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Undefended Knowing: A Conversation With Richard Rohr and Tilden Edwards

Their awakening has helped propel the Christian contemplative movement and brought ancient monastic teachings into the digital age. Both envision that sharing contemplative practices enables us all to touch a deeper intelligence and to make us more available to the healing of the world.
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Two seminal teachers of the Christian contemplative movement -- Father Richard Rohr and Tilden Edwards -- joined Carole Crumley in conversation at The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation earlier this year to reflect on their spiritual awakening and parallel paths in the Christian contemplative tradition.

Father Rohr, founding director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, and Edwards, founder and senior fellow of the Shalem Institute, were both young when they started this work: Tilden an Episcopal priest and the director of an ecumenical organization focused on social issues, and Richard a religious monastic-in-training. Both were inspired by their spiritual hunger to search deeper into the Christian tradition and both discovered a hidden richness there. Their awakening has helped propel the Christian contemplative movement and brought ancient monastic teachings into the digital age. Both envision that sharing contemplative practices enables us all to touch a deeper intelligence and to make us more available to the healing of the world.

What drew you to the contemplative path?

Tilden: Forty years ago, the religious world was different than today. I was part of that way of being in the church, that way of being religious, that way of being prayerful, and something just seemed really deeply missing. And yet, since no one else was talking about that very much, there wasn't a word for it, or a way for it. As I began to explore the long, deep-contemplative tradition and began some practices, it came to me that this was where the hole was.

My basic underlying hunger was for something that I could not even name, because "contemplative" was not a word that anyone used unless you were in a very marginal place in some contemplative community. It was an alien word to so many people. So I felt that I wanted to go deeper myself. I had many years of experience of going to monasteries and retreats. And yet, even as those were presenting what we would call "contemplative" today, it still seemed like they had lost something of the oral tradition and deep lineage, that heart of what the contemplative revelation is about.

At the suggestion of some Christian leaders, I enrolled in a two-month contemplative program of teaching and practices led by a high Tibetan Lama, which helped to open me to a depth of consciousness that I yearned for, as well as a sense of connection of that consciousness with the Christian contemplative tradition. After that I gathered some people together in Washington, DC, in 1973 and the Shalem Institute grew out of that. There were twenty of us who agreed to stay together every week for a couple of hours and have a retreat together as well. Over time, those people began to see that this was filling the hole that they were feeling too and had no name for. And little by little, so much more began to evolve and develop, not only with us, but in the larger culture, where what was so marginal for so long was becoming re-awakened in ways that we had no idea where it might lead.

At first, this was good private prayer that was really deep. Then we began to see this had revolutionary implications for the whole society, not only the church or other religious communities but for the way every institution is grounded.

Richard, was there anything similar, or different, for you?

Richard: First of all, because I joined the Franciscans young, we always had the word "contemplation," and from my first day in novitiate, around 1961, we had to start the day with twenty minutes of silence on our knees. Amazingly, it's what we do now in a sitting position instead of a kneeling position. Those were the first hints that there was another way of knowing, and that it wasn't come to by discursive logic or reasoning or added perception, but it almost came unmediated. I didn't have any theological education then, but I knew there was another way of knowing, and you sort of kept it to yourself, because you weren't sure you weren't fooling yourself, or you really didn't know how to talk about it.

Then, as I grew up I got educated in theology, spiritual theology, particularly the discovery of Thomas Merton. He, for so many of us, gave us the vocabulary that this is an alternative consciousness, that it's not just thinking about God with your reasonable mind, but actually a different mind. And so we started the center in Albuquerque almost twenty-six years ago now with much the same intention.

There's got to be a way to teach people this mind. We made the sad discovery that so much of the church, as Tilden said, didn't seem to know about this mind anymore, even though it was our tradition. And so, many of us studied the history: how we had it, how we lost it. Jesus assumed it and practiced it. But he didn't teach it in a systematic way, although there are some hints that he was trying to teach it. But because it wasn't systematic, the way theology became, we sort of just missed it.

In short, by my time, contemplation in most Christians' minds meant being an introverted personality: liking quiet, sometimes not liking people, or not liking noise. So that needed to be unpackaged, and I think we're twenty-some years into that un-packaging now.

Well now, let's take that word "contemplation." Can you un-package that for us? I mean, what are you talking about here?

Richard: Well let's start with it, the Latin word, contemplat, is seeing, not thinking. So it's a more holistic way of accessing the moment than just the left-brain. I like to call it "undefended knowing," where you keep the screen open, you refuse the dualistic, antagonistic "it's either this or that," which is the way most people prefer to think. They don't know it. So when you refuse this "it's either this or that," you get your usual defenses out of the way of anger, agenda, fear, and judgment. The more you can remain undefended and keep the screen open, I think you have an easier possibility of contemplating a situation.

"Undefended knowing," that sounds very vulnerable to me. What kind of risk-taking or courage does that invite from those who want to enter the contemplative path?

Richard: I think you just named the heart of the problem: that the ego is very defended -- that's almost its definition -- and vulnerability, exposure, self-disclosure, that isn't our natural language; I think you've just named the primary reason people don't try to learn the contemplative stance, or if they do learn it, they run from it, because to stay there, even for twenty minutes, undefended, without returning to my obsessive, compulsive, repetitive patterns, that's a lot of letting go. And who wants to do that? If there isn't a wise teacher to tell you, "it's okay," and it's not only okay, but it's better, it's good.

Tilden: I think one thing that really helps is for people to come to understand that our ego and our mind's thinking are not the only ways we can know something, the only places that tell us where we are, and who we are. There is this whole historic faculty identified in contemplative tradition that we can call our spiritual hearts, which is not just a matter of willing and feeling, but is a matter of knowing. It's a quality of intuitive awareness. When a person is in that quality of presence--with the help of others who can let them trust what's happening there--a sense of inclusive, compassionate, undefended, direct in-touch-ness with what is really there and going on can develop. That provides a whole different possibility for a way of living in human community and of going deeper in your own awareness as the ground for making your decisions and for letting go what gets in the way of that deeper, freer, confident way and place of being.

These years of experience with the contemplative way sound almost like a foreign language, an unknown land, an experience that's unfamiliar, and really, that direct in-touch-ness with what is really real is almost an awakening.

Tilden: It's a way of finding our true home, finally, so it's not alien once people really touch it.

So what does contemplative practice bring to the world today?

Richard: It un-trains us in the reactive response, which is almost always a narcissistic response. It un-trains us in an obsessive-compulsive response, which, now the study of neurons is telling us, most responses are; they're repetitive and compulsive. They're habitual; they're practiced. So when you stop practicing them, as you both know, you stop habituating them, you open up the field. That's, on a very physiological basis, what we're doing. That changes everything.

Tilden: Well, I would certainly agree with what Richard has said, just to word it maybe a little differently -- the practice allows you to drop beneath those reactive places that come from an identification with your separate ego sense of self, and with your mind's capacity to think. It draws you toward a deeper place of awareness in you, awareness of reality as it is, where you touch into what you experience as much more your real self and your real home, and it's a place that's not just your private self and home, but it's one that belongs, you know, it belongs to God. It belongs in connection to the whole creation, and you no longer see yourself acting day by day as just this separate, independent self trying to fragilely protect what you have and to get something more, but you're functioning from a much freer, deeper, clearer, place in you that allows the world, I think, to become a different place.

I want to thank the two of you for rediscovering the contemplative lineage within our own Christian tradition, the mystical tradition, and for bringing this forward for all of us today.

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