What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action. —Thomas Merton
I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in 1987 because I saw a deep need for the integration of both action and contemplation. Over the years I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love except in their own minds. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good, the attachment to a superior, politically correct self-image.
They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.
The lie always comes in a new form that looks like enlightenment. We are easily allured by the next new thing, the new politically correct agenda. And then we discover it’s run by unenlightened people who in fact do not love God but love themselves. They do not love the truth, but love control. The need to be in power, to have control, and to say someone else is wrong is not enlightenment. Such unenlightened leaders do not love true freedom for everybody but freedom for their new ideas. That’s been my great disappointment with many liberals. Untransformed liberals often lack the ability to sacrifice the self or create foundations that last. They can’t let go of their own need for change and control and cannot stand still in a patient, humble way as people of deep faith often can. It is no surprise that Jesus prayed not just for fruit, but “fruit that will last” (John 15:16). Conservatives, on the other hand, idolize anything that lasts, but then stop asking the question, "Is it actually bearing any fruit?" It is the perennial battle between ideologues and pragmatism.
If we are going to have truly prophetic people who go beyond the categories of liberal and conservative, we have to teach them some way to integrate their needed activism with a truly contemplative mind and heart.
The challenge is to be in the world but not of it.
As Jack Jezreel, founder of JustFaith puts it, “The world cannot be changed by love to become just unless we are changed by love to become whole, but we cannot be made whole without engaging in the work of making the world whole. Personal transformation and social transformation are one piece.” For a full lifestyle change, I believe we need both action and contemplation. The state of the communal soul is the state of the social order.
I often use this line, a paraphrase of Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that caused it.” Unfortunately, we have been trying to solve almost all our problems with the very same mind that caused them, which is the calculating or dualistic mind. This egocentric mind usually reads everything in terms of short-term effect, in terms of what’s in it for me and how I can look good. As long as you read reality from that small self, you’re not going to see things in any new way. All the great religions taught a different way of seeing, a different perspective. This alternative vantage point is the contemplative or non-dual mind. It is what we usually mean by wisdom.
The word contemplation has ancient roots, but for a long time it was not taught much in the Western church. Contemplation was finally rediscovered again through Thomas Merton’s writings in the 1950s and 60s. What is contemplation? Simply put, contemplation is entering a deeper silence and letting go of our habitual thoughts, sensations, and feelings. You may know contemplation by another name. Many religions use the word meditation. Christians often use the word prayer. But for many in the West, prayer has come to mean something functional, something you do to achieve a desired effect, which puts you back in charge. Prayers of petition aren’t all bad, but they don’t really lead to a new state of being or consciousness. The same old consciousness is self-centered: How can I get God to do what I want God to do? This kind of prayer allows you to remain an untransformed, egocentric person who is just trying to manipulate God.
That’s one reason why religion is in such desperate straits today: It isn’t really transforming people. It’s merely giving people some pious and religious ways to again be in charge and in control. It’s still the same small self or what Merton called the false self. Mature, authentic spirituality calls us into experiences and teachings that open us to an actual transformation of consciousness (Romans 12:2).
I think some form of contemplative practice is necessary to be able to detach from your own agenda, your own anger, your own ego, and your own fear. We need some practice that touches our unconscious conditioning where all our wounds and defense mechanisms lie. That’s the only way we can be changed at any significant or lasting level.