developing an ego is a necessary and natural part of human development. It helps us identify a place and purpose in the world around us. Our ego dreams of great things and envisions a perfect life, if only we could escape the tyranny of the oppressive others who stand in our way. The ego, however, unchecked by reason and experience, is a deceptive informant. Egos are inherently insecure and narcissistic, protecting themselves at all costs. They portray our problems as the fault of others, so we look external to ourselves for solutions when we should be looking within. Our ego categorizes everything and everyone as useful or useless to itself – she is popular, so I will befriend her; he does not dress nicely, so I will shun him. The ego is a harsh judge and a ruthless critic. In order for one thing to be good, something else must be bad. Our egos strive to carve an important and unique niche in the world. Unfortunately, our egoic special place always comes at the expense of something or someone else.

When we follow the dictates of our ego, we find ourselves saying things, taking actions, and treating others in ways that are inconsistent with how we were created to be. When we reflect on our words and actions, we know we can and should do better. There is a God-given essence within us that the ego finds threatening and tries desperately to suppress. Many authors, Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton among them, refer to the ego as the false self and our essence as our true self. The false self is so called because it only allows a small, self-centered portion of who we are to manifest. Our true self is the part of us that was created in the image and likeness of God. It is who we are at our core. Our true self is directly connected to God by an unbreakable bond. As we learn more about our essence, we simultaneously learn more about God. When our true self attempts to act or speak in ways that go against what is popular or culturally acceptable, however, the false self will seek to shut it down. Our egos cannot bear social criticism.

A contemplative life seeks to allow the true self, the essential self, to blossom – not to destroy the ego, but to put it in its rightful place. We enhance this process of growth through contemplative practices. When Jesus talks about losing one’s life for his sake, he is referring to losing our ego as the primary source for interpreting the world around us. Our egos can be good servants, but they are tyrants as masters. I will focus on our essence next week.

This is the 5th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

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The Seen and Unseen

 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what is seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.  2 Corinthians 4:16-18

One of the human afflictions Jesus addressed was blindness. True, he cured those whose eyes did not work properly, but physical blindness was not his primary concern. Spiritual blindness – a lack of awareness of the unseen realities within and around us – was his primary concern. “You have eyes but do not see,” was a common sentiment. We are blind to vast swaths of reality in our typical day-to-day consciousness. In general, we focus on what is seen and ignore what is unseen. From imaginary playmates as children to the communion of saints guiding us as adults, if it cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled, it cannot be real. A contemplative life expands one’s awareness of what is real and important to include both what is perceived by our senses, as well as that which is not.

When we gaze into the night sky, we see planets, stars, and constellations shining back at us. Some indigenous peoples saw patterns, not in the visible lights of the night sky, but in the dark spaces between them. Indeed, as we ponder the spaces around us – the air, the open areas of our rooms, the distance between my body and yours – we assume there is nothing there. Indeed, there is no thing there if we limit thingness to that which we can see, touch, hear, or smell. In so doing, we perceive only a small and often misleading portion of reality. Yet, even in our limited ability to perceive what is happening around us, we experience much that we cannot see. We cannot see or touch the fragrance of a rose but we know it is real because we smell it. We cannot see the signals from our cellular phones but we know they are real because we communicate over vast distances through them. We consistently underestimate the magnitude and impact of the unseen world around us.

It is an interesting and humbling aspect of our physical senses that we are capable of perceiving only a limited range of the vibratory spectrums making up the world around us. As a child, I remember someone with a dog whistle. I heard nothing when he blew it, but dogs nearby whimpered in misery. The sound of the dog whistle was not real to me, but it was painfully real to dogs. Sound waves exist on an infinite spectrum, but we can only hear a tiny portion of that spectrum. We are continually immersed in sound waves, even when our senses tell us the world is silent. The same is true of what we experience as light. We perceive a very limited range of colors because our eyes only receive a small portion of the infinite range of possibilities. Indeed, modern science has proven that we have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear. How did Jesus know?

Through our senses and our early training, we think we are surrounded by mostly empty space in our immediate environment, in the atomic structure making up that environment, and in the galaxies surrounding our planet. The important point is not that we understand the physics behind the reality, but that we recognize the limitations of our senses. The empty space around us is not empty at all but is filled with a reality our senses cannot detect. Even so, these unseen realities impact our life experience as much or more than do the seen realities. Our world is vaster, more mysterious, and more beautiful than we can imagine. When our seen life experience leads us into despair, there is hope and reason for optimism in the unseen world. This is not wishful thinking, but faith-guided trust and surrender.

A contemplative life looks beyond what is seen, trusting that God is at work in all things and all situations, even and especially when God’s work is invisible to us. Such a life does not limit what is real or possible to the tangible information coming through our senses. As we become willing co-participants in God’s work through us, we find joy and purpose in whatever is, and we experience the kingdom of heaven on earth.

This is the 4th in the series of Life Notes titled A Contemplative Life.

 Prefer to listen? Subscribe to Life Notes Podcasts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/life-notes-podcast/id1403068000

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