Love for God

“Do not let the old get in the way of the new, but reveal what the old was saying all along”

Richard Rohr

It’s really cool these days to bash the old, while advocate for the new, assuming it is superior. Mocking and ridiculing the old is something of a modern past-time. In spiritual circles, this often takes the form of bashing religion.

And yet, in the sphere of mysticism, it’s much more worthwhile to suspend the bashing, while humbly exploring what the old could have meant.

There is an unalterable truth in the old (perhaps misunderstood and misapplied, perhaps mistranslated or misrecorded), but there is sacred value in it, to be honored and discovered rather than arrogantly discarded. We are not any better than the people who came before us… 

This has been especially pertinent for me lately. 

Many of us on the mystical journey have experienced the big overwhelming love for everyone and everything. It feels like a condition that comes to us, which overtakes us, directed by a seemingly external orchestrator. Some of us have also experienced God (or however you conceptualize God), and felt divine love coming to us from some external source. These are rare mystical states, and they involve great, albeit temporary, shifts in consciousness. They are experiences of altered states, not the normal state of being.

The mystical writings however, all describe another aspect of this. They speak of loving God, not as something that overtakes us from outside, but as a doing – as something we must do. 

This always felt weird to me. I can’t force myself to love anything, even God. What could they possibly be talking about?

I’ve written a bit about my experiences of God before. At times, I have felt immense love; love that was coming from me for God – part of the awe, reverence, service feelings, part of the involuntarily sense of total worship and allegiance. But again, those involve a shift in consciousness outside my control, and I can’t recreate those feelings in normal states. Love for God is not a feeling that is available to me on any regular basis. I can’t access it in any way. Even when prayer and divine connection was available to me regularly, that didn’t exactly bring love for God as a feeling. So how am I supposed to love God, as a proactive thing? No idea. 

I didn’t understand what they were talking about, and my mind wanted to dismiss it as “old.” (There are different levels of mystical maturity, and it’s really easy to come across and immediately dismiss teachings as misguided conceptual understanding, but I didn’t want to do that with this. I wanted to understand it.). 

One of the big areas I’ve been working through for a few years now, which seems to have at least a hundred layers to it, has to do with trust and betrayal. I’ve written a little bit about how these things inform and block faith in another post. But faith, which I’ve been working on diligently, is also a different feeling than love. In altered states, they come together at times, but faith isn’t love. It feels different.

So first, my betrayal work was all about people – lovers, family, friends, all sorts of past life relationships. I’ve been betrayed in every which way the human mind can imagine. I have re-experienced an incredible array of human suffering, and betrayals are often part of those stories. I have cried, and cried, and cried, without end, healing and digesting these wounds. 

Then, when I had run through all sorts of human betrayals, I started to experience layers of betrayal by spirit. The experiences started to take a different turn, involving lies, false promises, false instructions and misdirections, by many different manifestations of spirit. This is a normal part of the purification work, but it still hurts a lot. 

Betrayals by spirit really shake the ground pretty hard, because they create the sense that all of existence is untrustworthy. That, then, creates a terrible discomfort and existential crisis, which takes time and patience to digest all the way through. 

Then, when those layers were reasonably clear, I hit something huge. I hit betrayal by God, being forsaken by God… Those are big big words I never imagined I’d be writing about, much less experiencing.

Feeling betrayed by God is the weirdest most complicated set of feelings yet. I trusted God. I put my complete faith in him. (It’s a “him,” for the moment, but that’s also a different issue.). I surrendered myself to him entirely, and he betrayed me. He abandoned me, but this is more than abandonment. There is another quality to this that I can’t exactly articulate. It’s deeper than abandonment.

This wound is enormous. Enormous! And ancient; it echos over and over, seemingly throughout time. It informs every aspect of my present mental landscape. It pushes up skepticism in almost every circumstance. It stands stubbornly in the way of faith. And as a result, the pain and defensive mechanisms left me feeling like a powerless mouse, pressed up against a corner of a cage, unable to trust anyone or anything again. There’s a lot of anger and fear inside that mess. 

And because I exist in God’s world, what can I do? You cannot break up with God. (Believe me, I’ve tried. My rage, and anguish, and tears didn’t do anything.). 

There is also another aspect to this wound, which has to do with trusting something that causes you harm (or allows serious unspeakable sort of destructions to happen to you), but that is a different struggle. This particular area is a separate thing entirely. (I’ve also cleared tons of projections onto God, and this wasn’t that either.) 

So, more work. Night and day, for weeks.

I took this apart entirely, and when I finally got all of it out, something amazing happened. I saw a tiny tiny spark of the possibility of loving and trusting God again!! 

When I digested all the pain through fully, clearing all the layers of wounds, and started to approach forgiveness and reconciliation, there was a new sliver of light. All of my pain had left, revealing something I never imagined possible. This wasn’t a shift in consciousness, but a totally sober condition, which brought a feeling of conscious choice. 

If I opened my heart again, if I took a risk and trusted God again, if I let myself really really love God (as the mystics have instructed), that love would absolutely overwhelm me and sweep me off my feet. It’s so massive inside. It’s like an all-encompassing infinite tidal wave of love for God, and with that, for all of life.

The choice would be a literal allowing myself to fall madly in love with God (again). It’s really scary to actually allow it. It feels risky and terrifying. There’s lots of resistance, and wanting to hold on to an illusion of safety in the current darkness, and of course, that familiar jumping-into-an-abyss feeling comes up.

