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If we no longer defines ourselves in terms of externals, lose our attachment to impermanent things, and become integrated and relatively harmonious, then we no longer need to focus on self-interest. Instead, we comprehend larger realities and act for the greater good.
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Articles in This Issue
The Contemplative Life as Freedom: The Liberative Model of Human Development
with Dorothy Jean Beyer, Alberta Dieker, Maureen Niedermeyer,
Joan Pokorny, and Antoinette Traeger
Ed. Note: This article is based on conversations between two psychologists and five Benedictine nuns at the Queen of Angels Monastery in Mount Angel, Oregon. This specific monastic line traces its origins from the monastery of Maria Rickenbach in Switzerland. For more information on the American branch of this order and on Queen of Angels Monastery specifically, see A Tree Rooted in Faith: History of Queen of Angels Monastery by Alberta Dieker.
We generally think of human development in terms of gains – as children we learn how to walk and talk, regulate our emotions, be friends with others, and to develop increasingly complex cognitive skills and new physiological, social, and psychological capacities. When it comes to adults, however, psychologists Michael R. Levenson and Cheryl A. Crumpler present a case for the importance of loss in human development, which they call the “liberative model.” Liberative development refers to freeing oneself from the constraints of self-centeredness. Such freedom, or self-transcendence, is available to everyone, regardless of culture, but not everyone develops it. The goal of the liberative model is to allow a vertical dimension of human experience, which is not limited to a grounding only in the self but extends beyond it to a transcendent otherness.
In all traditions, verticality is based on an entry into the contemplative state of pure awareness, which is not a passive state but, as Thomas Merton reminds us, one filled with “life, creativity, and freedom.” In his description of contemplation as the life of the inner self, Merton shares his realization that contemplation isn’t just a part of the contemplative’s life but is actually all of it. And in keeping with the idea of liberation as adult development, Merton also said that “there is and can be no planned technique for discovering and awakening one’s inner self, because the inner self is, first of all, a spontaneity that is nothing if not free.” Numerous contemplative practices can be found in all traditions, and all work to unlock the door of the self.
The vertical dimension is transpersonal, and it appears in all contemplative traditions. When philosopher Trevor Curnow reviewed wisdom traditions from around the globe, he discovered four similarities among them: self-knowledge, non-attachment, integration, and self-transcendence. Following Curnow’s lead,we formulated these four universals in an ordered-stage theory of development that represents a recursive lifespan process: each stage is revisited multiple times in the ordered sequence of self-knowledge, non-attachment, integration, and self-transcendence.
Contemplation can lead to self-knowledge, in that practitioners are encouraged to observe themselves and their reactions to internal and external events. This process can be uncomfortable when our faults and (often unconscious) biases emerge – what one could call our “biosocial conditioning.” Nevertheless, the process of self-observation leads to a deepening understanding of who we are. Practitioners are also encouraged to lessen their attachment to externals, which doesn’t mean isolating one’s self or withdrawing from love but no longer defining one’s self by such things as appearance, possessions, jobs, or other social roles.
Contemplative practices can also show us that we are a bundle of contradictory desires – we want to be svelte and to enjoy rich foods, or to excel in our careers and still have lots of time for family and leisure (and contemplation). Through the process of integration, we examine such contradictory desires and develop a more harmonious balance among them. Ultimately, if we no longer define ourselves in terms of externals, lose our attachment to impermanent things, and become integrated and relatively harmonious, then we no longer need to focus on self-interest. Instead, we comprehend larger realities and act for the greater good. We become liberated – self-transcendent – or at least that’s what the liberative model hypothesizes.
To see how well this model of adult development works, we turned to individuals who could be considered specialists: nuns from contemplative orders. What follows is a report on some preliminary findings from our conversations with Catholic nuns about their own paths of spiritual development. In the larger project, we plan to converse with nuns from other traditions as well, such as Buddhism. We hope that our reflections will benefit anyone with an open mind and a wish to partake in a long tradition of the practice of human development, which has not yet found its way into the academic study of human development.
