By Ron Barnett
Fr. Thomas Keating often spoke of the contemplative dimension of life (CDL) and how we can awaken to it via the experience of nature, science, art and religion. While he viewed them as co-equals in many respects, he’d also say with a twinkle that religion was not a bad way either. He also noted that the CDL was not discovered but rather awakened to. Why awaken? Because it is something that is already inside all of us, and we only need to consent to it versus discovering it outside of self. His emphasis on awakening was evident by the theme chosen for a a couple of Contemplative Outreach’s annual meetings: “Awakening to the Contemplative Dimension of Life” in 2010 in Atlanta, and ”Re-Awakening to the Contemplative Dimension of Life” in 2011 in San Francisco.
Through those meetings and in readings that seemed to come to me from nowhere from time to time, I’ve been drawn to and resonated strongly with what some might consider somewhat unorthodox accounts and understandings of the contemplative dimension of life. Such an example comes from Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost scientific authority on chimpanzees and advocate for the environment, when she claimed, while being in an African forest: “It seemed to me…the self was utterly absent: I and the chimpanzees, the earth and trees and air, seemed to merge, to become one with the spirit power of life itself.” (from her autobiography Reason for Hope); and in the early 1950’s, Frederic Spiegelberg’s religion of no-religion with non-conceptual Zen as its prototype; also, the life of the 13th Century Christian Beguine Marguerite Porete with her little (institution) and big (spiritual) churches and the notion of the simple soul, one bent on nothing, on becoming nothing, and doing things for nothing. Another example would be Roger Housden’s book, Keeping the Faith Without a Religion. Whenever I came upon such readings and stories I increasingly felt that I understood myself more deeply.
As Wordsworth wrote:
Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim
My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly,
A dedicated Spirit. On I walked
In thankful blessedness, which yet survives.
Like the proverbial moth I was drawn to all of this and it was affirming of what I seemed to be experiencing in my own unique situation. That led me to look for the commonality, the connection that binds it all.
In addition, for several years I have studied intensively with two teachers with Buddhist backgrounds in order to learn how to better perceive the visual world sans concepts and to photographically express the beauty, uniqueness and elegance therein. This approach is very human oriented in that, while there is reference to a living dharma art tradition, there is no prescribed doctrine, dogma or deity, but I’ve learned that there is much in common with the via negativa; and I’ve learned to relate to my teachers and other students without needing to inject my Christian perspective as we share a commitment to knowing things as they are, not as we think they are. This has represented for me somewhat of a broad disidentification in the best sense of the word. Although I admit, we’ve had some lively discussions on whether Centering Prayer is non-discursive, non-conceptual meditation!
And finally, I retired from a career earlier this year. And while COVID has taken up a lot of the free space as it has for many, psychologically, socially and physically, there has remained a waiting for whatever is wanting to happen in the free space. After much discernment including consultation with others, it now seems it is to produce and host a podcast on the CDL with invited guests. The independent podcast will explore the CDL wherever and with whomever it is expressing and we’ll hear from several Contemplative Outreach elders along the way. In so doing, I hope I can live out and share the spirit of Porete’s simple soul – bent on nothing, becoming nothing, and doing things for nothing.
Ron has served Contemplative Outreach in multiple capacities – as a chapter coordinator, board member and trustee, commissioned Centering Prayer presenter, group facilitator, retreat staff, and he now serves on the board’s Thomas Keating Gift Committee. He recently retired from a career in biomedical research and is a certified teacher with The Miksang Institute for Contemplative Photography. Though retired, Ron stays busy learning how to produce and host the new All Things Contemplative podcast and still swims, bikes and kayaks along the way. His photography is here.