15 - The Autonomous Self and Surrender - Part Three
It’s one thing to talk about surrender to this invisible God character, it’s another to actually do it. Most religions express this surrender through some kind of conversion experience or rite. I was baptized at the age of nine into the Christian religion. The funny thing, to me, was that there were all kinds of serious conversations when I was considering conversion, but nothing after the conversion ceremony was done. To be honest, that left me more than a little confused. I said the words, did the thing, got dunked in a baptistry, dried off, and then……., nothing. It left me wondering what I was converted to. Don’t get me wrong. I really did feel the need for God in this action. It’s what we Christian’s call the "conviction of sin". For me, in my nine-year-old brain, what that meant was the recognition that there was something wrong with the world. I remember the moment I realized this. I lived in Australia at the time, where my parents where missionaries in the coastal town of Mackay Queensland, right off the Great Barrier Reef. It was a cool place for a kid to grow up. Anyway, I was riding my bike through the neighborhood when I saw two kids, about my age, fighting with each other on the front lawn. And I don’t just mean squabbling with words, they were scrapping with fists and trying to put each other on the ground, and my overly sensitive nine-year-old self felt the wrongness of the moment. I remember thinking, “this is not how the world should be.” But I was also somehow able to do more than just see a problem over there, with those kids on that lawn. I was able to trace the problem back to myself. There was a problem in the world, and the problem was also in me. Of course, my Christian upbringing told me clearly what that problem was, and what to do about it. Hence my conversion. But what did that really accomplish? I also remember clearly feeling the presence of God for a few weeks after I was baptized, but that was it. I had a conviction, performed a conversion rite, felt the presence of God for a moment, but then the moment past and I was left feeling the same as before. What was it all about? If it did not change me, if it did not solve the problem, then what good was it? I can tell you plainly that this experience planted a seed in me that eventually led my twenty-year-old self to walk away from the Christian religion and set out to find this Christian God. The funny thing, on the other end of that search, is that I didn’t find the “Christian” God, I just found God, and he/she was so much bigger and better than anything religion had taught me. It wasn’t until I started learning about, and leaning deeper into contemplation that I really began to experience the remedy to the wrongness I felt all those years ago. It’s true. There is something wrong with the world, and something wrong with me, and surrender to God is the key. But what does that really mean, and what does that look like in normal, everyday life?
The problem with any kind of conversion rite is that it’s mostly symbolic. Even Christian baptism is widely agreed to be just an outward expression of what’s supposed to be an inward transformation. But one thing I’ve learned about personal transformation over the years is that it’s rarely a one-time thing. Transformation doesn’t come in epiphanies and light-bulb moments as much as the mundane drudgery of simple practices sustained over a long period of time. We all want the magic pill to work. We all want to believe there’s power in the water, the rite, the ritual, the holy word or cathedral. It’s much harder to realize that the power is found more in a simple, daily connection between us and the infinite essence of the universe. We know this quite practically in many other ways. We’d much rather there be a pill we can take to make us instantly thin, muscular, attractive, rich, smart, and energetic. But we have to admit, quite reluctantly at times, the reality that those things mostly take a lot of work and time. The same is true with personal transformation. It takes a long and simple dedication to the work of surrender. That’s why contemplation entails practices to help point us to and keep us on the path. A lot of those practices boil down to the difficult task of surrendering to the energy flow of God. But, while those words might sound pretty, they can also sound pretty obscure and impractical. How do we really surrender to God? How do we learn how to hear and participate with the invisible energy of the universe? The answer is…, wait for it…., drum roll…., getting really impatient here…., contemplation. What? You thought it was going to something else? But what is contemplation? So glad you asked.
