Ramblings

The Divine Will

 

Below are the exquisite lyrics to one of my favorite songs – Going Home, by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Divine Will over the last few days, and this song came to mind. (It was also published as a poem in the New Yorker magazine). I first heard it a few years ago, and have been obsessed with it ever since.

Right from the start, from the very first time I heard it, I felt an intense connection with its message. Somewhere deep within was the immediate recognition of a resonant experience, some shared knowing, which I didn’t really remember having. Kind of like when you are suddenly reminded of a really important dream, that you understand and appreciate inside your mind, but you can’t really convey it in words. I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew it, or where I knew it from, I just knew… I felt thrilled and moved in a way that music had never done to me before.

In my naive zeal, I couldn’t wait to share it with others. I made everyone I know listen to it with me, hoping they would hear what I was hearing. Hoping that they too would get what I got. But, of course, they didn’t. They couldn’t… To them it was just a strange and eerie song, which made them vaguely uncomfortable. Not only did they not get its significance, but they couldn’t understand why I was so taken with it. And at the time, frankly, I couldn’t either. I could explain the song’s meaning, but I couldn’t explain how I understood it, or why it was so important. I didn’t know the momentous gravity that the message of this song would come to have in my life. Looking back now, I understand it as a real-life moment of foreshadowing. 

This song captures ideas that are thrown about a lot, superficially. But rarely are they lived or experienced in their entirety, even among avid spiritual seekers. It’s hard to know if this song comes from creative inspiration, or if it’s a testament to Leonard’s own experience. None of his other songs, as far as I’ve heard, reveal quite this level of mystical consciousness and development. Given his monastic life and reclusive periods, it’s entirely possible that he attained this level of understanding. On the other hand, in my occasional intersections with the world of artists, I’ve found that they can sometimes produce amazing and brilliant work, but be totally ignorant to the spiritual significance of their own creations. It’s possible that this piece came to Leonard, as is. Or it could be grounded in his actual experience. I don’t know. I have to assume it’s the latter, which is staggering (I’ll tell you why in a second). Either way, the song seems to stand apart from the man, even while using him as its subject.  

The lyrics are speaking from the perspective of the Divine Will, through the vessel of Leonard, the human. There is a matter of fact simplicity to what’s being said. The tone is casual, because the theme is universal – this story is as old as time itself. The Divine Will is describing Leonard’s experience of being governed by it, and the inherent tension between them. This is the very essence of mystical life. We first see Leonard’s resistance, surrender, and courage; of which the Divine Will approves. And then we see Leonard being taken over fully, his egoic ambition diminished and eclipsed, as an obvious and necessary condition of the arrangement. In exchange, the Divine Will cushions him in loving wisdom and guidance, alleviating the source of his human tension and striving.

Saying nothing of the incredible artistry on display, these lyrics reveal a tremendous spiritual depth, a knowing, and a sacred understanding, that can only come from years of honest and painstaking inner work. That’s why I have to assume it’s Leonard’s own experience. This kind of nuance isn’t just something you stumble across as an amateur seeker. It sounds very much like lived experience.

A mystical relationship with the Divine Will is intensely complex. It is a kind of sacred dance; a trust and intimate personal connection and understanding, that develops over many different moments and experiences together. It is very much like a sacred marriage, described by so many ancient texts. The Divine Will, by its very nature, will push its vessel into fear and discomfort, through various trials and hardships. We see this in all accounts of all the mystics and prophets since the dawn of time. The Divine Will asks its vessel to say or do uncomfortable things (speak unpleasant truths to power, preach unpopular or controversial ideas or reforms, break with conformity and social rules, endure public shame and ostracism, etc). It does so in order to spiritually grow, advance, and purify the person. In the friction, to illuminate for him where he is out of alignment with love, and to fortify and infuse him with faith and courage. In cultivating and practicing ever-deepening levels of surrender, the vessel heals and releases his resistance, allowing the Divine Will to flow and express itself more freely.

