The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation (1999)

Fr. Thomas Keating’s The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation asks two questions: where are you, and who are you? According to Keating, both questions demand that we address the false self system.

The where question derives from the question God asks in the Garden of Eden: “Adam, where are you?” For Keating, this question is put to each person in every generation. He writes, “All the questions that are fundamental to human happiness arise when we ask ourselves this excruciating question: Where am I? Where am I in relation to God, to myself, and to others? These are the basic questions of human life” (7).

In order to answer these questions truthfully, we have to “evacuate” the working of the false self system, which is based on three needs: security/survival, power/control, and affection/esteem. As I learned in grad school, and as Fr. Keating affirms, our solutions to these three needs are formed in us by the time we are 12 years old. And those solutions formed by our 12-year-old selves stay with us into adulthood and constitute our false selves.

(For example, in a class ominously titled Personhood, Discipleship, and Ministry, I discerned that my solutions to these three needs respectively are stay inside the fence, don’t cause a fuss, and be impressive. My 12-year-old self came up with these notions to fulfill my basic needs, and, while they were useful at age 12, as an adult, they are revealed as enduringly childish. They even, in adulthood, oppose the freedom found in the Gospel to an extent. At any rate…)

The false self, according to Keating, seeks to find ways to enjoy happiness and often overidentifyies with a certain group—e.g., “family, nation, religion” (33). And in order to overcome the false self, we have to honestly answer the “where are you” question. Keating writes, “As soon as we answer honestly, we have begun the spiritual search for God, which is also the search for ourselves. God is asking us to face the reality of the human condition, to come out of the woods into the full light of intimacy with him” (8).

And what is the human condition? Keating says that it is being “without the true source of happiness, which is the experience of the presence of God, and [having] lost the key to happiness, which is the contemplative dimension of life” (9). Moreover, “[t]he chief characteristic of the human condition is that everybody is looking for this key and nobody knows where to find it” (10).

Keating tells the story of a teacher who is locked out of his house; during their search for his key in his yard, his students finally ask whether he knows where he might have lost it. “Of course. I lost it in the house.” He was looking outside because there was more light there. Keating likens the teacher knowingly looking in the wrong place to our human condition: “What we experience is our desperate search for happiness where it cannot possibly be found. The key is not in the grass; it was not lost outside ourselves. It was lost inside ourselves. That is where we need to look for it” (8–10).

It is also important to note that the false self “is programmed for human misery” (15). It places the self in the center of “our private universe” (14) and creates “biases and prejudices [which] are the attitudes of a child from ages four to eight.” Keating adds, “If they are present in us, we are still functioning at the level of a preadolescent.” And, yet moreover, our self-centered false self can be “habituated…by others who are doing the same thing—trying to find happiness where it cannot possibly be found” (16); take for example the teacher’s students who are also looking in the wrong place in the story mentioned above.

So what to do?

Jesus’ call to repentance becomes important for Keating’s understanding of combating the false self. “‘Repent’ is an invitation to grow up and become a fully mature human being who integrates the biological needs with the rational level of consciousness” (17). For Keating, the rational level of consciousness is the level of contemplation and the growth it affords us. Repentance and conversion allow us to deconstruct the false self and its influence. Keating advocates Centering Prayer as a way of deepening oneself into the true self found in relationship with God. He states, “What matters most is fidelity to the daily practice of a contemplative form of prayer such as Centering Prayer. This gradually exposes us to the unconscious at a rate we can handle and places us under the guidance of the Holy Spirit….It is an exercise of letting go of the false self, a humbling process, becuse it is the only self we know” (20).

Stated simply, “The false self is looking for fame, power, wealth, and prestige,” but “the Spirit calls us to transformation of our inmost being, and indeed of all our faculties, into the divine way of being and acting” (22).

The goal of contemplation is to allow “[t]he same unconditional love that moves in God [to move] in us by grace, supplanting the human ego with the divine ‘I.'” Thus, “[w]e begin to manifest in daily life not our false selves and prejudices, but the infinite tenderness of God, the concern of God for every living thing, especially for the needy and the poor” (23).

Where are we?

Every human pleasure is meant to be a stepping-stone to knowing God better or to discovering some new aspect of God. Only when that stepping-stone becomes an end in itself—that is, when we overidentify with it—does it distort the divine intention. Everything in the universe is meant to be a reminder of God’s presence

God is existence. In everything that exists, God is present. The greatest reality is God’s presence (27).

Keating desires that we find our true location in God’s presence through the practice of contemplation.

Likewise, he desires we enter contemplation so as to answer “the second great question of the spiritual journey: Who are you?” (28).

The false self wants us to believe that we are a hurt suffered early in our life or that we are our own programs for happiness. For example, Keating notes insightfully, “The fact that we experience anxiety and annoyance is the certain sign that, in the unconscious, there is an emotional program for happiness that has just been frustrated” (30).

In this essay about the who question, Keating talks about the divine therapy, which is primarily located in contemplation. He says that “[a]s a result of the deep rest and silence that come through such a [contemplative] practice, our emotional programs begin to be relativized.” Against the working of our enduring 12-year-old false selves, through contemplation, we learn that

[t]he presence of God is true security. There really isn’t any other. Divine love is the full affirmation of who we are. Interior freedom is the gift of God as we let go of our attachments and aversions, our “shoulds,” and the emotional programs of happiness that we bring with us from early childhood and that are totally impracticable in adult life (31–32).

In addition to relativizing our emotional programs for happiness, contemplation allows us to “get up and leave—something we can’t do in daily life when we overidentify with our ordinary stream of awareness and its contents” (32). So contemplation deconstructs both aspects of the tyranny of the false self.

Fr. Keating says further,

To submit to the divine therapy is something we owe ourselves and the rest of humanity. If we don’t allow the Spirit of God to address the deep levels of our attachments to ourselves and our programs for happiness, we will pour into the world the negative elements of our self-centeredness, adding to the conflicts and social disasters that come from overidentifying with the biases and prejudices of our particular culture and upbringing (36).

Contemplation allows us to face our false self and leave it behind, with all its baggage. “What happens when we get to the bottom of the pile of our emotional debris? We are in divine union. There is no other obstacle” (42).

When we are our true self, we become “a kind of fifth Gospel: to become the word of God and to manifest God…When you have been liberated from [the false self], you are in a space that is both empty of self and full of God” (44).

Keating concludes with a story of a young man, dying in a hospital bed.

[H]e was literally shaking from the fear of death. What had been communicated to him as a child was an emotionally charged idea of God as an implacable judge ready to bring down the verdict of guilty…The young man was afraid of dying and going to meet this hazardous God whom he had heard about in early childhood.

One of the nurses come into his room, and he asked her, “Can you do something to help me?” She said, “I can give you a treatment called therapeutic touch.” He replied, “Please do.” The nurse began the gentle treatment. At one point his eyes rolled back, and the nurse through he was going to die, but she kept on with the treatment. When she finished, he opened his eyes and said, “You’ll never know what you just did for me. I have experienced unconditional love.” About an hour later, he died.

For Keating, we are to be unconditional love (for that is what will manifest when we are united with God). “If we have not experienced ourselves as unconditional love, we have more work to do, because that is who we really are” (45).

All in all, Keating does a wonderful job of showing the importance of contemplation for overcoming the false self. I had never considered contemplation in this light before, and it has been a long time since I thought about the false self system. But I can see how the one would subvert the other, and it makes me want to take more seriously the call to contemplation.

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