The irony is that only the realized saint is capable of seeing and understanding the depths of his own flaws and evils. The rest of humanity lives in ignorance of itself, believing that it is good.
I’ve been on a strangely unfolding journey about the subject of saints for quite some time. I’ve shared with you here some of my thoughts along the way, and now I think I’m getting closer to the right understanding.
The thing that makes a saint a saint, aside from the canonizing process, is not his or her goodness. That’s something we overlay onto them; an idealization, a pedestal we put them on, so that we may worship them and reach for some ideal of perfection. (It’s the way religions typically operate, using certain mystics as preferred role models.).
In reality, it’s something vastly different. Those mystics who attained the conditions of stable union with divinity (the advanced authentic mystics) all typically say the same things: “I am not good. Don’t call me good.” Because the thing that makes them capable of union with divine consciousness isn’t “goodness.” It is rather their capacity of consciousness to see the depths of their own evil, and to process, digest, and heal the conditions that make it so.
Part of the mystical ascension process is an ego-destroying descent into the truth of oneself. In there, there is nothing but the reflections of one’s own evil, one’s own selfishness, one’s own wretchedness – guilt and shame soup as far as the eye can see. That’s all that’s down there. (It also usually involves tons and tons of terror, like absolute blinding terror, but that’s a different part of the process).
And the work of the real mystic involves enduring that darkness, purging and processing all of that out, and coming into peace and forgiveness of it; allowing oneself to “be evil” at the core of one’s being, which is a thing others, who aren’t called to mystical life, don’t have the capacity to do. (The normal human ego structure is too rigid and fragile to see itself as anything but good, even if slightly flawed.). It is a seeing, an acknowledging, and then an excavation of the roots of it, so that the egoic desires cease arising entirely.
The pain of this process is excruciating, but that’s precisely what transforms the consciousness, making it “pure” enough to receive the energy of divine love. We must see the horrifying ugly depths of truth, feel the shame all the way through, and then let it go.
It is a mistake to call this process or the results goodness. The person going through this process, or coming out of it, doesn’t exactly conform to notions of goodness. Tender, loving, prudent and temperate is one side of them; their depth of compassion and tenderness for suffering is unmatched. But on the other side, they can be harsh, ruthless, impatient with liars and falsehood, lacking in sentimentality or tolerance for concocted emotional displays, vicious with evil and those who promote it.
It’s rather the path of virtue, which isn’t about goodness, but about balance, wholeness, and integration. The mystic who emerges from the purification process is virtuous, meaning that his emotional body is completely at rest, free from wrong reactivity, free of all manner of passions. His egoic motives, rooted in wounding, have been healed and no longer operate. And he is capable of moving with great courage, great fearlessness, and great peaceful detachment in whatever direction the divine will instructs. He is able to express himself completely – with authentic joy, authentic grief, authentic anger, within the bounds of wisdom, compassion, and justice, all without the fears and limits of the ego.
Our concepts of goodness would often be too limited to properly understand the depth of complexities of this sort of virtue. In practice, we would find these people very strange, unsure of how to understand them.
For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.
I read an article yesterday by a spiritual teacher instructing his followers to act from their “highest self.” He was beseeching his readers to be more loving, more kind, more peaceful; not to act on their emotional reactivity, but to take a high-road approach; the approach their “highest selves” would take. This sounds like lovely common sense. It sounds really good, and moral, and righteous. If only everyone followed this advice, right? Things would be a lot more peaceful. The problem is that it’s not real.
In practice this advice is often deeply misconstrued and ends up leading to the opposite result. It’s important to take it apart a bit, and clarify the actual internal direction.
On its face, this advice asks people not to act on their emotions, not to act on their normal drives or feelings, not to seek their vulnerable true self, not to behave authentically in accordance with their true feelings, but instead to identify with some divine, saintly, higher, ideal, spiritualized version of themselves, and to pretend to be that, to behave as though they were embodying that higher self.
