Facing the Risk of Self-Discovery

When I was a college senior I stumbled on the writings of Thomas Merton, opening up a contemplative exploration that has shaped my life ever since. A Trappist monk and hermit, Merton wrote some of the most incisive essays of cultural criticism I have ever encountered. He was the first to show me that the contemplative life and the life of an activist are not mutually exclusive.

Merton was also the first to fire my enthusiasm for the rich traditions of Buddhist pratice. My introduction to Zen came during a personal retreat at a Trappist Abby in Oregon in the late ‘70’s. Inspired by Merton, the monks there had begun a regular practice of Zen meditation alongside their daily offices of prayer, and they invited me to join them. Something in the ground-level physicality, pragmatism and rigor of Zen met my need for a more engaged spiritual path than I had found in my training as a Protestant clergyman. I fell in love with the practice.

Merton’s voice resurfaced last week at a dinner with several colleagues who are applying the contemplative arts to a range of professional endeavors, from environmental policy to undergraduate teaching to filmmaking and the arts. David Levy, a professor at the UW Information School, was at the table. He is the author of No Time To Think, and is studying the impacts on college students of immersive social network technologies. David spoke of how his encounter with Merton's writings in college had also been a turning point for him, especially these words from the essay Learning To Live:

“Life consists in learning to live on one’s own, spontaneous, freewheeling: to do this one must recognize what is one’s own – be familiar and at home with oneself. This means basically learning who one is, and learning what one has to offer to the contemporary world, and then learning how to make that offering valid. . . The world is more real in proportion as the people in it are able to be more fully and more humanly alive; that is to say, better able to make a lucid and conscious use of their freedom. . . A superficial freedom to wander aimlessly here or there, to taste this or that, to make a choice of distractions, is simply a sham. . . It is not free because it is unwilling to face the risk of self-discovery.”

I teach and practice meditation because it is the best way I have found, on a nuts-and-bolts level, in real time, “to be more fully and humanly alive.” It is the most direct expression I have found of a commitment to continually “face the risk of self-discovery.” Self-discovery is risky because we don’t get to choose what we find when we enter the wilderness within: the fears, aversions and hostilities that – left unrecognized and unchecked - can send us fruitlessly to war against others and against the world. Unable to make a “conscious and lucid use of our freedom”, and driven to distraction by an ever-expanding menu of superficial options, the end result is that we have declared war on the planet itself. This is why our efforts in the activist arena so need to be leavened by a practice of regular reflection and open-hearted inquiry. What am I not seeing here? What aspects of the truth do my "adversaries" hold? Where does our common humanity lie?

This does not mean that we become passive. On the contrary. Bold and wise action that actually serves the common good is much more likely when it grows out of a soil of honest reflection, and when it is not driven primarily by unexamined anger and fear. As much as any external force one might name, our refusal to look honestly at our own inner habitat of confusion, resentment, and intolerance lies at the root of our great social and ecological challenges. Facing these challenges in a fruitful and sustainable way means also finding the courage to "face the risk of self-discovery", and being brave enough to expand a too-small identity and ideology in response to what we find there.