Back in 1965, in a book called Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton recounted an experience he had while standing on the corner of a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky that changed the way he saw himself in relationship to others—though it would perhaps be more accurate to say that the experience had him, it was so potent in showing him the truth of our interconnectedness. What Merton realized as he gazed at a crowd of strangers milling about, was that they were his, and he was theirs, that he “was one with them” (his words) and that they were therefore not strangers. With words that could have come straight out of a Buddhist text, Merton described the experience as “waking up from a dream of separateness.”
“If only they could all see themselves as they really are,” he said. “If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be then that we would fall down and worship each other. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
It’s this peculiar gift I’d like to take up.
As Merton describes it, this gift allows us to see ourselves as we really are, a phrase that parallels the teachings of Buddhism. And the way we really are, is interconnected, belonging to one another, not separate. All of us have the ability to see this truth, but not all of us choose or are able to. Not all of us can disentangle ourselves, however briefly, from the tug of work and family and friends, or from the many other interests and responsibilities that make it difficult for us to be alone, to be still and silent, for this is what this gift requires. I like to think of it as the gift of contemplation.
Contemplation gives us the space, time, and conditions to see things and ourselves as we really are. But Merton warns, if we could see this way all the time, we might go around worshiping one another—which, given the state of the world, doesn’t seem like a problem to me. We could use more reverence everywhere.
The word “contemplation” means to “gaze attentively, to observe.” In ancient Rome, an augur or diviner would contemplate natural signs—especially the behavior of birds—and interpret them as good or bad omens to guide the actions of rulers and priests. (In 236 CE, Pope Fabian was chosen to be the next pontiff when a dove landed on his head during the conclave. He wasn’t even a likely candidate, but everyone thought the dove was a sign from the Holy Spirit.) In Christian mysticism, contemplation took the form of a type of meditation, devoid of images or words, in which mystics would strive to have a direct experience of God or the divine. And although they could only reach this state of unity through solitude and silence, accounts of their experiences invariably give evidence of a deep kind of communication—a relationship with truth, with love, with sacredness.
In The Book of Privy Counseling, the anonymous author—who also wrote the well-known Cloud of Unknowing—says: “… There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of truth than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is.”
There is no name, no experience, no insight closer or truer than the truth of our own being, our own isness. There is no place closer to reality than the place we’re standing on. That is why resistance to what is, is so challenging. But it’s also the reason that it can be so fruitful for practice. In a moment when we say to ourselves, “I don’t want this”—whatever the this is—we are effectively saying no to reality. There are things, like injustice or willful harm, which should be resisted. Yet here I’m referring to the many ways in which we refuse or deny reality, and which inevitably cause harm. Refusal to accept situations that don’t favor us, for example, from the trivial to the momentous. Denial of our impact on others, of illness, of death.
The practice of contemplation, therefore, creates a space in which to work with our resistance so that we can choose is. And more, it gives us the opportunity to fall in love with it. Because we don’t have to like all aspects of reality. Like or dislike have nothing to do with contemplation. Yet we can learn to love reality’s isness, which means honoring ourselves and others and things and beings as we and they are. From this perspective, contemplation is the profound practice of loving what is, of resting in and into what is, of not distancing ourselves from ourselves and the world.
All of us have wanted things to be otherwise at some point in our lives. All of us have wished for different choices, different stories, different results. Yet there’s enormous strength—and infinite possibility—in learning to love what is instead of what should have been, and one way to do this is to learn to attend, allow, and accept.
Attending is the opposite of denying or ignoring. It’s turning toward whatever we’re struggling with and choosing to not evade or repress. Attending is choosing to stay fully present to every shade of our being, from light to dark. It’s choosing to not turn away, no matter how uncomfortable our sensations, how embarrassing our thoughts, how ugly our feelings. Given how successful we’ve become at distracting or numbing ourselves, how pervasive is our inclination toward denial and aversion, attending is monumental. It’s like standing at the threshold of a room where a dinner party’s going on. You’ve been invited, but with a couple of exceptions, you don’t know anyone and you’re uncomfortable and not at all sure you want to come close. It’d be so much easier to just go home and turn on Netflix, you think. But you also know that’s no longer a satisfying replacement for intimacy, so you gather your courage and at the very least remain standing before the room, resisting the urge to bolt.
Contemplation is the profound practice of loving what is, of resting in and into what is, of not distancing ourselves from ourselves and the world.
Allowing is stepping into the room, which immediately gives you a sense of space. Yes, you’re uncomfortable, but maybe there’s something beyond your discomfort. Allowing is giving yourself permission to walk among these strangers just as you are, and letting them be who they are. When we allow, we realize we don’t have to control the situation. We don’t have to dissociate or numb out. Instead, we can stay embodied and step in closer. Walking slowly around the room, you run your fingers softly over the furniture, getting your bearings. You touch the soft fabric of the sofa’s back, the hard edges of a marble countertop as a stray word catches your ear here and there. You still can’t stop yourself from judging. I like this. I don’t like this. But you allow all of it—including yourself—to just be.
Accepting is saying yes to reality. It’s deciding that no matter what happens, you want to be comfortable in the room. Maybe you sit down across from a group of people, a table between you in case you still need a buffer, or more space. But as time goes on and you begin to relax, you edge in close. By the end of the evening, it becomes clear that you neither like nor agree with everything you’ve found there (you don’t have to like a cancer diagnosis or a racist uncle or your own tendency to berate yourself, for example). But now you understand that indeed, like or dislike have nothing to do with it—that by accepting you’ve consented to reality, which means you’re now in a position to decide what to do next. Either way, you’re in relationship with your thoughts, your feelings, with everything that’s happening in that room, and everyone else who’s there. You realize you’re no longer strangers, and in fact, you never were.
Attend, allow, accept.
There is much about our world that needs changing. The same may be true of our individual lives. But as long as we’re using up our energy to resist our circumstances, we won’t be able to dedicate it to the work of true transformation. Yet this is exactly the kind of work our world needs—radical, life-affirming transformation.
“If only we could see each other [as we really are],” Merton says. “There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed… I suppose the big problem would be then that we would fall down and worship each other.”
Well, that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? That wouldn’t be so bad at all.
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