CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE: THE "HOW"
OF PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
“The good life” – the real version - often involves some form of “contemplative practice.”
But what is a “contemplative practice,” exactly? Why is it worth bothering about, and how does it work?
We’ll explore the basics of three very different forms of practice.
We’ll also mention a Tarantino movie, a mention or two of Hannibal Lector, and a kind of “inner prison break.”
There’s quite a bit to contemplate in all this.
But it’s worth doing.
What follows can serve as a basic introduction, starting basically from scratch.
Many people today are seeking some sort of “personal transformation.”
It's often described with words like "change your life!" or "be who you want to be!" or "you can do anything!"
But what you should change your life into, or who you should want to be, or what you should do, exactly, they never really seem to say.
But there are other words. For example, “inner growth” is often described as one of the most important things in life.
After we go through a tough time, we often say, “I grew as a result of it.”
The basic idea of “inner growth” or “self-actualization,” then, often helps us make sense of our suffering in life. And not just that: growth usually refers to us making the most of the better side of our “human potential” – and avoiding our worst.
Some folks sense the importance of “transformation” and “self-actualization” and so on, and so seek out more of it. It’s natural.
But what does all of that really mean?
“Inner growth” has traditionally been the domain of spirituality and religion.
(It was, at least, up until the last few decades or so.)
But today, when it comes to these areas, many seekers are searching not for secondhand knowledge or merely to “plug in” to a belief system, but instead, long for a firsthand experience that’s direct and undeniable.
The aim isn’t merely for a moderate psychological improvement, but for some sort of genuine resolution to the human condition itself – the key to unlocking fundamental questions of human nature.
It can all start sounding pretty lofty.
But most questions about this boil down to one:
This approach isn’t one based on the approach of “take my word for it.”
It’s based on “see for yourself.”
In this sense, we can unpack the “how” question a little more:
Is there a “technique”? A method? A recipe for somehow “getting ourselves right” on the inside?
Is there a no-nonsense approach to all this, that isn’t creepy, cultish, or weird?
Are there legitimate, no-nonsense methods that are reliable, safe, time-tested, and inexpensive?
How would it work in the real world? If I want that, what should I do?
And how can Kill Bill help with this?
In the Tarantino movie Kill Bill, the heroine – “The Bride” – uses the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique.”
“Bill” described it as “the deadliest blow in all of martial arts.”
Anyone hit with that blow can take five more steps.
Then that person’s heart will explode.
It’s a “technique” that, when executed correctly, guarantees certain victory.
So, the question that is clearly at the back of everyone’s mind, of course, is this: is there a Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique that works for “personal transformation”?
In other words:
Is there a “technique” for “certain victory” when it comes to personal transformation?
That’s a question worth exploring.
(And just to clarify: the aim here isn’t for anyone’s heart to actually explode. Except on the inside. Or (phrasing, since technically, all hearts are “inside”) we mean metaphorically. But in reality. The idea is for our hearts to explode in a good way – with goodness, love, and life and so on – not in the literal, Tarantino sense. Whew.)
“Don’t tell me about it. Show me how to get there myself.”
Or as R. D. Laing said:
“We do not need theories
so much as the experience
that is the source of the theory.”
But what is this “experience” of, exactly?
The search, in this case, is for some experience of – how to describe it? “Peak experiences”? “Aha moments” of insight? Glimpses behind the curtain, beyond The Matrix – peeks of a Bigger Reality? A taste of genuine joy, peace, and relief? Something that heals whatever might seem broken in the deepest part of ourselves, at the core? A permanent transformation of ourselves, at the very bottom? Wising up, even a little, about life as a whole?
Putting words to it can sound a little hokey sometimes.
Talking about all this isn’t an easy task, clearly.
But hokey or not, we have to try.
After all, we all are trying already. That is, we already seek “happiness” of some sort. Whether “happiness” is the right word for it or not, whatever “it” is, we can’t not do it. We just aren’t satisfied for long with mild, temporary pleasures. We always need more. So, instead of playing various games of life that don’t ultimately satisfy, we eventually long for something more – something that will satisfy. In this sense, we long for some form of “perfect happiness.”