As I’ve already said, contemplation entails the belief that we can really know and experience God. It also teaches that our disconnection from God produces much of our dysfunction and misery. That's why surrender is important. It's not just acknowledging or "worshiping" some God character, but getting in tune with God's positive energy, which can then energize us for positive living. To do this, contemplation involves practices to help us get there, all which dove-tail into this whole surrender thing. Let me subdue your expectations for a moment. Just as building muscle entails exercises which take a long time to produce any effect, so the practices of contemplation also require the kind of sustained dedication that takes time to work. What we really want is some kind of perceivable effect. It’s why much of what Christians call worship is often only music induced emotion, and not as much a true experience of God’s presence. We find it hard to practice things which produce no quick, perceivable result, and it’s not made easier by our instant gratification society. That said, I’ll be honest, I struggle with the practice part of contemplation a lot. Life is busy. I’m married, with three young kids, student loans, a truck payment, and a mortgage. On top of that, my wife and I run our own small business. Sometimes a monastery seems appealing, because it feels like I’d have an easier time pursuing God there. Here, in my every day, normal life, it just doesn’t always seem that possible. But it’s here, in my every day life that I have found God. And I think that’s important. It's important to know that it doesn't take a special calling, place, or person to know and live with God. God is available to every person, right where they are. We only need to give up and fall into God, right where we are. So, here are some contemplative practices which have helped put me in the flow of surrendering to the energy of God.
1. READING. I’ve read the Bible a lot. I know quite well all the icky parts people have problems with. I have problems with some of those too. But overall, I’ve come to see the picture of a God who really loves me through the stories of how God has interacted with people in the past. I also read a lot of other writings from other spiritual teachers. My three favorites at this time are Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and Henri Nouwen, all contemplative teachers. That’s what’s working for me right now, and has helped point me to the place where I’m finally starting to surrender to the energy flow of God. But that doesn’t have to be where you start, or where you land. For many people, the Bible is old news, and associated with too much religious PTSD. I get that. There’s a lot of church hurt out there, and it’s evidenced by declining numbers of church goers. But we all need spiritual mentors to follow, of some sort or another. Reading is a great way to get into contact with a wide variety of spiritual teachers from all kinds of places and times. We can’t get into the flow of something we know nothing about. We must begin to learn, and reading is a great start. But it also needs to become a great practice. Generally, I’m always in a book, listening to a podcast, or watching a YouTube video that’s continuing to inform me about what life with God is about. You’re not going to get closer to God by watching the nightly news, or listening to top 40 radio. You might actually get further from God by doing those things. That’s not to say you can’t see or hear God in those things. That’s just to say that those things will not likely train you in how to see God. To get into the flow of God, we’ve got to get into the flow of information. Information can lead us to formation. See what I did there. But information is not enough, and sometimes it’s actually too much. A slow, steady stream of information, coupled with other practices, will help us apply that information. Remember, we have three knowing and being centers, and the goal in personal transformation is to engage all six in order to get out of self-autonomy and into greater connection with God. Reading is mostly just supplying data to our Mind Knowing Center. But what about the body and the heart? While there is a place for feeding the mind, there is also a place for stilling the mind. That’s what we call meditation, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Next up is,
2. PRAYER. Unfortunately, prayer can often have a lot of overly religious connotations which can make it feel weird or inaccessible. We see and hear others pray, and it can seem more like a strange form of knowing the right words than simply having a conversation with God. But prayer is really just having a conversation with God. I learned this early on as I started walking and pouring my troubled heart out to God. I struggled with depression and anxiety from a young age. I know I had some religious exposure to prayer, but that show me that I could pray more than how to pray. For me, prayer came more instinctively. I had heavy things on my heart, and I needed someone to listen, someone that cared. That someone, for me, was God. The most helpful thing I can say about prayer is, don’t think of it as prayer at all. Think of it as talking to your best friend, who’s always with you; a friend who knows you better than you know yourself, and wants to help you discover yourself and your purpose in life. The next most helpful thing I can say is, keep doing this for about twenty years or so, on a daily basis, and it will begin to help you be more connected to God. Where reading gets God energy into our minds, prayer gets God energy into our hearts. But what about the Body Knowing Center? What practices help us learn surrender through that part of ourselves? 3. EXPERIENCE. This could also be called experiencing beauty, but in a purely visceral, body sense. I’m talking about getting the body in contact with the world God has created. That entails moving, but also seeing, hearing, and all the physical senses. For me, getting my body into nature usually does the trick. It puts my eyes, ears, feet and epidermis in contact with God in ways that nothing else can. It allows me to leave a lot of things behind and just enjoy being. If you didn’t know this, God has a physical body just like us. That body is the universe, of which the earth is the most tangible for us. We can get our bodies in contact with God’s body by getting into nature. But we can also do this by riding a bike, going to a music concert, or visiting an art museum. All these entail experiencing the material beauty of God in the physical world. Next is,