Misconceptions about Contemplative Practice
Given that there is little understanding outside the monastic community of what contemplatives “do,” several possible misconceptions about the lives of contemplatives should be put to rest at the outset. First, many contemplatives are not monastics. This is true of every religion in which monasticism is present, including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. In Islam, there are no monasteries, but there are recognized orders of Sufism, the most prominent contemplative tradition in Islam. Not all of those in Sufi practice, however, are practicing Muslims. Contemplative monastics sometimes embark upon long retreats for meditation, but they are not otherwise cut off from the larger society. Moreover, not all who have taken vows as members of a religious contemplative community actually live in monasteries.
In addition, being a contemplative monastic does not imply that one does not have a secular vocation. Contemplative Christian nuns often have “worldly” vocations, often in teaching or health care. Indeed, Christian nuns were vital in the settling of the American West by European Americans, providing services that would otherwise have been unavailable, especially in education and the caring professions. American nuns, including those at the Queen of Angels Monastery, pioneered the concept of “career women” when most other women were wives, mothers, and managers of households, usually farm households. They often started schools and colleges, hospitals, soup kitchens, and other social programs.
Contemplatives, monastic or otherwise, have nuanced ideas about the meaning of contemplative practice. Merton is certainly right in saying that all of a contemplative’s life is practice, be it sweeping the floor, walking in the woods, speaking with others, sitting in meditation, praying, or sacred reading.
The keys that open the door to contemplation are mindfulness and a peaceful heart. With these qualities we can liberate ourselves from the biosocial conditioning of our lower self and transcend that self in the vertical dimension of experience. Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental witnessing. Ideally, it is pure experience or experience as mirror. However, as Buddhist mindfulness teacher Henapola Gunaratana observes, mindfulness is objective, “but it is not cold or unfeeling. It is the wakeful experience of life, an alert participation in the ongoing process of living.” It accepts not only all thoughts and perceptions of objects but also all emotions and motivations. Merton describes contemplation similarly, as neither passive, nor bloodless, nor even blissful. Indeed, emotion and desire can be the fuel of a contemplative life. As we all know, strong feelings can be highly motivating – intense love or pain can lead people to change their life trajectories for a contemplative path that leads to inner peace. A peaceful heart does not imply indifference, but rather a heart without hatred, selfish desire, or negative emotions. Because negative emotions enslave us, they are the enemies of liberation and self-transcendence.
Many current theories of adult development focus on the role of goals. Accordingly, we started with the simple assumption that the goal for contemplative nuns is to develop virtues, such as patience and charity. We produced an impressively long list of virtues, including the Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance), the Theological Virtues (faith, hope, and charity), as well as silence and tranquility, among others. We began our conversations with a discussion of virtues – specifically, what virtues the sisters are trying to cultivate. This assumption proved to be insufficient, however, in describing what contemplative nuns are trying to do.
The questions did lead, though, to some useful insights. First, it became clear that virtues are not fixed stars in the moral firmament. Some virtues are not always influences for good. Loyalty can be misplaced, as can trust. Integrity, in the sense of always acting on one’s values, is not helpful when someone’s values are dubious. Even charity has its limits when extended to those who abuse it. Hope is not a substitute for constructive action, and faith cannot be placed in just anything. In other words, virtues can be abstractions that are not helpful out of context.
Second, even to the extent that a virtue is sound, it is not unchanging. Love should deepen, and humility should become more sincere. In both cases, discrimination should develop in a contemplative’s practice – for example, recognizing that love is a quality of the lover, which contacts that quality in another, and not a desire to possess. We cannot really love cars or houses; we can only love sentient beings. And humility is not a willingness to be driven to self-abasement – which is masochism – but a freeing of the self from the egocentric perspective that limits the potential for psychological and spiritual growth.
Also, virtues are qualities that can be developed over a life span. Their importance varies with the situation. In the Benedictine Rule, the “middle way,” as Buddhists would express it, is explicitly prescribed. Silence is not absolute, and tranquility is practiced in the course of a busy day, not merely during periods of prayer.
