Mystical depth and Dostoevsky

One of the myriad things that happens in mystical darkness, the home of disintegration, is that some of the regular mental faculties get shut down, while others spring to life with a staggering genius. A person can go from being quite average and ordinary, to suddenly a kind of idiot savant, capable of unfathomable mystical processing power and expression. 

It can take a variety of forms. I’ve seen this in my own case, but quite dramatically in others as well. To give you a sense of the severity of the shut down, for a period of several months (while bedridden and unable to do anything but this inner work), I suddenly became unable to play Solitaire. Whatever basic faculties are required to line up cards in numerical order of alternating colors became completely unavailable to me.

Day after day, I would stare at the screen, terrified, unable to figure out which card is meant to go where. Solitaire was the clearest manifestation, there were many others, but as I’m sure you understand, not being able to play the card game wasn’t the issue. It’s that the mental functions became non-functional. I was able to recognize the sudden disability, but was unable to do anything about it, even by the application of significant effort.

When I say stuff gets shut down, I mean it. It literally blocks off various cognitive areas, presumably to converse energy and focus, but also to force the person into the experience of the loss, in order to wrestle with the attachments that loss illuminates. (In my case, the hyper-value and self-worth I placed on intelligence and logical reasoning, but also the polarized sense of independance, self-reliance, working/earning capacity, etc. that is threatened by such a severe disability.).

At the same time, other incredible functions open up, most notably perhaps changing thought, speech, and writing patterns – where there was a kind of mediocre expression before, with undisciplined or garbled logic and reasoning, suddenly clarity, wisdom, and a particular kind of profound thinking come pouring out. I want to clarify here, that it’s not that logic and reasoning become unimportant, (we aren’t throwing away the intellect), it’s that a very different kind of logic opens up, one that is not typically available in normal states of consciousness. And that mental energy is then directed entirely inward, exclusively towards the mystical work at hand.

Specifically, what comes online as part of this opening is an intense capacity to see inward at great depth, not in some ruminating navel-gazing way, but rather to discover the depth of one’s entire unconscious side, and a ferocious ability to digest trauma and pain. There is a kind of switch that needs to be turned on for this vision to become available, and when that happens, it also comes with tremendous cost. (You know, whoever wants to save his life will lose it and all that.).  

If the challenge is taken up, if the person takes ownership of the circumstance rather than sinking into hopeless despair, the experience closely resembles one of traveling from room to room in an infinite dark terrifying basement, clearing out all the contents. You know, with fire, and tears, and torments, and monsters, and terrible agony, but still, cleaning out the basement is the sort of large conceptual metaphorical bucket I’m going to use, because I’m not especially creative. 🙂 If the challenge is not taken up, these energies get misdirected, sending the person into a chronic chaotic and meaningless psychosis condition, which often cannot be treated externally.  

Anyway, I say all that as a preface for the excerpt below. A person who has been taken to this basement, who has at least some experience of the various rooms and their horrors, develops an ability to see deeply into others as well. To see past the surface layer of their expression, and to really hear what’s being said, or the intended outcome of what’s being said. It’s not a supernatural matter, but a kind of professional expertise. There is a skill and an art to it. There is a craft about it. It is really a mastery rather than some gift of psychic powers. 

Having cleared and excavated a seemingly endless array of self-deceptions, prides, guilts, fears, egoic desires, and the like, you develop a taste for expressions that are sincere versus those that come with nefarious or egoic motives. You can feel the intent of the other person. You develop a very keen sensitivity, and are able to hear the malice even in what appears innocuous (and conversely, you can hear at times, the innocence in what appears hostile or aggressive.). If you read my previous post, in don Gennaro’s language, you can discern the phantoms or the demons, and over time you come to understand what they are doing and why. 

In the excerpt below from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic Father Zosima gives us a little peek into that mystical depth and capacity. The context of this particular bit is that Father Zosima has stepped outside his cabin to greet the pilgrims who visit him regularly looking for guidance and healing. The woman speaking at the outset is one of the inhabitants of the nearby town, who brought her daughter to Zosima for healing.  

