A conversation yesterday reminded me that contemplative practice is about working with the fundamental spiritual energy of the universe. Holy Spirit moves in and through our spirits, and we carry this energy in our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. Much of contemplative practice is about opening ourselves to this energy, allowing it to flow through us rather than blocking it or clinging to it.
Blocking the flow of energy is a way of avoiding reality. Addiction is, perhaps, the primary expression of "blocking" in contemporary culture. The compulsive use of substances or activities (like work or sex) alters our awareness, dulls and narrows it, and undermines our capacity to integrate and make positive use of the experiences and feelings we seek to avoid. The relief is temporary, however, and leads ultimately to enervation and collapse, as the energy required to suppress awareness leaves one exhausted.
In my work with people recovering from addiction, they often find themselves initially overwhelmed by the energy of emotions long suppressed, but with patience they learn to become aware of the feelings and integrate them into their overall experience without having to be defined by them in a negative way. The learn to have feelings, rather than being had by them.
Holding on to emotional energy is equally problematic. We cling to anger until it becomes resentment; hold on to sadness until it becomes self-pity; become attached to our grief until it becomes despair; find ourselves defined by fears that lose specificity and become generalized anxiety. We can become attached to these feelings, holding on to them and taking our identity from them: "I am angry; I am afraid; I am sad." We become filled with their energy and are unable to make space for a more holistic response to life that holds in awareness joy as well as suffering.
Rather than blocking or holding energy, we are invited to release it. Contemplative practice is about allowing spirit in all its dimensions and expressions to come into our awareness, become integrated into our experience, and released back into the care of Holy Spirit. We do not have to defend ourselves or define ourselves over-and-against anything, but instead can simply observe and let go, observe and let go.
This is, at its heart, the teaching of Jesus on the Beatitudes: "blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who grieve" - we are blessed when we allow ourselves to be in the flow of energy, the exchange of love which is the very life of the Trinity. We don't have to block or hold "negative" feelings but can integrate them into our experience, glean what wisdom we can from them, without losing a sense of our fundamental identity as God's beloved daughters and sons.
This is "kenosis" - the self-emptying which Jesus expressed completely in his Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension - allowing Holy Spirit to flow through him without impediment. It is this capacity for "releasing" energy that allowed St. Paul to make astonishing claims such as "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church." (Col. 1:24) Paul could accept and offer his experience of suffering in union with Christ's suffering for the sake of the salvation of the world. Paul could willingly make sacrifices for the building-up of Christ's body, the Church, because he did not need to defend his ego or preserve his status.
Blocking, Holding, Releasing. Becoming aware of how we impede and cooperate with the flow of Holy Spirit in the energies of our bodies and our world is one of the benefits of contemplative practice. With this awareness and the acceptance it brings, we can begin to make of our lives a free offering in service to God's mission of reconciliation and healing. "Releasing" is the shape taken by the gift of Holy Spirit in our lives. Its content is compassionate service. "Let go" and become free to love.