The first thing that you have to do, before you even start thinking about such a thing as contemplation, is to try to recover your basic natural unity, to reintegrate your compartmentalized being into a coordinated and simple whole and learn to live as a unified human person. This means that you have to bring back together the fragments of your distracted existence so that when you say “I,” there is really someone present to support the pronoun you have uttered.
Reflect, sometimes, on the disquieting fact that most of your statements of opinions, tastes, deeds, desires, hopes, and fears are statements about someone who is not really present. When you say “I think,” it is often not you who think, but “they”—it is the anonymous authority of the collectivity speaking through your mask. When you say “I want,” you are sometimes simply making an automatic gesture of accepting, paying for, what has been forced upon you. That is to say, you reach out for what you have been made to want.
Who is this “I” that you imagine yourself to be? An easy and pragmatic branch of psychological thought will tell you that if you can hook up your pronoun with your proper name and declare that you are the bearer of that name, you know who you are. You are “aware of yourself as a person.” Perhaps there is a beginning of truth in this: it is better to describe yourself with a name that is yours alone than with a noun that applies to a whole species. For then you are evidently aware of yourself as an individual subject, and not just as an object, or as a nameless unit in a multitude. It is true that for modern man even to be able to call himself by his own proper name is an achievement that evokes wonder both in himself and in others. But this is only a beginning, and a beginning that primitive man would perhaps have been able to laugh at. For when a person appears to know his own name, it is still no guarantee that he is aware of the name as representing a real person. On the contrary, it may be the name of a fictitious character occupied in very active self-impersonation in the world of business, of politics, of scholarship, or of religion.
This, however, is not the “I” who can stand in the presence of God and be aware of Him as a “Thou.” For this “I” there is perhaps no clear “Thou” at all. Perhaps even other people are merely extensions of the “I,” reflections of it, modifications of it, aspects of it. Perhaps for this “I” there is no clear distinction between itself and other objects: it may find itself immersed in the world of objects and to have lost its own subjectivity, even though it may be very conscious and even aggressively definite in saying “I.”
If such an “I” one day hears about “contemplation,” he will perhaps set himself to “become contemplative.” That is, he will wish to admire, in himself, something called contemplation. And in order to see it, he will reflect on his alienated self. He will make contemplative faces at himself like a child in front of a mirror. He will cultivate the contemplative look that seems appropriate to him and that he likes to see in himself. And the fact that his busy narcissism is turned within and feeds upon itself in stillness and secret love will make him believe that his experience of himself is an experience of God.
But the exterior “I,” the “I” of projects, of temporal finalities, the “I” that manipulates objects in order to take possession of them, is alien from the hidden, interior “I” who has no projects and seeks to accomplish nothing, even contemplation. He seeks only to be, and to move (for he is dynamic) according to the secret laws of Being itself and according to the promptings of a Superior Freedom (that is, of God), rather than to plan and to achieve according to his own desires.
It will be ironical, indeed, if the exterior self seizes upon something within himself and slyly manipulates it as if to take possession of some inner contemplative secret, imagining that this manipulation can somehow lead to the emergence of an inner self. The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand, and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured by anyone or anything, because he responds to no lure except that of the divine freedom.
Sad is the case of that exterior self that imagines himself contemplative, and seeks to achieve contemplation as the fruit of planned effort and of spiritual ambition. He will assume varied attitudes, meditate on the inner significance of his own postures, and try to fabricate for himself a contemplative identity: and all the while there is nobody there. There is only an illusory, fictional “I” which seeks itself, struggles to create itself out of nothing, maintained in being by its own compulsion and the prisoner of his private illusion.
The call to contemplation is not, and cannot, be addressed to such an “I.”
From The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation by Thomas Merton (pp. 3-5)