“You see, I shut my eyes and ask myself if everyone has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How—how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly—deadly!”

“No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”


“By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”

“In active love? There’s another question—and such a question! You see, I so love humanity that—would you believe it?—I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.”

“It is much, and well that your mind is full of such dreams and not others. Sometime, unawares, you may do a good deed in reality.”

“Yes. But could I endure such a life for long?” the lady went on fervently, almost frantically. “That’s the chief question—that’s my most agonizing question. I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)—what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’ And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once—that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving any one.”

She was in a very paroxysm of self-castigation, and, concluding, she looked with defiant resolution at the elder.

“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest. ‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’ ”

“But what’s to be done? What can one do in such a case? Must one despair?”

“No. It is enough that you are distressed at it. Do what you can, and it will be reckoned unto you. Much is done already in you since you can so deeply and sincerely know yourself. If you have been talking to me so sincerely, simply to gain approbation for your frankness, as you did from me just now, then of course you will not attain to anything in the achievement of real love; it will all get no further than dreams, and your whole life will slip away like a phantom. In that case you will naturally cease to think of the future life too, and will of yourself grow calmer after a fashion in the end.”

“You have crushed me! Only now, as you speak, I understand that I was really only seeking your approbation for my sincerity when I told you I could not endure ingratitude. You have revealed me to myself. You have seen through me and explained me to myself!”

“Are you speaking the truth? Well, now, after such a confession, I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute. Avoid being scornful, both to others and to yourself. What seems to you bad within you will grow purer from the very fact of your observing it in yourself. Avoid fear, too, though fear is only the consequence of every sort of falsehood. Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love. Don’t be frightened over much even at your evil actions. I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you. Forgive me for not being able to stay longer with you. They are waiting for me. Good-bye.”

You can probably spend hours picking apart the bones of just this one episode, it’s so loaded with truths from the basement – with mystical integrity, rather than dogma or theological posturings. It’s a real struggle with actual inner currents, rather than cold intellectualizing for dubious purposes. If you read it closely, Zosima errs on the side of confrontational rather than coddling, softening the blow just a little bit, but offering the woman a chance to see her true motives. She then takes it correctly, as reflection rather than reprimand, although her hysteria and sentimentality seem to undermine her sincerity. We hope that she took what he said on board, but one never knows… (On the deeper level, it’s more likely that the phantoms are ridiculing Zosima for his misplaced efforts, but that’s a subject for another time.).

This excerpt, along with lots of other moments, reveal Dostoyevsky’s astounding visionary understanding of psychology for his time. He had to have travelled really deeply inside his own basement to bring all of these things to light. The truths and reflections are piercing, and if you put yourself in the shoes of the characters receiving them, they are really harsh. The narrator’s mature cynical eye is also captured with perfect delicacy. There is a scene inside Zosima’s cabin, just preceding this excerpt, where Dostoyevsky gets right to the heart of the pathological narcissism of the senior Karamazov, with an insight and an expertise our modern day psychologists are only now struggling to attain. It’s really quite impressive.

I will leave you to do further unpacking for yourself, if you wish.

(I want to just make a small note here about self-forgetfulness. This is a concept and a method of practice aimed at a particular stage of spiritual evolution which is considered outdated now. It was relevant to the condition of human consciousness two hundred years ago, but is no longer. We are moving in a new direction that does not abrogate the self in the same way. I point it out just for the sake of consistency, because I’m fighting a tidal wave of tradition on that front in other places. We are learning now how to honor the authentic self in loving another, rather than discarding the self or seeking some kind of perfect selflessness in love.)  

I’ve been slowly working my way through this book and others. I was blown away by what Dostoyevsky was able to bring out in The Idiot, and have added it to the reading list on this site. If you haven’t read that, I recommend it emphatically. The character portraits are honest and pristinely developed, their struggles real and personal, and taken together, their interactions give you a sense of the wholeness and complexity of a full liberated personality.