Call it “The Search for “IT”.
Of course, there are plenty of ways to seek “IT” that don’t work. Some can be downright toxic, and – paradoxically enough – can lead to misery.
But humanity has also been exploring along these lines for thousands of years.
When we look at the results, there seems to be a broad spectrum.
We could even graph it out as a literal spectrum.
If we did this, we’d see a bell-shaped curve with dysfunction in at both the left and right extremes of this spectrum and health in the middle.
At one end of the spectrum, there’s “boredom.” This consists solely of stale customs, old routines, tired habits, lifeless repetitions, worn-out phrases, recycled insights, legalistic belief systems – basically, lifelessness. It’s what prompts many to leave organized religion.
On the other extreme, there’s “drama.” It can range from emotion-fueled sentimentality all the way to wild, nonsensical mayhem and unhinged, mindless chaos. It’s not boring – it’s actually quite lively. Or really, it’s more than that: it’s total insanity. It’s one of the hazards of going Spiritual-But-Not-Religious.
As Schopenhauer said:
“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward
between pain and boredom.”
Nietzsche described the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian,” or the eternal struggle between order and chaos. Many others have wrestled with the same fundamental issue.
The point is, what’s the “sweet spot” between these two extremes?
Is there an approach that’s neither safe-but-lifeless-boredom on the one hand nor energetic-but-mindless-vitality on the other? Is there something that offers both life and sanity, both reason and heart?
This is something we, your trusty LiveReal Agents, have been exploring for quite a while now.
Our short answer at this point is this:
There is a “way.”
Basically, it’s a way of life. But a central ingredient of this “way of life” is a genuine contemplative practice.
We’ll briefly describe three forms of “contemplative practice” here.
Here they are:
3) psychological work
- in no particular order.
These are usually inexpensive, time-tested, and, when done correctly, effective.
Most of us have at least some experience with these, even if few people today adopt any of them as a serious and regular discipline.
That said, one or several of these three practices can play a central role in inner growth, personal transformation, self-actualization, or whatever we want to call it.
These can serve as a kind of “refuge” of peace and sanity on a practical level. These are “there for us,” whatever happens, even in a world gone crazy. They can act as a kind of hidden sanctuary or inner “home base” that becomes “the place we go to” when we’re genuinely searching for “the way” to navigate life.
Here are brief overviews of some of the main ideas behind – and hazards of – each.
First contemplative practice: meditation.
Meditation has been skyrocketing in popularity across the Western world over the last few decades, for better or worse.
The aims of meditation can vary widely. Some approach it as a way to feel calm, de-stress, or avoid feeling upset. Others approach it as a way to get control of the mind, and relate more effectively to our thoughts and emotions. Others see it as a technique for achieving spiritual awakening or enlightenment. Others see it as more of a psychological method for inner strength, existential fitness, or part of a healthy and sane life.
When we’re young, we all start as masters of nothing. We’re helpless, out of control, and dominated by everything. But as we grow, we learn to move and control our arms, legs, and bodies. We go through potty training. We can learn how to use our tongues enough to talk. In short, through effort and practice, we eventually learn to “master” ourselves physically, at least to some degree.
But what about our minds? Or hearts? Or thoughts and feelings? Or even our very awareness itself – or our very selves?
Usually, our growth stops with our bodies after adolescence.
But some traditions and meditation teachers describe the mind as something that acts like a “drunken monkey,” swinging through the branches, careening randomly from one thought to the next, almost completely out of control.
Meditation is often described as the ability to overcome “monkey mind.”
To describe meditation as “potty training for the mind” probably isn’t the pinnacle of elegance. But it conveys the basic idea: “total lack of control” versus “mastery.”
But how? How do you meditate?
That’s a big question. There are thousands of different techniques, practices, and approaches. It’s a good and fair question, but it’s also not totally unlike asking, “how do you play sports, or dance?”
In the same way, someone saying “this is the way to meditate” is like saying “this is the way to play football, or dance.” There are clearly football coaches and dance teachers, which implies that meditation can be skilled or unskilled – but that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to play football or dance.