I’ve begun unlocking the door. I’m not 100% ready to open it yet, but I’m getting there.

More importantly, I get it now; I get the instruction about loving God, as a doing. Like much of spiritual wisdom, it turns out that this is also a destination of healing, when all the layers are peeled away.

It’s a thing we are meant to aim for, and being unable to merely do it on the surface, it’s suppose to push us deeper and deeper into ourselves, to find all the blocks that stand in the way. And then, when those blocks are cleared, we are to courageously choose it, when it becomes an available choice. I get it now. I’m not totally there yet, but I get it. 

Many of the religious teachings that seem oh-so-silly at first are deeply deeply meaningful this way. They are misapplied dogmatically by people who remain at the surface and therefore misunderstand the real meaning, but the essence is right. I always feel stupid when I arrive at the depth of meaning, and realize I’ve been unnecessarily dismissing them in ignorance. (More lessons in humility.). 

So now, “love God with all your heart” has become a spiritual instruction for me, and a very complicated and painful journey of its own.

Authority, learning, and a bit of bread

The one who wishes to learn must first empty his cup.

I love bread baking. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I loooove bread baking. I got into it about ten years ago (with the no-knead trend, which made it sound deceptively easy), and I have slowly nurtured this hobby ever since. I’ve even shared some of my love of bread baking with others, and got them hooked on it too. Bread can be very infectious. There is something very satisfying and pleasurable about the texture of kneaded and freshly risen dough… It sparks lots and lots of joy in my kitchen.  

When time permits and I feel the inspiration, I will bake a few times a week (depending on how many people I’m feeding). During more busy periods when I’m immersed in my work, I won’t bake for months at a time. When I feel most “into it,” I get adventurous and I experiment with the variables – altering water temperature, salt content/type, types of flour, oven temp and time, baking containers, etc. I’ve even used whey from cheese-making experiments as a substitute for the water, which creates a really really rich and beautiful chewy crumb. I highly recommend it.

After years and years of playing around with this, I am an amateur wanna-be baker, at best. Really. I have mostly learned what not to do, or what doesn’t work, from colossal disgusting failures. I can’t ever be sure that a particular loaf will come out right, or whether it will even be edible. Sometimes they come out magnificent, other times it’s a total nightmare. I get nervous every time I have to bake bread for others, and I warn them in advance that I may not be able to deliver. That’s how poor a baker I am, even after so many years and countless loaves, I can’t seem to figure out consistent reliable success.

It would be my dream, if life allowed, to apprentice with a real expert bread baker, to learn how to do it professionally, and finally finally feel some kind of confidence in my technique and skills. And I have silly fantasies of owning a bread-only bakery one day, some place where wild yeast wafts through open cottage windows…  

Anyway, I’m sharing all of this because never never never, not in my wildest dreams, would I approach a professional bread-baker and attempt to teach her about bread. That would be absurd, no? 

I would be so excited to talk to an actual bread expert (or more accurately to hear the expert talk about bread and impart her bread wisdom), that I would never dream of being arrogant, or rude, or insulting her, or diminishing her skills, or disrespecting her time and efforts at perfecting her craft and talent, pretending like we are equal in bread-baking ability, or demonstrating that I am somehow superior. 

We are obviously not equal in break baking, and that’s a really good thing. She is a professional and I am not. She has dedicated her life and work to her craft, and I have not. She is someone who can teach, and explain, and correct mistakes, and guide, and I cannot. Obviously, there is no shame in this, this is the reality of what is. 

Now, set aside the professional baker for a moment, and let me tell you about my friend Q. 

Q is way more diligent about her bread baking than I am. She has been consistently baking for years, specializing in sour dough. She doesn’t have any degrees or schooling in baking (as far as I know), but I can accurately gauge that her knowledge and expertise far outweigh mine. Her instagram photos make my mouth water every single time. Her crumb is so gorgeous, the air pockets so big, and crust so perfectly crisp, that I don’t even have the words to convey it. It’s just incredible, and consistently so. My best loaves never approach her level of perfection. 

I would love to learn from her what she knows and how she does it, and if I were to ask her to teach me, I would be cognizant of the difference in our skill level, and humbly respectfully open myself to learning from her.

To me, this is normal. It’s how one learns. It’s how one respects one’s teacher(s). It’s how one grows in his own skills, and demonstrates respect and gratitude for the time and effort others dedicate to teaching him. 

Further, if Q agrees to teach me, I do not then fall apart in her presence, nor obsequiously flatter her. I don’t heap endless useless compliments at her, devaluing myself to the size of an ant. I do not lay down on the ground and kiss her feet. I do not lose my value, or sense of identity, or self-respect because she knows more than I do. I am humbly (honestly) bringing what little I do know, and allowing her to take me further in my learning. Her expertise does not annihilate me as a person. I deeply value the fact that she knows more and can help me become better.

During our time together I would not be focused on telling her where she is right or wrong, how I agree or disagree with her various methods, how this or that thing wouldn’t work for me, how I know better, or how she shouldn’t be so confident in what she knows or achieves. All of those behaviors would be arrogant and rude.

On her end, she would treat me with care and respect, determining how much I know, and making decisions about what I need to learn next. She would balance her position of authority and expertise with my dignity as a person, never condescending nor talking down to me. She wouldn’t diminish me, or ridicule me, or make me feel small because I don’t know something. She wouldn’t use her situational authority to hurt me. 

