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.
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.
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.
Leaving occultism behind, let’s talk about spiritualism.
Spiritualism is the belief that the spirits of the dead have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. The afterlife, or the “spirit world“, is seen by spiritualists, not as a static place, but as one in which spirits continue to evolve. These two beliefs: that contact with spirits is possible, and that spirits are more advanced than humans, lead spiritualists to a third belief, that spirits are capable of providing useful knowledge about moral and ethical issues, as well as about the nature of God. (Wikipedia)
Spiritualists reject the rituals and ceremonial magic central to occult practice, in favor of much more practical (albeit supernatural) healing methods. Their practices involve the communication with spirits (both discarnate entities, as well as masters and guides) through the work of mediumship. They don’t travel into the unseen worlds, nor engage in any manipulations thereof.
I feel a lot more resonance with these approaches to healing work, although I don’t have any mediumship abilities.
A 20th century British psychologist, occultist, Christian kabbalist, and author, Fortune (1890-1946) is considered one of the most significant and respected authorities in this field. She is actually quite erudite, articulate, and seems to possess an impressively proper disposition and temperament for someone doing genuine work in this area. You get the sense that she’s really coming from a place of integrity within (as much as can be expected from an occultist, I suppose).
My spiritual orientation is all about the inward focus; the inner journey to healing and self-realization. Occult work, on the other hand, whether white (good intentioned) or black (bad intentioned), is very outward focused. It seems to involve all sorts of manipulation of the unseen world and energies, in order to affect three dimensional reality (for good or bad).
Combining the topics of my last two posts (ecstatic prayer ritual and Rumi, because why not?) I figured I’d mention the whirling dervishes.
This tradition originates from the Mevlevi Order of Konya, which was founded by the followers of Rumi (13th century Sufi mystic and poet). It is believed that upon hearing rhythmic playing and prayer in the outdoor market, Rumi was overcome with mystical bliss, threw up his hands, and began whirling in ecstasy.
For the dervishes (which is the name for initiates in the Sufi tradition) ritual dance and whirling is part of a mystical ecstatic tradition and ceremony known as the Sama. It is understood as a spiritual journey of ascent through the mind and love to union with the divine.
“Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the “Perfect”. He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, able to love and to be of service to the whole of creation.” Wikipedia
The spiritual order (and Sufi practice) was outlawed in 1925 under Turkish law. The dervishes are currently permitted to perform their dancing, but only as a tourist attraction.
For an interesting look at Sufism and the various levels of tolerance throughout the Islamic world, check out the documentary Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam (available on Netflix).
If you have an interest in a deeper look at Sufi traditions, spiritual teachings and practice, visit the work of Kabir Helminski, a prolific and erudite Sufi teacher. Also, the work and writings of Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee are fantastic and worthy of exploration.
Last night I met with Rumi. I met him in that field he talked about, you know the one – that place that is beyond judgment and acceptance, beyond right and wrong.
The field came to me at night, and woke me from my sleep. Between waking and dreaming, I recognized it immediately, as I struggled to find my words.
This field transcends right and wrong. It is simultaneously higher than, and fully merged with, the human condition. It gives the impression that it is above, way above. But like different layers of a cake, it’s not separate; it’s all part of one thing. From the field, you can sort of look down and see everyone right there below.
Timeless and weightless, being in this field feels sort of like being suspended in honey. Visually it’s translucent, and kind of thick and gooey. These places always seem to have a slight yellow tinge to them.
In this place, the love is so strong, and the power so great, that it doesn’t waste time or energy on judgments. Judgments, labels, and the struggle to accept the unacceptable are silly here. Good and evil irrelevantly cancel each other out. It is love beyond those things; it has no concern for them. The love is so deep, so unconditional, so unilateral, that everything is perfect. Everyone is perfect. It doesn’t matter what they are. It doesn’t matter what they do, or fail to do. It loves wholly and completely, without question. It loves solidly, without a fluttering of doubt. It loves always, because it is one with everything there is.
I only got to stay for a moment. And as it was fading away, it left me with a single thought: “This is oneness.”
Back in the summer of 2015, I suddenly formed an unusual interest in prayer. Unusual because of my near-automatic rejection of all things remotely tied to religion. At first it was an intellectual sort of curiosity, (someone suggested that I take a look at it with my new spiritual eyes), and then shortly thereafter, it became a most incredible daily practice.
