Patterns in Contemplative Life, Part 1: Remembering the Trestleboard

As a contemplative practitioner, facilitator, teacher, and consultant for many years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe certain recurring patterns in contemplative life. I’m talking about things that are common to most people who are trying to follow a philosophical and spiritual calling that involves genuine inner work. By “inner work” I mean making use of methods that shift consciousness out of the usual states and functions in order to open to and develop new possibilities of Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty. I’d like to reflect on some of these patterns with you, and I expect that this will be the first of several posts on that topic.

An interesting thing about many of these patterns is that when individuals start encountering them, they often don’t seem like patterns at all, but are instead very personal experiences. Whether the particular experiences are pleasant or unpleasant, it can appear as though they are unique to oneself, and so they can contribute to feelings of isolation, aloneness, and even a kind of alienation from others. Such feelings, perhaps especially the pleasant ones, can fuel an egoic sense of specialness, grandiosity, and even a kind of mania. On the other hand, the unpleasant ones may contribute to loss of self-esteem and self-efficacy, to harsh self-judgment, and even anxiety and depression.

Part of the problem here is cultural. Those of us living in industrial and post-industrial societies (now most of the world) are, to some extent, working against our cultural norms when we dive into contemplative pursuits. It’s not that contemplative practices and experiences are foreign to our culture, but that they have been largely relegated to a kind of specialization that diverges from the typical expectations and demands of our ordinary lifestyles and values. In other words, if you want to sincerely engage in a contemplative life with routine practices of being still and quiet, turning inward, shifting how your consciousness works and what it’s focused on, then you are, simply and bluntly put, being weird and attempting to take time and space away from the usual flow of things. That’s a fact, not a judgment, and it naturally brings with it certain challenges. Accepting that weirdness and getting comfortable with it is certainly one of them.

In addition to the previously noted feelings and effects, one pattern within the larger pattern of our weirdness is to feel frustration, resentment, anger, even loathing and hostility toward our culture and the people around us who remain more aligned with it than we wish to be. Many contemplatives and wannabe contemplatives have struggled with powerful negative attitudes toward their employers, family members, and friends because these people were directly experienced as agents of resistance to their contemplative aspirations. It is also very common to feel guilt and shame about having those attitudes, especially when they have led to pushing people away, lashing out, and being unkind in other ways. Just being aware of the temptation to do those things may be quite disturbing.

So, if you have had such experiences, please know that you are not at all alone. You feel moved to do something unusual with your life, and it’s simply natural to experience resistance. It’s par for the course. The questions now are about how you respond and navigate through that resistance.

Another and deeper pattern within these larger patterns is projection. This is an ego defense mechanism in which something we don’t want to fully deal with in ourselves is instead treated as if it is external to us, in the world around us. In this case, rather than directly facing some of our own internal resistance to embracing a contemplative lifestyle, we distort our perceptions of other sources of resistance and even imagine it coming from places where there may in fact be none at all. In effect, we allow other people and circumstances to take the blame for our own hesitance and ambivalence, which permits us to feel better about ourselves, maybe even seeing ourselves as noble victims persecuted by a stupid, diseased, and evil world.

As a Mason, observing this patten in myself reminds me of the lessons of the 24-inch Gauge and Common Gavel. My first job as a contemplative is to be unflinchingly, yet compassionately, honest with myself about my time management and the vices and superfluities within me that obscure the deeper potentials I feel called to discover and realize in this life. Only then can I begin to have the clarity to see more of the possibilities already present for actualizing my contemplative aspirations.

Note that this first step is an act of interior communication – parts of self welcoming, accepting, and coming to more clearly understand other parts of self. I’ve written more about this under the heading of “Shadow work.” That kind of internal communication prepares for and supports the external communication that is crucial to more effectively and peacefully establishing a contemplative lifestyle within ordinary society.

An indispensable part of our response to resistance is communicating with significant others about our contemplative aspirations. It is not at all unusual for the people closest to us to feel that our desires to change are threatening to our relationships with them. They sense us becoming different, are aware of its effects on our attitudes and actions, and begin to speculate, perhaps only semi-consciously, on where things are headed. The less they understand what is happening, then the more likely their reactions are to be shaped by suspicion, anxiety, and defensiveness. That is perfectly human!

In this communication with others, we are acting by the Plumb, the tool that urges us to be upright, authentic, and genuine. That means sharing with others why we want to pursue contemplative practice, how we think it will benefit us and those around us, and what we see as necessary conditions for the work to proceed. And, very importantly, it means being fully honest and open about our own lack of complete understanding, acknowledging that there are mysteries about the whys, hows, whens, and wheres of it all, and that penetrating into those mysteries is a necessary part of the adventure.

We also need to be on the Square, talking about and demonstrating the Faith, Hope, and Love that motivate us, and openly committing to the virtues that will continue to guide us as we trek through this new territory. These steps necessitate working with our significant others, partnering with them in figuring out how we can continue to be dearest companions, even if we aren’t walking the road of life in exactly the same way.

In that last comment, we find allusions to the Level and the Trowel. The Level is an implement of the Craft that reminds us that we are all walking on the road of life in this world. No matter how different or alone we may feel, the fact is that we are not actually totally alone. Whether contemplatives or not, every one of us is facing the same fundamental existential demands. Not only is everyone else facing the same basic challenges, we are also all interconnected with each other, our attitudes and actions inevitably affecting each other to some extent. Rather than foolishly trying to deny or escape that interconnectedness, the Builder’s Art supplies us with the Trowel, the Master Mason’s tool of loving cooperation and collaboration. It makes possible the processes by which we create peaceful, harmonious, joyful, and productive coexistence with others who are very different from us in some ways.

The more fully we employ these lessons of the Craft’s working tools, then the more we will be actively engaging a contemplative way of life, and the less at odds we will be with ourselves, with those people most important to us and to whom we are most important. It’s all right there in the patterns on the Trestleboard.