She would support me and help me, by offering both her knowledge and her confidence in my ability to learn and succeed. She would empower me, rather than seeking to control me. And if she’s a really talented teacher, she would create the circumstances for my curiosity to blossom, and encourage me to explore on my own, rather than feeding me all the answers herself. And if I don’t understand something, she would make it safe for me to ask for clarification and additional help. That’s how a normal healthy teacher/student relationship works. 

And yet, this is somehow entirely lost on many many people. People go to a professional of one kind or another, under the guise of wanting to learn or retain that professional’s teaching service, and then they diminish that person’s expertise or authority, because it somehow threatens their sense of identity. Instead of learning, and listening, and watching, and asking questions, they shove their own ignorant poorly informed opinions at the teacher. They criticize and undermine the teacher. They ridicule and diminish the teacher. They reject the teacher’s authority. They ask questions, but don’t listen for the answers, or worse yet they use the answers to compete with the teacher. They do the psychological equivalent of kicking and screaming and throwing tantrums refusing to learn. This is how adult arrogance impedes the ability to learn. 

If I imagine that I’m some kind of master baker, superior to everyone else, and I attempt to shove my lame ass baking skills at a real professional, he would rightfully ask me to leave his kitchen. Since I am not open to learning, and am only there to be a pest, why would he waste a single moment trying to teach me? It’s not just disrespectful to him, it’s egotistical and delusional on my part to think that I came there to teach him, judge him, or critique that which I do not know. 

But this is what lots of people do. Something has gone terribly terribly wrong in our wholesale rejection of all kinds of authority. Certainly we each have inherent value, worth, and dignity as human beings; that is without question. But it is some kind of foolishness and idiocy to pretend that everyone is equally proficient or knowledgeable in all things, and that rightful professional authority (in each sphere or arena) is inherently bad, merely because it is an authority. 

Granted, there are lots of illegitimate or corrupt expressions of authority. There are bad people in positions of power who cause a great deal of harm. But that doesn’t mean that all authority is to be rejected. Without the proper ability to bend, and learn, and discerning legitimate authority to obey, we are left in chaos. 

Without proper respect for rightful authority and expertise and proficiency, and the ability to gauge who has what knowledge, skills, or ability, we have anarchy and ignorance – a veritable Lord of the Flies, where bullies rule by arbitrary and capricious violence and aggression, answerable to no one. And truth, justice, and decency (not to mention compassion) cease to mean anything. Sound familiar? 

This is especially specifically true in the spiritual arena, not just between human teachers and students, but in a mystic’s relationship to Spirit. The same defiance that hates and rejects human authority shows up in a mystic’s work with divine authority. In our language, we call it resistance, but the nature of that resistance is often made up of the same material wounds. It is obstinate spiteful defiance, for its own ultimately irrational sake. 

Throughout the process, in every mystic’s life, there are clear and ubiquitous requirements of surrender, reverence, obedience, and compliance. To some ears, those sound like dirty words. Our society unfortunately favors the rebels and troublemakers, even when the rebellion is meaningless and harmful. Rebels don’t like the idea of a God to whom they must surrender. They fight and fight, refusing to submit, rooted in and unconscious of their own trauma, which makes them feel as they do. Their wounds are so sore, and egoic defenses so strong, that they become unable to yield. 

And yet, the mystic who is unable to get with the program, so to speak, suffers, a lot. Unnecessarily so. The mystic is required to master both sides of the spectrum without issue. Mysticism teaches us that there is a balance to be found between obedience and disobedience. To attain that balance, we must be equally capable of both (without resistance and without fear, respectively), depending on the circumstances. That is the ultimate virtue. 

This side of the teaching is speaking to those who are resistant to obedience and authority. Undoing the trauma related to authority, learning how to trust, revere, respect, and learn, emptying one’s cup of the arrogance which prohibits learning and growth, is the threshold understanding of this teaching. 

Alone, in a house of mirrors

Every tradition or individual mystic has their own understanding of the architecture of the cosmos or spirit world. Although ultimately contained in a unified and reconcilable whole, their mystical accounts differ wildly. (Wildly!!)

What a mystic sees in his travels are not “the truths,” applicable necessarily to others, but are personal reflections, given to him to further his own work. They are completely personal to the seer, and to the extent that they sound similar to the truths of other mystics, it’s because the two individual humans share the same bit of inner landscape, reflected externally in similar ways.

This solitary mystical house of mirrors phenomenon goes on for years and years and years, until the mystic can reach a condition of consciousness that allows for authentic vision.

There is a steep and really really excruciatingly painful maturation process. Authentic vision is something that is earned, through unbelievable hardship, by dedicating oneself to mystical life entirely – breaking attachments, eradicating desire, confronting fear, digesting trauma, navigating the darkness, purgatory, and hellfire, and mastering the martyrdom of spiritual warfare.

At that point, anyone who’s touched into the Mystery will tell you, it’s not really possible to bring any of that down. The human mind can’t begin to transmit any of it, and because of the paradoxical nature of it, others wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway. It wouldn’t serve them to know it as knowledge or information. What is or can be brought down, are tiny bits of ultimate truth, minuscule aphorisms left like breadcrumbs for other mystics. No one is given the full Truth, and no one is capable of bringing even partial truths down here for others.

