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Substance over form




For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.

St. John of the Cross

As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.

The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.

The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.

It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.

Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.

Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.

Mysticism and philosophy




In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram – impersonal and unattainable – the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, and alive.

Evelyn Underhill

Most of modern academic philosophy, to its detriment, remains in the sphere of the mind. It is concerned with intellectual ideas, and then naturally, who has the better ones.

Mysticism is an entirely different endeavor. It looks like philosophy, because in order to share it we must use words and ideas to describe truths. But the nature of mysticism is a relationship, a real and complicated evolving relationship, with an intelligence that is beyond human comprehension. It is internal and external. It is relational, as much as personal. It is tangible. It is transactional. It is more real and concrete than any material thing, and it manifests in and through the material.

The mystic is swimming in an actual sea of truth and wisdom that is unseen and unseeable by others. His experiences and observations aren’t theoretical ideas, they are the very sources of truth. His inner work and experiences are his personal laboratory and gym, in which he learns, tests, and derives depth of understanding, while training in courage, fortitude, and faith. And because the process is transformative and aimed at virtue and higher consciousness, the experiences and truths exist on the strangest and most distinct polarities. They are contradictory and paradoxical by their very nature, which ought to be understood correctly and patiently, rather than used as a basis of invalidation.

For the mystic, whose work is terrifying and often extremely painful, the neat and structured ideas of philosophers are silly. It’s not a matter of arrogance, only a matter of fact. There is nothing neat or structured or logically cohesive in the sphere of mystery (not by human standards, anyway).

Mystics go authentically to the source of what philosophy holds as its aim – the love of wisdom via the search for truth. Mystics risk everything. They lose everything. They pay the highest price for their discoveries and experiences. It’s something most academic philosophers can’t begin to understand…

On becoming real

The work of authenticity is supposed to feel very vulnerable and scary. If this process is not terrifying, one has not yet begun to approach the truth.

It works in a somewhat backwards or negative fashion. You don’t technically become something; it is a peeling away so that something else can emerge, rather than a becoming something entirely new. It works by a continuous recognition of where we are not being authentic or truthful, and then the awareness and healing work to fix it. So we are actually learning at each step by failing. The ideal standard is to “be fearlessly real,” and the actual work is the constant recognition of where we fall short. For some people, the very nature of this constant sense of failure is enough to demoralize them and drive them away, but that’s the only way it works.

While it does get easier with time, at first it is really complex and dangerous. With each new deeper level of truth that seeks expression, fear is triggered again and again, until it is processed out and a comfortable equilibrium is reached. In this way, the process of authenticity is also helping us to conquer a whole bunch of fear.

I’ve met a few people over the years who claimed that they are “ego-free” and “totally authentic.” Surprised by their assertions, I asked them to share a bit more of their work with me. It turned out (each and every time) that they just “decided one day” to “stop being fake” and “got real.” Or they had an “ego-death” experience, and that was it. Just like that, with a snap of a finger, they magically stopped having an ego… Silly, right? That’s not how any of this works, but people have an endless capacity for self-deception. God bless them. (I find it’s better not to engage with them or make any attempt to explain anything. Just let them believe whatever they wish to believe and back away slowly. Trying to convince them that they’re confused doesn’t ever work out.)

Back to those of us who are engaging in real spiritual work…

The ego, by that I am referring to the false self, is formed in childhood as a response to fear and pain. As aspects of our personality emerged and were rejected or scolded, we learned to hide those feelings, behaviors, and expressions. The false self then is the collection of traits, behaviors, and expressions we learned that we must be, in order to feel safe, accepted, and loved, because the real version is not acceptable or leads to pain. The more hurtful and oppressive the childhood, the stronger and broader this false self is. (This makes sense, right? The more you experience rejection of the various parts of yourself, the more you learn to hide those parts away, until the only thing left on the surface is the acceptable pleasing version.). So the false self is really a game of pretend, designed to seek love and approval from others, while the real version, the truth of who we are, stays buried deep inside.

