Ramblings

Becoming nothing


“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.

What does enlightenment look like?

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

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

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

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

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

Remember how I wrote a few months ago that 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.

The mystic way

Go inward. Go deeply.

Let your emotional reactions lead the way.

Inquire and inquire, and just when you think you’re done, inquire again.

Ask the simple but important questions.

Then, by listening and feeling, you will be given the sacred answers.

When you hit the impenetrable wall, seek for the wisdom that will take you further.

It will be offered to you in the most unexpected places.

Pay attention.

Savor these unearthly moments of realization.

Bask in the magic that manifests the lessons into physical form.

Let this be your motivation, and serve as your guide.

Recognize when you come across the knots of misalignment.

When you find these knots, let childlike curiosity be your guide.

Turn them around and around until you find the way in.

Be patient and gentle, but persistent and resourceful.

Set your intention and allow Grace to guide your hands.

You will untangle them, and the knots will come undone.

And when they do, let the river of tears they were damming flow unencumbered.

And when the tears run dry, let all of it go.

Allow the now-empty space to fill with love and forgiveness.

The healing will happen naturally; it always does.

The most important thing to remember is this –

Meet everything you find with unconditional love.

Meet everything with tenderness, acceptance, and compassion.

You will encounter some monsters on your path.

Some really ugly things.

Things you’ll wish you’d never seen, because once you do, you can’t unsee them.

Look upon all of them with eyes of love.

And listen to them with the ears of love, as a mother would upon her wounded child.

See them truthfully, for what they are, and with understanding of how they came to be.

Be brutally honest and just as brutally loving.

The journey, the exploration, and the bringing of love and light into that darkness will heal you and transform you.

It will transform the very essence of your soul.

Then turn all of that love and compassion out into the world.

Find the courage to live authentically and vulnerably.

Listen closely, taking only those actions that feel good and right in the very center of your being.

The truth and love, inside and outside, will set you free.

Spiritualism and a bit of free will

 

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.

In this book, prominent psychiatrist, Dr. Carl Wickland, and his wife Anna (a trance medium), describe their decades of work, treating and healing mental illness, by removing destructive earthbound discarnate spirits (who don’t know they are dead) from the auras of the psychically sensitive patients. Dr. Wickland seems to coax the spirits out of the patients through the application of some kind of statically charged electrical device. Then, through a form of meditation and I suppose trance induction, one at a time, the spirits temporarily enter the body of his wife; where Dr. Wickland speaks with them, explaining to them that they are dead, and convincing them to leave the earth plane for the spirit world (leaving the patient peacefully healed of her symptoms).

Lest you think this is all mumbo jumbo, there is a lot of work being done currently in spiritualist psychiatric facilities in Latin America, Brazil in particular, following a specific branch of this model (known as “spiritism” developed by Allan Kardec). This book, and Dr. Wickland’s amazing work in general, are considered an authoritative guide on these destructive entities.

What I find most interesting about this work is it suggests that what you believe, here in human form, determines what happens to you after you die. Not in the religious sense, but in the core belief sense – the belief framework in your subconscious mind. It’s not that you must believe one thing over another, but rather that you must be open-minded enough to accept what’s happening to you. It appears that one has to have a flexible (non-dogmatic) belief system to realize that his body has died, and that he has passed into the spirit form. Strong attachments to egoic drives, or to relationships, or to fundamentalist religious ideas stand in the way of a soul’s progress to the spirit realms. Those that continue holding on to their beliefs end up hanging out on our earth planes, feeling lost, confused, or asleep. Some become attracted to the light of a human’s aura; sometimes getting stuck in there, (wreaking havoc on the human) until they become willing to let go of their beliefs and accept greater truths. This suggests an element of self-determination or freedom to resist the truth for a period of time.

These are not new ideas, of course. It’s just exciting to watch them play out in these seemingly mechanical ways. The entire premise of the Tibetan Book of the Dead (which guides and teaches the newly dead soul what to do) is built on this foundation. (If you’re interested, there’s a good, somewhat haunting, documentary about it, narrated by Leonard Cohen, available here).