The practice of surrender is itself a fascinating but voluminous subject for another time. It is, however, the only path forward. The vessel learns pretty quickly that the dictates of the Divine Will can’t be refused. Resistance causes the pressure (in whatever form) to escalate until the vessel is forced to capitulate. This can be read as something menacing or punitive, but it’s not that at all. It doesn’t ever intend to hurt. It loves deeply, but like a strict (at times ruthless) teacher, it will provide the lessons to be learned. The smart vessel will turn towards his resistance and work to undo it quickly, rather than endure the resulting pressures. This all comes with time and practice, at a relatively advanced level of spiritual mastery.

To go further, and to allow oneself to be overtaken and transformed completely by this majestic power, to become the purest vessel for it, is the height of mystical consciousness. It is an acknowledgement and fundamental (not just intellectual, but experiential) acceptance that this power has always been in control. And that the very thing fighting against it, the part that resists it, isn’t actually real. It is a creation of fear. An inner illusion. (I’m not invalidating the feelings; they are very real. But going to depth and discovering it fully, reveals that there’s no substance to it. The mere act of looking at it dissolves it). With awareness and discovery work, that part, the resisting part, is slowly and steadily healed and dismantled, until there is nothing left. Then the Divine Will flows freely, expresses itself fully, unencumbered by fear. This is the ultimate unitive state of love. It is the culmination and climax of inner spiritual work and tremendous pain. It requires a magnitude of surrender that most people will never understand.

And the resulting nature of life is a moment by moment, nearly-impulsive way of being. Impulsive implies ignorance or recklessness. That’s not what I mean. It’s impulsive in the sense that it receives and follows the instruction of the Divine Will without a plan or vision. Existing in the present moment, with full trust and faith, and inexplicable courage, the person expresses that which asks to be expressed, without reservation. All the time. He follows his feelings (which are now pure of egoic desire), and this intuitive guidance above all else. In doing so, he experiences joy, divine love and bliss, intense satisfaction, and incredible inner peace. (He also adventures into mystical realms and discovers unexplored horizons).

In these seemingly unassuming phrases, Leonard captures the essence of faith and surrender, of undoing, of nothingness, of humility, and of the highest order of authentic expression. All of which make up the true mystical experience – the courageous self-less embodiment of complete service to, and union with, the Divine Will.

To arrive at this place, to actually carry out this charge, is (in my opinion) the most difficult and most rewarding mission in the world. It’s not easy. It is a painful (at times excruciating) process that takes immense dedication, fortitude, and a lot of work. To the skeptical observer, spirituality appears to be a peaceful or tranquil practice. Some people even believe that spirituality is some sort of retreat from real life, or an intoxicant for avoiding pain. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

To the genuine practitioner, what goes on within is nothing short of a civil war. It’s brutal, and bloody, and devastating, often teetering on the brink of madness. It is a fight to the death, literally. But to those few who are called to it, genuinely, all else is happily forsaken. They wouldn’t trade their calling for anything else in the world. They feel blessed to be chosen, and utterly unworthy of such an experience of Grace. 

I used to think that the “going home” chorus of the song meant dying; that he was returning to Source. In some sense, it is a death, of the ego. But I now see a deeper meaning. The going home is a metaphor – it’s about the journey home. This very arduous journey to truth, to love, and back to union with God. It’s what the journey of the mystic is really all about. 

Here it is on youtube.

 

“Going Home”
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete

I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore

[Chorus]
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

   

A little bit of Jung

 

There are so many brilliant moments in Jung’s work. It’s hard to highlight one without mentioning at least ten others. But I came across this specific quote yesterday, which encapsulates so many important ideas.

We can get in touch with another person only by an attitude of unprejudiced objectivity. This may sound like a scientific precept, and may be confused with a purely intellectual and detached attitude of mind. But what I mean to convey is something quite different. It is a human quality – a kind of deep respect for facts and events and for the person who suffers from them – a respect for the secret of such a human life. The truly religious person has this attitude. He knows that God has brought all sorts of strange and inconceivable things to pass, and seeks in the most curious way to enter a man’s heart. He therefore senses in everything the unseen presence of the divine will. This is what I mean by “unprejudiced objectivity.” It is a moral achievement on the part of the doctor, who ought not to let himself be repelled by illness and corruption. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses. I am the oppressor of the person I condemn, not his friend and fellow-sufferer. I do not in the least mean to say that we must never pass judgment in the case of persons whom we desire to help and improve. But if the doctor wishes to help a human being he must be able to accept him as he is. And he can do this in reality only when he has already seen and accepted himself as he is.

