Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | August 10, 2010

Thomas Merton; The Inner Experience

I am currently almost finished reading a book of Thomas Merton’s, posthumously published as THE INNER EXPERIENCE; NOTES ON CONTEMPLATION. Originally titled, WHAT IS CONTEMPLATION, Merton worked on it off and on and actually left instructions that it not be published. But verbal testimony revealed that in the end he did think it was wothwhile, so here we have it.

I think Merton hits the nail on the head in many areas on contemplation, and addresses many of the issues I have been struggling with personally. While I am still absorbing what I have read, I want to share just a few things with the caveat that the material presented in Merton’s book, and in the contemplative life overall are so deep that it’s very hard to put word to paper; perhaps even explaining Merton’s own hesitancy in getting the book published.

The first distinction Merton makes is between eastern and western mysticism and contemplation, and it is my first struggle. “In zen, there seems to be no effort to get beyond the inner self. In Christianity, the inner self is simply a stepping stone to an awareness of God. Man is the image of God, and his inner self is a kind of mirror in which God sees Himself…” So, first, let’s not judge Merton’s understanding of zen and taoism by one quote. But the important distinction here is that in zen and taoism, there is a recognition of the divine essence of one’s self, of our buddhahood, or in tasoism, that we are simply a manifestastion of the tao. In Christian contemplation, it is necessarily christological and focused on “God.” I would say that the language of each is sufficiently “mystical” and unable to be “understood” with normal reason that it is possible that the distinction may actually be merely symantic. For a born catholic, it is hard to let go of the distinction, and question myself as to whether I am missing the boat if I merely stop at nurturing an authentic inner self. But i can only say, that if I nurture and develop and learn this inner self, if this true person emerges, then everything else ought to take care of itself.

The second distinction I am trying to understand is between a true contemplative experience, and things like quietism, fantasy, and “a false interiorization…in which one simplly withdraws into the darker subterranean levels of the exterior self…colored and perverted by a heavy and quasi-magical compulsivity…”
Both eastern and western contemplative lifestyles are vulnerable to these dangers of delusion, diversion, and misunderstanding of what one is actually doing.

Modern practitioners of tai chi, qi gong, buddhism, yoga, and on and on are looking for some relief from the oppressions of temporal living. This is good, but id it stops short at just trying to get that feel good feeling of some peace and quiet, that aint it. Modern proponents of these practices do them a major disservice by marketing them in order to attract paying clients for temporal, exterior benefits. How many women are doing yoga to tighten their abs, how many elderly think that by doing tai chi they won’t fall and be unable to get up, how many buddhists maniacally chant in their cars on their way to work thinking they will magically solve the burdens that await them at 9 a.m. These practices have so much more to offer than what they have been bastardized into.

The next point Merton makes is the great difficulty we have in modern society is escaping the temporal, secular way of things. It has become(perhaps not that it always has been) so oppressive, so seductive, so enslaving, so delusional, that it becomes close to imposible, one feels almost despair, at not being able to extricate himself rom this circle of temporal, secular concerns. “Solitude and silence, essential to the contemplative life, have become highly valued luxuries sometimes accessible only to the rich…those whose life is a despairing srtruggle for security…the rule of the world, its exacting demands, its inexorable pressures to conform…not only does the world become more and more demanding, but it cannot be escaped.

Extricating oneself from this temporal oppression is priority number one. There are still ways to do it. But the economic system we are in today has really got us bound up, gagged, and in a hole, deep. A lot of our time and energy is taken up trying to make enough to keep a roof over our head and enough food in our belly. How many jobs have we been in where we can actually feel it sucking the life force right out of us. This is deadly. Many of us do ok or well in this system, in what Merton calls a Faustian pact. Our behavior is controlled, and we live in fear, and act out of fear. The person who is a contemplative must remain vigilant to what is happening to him and always be on guard. The seductions, delusions, manipulations, and oppressions of everyhting secular and temporal all around us has become incredibly strong. We must be heroic in standing against it before authentic humanity is completely lost.

A contemplative is moved by his inner intuitiion(not that there is an outer intuition). There is a recognition and awareness, faint at first, that there is something mystical, divine, numenous, holy, and sacred about our existence. There is also a growing recognition of the triviality and absurdity of the way the secular and temporal works; he begins to see through the fasutian illusion. And so he begins his journey, into the contemplative life, into the inner experience, in search of the authentic self. It is not escapism. It is not a leap into a world of fantasy and illusion. It is a search for authentic meaning and existence. We recognize our moral duties and obligations in “this world” to family and community. We labor honestly and to the best of our ability. It is our moral obligation to do so without entering into the faustian pact. But we struggle with all our being to remain true to who we are, and to recognize, in Christian terms, our sonship, that God is our father and we are made in his image and likeness, or in eastern terms, that we are in fact buddha, or that we are, in taoist terms, “it,” we are the tao itself.



  1. Dear Mike a great book you have written about and which you have articulated well. I like you am a lover of Merton. I am a follower of the christian faith and a teacher of tai chi. There are profound links between these traditions. They are seperate from each other but at the same time illuminate each other. We must learn from each other and of course it is in the mystical tradition common to all ways that we have a meeting ground.
    I personally am enriched by my daily practice of contemplative practice and tai chi. We have to find our own God given freedom in our practice and then it gets real and authentic. Or to use merton language die to the old self which is hard but worth pursuing.

    Take care paul

    • Hey Paul, thanks for commenting. IT’s heartening to see others sharing the similar journey. Merton always brings me back! It’s been difficult lately to carve out a disciplined practice, distracted by having to work so many hours in the week, but I suppose the trick is to encorporate the contemplative principles in everything we do throughout the day. So, feel free to write again and let me know how things are going in your journey.


  2. Hey Mike, thanks for stopping by. We have parallel interests, indeed! I love Merton’s works, also. Your notes on the nature of the mystic experience and how it differs when moving between eastern and western religious contexts is something I think about often. I also love Paramahansa Yogananda’s writings, especially Man’s Eternal Quest and The Yoga of Jesus – in these, it seems the higher purpose in Christianity is no different at all than in Yoga; Self-Realization, which is to say, God Realization, which is to say, knowing we are the divine!

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