It would be a waste of time anyway – we don’t incarnate into human lives to discover the heavens. That’s focusing in the wrong direction. Human incarnations are for the purpose of discovering what it means to be human, to explore the rich depths of human experience, to learn how to love as a human, and gathering the attendant lessons available to us here. We can focus on discovering the heavens when we get there. For now, while we are here, let’s be here. There’s plenty of work to do.

For those who are in the business of disseminating their mystical visions to the world, making the humble distinction between what is ultimate truth, and what is personal reflections is of paramount importance. This is often neglected, and no one talks about it, likely because it would get in the way of selling books…

Here is a relevant experience of this from the final years in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas (source: wikipedia)

On 6 December 1273, another mystical experience took place. While he was celebrating Mass, he experienced an unusually long ecstasy. Because of what he saw, he abandoned his routine and refused to dictate to his socius Reginald of Piperno. When Reginald begged him to get back to work, Thomas replied: “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me” (mihi videtur ut palea). As a result, the Summa Theologica would remain uncompleted. What exactly triggered Thomas’s change in behavior is believed by Catholics to have been some kind of supernatural experience of God.

This is precisely what happens after authentic visions – the Mystery cannot be brought down, and the things that can be articulated feel empty and pointless. They don’t serve others in any useful way.

Some mystics historically have been much more eager to write, and publish, and establish schools and followings, and set themselves up as experts, than to remain dedicated to their own work, as it were. It’s unfortunate, but true. Temptations can be very strong, and mystics are not any more immune than anyone else.

Their reports about the spirit world, about planes of consciousness, or any of it, are not trustworthy as ultimate truth; by design, they just aren’t. It is irresponsible to pass them off as truth applicable to anyone else.

Spirit lies, a lot, on purpose… The illusory conditions of human vision are repeated in mystical vision. An honest devoted mystic knows that, and is very very careful about reporting what she sees. Her world is a fluid one – what is true today is not true tomorrow. The visions are not for others, and she knows that.

Matters of cosmology or architecture of the spirit world have no place in spiritual work anyway; they are completely unnecessary and a hindrance. As soon as we are asked to believe something we don’t see or feel, that we can’t experience ourselves, that we can’t test internally, we have left spirituality and mysticism for religious dogma. (That’s where all the fights begin…). Even assuming that one mystic is more clear than another, it becomes a matter of “whom do you believe?” which is again a question of religion, not of spirituality.

Spirituality is concerned only with individual personal experience, and teachings/instructions that don’t require one to believe something one cannot personally feel, try, or discover for himself.

Spirituality and mysticism are intended to meet a person exactly where he/she is, in real life, in actual hardship and pain, in the turmoil of emotional storms and traumas, (or in the mystical experiences), and to help guide them through their actual real life stuff to healing and integration. It is working with all of those things, often in darkness, and transmuting them into lessons of wisdom.

There is nothing to be gained and nothing to be earned that feeds the ego, that’s why the real work of it is not sexy or poetic, but rather ugly, scary, and off-putting for most.

Desire, as a guide

It is in the very nature of desire that lasting satisfaction cannot be attained.

Desire is an illusory condition created by wounding – the driving force beneath insatiable quests for fulfillment is unconscious pain seeking resolution.

A depth of authentic awareness heals the wounds which generate desire, eradicating its root cause.

When desire ceases arising, abiding peace and contentment can be maintained.

One of the overarching philosophical goals, one of the grand themes, of the mystical process is the eradication of desire (not just in the sexual understanding, but in many spheres of the ego). 

Why? Because desire is the surface level indicator of unhealed wounds. It is the conscious manifestation of wounds that are looking for healing and resolution. 

All the soul-level wounds we carry within express themselves on the surface of our consciousness as desire. Sex happens to be the clearest demonstration of how this process operates, but the same mechanism operates in all the various aspects of the personality. 

The interplays of wounding and desire show up in extraordinary ways – the ego is infinitely, one might say miraculously, creative and crafty. 

While the wounds are always seeking resolution, they don’t know how to heal themselves without our awareness, participation, and wisdom instruction. Without conscious awareness and direction, the ego (though ultimately interested in healing and peace) moves us consistently in the wrong directions.

The wounds create all manner of fantasies (sexual and not), which the ego believes will resolve the pain. The ego, in its faulty thinking, wants to recreate the painful scenario and change the ending. It believes that a replay with a better, non-painful ending, will heal its pain. 

The problem is that the ego is operating under a false assumption, a kind of naivete. Because even when we replay the scenario and change the ending to a happy one, seemingly satisfying the fantasy entirely, the wound still doesn’t heal and doesn’t go away. Nothing at the soul-level is attained by satisfying the desire. And the more experience we have with satisfaction, the more we see the discontent and futility inherent in it. 

This is the insatiable hamster wheel of desire; the endless cycle of samsara: re-creating the fantasy, pursuing the fantasy, even satisfying the fantasy, all of which does not eradicate the desire. It doesn’t heal the original wound, which continues to create emotional pain, clinging, etc. The entire endeavor of the pursuit of desire, in the egoic direction, is futile.

Instead, life keeps bringing us people and circumstances that do in fact replay the scenarios symbolically, retriggering the same familiar pain, refusing us the egoic satisfaction. This is purposeful, so that in seeing the pain clearly, again and again, we may find the courage to face it and heal it. This is why all the major mystical and spiritual traditions focus on its eradication; when desire ceases arising you know that you have healed your wounds. (It’s a backwards top-down way of understanding the spiritual process, but so be it). 

Wounding is what creates fantasy which creates desire. Heal the wounds, fantasies do not arise, and desire doesn’t either. Then the emotional body can be at peace. 

