(You can read Tizwot’s Story at this link if you haven’t already.)
I read this quote in a Richard Rohr Daily Meditation email recently and it set me thinking about the ways in which I respond to things:
‘[Here is] a simple schema for noticing from where we are listening and responding at a given time.
‘Listening from the Little Ego Self: This is the conditioned, coping personality dimension of our nature, our “little” self. It is a gift of God that allows us to enjoy and function in the world. However, when we identify with this dimension of self as our ultimate identity, then we can become dominated by its often fearful, over-securing, control-seeking drives and attachments. . . .
‘Listening from the Thinking Mind: The mind draws the words we hear and speak through the filter of its learned concepts, categories, images, and values. Our rational and imaginative mind is a great gift of God, including its capacity to recognize and resist our ego’s way of skewing reality. However, if the mind is the ultimate place from which we listen and respond, if we believe its insights bring us fully into the truth, then we have overstepped its capacity. We are in danger of confusing its views with ultimate reality itself. Our concepts then become idols that shrink the great mystery of divine reality to what those concepts can contain, rather than being valuable symbols that point to deep reality beyond the capacity of words and images to fully grasp.
‘Listening from the Contemplative Heart: When we most deeply listen and respond from a third place in us, our spiritual heart, then we more easily avoid the pitfalls of rational idolatry and ego drives, while at the same time respecting the gifted place of rational-imaginative thought and ego functioning in our lives. Our gifted contemplative heart includes our capacity not only to will and intimately feel, but also to “know” deep reality more holistically, intuitively, and directly than our categorizing, thinking minds. In our heart we are immediately present to what is, just as it is, in the receptive space before our thinking mind begins labeling, interpreting, and judging things, and before our ego fears and grasping become operational.’
Tilden Edwards, “Aging from the Contemplative Heart,” “Ripening,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 47-49.
Tilden Edwards’ words seemed to bring into focus something I’ve long been thinking about. In observing myself and others, I can see those three responses so clearly. I can see the ‘little self’: the part of me that reacts instinctively to things, pushing away what I don’t like, throwing up my shields against things that I find uncomfortable. And generally shrinking away from things that scare me. This little self is mostly obsessed with keeping everything nice and safe … the way it should be. But if I’m honest, this little self is also a control freak, prone to prejudice and judgementalism. She leaps to conclusions, panics at perceived danger , and if that doesn’t work, she comes out fighting, yelling ‘this is not OK with me!’
My thinking mind, on the other hand, is altogether calmer. Oh, she’s no less quick to judge a person or situation she doesn’t like, but instead of running scared or letting rip, she sets herself to the task of fixing things. If something comes along which she deems to be somehow wrong or problematic, she applies her well-honed logic to finding a solution. She too has been a life-saver at times. When my little self has had nothing to offer but alarm bells and old nightmares, my thinking mind has come to the rescue, fervently reassuring me that even if we can’t avoid this unpleasantness, we’ll find a way to put it right somehow.
And of course, I could continue to live under the well-meaning tyranny of that responsible, reliable, rational fixer, if it weren’t for the fact that life brings me many people and situations which do not need fixing. Resolution is all well and good when it’s what is most needed, but the further I go in life, the more I realise that my fixing skills are rarely ever required. If fixing is what’s needed, it is work to be done by God and the person or people directly involved.
So, when I am faced with things I don’t agree with or situations I don’t like, I’m not keen to react out of my little self, ‘all instinct and claws’, and neither do I want to be driven by the need to make everything more palatable by fixing, so what is left?
It’s what Edwards calls the ‘contemplative heart’. It is the second armchair which I make room for in myself – the place where I invite newcomers to sit down and tell me their story. That newcomer might be a person, someone I don’t immediately warm to, someone who holds opinions I find abhorrent, or someone who simply isn’t living life the way I think they should. That newcomer might be a set of circumstances which I don’t like, or the need to do something I’m unsure about. The newcomer is simply anything that doesn’t sit comfortably with me. My little self would send it packing, and my thinking mind would reshape it till it fits me better, but my contemplative heart commits to sitting with it anyway, even though the experience may be awkward and uncomfortable. My contemplative heart commits to listen first – to hear the story and see the person. Hearing and seeing come before reacting and resolving. Only when I’ve heard and seen – when I’ve been present with the newcomer – can I know what I might have to offer them, and what they might have to offer me.
This third way of responding has been transformative for me. Life brings me alongside all kinds of people with all kinds of stories and opinions, and there is a freedom in not needing to rush to fend them off or fix them. I can simply sit with them, letting them be who they are. When my little self rushes into the room crying danger, or when my thinking mind gets out the flip chart to start mapping out the improvement plan, I can speak to them gently, saying, ‘Be at peace. It is what it is’.
If your own little self is yelling at me through the screen that this all sounds very unsafe – that we shouldn’t be giving armchair room to anything and anyone because they might be a real threat – let me reassure you. The contemplative heart is, if you like, the welcoming place within you. Newcomers don’t get the run of the house straight away. The contemplative heart knows how to listen and welcome without letting boundaries be overstepped or vulnerable places be invaded. To welcome a guest is not to hand over the keys or give them permission to trash the place, it is just to let them be who they are, all the while letting yourself be who you are.
I don’t believe we can get to that place of deep inner peace and gentle acceptance without a bit of help from outside, so to speak. To make that second armchair available within us … to sit with things as they are, not rushing to fix them or protect ourselves from them … that takes deep faith and trust, and I’m not sure it’s possible until we know we are inherently safe, until we realise deep down that we are not alone and defenceless in a World as complex as this. For me, that knowing only comes through prayer. As I tune my soul to the one who is around me, within me, beyond me, then I am reminded that God accepts me. The one who could send me packing or set me straight simply chooses to sit with me. I hold the fragile threads of my life, and speak my truest truth:
‘It is what it is.’
And the answer Comes, gentle and mighty:
‘And I am who I am.’
Let me finish with some more words from Richard Rohr:
‘If your prayer goes deep, “invading” your unconscious, as it were, your whole view of the world will change from fear to connection, because you don’t live inside your fragile and encapsulated self anymore.
‘In meditation, you move from ego consciousness to soul awareness, from being fear-driven to being love-drawn. That’s it in a few words!
‘Of course, you can only do this if Someone Else is holding you, taking away your fear, doing the knowing, and satisfying your desire for a Great Lover. If you can allow that Someone Else to have their way with you, you will live with a new vitality, a natural gracefulness, and inside of a Flow that you did not create. It is actually the Life of the Trinity, spinning and flowing through you.’