Modern science, medicine and management have discovered mindfulness, the utilitarian recruitment of, in particular, eastern meditation and philosophy. It is sold to us as a means to relieve stress, discover balance, be present in the now and be more productive at work, a better parent or partner, or whatever you choose really. I have even heard military people trumpet its value for improving soldiers ability in the field (read their ability to kill others.)
I will not deny mindfulness has its benefits but it is not meditation and contemplation. Unlike mindfulness as we are ‘sold’ it, meditation and contemplation does not necessarily lead to less stress, more balance, a comfortable place in the world or more production or being a better parent. Contemplation and meditation is an encounter with the deep, the unimaginable, the unknowable and the unnameable. They bring us out of our duality (this and that) into a confronting unity with that which we cannot name.
Contemplation and meditation are disturbing, or should be if we detach ourselves from our devices of denial and avoidance. They should raise in us questions about who we are, what we are doing, the why in what we do, the truth in what we do or are asked to do, and to bring us to the possibility of not doing what we have been expected to do.
In my chat with the youngsters (and others) in the first session of a 3 day silent retreat, I warn them, amongst other things, that there is every possibility they will be disturbed by thoughts they thought they had dealt with, nightmares will awake them sweating and trembling and they will encounter feelings and emotions they have thought long since discarded. It is interesting in discussion to discover, after the first day, most think I am talking twaddle and comment how wonderful it is. Sometime during the second or perhaps third day they come up to me and say you were right, and recount an experience they had overnight or that came upon them during the day. As we work through these experiences, they discover something of the incredible depth unearthed by silence and stillness.
Jesus goes into the desert, not as a tourist to marvel at what he would see there, but as a means to a deep encounter with himself. The desert is the wild place, the place where we encounter ourselves, our motivations, our hidden self for the very first time. We have in our gospel today the description of three such experiences for Jesus, perhaps the culmination of all the thoughts, emotions, and fears he encountered over the forty days.
I can only imagine how difficult 40 days of silence alone with your self would be like. Having done a number of 6+ days in silence and knowing how challenging that can be, 40 days would dig very deep into the deepest recesses of your soul and, for Jesus, dredge and unlearn all he had learnt as a Jewish boy growing up in a devout family in an ordinary neighbourhood of Nazareth.
The key to this experience for Jesus is the understanding that a human being is one, a unit, an indivisible unit which can not be separated into its parts and maintain its integrity. The dictionary definition of indivisibility is something that is “not divisible; not separable into parts; incapable of being divided”.
Our modern world seeks to divide and separate us as human beings. This is done by roles (work, family etc.), materialism (haves and have nots), progress (first world, third world), gender, race, psychological profiling and more. We are divided by what is right and what is legal, what we know and what we don’t know, what we need and what we want. When we finish dividing ourselves up there is little left that we can call a person.
Thomas Merton, in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, writes: “There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit one-self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralises our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Jesus in the wilderness answers the devils ‘If then….’ with a single word – indivisibility. I am indivisible from that which is found at my centre – God. God is my beginning and my end. I can find no meaning or purpose in life if I become disconnected from God. If I divide myself into a God person and an ego driven self then I cease to be a fully alive person, and become just another one of the mob of individuals, thinking they are independent but moving en masse in the same direction as every body else.
We can not reduce this story to individual temptations. It is greater than that. This is about the sin the of not seeing our essential nature, that we are one with God in our creation and our being and to divide ourselves up in search of earthly and material wealth, success and fame leaves us depleted.
We can not reduce this story to a one of ‘the Devil made me do it”, or in this case, ‘the devil nearly made me do it.’ It happens when we divide ourselves off from God and turn God into another object to be possessed and used. Jesus encounters the possible of becoming separated from God, not from an external encounter but as a result of meditation and contemplation uncovering the hidden depths of his psyche. Silence and solitude disturb and tempt us to self medicate by moving us to avoid the gnawing that never ceases.
Jesus doesn’t and sets the pattern for himself, his disciples and for us.
Mindfulness is part of the happiness project. Contemplation and meditation is part of a revolutionary disturbance focussed on becoming fully human and fully alive. It is about restoring the unity and indivisibility we sacrifice when we seek happiness at all costs. Jesus was aware of the present, conscious of those he was with, only because he remained one with that which empowered him from before he was born.
A challenge for us this Lent could be to take the time to contemplate our inner self and to reconnect with God, the ground of our being; to be brave enough to look at those ideas, emotions, decisions which have caused us to become divided and to take steps, gently and carefully, to remain connected and whole, God’s person in a challenging world.