The schools of mysticism go about this process in two different ways – one is by abstention, the other is by exposure and immersion with really deep awareness. The first is what we call asceticism – a very strict abstaining from and self denial of all things we desire. The second is the arena of tantra (the philosophy, not the sexual arts).

I am, and I believe authentic mysticism is, of this second school of thought. There is no need for wholesale abstention, there is only a need for awareness, with the intent to heal whatever is underneath the desire. (In my view, abstention does absolutely nothing to extinguish desire, sometimes exacerbating it by making something forbidden and thus even more unnecessarily desirable.). 

Going deeply into the desire, and trying to quench that desire, reveals the wound that is asking to be healed. If we attend to the wound, we heal that particular thing, then the desire stops arising in the mind and body. I’m simplifying things here obviously, because this is a blog post not a treatise, but I think you get the idea.

The Tao has it in these words: “Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

What this means, now in the sexual realm, is that we must understand how sexual desire works, what it is trying to achieve, and then we begin the slow process of ever-deepening awareness in our sexual activity. (It doesn’t end with celibacy, that’s not the goal, but celibacy happens at some point naturally along the way, for a period of time.). In my experience, the entire composition of a person’s ego expresses itself in his/her sexual world – like a micro expression of their ego structure. It’s terribly fascinating and can lead to some incredible discovery.

If you are interested in this area of exploration – I highly highly recommend “The Erotic Mind” by Dr. Jack Morin. His book, coming from a depth of grounding in principles of conscious awareness, explains and illustrates many many many of the drives, patterns, and internal mechanisms hiding within our sexualities. By beginning to understand what desire is doing, what the fantasies are really seeking, we become more and more attuned to the wounding underneath. (It’s really really cool!)

Also detailed in Morin’s book, is something secular sex therapists call “sensate focus.” This sensate focus technique is the highest human expression of sexual connection, lacking any of the egoic objectification problems that plague most of sex. 

I have it on pretty good authority that mysticism steers many people away from their normal egoic sexual engagements, and towards techniques that are centered on this approach.

There is obviously a great deal of avenues here to explore, entire industries of sacred sexuality are growing as we speak, but in our corner of the world, I think beginning with education and understanding is key. Finding Morin’s book was like finding a treasure chest full of answers. I hope you find it helpful as well.

Saints and sinners

The irony is that only the realized saint is capable of seeing and understanding the depths of his own flaws and evils. The rest of humanity lives in ignorance of itself, believing that it is good.

I’ve been on a strangely unfolding journey about the subject of saints for quite some time. I’ve shared with you here some of my thoughts along the way, and now I think I’m getting closer to the right understanding.

The thing that makes a saint a saint, aside from the canonizing process, is not his or her goodness. That’s something we overlay onto them; an idealization, a pedestal we put them on, so that we may worship them and reach for some ideal of perfection. (It’s the way religions typically operate, using certain mystics as preferred role models.).

In reality, it’s something vastly different. Those mystics who attained the conditions of stable union with divinity (the advanced authentic mystics) all typically say the same things: “I am not good. Don’t call me good.” Because the thing that makes them capable of union with divine consciousness isn’t “goodness.” It is rather their capacity of consciousness to see the depths of their own evil, and to process, digest, and heal the conditions that make it so.

Part of the mystical ascension process is an ego-destroying descent into the truth of oneself. In there, there is nothing but the reflections of one’s own evil, one’s own selfishness, one’s own wretchedness – guilt and shame soup as far as the eye can see. That’s all that’s down there. (It also usually involves tons and tons of terror, like absolute blinding terror, but that’s a different part of the process).

And the work of the real mystic involves enduring that darkness, purging and processing all of that out, and coming into peace and forgiveness of it; allowing oneself to “be evil” at the core of one’s being, which is a thing others, who aren’t called to mystical life, don’t have the capacity to do. (The normal human ego structure is too rigid and fragile to see itself as anything but good, even if slightly flawed.). It is a seeing, an acknowledging, and then an excavation of the roots of it, so that the egoic desires cease arising entirely.

The pain of this process is excruciating, but that’s precisely what transforms the consciousness, making it “pure” enough to receive the energy of divine love. We must see the horrifying ugly depths of truth, feel the shame all the way through, and then let it go.

It is a mistake to call this process or the results goodness. The person going through this process, or coming out of it, doesn’t exactly conform to notions of goodness. Tender, loving, prudent and temperate is one side of them; their depth of compassion and tenderness for suffering is unmatched. But on the other side, they can be harsh, ruthless, impatient with liars and falsehood, lacking in sentimentality or tolerance for concocted emotional displays, vicious with evil and those who promote it.

It’s rather the path of virtue, which isn’t about goodness, but about balance, wholeness, and integration. The mystic who emerges from the purification process is virtuous, meaning that his emotional body is completely at rest, free from wrong reactivity, free of all manner of passions. His egoic motives, rooted in wounding, have been healed and no longer operate. And he is capable of moving with great courage, great fearlessness, and great peaceful detachment in whatever direction the divine will instructs. He is able to express himself completely – with authentic joy, authentic grief, authentic anger, within the bounds of wisdom, compassion, and justice, all without the fears and limits of the ego.

Our concepts of goodness would often be too limited to properly understand the depth of complexities of this sort of virtue. In practice, we would find these people very strange, unsure of how to understand them.

