I’m in a wreck on the Interstate in New Orleans, just before the high-rise bridge at 9 am on a Thursday. I switch lanes when a car stops in the right lane, and I still have to come to a slamming stop in the passing lane. The whole Interstate full of cars shifts from 60 miles per hour to zero in about two seconds. The brakes of our Toyota Camry skip a bit just before coming to a full stop about twelve inches from the truck in front of me. The driver behind me is not able to stop, and hits us from behind.
Thanks be to God no one was hurt. My wife puts on the emergency lights. I jump out to check on the driver behind us and to quickly examine our car’s rear bumper. There are only scratches. She asks about exchanging insurance. I say, “It’s not worth staying out on the Interstate and risking being killed by the other drivers, so let’s just go.” She agrees and we take off before there is time for others to hit us.
Those are the facts, at least the ones I remember. We were very lucky that none of us were hurt. Someone could’ve been killed. And the car was fine. The worst part of the story followed.
I clung to my belief that I am a good driver for as long as I could, for at least twelve hours. I said things to myself like, “That was not my fault. There just wasn’t enough time to stop,” and “I try so hard to keep us safe on the Interstate by driving the speed limit, while the ‘crazies’ drive ninety miles an hour like race car drivers and almost hit us constantly.”
I held onto my view of myself as a good person who tries to avoid wrecks, brakes slowly when necessary, doesn’t cut in on other drivers at the last second like so many do, etc. But it wasn’t enough. No matter how hard I tried, I could not avoid the reality that I was the one in a wreck. I could not blame the lady behind me because I was the one who had changed lanes to avoid the other stopped cars. Even the truth that it was an accident did not seem to help. I made a mistake. And it could have cost us our lives. The impact of that is terribly hard for my ego to admit. It hurts my feelings. There’s more.
I get in a hurry, and it is usually on the way to leading a meditation group. The irony in that is impossible to escape. Who is this man who believes he must hurry so fast to get to a room where we all slow down and become still? The insanity of it makes me wonder if I should stop teaching meditation and stop writing about it. (The accident also makes me wonder if I should stop driving).
Those questions stay with me all night. When I wake up at 4:30 am, the questions and the painful realities are there waiting for me. When I wake up the next time, at 6:30 am, they are still waiting to pounce. If only a daily meditation practice could protect me from facing the hard realities. Instead, the practice seems to leave me wide open for self-examination. There is no escaping this business of facing my faults, my mistakes, my own craziness.
Perhaps this is when I should start changing how I begin our meditation sessions, (if I keep leading them at all). Perhaps each session should begin with a warning, a kind of disclaimer: “Halt. Do not proceed to a regular meditation practice because everything you would like to avoid in yourself will come to your attention sooner or later. If you would rather avoid the hard stuff, like I would, you might try drugs or alcohol instead.” Something like that would at least be closer to the truth than a promise that meditation leads to perpetual peace of mind.
Peace of mind. Isn’t that what I was seeking when I started this journey decades ago? Isn’t that what I would prefer to find every time I practice? Today, I know I would rather feel peaceful than to have my denial about my driving broken to bits. I would rather tune into some beautiful music that could abolish the hard reality that I can be as crazy as everyone else on the road. I would rather take a nature walk and forget that I was in a wreck yesterday and, dang this is hard to admit: It was my fault.
Then it hits me: What if meditation practices were never intended to help me escape reality? What if they are offered to help me face what I must face?
Then another truth starts bubbling into my consciousness: Practicing the presence of God, (which we call contemplation in our School for Contemplative Living), is also to help me face what I must face in my life. Is my ego getting shattered again? Time to turn to God’s presence. Is suffering arising? Time to be in God’s presence. Are my thoughts and feelings wrecking my world? Time to practice the presence of God. Is my ego falling off the throne of my life, again, as I admit I need a defensive driving course to help me change how I drive? Time to hold my life in loving awareness in the presence of God.
No wonder I need to refer to myself, in all honesty, as a “messy contemplative.” While I want to be seen as an expert in meditation and contemplation, I am really the crazy man who hurries to his groups so he can slow down. I am really the man who would prefer to avoid facing himself if he could.
I am also a man who needs to be immersed in a loving, divine presence every single day. I can no longer pretend to be a contemplative because I am such a great guy, a really super-spiritual kind of guy. I can’t say I lead contemplative groups because of any mastery at all. I can only say I get together with other contemplatives almost every day of the week because I need that shared presence of God so much.
I need to be accepted with all my faults by people who are practicing the love of God. I need the encouragement of others to keep practicing the contemplation. I need the inspiration of knowing I am not the only one who needs the Presence. I need contemplative community. I am like an alcoholic who starts AA groups around town because he needs those groups every day. In fact, for me, I need them several times a day on most days.
So, in addition to the daily contemplative groups I will attend for the next two weeks, I will go to the Quiet Day at Advent House on January 20, because I need it. And I will lead a contemplative retreat in Pensacola, Florida on January 21, because I need it. And I will invite people to my home for a workshop on the “Spirituality of Nature Writing” on January 28, because I need that too.
People might look at all the contemplative groups I attend and think I am a junkie, and I probably am. I am a man who can’t escape facing myself, and I need to be around compassionate people who help me find the presence of God as often as I can. If there is any chance you need what I need, come join me in a group, or class, or workshop, or retreat. Our School for Contemplative Living is all about gathering needy people, people who just cannot face life by ourselves, people who need the presence of God as often as we can find it, in each other’s good company.
For more stories about the people in the School for Contemplative Living, read Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture, or watch a short video about us on the homepage of our website at http://www.thescl.net.