top of page

Mysticism vs. Religion - what's the difference?

Contemplation - Relaxing into what is

Recently I was invited to participate in a gathering of young(ish) contemplatives, to dialogue together about the future of the contemplative tradition of Christianity. How can we interface with the contemplative traditions around the world? What do we have in common? What unique gifts or perspectives does the Christian tradition bring? How might the contemplative tradition respond to our “post-Church” society?

As Karl Rahner stated in the 1960’s:

“The Christian of the future will either be a mystic, or will not exist at all.”

One of the obstacles that we face as a group—and as a Church—is that the Christian contemplative tradition is a well-kept secret. What most people know of the Christian religion is the externals: rules, structures, rituals, memorized prayers. It’s the letter of the law. The letter is supposed to take us to the spirit of the law, but somewhere along the line, we forgot to communicate that part.

Where it All Started

All religions start with a spark. The initial followers resonate with something true, good, and beautiful in that spark. It vivifies them, gives them a freedom and joy they had never before experienced. The spark often ignites a wildfire. But in order to communicate it and pass it on, structures are formed. Spirit is committed to paper (or scroll, or tablet, or oral tradition). Rules and guidelines are adopted. And before long, the wild and free Spirit is captured and begins to fossilize. We see all the pretty structures—which are certainly helpful for transmitting a message to the world—but then we start to forget about the Spirit captured within.

Why is this the case? It is far easier to adhere to structures than to live Truth deeply. Beauty beckons us. Goodness transforms us. But it takes a lot less openness to check a Bible study off my list than to do the difficult inner work of transformation.

That is what the contemplative tradition is all about. It is about a transforming union with the divine. I like to think of it more as a stance than an action: it means having open palms before Reality, and allowing that Reality to undo you.

Contemplation vs. Conquest

Contemplation is always something received, not achieved. Which is totally contradictory to how we do things in the West. We conquer. We conquest. We climb corporate ladders. We “DO” meditation here, and usually for some tangible outcome. But meditation is not a tool with a great ROI. It is a way of showing up in the world.

As I was wrapping up details for my book, Spiritual Wanderlust, I came across Jack Kornfield’s book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. I love the premise of the book. We spend so much time trying to build up to some great awakening—but rarely discuss what life is supposed to look like outside of that, or after. So after I taste sweet bliss, how do I go back to doing the laundry that needs to be done?

Without such a foundation, says Kornfield, meditation can easily become yet another form of striving.

In an article for the New York Times, Kornfield explained how he and others have adapted Buddhist meditation for Western consumption. He remarked that the biggest differences between East and West—particularly in the USA—are the interior differences.

In the West, Kornfield says, “we encounter a lot of intense, striving ambition, and a lot of self-criticism, self-judgment and self-hatred.”

Concerned, he initially turned to the Dalai Lama for advice, but self-hatred was such a foreign concept to the Tibetan Buddhist that he wasn’t able to offer any real insight. Over time, Kornfield and his colleagues began to believe that Americans needed a particular meditation practice closely linked to the concepts of self-forgiveness and “loving-kindness” — a training in the unconditional acceptance of imperfection.

Without such a foundation, says Kornfield, meditation can easily become yet another form of striving — “another thing you do to make yourself better,” instead of a path to true contentment.

Contemplation—what the East calls meditation—is a way of being. We are so accustomed to striving for everything, that it is difficult to stop our grasping.

Now, let’s be clear: “open palms” doesn’t mean that I sit lotus-style for the rest of my life. As Jack Kornfield points out, after the ecstasy, there’s the laundry to be done. Action is still necessary. It’s perfectly acceptable to go after a better job, to pursue your love interest, to travel, host parties, and put in a garden. They key, in all of this, is your inner stance. Finger over your inner movements. Is there ease, joy? Or is there tension, forcefulness, and anxiety?

Whenever anxiety surfaces, it is an invitation to ask: What am I not accepting?

Try Tubing

I think life is a lot like inner-tubing down the river. (If you’ve never done this, get to Texas or Missouri or Minnesota this summer, bring a few 12-packs and loads of friends, and get ready for a lazy, sunburnt, delicious sort of day.)

Floating down the river is nearly effortless. We go with the current, enjoying those who are with us and appreciating the changing scenery and pace as we drift along. It’s when we decide we don’t like this particular ride that we get all in a tizzy. We see a rough patch of water ahead. Instead of accepting it as part of the ride, we get wide eyed and start paddling against the current. We might hop off the inner-tube and try to reach the river bank. “I’m not supposed to be going this way! I don’t like this part of the river. I want to stay back there!” And we resist.

If we were to paddle with the current, we’d probably get through the rough patch of water much more quickly, to find the glassy pool on the other side.

They say pain is inevitable in life. What is not inevitable is suffering. Suffering is the pain we add to our inevitable pain. It’s getting anxious about getting anxious. It’s getting angry about being angry. It’s resisting the flow of life with a dogged determination that it should be OUR way, not any other.

Suffering happens when we resist the flow of life with a dogged determination that it should be OUR way, not any other.

Contemplation in any tradition is about being present to the flow of the river. Allow the river to take you where you need to go. Show up with curiosity instead of resentment. Refrain from comparing your ride to that of your friends. And when the rough patches of water cause you to drop some of your stashed beer, recognize that the river may be suggesting you didn’t need those anyway.

To me, this is what it means to be a contemplative. As a professor in college used to tell me, “It’s not easy, but it’s not that complicated.”

Accept what is. Open your heart to transformation, and find that spaciousness we were all meant for. You might just find the Spark that started the wildfire of religions so long ago.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page