mysticism

Stillness of mind and contemplative inquiry

“Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it.”

Seneca

Virtually all of our spiritual, esoteric, and philosophical traditions teach us one common lesson, that our attention is something like a muscle. They teach us that it is subject to our control, and it ought to be trained, exercised, and strengthened.

Through various forms of meditation, prayer, mantras, or other techniques of inner discpline, we can learn how to grab hold on the mind and increasingly direct our attention properly.

The ability to control and focus the attention consciously becomes of paramount importance when working with more advanced levels of spiritual work, namely with pain, trauma, and other types of psychic suffering. It is an indispensible foundation for all the other types of spiritual work. A mind that is not calm, not disciplined, needlessly magnifies and intensifies the experience of emotional suffering, frustrating much of the goals and efforts of spiritual practice.

When we learn to still the mind, to keep it from running amok, we then become able to focus into the experience of pain (without trying to avoid it, running from it, trying to make it stop, or otherwise spiralling out of control). That’s what allows us to untangle the falsehoods that cause needless suffering, and to let the authentic pain digest through; that is where Seneca’s comfort lies, and where healing, resilience, and wisdom grow.

This may seem like a counter-intuitive instruction; the confrontation of emotional pain is everyone’s least favorite activity. Why would anyone want to turn into the pain?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question; it’s part of our human makeup to want to avoid pain, pretty much at all costs. And yet all the mystics and alchemists have taught us for centuries that the cure for the pain is into and through the pain. Turning into pain, with a focused and calm mind, even when the emotional body is anything but calm, allows us to work through the arising pain, fear, panic, etc. and slowly transmute those things, by discovering the truth and allowing the authentic pain to move through the body.

This holds true in some of the worst experiences of darkness – in the throes of PTSD, persecutory delusions, panic attacks, grief, terrors, hallucinations, etc. Stilling the mind, turning into the experience, confronting the truth and the pain, allowing it to process through properly, is the key to all of healing work, regardless of the type of experience. It is of course momentarily more unpleasant, sometimes very unpleasant, but it is the proper way to address emotional suffering of all sorts.

Below is an excerpt from Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Tolstoy. If you’re wrestling with death, suffering, meaning, truth, deception, loneliness, surrender, toxic spouses, propriety, conformity, and expectations, Tolstoy’s got you covered! The book is honest and funny, and tragic and real, but what’s most profound is that one cannot write this experience, one cannot convey it, without having lived it… And so by writing it so beautifully and authentically, Tolstoy gives us a glimpse of his incredible depth and mysticism.

The excerpt below is specifically relevant to the subject of stillness of mind in the midst of great pain. Tolstoy writes this moment with perfect unsentimental precision, illustrating Seneca’s instructions in practice.

Throughout much of the book we watch Ivan dying a slow and agonizing death, drowning in sorrow, self-pity, despair, loneliness, and obviously the physical pain.

This is a climactic moment when Ivan finally becomes still. Keeping his mind from jumping from one horrific thought to the next, he becomes able to hear the right questions…

He removed his legs from Gerasim’s shoulders, turned sideways onto his arm, and felt sorry for himself.

He only waited till Gerasim had gone into the next room and then restrained himself no longer but wept like a child. He wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.

“Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?”

He did not expect an answer and yet wept because there was no answer and could be none. The pain again grew more acute, but he did not stir and did not call.

He said to himself: “Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?”

Then he grew quiet and not only ceased weeping but even held his breath and became all attention. It was as though he were listening not to an audible voice but to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.

“What is it you want?” was the first clear conception capable of expression in words, that he heard.

“What do you want? What do you want?” he repeated to himself.

“What do I want? To live and not to suffer,” he answered.

And again he listened with such concentrated attention that even his pain did not distract him.

“To live? How?” asked his inner voice.

“Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.”

“As you lived before, well and pleasantly?” the voice repeated.

And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed—none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.

Getting still enough to hear the right questions (later learning how to ask ourselves those right questions), and engaging with those questions in earnest, offers illuminating liberation from the knots and attachments that create so much of the pain. This is the heart of contemplative inquiry, and the comfort Seneca points to.

That voice, the wise inner mystical inquisitor, is always there in the darkness, ready to help us navigate the experiences correctly. It doesn’t offer “comfort” in the usual tender sense – that voice is rarely compassionate or empathic, but it offers the most relevant questions that reveal the truth. That voice essentially calls out our lies and self-deceptions, which cause us so much unnecessary pain. If we are ready and willing to confront ourselves honestly, those questions pull us into the discovery of real truth (often hidden ugly truths) providing the medicine needed for the soul, and for the cessation of needless suffering.

