Thinking Outside the Box

If we want to appreciate Christianity, if we want to  deeply encounter Jesus, if we want to live a spiritual life, we must think outside the box. The box being our purely rational minds. In his book, The Naked Now, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM explains that our minds can prevent us moving “from mere belief systems or belonging systems to actual inner experience.” In brief, our purely rational minds can box us in from living a truly spiritual life, not to mention a contemplative life.

Fr. Rohr also states emphatically that the Church has compounded the problem by  teaching spiritual realities with an emphasis on the rational mind. He pointed out that the Church “became preoccupied with telling people what to know more than how to know, telling people what to see more than how to see. We ended up seeing Holy Things faintly, trying to understand Great Things with a whittled-down mind, and trying to love God with our own small and divided heart. It has been like trying to view the galaxies with a $5 pair of binoculars.”

Drawing from Fr. Rohr’s book and other sources, I have concluded that there are three basic ways of seeing or perceiving reality. The first is what I call “Willful Living,” our way of seeing everyday reality through our computer-like minds. The second is Willful Blindness, our way of blocking out reality. The third is Willful Seeing, our way of seeing spiritual realities—the goal of Fr. Rohr’s book. First, Willful Living.

Willful Living. Fr. Rohr describes our mind’s binary system, either-or thinking as “good and necessary in the lofty worlds of logic, mechanics, mathematics and science, and in the everyday world of knowing whether to turn left or right to get from point A to point B.” But “it can’t access eternal things,” the realm of our faith and spiritual lives. Our computer-like minds just don’t compute spiritual realities!

According to Fr. Rohr, our religious and spiritual instruction has boxed us in our minds. We need to think outside the box to “access eternal things.” When our computer-like minds ponder spiritual realities, they automatically narrow down our field of vision. For example:

  • When we focus on God only as a transcendent figure facing us from beyond history, an outsider God, we miss the God who dwells within us, an insider God, who from within reveals us to ourselves, calls us to growth and radiates out from within us gifts that enable to see out of the eyes of love, hope and faith.
  • When we focus on Jesus only as a figure of history or a moral teacher, we miss the Risen Jesus who gifts us with his Spirit of Love, who empowers us to carry on Jesus’ on-going Incarnation. The Incarnation is not just a one-time event.
  • When we encounter the mystery of the Spirit of God, our computer-like minds can’t compute mystery. So we simply dismiss this spiritual reality and we miss Divine Eros, Divine Love, at work in our lives as the agent of our holiness. In effect, we close down our spiritual life.
  • When we focus on Scripture as only words to be analyzed, we miss seeing Scripture as the channel of the Spirit’s inspirations and invitations to grow our spiritual lives.
  • When we attend Mass as simply a religious service, we miss the Love Meal Jesus gave us to create the Beloved Community. When we focus only on the Real Presence, we miss the ritual communion of sharing with Jesus the offering of ourselves with Jesus, of being consecrated with Jesus for sacrifice, and of becoming Eucharist with Jesus for sisters and brothers to receive one another in mystical communion. Perceived this way, the Real Presence is the Eucharistic power source that empowers the creation of the Beloved Community.
  • When we focus on creation as simply natural beauty, we miss seeing creation as Divine Revelation of God’s existence, beauty and intelligence.

Further, our purely rational minds cannot tolerate paradox and dialectic. Like God being three persons in One. Like Jesus being human and divine. Like the essential dialectic of the spiritual life of being programmed and committed for a life of relationship with an Infinite Being and at the same time being powerless to live such a relationship on our own. The only resolution of this dialectic is to call upon the Holy Spirit. But our purely rational minds are not designed for mystery, wonder and the spiritual.

In the very act of focusing on reality with our computer-like minds, we activate our Unwillful Blindness to see only a narrow piece of reality. This helps give us clarity. However, the downside is that our minds lock out our unconscious creative resources—our feelings, desires, eros, instincts—where the Spirit operates to move us to transformation. We end up performing the spiritual unspiritually!

Willful Blindness. To make matters worse, our Egos—desirous of control and hating change—team up with our minds to stubbornly block us from seeing spiritual realities, and then we exhibit Willful Blindness. I am indebted to Margaret Heffernan for this concept in her book by that title. She explores why warnings of disasters are ignored, such as nuclear reactor failures, or oil spills or the plunge of the subprime mortgage market. She raises the question: Why do red flags go unnoticed? Or why can’t people think outside the box?