When I was in grade school, we had morning prayers every single day. If I remember correctly, it would go on for about half an hour, sometimes even longer. I had no interest in anything religious back then, and so I quickly learned how to go through all the motions, while splitting off the focus of my attention to other more interesting things. Forcing prayer on someone who doesn’t understand it and doesn’t want it is not only pointless, but offensive to the sanctity of prayer itself. (I am, however, still really good at this internal attention multi-tasking, although I’m not sure it’s especially helpful these days.)
In the first year or so after my initial awakening prayer seemed almost like a foreign concept. With my developing spiritual philosophy I didn’t see there being anything to pray for. All the stuff one might consider praying for are desires and attachments. Prayer is often used to request divine help in alleviating suffering. But in my view, to alleviate suffering is not the way of spirit. (I don’t love suffering, but the acceptance and understanding of suffering is a huge pillar of my work).
From that standpoint, it didn’t make any sense to me to use prayer as a request for something. Everything comes to us exactly as it should. Assuming that prayer-as-request would even work (I’m not convinced it would), why would I (with my ego mind) meddle in the beautifully orchestrated plan of my life? To me, that would be sort of like a child trying to instruct the teacher on her lesson plans. If the point is to surrender to the divine will, how is the assertion of my personal will a wise practice?
This is of course a matter of personal belief, and one of those things I keep revisiting and re-evaluating. I’m not entirely solid in this view. (I’m not entirely solid on any view these days…). My reasoning capacities are still a little fuzzy.
I did have one experience, a long time ago, where I was intuitively lead to pray for someone, who was in a great deal of pain. It wasn’t about words exactly; I don’t think I used words. It was just a feeling of pure intent, sent up, without any rational explanation. After I did it, I received an intuitive confirmation that my prayer was heard, or received, I suppose. I haven’t been able to make much sense of that experience, or to put it into any kind of context. I’m extremely skeptical of the view that some kind of intercession is necessary on anyone’s behalf. And it hasn’t happened to me since that one time, so the jury is still out on prayer-as-request.
So, if not to ask for something, if not to alter my condition, what then could be the point of prayer?
I turned this question around in my head a lot. Prayer and/or meditation is a core teaching in just about every spiritual and mystical tradition there is. Surely there must be a reason. What wasn’t I getting? I read a bunch of stuff that didn’t really resonate, and then I found a somewhat satisfactory answer – prayer quiets the mind, like meditation does, but it focuses the attention on the love of God; it’s not about asking for anything, but rather about communion with the divine. Hmmmm. This became interesting to me, as I considered setting aside time each day specifically to spend time with God.
After looking up a bunch of different types of prayer, I found an ancient form of devotional mantra chanting, set in a somewhat contemporary way to celestial harps, pianos, and guitars. I really liked it. It wasn’t the boring rote repetition of prayers from my childhood. Instead, it was an opportunity to sing along to something beautiful. I love love love singing! (I’m also tone deaf, so I really try never to inflict my singing on other people. Lots of apologies to my neighbors).
What I’ve learned about prayer is that you have to really find a form that speaks to you. There are so many different ways to pray, so many different traditions, but in order for it to “work,” you really have to find something you like. (Not something you like because it’s fancy or trendy or exotic sounding, but something you actually like. Something that makes you feel something in your gut.)
I really don’t remember what my mantras mean anymore, and that’s good, I think. I focus my attention entirely on God (or the Divine Mother) while making sounds that sort of resemble the mantras. It’s not a particularly serious effort on my part. It’s not supposed to be serious; it’s supposed to be fun. Well, in a sacred sort of way…
Prayer must not be done out of obligation, or duty, or sacrifice. It has to be something you really really enjoy, something that feels really good and makes you want to do it, rather than feeling like you should. It can take a little time to find the right “thing,” but once you do, it really can become something you love.
So, with all that out of the way, I set about praying on a regular basis.
And then things started to get strange…
First I went through a two month phase where every time I prayed it would induce a trance state. I would be taken away into mystical realms, and lose complete awareness of the room, or my surroundings, or time. (Each trance experience would show me different things or take me to different spiritual places).
Then that period ended and new things started to happen with prayer. It wasn’t every single time, I don’t think, but it would happen more often than not. As I’d start praying, at some point, without any specific intent on my part, I’d become instantly and wholly connected to divinity. There is no way for me to describe how this feels, except that it feels like being suddenly plugged into something. It just comes on out of nowhere. I can’t ever make it happen. It’s just a sudden flash, and this state of union would overtake me. What would fill me in those moments is such bliss and ecstatic feelings that tears of joy would start streaming down my face. Almost immediately my body would be moved to dance, and I would feel like I’m swimming in something amazing. Really gentle waves of joy would come washing over me more and more, and this incredible feeling of peace and perfection always accompanied it.