Having found his false story, his false clinging to a lie, a life that doesn’t exist, Ivan moves through that grief and quickly into illumination, peaceful acceptance, and the revelation that the death he so feared isn’t the end of life.

That is the ultimate, some would say glorious, comfort to be found with a calm mind in the midst of pain.

Love for God


“Do not let the old get in the way of the new, but reveal what the old was saying all along”

Richard Rohr


Mocking and ridiculing the old, holding it in contempt, misunderstanding and misinterpreting its original meaning and value, is something of a modern past-time. Nefarious actors have been adopting and desecrating sacred teachings, practices, and philosophies forever. And our present era is no exception. It’s really easy these days to bash the hypocrits, advocate for the dismissal of faith entirely, and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In spiritual circles, this often takes the form of bashing religion and shaming the entire arena of faith. And yet, in the sphere of mysticism, and for those who wander courageously into the wilderness of consciousness, it’s much more worthwhile to suspend the self-righteous bashing, and humbly explore what the old could have meant, and what secrets it might reveal for us today.

There is an unalterable truth in the old. Perhaps it’s misunderstood and misapplied, perhaps mistranslated or misrecorded, worse yet, perhaps used fraudulently and hypocritically for egotistical gains. But I’ve found that there is always a sacred value in it, to be honored and discovered rather than arrogantly discarded.

We are typically not any better than the people who came before us. And if we can set aside our various ideological filters and political agendas, we might be able to learn something of value.

This has been especially pertinent for me lately as I am moved into exploring the territory of love for God.

Many of us on the mystical path have experienced the big overwhelming love for everyone and everything. We tend to understand this as divine, cosmic, or universal love, which comes with a radical shift in consciousness. It feels like a condition that comes to us, overtaking us for some time, and then fading away, returning us to normal consciousness, leaving us grasping and longing for it to return. Some of us have also experienced God (or however you conceptualize God), and felt divine love coming to us from an external source.

These are of course rare mystical states, and they involve great, albeit temporary, shifts in consciousness. They are experiences of altered states, not the normal state of being. And we understand enlightenment often to mean a constant state of divine love, a permanent union with this love, both within and without.

The mystical writings however, all describe another aspect of this. They speak of loving God, not as something that overtakes us from outside, not as a mystical event, but as a practical doing – as something we must do. 

This has always felt weird to me. I can’t force myself to love anything, even God. How are you meant to practice a proactive loving?

So I’ve written a bit about my experiences of God before. At times, I have felt immense love; love that was coming from me for God, as part of the awe, reverence, and service feelings, part of the sense of total worship and allegiance. But those involve involuntary shifts in consciousness outside my control. They are not an active doing, and when they happen I am unable to feel any other way.

Those feelings can’t be recreated in normal states. It’s is not a feeling that is available to me on any regular basis. I can’t access it in any way. And even when prayer and divine connection was available to me regularly, that didn’t exactly bring love for God as a feeling.

So it didn’t make any sense to me to talk about the practice of loving God in any sincere way. I didn’t understand what the mystical instructions meant, and my mind wanted to dismiss it as “old;” as a relic of some kind of religious fervor, appropriate to the past but not relevant to me today. 

There are different levels of mystical maturity, and mystical writings are full of immature misdirections that are not always applicable. With discernment, it’s really easy to immediately gauge and dismiss misguided, misinterpreted, or mistranslated teachings, and that was my initial inclination here. But something about this instruction kept haunting me, and so I decided to delve deeper with it.

First I have to take you on a small tangent (but it’s relevant to this subject, I promise). 🙂

One of the big areas I’ve been working through for a few years now has to do with trust and betrayal. I’ve written a little bit about how trust wounds block faith in another post. But faith is a different feeling than love, right? In altered states, they come together at times, but faith, striclty speaking, isn’t love. It feels different.

So initially, my betrayal work centered on people – lovers, family, friends, all sorts of past life relationships with other people, where experiences of betrayal left wounds in my soul. I have been taken through an incredible array of human suffering, and betrayals are often part of those stories. I’ve been betrayed in every which way the human mind can imagine. So I had to relive each one of those stories, re-experience the emotional pain and trauma, and give it all a chance to come up and out so that it can heal. I cried, and cried, and cried, seemingly without end, healing and digesting all of those wounds. 

Then, when I had finished with human betrayals, I started to experience layers of betrayal by spirit. The experiences took a different turn, involving lies, false promises, false instructions and misdirections, by many different manifestations of spirit. This showed up in too many ways to describe, but generally involved investing my faith in spirit, following revelation or mystical manifestations, only to end up in worse suffering, realizing I had been duped. (This later turned out to be a normal, almost archetypal part of the purification work, but it still hurt a lot.).  