In this sense, it’s both an art and a science. There are objective principles and practices at work – it’s not a matter of “do whatever you want” – but there’s also plenty of room to explore and experiment on your own to figure out what works for you, in your particular situation, at this particular time.
That said, there are broad areas of agreement where nearly all approaches overlap.
For example, nearly all initial stages of meditation involve developing basic concentration. This is usually various forms practicing an ability to focus and overcome distractions. What starts as “monkey mind” eventually develops into a laser, as in “laser-focus.” In this sense, an “attention span” isn’t something we merely have a “deficit” of or that gets destroyed by media, but something we build.
But after that initial stage – once you have the ability to concentrate – what do you do with it? What do you concentrate on?
That’s where meditation can become a form of deepening inquiry or contemplation.
It can become a way to explore “the beyond within.”
More advanced forms of meditation can take a turn more toward experiential spirituality.
Instead of merely learning how to focus the mind, we can start learning how the mind itself works. This can eventually lead to “peak experiences” and “aha moments” of insight. It happens not through mere intellectual learning, or additive knowledge – but through unlearning, or subtractive knowledge. Eventually, as meditation becomes stronger and deeper, it can bring us closer to something along the lines of “personal transformation.”
When done correctly, it can bring us closer to reality, make us saner, and give us greater insight into The Way Things Really Are. It might not transform us in the additive sense – the way a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly – as much as it changes us in a more simple, subtractive sense, of “undoing” all the ways we’ve subtly warped ourselves into trying to be something we’re not.
Or, it could do both.
But like any technique, there are ways to do it that are ineffective.
For example, meditation can sometimes become glorified daydreaming. “Guided meditations” might essentially be like watching television, but in our own minds, and so might be less about insight and more about escapism. Chanting can become trance-inducing and sometimes as intoxicating as various addictions. Other times, even for serious practitioners, the instructions are to observe, observe, observe, observe, observe, ad infinitum. This can sometimes have a deadening effect – what Zen describes as “Quietism” – which can make us passive observers in life instead of active, fully-living participants. Many of the unexpected and unintended side-effects of meditation can sometimes create challenges in the bump-and-roll of everyday life.
Some try to take a shortcut by skipping the “meditation practice” part with drugs. This approach can produce experiences, but they can also destabilize, and leave one in waters without having learned to sail.
And so on.
Again, it can often take some experimenting to find the right technique that works for the right person at the right time.
Hazards aside, the positive benefits of meditation often become clear to anyone who tries it.
Science often agrees. Having been scrutinized and tested by scientists somewhat thoroughly, meditation is often found to be wholesome and effective. If practiced seriously and consistently, mediation can become a very useful shovel for an inner archeological dig. It can be a powerful way to burrow down within, like we’re searching for buried treasure. But in this case, the treasure is ourselves.
Second contemplative practice: prayer.
What is prayer? How does it work? Does it even make sense?
Before we even talk about the topic, we have to clear the air.
Prayer doesn’t make sense to anyone who isn’t a theist.
That is, prayer assumes a worldview or life philosophy of theism.
Without that basic worldview, prayer won’t make sense.
Before any discussion of prayer can take place, certain questions have to be settled. Is there a God? Is God personal, or impersonal? Is it truly possible for a human being to communicate with God, or for God to communicate with human beings?
Prayer assumes an answer of “yes” to all of these.
As far as prayer is concerned, these are axioms or starting points that are assumed as settled beforehand.
Some problems with prayer, in other words, aren’t actually about prayer. They’re actually questions about whether God really exists or not, or the nature of God, or the nature of human beings, or other related but different topics.
Theism asserts that God exists, and that God is both transcendent and personal, both “beyond” and “within.” According to theism, God isn’t merely far off, distant, and infinitely far away (as in deism), but is intimately close – “nearer to us than our innermost being.” On the other side of the matter, God also isn’t merely “everything” in the sense that there’s nothing isn’t God (as in pantheism) – which could mean there’s nothing to say – but is also beyond everything that’s known, and is infinite, eternal, absolute, etc. Theism, in other words, adopts and encompasses each of these. God is both immanent and transcendent, “within” and “beyond” – and sees these not as contradictory, but as complementary. This saddles prayer with quite a challenge: to bridge the beyond and the within, so that we can experience infinity and eternity in the here and now, and our immediate experience can become infused with a sense of the sacred.