Sometimes it would only last for a few seconds, sometimes for longer. The moment I would divert my attention and focus on something else (like thinking, or forming words, or reflecting on what’s happening) the connection would break. It takes some training of the attention to be able to maintain it.
These mini-ecstasies used to happen almost every day. Sometimes they would happen multiple times a day. The intensity would vary, as would the time actually spent in prayer. I remember more than once walking the dog and listening to my chanting music when these ecstatic feelings would come, and I would cry and dance all the way home (without a single thought of concern about the judgey looks from the four lanes full of traffic).
Anyway, these experiences became sort of a regular thing for me, and I suppose I started to take them for granted. It was just my every day life, for probably over a year. Then I went through a phase where the ecstatic episodes tapered off a little, but were replaced with more significant shifts in consciousness (more intense magical things), and so I didn’t really miss them.
That all came to an abrupt end this past November, when my dark period began.
When the darkness arrived, there was nothing at all that could make me feel better. No matter how much I tried, no matter how long I prayed, nothing would happen. Suddenly prayer didn’t feel good anymore. It didn’t produce any ecstatic states. It felt empty, and I think made me feel even worse. So I stopped trying. Resigned to the fact that nothing was going to pull me out of my pain, I grieved the loss of my divine levels of happiness and focused on the day to day healing work. It’s one thing not to know the feeling of divine love. But to know it, to have it available to you anytime, and then to lose it, for no apparent reason, is devastating. It’s like the worst sort of heartbreak, multiplied by ten.
It’s been this way for months now. Dark. No God. No joy, save for the very very occasional blissful episode, lasting just long enough to motivate me to keep on going…
And just two days ago a minor miracle happened.
I was intuitively guided to try praying again. With great hesitation, and fear of disappointment, I put on my chanting music and tried. And OH MY GOD, literally. The ecstatic state had returned!
For the first time in what feels like an eternity of sadness and pain, my happiness came back. I felt the connection to God, the joy, the tears, the dancing… all of it. It only lasted for a short time (as my attention is all over the place these days), but it happened. And then yesterday morning, it happened again! And again I cried, first with joy and then with relief, and gratitude, and this feeling I know really well but don’t have a name for. I felt like God had returned to me. And that this awful purgation period is indeed coming to an end. Perhaps not fully, but the worst of it has passed.
And then of course, a few hours later, I open the very next chapter of St John’s book (which is becoming my favorite piece of writing ever), and it says this of the dark purgation phase:
BUT there is another thing here that afflicts and distresses the soul greatly, which is that, as this dark night has hindered its faculties and affections in this way, it is unable to raise its affection or its mind to God, neither can it pray to Him, thinking, as Jeremias thought concerning himself, that God has set a cloud before it through which its prayer cannot pass. For it is this that is meant by that which is said in the passage referred to, namely: ’ He hath shut and enclosed my paths with square stones.’ And if it sometimes prays it does so with such lack of strength and of sweetness that it thinks that God neither hears it nor pays heed to it, as this Prophet likewise declares in the same passage, saying: ‘When I cry and entreat, He hath shut out my prayer.’ In truth this is no time for the soul to speak with God; it should rather put its mouth in the dust, as Jeremias says, so that perchance there may come to it some present hope, and it may endure its purgation with patience. It is God Who is passively working here in the soul; wherefore the soul can do nothing.
Book 2, Ch 8, St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul
I had no idea that this was so. The inability to pray, or to access the divine connection, during the purgation period, is exactly as it’s supposed to be. Another beautiful confirmation. Thank you, St. John! I could have used this information in November, but keeping me in the dark (no pun intended) was part of the plan, I guess.
During this purification process, the soul is taken down into the depths of a living hell on purpose. It is denied anything that might bring comfort or emotional consolation. It is in that place, devoid of God, devoid of love, devoid of anything but pain, and shame, and turmoil, that the soul can be truly cleansed. It sounds really awful, and it is. (I told you this energy was ruthless). But I can see now why it had to be that way. I can see why it strips you entirely of everything to really show you the core of your being. It’s amazing the stuff that comes out at the bottom of a pit of the worst kind of despair. (I hope I got everything squeaky clean in there – I don’t ever want to have to do any of that again!)
Taking a small logical leap from St. John’s apropos explanation, the return of the ability to connect with God, and to pray, signals to me that perhaps this period is finally finally coming to a close! Yay. I had a feeling that this phase was indeed ending. I have been feeling much much better in the last week, nearly back to some form of normal.