Mind your own business

“Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”

Richard Rohr

A little bit of spiritual experience and understanding can be a dangerous thing. Novices or initiates who are first introduced to the teachings always seem to think that they will take the mysteries and somehow manage to change the world. We’ve all been there, me included. They immediately turn into missionaries of the worst sort. Full of pride, a sense of superiority, and dominating energy, they go out into the world to impose their new found discoveries on others.

Those who have a stronger ego take on a messianic aggressive fervor, believing that they are ushering in some kind of new kingdom on earth. It’s an intoxicating belief for the ego, full of hope and idealism, they believe that they are working towards some utopian future. It allows them to dismiss and ignore the present, justifying the avoidance of life as it is here and now, with all its challenges, difficulties, fear, and messiness. Instead of focusing on the rich material that is here to be used for evolution and transformation, they prefer the escapism of their new kingdom fantasies. It’s very common, in many different manifestations.

With that, a very tempting desire arises to crawl into the mind and soul of another (any other), and to begin dictating to them how they ought to be, or what they ought to do. One can’t build a new kingdom by himself; you must have like-minded converts and followers, right?

This never ends well… It quickly turns to disillusionment, frustration, and then a hopeless despairing rejection of the original awakening intent.

And all the while, wisdom continues repeating to us that everything is already perfect precisely as it is. But the ego hates that idea. It cannot bear the world as it is, with all the suffering and injustice, poverty, warfare, and illness. And yet, those conditions have always been part of the human story; ultimately illusory, they are the obstacles for soul growth, and an infinite number of other extremely valuable human experiences.

It is normal and heartfelt to want to undo them or remove them, and working towards that is important and also part of the growth, but first the human condition must be accepted and understood fully for how it serves. This takes a long long time and a lot of arduous inner work. But without that, trying to change the world out of a sense of rejection of it, doesn’t work. (That which we reject and resist always persists).

Religion is, and always has been, in the proselytizing business. Seeking power, control, influence, it demands a constant flow of new adherents. One cannot be a shepherd without a flock. Spirituality doesn’t do this; it doesn’t need to do any of those things. Spirituality is there for those who awaken, it’s not pro-actively in the business of awakening others. (In humble truth, it knows that awakening comes by Grace, and not by human doing anyway. Taking credit for it only feeds the ego.). Screaming at someone to “wake up,” doesn’t work, just as it wouldn’t have worked in our own cases when we were asleep. Forcing it on someone else never works. The teachings, the teachers, the practices are there to be found by the seeker, not imposed on someone who is not intrinsically seeking it.

Spiritual practice is an internal personal matter, an individual calling between the practitioner and his/her God. It is not a program by which we fix others. In fact, attempting to fix someone else (or wake them up) is philosophically contrary to all of the wisdom teachings. Each person lives exactly as they are intended to live – our spiritual work is to learn how to accept that, make peace with it, and love it (especially when it’s contrary to spiritual principles.).

Spiritual or psychological insight into another person is not to be used as a weapon or method of power or control. This is not ok. Insights, accurate or inaccurate, into the inner life of another, are only meant to be a part of compassion work. If they are used to feed a sense of superiority, to sit in judgement of “their” unconsciousness, they are being mis-used in egotistical ways. It’s strictly cautioned against in every mystical tradition.

(Practice tip: you are not better than the person over there at whom you point your finger.).

Inside of each person, even if not expressed, even if not conscious or awakened, is an infinitely wise, infinitely capable soul, who doesn’t need to be taught anything. It is living out its life precisely as it needs to, not according to human judgments or standards. Sometimes ascended masters and highly evolved spirits take on the human form of a horrific evil monster – they do so in order to teach, instruct, and provided the catalyst for transformation. It is not our job to instruct anyone else, nor change them. It is foolishness to believe that we need to. (Even a spiritual teacher is not in the position to tell a student, who asks for such advice, how they ought to be…).

If someone’s character, personality, or lifestyle upsets you, your job is to go within yourself and reconcile that, to use that to further your own discovery work, not make efforts to control or change the person you don’t like. Most often it doesn’t work anyway. It is disrespectful to think we know what’s best for others or how they ought to be. It is wrong to impose our judgments, standards, or teachings on others. Even those people who are objectively odious by common agreement serve an important spiritual purpose. Our job is to find that purpose and arrive at understanding and gratitude for them, honestly and authentically, after processing through our pain. We must continuously remember that the world is perfect, precisely as it is, with all of its injustice and suffering. That should be the only mantra – refocusing the attention on the inner discomfort of that truth, rather than forcing external reality to change.

This does not mean that we whitewash evil, or pretend that it’s good. We must develop keen discernment via which we continue to grow and learn our lessons. It’s also not a justification of apathy; the difficult road of learning how to hold someone accountable for harm (without fear, vengeance, or mirroring their destruction) and setting healthy boundaries (honoring our vulnerabilities and self-respect) remain very much part of the growth work.

Yet, we must always first do our own work, and resolve our own feelings, respecting the individual sovereignty of the other person, before addressing their behavior. Without doing our work and attending to our own negative judgments and feelings about them, we will always take disproportionately unjust action under the guise of retribution.

The truth is messy

I’ve written a bit before about the images we hold of mystics. I came across this short bit from Alan Watts, which seemed perfect to share here.

My vocation in life is to wonder about at the nature of the universe. This leads me into philosophy, psychology, religion, and mysticism, not only as subjects to be discussed but also as things to be experienced, and thus I make an at least tacit claim to be a philosopher and a mystic.