What happens to people who do this internally is that they walk around pretending to be something they are not, namely “spiritual.” They have an idealized image of this higher self, which is really an idealized self-concept, and they mimic the words and behavior they believe this higher self would display. It’s a form of play-acting. They aren’t being real, they are pretending to be something they aren’t.
This is fake spirituality. Not only does it make the person’s words and actions feel phony, it makes him feel arrogantly superior to others (because he is believing and acting as though he is “above” them), it causes him to condescend and patronize to others, under the guise of spirituality. This does not lead to any beneficial result, not for the person, and not for those around him. It’s not more peaceful. It’s not more loving. It doesn’t help to avoid, resolve, or minimize conflict. This is generally what someone who is called sanctimonious is doing – he is pretending to be a lofty version of himself, and talking down to everyone else from his perch up above. We generally don’t like being around people like that, mostly because we can tell it’s phony.
One of the problems of imagining an idealized self, and acting in accordance with that self, is that that image is limited by the existing belief system. It’s not an accurate image. It’s a lop-sided fantasy. One cannot imagine accurate attributes in a higher self, if one has not explored his own darkness and shadow. Without going deeply into the darkness, and healing and reconciling those personality aspects, any images of a higher self will be terribly flawed, polarized, and one sided. The mind can’t imagine things outside of (or conflicting with) its existing belief structure, no matter how unconscious. So to reach up above, create a wonderful persona of goodness, and to act in accordance with that image, is kind of silly, but more importantly it has the effect of closing off the learning channels, and stifling further growth.
People who come into contact with their higher selves, in reality, are absolutely shocked, because it’s nothing like what they imagined it to be. They often struggle to reconcile the actually of the higher self, and what it teaches and demands, with their previously held images of what that would be like. They can’t believe the difference, and are quite nervous and upset by the truth. Real mystics, people who are deeply committed to truth and work regularly with various energies of Spirit (including at times their real higher selves), don’t act like saints; they don’t embody their higher selves. They don’t emulate goodness externally, for its own sake. They are far busier, being self-loving, honest, and courageous, than that. They embody their small inner child, living and feeling those truths, and re-raising that child from within, as a person of strong character.
Let’s use a really simple example. Imagine a close friend invites you to her birthday party, but you don’t want to go. The reason why you don’t want to go doesn’t matter much. If you identify with your “highest self,” you would believe that the right thing to do is to go, even if you don’t want to, because it would mean a lot to your friend. You might think something like “I have to show up to support my friend. It would be selfish to say no.Surely, my highest and best self would put my wants and needs aside to show up for a friend. Surely, my highest self is not selfish, and wouldn’t justify hurting my friend’s feelings just because I didn’t feel like going.”
Many of us are indoctrinated with really skewed ideals of goodness. The values we’ve been taught to ascribe to a “good” person, or a higher self, are wrong. Our images of an ideal self are often generous without boundaries, completely selfless, constantly endlessly sacrificing for others, always tender and never angry, infinitely patient, gentle, and compassionate, unconditionally loving and forgiving without accountability, etc. If we imagined an ideal image, many of us would attach those qualities to it, along with many other attributes. But those values are not how the highest self reasons, or functions, or exists at all. We would be mistaken to imagine that our highest self is exclusively this way. It is much more virtuous than this, much more balanced.
But this example is exactly what’s wrong with identifying with some image of what you think a spiritualized version of you would do. It masks the reality with phony spirituality. It’s a new (inaccurate) persona you must pretend to be and live up to. A new identity that you adopt that isn’t real. It avoids the uncomfortable difficult human stuff, with pretend love and fake kindness. It forces you to sacrifice yourself for another, because you believe it’s the “right” thing to do. This is a terrible form of spiritual bypass, which denies the real human experience, and the requisite lessons to be learned.