Betrayals by spirit, learning that spirit lies and tempts and misleads on purpose, really shake the mystical ground pretty hard. They create the sense that all of existence is untrustworthy, that life is fundamentally dangerous, that nothing and no one is safe, and they call the entire mystical process into deep question. All of that turns into a terrible ungrounded discomfort and existential crisis, which takes lots and lots of time and patience to digest all the way through back to solid ground. 

So then, past human betrayals, past betrayals by spirit, when those layers were reasonably clear of pain, and I was just starting to feel solid again, I hit something huge…

I hit betrayal by God. Specifically, being forsaken by God.

(Those are big big words I never imagined I’d be writing about, much less experiencing, but that’s exactly what I encountered.)

Feeling betrayed by God is the weirdest most complicated set of feelings yet. It’s kind of like I trusted God, I put my complete faith in him, I surrendered myself to him entirely, I invested everything in him, I gave up everything for him, and he betrayed me. He abandoned me, but this is far deeper than abandonment…

(In this particular experience God showed up internally as a “him.” I relay it that way here for the sake of integrity. In other experiences of God, there was no discernable gender, and some experiences of divinity with a distinctly female gender. The truth of this journey is all over the place, so please don’t assign any categorical meaning to that expression. Also, important to note here, I have cleared endless layers of projection onto God as well as pain stemming from those projections. This is a different experience entirely. Bringing understanding and tools for dealing with projections to bear here did not resolve the matter; meaning, this wasn’t a projection onto God, but an actual experience inside of which God was male.).

This wound, this being forsaken thing, was enormous. Enormous! And ancient; it echoed over and over, seemingly throughout time. It informed and colored every aspect of my mental landscape. I could now see and recognize its tentacles everywhere, penetrating every corner of my consciousness. It pushed up skepticism in almost every circumstance. It stood stubbornly in the way of any kind of solid faith. And as a result, the pain and defensive mechanisms left me feeling like a powerless mouse, pressed up against a corner of her cage, unable to trust anyone or anything again. There’s was lot of anger and fear and powerless rage inside that mess. 

And because I exist in God’s world, there’s nothing I can do about it. You cannot break up with nor walk away from God. Believe me, I tried. My rage, and anguish, and tears did nothing.

There is also another more complicated philosophical aspect to this wound, which has to do with trusting something that causes you harm (or allows serious unspeakable sort of destructions to happen to you). That is a different existential struggle and a different area of work. This particular area I’ve been describing is a separate and distinct experience.

So, here I was with this huge horrific wound. And I knew that if I intended to move forward it would have to be fully confronted and resolved. (The coercive pain and force holding my feet to the fire on this, literally, was of the same mindset…). There was no getting around it, and I got to work on this thing tirelessly, night and day, for weeks. I took it apart pieces by piece, digesting all the pain through fully, clearing all the layers of wounds. When I started to approach forgiveness and reconciliation, something amazing came into view, a new sliver of light. All of my pain subsided, revealing something I never imagined possible. This wasn’t a shift in consciousness, but a totally sober condition, which brought a feeling of conscious choice. I found a tiny tiny spark of the possibility of loving and trusting God again!! 

The choice was clear – if I opened my heart again, if I took a risk and trusted God again, if I let myself really really love God (as the mystics have instructed!!!), that love would absolutely overwhelm me. It would sweep me off my feet, like an all-encompassing infinite tidal wave. This love for God feels massive inside, and so naturally, very scary. It feels risky and terrifying. There’s lots of resistance, and wanting to hold on to an illusion of safety in the current darkness. There is a fear of that love, and a fear of annihilation by it, and of course, that familiar jumping-into-an-abyss feeling comes up. I’ve begun slowly unlocking that door. I’m not 100% ready to open it yet, but I’m getting there.

But most importantly, “love for God,” I get it now; I get the instruction about loving God, as a proactive doing. Like much of spiritual wisdom, it turns out that this is also a destination of healing.

It’s a thing we are meant to aim for, to hold as an ideal, and being unable to merely do it on the surface, it’s suppose to push us deeper and deeper into ourselves, to find all the blocks that stand in the way. And then, when those blocks are cleared, we are to courageously choose it, when it becomes an available choice. I get it now. I’m not totally there yet internally, but I get how it works and why it’s important. 

Many of the religious teachings that seem oh-so-silly at first are deeply deeply meaningful in exactly this way. They are misapplied, and dogmatically misunderstood by people who remain at the surface, and therefore can’t grasp the real meaning, but the essence of the teachings are right. I always feel really stupid when I arrive at the depth of meaning, and realize I’ve been arrogantly dismissing them when I should have been learning from them. (More lessons in humility for me.). 

So now, “love God with all your heart” has become a spiritual instruction for me, and a very complicated and painful journey of its own.

Desire, as a guide


It is in the very nature of desire that lasting satisfaction cannot be attained.

Desire is an illusory condition created by wounding – the driving force beneath insatiable quests for fulfillment is unconscious pain seeking resolution.

A depth of authentic awareness heals the wounds which generate desire, eradicating its root cause.

When desire ceases arising, abiding peace and contentment can be maintained.

One of the overarching philosophical goals, one of the grand themes, of the mystical process is the eradication of desire (not just in the sexual understanding, but in many spheres of the ego). 

Why? Because desire is the surface level indicator of unhealed wounds. It is the conscious manifestation of wounds that are looking for healing and resolution. 

All the soul-level wounds we carry within express themselves on the surface of our consciousness as desire. Sex happens to be the clearest demonstration of how this process operates, but the same mechanism operates in all the various aspects of the personality. 

The interplays of wounding and desire show up in extraordinary ways – the ego is infinitely, one might say miraculously, creative and crafty. 

While the wounds are always seeking resolution, they don’t know how to heal themselves without our awareness, participation, and wisdom instruction. Without conscious awareness and direction, the ego (though ultimately interested in healing and peace) moves us consistently in the wrong directions.

The wounds create all manner of fantasies (sexual and not), which the ego believes will resolve the pain. The ego, in its faulty thinking, wants to recreate the painful scenario and change the ending. It believes that a replay with a better, non-painful ending, will heal its pain. 

The problem is that the ego is operating under a false assumption, a kind of naivete. Because even when we replay the scenario and change the ending to a happy one, seemingly satisfying the fantasy entirely, the wound still doesn’t heal and doesn’t go away. Nothing at the soul-level is attained by satisfying the desire. And the more experience we have with satisfaction, the more we see the discontent and futility inherent in it. 

This is the insatiable hamster wheel of desire; the endless cycle of samsara: re-creating the fantasy, pursuing the fantasy, even satisfying the fantasy, all of which does not eradicate the desire. It doesn’t heal the original wound, which continues to create emotional pain, clinging, etc. The entire endeavor of the pursuit of desire, in the egoic direction, is futile.

Instead, life keeps bringing us people and circumstances that do in fact replay the scenarios symbolically, retriggering the same familiar pain, refusing us the egoic satisfaction. This is purposeful, so that in seeing the pain clearly, again and again, we may find the courage to face it and heal it. This is why all the major mystical and spiritual traditions focus on its eradication; when desire ceases arising you know that you have healed your wounds. (It’s a backwards top-down way of understanding the spiritual process, but so be it). 

Wounding is what creates fantasy which creates desire. Heal the wounds, fantasies do not arise, and desire doesn’t either. Then the emotional body can be at peace. 

The schools of mysticism go about this process in two different ways – one is by abstention, the other is by exposure and immersion with really deep awareness. The first is what we call asceticism – a very strict abstaining from and self denial of all things we desire. The second is the arena of tantra (the philosophy, not the sexual arts).

I am, and I believe authentic mysticism is, of this second school of thought. There is no need for wholesale abstention, there is only a need for awareness, with the intent to heal whatever is underneath the desire. (In my view, abstention does absolutely nothing to extinguish desire, sometimes exacerbating it by making something forbidden and thus even more unnecessarily desirable.). 

Going deeply into the desire, and trying to quench that desire, reveals the wound that is asking to be healed. If we attend to the wound, we heal that particular thing, then the desire stops arising in the mind and body. I’m simplifying things here obviously, because this is a blog post not a treatise, but I think you get the idea.

The Tao has it in these words: “Hence always rid yourself of desires in order to observe its secrets; But always allow yourself to have desires in order to observe its manifestations.”

What this means, now in the sexual realm, is that we must understand how sexual desire works, what it is trying to achieve, and then we begin the slow process of ever-deepening awareness in our sexual activity. (It doesn’t end with celibacy, that’s not the goal, but celibacy happens at some point naturally along the way, for a period of time.). In my experience, the entire composition of a person’s ego expresses itself in his/her sexual world – like a micro expression of their ego structure. It’s terribly fascinating and can lead to some incredible discovery.

If you are interested in this area of exploration – I highly highly recommend “The Erotic Mind” by Dr. Jack Morin. His book, coming from a depth of grounding in principles of conscious awareness, explains and illustrates many many many of the drives, patterns, and internal mechanisms hiding within our sexualities. By beginning to understand what desire is doing, what the fantasies are really seeking, we become more and more attuned to the wounding underneath. (It’s really really cool!)