Some people, therefore, expect me to be their guru or messiah or exemplar, and are extremely disconcerted when they discover my “wayward spirit” or element of irreducible rascality, and say to their friends, “How could he possibly be a genuine mystic and be so addicted to nicotine and alcohol?” Or have occasional shudders of anxiety? Or be sexually interested in women? Or lack enthusiasm for physical exercise? Or have any need for money?

Such people have in mind an idealized vision of the mystic as a person wholly free from fear and attachment, who sees within and without, and on all sides, only the translucent forms of a single divine energy which is everlasting love and delight, as which and from which he effortlessly radiates peace, charity, and joy.

What an enviable situation! We, too, would like to be one of those, but as we start to meditate and look into ourselves we find mostly a quaking and palpitating mess of anxiety which lusts and loathes, needs love and attention, and lives in terror of death putting an end to its misery. So we despise that mess, and look for ways of controlling it and putting “how the true mystic feels” in its place, not realizing that this ambition is simply one of the lusts of the quaking mess, and that this, in turn, is a natural form of the universe like rain and frost, slugs and snails, flies and disease.

When the “true mystic” sees flies and disease as translucent forms of the divine, that does not abolish them. I—making no hard-and-fast distinction between inner and outer experience—see my quaking mess as a form of the divine, and that doesn’t abolish it either. But at least I can live with it…

For when you have really heard the sound of rain you can hear, and see and feel, everything else in the same way—as needing no translation, as being just that which it is, though it may be impossible to say what. I have tried for years, as a philosopher, but in words it comes out all wrong: in black and white with no color…

For every sentient being is God—omnipotent, omniscient, infinite, and eternal—pretending with the utmost sincerity and determination to be otherwise, to be a mere creature subject to failure, pain, death, temptation, hellfire, and ultimate tragedy.

I like his descriptions and his honesty, but it goes beyond this.

What he’s describing is the beginning – the admission that you can’t think or imagine yourself into some kind of fake mystic consciousness. Trying to do that is only another avoidance mechanism, another way to cope with pain, rather than deal with pain. He says that he lives with these messy aspects of himself, and that was of course his prerogative. But merely living with them and accepting them is a kind of stopping short of the work of transformation. (Many people opt for this version, because despite it all, they still don’t want to confront pain or healing work at depth. It’s too much and too scary. So they find their messy truths, accept them, and call it a day. But I’m one of the unfortunate people who had to go further than that, so I’m bringing you my bits of wisdom from beyond this place.).

Fundamentally, there is no transcending the experience of being human. You can’t do it. There would be no point to it anyway. It would be, spiritually, a devastating waste of time. Human incarnations are intended to be human – with and through pain. Teachings that push transcendence are false and highly misleading. It’s actually the other way around – the real mystic isn’t transcending anything; he is the epitome of human messiness and suffering. He is digesting and transforming that painful content. There has never been an authentic mystic who has not also suffered intense pains, poverty, destructions, etc. That’s what makes them real, and full of compassionate understanding, and worthy to be messengers of divine love.

In authentic practice, there can only be a digestion and transformation of the pain, terror, agony, trauma, and hellfire. It’s through all of those things. The journey has to run through darkness, and lust, and temptations, shame and pride, and addictions, and death, and everything else in between. (The seven deadly sins, as categories or sections of the ego, are way more significant than anyone can begin to imagine!).

It’s confronting and using all of those things, surrendering to it all, mastering and perfecting the human machine, but only once you admit and allow the mess. (This is also not achieved by force of will – that too is the wrong way. Nothing can be achieved by trying to dominate oneself into submission.)

We strive towards an ideal of “mystic perfection” – where there is no attachment and no fear – that’s the north star, but that comes at unimaginable cost through a path that terrifies most human beings. The mystic has to fall, all the way down, to the lowest of the low of human experience, in order to eradicate pride and the shame that creates it. And it’s not a one time thing, it is a protracted and terribly arduous period of time. The fall happens over the course of a few years, and there is no freedom to get back up, until all the work is completed.

And the result is not a translucent blind love, only seeing some phony goodness in everything. (God doesn’t love us blindly. God sees all our stuff – the good and the evil.) Real divine love also carries the height of awareness, and discernment, and wisdom with it. It includes the entire spectrum of existence. (Learning how to recognize evil, and also how to love it, really love it, without condoning it, is one of the greater challenges involved).

Destiny and destinations

“The mystic is unfolding himself not because he is primarily aware of some specific goal, but because he is supremely happy in the joy of growing, and in the knowledge that he is fulfilling the destiny that was appointed to him at the beginning of all things.”

Manly P. Hall

The authentic call to mysticism (in the monastic variety) happens without any sense of direction or goal. It is something that happens to you, and it doesn’t come with any sort of instructional manual or map. 

All of the descriptions of the path “appearing as you walk it” are quite accurate. To me, it’s always been less of an upright walking, and more of a blind, awkward, clumsy, frustrated, fumbling crawl, feeling your way forward. There is an almost complete lack of control of the process, and the explanations and guidance are provided only on an enigmatic need-to-know basis, afterwards. Everything is veiled and concealed in symbols, which require an insane sort of deciphering ability. It’s validating and sometimes very funny after the fact, but generally, you’re on your own to figure it out. 

