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Conversions of Consciousness

“Jesus is concerned with eliciting a conversion of consciousness from those not yet able to understand, and not with imparting information to a deluded pattern of consciousness.” (John P. Keenan, The Gospel of Mark: A Mahayana Reading)

As I reflect on the events of September 11 and our nation’s way of responding, I realize that what my heart seeks for myself is what it seeks for our nation—collective conversion of consciousness.

I read these words of Keenan in August just as I was entering into some extended time of retreat. As I had been preparing for that time, I had no clear sense of what the time would be about or why I was taking it. I sensed some hollowing out that needed to happen and I wanted to give myself to the process. It seemed I was responding to an invitation.

I had never heard the term “conversion of consciousness” before, but it touched something deep inside me. It became another expression of the invitation to a faithfulness in showing up for my part in whatever the process of hollowing out would be. As far as I could tell, my part seemed to have more to do with not doing, with desisting from my perpetual figuring out and judging so that something deeper inside me could show itself.

As I sat with that awareness, I remembered the story a monk had told about what I would now call a conversion of consciousness. He talked about a particularly painful time in his life when he struggled to know how he was supposed to live/to respond in the midst of the pain. The more he tried to know, the more confused he became. Finally one day he just breathed a heavy sigh into the pain and gave up his efforts to know. He described what happened after that by saying, “It was like my eyes had been ‘Windexed.’ I began to see the situation and my role in it clearly. Something deep inside me was released. I knew what I needed to do.”

The “something deep inside” that was released I would call wisdom. It wasn’t as though the monk was suddenly given wisdom. Wisdom was always there. It was rather as though, in his heavy sigh, he breathed into the place where wisdom was waiting to be accessed. He returned to himself.

As I thought about the monk’s story, I began to understand what conversion of consciousness has come to mean to me and what my retreat time might be about. It wasn’t about getting something, unless the something would be a new perspective. It was more about returning to myself, to that place where Wisdom dwells, to make myself available to her. It felt as though I needed to be apart, in an intentionally listening/seeing space for that to happen.

I reflect on Wisdom’s voice in Proverbs 4:11, “I was there from the beginning,” and in Proverbs 1, “I will sink into your marrow.” Wisdom is not something we seek to create in times of confusion. She is an abiding presence in each of us. Fullness of Wisdom resides in each of us, in the very stuff of our lives. As a Zen sutra reminds us, “Each moment, life as it is, the only teacher.” I might modify this to read, “Each moment, life as it is, Wisdom’s teaching.” I didn’t need to be on retreat to get wisdom; I needed to be there to return to her presence in my life, to recognize her. Retreat became the Windexing of my heart’s eye, as it were.

And now that the retreat has ended, how do I stay in touch with Wisdom? How do I make myself available to her presence? How do I keep the lens of my heart clear for seeing? Probably by living as intentionally in my daily life as I wanted to live during the retreat. I can’t do that by myself, but I can be open to it. I can put myself in the company of people who will remind me that this is what I want. I can give myself to practices that help me stay awake even when I might prefer to sleep. Instead of picking and choosing among the parts of life I will give attention to, I can give my attention equally to all, allowing Wisdom to be unmasked where she will. I can be willing to let go of the prejudices of my own knowing and judging so that Wisdom can reveal herself. I can seek the heart of wisdom made manifest in love.

Perhaps the events of September 11 invite all of us together to expose the film of the illusion of power that clouds our vision to the Windex of compassionate wisdom. Then we can see with the eye of the heart how we are to respond, how we are to live as a nation.

From Rose Mary Dougherty, Trusting Love: An Undefended Heart. Washington, DC: Shalem Institute, 2019. (This article was originally written in the fall of 2001.)

Photo credit: 9/11 Memorial & Museum

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