Patterns in Contemplative Life, Part 4: Mystery and Apprenticeship

When making a sincere effort at contemplative practice, one cannot fail to make some important observations about consciousness. In this part of the series, we’ll consider some of those observations and various implications under the heading of “Mystery and Apprenticeship.” These two terms are naturally related, because it is the mystery of a craft that makes apprenticeship within it necessary. Smart apprentices know there is much that they don’t know, including that they aren’t aware of all the ways they lack knowledge. Rather than respond to their ignorance with nothing but fear, indifference, or pretense, they humbly, yet eagerly, commit to learning and growth. Furthermore, they understand that their best development comes not only from their own process of trial and error, but also with the instruction and counsel of others who are more learned, experienced, and skilled.

In the craft of contemplation, among the most common observations is that we can’t always make our minds do what we want to them to do, or stop doing what we don’t want them to do. Frequently, this issue is especially noted with regard to focusing and quieting the mind. Despite its commonality, the problem is apparently shocking to some people, and often discouraging. I’ve heard many people claim such experience as evidence that they can’t practice mindfulness or meditation, taking the attitude that their minds simply don’t work in the way they believe is necessary.

It is true that peoples’ minds work somewhat differently. For example, some people find it hard to clearly visualize things. Aligning thoughts in a logical progression is challenging for others, some find it difficult to name emotions, and others have a hard time with ignoring their physical sensations or with holding concentrated focus on one thing. Recalling my own experience and that of other contemplatives I’ve known, it’s almost always been the case that such difficulties were symptomatic of underdeveloped abilities, and that significant progress was made with consistent efforts. Where there has indeed been an intractable limitation, then finding a different approach to contemplative practice has been helpful. In these respects, contemplative practice is no different than becoming skilled at any art, craft, or new game.

In making the observation that we don’t have as much mental control as we might like, another observation can arise, which is that we are mysteries to ourselves. Even in ordinary non-contemplative experience, we know there are things happening inside us that we aren’t aware of at all, let alone consciously controlling. At the physical level this is obvious and easy to accept, and most of us are happy that we don’t have to keep telling our hearts to pump, our guts to digest our food, and so on. It’s not at all unsettling for most of us to acknowledge that our bodies are doing far more without our conscious awareness and control than with it. But for some people it can be very troubling to realize that the same is true of the psyche. An iceberg is a popular analogy for this truth, but I prefer that of a natural fountain. Just consider for a moment all the invisible subterranean things that must be happening in order for a stream of water to gush up out of the earth. Even what we can see of a majestic geyser like Old Faithful is miniscule within such a context. In much the same way, there is an immense depth, breadth, and complexity of unseen biological, psychological, social, and spiritual factors giving rise to the fountain of a conscious personal self, the relatively small natural wonder that each of us experiences as “me.”

The mystery of self raises a number of implications, not least of which is the foolish hubris of believing we can fully understand or control any other person, or a group, community, nation, or humanity as a whole, not to mention the Supreme Mystery of God. As some of our rites remind us, the great dictum posted in the forecourt of the ancient temple of Delphi was Gnothi Seauton. The special purpose of this temple was to house an entranced priestess who would speak prophecies in response to seekers’ questions about mysteries encountered in their lives. Yet, before entering the temple, that brief maxim, meaning “Know Thyself,” served as a universally applicable preface for whatever might be spoken within the temple. This small and seemingly simple statement was regarded as so profound by legendary philosophers like Pythagoras and Socrates, that they insisted that it was the key to all wisdom. This is perfectly logical, because one’s own consciousness with its unique perspective on the world is the instrument by which we perceive, understand, and respond to everything else. It then follows that the degree to which we have or have not mastered that instrument determines the degree to which we can reliably grasp and manage anything else. It is therefore entirely fitting that the tradition of Masonry continually urges us to attend to our own self-awareness and transformation, and, in doing so, refine the insight and virtue we bring with us into all our endeavors and relationships.

A significant challenge in this work is that this very instrument of one’s consciousness must somehow learn to better grasp and manage itself, and to do so despite the fact of its self-ignorance. Imagine a cloudy mirror that could somehow fold to reflect itself. In doing so it compounds its cloudiness! This imagery is an apt analogy for how contemplative practice can sometimes lead us to fall prey to our own misperceptions, fantasies, and delusions. I’m quite certain that the most conscientious contemplatives have occasionally winced or laughed at themselves in hindsight, realizing that something they had believed was a deep clear insight proved to actually be nothing more than a reflection of their own unconscious hopes, fears, or biases.

The mystery of self and the implications and challenges that come with it brings us full circle back to the relevance of apprenticeship. For very good reasons, the Builder’s Art teaches us that we should seek the instruction of more experienced workers and the counsel of the wise. The model of our mysteries illustrates that there is a natural developmental progression in our work toward self-mastery, and that it is optimized by learning from those who have gone before us. Furthermore, what they have to offer is not only by example and instruction, but just as importantly by serving as mirrors in which we see ourselves from different perspectives. Just as an actual mirror shows us the physical face we cannot see with our own eyes, so can the relatively cleaner mirror of a more seasoned contemplative reveal to us things we wouldn’t otherwise perceive about ourselves. Some of those things may be very pleasant and good, while others may not. So, the risks of apprenticeship include permitting the intimacy required for more of the naked truth of oneself to be seen by another. Given that it can be hard enough to accept the ugly truths of oneself, let alone allow them to be unveiled by others, then it is not surprising that many people avoid apprenticeship in their contemplative lives. More’s the pity because the most beautiful boons are gained by passing through such trials, which books and solitary experimentation cannot provide.

Apprenticeship is an immensely powerful opportunity to directly experience the transformative potential of Masonry’s Principal Tenets – Truth, Relief, and Brotherly Love. This gift is like a rare and invaluable coin, on one side of which is a sign of the relieving truth that the same mystified and struggling humanity within oneself is also within those we most admire. On the other side is the emblem of the Divine Light shining through the eyes of one of its children to lovingly witness and welcome itself shining through the eyes of another. In conclusion, contemplative apprenticeship is one of the most immediate and joyous ways we can more fully know the wonderous reality of ourselves, harmonious unity with each other, and mystical oneness with the Divine. What greater purposes can there be for a contemplative life?