Most of the time, the mystic doesn’t know where she’s going, and she has no idea where any particular road leads. There really is no concern with the end result. It’s not for a specific aim at all. The work serves as it’s own intrinsic reward, kind of like strength training, only for the soul. 

It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s fascinating. Each day is like an amazing adventure of discovery. You learn all kinds of wild tools and practices, and then you get to implement them, trying and testing them in the coolest laboratory imaginable – your own self. The transformations are fast, and take on a miraculous awe-inspiring nature. Sometimes the changes are so dramatic that you lose the sense that you’re the one doing the doing, because it’s almost unseemly to take credit for such a thing. The work is very hard, but as you see what it achieves, it’s absolutely worth every minute of it. And sleeping, eating, and bathing even, naturally, all become quite secondary, and sometimes optional. It’s that level of intoxicating and intense (and contagious, I’m told), and that’s only the human-side experience of it. 

To be honest, I had no idea that there was even such a thing as a destination, when all of this began. It didn’t really occur to me to wonder about it. The results of the work were nearly immediate, and there was no time to think about anything else. I had no sense of sacrifice or hard-work-for-some-future-goal, because everything was immediately attainable each day. I could barely catch my breath most of the time. 

Later, when I discovered what the grand scale goals really are, what this path is really about, and the significance of this work outside the material world, I was beyond shocked. It took me a few months to process and internalize what all of it meant, and to figure out how to understand myself in that process. But that all came much much later. At the start, I had absolutely no sense of context or familiarity with any of it. And when the realization of the gravity of it all finally hit me, I felt more than a little naive and foolish at not having understood it sooner. My embarrassment aside, ultimately my ignorance and naivete confirmed for me that I was doing all of it with the right motivations. So, as the fool does, I marched, er crawled, on… 

For the first few years there is incredible joy in the process; before you hit the excruciating torments and destructions part, obviously. 

And there is an internal certainty, beyond all doubt, that you are doing exactly what you are meant to be doing (while you still have some sense of choice about it). Everyone thinks you’re crazy, or that you’ve lost your mind, but your soul literally rejoices every day. If you’ve never felt your soul rejoicing, I highly recommend it – it’s a wonderful thing! And everyone disapproving is also part of the process and the work; it’s quite normal, as these things go. The sound of one’s soul laughing drowns out everyone else’s grumblings. 

In the more mature stages, when the process engulfs you completely, it takes an incredibly ugly and scary turn into a devastating abyss. But even there, even in the throes of the most wretched sort of hell and despair, there is a kind of certainty that you’re doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. In that place, you don’t have a choice anymore, as you’re being propelled forward by something entirely foreign. But the deep certainty, sometimes, can make the pain and hardships a tiny tiny bit more bearable. 


“A considerable percentage of the people we meet on the street are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead. It is fortunate for us that we do not see and do not know it. If we knew what a number of people are actually dead and what a number of these dead people govern our lives, we should go mad with horror.”

G. I. Gurdjieff

They are “empty” because they are disconnected from themselves, from the feeling, authentic, loving part of themselves. They are numb, lacking empathy, lacking warmth, also lacking a moral center; if you really consider it, it becomes terrifying.

This is what the spiritual practice of embodiment – the practice of returning to one’s body – is meant to combat and overcome. It is a kind of soul retrieval process, which takes time and healing to accomplish.

For many people, being in their bodies, feeling their feelings, experiencing the somatic reality of existence, is extremely painful and unpleasant. As a result of childhood trauma (even if that trauma is unacknowledged or unconscious), they learned a form of dissociation, which allows them to remain disconnected from their physical body, and focus their experience of life entirely in their head/mind. It is as though their soul hovers around the body, but refuses to actually get grounded in the experience of being human. The egoic conditions are so unfavorable, so inhospitably hostile to the values and principles of love, that the soul cannot bear to remain inside.

This work requires a processing out of pain, clearing out enough trauma, and learning some new patterns of internal relating, in order to make embodiment feel good and pleasurable. It is a huge indispensable part of the evolutionary transformation process. Without this kind of work, there is no authentic joy, love, or compassion, there is also no integrity, no morality, and no limit to egotistical impulses and behavior.

Sadly, this is how lots of people walk around in Gurdjieff’s “empty” state. (If you doubt this, take a look around at your local narcissists and sociopaths – they are walking egos, disconnected from their feeling loving selves, capable of unimaginable remorseless cruelty.).


“Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

James Baldwin

Sentimentality is a hallmark of a manipulator. It is an attempt at mimicking sensitivity, by someone who doesn’t actually feel anything real.

A person who does not feel is not sensitive. In truth, he does not care about others at all. He is careless and remorseless with his words and actions, hurting others regularly without concern. And yet, he likes to imagine that he is a deeply caring person, and he wants others to believe that he is a caring and sensitive person as well. But because he doesn’t know what real feelings feel like, or how they are authentically expressed, he tries to mimic them as best he can. He is merely pretending…

That’s what sentimentality is; it has the distinct flavor of a dramatic enactment. Our manipulator will drum up phony displays in emotionally charged situations in order to mimic sensitivity. He spools himself up on a story in his mind generating all kinds of created emotions. There can be waterworks, and gasping, and sometimes even fainting from the concocted overwhelm, except that it’s all fake.

Sometimes they are so good at it, that it can be hard to distinguish real tears from created ones. (And hard to call them out on it, for fear of being cruel to a person who may be genuinely upset.). However, if you are authentically sensitive, if you can feel and know how to listen to your feelings, then you can tell the difference immediately.