I’m participating in Sharon Salzberg’s 28-Day Real Happiness Meditation Challenge again this year, and my plan for this blog series is to write a poem or reflection on each day’s practice. You can find all the responses on the landing page.
I’m currently reading Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and in a heady chapter on philosophy I was relieved to come across her lengthy mention of Trappist monk Thomas Merton, one of my few heroes. I’m going to quote extensively, because what she says mirrors Sharon’s comments and meditation today: “What we do in terms of inner work is never for ourselves alone. As alone and cut-off as we sometimes may feel, the reality, the truth of our existence is that we’re all connected.”
Here’s Odell on Merton, first quoting him in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (which I have, falling apart at the seams and liberally inked with my notes) about an epiphany he had some time in the early 1960s:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.”
“From that point on until the end of his life, Merton published a score of books, essays, and reviews that not only commented on social issues (particularly the Vietnam War, the effects of racism, and imperialist capitalism) but also lambasted the Catholic Church for giving up on the world and retreating into the abstract. In short, he participated.
“In one of the those books, Contemplation in a World of Action [a very influential book for me], Merton reflects on the relationship between contemplation of the spiritual and participation in the worldly, two things the Church had long articulated as opposites. He found that they were far from mutually exclusive. Removal and contemplation were necessary to be able to see what was happening, but that same contemplatoion would always bring one back around to their responsibility to and in the world. For Merton, there was no question of whether to participate, only how.”
Odell then discusses the need for temporary retreat or escape from the attention economy, a stepping back from the whipping up of fears and anxiety, “firecrackers setting off other firecrackers in a very small room that soon gets filled with smoke. Our aimless and desperate expressions on these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement.”
She returns to Merton a page or two later:
“Some hybrid reaction is needed. We have to be able to do both: to contemplate and participate, to leave and always come back, where we are needed. In Contemplation in a World of Action, Merton holds out the possibility what we might be capable of these movements entirely within our own minds. Following that lead, I will suggest something else in place of the language of retreat or exile. It is a simple disjuncture that I’ll call ‘standing apart.’
“To stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving, always oriented toward what it is you would have left. It means no fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world — contemptus mundi — but the channels through which you encounter it day to day. It also means giving yourself the critical break that media cycles and narratives will not, allowing yourself to believe in another world while living in this one. … [T]his ‘other world’ is not a rejection of the one we live in. Rather, it is a perfect image of this world when justice has been realized with and for everyone and everything that is already here. To stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all of the hope and sorrowful contemplation that this entails.”
This, I think, is what Sharon’s talking about — this recognition of the dignity and connection of all beings, and the hope and sorrow arising from our collective and individual blindness to this reality — and this is similar to how I see it, too, except that for me, the other world already exists, not in the future but now, eternal life available in every moment, waiting for us to live it.