4. MEDITATION. Meditation is kind of the opposite of the first three, it’s creating a space for God to enter into. While many spiritual practices entail an inner or outer activity, meditation entails the ceasing of inner and outer activity. It is our attempt to let go of the more conscious self and allow for an experience of our deeper self as connected to God. It is a kind of emptying in order to be filled. There are different kinds of meditation, and you can search that out on your own, but the one I practice most is called breathing prayer or centering prayer. This is not like what is most commonly thought of as prayer, where I’m attempting to communicate with God through thoughts and emotions. This kind of prayer attempts to quiet the heart, mind, and sometimes the body through the opposite kind of action, through stillness. To do this I use one or two words which I say mentally while breathing in and out. I keep repeating those words for a while, as I attempt to let everything else but the sound of my breathing become my entire focus. This was especially helpful during my year of recovery, after my breakdown, when I struggled immensely with out-of-control thoughts and emotions. Meditation became the equilibrium to that chaos. The opposite weight for too much emotion and thought was trying to get to a place with no emotion and thought. The words I chose to meditate on often entail my current need or struggle. If I’m feeling anxious and overwhelmed with emotions or thoughts, my most common words are “peace” and “be still.” I actually first started mediating on short bible verses that communicated some aspect of comfort, peace, or the promise of good things. It was a good place for me to start, and it helped train my emotions and thoughts to gravitate more towards the positive instead of the negative. Now I find myself meditating quite a lot, while working, driving in my car, or any time I need to get calm or overcome some momentary negative thought or emotion. Meditation takes me to a place outside of myself, where contact with God seems much more possible, and where surrender, not my good efforts, makes the most difference.
The truth is, we become what we practice, and we’re practicing every day. The trick, and the point of contemplation, is to take control of what we’re practicing and be more intentional about it. Remember, the dictionary definition of contemplation (in case I’ve never shared it) is the action of looking thoughtfully at something for a long time. Contemplative practice is that which helps us focus on God, every day, in a sustained effort that continues throughout our lives. Every day our minds, hearts, and bodies are taking in data. Contemplative practice seeks to focus that intake in a more productive way, both to increase what is healthy and filter out what is not. It helps us understand how to move away from the dysfunction of our God-disconnection and become more in tune with God. But it is, in many ways, an uphill battle, because we’re surrounded by more examples of what it looks like to be in the mode of self autonomy than surrender. That’s precisely why our current world is such a mess, and seems to be getting worse. But there is hope, and I have great hope for what contemplation can do for the world, one person at a time. We’re not going to transform systems. The best we can do is stop these systems from transforming us, by starting to take control of our own transformation. Contemplative practice is a means to that end, and I’ve just begun to illuminate a few of those practices briefly. There are more practices, and a lot more to the one’s I’ve already mentioned. We’ll get into all that eventually, but keep in mind, it’s not just the practices that will get us there, but keeping in view the right focus. The truth is, any practice can solidity us in the autonomous self as much as the surrendered self. Even the best contemplative practices can also produce good, self-righteous tyrants just as vested in the ego-self as anyone. That’s why people have done such harm in the name of even good religion, because it’s not just the practices, but what we do with them that matters. I can pray to a God that merely affirms my own self-centered, ego-driven truth, just as much as not praying at all while doing the same thing. The remedy is not religion verse non-religion, but selflessness verse selfishness, and we can practice anything from either of these positions.
First, we must begin to recognize the problem. It’s what I vaguely recognized at nine when I saw those kids physically assaulting each other on that front lawn. Notice, though, that I was able to make the leap in order to understand that the problem was in me, and not outside of me. The ego-centric self will mostly see the problem as outside itself. The ego-centric person thinks their truth is good, their stance is right, and if the whole world would only bow down to their way then everything would be fine. We must begin to reach beyond ourselves, by understanding that not reaching beyond ourselves keeps us trapped in a self-referential system and outside of reality as grounded in God. When we understand this, then we’ll begin to lean into the kind of surrender that can reconnect us to the energy of the universe which binds all things together in harmony. It is my belief in my truth which disconnects me. It is a belief in someone higher than myself which can liberate me from this self-created reality and into the reality of God. This is the movement of personal transformation through contemplation, which helps us become more selfless. I hope you keep learning with me as we struggle towards that kind of surrender, no matter how hard and contrary it is to the flow of popular culture.