Saturday, April 2, 2011

Thomas Merton: On Contemplation and the Inner Path

Eckhart Tolle
Author of, "The Power of Now"
The enlightened modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, made the observation that Rene DesCartes (the father of the 'empirical rationalism' that drives modern science) got it completely wrong in his most basic statement: "Cognito, ergo summa;"  or, "I think, therefore I am."

Objectively, DesCartes' famous dictum may be true; but subjectively, it is perhaps wholly wrong. As Tolle and so many rishis and sages of all ages and continents before him have pointed out, our "thinking without awareness" is the main dilemna of human existence. It is the root cause of all suffering.

Men and women get themselves confused with, caught up in, and identify themselves with, the restless inner dialogue of the human ego and then act upon it, usually to the detriment of others and always to the ultimate detriment of themselves.

Our usual mode of constant egoic thinking combined with an "outer" rather than "inner" religious worldview, and the sure-fire conviction that our exoteric religious beliefs are the only right and valid views, has been the chief source of man-made violence and death for millenia untold, and it continues to be so, as philosopher Ken Wilber has pointed out.

And yet, the "inner" or "esoteric" spiritual path that is present but largely ignored in most wisdom traditions is one of the few - and may be the only - way out of humanity's individual and collective suffering, as Wilber has concluded.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)
As the renowned Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, observed in one of his letters that makes for the substance of the embedded video (below), the inner, contemplative path, rather than mere intellection and the application of reason, is the essence of all wisdom traditions.

To this effect, Merton notes:
"Oh, my Brother! The contemplative is not the man who has fiery visions of the cherubim-carrying God in his chariot, but simply he who has risked his mind in the desert beyond language and beyond ideas where God is encountered in the nakedness of pure trust; that is to say, in the surrender of our poverty and incompleteness, in order no longer to clench our minds in a cramp upon themselves, as if thinking made us exist."

In explaining what 'contemplation' and the 'contemplative life,' are,  Merton notes that contemplation is "a more profound depth of faith; a knowledge too deep to be grasped in images or words, or even in clear concepts." He observes:
"Contemplation is the highest expression of man's intellectual and spiritual  life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness, and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant source. 
Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that source. It knows the source, obscurely, inexplicably, but with a certitude that goes beyond both reason and beyond simple faith. For contemplation is a kind of spiritual vision to which both reason and faith aspire by their very nature, because without it they must always remain incomplete."

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