To now unmask the real version (which, absent a psychosis experience, happens very slowly in stages) and to emerge as that person, is going to naturally trigger all of the original pain of rejection. It will also trigger fear of it all repeating, and it will likely even bring up lots of childhood trauma.

The real version, with authentic feelings, is going to threaten existing relationships and dynamics, which have been comfortably stable up until now, even if they were dysfunctional. It is going to threaten careers and livelihood, and the relationship to work. It is going to bring up and revise the entire value system, and likely with that existential questions and moral concerns will arise. It is really nothing short of a revolution of one’s entire life. And all of this doesn’t even begin to touch the mystical arena (which is a far grander and infinitely deeper area of work).

This basic process of becoming real is very hard. And it takes a lot of time, effort, and dedication. It’s also filed with incredible joy, satisfaction, soulful meaning, and the healthy pride and confidence of personal achievement. There are experiences of real freedom and liberation of the spirit. There is a growing sense of love and belonging (often to a new community of like-minded folks). There is inspiration, creativity, hope, and healing, and most importantly, the sense that one is finally “on the right track.”

Being ego-free or totally authentic all the time is an impossible ideal. No one is that through and through. But getting to some imagined ideal isn’t the point. It’s not about being or becoming something perfect. The point is really each tiny step we can take in that direction. That’s perfectly enough. This is precisely what the evolution and transformation of consciousness is about.

About faith

The feeling of faith (the authentic experience of it in consciousness, not the mental construct), arises slowly through the healing of trust wounds. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, but it can be cultivated.

At first, it feels like a miraculous mystical condition, an incredible gift that you want to hold on to forever. But for the practicing mystic, there is a very real mechanical process associated with it. The more the process is performed, the purer the consciousness becomes, the more permanent and sustainable the feeling.

There is a returning quality to it; one returns to faith, so to speak, because it is a return of consciousness to a pre-wounded condition. It’s not a denial nor a naivete, but a repairing and removing of a barrier, which prevents the experience of faith. It is only accomplished through healing.

If a person is full of wounding, unhealed betrayals, unprocessed heart-aches, etc., and is fearful of trusting, this will stand as a barrier to the feeling sense of faith.

Then, absent the authentic feelings, mental constructs can be created and emotions can be generated with the mind temporarily, if one “believes” hard enough or keeps dogmatically repeating to himself how much he “believes” or “ought to believe.” This is what most religions teach lay people. But quickly that kind of faith breaks down, as it’s a very fragile sort of house of cards. The mind undermines itself in these matters often, and doubt prevails. Underneath that mental construct, full of trust wounds, the pain and fear and skepticism remain. No amount of belief can change that. This is why the real inner work is necessary.

Genuine faith is the serene and effortless surrender to the Divine will. It is neither blind nor ignorant. It is not attained through affirmative prayer, nor by the rejection of reason. In reality, it is a courageous path of negation; a purgative process requiring the arduous grappling with fundamental doubt and fear, and a healing of all the betrayals that caused the loss of faith in the first place. The more trauma one carries in the sphere of trust, the more difficult the journey.

The pursuit of virtue

Aristotle defines moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. We learn moral virtue primarily through experience, habit, and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction.

This is also called the middle path, or the middle way, and restates the concepts of balance and harmony.

It’s not as simple as it sounds.

In my view, the growth process towards virtue is the most difficult challenge any person can undertake. It also happens to be the most important at the soul level (if you believe all the great philosophers, sages, and mystics).

First it requires an intimate and careful self-study; with the aim of becoming ever more aware of ourselves – our behaviors, our desires, our emotional reactions, our repeating patterns of life. We seek to get more closely familiar with ourselves and understand our default settings, so to speak.

Then comes the investigation into how those settings came to be – the wounds, traumas, experiences, and resulting system of beliefs that created those internal settings and maintain them in their current state.

