When 'happiness' eludes us -- as, eventually, it always will -- we have the invitation to examine our programmed responses and to exercise our power to choose again. Through exaggeration, confusion, and distortion, we have allowed our politics, our church and our families to fall out of emotional balance. We can learn to heal our reactive responses by seeking "emotional sobriety," which is really the task that we call contemplation.
Bill Wilson, one of the founders of the 12 Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous, said that recovery was not complete until addicts achieved "emotional sobriety." In many ways he was saying the same thing that mystical religion recognized -- authentic spirituality should lead to a total "rewiring" of both our conscious lives and our unconscious programming. It will not just change external behavior, but internal emotions and responses, our entire pattern of thinking.
Contemplation is not first of all about being religious, introverted, or pious -- it is about being emotionally and mentally honest! Contemplation is an alternative consciousness that refuses to identify with or feed what are only passing shows. It is the absolute opposite of addiction, consumerism or any egoic consciousness.
Egoic consciousness is the one we all normally operate with, until we are told there is something else! Every culture teaches egoic consciousness in different ways. At that level it is all about me, my preferences, my choices, my needs, my desires and me and my group as the central reference point. It was religion's job to tell us about a different kind of software and the original word for it was simply prayer. But even the concept and practice of prayer became captive to the voracious needs of the ego. Even prayer became a way to get God to do what we wanted.
Thus we use the word contemplation so people might know we are talking about a totally different operating system, different software where the private self is not the center of attention and interpretation. This is the "grain of wheat" that Jesus says must die "or it remains just a grain of wheat." But if it dies, "it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Mature and contemplative religion has always known that we need a whole new operating system, which Paul called "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16) or a "spiritual revolution of the mind" (Ephesians 4:23).
Only with this new mind can we also develop a new heart and a new emotional response to the moment. When it is not all about me, I can see from a much deeper and broader set of eyes. In time our responses are much less knee jerk, predictable and self-centered. Only contemplative prayer touches the deep unconscious, where all of our real hurts, motivations and deepest visions lie. Without it, we have what is even worse -- religious egoic consciousness, which is even more defensive and offensive than usual! Now it has God on its side and is surely what Jesus means by the unforgivable "sin against the Holy Spirit." It cannot be forgiven because this small self would never imagine it needs forgiveness. It is smug and self-satisfied.
We must learn and practice this new mind or there will be no real change, no authentic encounter with ourselves, God or anybody else. Find your own practice and learn a new mind. Contemplation really is the change that changes everything.
This article is adapted from "The Change that Changes Everything," by © Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, in the October 2011 edition of The Drumbeat. Used with permission of The Center for Action and Contemplation.
Fr. Richard Rohr will speak on the topic of "Emotional Sobriety: Rewiring Our Programs for Happiness" in an upcoming webcast from the Center for Action and Contemplation.