The quote is from a talk he gave, which was later published as Modern Man in Search of a Soul. (Or vice versa, I can’t be sure which came first).

The work of acceptance (first of self, and then of the other) is the only path. It’s not a matter of preference. Acceptance is the very heart of love. It is the highest of mystical truths. It is the pillar upon which peace, freedom, empathy, compassion, dignity, respect, and humility rest.

It is also the only way to heal…

 

The illusion of evil

 

Evil never sees itself thusly.

It lacks such a capacity.

It abides by darkness alone.

In its own eyes, it is always good, and right; a precious victim of the wickedness of others.

In this sense, evil resides within each one of us, in every hidden unforgiven pain.

It is only honest reflection upon the nature of our own evil, that marks the beginning of our virtue.

 

Becoming nothing…

 

One of the hallmark processes of a kundalini transformation is a destruction of the ego. It has been written about by mystic poets for centuries as the process of becoming nothing. A burning away of all that is not love. A destructive fire that, with the grace of God, tears you down to nothing, and shows you how to love and accept yourself as nothing, for no reason, other than the fact that you’re alive. It removes all that is not truth. It removes all the pretense and delusion. It reveals the deepest and ugliest of truths, so that one can find love and acceptance in that space. To accept oneself as God accepts him. It’s an intensely interesting experience, which is both very painful and very spiritually rewarding.

It doesn’t happen in every case of awakening – there are plenty of people who have been through the kundalini process with little transformation of consciousness. (There are other purposes served by their awakening). But those that are destined to go through the real deal are changed at the core of their being.

This process is not as foreign or unusual as it may seem. Mysticism is the realistic experience of the truths upon which religion rests. It is not a philosophical or intellectual account of reality. It is not an adopted belief system. It is the actual experience of Reality, beyond the ordinary course of normal life. And religion (with its ritual and its dogma) is what grows out of the reports about that Reality. It is a trickling down of mystical truth, for the masses. And this same mystical process, of becoming nothing, is recalibrated as a religious teaching of cultivating humility. It’s taught in nearly all religions as a virtue, and therefore a behavioral mandate.

But how do you actually cultivate humility? It’s not about appearing humble. Or sounding humble. It’s not about pretending you are less than you are. It’s not about diminishing yourself in a social context, or making yourself appear small. Those are phony ego tricks that remain at the surface of consciousness. They have nothing to do with actual inner transformation, or any sustainable spiritual growth.

To tackle this question, first it must be understood that humility, which is the complete acceptance of our flaws and our truths, is the natural default spiritual state. And the opposite of humility, which is arrogance and hubris, is just a mask which hides those seemingly shameful flaws and truths.

Arrogance (by that I mean superiority, condescension, the need to always be right, defensiveness, etc.) is a psychological defense mechanism that protects the inner vulnerability. Its intention is to cover up the deep-seated beliefs and feelings of shame and unworthiness. If you encounter someone who is arrogant, defensive, or condescending, you can be sure that within, that person is deeply insecure and lacking in self-love. The more arrogance, the greater the inner shame and vulnerability. It is precisely this mechanism – toxic levels of inner shame and the need to cover that shame –  that make narcissists so grandiose, haughty, and always fishing for compliments.

In order to permanently undo the mask, to undo the arrogance and feelings of superiority, the vulnerability needs to be accessed and accepted. It’s very similar to the practice of self-love. It’s about identifying those aspects that we deem negative, or shameful, and accepting them as part of a beautiful flawed imperfect humanness.

When we get down into the character flaws and seemingly shameful aspects, and we bring awareness and light and acceptance into it, we integrate those pieces of ourselves into our consciousness. We then no longer need to cover or hide or deny those aspects, because we’ve allowed them, and we’ve seen how they serve us. The surface level egoic portion falls away naturally, as the underlying issue it was protecting and hiding no longer requires masking. Without the need to cover or hide those aspects, the need for arrogance, defensiveness, or competitiveness falls away.