Then the deepening recognition and contemplation that the settings aren’t in their ideal state, being out of alignment with our higher truths and authentic selves. It is here that we study the wisdom teachings, learning the tools and their proper application to begin changing the settings.

And then the slow life-long process of healing and re-calibration of those settings – a movement towards the center or mean, as Aristotle calls it. The extinguishing of desire, the relinquishing of attachments, and the dismantling of fear.

The end result is internal peace – in the mind and in the emotional body. (This is the elusive state of enlightenment, freedom, liberation, etc.) In this condition, there is no longer a pull of internal desire in any extreme, and no longer any fear driving deficiency/avoidance.

The attainment of virtue (or more accurately the striving towards it) isn’t about becoming a “good” person. That’s not the goal. Some things that are called good, or socially sanctioned as good, are in fact deeply polarized, fear-based behaviors, which are not considered virtuous. The pursuit of virtue is more about the attainment of internal peace and fearlessness, in surrender to the Divine will.

What we know as goodness: love, empathy, compassion, fairness, generosity, justice, fortitude, temperance, and wisdom arise as a result of the pursuit of virtue. They are an inevitable and natural byproduct of the healing and balancing work. 

The real victory

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

Sun Tzu

The primary focus of spiritual work and the purification of consciousness has to do with the eradication of fear, which underlies all the false egoic tendencies we call desire. The practice of this eradication involves determining internally which actions/responses are being driven by fear at their core, and working to dissolve those barriers. The more barriers we dissolve, the more we liberate our authentic selves to freedom.

The external actions we take are not especially relevant, as they are really only a byproduct of the internal process. It is one’s own inner work that is of primary importance, not how one appears externally to others. (For this reason, it is nearly impossible to evaluate another’s spiritual progress by merely observing their conduct or behavior.).

External peace between people is a beautiful thing. But real external peace cannot exist if there is internal turmoil and fear. Discontent can be suppressed and silenced, or negotiated or compromised away, but that is a false facade of peace, not authentic peace. In this sense, external peace becomes a kind of utopian ideal towards which we strive, but rarely achieve. Those who do achieve the virtuous ideal become spiritual masters and titans of humanity.

Many of us are conditioned from childhood to remain silent, or to refuse to engage in a provocation with an aggressor, in order to keep the external calm and social order. This serves to maintain a necessary social cohesion and quell unrest and chaos, without which there would be anarchy, but it is not peace. The authentic ideal requires a much more arduous and complicated journey.

When we embark on the spiritual path, we are initially taught not to engage in interpersonal combat, and to remain silent in the face of provocation. That is a wise initial teaching. By not engaging and refraining from combat, we have the space to turn the focus inward, and work through all of the triggered feelings and beliefs that the provocation activates. This work happens in layers and takes years and years to complete. As our competency in this area matures, we come to see the incredible value of this teaching. By refraining from engagement and using the provocations (so plentiful in our world) to fuel the work, we are able to travel to great internal depth and really discover ourselves fully. A seasoned practitioner of this process will actually arrive at gratitude towards his aggressors, because the attacks illuminated the wounding that was in need of awareness. That is how provocations (and evil at large) serve us, and that is why we ought to “turn the other cheek” in our usual practice.

There comes another stage of spiritual work and purification that asks us to externally work through our fears. Here we are called to a different sort of activity. In this area, having healed all of our primary wounds, we must now work on developing courage. The approach to provocations here is different, taking on a combative nature. This is the other side of the spectrum, which involves bringing increasing awareness to our self-oppression and self-silencing in order to “keep the peace” and “avoid rocking the boat,” because those things aren’t “nice.” We must recognize the places where we remain silent and refuse engagement out of fear of confrontation and avoidance. Then we must reconcile the fears, and find our voice, our anger, and learn how to utilize those tools effectively. They are vital parts of our humanness, and through proper expression they must be brought into balance within.

