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Contemplative Activism and the Metanoia Way

It is possible to be correct about what one is working toward but incorrect about how we accomplish it. Those of us working to make positive change in the world don’t always understand this well. We say we want to build healthy communities, but we are burning ourselves out in the process. We say we want society to prosper but we too often view other people doing good work as purely competition or enemies rather than fellow soldiers in the same battle. We say we want more of a good thing, but when someone besides ourselves does it, we can respond with jealousy and petty animosities. No one is immune from these tendencies, least of all me. I believe there is a part of all of us, call it our ‘ego’ or what you will, that is very capable of doing the right thing for the wrong reason. I have been both witness to, and guilty of, this more times than I can count among people who generally understand themselves as trying to make the world a better place. Some may say that if a thing gets done, it shouldn’t matter much what our motivations are. This is probably true for things that are quick and relatively easy to get accomplished. But for work that is hard or will take a long time, I think doing the right thing for the wrong reason becomes a major cause perpetuating problem rather than breaking through them to something truly new, unique and healthy for all.

Last month I completed a two-year program called the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Living School’s goal could be understood as a school for what may be called “contemplative activism.” Contemplative Activism (as we have been discussing at Metanoia’s weekly devotions this semester) is doing the right thing for the right reason. If we are serious about doing this, and if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there is a part of all of us that wants to justify doing things the wrong way by pointing to the rightness of what we feel our end goal may be. Further, we should admit that without some important and rather deep personal work on our part, we may never fully understand how much we may be attempting to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I think one of the best ways to understand whether we are doing the right thing for the wrong reason is to pay attention to what makes us angry. Do we spend a lot of time angry about someone stepping on our turf, or enjoying success, or getting notoriety? This anger can point us toward our true motivations for doing what we do.

Contemplative activism begins with a commitment to a daily (or near daily) practice that is meant to detach us from our Egos and help us see clearly. For me the daily practice is one of Centering Prayer, but for others it may be Thai Chi, a breath prayer, or other forms of meditation. My own practice is most certainly Christian in nature, but people across the spectrum of religions have similar practices with which they awaken their own contemplative minds. The goal here is to turn off a bit of that part of our mind which is always analyzing and calculating. This part of our mind can only understand “us” through differentiating ourselves from “them.” It needs contrasts for self-understanding and it can fail to see an essential unity in things and people. This way of thinking is very beneficial in much of life. It helps us solve problems and set goals. It has dominated Western Civilization since the Enlightenment and is what most all of our education systems are built on. But this is also the way of thinking that causes national gridlock and war. At a more personal level, it is the way of thinking that wakes us up at 3am worried about some outcome we have no way of controlling at 3am or that gets irrationally angry when someone brushes close to the true motivations for our actions.

Recently, we all had a chance for one big contemplative mind moment during the eclipse that visited our region a few weeks ago. As the moon passed in front of the sun, it seemed millions of people across the country let go of the days’ worries and breathed a gigantic and in unison “wow.” We all felt somehow to have lots in common with one another rather than seeing only our differences. The analytical mind is good for doing lots of things but it isn’t very good with the deeper meanings and issues of life. Love, wonder, death, beauty, suffering, these are better understood with our contemplative mind for sure.

Having been one who climbed up through our education system, I am exceptionally good at analytical mind stuff. But I confess that after doing the work of Metanoia over the past 15 years, I know that the analytical mind has serious, serious limitations for staying in this work for the long haul. So now I’m on a journey of nurturing a more contemplative activism in myself and our organization.
Nurturing a spirit of contemplative activism has been tremendously helpful for me in at least three ways:
• It collects and focuses my energy: My ego wants to solve every problem, fix every situation, take on any challenge. What I realize when I sit quietly and attend to what my own soul is saying is that I need to do only a few things well each day and leave the rest to grace, my colleagues, and my community. The irony is that I sleep better, work better and get more done and have more energy left over each day because of the focused energy a contemplative mind brings to the fore.
• It leaves me less attached to the work, which ironically leaves me more freed up to do the work: I have walked in a room before to have people greet me by calling me, “Mr. Metanoia.” That’s all fine and good for a laugh, but if my identity is rooted primarily in the perfection of our little effort in North Charleston it is going to be a very bumpy ride to a very dark future for me personally. This isn’t because I don’t think Metanoia has a bright future. It is just that when I get over identified with any outcome in our work, I can too often fail to see how the next really good step is just beyond that with which I am over identified. My contemplative practice helps me to recognize my own ego in the mix and then set it aside a bit more as each day comes. This can lead to new possibilities that my own ego might not have previously imagined.
• It helps me see the unique value in each person I meet each day: When my ego is running the show it is too easy to lose an understanding of people’s unique value to the world and view them only for what they can do for me. Contemplative activist Thomas Merton he said it more clearly than me.
“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”
When I am engaged in my daily contemplative practice I have a higher likelihood of seeing the value and goodness even in those who are frustrated with me or whose agendas run counter to my own.

None of this is a ‘quick fix’ for solving all the issues of our world. But at Metanoia, we have always believed that part of the problem is how we view the problem itself (thus the need for viewing ‘distressed’ neighborhoods for their assets and not just their liabilities). Part of the problem can also be the ‘ground’ or position out of which we approach this work. If it is all about the satisfaction of our own ego, we are likely to reach a point where we are dissatisfied and burned out. One of the teachers at the Living School (Cynthia Bourgeault) compared working out of a contemplative mind to downloading a ‘new operating system’ into our lives. Just like a computer, the programs or apps running (i.e. the days events and challenges) on top of the operating system may remain the same, but when the operating system the way the programs interact change as well.

We are working to integrate more of this thinking at Metanoia. Taking more moments of silence at staff gatherings and talking about this stuff in staff devotions. I’ve even thought about opening a Contemplative Activism Circle for those in our community looking for a new ground out of which to do their work (email me if interested). In the meantime, I can say that because of my own practices of contemplation that I have put in place in my own life over the past two years, I feel more energized and excited for the work before us than I have since we began 15 years ago. Regardless of where you find yourself on that journey, we remain deeply appreciative of your part in our work here at Metanoia. Thank you!

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North Charleston, SC 29405
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