Without belaboring the definition of virtues and their relativity, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of virtue rather than virtues. Virtues are not acquisitions to be accumulated in a trophy case. Indeed, it is doubtful that virtues can be fixed, separate categories. Psychologist Ellen J. Langer warns of the perils of fixed categories, regarding them as the principal sources of mindlessness. Sister Joan Chittister, a prolific writer on the Benedictine way, asks, “Why no checklist of prioritized virtues . . . The answer is simple: ‘conversion’ is more important to the mind of Benedict than captivity to a system.” (Conversion refers to a transformation of self in which one practices virtues in everyday life. We will have more to say about conversion below.)
Virtue is a way of being that places us on the elevator to higher consciousness because it sets the self to one side without denying the self. Virtue climbs above the self. Virtue is one’s right response, inwardly and outwardly, to the situation at hand. In its wisdom aspect, virtue is a view from a higher vantage point – a view from the hilltop with powerful binoculars that prevent losing the clarity of details. In its moral aspect, virtue can be described in terms of Janice Templeton’s and Jacquelynne Eccles’ model of psychological inquiry, Expanding Circle Morality, in which there is increasing inclusiveness of all beings in one’s sphere of moral concern.
Five Key Virtues
How do we move from our ordinary existence to an elevation of mind and heart? In our conversations with the nuns, five virtues, or practices, arose as most salient: humility, discernment, obedience, conversion, and contemplation.
Humility. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, humility is central. We lose the weight of self-importance with humility, and in so doing, we climb a “ladder of humility.” Sister Chittister explains this climb clearly and succinctly in her book, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily. The climb begins with narcissism, which is characterized by the signs of an unintegrated personality: one that displays “a grandiose and exaggerated sense of self-importance,” extreme and prolonged anger in response to criticism, and self-promotion at a level that prevents the establishment of authentic relationships and communication. Sister Chittister observes that the ladder of humility turns narcissism on its head. She quotes Saint Benedict, “We descend by exaltation,” and “We ascend by humility,” while “Our body and our soul are the two sides of this ladder.” In Chittister’s words:
“No dualism here, just the simple, honest admission that each of us is grounded in something but reaching for God and that each of us is attempting to bring the demands of the body and the hope of the soul into parallel, into harmony, into center. Against gravity and despite all the imbalances of our lives.”
Describing personal integration, she further says that “pulling body and soul together is the problem. It is also the project of life.” Saint Augustine put it this way: “Do you seek God? Seek within yourself and ascend through yourself.”
Discernment. As we ascend, we become better able to discern. Discernment is the climber’s task, which the metaphor appropriately captures. As we practice ascending, we become increasingly adept at sensing the next move – the right move, not necessarily the most obvious one. In the case of the Sisters of the Queen of Angels Monastery, considerable opportunities for “getting outside” of oneself are provided whenever a sister is asked to perform a task for which she has no obvious qualification or motivation. Discernment is also practiced in prayer, in sacred reading, and in community. It is not “problem solving” in the usual sense. As Merton points out,
“One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you. Usually the solution consists in a discovery that they only existed insofar as they were inseparably connected with your own illusory exterior self.”
Monastics and contemplatives in various traditions understand their discernment as a seeking for the will of God, Brahman, or their Buddha nature. However we articulate the seeking, as Merton observes, it will not work out if what we are really seeking is happiness, fulfillment, or even contemplation itself. The key to discernment is rising above ourselves, best exemplified in the practice of rising above our perceived limitations and ambitions. Discernment is uncomfortable, but we learn to welcome that discomfort. Doing so is an indication that we are, at last, awake.
Obedience. Obedience is anathema to the contemporary mind. One can pretend to be humble, but obedient? Obedience is an affront to our hard-won autonomy, our modern view as self-determining beings. The problem with this view, however, is that the self becomes a personal prison and our self-focus keeps us stuck to the ground. With the Benedictines, it is clear that obedience is not helpless compliance to the dictates of an authoritarian hierarchy. The word “obedience” is derived from the Latin obadere, which means “to listen.” In the practice of discernment, we listen to each other and to ourselves in silent meditation. We seek our true path, not automatic conformity to the will of another.