This counters the sense of nihilism, where nothing is sacred.
Prayer also asserts that there’s a spiritual component of human nature.
This “component” serves as a kind of transmitter. This “transmitter” allows a human being and God to interact, similar to the way a radio – which appears to be “nothing but” a bunch of metal and plastic – can allow a musician or storyteller or newscaster to communicate with individuals thousands of miles away.
Here it can be helpful to ask: how does prayer compare to meditation?
There are some basic differences. For example:
Meditation is often structured, while prayer is often unstructured.
Meditation typically starts with the self, while prayer typically starts with God.
Meditation often means putting ourselves in a state of watchfulness and awareness, while prayer means putting ourselves in the presence of God.
The above are generalizations. There are exceptions (eg, some prayers can be highly structured, etc.)
That said, the basic “technique” of prayer is simple: just talk to God, and listen to God.
When this is taken seriously, it becomes much more than giving speeches or “just asking for stuff.”
But what different about prayer, as opposed to, say, a very ordinary conversation with an imaginary friend?
A reference might clarify.
What happens when we meet a celebrity?
What often happens when we see or even talk to a famous politician, or some other “important” person, or even a boss at work?
Sometimes, we go all weak in the knees and become a bundle of nerves.
A typically calm, poised, and graceful individual can suddenly transform into a bumbling, nervous, awkward, gushing mess. True celebritheists can lose their composure, shake or stumble all over themselves, or faint. They’re full of awe. After all, this person is important, after all, and famous!
But when they encounter The Almighty Creator of the Universe, they get so bored they can hardly wait until it’s finally over, so they can go do something interesting.
In this sense, prayer isn’t a “simple technique” that can be practiced and rehearsed mechanically. It requires a number of prior conditions in order to “work.” Are we really in the presence of The Guy Who Lit the Fuse on the Big Bang? If so, there’s more to be gushy and nervous and fangirl about than being near someone who pretends to be someone else in front of cameras or who is really good at singing. (Of course, some celebrities will probably disagree on this point.)
So, that’s one important key to prayer: approaching it as if we’re meeting someone even more important than a celebrity.
It also means a conversation with someone more insightful than a friend.
From here, prayer can sometimes turn out to be more weighty than we often assume.
Imagine standing in front of the smartest genius in the known world, for example. Or, imagine standing in front of the greatest, most profound psychologist in the world – someone who could know your deepest and most hidden secrets by the tilt of your little finger. Imagine standing in front of – or even being interrogated by – a combination of Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lecter. (Except that this Sherlock Lector/Hannibal Holmes is actually cool, and wants the best for you, and also isn’t a cannibal.)
Would that be a casual, humdrum, even boring encounter?
But there’s also another aspect to all this: prayer as a skill.
The idea of “skill” might seem to contradict the earlier notion of “just talk, and listen.”
But the request to “…teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) presumes that prayer is something that can be taught.
At least one Pope (who is supposed to know about things like this, if anybody does) even said as much: “It is necessary to learn how to pray…” (Pope Benedict XVI, A School of Prayer, p9, italics ours.)
This makes sense. After all, even “talking and listening” can be done well, or not. Our friends can probably confirm this. Even with friends, we can talk too much and hardly listen, or we can listen too much but hardly talk. We can prattle on for hours without saying much, or we can hardly participate in the conversation. Genuine back-and-forth might come easily for some, but not for everyone.
Other times, we might talk and listen in just the right amount, but we aren’t really being honest. In that case, a cosmic Hannibal Holmes would see right through us. In these cases, it’s not that God is boring us. It’s that we risk boring God.
Pointers on this “skill” are mentioned in several places. “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions.” “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” “Be still and know…” “Pray without ceasing” – and so on.
All of this can point toward more advanced and structured forms of prayer.
There are forms of stillness, or centering prayer, the “prayer of the heart,” hesychasm or The Jesus Prayer, or others.
