The feeling of faith (the authentic experience of it in consciousness, not the mental construct), arises slowly through the healing of trust wounds. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work, but it can be cultivated.
At first, it feels like a miraculous mystical condition, an incredible gift that you want to hold on to forever. But for the practicing mystic, there is a very real mechanical process associated with it. The more the process is performed, the purer the consciousness becomes, the more permanent and sustainable the feeling.
There is a returning quality to it; one returns to faith, so to speak, because it is a return of consciousness to a pre-wounded condition. It’s not a denial nor a naivete, but a repairing and removing of a barrier, which prevents the experience of faith. It is only accomplished through healing.
If a person is full of wounding, unhealed betrayals, unprocessed heart-aches, etc., and is fearful of trusting, this will stand as a barrier to the feeling sense of faith.
Then, absent the authentic feelings, mental constructs can be created and emotions can be generated with the mind temporarily, if one “believes” hard enough or keeps dogmatically repeating to himself how much he “believes” or “ought to believe.” This is what most religions teach lay people. But quickly that kind of faith breaks down, as it’s a very fragile sort of house of cards. The mind undermines itself in these matters often, and doubt prevails. Underneath that mental construct, full of trust wounds, the pain and fear and skepticism remain. No amount of belief can change that. This is why the real inner work is necessary.
Genuine faith is the serene and effortless surrender to the Divine will. It is neither blind nor ignorant. It is not attained through affirmative prayer, nor by the rejection of reason. In reality, it is a courageous path of negation; a purgative process requiring the arduous grappling with fundamental doubt and fear, and a healing of all the betrayals that caused the loss of faith in the first place. The more trauma one carries in the sphere of trust, the more difficult the journey.
Below are the exquisite lyrics to one of my favorite songs – Going Home, by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Divine Will over the last few days, and this song came to mind. (It was also published as a poem in the New Yorker magazine). I first heard it a few years ago, and have been obsessed with it ever since.
Right from the start, from the very first time I heard it, I felt an intense connection with its message. Somewhere deep within was the immediate recognition of a resonant experience, some shared knowing, which I didn’t really remember having. Kind of like when you are suddenly reminded of a really important dream, that you understand and appreciate inside your mind, but you can’t really convey it in words. I couldn’t pinpoint how I knew it, or where I knew it from, I just knew. I felt thrilled and moved in a way that music had never done to me before.
In my naive zeal, I couldn’t wait to share it with others. I made everyone I know listen to it with me, hoping they would hear what I was hearing; hoping that they too would get what I got. But, of course, they didn’t. They couldn’t…
To them, it was just a strange and eerie song, which made them vaguely uncomfortable. Not only did they not get its significance, but they couldn’t understand why I was so taken with it. And at the time, frankly, I couldn’t either.
I could explain the song’s meaning, the profound depth of the message, but I couldn’t explain how I understood it, or why it was so important. I didn’t know the momentous gravity that the message of this song would come to have in my life. Looking back now, I understand it as a real-life experience of foreshadowing.
This song captures ideas that are thrown about a lot, superficially. But rarely are they lived or experienced in their authentic entirety, even among avid spiritual seekers. It’s hard to know if this song comes from creative inspiration, or if it’s a testament to Leonard’s own experience. None of his other songs, as far as I’ve heard, reveal quite this level of mystical consciousness and development.
Given his monastic life and reclusive periods, it’s entirely possible that he attained this level of understanding. On the other hand, in my occasional intersections with the world of artists, I’ve found that they can sometimes produce amazing and brilliant work, but be totally ignorant to the spiritual significance of their own creations. In these cases, they are the vessel and craft, through which the truth expresses itself. The artist doesn’t have any personal experience or understanding of what the message is, he is just the one to receive and transmit it. It’s possible that this piece came to Leonard, as is. The song itself seems to stand apart from the man, even while using him as its subject, which seems to indicate that it’s not from him. Or it could be grounded in his actual experience. I don’t know. If I assume it’s the latter, that is a staggering level of mystic consciousness (I’ll tell you why in a second).
The lyrics are speaking from the perspective of the Divine Will, through the vessel of Leonard, the human. There is a matter of fact simplicity to what’s being said. The tone is casual, (as Spirit often is), because the theme is universal – this story is as old as time itself.
The Divine Will is describing the humble truth of Leonard, with almost humorous sort of love. There is a paternal avuncular quality to Leonard’s experience of being governed by it, and a natural inherent tension between them. This is the very essence of mystical life. We first see Leonard’s resistance, surrender, and courage; of which the Divine Will approves. And then we see Leonard being taken over fully, his egoic ambition diminished and eclipsed, as an obvious and necessary condition of the arrangement. In exchange, the Divine Will cushions him in loving wisdom and guidance, alleviating the source of his human tension and striving.
