A couple of years ago a friend bought me tickets to what I thought was a traditional writer’s conference, but it was really a Donald Miller conference. Whether through writing, marketing, or inspirational talks, Miller’s whole focus has become to help people live a better story.
It’s a noble enough goal.
The conferences are full of inspirational speakers and authors. People who have been transformed by suffering, or gotten monumental projects off the ground, or dropped the 9-5 to serve underprivileged both at home and abroad. Nothin’ wrong with that.
And of course the practical parts of our lives need attention. Where do we invest our time? What do we do and why? What communities are we a part of? How do we feed our souls?
We get oriented towards something life-giving, something greater than ourselves. A big part of maturation is figuring that out.
The story structure that Miller uses is this: there’s a hero who wants something, but runs into a problem, then meets a guide, who provides a plan and calls the hero to action, resulting in a positive or negative outcome. It’s the story formula in everything from Star Wars to the Hunger Games.
And Miller uses it to help people and businesses think through how they go about their work.
From a contemplative perspective, though, this is still only part of the picture. It’s half-way there, if we’re dedicated to lives of ultimate truth.
And it starts with the premise itself: a hero wants something. There’s desire. There’s attachment to an outcome.
The radical moment in many a contemplative’s journey is when they enter the cave. Often there’s some crisis that precipitates it. For Francis of Assisi, it was being disowned by his father and choosing to sever ties with his community. For a friend of mine, it was a divorce. For another, a death in the family. The world as we know it, or rather, the story we’ve been living, somehow shatters.
In the cave, we move into a deeply interior space, examining everything: our belief systems, our conditioning, our very identity, even the very notion of a self.
If this is accompanied by a contemplative practice, eventually there is a buoyancy and lightness, a spaciousness surrounding these heavy questions.
The problem with noble pursuits or living a better story isn’t the pursuit itself, but the self and the baggage it almost always takes with it. We can embark on a journey with the best of intentions, but the untransformed self will bring its addictions, insecurities, and immature programs for happiness along with it, still convinced it is living a noble path.
First we need to be stripped of the implicit notion that we are the hero to see with the clear sight of love, to understand what has to change within us, and which has nothing to do with egoic self-deception.
Modern myths tend to emphasize the hero that takes on the corrupt and oppressive machinery of government, or the technical-industrial complex and comes out victorious against all odds. This is the myth of the mental layer we so often operate at, of future-oriented thinking, of planning and strategy, of goals and outcomes.
But the ancient myths so often contained that cave experience as central to the process of transformation. If the ego is untransformed the new noble pursuit just becomes the ego’s new stomping ground.
There’s a purification needed, a death, an acknowledgement of the false self at work, it takes the ongoing daily work of making space to become channels of divine love, without attachment to outcomes. Contemplation provides a means of not only becoming aware of the story, but taking time every day to slough it off altogether, and rest in the divine presence, which is before, behind, and beyond all story.