The releasing of attachments, the acceptance of the transformation into spirit form, and the awareness that thoughts and beliefs create the soul’s projected “reality,” are all needed to keep the soul on track, so to speak. Similar to our current spiritual understandings, what the soul experiences after death is a projection of its own beliefs. I suppose they play out before him in order to be processed and digested out – not unlike what’s been happening to me for the last few months. (In the language of the Christian mystics, which I’ve become so fond of lately, this is the nature of purgatory – the purging of that which is not in alignment with love).

In my experience (I had one encounter with the energy of death a few months ago), it is simultaneously subtle and powerful, but there’s nothing inherently scary about it. It’s a really peaceful sensation. The fear arises only from the resistance to it (the human attachments), not from death itself. It came to show me where I was still holding attachments, and what needed to be worked on and released.

I don’t specifically believe that one can get “off track” after death, but that’s just my personal view. There are some interesting examples in Wickland’s book that demonstrate how stubborn and reticent souls, those that refuse to give up attachments or refuse to accept their condition, are given lots of time to come around to the truth. Spirit, which is outside the bounds of time, is infinitely patient. This suggests that souls have a tiny hint of self-determination, or free-will, in this sense. They can choose to reject the truth until such time as they come to accept it.

I’ve been turning the idea of free-will around in my mind for a while. I’m still not convinced that we have it. The ego loves to believe that it has control. And what I’ve been shown again and again is that it doesn’t; even over itself. It’s a trick of the mind, necessary for the human experience. You have to believe you have free-will in order to have a sense of ownership over your life and choices. And you have to believe that others have free-will in order to hold them responsible for their lives and choices. This sense of ownership is what generates all the suffering we come here to experience (fear, self-judgment, shame, regret, blame, etc.). If you really knew and fully believed that you and everyone else were just floating along on an energetic current, everything pre-destined and chosen for you (by another aspect of yourself before you were born), all of the inner emotional stuff would become moot and the spiritual lessons would be lost. You need to believe you have free-will in order to experience being human. But there is a reality beyond that which we experience. And as a matter of ultimate truth, I’m not sure we have any free-will at all.

At the moment, I think there is a little bit of wiggle room to resist the truth, or resist the lessons, but not much. Spirit has a way of directing what is needed, with either a carrot or a stick, or sometimes both. Ultimately the human, or the soul, will capitulate, believing it itself has made the choice to accept truth. It can’t see or acknowledge that its own change of heart is influenced by something outside itself. Rudolph Steiner talked about this in his books – how releasing oneself of the hegemony of the ego will show you just how much you are being controlled by spiritual forces outside yourself. It’s really trippy and destabilizing when you first experience it.

And if there’s no real alternative to that which Spirit directs, then there is only the illusion of free-will.

Like everything else these days, this is a work in progress.

 

 

Metaphysics and the occult

While I’m not generally interested in the occult, I came across a truly fascinating book a few months ago: Psychic Self-Defense: The Classic Instruction Manual for Protecting Yourself Against Paranormal Attack by Dion Fortune. (The title sounds sort of campy, but the book is not that way at all).

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). 

I’ve had enough first hand experience to believe that these things are real. I don’t doubt their veracity. I just don’t personally subscribe to these activities. Some people are born with a natural opening into these realms, and that’s their passion and life purpose. It’s not my intention to diminish what they do. It’s just that in my view, there is nothing spiritual (in my definition of that word) about the development of these skills or practices. And I’m not sure about the higher ethics of this kind of work (even for those who claim to be on the right-hand path, with a purely beneficent motivation).

There is lots of overlap here with shamanism and other healing modalities, so I hesitate to take any hard line positions. But to the extent that the practitioner is powerful enough to be effective, it’s a very slippery slope messing with these things, regardless of conscious intention. Life is designed a particular way for a reason. When you begin manipulating reality, you interfere with greater spiritual lessons and purpose. 

All spiritual traditions have dire warnings for those at advanced stages about getting caught up in the metaphysical powers that spiritual evolution brings. These powers are traps on the path; not something to be sought after or cultivated. From my vantage point, I can’t imagine the level of purity of consciousness one would need to have, in order to practice these things in an ethical way (without the practitioner’s unconscious motives getting in the way).