I really like St. Teresa of Avila’s take of this. She teaches that we must keep a close check on the ego’s desire to be the best, or to believe we know the most, especially in spiritual work. There is a natural inclination to compete with others, even in this most personal, sacred, and subjective arena. (The famous contemporary philosopher Alan Watts often highlighted and ridiculed this sort of competitive suffering among spiritual practitioners, particularly among long range meditators – each one trying to outdo the other in the suffering he endured.).

Instead, St. Teresa says, strive to be the least knowledgeable. Strive to be the least advanced (spiritually or otherwise). This is not a call to laziness or inaction. Rather it’s a call to discover more and more of our truths. The more truth that is uncovered, the more acknowledgement of our flaws, the more recognition of ourselves in others, the less superior we feel to anyone else. In fact, the more we see our own flaws reflected in others, the greater our capacity for empathy, compassion, and connection (not the disconnection of competitiveness).

Notice how the ego balks at St. Teresa’s suggestion. It goes against the ego’s very fundamental reason for existence – seeking external validation, control, and the illusion of power through competition, while masking all unworthiness and vulnerability. It turns the notions of competitiveness in all their manifestations, and the endless material striving, on their heads. And helps to show us, through our reactivity, where we are holding beliefs and feelings that aren’t self-loving or accepting. The pursuit of interest-based success is a false one. It doesn’t lead to any lasting joy or satisfaction. The real pursuit is to be ever-more loving, and kind, and compassionate, both to ourselves and to others. That’s the only way to live a life of integrity and contentment.

We must sit back and listen, and open ourselves to learning from others, rather than teaching them (from the arrogant position of “I know what’s best for you. Let me tell you what you should do, what you should be, what you should think…”). By asking questions, and being curious about others, rather than asserting instruction, we ask the other person to allow us into their inner world. And in doing so, we have the opportunity to connect and share and reflect on our own ideas and perspectives. We must tread carefully. When someone shares something vulnerable with us, it is not an invitation to judge or criticize. It is a bid for connection. How we handle those bids determines the entire nature and course of the relationship.

In our ordinary lives, we must notice everytime we assume we know better than another. Notice when jumping in to offer advice, rather than offering empathy, understanding, or compassion. Notice how we deflect and divert the conversation when we don’t know the answer to a question. Notice how we lack the fortitude to just admit when we don’t know something – as if not knowing is some sort of shameful crime. Notice how the need to win, the need to be better, turns a conversation from a dialogue about the merits to a take down of the opponents’ characters… All of this is playing out right in front of our eyes.

I’ve said this before, but I think it bears repeating here: being more intelligent than someone else, or in possession of more knowledge, education, or experience, does not confer the right to be condescending. Nor does it justify taking a position of superiority or disrespect. Despite popular culture’s unyielding worship of bullies and mean girls, being smarter, richer, faster, or more successful does not mean being better. Tearing someone down is not cool. Destroying someone in real life, or on social media, doesn’t win you anything at all.

Over the past year, and especially over the last few months, undergoing this transformative process has taught me so much about these subjects. It’s taken me down to nothing, and shown me what that really means. While it doesn’t sound especially fun to have everything taken from you, (both inner and outer structures propping up self-worth), there is a surprising amount of freedom in becoming nothing. With nothing to prove nor seek, and nothing to hide, there is a great deal of space to just be myself.

It turns out that even as a nothing, I deserve love, acceptance, compassion, and respect, for no reason. These aren’t things that have to be earned. These are the most basic (albeit rare) of human dignities. But they have to come from within first. Meaning, if I can accept myself as a nothing, if I can love myself for no reason, then there is a complete and permanent undoing of all the stuff that feeds arrogance and self-importance. There is no need for the re-establishment of ego, because there’s nothing to hide. This is the real sense of cultivating humility. It means accepting all the imperfections of being human. It’s not easy, but it’s a worthwhile effort.

 

What does enlightenment look like?

 

Surprisingly, the answer to this question depends very much on whom you ask.