In some spiritual communities speaking up, engaging when provoked, standing up for oneself or against injustice, or using appropriate expressions of anger are shunned and shamed as “not spiritual.” This is a mistake. Those communities remain stuck in the initial beginner level teachings, rather than advancing to the more mature stages of spiritual growth. They impose “peace” and “calm,” which often becomes abusive and oppressive to the members, especially when malevolent actors are at the helm.

In this more spiritually mature arena, in order to claim that we are consciously choosing to remain silent and forbear when attacked, there must be a valid and viable alternative. That means that responding, or not responding, must be equally available paths of actions. Then it can be said that there is a legitimate choice being made between two paths. If responding to the provocation is not an available path, it is because fear is standing in the way, and then the decision not to respond is not a choice, but an avoidance. We can even call it a cowardice, succumbing to fear, rather than acting on our authentic feelings.

In this part of the work, we must choose very carefully when to respond or not respond, and how precisely to respond to the correct degree, determined mostly by which path scares us most. The responses must never come from a place of vengeance or the pursuit of power or domination. They must always be underpinned by justice and ethical decision-making. By recognizing the fear that blocks us, working through it, and then moving forward in that direction conquering the fear, we will win. That is what is really meant by this piece of wisdom. The one who masters this process wins.

The winning does not have to anything to do with what happens externally. The practitioner doesn’t necessary win against his opponent in physical reality. His external opponent and the external outcome of the fight do not matter. What matters is if he is internally making the right, courageous, wise choice – utilizing the provocation in the best way possible, pushing himself further and further towards the conquest of fear, and responding in just the right way. If this is carried out correctly, he will win, and the victory will be of the most important kind.

The emergence of Truth

When we talk about psychosis, spiritual emergence, or any of the many different labels that fall under the umbrella of mental illness, we are really talking about the eruption of truth. Capital “T” kind of truth.

We are talking about the unshackling and often destructive rebellion of the soul, against the oppression of the false ego, the lies of the mind, and the dysfunctional abusive and inauthentic patterns of relating.

This eruption is violent, not in the material sense of causing external physical harm to others, but rather its emergence destroys the web of lies that have kept the person oppressed. It destroys the conditioning, the abusive relationships, the false loyalties, and indoctrination that keep us stuck. The revelations of truth, to the experiencer and those around him, plunge everything into a chaotic anarchy, just as any political rebellion would.

This chaos is hard, and scary, and causes the oppressors (sometimes other people, sometimes the mind itself) to become even more authoritative and tyrannical. Oppressors, (within and without) who feel their power threatened, never react well to such eruptions. They try to quell the rebellion by any force necessary. Thus maintaining of the status quo becomes of paramount importance, as everyone is horrified by the implications of the truth.

The truth is ugly. The truth is shameful. The truth hurts, a lot, and requires real change. Few are willing to go there. An urgent and immediate return to “normal” is what is sought, but to the experiencer (to his soul), such efforts are silly, meaningless, and provide only an illusion of safety and comfort.

Once he has seen and experienced his truth, he knows that there can be no real return to what was before. Thus begins the very long, painful, often solitary, complicated journey to healing.

Honoring the truth, surrendering to truth, and finding the path forward is the very Hero’s Journey that we all admire and aspire to. It means leaving what we thought we knew behind, for a wilderness of the unknown.

Most often alone and afraid, we venture forth. And just as the sages have told us for centuries, with each step forward, somehow magically, somehow synchronistically, the path just appears. We realize that we are guided, supported, and something unknown and unseen is rooting for us. The battles are hard. The terrain and darkness are astounding. The demons and monsters are very very real.

And while the purpose isn’t winning in the normal sense (it’s rather the way in which we do battle that really matters), the journey becomes the very purpose and meaning of our lives.

The clamor of warfare

Image: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, photo by Tybo

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything new here. I have no excuse; I just haven’t really felt like it.

The last few months have been extremely hard and intense for me. As I continue shedding the remnants of this unbelievable and catastrophic darkness, I’ve been slowly (very slowly) returning back into the normal world. The inner clearing and healing work continues (albeit in new aspects and along new dimensions). It is still taking up the majority of the hours each day, demanding priority over all else. I’m told that’s temporary and will lessen over time.