Also detailed in Morin’s book, is something secular sex therapists call “sensate focus.” This sensate focus technique is the highest human expression of sexual connection, lacking any of the egoic objectification problems that plague most of sex. 

I have it on pretty good authority that mysticism steers many people away from their normal egoic sexual engagements, and towards techniques that are centered on this approach.

There is obviously a great deal of avenues here to explore, entire industries of sacred sexuality are growing as we speak, but in our corner of the world, I think beginning with education and understanding is key. Finding Morin’s book was like finding a treasure chest full of answers. I hope you find it helpful as well.

Saints and sinners


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.

Mind your own business


“Authentic spirituality is always about changing you. It’s not about trying to change anyone else.”

Richard Rohr

A little bit of spiritual experience and understanding can be a dangerous thing. Novices or initiates who are first introduced to the teachings always seem to think that they will take the mysteries and somehow manage to change the world. We’ve all been there, me included. They immediately turn into missionaries of the worst sort. Full of pride, a sense of superiority, and dominating energy, they go out into the world to impose their new found discoveries on others.

Those who have a stronger ego take on a messianic aggressive fervor, believing that they are ushering in some kind of new kingdom on earth. It’s an intoxicating belief for the ego, full of hope and idealism, they believe that they are working towards some utopian future. It allows them to dismiss and ignore the present, justifying the avoidance of life as it is here and now, with all its challenges, difficulties, fear, and messiness. Instead of focusing on the rich material that is here to be used for evolution and transformation, they prefer the escapism of their new kingdom fantasies. It’s very common, in many different manifestations.

With that, a very tempting desire arises to crawl into the mind and soul of another (any other), and to begin dictating to them how they ought to be, or what they ought to do. One can’t build a new kingdom by himself; you must have like-minded converts and followers, right?

This never ends well… It quickly turns to disillusionment, frustration, and then a hopeless despairing rejection of the original awakening intent.

And all the while, wisdom continues repeating to us that everything is already perfect precisely as it is. But the ego hates that idea. It cannot bear the world as it is, with all the suffering and injustice, poverty, warfare, and illness. And yet, those conditions have always been part of the human story; ultimately illusory, they are the obstacles for soul growth, and an infinite number of other extremely valuable human experiences.

It is normal and heartfelt to want to undo them or remove them, and working towards that is important and also part of the growth, but first the human condition must be accepted and understood fully for how it serves. This takes a long long time and a lot of arduous inner work. But without that, trying to change the world out of a sense of rejection of it, doesn’t work. (That which we reject and resist always persists).

Religion is, and always has been, in the proselytizing business. Seeking power, control, influence, it demands a constant flow of new adherents. One cannot be a shepherd without a flock. Spirituality doesn’t do this; it doesn’t need to do any of those things. Spirituality is there for those who awaken, it’s not pro-actively in the business of awakening others. (In humble truth, it knows that awakening comes by Grace, and not by human doing anyway. Taking credit for it only feeds the ego.). Screaming at someone to “wake up,” doesn’t work, just as it wouldn’t have worked in our own cases when we were asleep. Forcing it on someone else never works. The teachings, the teachers, the practices are there to be found by the seeker, not imposed on someone who is not intrinsically seeking it.

Spiritual practice is an internal personal matter, an individual calling between the practitioner and his/her God. It is not a program by which we fix others. In fact, attempting to fix someone else (or wake them up) is philosophically contrary to all of the wisdom teachings. Each person lives exactly as they are intended to live – our spiritual work is to learn how to accept that, make peace with it, and love it (especially when it’s contrary to spiritual principles.).

Spiritual or psychological insight into another person is not to be used as a weapon or method of power or control. This is not ok. Insights, accurate or inaccurate, into the inner life of another, are only meant to be a part of compassion work. If they are used to feed a sense of superiority, to sit in judgement of “their” unconsciousness, they are being mis-used in egotistical ways. It’s strictly cautioned against in every mystical tradition.

(Practice tip: you are not better than the person over there at whom you point your finger.).

Inside of each person, even if not expressed, even if not conscious or awakened, is an infinitely wise, infinitely capable soul, who doesn’t need to be taught anything. It is living out its life precisely as it needs to, not according to human judgments or standards. Sometimes ascended masters and highly evolved spirits take on the human form of a horrific evil monster – they do so in order to teach, instruct, and provided the catalyst for transformation. It is not our job to instruct anyone else, nor change them. It is foolishness to believe that we need to. (Even a spiritual teacher is not in the position to tell a student, who asks for such advice, how they ought to be…).

