Contemplative Dimensions of Human Experience
published: Dec. 23, 2011, recorded: April 2009, views: 2949
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In a mind-stretching talk covering the history of the planet, development of higher-order consciousness, and East-West religious practices, Trappist monk Thomas Keating claims that humanity is poised to take its next evolutionary step, to the “furthest levels of human understanding.”
While Keating’s focus is on the “human family,” he begins his talk with Earth’s emergence from the cosmos, and the origins of life on this planet. He dwells on human evolution, especially development of the neocortex. This “point at which the human spirit began to function” is captured by scripture, when God breathes life into Adam, suggests Keating. The greatest achievement of this long sweep of history, Keating proposes, is the reflective human brain, plastic and responsive to experience, like a mesa shaped by the forces of nature over time.
We’re born predisposed to seek security and survival, and base our definitions of happiness on gratification of such needs, leading to lives in search of power, control, esteem, sensual pleasure. These primitive “emotional programs for happiness” obstruct what may be the ultimate opportunity: “fulfilling human capacity…through access of spiritual levels of our being.” We find evidence for this potential in “sages and saints who have understood the rational capacities of the brain to open itself to love in the fullest sense and levels of happiness, peace, freedom and joy.” But this higher state isn’t limited to mystics, says Keating: Humankind stands “at a significant crossroads,” ready to pass through the gate of rational consciousness to “further levels of human understanding.”
Finding this gate will prove a challenge to most, because of ingrained habits and cultural reinforcements. Fortunately, we have the words and examples of “spiritual traditions of the world” to help us break from the “straitjacket of emotional programs,” and attempt to achieve “the contemplative dimension of human experience.” Keating describes how Jesus invites “everyone into the ultimate reality” in the Sermon on the Mount, and recounts the story of Elijah, the Jewish prophet, who “heard the sound of sheer silence” in the desert. The great religions show that it is possible to achieve the “discipline of quieting the mind, letting go of desires or attachments we’re overly committed to, so we can be free to relate to our inmost being, where ultimate reality dwells” – even or especially when enmeshed in the difficulties of daily life. Keating invites his audience to join him in “a place of silence,” where they may “let go of interior dialog, thinking about a past and future,” and “let God act in us.”
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