For a practitioner, the accumulation of metaphysical power, no matter how you go about it, only serves to feed his ego. It’s no different than the accumulation of power in normal reality; except that it’s hidden and mysterious, which makes it sort of sexy and intriguing. It doesn’t elevate the consciousness of the practitioner. And it doesn’t heal his targets in any spiritual way. It may alleviate a topical problem, but it doesn’t get to the root of it, nor is any fundamental healing happening (which leaves the person susceptible to a relapse of whatever the infirmity was to begin with).

It’s akin to pouring draino into a clogged toilet drain, but not addressing the fact that paper towels continue being deposited into the toilet. You see what I’m saying? Topical solutions may be helpful and necessary at times. And there is probably a proper place and circumstance for occult solutions. I’m just more interested in core level transformational work.

Here’s is a wonderful quote from the book that sort of demonstrates this issue. (You’ll have to forgive the political incorrectness; the book was written before that became a thing).

“There are certain types of insanity in which the lunatic believes himself to be the victim of an attack by invisible beings, who threaten and abuse him and offer base or dangerous insinuations. He will describe his tormentors, or point to their position in the room. A psychic who investigates such a case can very often see the alleged entities just where the lunatic says they are. Nevertheless, the psychologist can come forward and prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the so-called “hallucinations” are due to repressed instincts giving rise to dissociated complexes of ideas in the patient’s own subconscious mind. Does this mean that the psychic is mistaken in thinking he perceives an astral entity? In my opinion both psychic and psychologist are right, and their findings are mutually explanatory. What the psychic sees is the dissociated complex extruded from the aura as a thought-form. A great deal of relief can be given to lunatics by breaking up the thought-forms that are surrounding them, but unfortunately the relief is short-lived; for unless the cause of the illness can be dealt with, a fresh batch of thought-forms is built up as soon as the original ones are destroyed.”

As far as I can tell, the “cause of the illness” here is going to be fear, self-judgment, shame, and unprocessed emotional material. It sounds like an oversimplification, but in my view it’s actually quite straightforward. (The work of transformation is not simple, but the root cause always appears to be the same). A psychically sensitive person with a negatively oriented consciousness will see the energetic entities that exist on that vibrational plane (including the ones he himself generates). In order to “heal” the illness, and elevate him out of seeing those negative entities, the consciousness needs to be transformed and elevated to a higher level.

Theoretically, this checks out across the board among different spiritual traditions, but my research is still in its early stages. 

Nevertheless, these things are interesting to explore and read about. The book is brilliantly written, fascinating, and I think it arrives at some profound truths from a very unusual perspective. (You can access it for free online).

Rumi, Sufism, and the whirling dervish

 

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

Sound familiar?

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.

 

Oneness

 

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, the way you would from an airplane window.

Timeless and weightless, being in this field feels sort of like being suspended in honey. Visually it’s translucent; and feels 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. Human ideas of good and evil are intertwined, operating together, dependent on one another, but even that feels completely irrelevant in this place.

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 united 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.”

 

Prayer and a small light of hope

 

Back in the summer of 2015, I suddenly formed an unusual interest in prayer. It was 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 the darkness 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.

I guess we’ll see what comes next.

 

The journey of the mystic

 

As promised, here’s some more on Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill.

The book is a very ambitious effort, which is executed brilliantly and beautifully. Referencing the accounts, writings, and legends of famous Christian mystics, Underhill tries to bring some logical or orderly sense to the mystical process. There is a sort of lyrical quality to her writing, and a humble genius in her reasoning and exposition. The subject matter isn’t really something that lends itself to any definite or rigid bounds. The expression “the herding of cats” comes to mind. But Underhill displays incredible artistry and mastery in assembling these ill-fitting puzzle pieces. 

Originally published in 1911, it is considered by many to be a classic in its field.

