Thursday, June 18, 2009

Compassion and Peace On the Planet of the Apes

One of the ways I tend to feel closest to God's presence in my admittedly rather feeble prayer life is by practicing self-emptying. Through stillness, song, or walking meditation, I try to still my endlessly nattering inner commentary. When that happens, which tends to be in little flickers here and there, I find myself feeling increasingly centered and deeply calm. I feel connected to that which transcends me, and to everything around me. Those moments are a delight.

The other day, after just such a moment, I found myself reflecting upon that state of being. In particular, I found my returning higher functions wondering if the silencing of my internal narrative represented a retrogression of sorts. When all I am is sensory inputs in the absence of any discernable thoughts, is that in some way analogous to the existence of "lower" forms of life? Creatures that exist in the absence of any language or symbolic forms of self expression must experience life in a similar way, being deeply and unreflectively in the moment.

Yet what struck me as peculiar about the act of meditation this week was that silencing my higher functions and seeking negation doesn't light up self. I do not become more ferociously competitive, or hungrier, or so horny that me want to love you longtime. Those parts of me that are just a few genetic ticks away from having a bit part in Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes aren't released when I let my "self" grow still.

I just feel more connected, more at peace and at one with others...and more compassionate. When faced with conflict or deeply troubled, these forms of prayer are where I go, and I come out of them not just mentally more level, but physically calmer. My body is involved in the process, and it is significantly impacted. But it is only when I still those higher functions, what I would typify as my reason or symbolic awareness, that I reach that elusive peak state of oneness.

This is a common understanding of the mystic wings of all of the world's significant faith traditions, yet it flies in the face of a common assumption. That assumption is the good ol' Cartesian split between mind and body. The idea...and it is a modern that it is reason that balances and controls the snarling red-in-tooth and claw beast that lurks in our animal nature. Reason must be good. Our emotional and physical responses? They must be controlled and limited by reason.

But reason and intellectual rigor are not the answer. This comes as a great disappointment to my fellow Presbyterians. Both mind and body must be stilled, if we are to be opened to the self-emptying of a Christ-centered existence.