Can Contemplation Change the World?

Four years ago I wrote a blog post titled Is Contemplation Dangerous? It was a review of a book called The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You? Written by two British psychologists, the book looks at a variety of meditation practices, such as Transcendental Meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, the book offers a balanced assessment of what science has to say about how meditation can — and cannot — make a difference in terms of our physical and mental health.

Even beyond that the authors of The Buddha Pill look at the question of whether meditation, especially when practiced intensively and without adequate supervision, might even by dangerous or harmful to a person’s well-being. I think this is an important question, and it needs to be addressed, not only by the healthcare community, but by those who promote meditation even if only on a spiritual level.

I’m not a scientist, psychiatrist, or physician, so everything I say in this blog is only anecdotal in nature — and it goes without saying that this blog is not meant to be a source for medical or psychological advice. When in doubt consult a qualified healthcare provider. Speaking strictly as a writer and spiritual teacher, I think that meditative practices (like centering prayer, the Jesus Prayer, and other Christian forms of meditation) are very gentle and safe tools for cultivating spiritual wellness and that also can contribute to physical or psychological benefits such as relaxation, cultivating inner peacefulness, and perhaps even alleviating the symptoms of conditions like depression or  high blood pressure.

But I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He teaches undergraduate religion courses, and he commented that some of his students criticize meditation practices as a kind of “religious painkiller” — an effective tool for helping religious people to feel better about themselves, but that actually undermine efforts to make needed changes both in religious communities and in society as a whole.

It’s the classic Marxist criticism of religion: the opiate of the people. For Marxists, religion is a problem because it undermines the efforts of ordinary people to struggle for better living conditions. Religion offers a pie in the sky in exchange for docile behavior here and now.

Could contemplative and meditative practices work in a similar way? They cultivate a shallow sense of inner peace and serenity, and by doing so lull their practitioners into a kind of sleepwalking state that prevents people from instituting the real reforms that religion — and society as a whole — desperately need?

Since I had the conversation with my friend, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Once again, I’m not a social scientist or a political theorist. So my thoughts on this question are strictly my own musing. But I think this is a question that anyone interested in spiritual practices needs to consider, so here I’m taking my own crack at it.

What it boils down to is this: the corollary to “Is contemplation dangerous?” is simply this: “Can contemplation change the world?” And I think the answer to both questions is, “Yes, depending on if we do it right.”

Contemplation Can Change the World — But Only if You Do it Right

Anyone who has more than a superficial experience with a sustained, daily practice of meditation, centering prayer, zen, etc., quickly learns that this is not a shortcut to inner peace.

Does meditation help us cultivate inner peacefulness? I believe it can. But it does so be relentlessly challenging us to face, and heal/transform, everything within us that undermines our own serenity.

In other words, meditation helps us to clean house, but by shining a big bright light on all the spots where the dirt is hiding. And then it’s up to us whether we actually want to do the hard work of cleaning.

In his video series on “The Spiritual Journey,” Father Thomas Keating, the most articulate and nuanced teacher of the centering prayer method, speaks about a process he calls “the unloading of the unconscious.” It’s a recognition that when we learn to tend to the silence within us by gently letting go of our attachment to our thoughts and feelings, what often can happen is a process of psychic catharsis — as our deeply buried painful memories, unresolved conflicts, feelings of rage or jealousy or envy, and other such “shadow” materials slowly come to awareness in the gentle process of contemplation. The mind and heart shines this light, not in the interest of causing inner distress, but in a process of facilitating inner healing. But just as housecleaning is a lot of hard work, so too the “unloading” process of contemplative practice can feel turbulent, uncomfortable, or even traumatic.

So back to the question of whether contemplative or meditative practices can actually make a real difference in our lives. I believe anyone who engages in this kind of practice with a sincere desire to grow spiritually, and supported by a properly-formed spiritual director or a caring community of faith, can be transformed in a very deep and powerful way. But this goes a lot deeper than just “finding inner peace.” So if anyone is engaging in silent practices as a way of avoiding the hard work that needs to be done in your personal life, or in your community, the practice itself will tend to undermine your efforts to avoid the hard work of transformation.

At the end of the day, getting a prescription to a sedative or a tranquilizer is probably a much more effective “opiate” than meditation or contemplation.

That’s not to say that these practices can’t be abused — I’m sure they can. But it would seem to me that anyone who is engaging in meditation or contemplation just to find inner peace or to avoid conflict will probably give it up sooner rather than later. Because the rewards of this kind of practice are only discerned over time — and in the meantime, if you are doing meditation right, you will find much more inner turmoil than inner peace — because you’re human, and that’s the human condition!

But still, the question remains: can meditative practices actually help to make the world a better place? I certainly believe so. But meditation moves slow like a tortoise, not fast like a hare. Those who insist on immediate results, whether in psychological self-improvement or in social engineering, will likely chafe at the long approach to history (and transformation) that meditation represents.

Every generation has injustices and systems of privilege and violence that need to be urgently addressed, now. And God bless those activists and revolutionaries who are willing to do the hard work necessary to agitate for immediate change. But I must say, I personally think they will all be more effective at what they do if they undergird their political activism with a sustainable daily spiritual practice.

But we have seen too much bloodshed in history, spilled in the interest of social or political revolutions — only to create new systems that are just as unjust as those they replaced. There is, in the end, only one real and sustainable revolution: the revolution of higher consciousness propelled by authentic love. Contemplative and meditative practices are in the business of cultivating both compassion and higher consciousness, so these are the necessary tools for the only real revolution that will last — and will not create more problems than it solves. But again: this is slow-moving and long-term. Many will chafe at that. Which is why I think all real efforts to cultivate real social or political change must combine the urgency activism for immediate change with a persevering commitment for lasting transformation, that begins with each of us taking responsibility for our own inner transformation.

So when you sit down to be silent before the Ultimate Mystery, be mindful that what you are doing is “dangerous” — not in the sense that it will hurt you, but in the sense that it really is powerful enough to change you from the inside out. But this “dangerous” tool is also powerful enough to change the world, as long we each commit to the essential first step: the long, slow, relentless process of first changing the world within each of us.

Featured image: Police Officers in Canada learn meditation at a Buddhist center.

Enjoy reading this blog? Take a second to support it on Patreon!
Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.