13 Mar How to Avoid Food-fights Next Thanksgiving
I am a mystic. By that, I simply mean, someone who has had and continues to have experience of God or transcendence or Mystery. Insert whatever word you want, they all fall short. I am also highly educated and love the life of the mind. Neither of these dispositions is necessarily a virtue in our culture, including the church culture of which I am a part. I find myself drawn to integrating and deepening these aspects of myself, as part of the lifework which is mine to offer in the days which belong to me.
Fortunately, many gifted and wise spiritual teachers have crossed my path. I have been introduced to daily practices which ground me in a deeper experience of God. The counsel of these good teachers is that contemplative practice is necessary. No one can explore the territory of the inner world for you. Cynthia Bourgeault interprets Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish bridesmaids in the Gospel of Matthew as speaking to this spiritual reality. Why can’t the five bridesmaids with oil share with the five who are without? Doesn’t Jesus teach us elsewhere to share? This is Bourgeault’s read: “The oil stands for the quality of your transformed consciousness, and unfortunately, it’s impossible to become conscious unconsciously, through a donation from somebody else.” Reading this, the scales fall from my eyes, and my commitment to daily practice is reinvigorated.
Yet, I am also increasingly aware of human blindspots. Integral philosopher, Ken Wilber, who is a proponent of meditation practice, also points out in, Integral Spirituality, that sincere and lifelong practitioners of meditation can be unaware of and hampered by elements of their personal shadow and their structure of consciousness. The shadow is any aspect of self which one does not own or recognize as belonging to the self. Spiritual people, especially, are tempted to project unwanted aspects of self onto others. We all have come across spiritual and religious leaders who get tripped up by their unintegrated shadow.
The structures, or what Wilber calls levels or waves, of consciousness have been mapped out by many sources in the past one hundred years or so. There is impressive congruency about these levels. But as Wilber points out, you cannot see these structures from within. A meditator can observe a great deal about inner states of consciousness, but these structures are not visible from within. This insight has been very helpful for me as I have tried to make some sense of my spiritual journey and the journey of others I have known.
When I was a teenager and had compelling religious experience, my level of consciousness, likely, was centered in what developmental theorists call, mythical. I have no doubt about the reality of my experience, but, of course, I could only interpret it from the level of consciousness that I had attained. When I went to college and was challenged to develop my cognitive line of intelligence, it created a crisis for me. Could I move to another level of consciousness, a rational level, without losing contact with meaningful religious experience? Well, I took the risk, and it was a messy process, but, yes, I found that religious experience could be reinterpreted in meaningful ways at different levels of consciousness. Faith could grow and mature. In the process, it might seem to wane or even die, but can also reemerge in a new form, much more equipped to help navigate the next stages of life.
This insight has helped me to be compassionate toward friends and relatives who understand God, religion and the world differently than I do. I don’t need to make them or myself wrong, because we are simply making sense of our experience of God and religion from the level that we are at. This doesn’t mean that we don’t meet each other with a certain incredulity when we gather at the table, but at least, to date, no food has been thrown in disgust.
I offer this reflection for any wondering about the possible perils of a contemplative life. There are some pretty reliable maps of consciousness emerging which can save us from unnecessary pitfalls which have been know to swallow well-intentioned spiritual practitioners. The work is no less challenging or perilous, but there are many reliable companions, modern day Beatrices, to lead us in the journey.
 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), p. 52.
 Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality