The feeling of faith (the authentic experience of it in consciousness, not the mental construct), arises slowly through the healing of trust wounds. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, but it can be cultivated.
At first, it feels like a miraculous mystical condition, an incredible gift that you want to hold on to forever. But for the practicing mystic, there is a very real mechanical process associated with it. The more the process is performed, the purer the consciousness becomes, the more permanent and sustainable the feeling.
There is a returning quality to it; one returns to faith, so to speak, because it is a return of consciousness to a pre-wounded condition. It’s not a denial nor a naivete, but a repairing and removing of a barrier, which prevents the experience of faith. It is only accomplished through healing.
If a person is full of wounding, unhealed betrayals, unprocessed heart-aches, etc., and is fearful of trusting, this will stand as a barrier to the feeling sense of faith.
Then, absent the authentic feelings, mental constructs can be created and emotions can be generated with the mind temporarily, if one “believes” hard enough or keeps dogmatically repeating to himself how much he “believes” or “ought to believe.” This is what most religions teach lay people. But quickly that kind of faith breaks down, as it’s a very fragile sort of house of cards. The mind undermines itself in these matters often, and doubt prevails. Underneath that mental construct, full of trust wounds, the pain and fear and skepticism remain. No amount of belief can change that. This is why the real inner work is necessary.
Genuine faith is the serene and effortless surrender to the Divine will. It is neither blind nor ignorant. It is not attained through affirmative prayer, nor by the rejection of reason. In reality, it is a courageous path of negation; a purgative process requiring the arduous grappling with fundamental doubt and fear, and a healing of all the betrayals that caused the loss of faith in the first place. The more trauma one carries in the sphere of trust, the more difficult the journey.
Aristotle defines moral virtue as a disposition to behave in the right manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are vices. We learn moral virtue primarily through experience, habit, and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction.
This is also called the middle path, or the middle way, and restates the concepts of balance and harmony.
It’s not as simple as it sounds.
In my view, the growth process towards virtue is the most difficult challenge any person can undertake. It also happens to be the most important at the soul level (if you believe all the great philosophers, sages, and mystics).
First it requires an intimate and careful self-study; with the aim of becoming ever more aware of ourselves – our behaviors, our desires, our emotional reactions, our repeating patterns of life. We seek to get more closely familiar with ourselves and understand our default settings, so to speak.
Then comes the investigation into how those settings came to be – the wounds, traumas, experiences, and resulting system of beliefs that created those internal settings and maintain them in their current state.
Then the deepening recognition and contemplation that the settings aren’t in their ideal state, being out of alignment with our higher truths and authentic selves. It is here that we study the wisdom teachings, learning the tools and their proper application to begin changing the settings.
And then the slow life-long process of healing and re-calibration of those settings – a movement towards the center or mean, as Aristotle calls it. The extinguishing of desire, the relinquishing of attachments, and the dismantling of fear.
The end result is internal peace – in the mind and in the emotional body. (This is the elusive state of enlightenment, freedom, liberation, etc.) In this condition, there is no longer a pull of internal desire in any extreme, and no longer any fear driving deficiency/avoidance.
The attainment of virtue (or more accurately the striving towards it) isn’t about becoming a “good” person. That’s not the goal. Some things that are called good, or socially sanctioned as good, are in fact deeply polarized, fear-based behaviors, which are not considered virtuous. The pursuit of virtue is more about the attainment of internal peace and fearlessness, in surrender to the Divine will.
What we know as goodness: love, empathy, compassion, fairness, generosity, justice, fortitude, temperance, and wisdom arise as a result of the pursuit of virtue. They are an inevitable and natural byproduct of the healing and balancing work.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
The primary focus of spiritual work and the purification of consciousness has to do with the eradication of fear, which underlies all the false egoic tendencies we call desire. The practice of this eradication involves determining internally which actions/responses are being driven by fear at their core, and working to dissolve those barriers. The more barriers we dissolve, the more we liberate our authentic selves to freedom.
The external actions we take are not especially relevant, as they are really only a byproduct of the internal process. It is one’s own inner work that is of primary importance, not how one appears externally to others. (For this reason, it is nearly impossible to evaluate another’s spiritual progress by merely observing their conduct or behavior.).
External peace between people is a beautiful thing. But real external peace cannot exist if there is internal turmoil and fear. Discontent can be suppressed and silenced, or negotiated or compromised away, but that is a false facade of peace, not authentic peace. In this sense, external peace becomes a kind of utopian ideal towards which we strive, but rarely achieve. Those who do achieve the virtuous ideal become spiritual masters and titans of humanity.
Many of us are conditioned from childhood to remain silent, or to refuse to engage in a provocation with an aggressor, in order to keep the external calm and social order. This serves to maintain a necessary social cohesion and quell unrest and chaos, without which there would be anarchy, but it is not peace. The authentic ideal requires a much more arduous and complicated journey.
When we embark on the spiritual path, we are initially taught not to engage in interpersonal combat, and to remain silent in the face of provocation. That is a wise initial teaching. By not engaging and refraining from combat, we have the space to turn the focus inward, and work through all of the triggered feelings and beliefs that the provocation activates. This work happens in layers and takes years and years to complete. As our competency in this area matures, we come to see the incredible value of this teaching. By refraining from engagement and using the provocations (so plentiful in our world) to fuel the work, we are able to travel to great internal depth and really discover ourselves fully. A seasoned practitioner of this process will actually arrive at gratitude towards his aggressors, because the attacks illuminated the wounding that was in need of awareness. That is how provocations (and evil at large) serve us, and that is why we ought to “turn the other cheek” in our usual practice.
There comes another stage of spiritual work and purification that asks us to externally work through our fears. Here we are called to a different sort of activity. In this area, having healed all of our primary wounds, we must now work on developing courage. The approach to provocations here is different, taking on a combative nature. This is the other side of the spectrum, which involves bringing increasing awareness to our self-oppression and self-silencing in order to “keep the peace” and “avoid rocking the boat,” because those things aren’t “nice.” We must recognize the places where we remain silent and refuse engagement out of fear of confrontation and avoidance. Then we must reconcile the fears, and find our voice, our anger, and learn how to utilize those tools effectively. They are vital parts of our humanness, and through proper expression they must be brought into balance within.
In some spiritual communities speaking up, engaging when provoked, standing up for oneself or against injustice, or using appropriate expressions of anger are shunned and shamed as “not spiritual.” This is a mistake. Those communities remain stuck in the initial beginner level teachings, rather than advancing to the more mature stages of spiritual growth. They impose “peace” and “calm,” which often becomes abusive and oppressive to the members, especially when malevolent actors are at the helm.
In this more spiritually mature arena, in order to claim that we are consciously choosing to remain silent and forbear when attacked, there must be a valid and viable alternative. That means that responding, or not responding, must be equally available paths of actions. Then it can be said that there is a legitimate choice being made between two paths. If responding to the provocation is not an available path, it is because fear is standing in the way, and then the decision not to respond is not a choice, but an avoidance. We can even call it a cowardice, succumbing to fear, rather than acting on our authentic feelings.
In this part of the work, we must choose very carefully when to respond or not respond, and how precisely to respond to the correct degree, determined mostly by which path scares us most. The responses must never come from a place of vengeance or the pursuit of power or domination. They must always be underpinned by justice and ethical decision-making. By recognizing the fear that blocks us, working through it, and then moving forward in that direction conquering the fear, we will win. That is what is really meant by this piece of wisdom. The one who masters this process wins.
The winning does not have to anything to do with what happens externally. The practitioner doesn’t necessary win against his opponent in physical reality. His external opponent and the external outcome of the fight do not matter. What matters is if he is internally making the right, courageous, wise choice – utilizing the provocation in the best way possible, pushing himself further and further towards the conquest of fear, and responding in just the right way. If this is carried out correctly, he will win, and the victory will be of the most important kind.
When we talk about psychosis, spiritual emergence, or any of the many different labels that fall under the umbrella of mental illness, we are really talking about the eruption of truth. Capital “T” kind of truth.
We are talking about the unshackling and often destructive rebellion of the soul, against the oppression of the false ego, the lies of the mind, and the dysfunctional abusive and inauthentic patterns of relating.
This eruption is violent, not in the material sense of causing external physical harm to others, but rather its emergence destroys the web of lies that have kept the person oppressed. It destroys the conditioning, the abusive relationships, the false loyalties, and indoctrination that keep us stuck. The revelations of truth, to the experiencer and those around him, plunge everything into a chaotic anarchy, just as any political rebellion would.
This chaos is hard, and scary, and causes the oppressors (sometimes other people, sometimes the mind itself) to become even more authoritative and tyrannical. Oppressors, (within and without) who feel their power threatened, never react well to such eruptions. They try to quell the rebellion by any force necessary. Thus maintaining of the status quo becomes of paramount importance, as everyone is horrified by the implications of the truth.
The truth is ugly. The truth is shameful. The truth hurts, a lot, and requires real change. Few are willing to go there. An urgent and immediate return to “normal” is what is sought, but to the experiencer (to his soul), such efforts are silly, meaningless, and provide only an illusion of safety and comfort.
Once he has seen and experienced his truth, he knows that there can be no real return to what was before. Thus begins the very long, painful, often solitary, complicated journey to healing.
Honoring the truth, surrendering to truth, and finding the path forward is the very Hero’s Journey that we all admire and aspire to. It means leaving what we thought we knew behind, for a wilderness of the unknown.
Most often alone and afraid, we venture forth. And just as the sages have told us for centuries, with each step forward, somehow magically, somehow synchronistically, the path just appears. We realize that we are guided, supported, and something unknown and unseen is rooting for us. The battles are hard. The terrain and darkness are astounding. The demons and monsters are very very real.
And while the purpose isn’t winning in the normal sense (it’s rather the way in which we do battle that really matters), the journey becomes the very purpose and meaning of our lives.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything new here. I have no excuse; I just haven’t really felt like it.
The last few months have been extremely hard and intense for me. As I continue shedding the remnants of this unbelievable and catastrophic darkness, I’ve been slowly (very slowly) returning back into the normal world. The inner clearing and healing work continues (albeit in new aspects and along new dimensions). It is still taking up the majority of the hours each day, demanding priority over all else. I’m told that’s temporary and will lessen over time.
Interacting with others, short conversations, and even running small errands are now becoming more and more manageable. It often feels like I’m a brand new person, with an entirely new personality, learning how to walk all over again – painful, awkward, scary, and with lots of ups and downs. (I figuratively fall on my ass a lot.)
Navigating all of this has been incredibly complicated and difficult. Without any rulebooks or external guidance, I’ve had to move through this, basically feeling my way through it, one terrifying step at a time. In the last few weeks in particular, the process turned outward, and I’ve been pushed into confronting some very real and serious external challenges, which have taken every ounce of strength, and faith, and courage to endure. They are all part of the healing and training process, but still they are extremely scary. It is only by the grace of God, and two exceptionally devoted friends, that I’ve managed to get through all of it. They say that if you have one really good friend you can get through just about anything. I am blessed with two such friends, for whom I am endlessly grateful. You know who you are!
Up until now it’s been too vulnerable for me to really share the details of these recent experiences, for a bunch of different reasons. Aside from fears and doubts, I didn’t quite have the words to convey the gravity or sanctity of what’s been happening to me. I still don’t. There are aspects of this that I can’t articulate, can’t conceptualize, and at times don’t fully understand. At first I found this to be intensely frustrating, but then resigned myself to the idea that not everything needs to be mentally understood or shared with others. (Shocking, I know. I’m kind of a blabber-mouth, so not sharing everything with everyone is weird for me. But I’m getting used to it.)
As fate would have it, just as I’d given up on sharing all of this, I met a very special person last week, who appears to have precisely the right words! Enter my new friend, Henry, the poet, from Cuba. A kindred spirit with a deeply intuitive heart, Henry magically appeared in my life in a rather unexpected way.Our seemingly random (and spiritually significant) encounter left us both a little shocked and reeling, I think. The magic and divine mystery that surrounds our lives is wondrous and truly extraordinary. No matter how many times I see it, no matter how many times I’m completed floored by the significance and intensity of it, my awe and surprise never seem to diminish.
It’s been a while since my last post, so I figured I’d pop in to add some new (ancient) thoughts and discoveries.
I came across the quote below by the controversial genius G.K. Chesterton a few weeks ago. It’s from his book Orthodoxy, which serves as an attempt at explaining his relationship with the Christian faith. I haven’t had a chance yet to explore his work as fully as I’d like to. It’s on my to do list. (I did watch the entire Father Brown series on Netflix, which is based on one of Chesterton’s fictional characters. Unfortunately, I don’t think that counts as a serious look at his work.). 🙂
Anyway, what I have read of his work so far, and of him generally, reveals some deeply mystical understandings. He is known for his infinite capacity to savor the mundane in the present moment; an early twentieth century Power of Now type. He was a prolific writer, poet, theologian, journalist, and art critic. His later conversion to Catholicism and the wondrous belonging he finds there remind me a lot of my own explorations. (He was also vehemently anti-semitic, which is part of what makes him controversial. I’ve learned how to appreciate the good aspects of a person, while accepting that there are also less than desirable ones.).
The subject of this quote, the experiential cultivation of courage, like so many other virtues, is intensely interesting. This quote captures some of the complexity and subtlety of the process, and the difficulty of articulating it in such a way that it fits into a contextual framework. (True virtue has this sort of you-know-it-because-you-live-it-and-feel-it quality that defies explanations.).
“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.
He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”
Courage, like all virtues, is the natural default spiritual state. It is the inherent nature of all humans liberated from ego. It’s not something to be positively acquired. It’s not something you collect or build up, like muscles. Rather, like love, compassion, trust or integrity, it’s something that emerges when the barriers to it are removed. Namely, fear.
In truth, to really cultivate courage, one must focus on the undoing of fear. Then courage emerges on its own, without any effort or doing.
Below are the exquisite lyrics to one of my favorite songs – Going Home, by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Divine Will over the last few days, and this song came to mind. (It was also published as a poem in the New Yorker magazine). I first heard it a few years ago, and have been obsessed with it ever since.
Right from the start, from the very first time I heard it, I felt an intense connection with its message. Somewhere deep within was the immediate recognition of a resonant experience, some shared knowing, which I didn’t really remember having. Kind of like when you are suddenly reminded of a really important dream, that you understand and appreciate inside your mind, but you can’t really convey it in words. I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew it, or where I knew it from, I just knew. I felt thrilled and moved in a way that music had never done to me before.
In my naive zeal, I couldn’t wait to share it with others. I made everyone I know listen to it with me, hoping they would hear what I was hearing; hoping that they too would get what I got. But, of course, they didn’t. They couldn’t…
To them, it was just a strange and eerie song, which made them vaguely uncomfortable. Not only did they not get its significance, but they couldn’t understand why I was so taken with it. And at the time, frankly, I couldn’t either.
I could explain the song’s meaning, the profound depth of the message, but I couldn’t explain how I understood it, or why it was so important. I didn’t know the momentous gravity that the message of this song would come to have in my life. Looking back now, I understand it as a real-life experience of foreshadowing.
This song captures ideas that are thrown about a lot, superficially. But rarely are they lived or experienced in their authentic entirety, even among avid spiritual seekers. It’s hard to know if this song comes from creative inspiration, or if it’s a testament to Leonard’s own experience. None of his other songs, as far as I’ve heard, reveal quite this level of mystical consciousness and development.
Given his monastic life and reclusive periods, it’s entirely possible that he attained this level of understanding. On the other hand, in my occasional intersections with the world of artists, I’ve found that they can sometimes produce amazing and brilliant work, but be totally ignorant to the spiritual significance of their own creations. In these cases, they are the vessel and craft, through which the truth expresses itself. The artist doesn’t have any personal experience or understanding of what the message is, he is just the one to receive and transmit it. It’s possible that this piece came to Leonard, as is. The song itself seems to stand apart from the man, even while using him as its subject, which seems to indicate that it’s not from him. Or it could be grounded in his actual experience. I don’t know. If I assume it’s the latter, that is a staggering level of mystic consciousness (I’ll tell you why in a second).
The lyrics are speaking from the perspective of the Divine Will, through the vessel of Leonard, the human. There is a matter of fact simplicity to what’s being said. The tone is casual, (as Spirit often is), because the theme is universal – this story is as old as time itself.
The Divine Will is describing the humble truth of Leonard, with almost humorous sort of love. There is a paternal avuncular quality to Leonard’s experience of being governed by it, and a natural inherent tension between them. This is the very essence of mystical life. We first see Leonard’s resistance, surrender, and courage; of which the Divine Will approves. And then we see Leonard being taken over fully, his egoic ambition diminished and eclipsed, as an obvious and necessary condition of the arrangement. In exchange, the Divine Will cushions him in loving wisdom and guidance, alleviating the source of his human tension and striving.
Saying nothing of the incredible artistry on display, these lyrics reveal a tremendous spiritual depth, a knowing, and a sacred understanding, that can only come from years of honest and painstaking inner work. Typically, to know and understand this tension, this internal experience, is to have attained really advanced stages of mysticism. This kind of nuance isn’t just something you stumble across as an amateur seeker.
A mystical relationship with the Divine Will is intensely complex. It is a kind of sacred dance; a trust and intimate personal connection and understanding, that develops over many different moments and experiences together. It is very much like a sacred marriage, described by so many ancient texts. The Divine Will, by its very nature, will push its vessel into fear and discomfort, through various trials and hardships. We see this in all accounts of all the mystics and prophets since the dawn of time. The Divine Will asks its vessel to say or do uncomfortable things (speak unpleasant truths to power, preach unpopular or controversial ideas or reforms, break with conformity and social rules, endure public shame and ostracism, etc). It does so in order to spiritually grow, advance, and purify the person. In the friction, to illuminate for him where he is out of alignment with love, and to fortify and infuse him with faith and courage. In cultivating and practicing ever-deepening levels of surrender, the vessel heals and releases his resistance, allowing the Divine Will to flow and express itself more freely.
The practice of surrender is itself a fascinating but voluminous subject for another time. It is, however, the only path forward. The vessel learns pretty quickly that the dictates of the Divine Will can’t be refused. Resistance causes the pressure (in whatever form) to escalate until the vessel is forced to capitulate. This can be read as something menacing or punitive, but it’s not that at all. It doesn’t ever intend to hurt. It loves deeply, but like a strict (at times ruthless) teacher, it will provide the lessons to be learned. The smart vessel will turn towards his resistance and work to undo it quickly, rather than endure the resulting pressures. This all comes with time and practice, at a relatively advanced level of spiritual mastery.
To go further, and to allow oneself to be overtaken and transformed completely by this majestic power, to become the purest vessel for it, is the height of mystical consciousness. It is an acknowledgement and fundamental (not just intellectual, but experiential) acceptance that this power has always been in control. And that the very thing fighting against it, the part that resists it, isn’t actually real. It is a creation of fear. An inner illusion. (I’m not invalidating the feelings; they are very real. But going to depth and discovering it fully, reveals that there’s no substance to it. The mere act of looking at it dissolves it). With awareness and discovery work, that part, the resisting part, is slowly and steadily healed and dismantled, until there is nothing left. Then the Divine Will flows freely, expresses itself fully, unencumbered by fear. This is the ultimate unitive state of love. It is the culmination and climax of inner spiritual work and tremendous pain. It requires a magnitude of surrender that most people will never understand.
And the resulting nature of life is a moment by moment, nearly-impulsive way of being. The word impulsive implies ignorance or recklessness. That’s not what I mean. It’s impulsive in the sense that it receives and follows the instruction of the Divine Will without a plan or vision. Existing in the present moment, with full trust and faith, and inexplicable courage, the person expresses that which asks to be expressed, without reservation. All the time. He follows his feelings (which are now pure of egoic desire), and this intuitive guidance above all else. In doing so, he experiences joy, divine love and bliss, intense satisfaction, and incredible inner peace. (He also adventures into mystical realms and discovers unexplored horizons).
In these seemingly unassuming phrases, Leonard captures the essence of faith and surrender, of undoing, of nothingness, of humility, and of the highest order of authentic expression. All of which make up the true mystical experience – the courageous self-less embodiment of complete service to, and union with, the Divine Will.
To arrive at this place, to actually carry out this charge, is (in my opinion) the most difficult and most rewarding mission in the world. It’s not easy. It is a painful (at times excruciating) process that takes immense dedication, fortitude, and a lot of work. To the skeptical observer, spirituality appears to be a peaceful or tranquil practice. Some people even believe that spirituality is some sort of retreat from real life, or an intoxicant for avoiding pain. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
To the genuine practitioner, what goes on within is nothing short of a civil war. It’s brutal, and bloody, and devastating, often teetering on the brink of madness. It is a fight to the death, literally. But to those few who are called to it, genuinely, all else is happily forsaken. They wouldn’t trade their calling for anything else in the world. They feel blessed to be given this work, and utterly unworthy of such an experience of Grace.
I used to think that the “going home” chorus of the song meant dying; that he was returning to the spirit world. In some sense, it is a death, of the ego. But I now see a deeper meaning. The going home is a metaphor – it’s about the journey home. This very arduous journey to truth, to love, and back to union with God. It’s what the journey of the mystic is really all about.
Thirty spokes share one hub. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart.
Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel.
Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.
Tao Chapter 11
The value, the use, the purpose of each of these objects is the emptiness within them. They are the containers of negative space, into which or with which something can be made, created, or produced.
This is the entire journey for the mystic – it is a purgative path – becoming nothing, becoming empty, becoming a pure and unencumbered vessel for the cleanest expression of the divine will.
This is another way of understanding the transformation of consciousness work. Consciousness must be transformed, its pain transmuted, so that very slowly, step by step, it can become free of its attachments, impurities, and fears (which are polluting and activating the emotional body), and elevated enough to match divine consciousness, so that in a unitive state it can serve and express itself cleanly, without an egoic filter hindering or mis-translating the message.
This emptiness idea has been misapplied and misunderstood for a long time. (To be honest, mostly by popular and charismatic but deeply disordered types).
The work of becoming nothing is not a getting rid of the self. It is a getting rid of the wounds and fears that pollute and polarize the authentic self. This sort of alchemy is much much harder and infinitely more painful than merely discarding the self, were that even possible with a healthy psyche.
The process is a purgation and purification (and a training, strengthening, and rebuilding) of the authentic self. It is an extinguishing of the entire complex system of desires, hundreds of layers deep. And it is a surrendering of the personal will completely. It also involves the loss of all earthly or material things connected to self-worth – reputation, money, career, status, etc. This is why many authentic paths lead, at least temporarily, through poverty and asceticism, even if it’s later tempered.
The sage in this case does not end up lacking any sort of personality – he does not become a human robot. A perfected realized mystic is not lacking a self, quite the opposite. He becomes a strong, balanced, fearless, virtuous, whole personality, which operates in reverent service to divinity. He isn’t pulled or swayed by various egoic temptations. He isn’t hampered by fear or the prospect of loss or shame.
He can and will eagerly do anything that he is directed to do to carry out the work of divinity, without fear, without personal hesitation. He has become empty of his own ambitions, desires, and fears, but he has become full of the virtues – courage, compassion, temperance, wisdom, love, understanding, etc.
He is then used like a vessel or a grail (one might say) for the operation of the divine will.
“In this same way we have to philosophize with respect to this Divine fire of contemplative love, which, before it unites and transforms the soul in itself, first purges it of all its contrary accidents. It drives out its unsightliness, and makes it black and dark, so that it seems worse than before and more unsightly and abominable than it was wont to be. For this Divine purgation is removing all the evil and vicious humours which the soul has never perceived because they have been so deeply rooted and grounded in it; it has never realized, in fact, that it has had so much evil within itself.
But now that they are to be driven forth and annihilated, these humours reveal themselves, and become visible to the soul because it is so brightly illumined by this dark light of Divine contemplation (although it is no worse than before, either in itself or in relation to God); and, as it sees in itself that which it saw not before, it is clear to it that not only is it unfit to be seen by God, but deserves His abhorrence, and that He does indeed abhor it. By this comparison we can now understand many things concerning what we are saying and purpose to say.”
St. John of the Cross
One of the hallmark processes of a kundalini transformation is a destruction of the ego (the false self). 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. They typically lose everything external (home, reputation, money, career, relationships), which is painful enough. But what happens internally, the losses sustained there, are vastly more painful.
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 ordinary people who do not take this journey. 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 mystics don’t act like saints? The point of my post was that uninvestigated ideal concepts of goodness and self-sacrifice are improper standards by which to judge our spiritual advancement. Holding ourselves to those standards, mimicking and pretending to be a better version of ourselves, hinders us from actual growth, because those images and concepts do not reflect the truth of who we are or the journey we take. 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 very pious, ever-peaceful, obedient above reproach, humble to the point of being meek, quiet, perfectly loving, self-sacrificing, righteous, and proper. I used the termed “saintly” to depict exactly how we falsely imagine our higher self to be. Just to make sure my definition of the word 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, becoming saints), 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 obedient, nor above reproach, in their respective historical contexts. These are fierce, rebellious, non-conformists, fighting for justice in very disagreeable circumstances, dedicated to the dictates of their inner guidance (against many laws, rules, customs, and human opinions) from the divine authority within.
They are enlightened realized 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. At least not how we use that word today.
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, it means that the egoic personal 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, floating or gliding above the human fray. These are portraits of passionate warriors. Angry letters to the Pope? Reforming corruption? Do you have any idea how much confrontational fire it takes, how much courage and political savvy it takes to combat entrenched corruption, in a religious setting no less? I mean, these people had to be ferocious, and strong, and absolutely ruthless in their pursuits. Nothing meek about this. Nothing tender, or gentle, or peacefully lacking in passionate expression.
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 unitive love and piety is not just a religious mental concept of faith or reverence. It’s an actual feeling of love, real love, with energetic experiences that are deeply sexual in nature.) Saints, sensual and erotic? What? What is happening here?
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 version 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.