mysticism

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.

Substance over form


For true devotion must issue from the heart, and consist in the truth and substance alone of what is represented by spiritual things; all the rest is affection and attachment preceding from imperfection; and in order that one may pass to any kind of perfection it is necessary for such desires to be killed.

St. John of the Cross

As far as I can tell, there are two distinct meanings to these words, depending on the depth of spiritual work.

The first is the admonishment against attachment to ritual and sacred material objects, over the substance of those things. It is extremely easy to get lost in spiritual materialism as it distracts from the difficult and painful parts of the path. Those who become too focused on the symbols, as ends in and of themselves, end up reducing spirituality (and the quest for real liberation) to religion and indoctrination. Ritual can be helpful, to focus the mind and intention, to set aside dedicated time and space for the work, but perfecting rituals it is not the goal of the work.

The second meaning is significantly deeper. Given St. John’s writings about the second dark night, and the excruciating purgations of the spirit which take place there, these same words take on a deeper meaning. It is an instruction to the monastic-level practitioner, and echos quite a bit of the buddhist teachings on this subject as well.

It has to do with the internal separation from egoic investment in mystical experience – the substance of the experience is representative, a reflection, symbolic. It is not ultimate truth. It is personal truth, intended to further the discovery work.

Getting attached to the content of mystical experience, using the experiences themselves to feed self-worth or status, turning the content into vanity is also a distraction. We must utilize the content, understanding that it is purely personal, and then detach from the content. We must come to understand the mystical experiences as a visit to a house of mirrors – reflecting for us, in grand design, our own hidden selves, so that we might see ourselves more clearly. To mistake the symbol for the substance, to mistake the experience for the truth, is in fact an error.

Killing off the aspects of ego that cling and attach to mystical experience is part of the process of perfection and purification.

Mysticism and philosophy


In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram – impersonal and unattainable – the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, and alive.

Evelyn Underhill

Most of modern academic philosophy, to its detriment, remains in the sphere of the mind. It is concerned with intellectual ideas, and then naturally, who has the better ones.

Mysticism is an entirely different endeavor. It looks like philosophy, because in order to share it we must use words and ideas to describe truths. But the nature of mysticism is a relationship, a real and complicated evolving relationship, with an intelligence that is beyond human comprehension. It is internal and external. It is relational, as much as personal. It is tangible. It is transactional. It is more real and concrete than any material thing, and it manifests in and through the material.

The mystic is swimming in an actual sea of truth and wisdom that is unseen and unseeable by others. His experiences and observations aren’t theoretical ideas, they are the very sources of truth. His inner work and experiences are his personal laboratory and gym, in which he learns, tests, and derives depth of understanding, while training in courage, fortitude, and faith. And because the process is transformative and aimed at virtue and higher consciousness, the experiences and truths exist on the strangest and most distinct polarities. They are contradictory and paradoxical by their very nature, which ought to be understood correctly and patiently, rather than used as a basis of invalidation.

For the mystic, whose work is terrifying and often extremely painful, the neat and structured ideas of philosophers are silly. It’s not a matter of arrogance, only a matter of fact. There is nothing neat or structured or logically cohesive in the sphere of mystery (not by human standards, anyway).

Mystics go authentically to the source of what philosophy holds as its aim – the love of wisdom via the search for truth. Mystics risk everything. They lose everything. They pay the highest price for their discoveries and experiences. It’s something most academic philosophers can’t begin to understand…