On the surface Thomas Keating’s The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation has the appearance of being a thought provoking book. It is in fact two lectures he gave at The Divinity School at Harvard University. The problem is Keating brings nothing new to the table and what he brings is a bit of a deception.
The concept that drives the two lectures in this short book has been written many times by many writers over many centuries. At its core is a philosophy that is easily recognized as Buddhist in nature though many schools of thought have latched onto it in one form or another. The driving concept is we must shed our false selves until we reach a state of nothingness at which point we realize our connection to the Divine who then reveals to us who and what we actually are. Only by doing this will we ever be able to find true happiness. It is through the practice of some form of meditation (in this case Contemplative Prayer or Centering Prayer) that we slowly and methodically shed our false selves. We understand however that it is not we who are doing the shedding. By meditation or contemplative prayer we are opening ourselves up to allow the Divine to shed the false selves for us. When we get down to absolute nothing, when there is nothing left of who we thought we were, God then has a clear path to fill us and show us who we are in the Divine Nature.
In many cases in which I have encountered forms of this theme whether it be from a Christian, Buddhist, Science of Mind or New Age perspective there is always the underlying, often unspoken, sometimes blatantly declared idea that anyone who is happy outside of this philosophy is living a false happiness. While that may be true for some it certainly isn’t true for all. I have met atheists who are happy and content. I’ve met Catholics that live a life centered on the symbols and practices of their faith (people who Keating would say over identify with their chosen group) and who never take time for contemplation who are happy as oysters on the half shell. I’ve met people who live lives where no meditation or contemplation takes place who are happy.
It seems to me whenever I read a book along this line that there is always the assertion in one way or another, sometimes conspicuous because of its absence, that anyone who does not follow this path is not genuinely happy. But how can we say that about other people? How can we say that because Joe Smith doesn’t follow the path I’ve chosen his happiness is false? How is it fair to state that because Susie Jones who doesn’t take time for meditation and emptying of herself but instead finds happiness and fulfillment in her family and/or career that her happiness is not valid or complete? We can’t. To say this or to even imply it is a statement driven from conceit and ego, and isn’t that what we’re supposed to be shedding?
Here we are being told to empty ourselves in order to find out who we really are. Yet other very successful and apparently happy people follow a path more along the lines of George Bernard Shaw’s advice that “Life is not about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself.” Is their happiness false because of this? The more I encounter the notion that for everyone spiritual fulfillment, happiness, and truth can be found in a little, tightly lidded box, the more I shy away from it. Finding God is a journey, not a destination. God did not make us all with the same cookie cutter. Unlike Keating I find there is more than one way to find happiness and fulfillment. Contemplative Prayer is a wonderful thing for some people but it is not for everyone. To imply that it is the only way to spiritual fulfillment is like encountering a street sign at an intersection that a vandal has spun to confuse the traveler. The sign should read “This way is a possible route” not “This way is the only viable path.”
© 2014 M. Romeo LaFlamme