At some point in any long-term project most of us ask the question: Why am I doing this? This question is not as simple as it may at first appear. The question is not only about the obvious: if my project is building a house, then the question is about, and only about, whether I ought to be building a house. Why not instead write a collection of poetry? The less obvious implication of this question can be elucidated by rephrasing it: why am I doing this in this way? Such a rephrasing – really a reorientation of perspective – led the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, to conclude so famously that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Of course, his long-term project in this instance was not building a house, but life, itself.
More than ever before, this less obvious implication of the question is important to human beings. It is particularly important in the project of living life. Many of us are no longer willing to endure distracted and habitual ways of being that seem to be reified by the uninspired, uninspiring, and fundamentally meaningless narrative of scientific materialism. We long to take up life in a more self-aware and creative way, each of us as a being with a unique task on this planet. The whole multi-billion dollar self-help movement is now a decades old effort to address this longing. And the longing only seems to be growing.
In my experience, the only real way to satisfy this longing is to take up what is variously called inner work, contemplative practice, or a schooling of consciousness. It is the challenging but necessary step you make after you have taken Socrates’s words to heart and have examined your life. If you have been told that this step will be easy, you have been told a lie. If you have been told that this step will make your dreams come true, you have not so much been told a lie as been underestimated. What I mean by this is that your dreams before you take up a practice often see their fulfillment as more or less you projected unchanged into a future where all your outsized needs for recognition are met and none of your capacities for compassion and humility developed. You have no idea what you can become before you take up a practice, mostly because you don’t yet have the imagination to see your own potential.
Development of that imagination is one of the central benefits of a contemplative practice, an imagination that not only sees your own potential, but also the potential in other human beings and in the world. Such a contemplative practice must, however, be comprehensive, meaning that it most address our habits of thinking, feeling, doing, as well as take seriously our moral development – hubris and egotism, if not addressed directly, can lead very quickly to self-delusion. Real contemplative practice is not a get rich quick scheme or some ego-stroking guru training. Indeed, one of its other benefits is that those self-centered motivations are seen more and more for what they are: compulsions distinct from the one’s original longing to take life up more consciously. Real contemplative practice, on the other hand, is about service, but service out of freedom and love for the ideas one wants to realize in the world.