Even forgetting for a moment the issue of veracity, arbitrarily choosing to behave in conformity with an image, means not authentically choosing to behave as we really feel. This presents the next problem with the instruction – is that identifying with this ideal image of the higher self, the person is wasting precious time not being his authentic self, not cultivating or strengthening the small true self within. He is being good, at the expense of being real. While being real, or struggle to be real, is the hard work of spirituality – that’s what Merton is talking about above. In practice, the only way to derive wisdom, and to figure out how to act with wisdom and love is by going deep within to the true vulnerable self, the inner child, not to the higher self.
The only way to access actual love, not phony “highest self” sort of love, is to go within and get to the vulnerable truths inside. I’m not advocating acting on emotional reactivity or reckless base instincts, but rather going inward and investigating that reactivity, and then acting from inner truth and feeling. Meaning, doing only that which you actually want to do, and saying no when you want to say no. (This seems obvious and simple until you actually try to implement it in your life; only then you begin to see how scary and challenging this actually is…)
While the ultimate truth of us all is love, the actual road to love is very difficult and complicated. And the only way to learn the lessons, and really embody love and act in a loving, wise, just way, is to discover one’s own personal vulnerable truths deep within (not up above), and work tirelessly on building up the courage to live and express those truths to others. Turning upwards, rather than inwards, is a gross mis-direction.
Often times when some negative event befalls someone we know, everyone shakes their heads in sympathy. “What a shame. Poor guy. He’s such a good person. How could this happen to him? He was always so kind and caring.” We make the mistake of thinking that this bad thing that happened is some kind of misfortune. A stroke of bad luck. Perhaps a consequence of the victim’s poor choices even. But this kind of thinking traps us in suffering. It is a victim mindset – that we are all hapless victims of a cruel and random fate.
This is how most people live life from within, but it is not the right way to live.
Bad things happen to good people all the time. Being a good person, or always making good smart choices, doesn’t protect us from negative events. Not even a little bit. Ultimately, death comes for us all. It’s one of the only certainties we have. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Of course, grief, or loss, or illness, can be terribly painful, but there is an important distinction to be made about the actual pain we experience, and the larger story we hold about the experience. The actual suffering is one thing, the larger perspective is another.
It is a misunderstanding of cosmic justice that bad things only happen to bad people, or that by being a good person we can somehow stay on fate’s good side, preventing tragic outcomes. That’s not how it works. Each of us has a particular life experience to live and work through. All of the things that come into our lives, good and especially bad, come to teach us lessons we have chosen to learn. At their core, all the lessons are about love – how to do love in human form.
When we hold negative events in the wrong perspective, we feel afraid and powerless. we hope for the best and constantly worry about the worst, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. We end up entirely missing the very lessons we came into this life to learn. Life is not about success or failure, as we ordinarily understand those things. It’s not about achievement. It’s not about controlling all the variables to make sure everything goes according to our plans. We have only an illusion of personal control.
Life is an opportunity to learn really profound lessons. It’s an experience of love, manifested in human form. It’s a beautifully designed play; orchestrated by an incredible intelligence, full of pain, and joy, and grief, and bliss, and heartbreaking injustice and suffering; all intricately mixed together, in just the right amounts for us, individually, to learn what we came here to learn. It’s all a dance of light and shadows in three dimensional form. We have to turn towards all the events and embrace them fully, as much as that’s possible, changing the larger perspective, so that we might endure the actual pain with less resistance and more personal agency.
Mystics have been writing about this for centuries, trying to share this wisdom of perspective. While it can be very hard not to feel victimized by fate in the throes of pain or grief, pro-actively, intentionally shifting the larger perspective, accepting circumstances and taking ownership of ourselves within those circumstances, letting the resistance drop away and finding the power we do have, actually helps us to move through and out of the pain, getting us out of our suffering much faster.
There is a subtle but pervasive tone of frustration in the writings of all the mystics, that no one understands this, or if they do intellectually understand it, they don’t put it into practice in their own experiences. These aren’t just lofty poetic ideas, they are actual tools of practice. They have to be implemented and lived, but people seem to reject these ideas, therefore seemingly choosing to remain in needless suffering.
“One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in a prison with the keys in its hand”