If someone’s character, personality, or lifestyle upsets you, your job is to go within yourself and reconcile that, to use that to further your own discovery work, not make efforts to control or change the person you don’t like. Most often it doesn’t work anyway. It is disrespectful to think we know what’s best for others or how they ought to be. It is wrong to impose our judgments, standards, or teachings on others. Even those people who are objectively odious by common agreement serve an important spiritual purpose. Our job is to find that purpose and arrive at understanding and gratitude for them, honestly and authentically, after processing through our pain. We must continuously remember that the world is perfect, precisely as it is, with all of its injustice and suffering. That should be the only mantra – refocusing the attention on the inner discomfort of that truth, rather than forcing external reality to change.

This does not mean that we whitewash evil, or pretend that it’s good. We must develop keen discernment via which we continue to grow and learn our lessons. It’s also not a justification of apathy; the difficult road of learning how to hold someone accountable for harm (without fear, vengeance, or mirroring their destruction) and setting healthy boundaries (honoring our vulnerabilities and self-respect) remain very much part of the growth work.

Yet, we must always first do our own work, and resolve our own feelings, respecting the individual sovereignty of the other person, before addressing their behavior. Without doing our work and attending to our own negative judgments and feelings about them, we will always take disproportionately unjust action under the guise of retribution.

The truth is messy

I’ve written a bit before about the images we hold of mystics. I came across this short bit from Alan Watts, which seemed perfect to share here.


My vocation in life is to wonder about at the nature of the universe. This leads me into philosophy, psychology, religion, and mysticism, not only as subjects to be discussed but also as things to be experienced, and thus I make an at least tacit claim to be a philosopher and a mystic.

Some people, therefore, expect me to be their guru or messiah or exemplar, and are extremely disconcerted when they discover my “wayward spirit” or element of irreducible rascality, and say to their friends, “How could he possibly be a genuine mystic and be so addicted to nicotine and alcohol?” Or have occasional shudders of anxiety? Or be sexually interested in women? Or lack enthusiasm for physical exercise? Or have any need for money?

Such people have in mind an idealized vision of the mystic as a person wholly free from fear and attachment, who sees within and without, and on all sides, only the translucent forms of a single divine energy which is everlasting love and delight, as which and from which he effortlessly radiates peace, charity, and joy.

What an enviable situation! We, too, would like to be one of those, but as we start to meditate and look into ourselves we find mostly a quaking and palpitating mess of anxiety which lusts and loathes, needs love and attention, and lives in terror of death putting an end to its misery. So we despise that mess, and look for ways of controlling it and putting “how the true mystic feels” in its place, not realizing that this ambition is simply one of the lusts of the quaking mess, and that this, in turn, is a natural form of the universe like rain and frost, slugs and snails, flies and disease.

When the “true mystic” sees flies and disease as translucent forms of the divine, that does not abolish them. I—making no hard-and-fast distinction between inner and outer experience—see my quaking mess as a form of the divine, and that doesn’t abolish it either. But at least I can live with it…

For when you have really heard the sound of rain you can hear, and see and feel, everything else in the same way—as needing no translation, as being just that which it is, though it may be impossible to say what. I have tried for years, as a philosopher, but in words it comes out all wrong: in black and white with no color…

For every sentient being is God—omnipotent, omniscient, infinite, and eternal—pretending with the utmost sincerity and determination to be otherwise, to be a mere creature subject to failure, pain, death, temptation, hellfire, and ultimate tragedy.

I like his descriptions and his honesty, but it goes beyond this.

What he’s describing is the beginning – the admission that you can’t think or imagine yourself into some kind of fake mystic consciousness. Trying to do that is only another avoidance mechanism, another way to cope with pain, rather than deal with pain. He says that he lives with these messy aspects of himself, and that was of course his prerogative. But merely living with them and accepting them is a kind of stopping short of the work of transformation. (Many people opt for this version, because despite it all, they still don’t want to confront pain or healing work at depth. It’s too much and too scary. So they find their messy truths, accept them, and call it a day. But I’m one of the unfortunate people who had to go further than that, so I’m bringing you my bits of wisdom from beyond this place.).

Fundamentally, there is no transcending the experience of being human. You can’t do it. There would be no point to it anyway. It would be, spiritually, a devastating waste of time. Human incarnations are intended to be human – with and through pain. Teachings that push transcendence are false and highly misleading. It’s actually the other way around – the real mystic isn’t transcending anything; he is the epitome of human messiness and suffering. He is digesting and transforming that painful content. There has never been an authentic mystic who has not also suffered intense pains, poverty, destructions, etc. That’s what makes them real, and full of compassionate understanding, and worthy to be messengers of divine love.