She opens the book with the following:

The most highly developed branches of the human family have in common one peculiar characteristic. They tend to produce—sporadically it is true, and often in the teeth of adverse external circumstances—a curious and definite type of personality; a type which refuses to be satisfied with that which other men call experience, and is inclined, in the words of its enemies, to “deny the world in order that it may find reality.” We meet these persons in the east and the west; in the ancient, mediaeval, and modern worlds. Their one passion appears to be the prosecution of a certain spiritual and intangible quest: the finding of a “way out” or a “way back” to some desirable state in which alone they can satisfy their craving for absolute truth. This quest, for them, has constituted the whole meaning of life. They have made for it without effort sacrifices which have appeared enormous to other men: and it is an indirect testimony to its objective actuality, that whatever the place or period in which they have arisen, their aims, doctrines and methods have been substantially the same. Their experience, therefore, forms a body of evidence, curiously self-consistent and often mutually explanatory, which must be taken into account…

Hence, they should claim from us the same attention that we give to other explorers of countries in which we are not competent to adventure ourselves; for the mystics are the pioneers of the spiritual world, and we have no right to deny validity to their discoveries, merely because we lack the opportunity or the courage necessary to those who would prosecute such explorations for themselves.

Then after some explorations of the intersections of mysticism, philosophy, psychology, and theology, we get to the good stuff. Underhill sets out five general stages, or markers, that frame the mystical journey. A lot of these (the first three primarily) will be familiar to modern day spiritual travelers.

(1) The awakening of the Self to consciousness of Divine Reality. This experience, usually abrupt and well-marked, is accompanied by intense feelings of joy and exaltation.

 

(2) The Self, aware for the first time of Divine Beauty, realizes by contrast its own finiteness and imperfection, the manifold illusions in which it is immersed, the immense distance which separates it from the One. Its attempts to eliminate by discipline and mortification all that stands in the way of its progress towards union with God constitute Purgation: a state of pain and effort.

 

(3) When by Purgation the Self has become detached from the “things of sense,” and acquired those virtues which are the “ornaments of the spiritual marriage,” its joyful consciousness of the Transcendent Order returns in an enhanced form. Like the prisoners in Plato’s “Cave of Illusion,” it has awakened to knowledge of Reality, has struggled up the harsh and difficult path to the mouth of the cave. Now it looks upon the sun. This is Illumination: a state which includes in itself many of the stages of contemplation, “degrees of orison,” visions and adventures of the soul described by St. Teresa and other mystical writers. These form, as it were, a way within the Way: a moyen de parvenir, a training devised by experts which will strengthen and assist the mounting soul. They stand, so to speak, for education; whilst the Way proper represents organic growth. Illumination is the “contemplative state” par excellence. It forms, with the two preceding states, the “first mystic life.” Many mystics never go beyond it; and, on the other hand, many seers and artists not usually classed amongst them, have shared, to some extent, the experiences of the illuminated state. Illumination brings a certain apprehension of the Absolute, a sense of the Divine Presence: but not true union with it. It is a state of happiness.

 

(4) In the development of the great and strenuous seekers after God, this is followed—or sometimes intermittently accompanied—by the most terrible of all the experiences of the Mystic Way: the final and complete purification of the Self, which is called by some contemplatives the “mystic pain” or “mystic death,” by others the Purification of the Spirit or Dark Night of the Soul. The consciousness which had, in Illumination, sunned itself in the sense of the Divine Presence, now suffers under an equally intense sense of the Divine Absence: learning to dissociate the personal satisfaction of mystical vision from the reality of mystical life. As in Purgation the senses were cleansed and humbled, and the energies and interests of the Self were concentrated upon transcendental things: so now the purifying process is extended to the very centre of I-hood, the will. The human instinct for personal happiness must be killed. This is the “spiritual crucifixion” so often described by the mystics: the great desolation in which the soul seems abandoned by the Divine. The Self now surrenders itself, its individuality, and its will, completely. It desires nothing, asks nothing, is utterly passive, and is thus prepared for

 

(5) Union: the true goal of the mystic quest. In this state the Absolute Life is not merely perceived and enjoyed by the Self, as in Illumination: but is one with it. This is the end towards which all the previous oscillations of consciousness have tended. It is a state of equilibrium, of purely spiritual life; characterized by peaceful joy, by enhanced powers, by intense certitude. To call this state, as some authorities do, by the name of Ecstasy, is inaccurate and confusing: since the term Ecstasy has long been used both by psychologists and ascetic writers to define that short and rapturous trance—a state with well-marked physical and psychical accompaniments—in which the contemplative, losing all consciousness of the phenomenal world, is caught up to a brief and immediate enjoyment of the Divine Vision. Ecstasies of this kind are often experienced by the mystic in Illumination, or even on his first conversion. They cannot therefore be regarded as exclusively characteristic of the Unitive Way. In some of the greatest mystics—St. Teresa is an example—the ecstatic trance seems to diminish rather than increase in frequency after the state of union has been attained: whilst others achieve the heights by a path which leaves on one side all abnormal phenomena.

Because each individual person is unique, so too are the mystical experiences and openings.

They are very heavily influenced by the individual person’s subconscious belief system, and his egoic patterns (his level of discipline and ability to self-motivate, his relationship to emotional pain and suffering, his resilience, courage and fortitude, his capacity for surrender vs resistance, and how he relates to authority, etc). Underlying religious beliefs also play a huge role in what a mystic will see or experience. (This is why the purgation of the spirit, the subject of my last post, step four in Underhill’s outline, is so important. Until all of these things are cleared out fully, one can’t be sure if he’s really seeing ultimate reality, or just a projection of his own mind.)

The journeys don’t necessarily follow any specific sequence. Some stages occur simultaneously, some go back and forth. The length, depth, and severity of the different stages varies enormously. One of the most often cited determining factors is each individual soul’s life plan – it is either destined for specific levels or it’s not. They either come by Grace, or they don’t. It’s not really negotiable. 

It’s also really really hard to pin things down and label them. Often because the experiences can’t be articulated with words (they happen in a section of consciousness that doesn’t involve language), and the descriptions are so subjective, that being one and the same, two different accounts don’t seem to resemble each other at all. It takes a certain level of experience to understand what you’re seeing and to assemble these things together.

It’s human nature to want to know where one is on the path; to judge himself, or to know if he’s succeeding or failing. But it’s the nature of the spiritual path to be extremely murky without any solid roadmaps. It’s about getting comfortable with being lost. The entire point is to learn how to walk, one step at a time, without a plan, and without judging the progress. It is a development of faith and trust in intuitive guidance, moment by moment, while learning to let go and surrender in the present. This is a lot harder than it sounds. It took me several years to really develop this ability, and I still struggle with it on occasion. 

The rest of the book then goes on to expound on these different stages. (I’m still only about half way through it – it’s too dense to get through quickly). If there’s any more stuff worth sharing later I’ll do another post.

 

For further reading, the book is available here for free. 

 

Dark Night of the Soul: Purgation of Spirit

 

After months of darkness without any sense of guidance, I have finally come across a most comforting piece of mystical literature: Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. It shouldn’t be comforting; it’s rather horrifying reading. But I’m comforted to find it. (There’s also a tiny bit too much religious emphasis for my taste, but he is a Christian mystic, so naturally that will be his framework).

For all of this time I’ve been operating on faith and intuition alone; trusting the inner knowing that kept telling me it’s all ok. And just now, when I feel most exhausted (the last two days have been really difficult), I am synchronistically lead to this book.

It turns out that everything I’ve been going through is perfectly “normal,” as these things go on the mystic path. It is in fact a blessing, if one cares to see it that way.

Lots of spiritual seekers go through a Dark Night experience (sometimes multiple times). St. John distinguishes this common “purgation of the senses,” in all its permutations, from what I’m going through (which is a much rarer and more advanced stage of development) called “purgation of the spirit.” It can last for a long time, but it’s said to be the precursor to Divine union (the final stage of mystical development).

It is a small, but much needed, feeling of relief to find some ground and context for this process. Every time I find writing like this, which resonate so deeply, tears come flooding out from the depths of my soul.

Below are some of the excerpts from the book describing this Purgation of Spirit.

It’s probably important to note here that these thoughts and feelings arise from deep deep within. And no amount of will power or control has any effect on them. Meaning, you can’t just think happy thoughts and feel better. None of the spiritual or meditative practices work. Even witness or observer consciousness works only in short bursts. The weight of this is deeper and heavier than any form of depression I’ve ever experienced. It turns you inside out, and there’s nowhere to turn, and no way to make it stop.