For a long time I assumed that everyone had the same understanding of what it means to be enlightened. It’s talked about so much, that it never really occurred to me to investigate what I actually imagined it to be. It turns out, there is no consistent agreement on what an enlightened or realized person is. Different traditions, generally grouped by geography, teach, and aspire to, vastly different things.

The outcome of the Western mystic tradition is strikingly different than the Eastern variety. (I’m not equipped to get into a proper comparison here. I just mention it so we have some starting point). Essentially, it is whatever you believe it to be.

So what do you envision when you think of enlightenment? What does it actually look like? And where do your beliefs come from?

I’m going to leave those questions for now, and we’ll come back around to them.

Remember how I wrote a few months ago that evolved beings don’t act like saints? The point of my post was that the concepts of goodness, virtue, and self-sacrifice are improper standards against which to judge our spiritual advancement. Holding ourselves to those standards hinders us from actual growth, because those images and concepts do not reflect the truth of the journey. Authenticity and self-love are not always in alignment with saintly ideals. Being kind is not the same thing as being nice.

When I wrote the original post, my image of a saint was someone pious, ever-peaceful, above reproach, humble to the point of being meek, quiet, virtuous, self-sacrificing, righteous, and proper. Just to make sure my perception wasn’t skewed, I looked up some synonyms for the word “saintly,” and that’s pretty much what I found. Well, in the last few weeks I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Christian mystics (who were later canonized), and my image of a saint was turned on its head.

The temperaments of these mystics do not fit the description of a saint at all. These are not gentle, passive, conflict-avoiders. They are not meek, nor virtuous, nor above reproach, in their respective historical contexts. These are fierce, rebellious, non-conformists, fighting for justice in very disagreeable circumstances, dedicated to their inner guidance from the divine authority within.

They are evolved beings. One would say ultimately so, having completed their mystical journeys and attained permanent unitive states with the divine. But they don’t fit the definition of a saint.

And yet they are, technically, saints…

How do we make sense of that? Are our images of saints misinformed?

Reading one account after another, I was shocked to discover that a more accurate description would sound kind of like this: infinitely courageous, driven, and determined. Strong-willed, self-assured, supremely confident in their missions, even when everything appears to be going wrong. Not quiet, nor meek, nor peaceful; they are fighters, and leaders, and forceful reformers, and self-less servants of the divine will.

Self-less here doesn’t mean self-sacrificing; and it does not mean without a self. Rather, that the egoic will is replaced with the divine will. All desire arising from the ego is dissolved, and a new source of desire arises from the spiritual forces at work. (It feels within like a weird foreign desire. It’s very confusing at first, because it is inconsistent with the you that you know yourself to be. There is no sense of sacrifice at all in the heart or mind, because nothing is being actively given up.)

Here are some quick examples of what these mystics are like: St. Catherine of Siena, at the helm of Italian politics, lobbied continuously and ferociously, sending angry letters to the Pope, pressing for that which the divine will demanded. She was later nearly assassinated in religious riots over power. St. Teresa of Avila left her career in the convent, and following her inner guidance, took on reforming the corruption of the religious orders throughout Spain; instituting new fiercely ascetic protocols which no one supported. St. John of the Cross was imprisoned and tortured for unflinchingly pushing his unpopular reforms; he later escaped from prison. Meister Eckhart (not a saint, but a prominent religious leader and certainly a mystic) was brought up on charges of heresy for his writings.

There are many many examples like this (probably better examples than the ones I’ve chosen here). But the point is that this is not the profile of a tender, obedient, soft spoken, holy person, above the human fray. These are portraits of passionate warriors.

When they aren’t working, the accounts portray them as laughing, and singing, and joyfully, sometimes ecstatically, composing poetry and other forms of art. They aren’t morose or serious. They are playful, and silly, and childlike in their daily lives. And those that aren’t bound by religious language, describe their love of God and union with God in very sensual, erotic ways. (Because their love and piety is not just a religious concept of faith or reverence. It’s an actual feeling of love, real love, with energetic experiences that are deeply sexual in nature.)