In authentic practice, there can only be a digestion and transformation of the pain, terror, agony, trauma, and hellfire. It’s through all of those things. The journey has to run through darkness, and lust, and temptations, shame and pride, and addictions, and death, and everything else in between. (The seven deadly sins, as categories or sections of the ego, are way more significant than anyone can begin to imagine!).

It’s confronting and using all of those things, surrendering to it all, mastering and perfecting the human machine, but only once you admit and allow the mess. (This is also not achieved by force of will – that too is the wrong way. Nothing can be achieved by trying to dominate oneself into submission.)

We strive towards an ideal of “mystic perfection” – where there is no attachment and no fear – that’s the north star, but that comes at unimaginable cost through a path that terrifies most human beings. The mystic has to fall, all the way down, to the lowest of the low of human experience, in order to eradicate pride and the shame that creates it. And it’s not a one time thing, it is a protracted and terribly arduous period of time. The fall happens over the course of a few years, and there is no freedom to get back up, until all the work is completed.

And the result is not a translucent blind love, only seeing some phony goodness in everything. (God doesn’t love us blindly. God sees all our stuff – the good and the evil.) Real divine love also carries the height of awareness, and discernment, and wisdom with it. It includes the entire spectrum of existence. (Learning how to recognize evil, and also how to love it, really love it, without condoning it, is one of the greater challenges involved).

Destiny and destinations


“The mystic is unfolding himself not because he is primarily aware of some specific goal, but because he is supremely happy in the joy of growing, and in the knowledge that he is fulfilling the destiny that was appointed to him at the beginning of all things.”

Manly P. Hall

The authentic call to mysticism (in the monastic variety) happens without any sense of direction or goal. It is something that happens to you, and it doesn’t come with any sort of instructional manual or map. 


All of the descriptions of the path “appearing as you walk it” are quite accurate. To me, it’s always been less of an upright walking, and more of a blind, awkward, clumsy, frustrated, fumbling crawl, feeling your way forward. There is an almost complete lack of control of the process, and the explanations and guidance are provided only on an enigmatic need-to-know basis, afterwards. Everything is veiled and concealed in symbols, which require an insane sort of deciphering ability. It’s validating and sometimes very funny after the fact, but generally, you’re on your own to figure it out. 

Most of the time, the mystic doesn’t know where she’s going, and she has no idea where any particular road leads. There really is no concern with the end result. It’s not for a specific aim at all. The work serves as it’s own intrinsic reward, kind of like strength training, only for the soul. 


It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s fascinating. Each day is like an amazing adventure of discovery. You learn all kinds of wild tools and practices, and then you get to implement them, trying and testing them in the coolest laboratory imaginable – your own self. The transformations are fast, and take on a miraculous awe-inspiring nature. Sometimes the changes are so dramatic that you lose the sense that you’re the one doing the doing, because it’s almost unseemly to take credit for such a thing. The work is very hard, but as you see what it achieves, it’s absolutely worth every minute of it. And sleeping, eating, and bathing even, naturally, all become quite secondary, and sometimes optional. It’s that level of intoxicating and intense (and contagious, I’m told), and that’s only the human-side experience of it. 

To be honest, I had no idea that there was even such a thing as a destination, when all of this began. It didn’t really occur to me to wonder about it. The results of the work were nearly immediate, and there was no time to think about anything else. I had no sense of sacrifice or hard-work-for-some-future-goal, because everything was immediately attainable each day. I could barely catch my breath most of the time. 


Later, when I discovered what the grand scale goals really are, what this path is really about, and the significance of this work outside the material world, I was beyond shocked. It took me a few months to process and internalize what all of it meant, and to figure out how to understand myself in that process. But that all came much much later. At the start, I had absolutely no sense of context or familiarity with any of it. And when the realization of the gravity of it all finally hit me, I felt more than a little naive and foolish at not having understood it sooner. My embarrassment aside, ultimately my ignorance and naivete confirmed for me that I was doing all of it with the right motivations. So, as the fool does, I marched, er crawled, on… 


For the first few years there is incredible joy in the process; before you hit the excruciating torments and destructions part, obviously. 


And there is an internal certainty, beyond all doubt, that you are doing exactly what you are meant to be doing (while you still have some sense of choice about it). Everyone thinks you’re crazy, or that you’ve lost your mind, but your soul literally rejoices every day. If you’ve never felt your soul rejoicing, I highly recommend it – it’s a wonderful thing! And everyone disapproving is also part of the process and the work; it’s quite normal, as these things go. The sound of one’s soul laughing drowns out everyone else’s grumblings. 


In the more mature stages, when the process engulfs you completely, it takes an incredibly ugly and scary turn into a devastating abyss. But even there, even in the throes of the most wretched sort of hell and despair, there is a kind of certainty that you’re doing whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. In that place, you don’t have a choice anymore, as you’re being propelled forward by something entirely foreign. But the deep certainty, sometimes, can make the pain and hardships a tiny tiny bit more bearable. 