Interacting with others, short conversations, and even running small errands are now becoming more and more manageable. It often feels like I’m a brand new person, with an entirely new personality, learning how to walk all over again – painful, awkward, scary, and with lots of ups and downs. (I figuratively fall on my ass a lot.)

Navigating all of this has been incredibly complicated and difficult. Without any rulebooks or external guidance, I’ve had to move through this, basically feeling my way through it, one terrifying step at a time. In the last few weeks in particular, the process turned outward, and I’ve been pushed into confronting some very real and serious external challenges, which have taken every ounce of strength, and faith, and courage to endure. They are all part of the healing and training process, but still they are extremely scary. It is only by the grace of God, and two exceptionally devoted friends, that I’ve managed to get through all of it. They say that if you have one really good friend you can get through just about anything. I am blessed with two such friends, for whom I am endlessly grateful. You know who you are!

Up until now it’s been too vulnerable for me to really share the details of these recent experiences, for a bunch of different reasons. Aside from fears and doubts, I didn’t quite have the words to convey the gravity or sanctity of what’s been happening to me. I still don’t. There are aspects of this that I can’t articulate, can’t conceptualize, and at times don’t fully understand. At first I found this to be intensely frustrating, but then resigned myself to the idea that not everything needs to be mentally understood or shared with others. (Shocking, I know. I’m kind of a blabber-mouth, so not sharing everything with everyone is weird for me. But I’m getting used to it.)

 

As fate would have it, just as I’d given up on sharing all of this, I met a very special person last week, who appears to have precisely the right words! Enter my new friend, Henry, the poet, from Cuba. A kindred spirit with a deeply intuitive heart, Henry magically appeared in my life in a rather unexpected way. Our seemingly random (and spiritually significant) encounter left us both a little shocked and reeling, I think. The magic and divine mystery that surrounds our lives is wondrous and truly extraordinary. No matter how many times I see it, no matter how many times I’m completed floored by the significance and intensity of it, my awe and surprise never seem to diminish. 

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Fear, courage, and the contemplation of mortality

 

It’s been a while since my last post, so I figured I’d pop in to add some new (ancient) thoughts and discoveries.

I came across the quote below by the controversial genius G.K. Chesterton a few weeks ago. It’s from his book Orthodoxy, which serves as an attempt at explaining his relationship with the Christian faith. I haven’t had a chance yet to explore his work as fully as I’d like to. It’s on my to do list. (I did watch the entire Father Brown series on Netflix, which is based on one of Chesterton’s fictional characters. Unfortunately, I don’t think that counts as a serious look at his work.). 🙂

Anyway, what I have read of his work so far, and of him generally, reveals some deeply mystical understandings. He is known for his infinite capacity to savor the mundane in the present moment; an early twentieth century Power of Now type. He was a prolific writer, poet, theologian, journalist, and art critic. His later conversion to Catholicism and the wondrous belonging he finds there remind me a lot of my own explorations. (He was also vehemently anti-semitic, which is part of what makes him controversial. I’ve learned how to appreciate the good aspects of a person, while accepting that there are also less than desirable ones.).

The subject of this quote, the experiential cultivation of courage, like so many other virtues, is intensely interesting. This quote captures some of the complexity and subtlety of the process, and the difficulty of articulating it in such a way that it fits into a contextual framework. (True virtue has this sort of you-know-it-because-you-live-it-and-feel-it quality that defies explanations.).

“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Courage, like all virtues, is the natural default spiritual state. It is the inherent nature of all humans liberated from ego. It’s not something to be positively acquired. It’s not something you collect or build up, like muscles. Rather, like love, compassion, trust or integrity, it’s something that emerges when the barriers to it are removed. Namely, fear.

In truth, to really cultivate courage, one must focus on the undoing of fear. Then courage emerges on its own, without any effort or doing.

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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. 

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