Contemplative power

We cannot solve the problems of today out of the same level of consciousness that created them.

Nancy Sylvester
9 May 2019, 4.01pm
Pixabay/TheDigitalArtist. Pixabay licence.

Einstein was right. We cannot solve the problems of today out of the same level of consciousness that created them.

Over these past years the crises facing the planet have intensified, but the economic and political structures that have served to address them since WWII are increasingly ineffective. Just when we need to be creative and imagine new policies and structures, we are locked into a growing polarization fueled by partisan politics. At a time when our thinking needs to be long term and interconnected we operate out of short term electoral politics and a 24/7 news cycle.

What’s really needed is a new kind of consciousness that can hold greater complexity and paradox, one that sees and acts from our interconnectedness and understands that truth is shared among many different worldviews, a consciousness that works to move forward by creating synergy and generating new options for our shared future.

Over time our consciousness evolves. Developing it further is an invitation to contemplative practice. As we practice we begin to respond to what is happening in the world by exercising what I call ‘contemplative power.’ That might sound like an oxymoron since power and contemplation rarely go together in common parlance. But it was out of the conviction that they must that we at the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue (ICCD) coined this phrase.

Our conviction arrived after engaging with hundreds of people around the impasse they were experiencing in the political, social and ecclesiastical arenas. ICCD offered programs starting in 2002 that invited participants to face into this impasse, and to work with that experience collectively in ways that are rooted in contemplation and dialogue. What emerged was a new understanding of change, and of how to imagine and act differently when faced by complex and intractable problems. Here is how we describe it:

“Contemplative Power is within us. It is the divine indwelling to which we have access. It engages and emerges within each of us and all of us. It is our capacity to act and to be out of a space that invites us to see anew, to observe and interpret with new eyes and new ears to see what is our egoic self and what is our God-self. It is compassionate, and centered in our knowing that we are all one, that we are all connected. It is communal, willing to shape the next response attuned to what went before and moving it forward. It is believing that, as we let ourselves be in this deep space, things will realign in us and in the world.”

At one level this seems abstract, but there are lots of concrete ways in which we can respond to inequality and injustice from a contemplative heart, generating new possibilities by exercising a different form of power. Let me share an example on how women religious within the Roman Catholic Church (sisters and nuns) handled a very difficult situation with the official church.

In 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith within the Vatican issued a doctrinal investigation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which is the official organization of elected leaders from various congregations in the United States. As described in Sojourners magazine, the investigation “amounted to a hostile takeover of (the conference)… LCWR was accused of including ‘radical feminist themes’ and fomenting ‘corporate dissent’ from the church's teaching on human sexuality, among other things,” in their Annual Assembly and its publications.

Such Vatican investigations are formulated, and their conclusions announced, without any involvement or prior notice to the parties involved. Once the findings of the assessment were made public the LCWR Presidency had to respond, but how?

Since 2000 LCWR has restated its commitment to contemplation. Over the following decade many religious leaders participated in the ICCD engaging impasse program which is rooted in communal contemplation. In addition, contemplative practice became part of the Assemblies, and many congregations integrated such practices into their congregational processes.

At their first meeting, the Vatican’s representatives expected simple compliance, but the LCWR leaders asked to hear about each other’s ministries and lives. The Bishops expected a short one-off meeting to address how LCWR was going to implement the assessment’s conclusions; the actual result was the first of multiple meetings designed to explore the findings together and see how to move forward collectively.

In 2015 the investigation was concluded, and LCWR shared the following statement:

“We are pleased at the completion of the (investigation), which involved long and challenging exchanges of our understandings of and perspectives on critical matters of religious life and its practice. Through these exchanges, conducted always in a spirit of prayer and mutual respect, we were brought to deeper understandings of one another’s experiences, roles, responsibilities, and hopes for the church and the people it serves. We learned that what we hold in common is much greater than any of our differences.”

Throughout these years the LCWR leadership was challenged to speak with people who have different beliefs and worldviews; to remain whole and act with integrity; to face their own biases and prejudices so as to respond out of a contemplative heart; and to begin a process of dialogue, not knowing if those with whom they engaged were open to the possibility of change.

These women’s capacity to respond to such challenges was intimately connected to their prayer and contemplation that made themselves transparent to themselves. They faced their own biases and worldviews. They allowed for their emotional reactions and then went deeper, finding out what was underneath that was causing such reactions. They owned their own needs and preferred ways of acting, and let them go to see if some new, collective way would emerge to serve the common good.

What developed was a freedom -a courageous freedom to meet those appointed by the Vatican to oversee the mandate with a mutuality and respect that was disarming. Having both the theological background and skills of dialogue and process, they were able to create a different environment by inviting a new way of speaking and listening into the room. They believed that shifting the energy to one of love, curiosity and exploration does effect change. They exercised their contemplative power.

Exercising this form of power requires us to ask questions that stir the imagination so as to open up the conversation rather than shutting it down. It means bringing forward the stories that bring a human face to the different sides of a conflict. It means standing at the intersection of these differences and holding them in such a way as to create space for movement and change. It means engaging in our personal transformation so as to diffuse the egoic bombs within us that keep us from seeing the partial truths of others.

Too often, a spiritual dimension to one’s life is dismissed as a necessary crutch or a balm for one’s fears and insecurities. However, as the crises of our planet continue to intensify, people are struggling to articulate more meaning in life, and to understand why they need to be involved in co-creating a different future. Materialism alone does not provide an adequate response. Neither do the doctrines or dogmas of the major religions. But as more and more people step beyond traditional religious practices to embrace a more contemplative spirituality there is a renewed awakening of purpose and possibility.

Exercising contemplative power invites us to act out of a new consciousness - a consciousness that’s sorely needed to imagine new ways to address the problems of our time.


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