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“Wait without Hope”: Contemplation and consumer society

This piece was published on Garry’s blog Uncommon Prayers on 29 November 2022 and is shared on Vox with permission. Read the original piece here.

In ‘East Coker’ (1940), the second of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot wrote this:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Here Eliot names what is essential, I believe, to the apprehension of genuine contemplatives, whether they be Christian or more anciently Aboriginal in their ontology or phenomenology of expression. What Eliot names here is the interruption, the breaking, the ending or even the impossibility, of everyday life. For everyday life is indeed broken, is it not? In the wake of modernity, with its autonomic production of desires which gobble up and consume not only our sacred souls but also the very earth itself, are we not broken? Are we not spent? Are we not dazed, hazed, bewildered and confused, and are we not desperately, rapaciously lonely? And is this not the case even for those of us who seek to transcend this condition through practices and rituals designed to calm and soothe our flagging spirits? Do we not hope desperately, and prematurely? Do we not love forcibly and possessively? Do we not trust, blindly, in whatever phantasm we have conjured up from the ruins of our creativity?

The one thing moderns do not do, ever, is to pause, to stop, to empty ourselves, to cease with that endless churning through of problems and solutions, all smoke and mirrors and digital shadows. We never command ourselves to be still in the nighttime of modernity – so that we may give ourselves over to unthinking, to unknowing, to a genuine hollowing out of every idea or ethic, whether good, bad or indifferent.  We do not call for an end to desire, which forever threatens to consume every object, or person, or affect of light or of landscape that wanders into our orbit.  Not even in meditation, as it is most commonly practiced. For, as Slavoj Zizek rightly intuits, much of the consumer meditation industry is about patching up the tired and the stressed and the broken so that we can reengage in the very forms of neoliberal work, family and entertainment that made us tired, stressed and broken in the first place.

What we need is a different form of life, a more deeply interfused weave of being, a more visceral form of relationship with each other and with the cosmos.  What we need is to get outside of our neoliberal, differentiated selves. We need to get outside of the world we have created through the endless self-production of desire. What we need is to get out of our heads and our hearts in the direction of a radical openness to what the Indigenous nations of this continent call, quite simply, ‘country’. Country is, for we natives, both radically material and radically divine. It is the embodiment of the divine in pathways, waterways, skyways and the ritual songs that make them navigable. Country is, for us, a patterned network of reciprocal kinship with all living things: plants, animals, people, weather patterns and even rocks, which actually vibrate with ancestral presence. Each of us are born to a specific country, and there we belong. Country tells us who we are, to whom we belong, and what our part will be in the profound responsibility to care for country and its strong but fragile ecologies. For if we take our part in the communal vocation of caring for country, all of country will care for us. Crucially, this is not something we choose by virtue of our self-actualization as autonomous selves. It is simply given. It precedes and exceeds us. It gives us a unique and irreplaceable place in a patterned whole.

In Aboriginal perspective, then, as much as in the Christian mysticism of Mr Eliot, the answer to our woes lies not within, but without: in country, or the givenness of things in themselves, rather than in what we would forge from them out of selves that look only to possess, to consume and to colonise.  To walk on country is not, therefore, simply to bathe oneself in the sensuality of occasional contact with the wonders of ‘nature’ – wonderfully healing though this experience can be in itself – but also to stop and to stay, to engage in a more sustained waiting, to observe how each thread of the tapestry depends on each other thread for its life and its purpose.  To wait long enough to see that life and death and life again are woven into the fabric of the bush, just as Christ and his paschal self-emptying are woven into the persistent creativity of the cosmos.

Which brings me, at the last, to the very next lines in Eliot’s poem:

Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

Let us, like country itself, be contemplatives who are able to die to ourselves – to our hungry and self-serving desire for the phantasmic dreams of modernity – that we might be reborn to that more expansive self that is a deep and abiding kinship with all creation.

This brief talk was shared as part of a panel for the Contemplative Studies Centre (University of Melbourne) and the Australian Association for the Study of Religion, on November the 29th, 2022.

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