There seems to be – for lack of a better word – a psychological component in each of these. (This refers to real “psychology” as psyche-logos or “the science of the soul.”) For example, these approaches can serve to focus the mind and heart, and even reach into our deepest ideas and motivations that are often described as existing (again, for lack of a better word) in “the subconscious.”
These “psychological” elements can work either directly or indirectly. For example, they might involve physical exercises – lifting of arms, hundreds or prostrations, and so on – that can even involve breathing in ways that mirror certain aspects of yoga. This might sound strange to some, but Gregory Palamas (14th century) and others have described how prayer can become something that “transfigures the body, spiritualizing it.…” In this sense: “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light.”
Along these lines, prayer can involve a “deepening.” It involves a scrutiny and purification of motives that can rival any therapy, including that of Hannolmes Sherlecter as our therapist. It can change us. With practice, instead of a boring tedium, it can become a way to activate, invigorate, and reconnect with ourselves in the innermost secret chamber, “the beyond within.”
As strange as it may sound, it can even become a source of joy.
Those who pray along these lines can experience moments of happiness, peace, or even bliss, euphoria, and ecstasy. It’s described sometimes as states of beatitude, providence, paradise, or tastes of heaven.
Expressions along these lines often sound strange and unfamiliar to the rest of us, who aren’t experiencing these things. This seems to be the nature of the business. What each of us experiences within our own private worlds isn’t easy to communicate.
These can even happen in the middle of horrific external conditions. More than a few mystics and artists have described profound experiences in prison or while being burned at the stake. Politicians and government authorities aren’t immune to being spiritually illiterate. There are good reasons why folks sometimes tend to keep these kinds of things to themselves.
That said, prayer isn’t necessarily an “otherworldly” luxury. Just the opposite. It often tends to happen naturally in foxholes, during calamities, and in the most profound moments of our lives.
Even on a psychological level, it can even become “therapeutic” in its own way. It can be a regular time and place where we deliberately carve out time and space for the important stuff in life, or as a way to re-align ourselves as a counter-force to the jolts and shocks of the daily grind. It can become a time for brutal honesty where we “let it all out” and “say whatever needs to be said” and let the chips fall where they may. Over time, it can become like a series of intimate conversations between trusted friends that eventually grows into a relationship. These “conversations” can become, as Nietzsche described (in a different context) a “midwife for one’s thoughts,” which help give birth to ideas and feelings that are usually half-sunk or fully sunk in the bog of unconsciousness. It can also become an inner archaeological dig, where we burrow further and further down into ourselves, letting go of everything that isn’t us, and “settling down into” whatever’s left – which can, strangely enough, take us both beyond ourselves and yet closer to ourselves at the same time.
All of this can lead to a kind of deepening of ourselves that, over time, can transform us.
Third contemplative practice: psychological work.
In some instances, some forms of psychological work can take the form of a “contemplative practice.”
That can be a strange or controversial statement.
Psychology is often depicted as something in the realm of science and experimentation, with hard, rigorous, statistical analysis, peer-reviewed journals, and double-blind studies.
It can sometimes be – as William James, the “father of American psychology” described it – a “nasty little subject.”
Some therapists and therapies seem to do more harm than good. Psychology can sometimes drive us more crazy. Even a few bad ideas can sometimes wreak havoc. And psychology in its current state is chock-full of bad ideas.
But a great deal also depends on the approach and the therapist. There can be a great therapist with the wrong approach, or a terrible therapist with a good approach – or a terrible therapist with a terrible approach, or a wonderful therapist with a wonderful approach.
Results may vary. Buyer beware.
That said, when things work, the results can be profound.
Psychology (as the “science” of human nature, by one definition) has also been stealing turf from religion, spirituality, and theology, as Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow and others have attested. When we’re unhappy or suffering these days, we often tend to go to a psychologist instead of a priest or minister. We often see science as The Ultimate Authority on matters more than religion or spirituality.
Some problems we struggle with, after all, really are more emotional and psychological than spiritual. Issues like depression and anxiety can sometimes be based in certain ways of thinking and other concrete factors.
Further, some meditation teachers have stated that their students would often benefit more from therapy than meditation. In cases like those, meditation is the wrong medicine.