Embodiment


“A considerable percentage of the people we meet on the street are people who are empty inside, that is, they are actually already dead. It is fortunate for us that we do not see and do not know it. If we knew what a number of people are actually dead and what a number of these dead people govern our lives, we should go mad with horror.”

G. I. Gurdjieff

They are “empty” because they are disconnected from themselves, from the feeling, authentic, loving part of themselves. They are numb, lacking empathy, lacking warmth, also lacking a moral center; if you really consider it, it becomes terrifying.

This is what the spiritual practice of embodiment – the practice of returning to one’s body – is meant to combat and overcome. It is a kind of soul retrieval process, which takes time and healing to accomplish.

For many people, being in their bodies, feeling their feelings, experiencing the somatic reality of existence, is extremely painful and unpleasant. As a result of childhood trauma (even if that trauma is unacknowledged or unconscious), they learned a form of dissociation, which allows them to remain disconnected from their physical body, and focus their experience of life entirely in their head/mind. It is as though their soul hovers around the body, but refuses to actually get grounded in the experience of being human. The egoic conditions are so unfavorable, so inhospitably hostile to the values and principles of love, that the soul cannot bear to remain inside.

This work requires a processing out of pain, clearing out enough trauma, and learning some new patterns of internal relating, in order to make embodiment feel good and pleasurable. It is a huge indispensable part of the evolutionary transformation process. Without this kind of work, there is no authentic joy, love, or compassion, there is also no integrity, no morality, and no limit to egotistical impulses and behavior.

Sadly, this is how lots of people walk around in Gurdjieff’s “empty” state. (If you doubt this, take a look around at your local narcissists and sociopaths – they are walking egos, disconnected from their feeling loving selves, capable of unimaginable remorseless cruelty.).

Transformation


You seek too much information and not enough transformation.

Sai Baba

When faced with the prospect of having to feel difficult feelings, of processing pain, grief, or shame, naturally we all prefer avoidance. It’s understandable and perfectly human to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Some of us go to great lengths to avoid dealing with negative feelings all-together. With the right numbing mechanisms and mindset, one can spend his entire life trying to outrun the pain.

But spirituality is oriented in the opposite direction – it is fundamentally about turning towards the feelings, confronting the negative difficult material, and working through pain and suffering in order to heal.

During that process, the pain is transmuted into wisdom, leading to maturity, soul growth, and evolution of consciousness. The practice, at its heart, is one of profound transformation.

One would think that on the spiritual path avoidance wouldn’t happen. And yet, one of the most common traps is avoidance by a certain kind of intellectualism, by that I mean the seeking and collecting of knowledge and information pertaining to spiritual matters, without the actual implementation of them. It is an academic approach, which remains entirely in the mind, and refuses any sort of authentic transformation.

Having the appearance of spiritual work and seriousness, this is a form of distraction at best, and an ego-feeding mechanism at worst. Spiritual work is about real tangible transformation, from the inside out. Too much information, too much intellectual spinning around abstract concepts, becomes a hindrance to the real inner work, not an asset.

Justice and empathy


The just man is not the product of a day, but of a long brooding and a painful birth. To become a power for peace, a man must first pass through experiences which lead him to see things in their different aspects: it is necessary that he have a wide horizon, and breathe various atmospheres–in a word, from crossing, one after another, paths and points of view the most diverse, and sometimes the most contradictory, he must acquire the faculty of putting himself in the place of others and appreciating them.

Charles Wagner

We must be careful not to confuse spirituality with political ideology. They are not the same thing. Being “awakened” does not necessarily mean alignment with progressive political ideals. Truth and justice (and moral governance) lie across the political spectrum.

Strong political alignments represent merely an external expression of internal psychological experience.

A proper spiritual journey will take a person across political landscapes, so that he or she may experience life from various internal points of view.

With deep inner work the psychological landscape changes, and with it the conscious belief system and its political affiliations will find themselves shifting as well. Sometimes these shifts will be shocking, causing tremendous internal upheaval. The practitioner’s political views will necessarily swing wildly, first one way, then back, again and again like a pendulum, until a balance point is reached.

The authentic practitioner must experience this shifting from within, to genuinely know and understand various views, positions, and dogmas. They must be able to actually feel and understand other points of view, rather than guess and intellectually condescend to them.

This experience of expansion of mind allows for the inclusion of all viewpoints, with real compassionate understanding, without resistance or rejection. This is the path towards a genuine non-duality, which is inclusive of all that is.