We live in a society in which we routinely do not listen to each other or to our inner voice. Husbands and wives (or life partners), parents and children, oppositional politicians, employees and employers, students and teachers, routinely do not listen to each other. We also often fail to listen to the voice of our discerning mind, which is always speaking but usually drowned out by relentless noise (hence the need for periods of silence, which contemplatives recognize and monasteries have institutionalized).
Among the Benedictine nuns, obedience often follows a long period of struggle and discernment. For example, a nun who had no administrative health care experience did not want to take on the administration of a skilled nursing facility initiated by the monastery, as the prioress wished. The nun’s discernment, however, made it clear that this was something she could do. Then the challenge became an opportunity for growth, and she was successful.
Certainly there have been abuses of authority in monasteries (see, for example, Karen Armstrong’s book The Spiral Staircase) as in all human institutions, but a strong resistance to authoritarianism is also clear in monastic communities. One of the nuns we spoke with said that a watershed moment in her spiritual development was breaking free of structure and realizing that all of creation, not just the church, was the place of spirituality. She also observed that real responsibility can only develop in freedom. One learns to manage structure, not to be managed by it.
Conversion. For contemplatives conversion is not a sudden personality change or a radical change in belief system. Rather, conversion is a daily practice, sometimes quick and sometimes almost imperceptible. A developmental theory of transformational change might reasonably expect a gradual, nearly imperceptible process of change to culminate in a larger transformational change.
Conversion is the product of humility, discernment, and obedience. Ultimately, conversion is the contemplative’s developmental process. To return to the climbing metaphor (which almost isn’t a mere metaphor), each transformational change is a crux pitch in which we must execute a move to a qualitatively different and higher level of being. And in light of virtues, Sister Chittister observes that “conversion requires us to grow and to change. Systems too easily lock us into yesterday’s virtues.”
Contemplation. As Merton points out, all of a contemplative’s life is contemplation; it is not parsed into a neatly labeled compartment. A contemplative life can be lived in many different and specific ways, from solitude and silence to a public life of intense activity (witness the Dalai Lama) and all points in between. However, every contemplative life, no matter how apparently different, revolves around the still, mindful, and peaceful action of contemplation. This spiritual action moves along the vertical axis of existence. A contemplative returns from high places with something of great value – the refined jewels – that can benefit everyone. We once asked a university class to define human psychological development, and without hesitation, one student replied, “Increasing psychological refinement.”
The liberative model of human development and the process of self-transcendence are the project of the contemplative life. Humility and discernment give rise to self-knowledge and integration, obedience to non-attachment, conversion and contemplation to self-transcendence. Benedictine monastics have an approach to this that can benefit anyone who recognizes both the tyranny of the self and, as did the Buddha, the inadvisability of radical self-ablation.
We have much to learn from those who have chosen to devote their lives to a spiritual vocation, and we would do well to distinguish them from representatives of rigid, intolerant, moralistic systems that impose uniform order and substitute authoritarianism for understanding. Authority brings the comfort of certainty, however false. A real contemplative life does not promise such comfort. It does, however, offer us the possibility of real freedom.
All correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michael R. Levenson, Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97330 / Rick.Levenson@oregonstate.edu. Rick Levenson and Carolyn Aldwyn spoke at IONS’ 2011 international conference in San Francisco. The title of their talk is “Wisdom and Optimal Aging” and a recording is available here.
Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).
Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).
Trevor Curnow, Wisdom, Intuition, and Ethics (Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1999).
Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1994).
Ellen J. Langer, Mindfulness (Cambridge, Massachusetts: DaCapo, 1989).
Michael R. Levenson and Cheryl A. Crumpler, “Three Models of Adult Development,” Human Development 39, no. 3, 1996.
Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
J. L. Templeton and J. S. Eccles, “Spirituality, ‘Expanding Circle Morality,’ and Positive Youth Development,” in Positive Youth Development and Spirituality: From Theory to Research, eds. R. M. Lerner, R. W. Roeser, and E. Phelps (Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008).
Anthony J. Steinbock, Phenomenology and Mysticism: The Verticality of Religious Experience (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).