In some cases, it is a matter of greed or self-protection. Think of the Pharisees who witnessed the actions and teachings of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah and the greatest person who ever walked this earth. They could not accept Jesus. They did not want to upset the Roman occupiers and their position in society. Yet, there was at least one Pharisee, Nicodemus, who could think outside the box.

No doubt, Willful Blindness plays a big role in our spiritual lives. Perhaps we are blind to character traits that harm our relations with others. Or blind to the Spirit’s inspirations and invitations to grow. If searching and a willingness to change are not the hallmarks of our efforts to grow in holiness or spiritual formation, we are probably blind to how stuck we are in old ideas or old ways of doing things. Is this spiritual obstinacy?

We find people who have focused only on the historical Jesus all their lives and are resistant to the thought of the Risen Jesus, the only Jesus we have. If people have not experienced the Holy Spirit in their lives, they show resistance to any new insights about the Spirit. Willful Blindness may be at play here.

For many years I was dissatisfied with attending Mass as a church service: it took  dissatisfaction to move me to the discovery of Jesus’ Love Meal. Fr. Rohr notes that it usually takes experiences of great love or suffering that enable us to see outside the box.

Willful Seeing. Admittedly, there is a paradox in the term, Willful Seeing. At the heart of this experience are a determination and a yielding: “I will not be boxed in by my mind and Ego. I am powerless to access the spiritual. I will surrender to the Spirit.”

Mystics and poets and people committed to the spiritual life yearn for Willful Seeing. They hunger to see the depths of things—God, creation, people. They say we must see with the eyes of our hearts. Or they say we must see with the eyes of love. Or they say we must see with a Third Eye. E.e.cummings writes of revelation: “The eyes of my eyes are opened.”

We arrive at this way of seeing spiritual reality in two movements of the heart:

First, we admit to ourselves the limitations of our computer-like minds—our absolute powerlessness to engage the spiritual world in a meaningful way.

Second, we truly surrender to our unconscious creative resources—our feelings, desires, eros, instincts, our creative resources—through which the Spirit operates to bring us to Willful Seeing. It is helpful to express our surrender in various ways to awaken our hearts. For example: “Holy Spirit, I put myself wholly at your disposal. I gift myself to you. I yield myself to you.” Only by admitting powerlessness and experiencing surrender do we expand our mind’s field and depth of vision. That is the great paradox of Willful Seeing, our capacity to think outside the box.

How do we acquire the capacity for Willful Seeing? First, we have to change our perception of being a person. Yes, our greatest gift is our rational minds. But we have to perceive our minds as being even more powerful when we unleash our inner creative resources to drive our minds to see spiritual realities. Then we become aware of the Spirit’s initiatives in our lives, invitations and inspirations.

Second, we must hunger for Willful Seeing, and make it a goal of our lives and a vital part of our life vision, knowing that it is the only way to live a spiritual life. It is the Spirit’s gift. So let us pray for this gift.

Third, motivated by our goal, we must turn our new perception of being a person into action to seek Willful Seeing.. I recommend the regular practice of centering down. As the term is used, it is a spatial description of this practice. Let me suggest a new understanding of this term based on what we have presented. Centering down is breaking out of the control of our ego/mind. It is the integration of our mind with our body and our unconscious creative resources where the Spirit operates. It is a form of ritual communion in which we act out our desire for communion with the Spirit and ourselves.

Then let us practice centering down before all the areas of our spiritual life such as celebrating Mass, Scripture study, centering prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. Further let us extend our quest for Willful Seeing to other areas of our life that require our hearts for appreciation. Let us center down before all aesthetic experiences such as music, dance and art as well as in our personal relationships. We want to make Willful Seeing a habit. We want to make thinking outside the box a way of life.

For a fuller description of the practice of centering down, see the article, The Essential Practice which can be found on this blog.

Lastly, we will taste the joy of Willful Seeing when we pray as Teihard Chardin prayed: “Lord, grant that I may see, that I may see You, that I may see and feel your presence in all things and animating all things.