And even further – and perhaps more hazardous in some ways – psychology has been stealing territory from what used to be the domain of communities.
We once had family, friends, neighbors, and communities to keep each other in check. Community once served as a kind of organic, “natural therapy.” Functional relationships can be a form of natural therapy. It’s the stuff of sitcoms: one character gets a little crazy in a certain way, and everyone else around them becomes a “reality check” until that person eventually sees and admits what happened – that they got a little off track. Friends and family would give each other honest feedback – “Stop being a jerk!” “What a dork!” – and so on – that would help us see blind spots” in ourselves that we couldn’t see by ourselves.
In this sense, family, friends, and community would offer us all the material we’d need for plenty of “psychological work.”
But today, psychology seems to be gradually taking over that job as well.
It’s increasingly the age of “Bowling Alone,” widespread loneliness, and faceless multinational corporations knowing more about us than our own neighbors, family, or even ourselves.
In this toxic environment, we tend to keep our guard up with actual people, form relationships with people we’ll never meet face-to-face, and pay professionals to be someone we can “let it all out” and be honest with.
That said, even this situation testifies the underlying power behind this dynamic.
Psychological work – or “therapy,” to be brief – can be effective.
Therapy has advantages. For those who don’t have a taste for organized religion, therapy can be relatively worldview-neutral. Prayer doesn’t make sense to non-theists, and even meditation can seem like a mysterious, otherworldly, voodoo-like magical process (even if that perception is less than accurate.)
Therapy is also interpersonal. Meditation is a solitary activity. It can be lonely. You’re all on your own. Therapy, on the other hand, usually involves talking with another actual human being. If loneliness or relationships with other people are problematic, therapy can offer things the others can’t.
Therapy cloaks itself in “science.” It might be a stretch to call some forms of therapy “scientific.” (Psychoanalysis, for example.) Yet others, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, have actually been tested somewhat rigorously, and might actually live up to the “scientific” label.
But there are times when therapy – and therapists – can find themselves out of their depths.
Therapy often finds itself taking on the basic problem (or “existential riddle”) of suffering.
Along this line, therapy claims to offer a solution to suffering. Or at least, that’s what many “clients” hope it will be.
A core dimension of therapy lies in “healing emotional wounds.” The idea is that certain types of suffering happen for certain specific reasons that can be hunted down, discovered, and “resolved.”
An individual might experience a “problem” – a sense of guilt, shame, trauma, inferiority, apathy, addiction, relationship problems, etc. The answer, then, is to “work out those issues,” often through a form of talk therapy, body-focused therapy, or a wide-ranging buffet of therapeutic approaches. Some might involve revisiting the memory of a trauma. Others might call for a search for insight through a process of examination and introspection. Still other times it might mean “getting in touch with” one’s body or inner child or emotions and so on. Treatments might work to involve catharsis, various forms of release, thinking differently, or changing the scripts or narratives that govern our experience.
But is it really effective?
It can be. Results can vary widely. Like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and so on, a great deal rides on the individuals involved. Some can seem to work magic. Others can easily cause more problems than they solve. A therapist might be Buddha or Hannibal Lector, a Florence Nightingale or Nurse Ratched. Someone with a wall covered in degrees might be a fool, while someone with no degrees might be a genius. Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, Moses, Lao Tzu, and others didn’t have PhDs. Plenty of PhDs have done horrific things. Buyer beware.
Good therapists can sometimes work wonders, while bad ones can wreak havoc – by misdiagnosing issues, for example, or sending clients on a wide array of emotional goose-chases. It’s possible to define all suffering as being caused exclusively by childhood trauma, and then to spend years searching for memories of various traumas in order to “cure” that suffering. To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a therapist trained in the approach of hunting traumas, every aspect of behavior can be “explained” as the result of some form of childhood trauma. Same with genes, conditioning, etc.
In this sense, a great deal depends on the approach. Some approaches can foster narcissism and an obsession with feelings instead of making a person more empathetic, kind, or selfless. Others can encourage people to listen solely to themselves, which can translate into them becoming self-absorbed jerks to everyone else.
