It can be helpful to observe that our experience of life arises as a point-of-view. We see life from a perspective that is both material (embodied) and cultural (ideal).
For example, imagine a pine tree in late December wreathed in red garlands. The tree and its decoration appear as a consequence of your embodied nature, your physical structure. You see things, including trees. “Christmas,” however, appears as a consequence of your cultural, or ideal (as in “of or relating to ideas,” not as in “perfect”) nature or structure.
At any given point, you are only observing what is there to be observed, both materially and culturally. If you are in Michigan, you are not observing Massachusetts, and vice-versa. And if it’s “Michigan” and “Massachusetts” you’re thinking of, then you are not thinking of “Mishigamaa” and “Massachuset” or “Messatossec.”
These are important distinctions to notice. Or rather, the process of distinguishing is important to notice. Distinguishing happens of its own accord; you don’t choose “Christmas” when you see a decorated pine tree, and you don’t choose “pine tree” when you see that green-branched object before you. You don’t see a mitten-shaped blob among other blobs on a piece of paper and think “oh look, a mitten.” You think “map,” “United States,” “Michigan” and so forth.
For me, it has been helpful to go deeply into these appearances and this appearing through a process of “giving attention,” which is a form of prayerful contemplation. It is a self-directing, self-producing and self-sustaining process of presence, akin to Thomas Merton’s “prayer of the heart” which
. . . seeks its roots in the very ground of our being, not merely in our mind or our affections. By “prayer of the heart” we seek God himself present in the depths of our being . . . (Contemplative Prayer 30-31).
“Heart” in this context refers not to a fleshy pump in our chest but to
. . . the deepest psychological ground of one’s personality, the inner sanctuary where self-awareness goes beyond analytical reflection and opens out into metaphysical and theological confrontation with the Abyss of the unknown yet present – one who is “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves” (Contemplative Prayer 33).
Finally, lest one confuse this prayerful attentiveness with something entirely abstract or mental, Merton reminds us that any rejection of what appears as external, worldly, sensual or material is “bad theology and bad ascetism.” He advocates for
. . . a simple respect for the concrete realities of every-day life, for nature, for the body, for one’s work, one’s friends and one’s surroundings (Contemplative Prayer 38-39).
Thus “giving attention” arises as and is enacted in the very context in which appears: this life, in this world, among all these other lives in this world. One needn’t work through metaphysics or theology in order to helpfully bring forth Love, which is merely to recognize and remember our authentic nature as love.
Instead, we just have to be present to our living in the natural way that is already given to us in our living to be present to our living, which is to say, to realize that we cannot be other than present (though we can pretend to be other than present (which, paradoxically enough, is still a kind of presence)).
Merton is careful to note that contemplative prayer is not esoteric. It is not a spirituality of renunciation (of the body of the self, the body of the other or the body of the world) but of mutual and inclusive embrace. He warns against falling for
. . . a false supernaturalism which imagines that “the supernatural” is a kind of Platonic realm of abstract essences totally apart from and opposed to the concrete world of nature, [and] offers no real support to a genuine life of meditation and prayer. Meditation [and prayer] have no point and no reality unless firmly rooted in *life (Contemplative Prayer 39).
To give attention is to sooner or later realize there is no giver, at least not in the sense one traditionally conceives, and thus nothing to actually do, at least not in the way one traditionally conceives. This runs directly contrary to our familiar mode of perception and cognition which suggest that a discrete self with agency is the operative center of existence. An interior self gazes out at the world, navigating it according to personal self-interest it determines.
What A Course in Miracles teaches – being a related aspect of the curriculum with which Merton engaged – is that this “familiar mode” is actually inverted. There is (to adopt the Thetfordian posture) “another way,” which is basically to realize the futility of “our” familiar way and opt instead of the way of God, or Love.
There is a real choice that you have the power to make when you seen the real alternative . . . This course attempts to teach no more than that the power of decision cannot lie in choosing different forms of what is still the same illusion and the same mistake . . . There is no road that leads away from [God] (T-31.IV.8:1, 3, 10:4).
It is not necessary to try and change or alter or destroy our experience of “a discrete self with agency” who is “the operative center of existence.” That self is an illusion (a misperception, really) and trying to “fix” or “undo” it only reinforces its existence.
Instead, it is helpful simply to see that self-concept as illusory, which happens naturally when we give attention. We don’t even have to give attention to that apparent self. We can give attention to literally anything – chickadees, our obsession with prisms, spring gardening plans, ice in the horse pasture. All roads lead to God, including those that appear to lead elsewhere. You can’t escape what you are!
Thus, what works – what heals by undoing, reminding us of our authentic nature as creators, as love – is the active gifting of attention. That to which the attention is given is actually beside the point.
But it is very hard to see this and, seeing it, to accept it and, accepting it, to consistently remember it! One slips back into the old mode all the time. But the fundament of love is not affected by our learning: giver, gift, and recipient are one in the giving. That’s it; that’s the game.
Thus a text such as A Course in Miracles can say that the only problem we have is the belief that we have problems (e.g., W-pI.79.6:2), which is really a way of saying that the only problem we have is the belief that there is a “we” at all. It’s “we” that brings “others” into existence, and “others” that bring about a world of limited resources necessitating attack and defense. Absent a vulnerable self, where could worry or guilt or fear reside? Absent separate selves, how can there be conflict?
When we give attention, attention takes over. It runs on its own. Accepting this – sort of like allowing the flow of a river to take us where it will – means that perception and cognition naturally align with love which produces a deep, creative and abiding peace and happiness.
And “deep, creative and abiding peace and happiness” are our actual identity or nature. Everything else is a distraction easily undone, once we figure out there is no “we” in charge of undoing.
Now there are no distinctions. Differences have disappeared and Love looks on Itself. What further sight is needed? What remains that vision could accomplish? We have seen the face of Christ, His sinlessness, His Love behind all forms, beyond all purposes (M-28.5:1-5).
In love, the need for the “discrete self with agency” dissolves because love comes forth of its own accord. Love itself becomes the “operative center of existence” which is everywhere all the time, and thus neatly undoes any need for time-space ideations like “center” at all.
Realizing this Love is not a personal accomplishment. It is not an event that happens to us and thereafter separates us from the ones who are unenlightened and unawakened.
Rather, it is the clear seeing that our inside is our outside, and vice-versa. Apparent boundaries dividing the physical world into objects (and the temporal world into events) are more like mutual confirmations of Love’s interconnectedness than actual division. They are the site where Love meets itself – re-members itself – and reveals itself to itself as undifferentiated, unfragmented, unopposed and incapable of conflict.
I am not challenging the appearance of an interior life being conducted in an external world. I merely suggest a practice of giving attention to the apparent distinctions that comprise our experience of this inner/outer dichotomy, and to the distinguishing which appears to cause it, and to see what, if anything, happens.