This is a very different image of enlightenment, and saintliness, than what we’ve been conditioned to believe. This isn’t the Eastern version of enlightenment. And it’s not the religious standard of a saint (even though they are technically saints).

It is another way… (a way that is rarely taught or talked about in modern spiritual circles).

There is a prevailing notion in popular spirituality that enlightenment, or spiritual evolution, looks and sounds a particular way. It is deeply influenced by the Eastern concepts (perhaps through the import of yoga, or Buddhism, into the West. I don’t know). It envisions a sort of complete annihilation of the person: no self, no personality, no feelings, no emotions, no thoughts, nothing at all. Consciousness united with the divine, divorced from the body, which sits motionless in a cave somewhere…

The breaking down of that concept is important, because the mystical journey does not necessarily follow Eastern trajectories. (Mine certainly doesn’t). And it doesn’t conform to Western religious ideals or standards either (the mystics don’t conform to saintly standards).

Evelyn Underhill makes the argument that the Eastern notions of realization, culminating in a passive life, is actually an incomplete mystical journey. The Eastern mystics attained transcendence, she says, but then got stuck there. The Western mystics, on the other hand, attained realization and the permanent unitive state, but then went further, bringing that will and energy into action in the world. It is an active life (post-realization), not a passive one. It is the living breathing expression of the divine will (through the union with the higher self) in the most intensely human way.

The tendency of Indian mysticism to regard the Unitive Life wholly in its passive aspect, as a total self-annihilation, a disappearance into the substance of the Godhead, results, I believe, from … a distortion of truth. The Oriental mystic “presses on to lose his life upon the heights”; but he does not come back and bring to his fellow-men the life-giving news that he has transcended mortality in the interests of the race. The temperamental bias of Western mystics towards activity has saved them as a rule from such one-sided achievement as this; and hence it is in them that the Unitive Life, with its “dual character of activity and rest,” has assumed its richest and noblest forms. Underhill, Mysticism p.398

According to Underhill, the Western mystics, with their extraordinary lives of real service, are the pinnacle of the mystical journey. They are what real enlightenment looks like.

You may think, my daughters,” says St. Teresa of Avila in The Interior Castle, “that the soul in this state [of union with God] should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God, and when these occupations leave her free again, she remains in the enjoyment of that companionship.

Hmmm. I’m not a fan of arguing about which tradition or school is more advanced or right (it’s sort of a pointless argument). But all of this resonates very deeply for me. Throughout the last year or so, I kept getting the inner sensation of passionate warrior, thinking there was something wrong with me. What an incredible relief to find a concept of spirituality that fits with my experience.

There have been times when I’ve been guided, by my higher self, to do and say things that didn’t conform to my images and judgments of how a spiritual person is supposed to be. I’ve been asked to send angry emails (when I wasn’t angry), or to confront someone about their behavior (when it didn’t personally affect me). These directions were contrary to my own sense of what I should do in the situation, and how I ought to act in general. And I couldn’t understand why I was being led in a seemingly opposite direction.

Even my spiritual friends (who didn’t fully appreciate what was happening within me) judged me for not conforming to this ever-peaceful Eastern standard. It took a long time for me to learn to trust this inner guidance. To understand that these were lessons for me, and lessons for the recipient. I had to become aware that my images and concepts of who I should be were limited and limiting. I was judging myself against these Eastern ideals, which needed to be reconsidered and re-evaluated. Finding these Western mystics, and an entirely new concept for realization, has been really comforting for me.

Holding oneself to false concepts and standards (spiritual or not) isn’t helpful. It only creates more inner self-judgment and turmoil. That’s why it’s important to become aware of these inner standards, and dismantle them. Each person’s journey unfolds before him outside of his conscious control. It’s not something he designs or chooses. Real spirituality is about finding and living in accordance with that path of truth, not conforming to standards of what one ought to be. As long as I held myself to these Eastern concepts, I was stifling the truth that was asking to be expressed. Reading about the zeal and action of the Christian mystics, I feel a lot more comfortable with what I’m being guided to do.

