THE MEMORY OF WHAT IS POSSIBLE
by Howard J. Vogel
Published in “What Canst Thou Say?” May 1995, Number 4
I have come to understand that without solitude my attempts at contemplative practice are likely to be nothing more than another technique of the ego to seek security through control of all that comes across the horizon of each day. In the fall of 1990 I received an experience in which I “saw” what that means. I had read several of Henri Nouwen’s books, but one I turned back to from time to time: The Way of the Heart (1981). In it Nouwen writes that “Solitude is the furnace of transformation. Without solitude we remain victims of our society and continue to be entangled in the illusions of the false self” — the ego. It is “the place of the great struggle . . . against the compulsions of the false self,” and the “great encounter” . . . “with the loving God who offers the [ God-self to us] “as the substance of the new self.” Nouwen goes on to say that “solitude is not a private therapeutic place. Rather, it is a place of conversion, the place where the old self dies and the new self is born, the place where the emergence of the new man and the new woman occurs.” It is the place where we get rid of our “scaffolding” and enter the mystery of nothingness.
The decision to enter solitude often becomes the occasion for the ego to rebel with a stream of thoughts which can draw one’s attention away from the moment. For me these streams of thoughts have a pattern and identity that I can name: “Frenzy” lures me into fits of activity to do things; “Distraction” lures me into mental dullness when the list of things becomes overwhelming or when “Anxiety” has appeared to capture my attention. Over the years I have come to call such disturbing visitors “my demons.” In August of 1990 I came to “see” them differently. At the time I was struggling with anxiety over work and found my sleep disrupted. The following excerpt from my journal records what happened. It has provided me with a memory of what is possible on the contemplative journey.
**** * August 21, 1990 – Tuesday – Morning Practice – St. Paul
I awoke about 4:15 a.m. and tossed and turned for over an hour filled with tension and anxiety about work in the days ahead. These demons called fervently for me to get out of bed and to start work, abandoning contemplation and exercise. When I resisted that, through what seemed like sheer will, the demons of distraction called to offer me several diversions to relieve my tension. They called for me to get up and read or putter around the house on matters of no great urgency. Again I resisted and stayed in bed resigned to the fact that this place in which these demons assaulted me could not be avoided–it could only be endured if I would not yield to them.
As I stayed in that place of testing — which I desperately wanted release from — I began to feel some relaxation of the physical tension in my body and the frenzied jumping of my mind between the temptations of work induced by anxiety and diversion induced by tension. I then dropped off to some place of rest, like sleep but yet fully conscious — and then, I “saw” my ego outside of me and away from where I now seemed to be. (I knew not where I was, except that I was at rest.) My “mind’s eye” “blinked” as it looked dispassionately at my ego — now separated from and floating at some distance away from me. Then came the sudden mind staggering realization that along with my ego — now floating away from me — went my demons as well.
I saw my ego clearly outside of me, beset all about by my demons and recognized that at the outset of the past hour of travail the place from which I had cried out from within was my ego — it wanted freedom from its demons — so that it, my ego, could once again reassert its dominance over my identity and life. I also saw that beneath the cry of the ego the sacred center within me had emerged to resist the demons. I thought the resistance had been “sheer will” — another act of my ego — instead I now saw that whatever ego-based will might have been summoned, if any, it was soon exhausted and replaced by the will of my soul/spirit empowered by the will of the Spirit. This spirit within me — my soul, also sought liberation from the demons but now I saw more — the soul yearned for liberation from my ego! — Only in that way could it be liberated from the bonds of the ego’s demons and be free to grow and live in God. And so, in retrospect, a remarkable event, unknown to me in my memory had occurred — my soul became free and through the eyes of my soul I recognized that my ego was not me — not my soul — and more than that I saw that the ego, surrounded by its demons (which heretofore I had called my demons), was what enslaved my soul and made it “impossible” to engage in the discipline of contemplative practice. I experienced, instead of just intellectually understood, the truth of the needful death — as Jesus’ life demonstrates — or as Jacob Needleman once put it: the need for “death of the ego” to avoid living a life of “death by the ego.”
As I gazed on my ego surrounded by and attacked by my demons yet floating outside of me — I felt compassion for myself in the past, when I clung to my ego and was defined by it. I also felt a twinge of sadness accompanied by a gentle but deep sense of surrender truly felt — as I nodded in assent to the need for this death of the ego. I caught a quick glimpse within of how such a death would make other “decisions” easy, and although painful, very bearable. I now “saw” that I could let go of physical, emotional, and intellectual attachments for the peace of the liberated soul was what I need and what I truly want — it is rest — it is peace — it doesn’t need euphoric highs for it transcends that with a serenity that truly is the peace Alfred North Whitehead called the “Harmony of Harmonies” — it is God, and I am with God, in God, without my ego — without what I thought was myself — I do not need a self in that sense for I am found by God and that is a boundless sufficiency. . . .
. . . . After arising for the day I walked with gratitude for this experience of Grace — even as I came to clearly see that I have the freedom always to choose to reach out and bring the ego and its demons back into their position of dominance in my life. It will require discipline. Whenever the ego is drawn back, as it is likely to be, it will sting when I recognize what I have done. God grant me the memory of this morning’s experience to recognize then and always that there is another choice — the liberation of the spirit through surrender to death of the ego — as God grants me the “eyes” to see this may God also empower me by the Spirit to make this choice day by day, moment by moment, but let it be a gentle, willing discipline lest it become corrupted by a self-centered willful discipline that gives rise to a new dominance of the ego. May the ego die and rest in peace daily, by the power of the Spirit. May I be open in willing surrender in the spirit that makes this Grace possible.
Two days ago I felt “cornered” by the dilemma of wanting to engage in the practice of contemplation but finding it impossible. Today I have been given the experience of spirit-filled serenity that follows death of the ego — I have also been called to and shown the true practice — it is not done by the ego — it is openness of soul following surrender to the Spirit and surrender of the ego.
Later in the morning, I “saw” the ego moving back into the center. As I stopped and placed my attention on it, the ego moved back out and again floated at a distance from me. My ego is where I crucify Christ within me. When I focus on it now it moves outside of me. When I neglect to be aware of where my attention is, the ego moves back into my center and then I am in danger of once again crucifying Christ within me.
At the end of this extraordinary day I recognized that my ego and its demons had returned to the center within me. I also recognized that I could not push them away with an act of will. Nor can I recreate the serenity I experienced through an act of remembering what had happened and focusing on that memory. Nevertheless, the memory of what is possible in the “furnace of transformation” — the solitude of contemplative practice — does remain and it has become a call for me to take up the practice again and again with open hands and open heart attentive to the Grace that has already come and waits to meet us in the mystery of each moment.
Howard Vogel resides in Saint Paul, Minnesota and is a member of Twin Cities Friends Meeting. He is one of my deepest spiritual friends, continually challenging me with the results of his scholarship. This essay I consider so important that I asked his permission to publish it on my website.