Saying nothing of the incredible artistry on display, these lyrics reveal a tremendous spiritual depth, a knowing, and a sacred understanding, that can only come from years of honest and painstaking inner work. Typically, to know and understand this tension, this internal experience, is to have attained really advanced stages of mysticism. This kind of nuance isn’t just something you stumble across as an amateur seeker.
A mystical relationship with the Divine Will is intensely complex. It is a kind of sacred dance; a trust and intimate personal connection and understanding, that develops over many different moments and experiences together. It is very much like a sacred marriage, described by so many ancient texts. The Divine Will, by its very nature, will push its vessel into fear and discomfort, through various trials and hardships. We see this in all accounts of all the mystics and prophets since the dawn of time. The Divine Will asks its vessel to say or do uncomfortable things (speak unpleasant truths to power, preach unpopular or controversial ideas or reforms, break with conformity and social rules, endure public shame and ostracism, etc). It does so in order to spiritually grow, advance, and purify the person. In the friction, to illuminate for him where he is out of alignment with love, and to fortify and infuse him with faith and courage. In cultivating and practicing ever-deepening levels of surrender, the vessel heals and releases his resistance, allowing the Divine Will to flow and express itself more freely.
The practice of surrender is itself a fascinating but voluminous subject for another time. It is, however, the only path forward. The vessel learns pretty quickly that the dictates of the Divine Will can’t be refused. Resistance causes the pressure (in whatever form) to escalate until the vessel is forced to capitulate. This can be read as something menacing or punitive, but it’s not that at all. It doesn’t ever intend to hurt. It loves deeply, but like a strict (at times ruthless) teacher, it will provide the lessons to be learned. The smart vessel will turn towards his resistance and work to undo it quickly, rather than endure the resulting pressures. This all comes with time and practice, at a relatively advanced level of spiritual mastery.
To go further, and to allow oneself to be overtaken and transformed completely by this majestic power, to become the purest vessel for it, is the height of mystical consciousness. It is an acknowledgement and fundamental (not just intellectual, but experiential) acceptance that this power has always been in control. And that the very thing fighting against it, the part that resists it, isn’t actually real. It is a creation of fear. An inner illusion. (I’m not invalidating the feelings; they are very real. But going to depth and discovering it fully, reveals that there’s no substance to it. The mere act of looking at it dissolves it). With awareness and discovery work, that part, the resisting part, is slowly and steadily healed and dismantled, until there is nothing left. Then the Divine Will flows freely, expresses itself fully, unencumbered by fear. This is the ultimate unitive state of love. It is the culmination and climax of inner spiritual work and tremendous pain. It requires a magnitude of surrender that most people will never understand.
And the resulting nature of life is a moment by moment, nearly-impulsive way of being. The word impulsive implies ignorance or recklessness. That’s not what I mean. It’s impulsive in the sense that it receives and follows the instruction of the Divine Will without a plan or vision. Existing in the present moment, with full trust and faith, and inexplicable courage, the person expresses that which asks to be expressed, without reservation. All the time. He follows his feelings (which are now pure of egoic desire), and this intuitive guidance above all else. In doing so, he experiences joy, divine love and bliss, intense satisfaction, and incredible inner peace. (He also adventures into mystical realms and discovers unexplored horizons).
In these seemingly unassuming phrases, Leonard captures the essence of faith and surrender, of undoing, of nothingness, of humility, and of the highest order of authentic expression. All of which make up the true mystical experience – the courageous self-less embodiment of complete service to, and union with, the Divine Will.
To arrive at this place, to actually carry out this charge, is (in my opinion) the most difficult and most rewarding mission in the world. It’s not easy. It is a painful (at times excruciating) process that takes immense dedication, fortitude, and a lot of work. To the skeptical observer, spirituality appears to be a peaceful or tranquil practice. Some people even believe that spirituality is some sort of retreat from real life, or an intoxicant for avoiding pain. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
To the genuine practitioner, what goes on within is nothing short of a civil war. It’s brutal, and bloody, and devastating, often teetering on the brink of madness. It is a fight to the death, literally. But to those few who are called to it, genuinely, all else is happily forsaken. They wouldn’t trade their calling for anything else in the world. They feel blessed to be given this work, and utterly unworthy of such an experience of Grace.
I used to think that the “going home” chorus of the song meant dying; that he was returning to the spirit world. In some sense, it is a death, of the ego. But I now see a deeper meaning. The going home is a metaphor – it’s about the journey home. This very arduous journey to truth, to love, and back to union with God. It’s what the journey of the mystic is really all about.