Let’s go one step further. In my view, the Eastern notion of a “no-self,” as the path and goal of spiritual practice for Western practitioners is a detrimental mistake. The Western psyche is not the same as the Eastern one. We are not raised or conditioned the same way. We don’t have the fundamental foundations of basic goodness inherent in the East; we all carry around loads of unworthiness and psychological trauma. (There is a famous story about Western Buddhist teachers asking the Dalai Lama how to combat this inherent unworthiness. And the Dalai Lama couldn’t understand the question because he had no framework or conception of self-loathing. He was shocked to learn that we hate ourselves…).

And so adopting Eastern standards and practices, when the underlying self is terribly fragile and wounded, can be psychologically dangerous. Lots of spiritual seekers (with deeply broken inner foundations) are on a mission to annihilate themselves completely, believing that this is what enlightenment means. They have no other concepts to hold as their role models for spiritual growth.

In the Western tradition, the path is different. It is a perfection of the self through and with God. In non-Christian language, it is the healing and liberation of the authentic self, the authentic personality free from ego, such that the higher self can be expressed and actually serve humanity at large. When the higher self is not being expressed, the human underneath is a joyous, strong, psychologically healthy, confident person of great integrity and courage. In this tradition, the annihilation of the ego self is not the annihilation of the personality. One can become self-less, by losing his ego, without losing his authentic self. The end goal is not a total annihilation, with consciousness separate from the body, living in a cave. It is an intensely active life, directed wholly and completely by the divine will.

“The doctrine of annihilation as the end of the soul’s ascent, whatever the truth may be as to the Moslem attitude concerning it, is decisively rejected by all European mystics, though a belief in it is constantly imputed to them by their enemies: for their aim is not the suppression of life, but its intensification, a change in its form. This change, they say in a paradox which is generally misunderstood, consists in the perfecting of personality by the utter surrender of self. It is true that the more Orientally-minded amongst them, such as Dionysius the Areopagite, do use language of a negative kind which seems almost to involve a belief in the annihilation rather than the transformation of the self in God: but this is because they are trying to describe a condition of supersensible vitality from the point of view of the normal consciousness to which it can only seem a Nothing, a Dark, a Self-loss.” Underhill, Mysticism p.159

It is through the self, by healing the wounding, dissolving the ego (not the personality), strengthening the authentic self, and balancing out its polarities, that the person is transformed and remade into the divine state. This must be done in accordance with psychological health, never in the suppression, bypass, or invalidation of emotional pain (as most Eastern practices teach). It is when this healing and transformation happen genuinely and organically, that the higher self can begin to move through, and permanent union can be achieved.

The big liberation is the liberation of the authentic self, from fear, and ego, and all the things that keep it confined. Ultimately, it is about learning how to be loving and kind, and real, empathetic and vulnerable, and intensely sensitive to the suffering of others. It is the inner courage and fortitude to be the person you actually are, in truth and with love. And then from that solid and stable foundation, to carry out the mandates of the divine will.

Back to my original query – what do your images of enlightenment look like? And where did you get those images?

I think looking closely at our internal standards of what enlightenment or realization means is very important. It informs our entire understanding of the spiritual process. What sort of expectations are we placing on ourselves and those around us? What are we trying to become? And how might holding on to those concepts limit the true expression of what we really are?

With this awareness, we can free ourselves of trying to fit into concepts, and choose our role models carefully and consciously, in alignment with our own experience. Reading these mystics properly (without all the religious dogma), they are excellent alternative role models for those whose journey doesn’t fit with Eastern traditions. My own preferences aside, it seems to me that the Western models are vastly safer and more effective that their Eastern counterparts.

 

PS. A small side note on saints not acting like saints – there is a period of time in each mystic journey of shadow integration. Its most severe expression happens during the purgative phases, when it feels as though all love is lost. I wrote briefly about this before. Each of the mystics writes about this very unsettling experience in their respective descriptions of the dark night. It’s a temporary condition where saints really don’t act like saints at all. They are turned into their polar opposite (forced to surrender to “sin”) for a period of time, until those aspects are wrestled with and integrated into a balanced whole. It is a complete undoing of all that pretends to be pious and holy, such that the spiritual or religious ego is dismantled.