The only way through it is with ever-deepening surrender, constant awareness/inquiry work, and wisdom (which are the healing techniques I mentioned a few posts ago). With the proper spiritual training, watching this unfold within, you can see its logic and design. There is a definite pattern and progression, and the results can be profoundly felt. There is a truly divinely magnificent intelligence at work.

It took me a while to stop freaking out and trust it. Then the deeper understanding emerged and I got the hang of it. Now it’s just a matter of getting through it.

 

  • THIS dark night is an inflowing of God into the soul, which purges it from its ignorances and imperfections, habitual natural and spiritual, and which is called by contemplatives infused contemplation, or mystical theology. Herein God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in perfection of love without its doing anything, or understanding of what manner is this infused contemplation. Inasmuch as it is the loving wisdom of God, God produces striking effects in the soul for, by purging and illumining it, He prepares it for the union of love with God. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [B]ecause the light and wisdom of this contemplation is most bright and pure, and the soul which it assails is dark and impure, it follows that the soul suffers great pain when it receives it in itself,… And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away… For, by means of this pure light, the soul now sees its impurity clearly (although darkly), and knows clearly that it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries; for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • [Another] way in which the soul suffers pain is by reason of its weakness, natural, moral and spiritual; for, when this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away. This is especially so at certain times when it is assailed with somewhat greater force; for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • Beneath the power of this oppression and weight the soul feels itself so far from being favoured that it thinks, and correctly so, that even that wherein it was wont to find some help has vanished with everything else, and that there is none who has pity upon it. Book 2 Chp. 5

 

  • THE third kind of suffering and pain that the soul endures in this state results from the fact that two other extremes meet here in one, namely, the Divine and the human. The Divine is this purgative contemplation, and the human is the subject—that is, the soul. The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus to make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured in the darkness of its belly, suffering such anguish as was endured by Jonas in the belly of that beast of the sea. For in this sepulchre of dark death it must needs abide until the spiritual resurrection which it hopes for. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • A description of this suffering and pain, although in truth it transcends all description, is given by David, when he says: ‘The lamentations of death compassed me about; the pains of hell surrounded me; I cried in my tribulation.’ But what the sorrowful soul feels most in this condition is its clear perception, as it thinks, that God has abandoned it, and, in His abhorrence of it, has flung it into darkness; it is a grave and piteous grief for it to believe that God has forsaken it… It feels, too, that all creatures have forsaken it, and that it is contemned by them, particularly by its friends. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • For indeed, when this purgative contemplation is most severe, the soul feels very keenly the shadow of death and the lamentations of death and the pains of hell, which consist in its feeling itself to be without God, and chastised and cast out, and unworthy of Him; and it feels that He is wroth with it. All this is felt by the soul in this condition—yea, and more, for it believes that it is so with it for ever. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • The fourth kind of pain is caused in the soul by another excellence of this dark contemplation, which is its majesty and greatness, from which arises in the soul a consciousness of the other extreme which is in itself—namely, that of the deepest poverty and wretchedness: this is one of the chiefest pains that it suffers in this purgation. For it feels within itself a profound emptiness and impoverishment of three kinds of good, which are ordained for the pleasure of the soul which are the temporal, the natural and the spiritual; and finds itself set in the midst of the evils contrary to these, namely, miseries of imperfection, aridity and emptiness of the apprehensions of the faculties and abandonment of the spirit in darkness. Inasmuch as God here purges the soul according to the substance of its sense and spirit, and according to the interior and exterior faculties, the soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensual part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions and the spirit is purified in thick darkness. All this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in the air so that he could not breathe), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoings and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual… Book 2 Chp. 6

 

  • Wherefore, because the soul is purified in this furnace like gold in a crucible, as says the Wise Man, it is conscious of this complete undoing of itself in its very substance, together with the direst poverty, wherein it is, as it were, nearing its end, … Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that He may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if He ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be stilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened. Of such are they that in truth go down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there. And thus the soul that passes through this either enters not that place at all, or tarries there but for a very short time; for one hour of purgation here is more profitable than are many there. Book 2 Chp. 6

 

I told you it was horrifying… It goes on like this for many more chapters, in case you’d like to read further. It’s available for free online here.