Therapy can also become an ongoing, endless process of “always healing, never healed.” It can sometimes attempt to solve an existential problem by working solely on psychological issues. While resolving psychological issues is clearly a good thing, at the same time, no amount of psychological work will necessarily resolve certain existential issues. No amount of insight into childhood events will solve angst, for example. The kinds of insight yielded by therapy – often insights into one’s personal life – are often of a completely different nature than the kinds of insights that other contemplative practices can yield.
All of this might seem critical and even overly harsh to therapy. But it’s so widespread and popular, and because it’s often tasked with a critical mission, it deserves some scrutiny.
That said, when it works, it can make a profound difference in a person’s life, as many attest to.
The keys to success in this treacherous terrain seem to be a solid foundation of understanding when it comes to human nature, realistic expectations, an approach that fits the problem we’re trying to solve, and some assurance that the people we’re taking advice from are relatively sane.
These three approaches have things in common.
They all involve seeking out even a few moments of quiet, for example. This means putting the phone down, turning the computer or tablet off, and taking a break from external distractions for at least a few minutes. It means deliberately spending some time alone with our thoughts. It means carving out at least some periods, however brief, when our attention no longer merely flows “out” toward the external world, but instead reverses and directs “within.”
They all involve moments of silence. (This includes therapy. A therapist can ask a question, and before the client responds, there are often at least a few moments of introspection.)
They each require brutal honesty.
They all involve moments of inner stillness.
They each require a willingness to examine ourselves – our own minds and hearts – with an aim to know the truth about what’s really going on in there.
They each require a certain amount of vulnerability, patience, and humility.
They each require a certain kind of commitment and persistence. For these practices to work, we have to actually do them.
Each practice tends to direct one toward a certain “way of life.”
that’s compatible and consistent with that practice.
Meditation isn't really compatible with a habit of hard drugs, for example. Eventually, one of the two will have to go.
At the same time, these practices also tend to occur naturally. Even without training or deliberate intent, we can often find ourselves doing what essentially amounts to meditation, prayer, or therapy spontaneously. It might be prayer when we’re in a foxhole, “therapy” in a conversation with a friend, or a kind of “meditation” when we’re working on a piece of art or writing and trying to be both subjective and objective at the same time.
But instead of waiting for these moments to happen naturally, some decide to harness this dynamic, understand it, and practice it deliberately. This avoids having to wait for those rare and sporadic “natural” moments to happen on their own. It’s like the difference between getting exercise “naturally” and deciding to work out on a regular basis. If we see health is a genuine priority – much less one of the most important things in life – we probably don’t passively wait for it to happen on its own. This is the case, especially when we have the opportunity to squeeze every drop of juice from the time we have.
These are just a few ways these practices share common ground.
The lines between meditation, prayer, and therapy are sometimes blurry.
Each of these can have different specialties and perform different functions, and yet often overlap.
For example, prayer can sometimes involve more soul-searching than therapy. The effort to pray with a whole heart can expose all the ways our heart isn’t necessarily whole. Yet meditation can offer insight into the mind and heart and awareness that’s doing the praying. And sometimes, prayer and meditation are turned to when the problem is really a more mundane emotional-psychological issue that might be better addressed by therapy – such as pessimistic habits of thinking, for example.
G. K. Chesterton famously said, “Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.” This can be true. Therapy sometimes offers painful experiences of digging up and “confessing” our deepest, darkest secrets. But then what? It sometimes stops there. it doesn’t necessarily offer any sort of real “forgiveness for” or “release from” them.
Yet on the other side of the matter, prayer can sometimes offer pseudo-absolution without confession. It’s possible to half-heartedly repeat comfortable words and phrases – and hear comfortable and routine words and phrases in response – with hardly any actual soul-searching going on. Yet an insightful therapist, teacher, or friend can see blind spots and self-deceptions in us that are completely invisible to us, and point them out. Experiences like these can sometimes create more healthy gut-churning and soul-searching than months or years of working on our own.
In these ways and others, a search for clear border lines between these three approaches is often a snipe hunt. It’s a disputed territory where multiple competing approaches are active.
And this only discusses three of them. There are many more.
Yet these three approaches are effective.
They’ve proven to transform actual lives, according to scores of first-person reports over hundreds or thousands of years.
These three approaches aren’t exhaustive. Other techniques are effective as well, all of which can be described under a broad banner of “inner work.” We all do some forms of “inner work,” to a degree, but we can also move in directions that make our efforts more condensed, potent, and fruitful.
But we can’t isolate a single emotion from everything else. Every technique eventually has to be integrated with one’s everyday life. That is no small task.
It all adds up to a certain way of life.
So, to answer the question at the back of everyone’s mind: No.
There doesn’t seem to be a Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique that works for “personal transformation”?
There are techniques. Some are effective. But like any martial arts move, it has to be practiced and performed.
There is no shortcut.
Zen author and therapist Hubert Benoit spent a serious amount of time and energy searching for such a technique. For a while, he thought he had found one. But he later abandoned it.
He later compared the search for a specific technique to one of moving rocks. He said, when speaking of a certain kind of transformation or spiritual awakening, “If Realization was assured to anyone who moved six thousand stones one by one the distance of a mile, many people would do this work agreeably. But to think for ourselves…” (The Interior Realization, 53)
This might seem discouraging to anyone who wants a clear and specific “technique.” But hopefully, it’s helpful in helping us avoid wasting time in a snipe-hunt, a search for something that doesn’t exist. Instead of searching for “the perfect martial arts move” or “perfect football play,” we’d be better off just practicing our chosen craft.
We’d be better off just practicing.
A paradox lives at the bottom of much of this.
The resolution to our “human condition” won’t be fully unlocked by any particular “technique.”
Yet techniques such as the three above can also be a critical ingredient in the effort.
In this sense, it can be like music, art, sports, martial arts, and many other disciplines.
There’s a time for theory, drills, analysis, and practice. And then there’s also a time to abandon them.
There’s a time to go by the book. But there’s also a time to improvise and be spontaneous. There’s a time to turn off the computer and blow up the Death Star, and even to disobey direct orders and do a fly-by after winning a dogfight.
If we improvise from the start, and only improvise, without doing our homework and learning some basics, we probably won’t get far. Musicians who merely “improvise” without learning the basics rarely get much of an audience beyond their longsuffering parents. On the other hand, we might practice our scales and chords perfectly – but if we do nothing else, and never really switch gears into expressing our selves, then we’ll never make the unique music that only we can make.
“Most people die
With their music still locked up inside them.”
- Benjamin Disraeli
So, there seems to be a time to pick it up, and a time to put it down.
An important key seems to be in the process more than the content.
We might meditate or pray imperfectly, or spend hours or months in therapy while seeming to get no results. But sometimes, the effort itself can shape us. Working through the mess and imperfection of it all can become the practice itself.
If we meditate or pray or introspect “imperfectly,” but just stick with it and persist, we might find that, over time, we get our sea legs. We learn the terrain. Like playing a new video game or learning any new skill, what initially seems strange and awkward at first soon becomes familiar. If we just persist through the messy and awkward stages where nothing seems to work, somewhere in the struggle itself, we can experience the flash of insight, the release we’ve been looking for, or a realization that our prayers have actually being answered.
It’s not a direct, straight-line, 1+1 formula of mathematical addition. This realm seems to work in a way that’s more indirect, probabilistic, and paradoxical. If the gears of our ego or self can develop enough system of inner checks and balances, maybe those gears can balance or jam up just enough for the tension to cause a leap to an entirely different level.
The result can be a transformational breakthrough.
The key to life doesn’t seem to lie in discovering some secret technique that will suddenly solve all our problems. But at least part of our human predicament seems to lie in our inability to see our own blind spots – or, in other words, to know ourselves.
In this sense, it’s as if we’re all trapped in our own private prisons that can only be unlocked from the inside.
But inside these cells, we have tools to work with.
We can pick locks with needles, dig through walls with tiny knives, or smuggle hidden messages to friends outside who can break us out.
So instead of Kill Bill, maybe our search should be for a Shawshank Redemption.
Maybe the important part isn’t to find the perfect tool. It’s to choose a tool – any tool – and use it.