spiritual guidance

The clamor of warfare

Image: The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa of Avila, photo by Tybo

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything new here. I have no excuse; I just haven’t really felt like it.

The last few months have been extremely hard and intense for me. As I continue shedding the remnants of this unbelievable and catastrophic darkness, I’ve been slowly (very slowly) returning back into the normal world. The inner clearing and healing work continues (albeit in new aspects and along new dimensions). It is still taking up the majority of the hours each day, demanding priority over all else. I’m told that’s temporary and will lessen over time.

Interacting with others, short conversations, and even running small errands are now becoming more and more manageable. It often feels like I’m a brand new person, with an entirely new personality, learning how to walk all over again – painful, awkward, scary, and with lots of ups and downs. (I figuratively fall on my ass a lot.)

Navigating all of this has been incredibly complicated and difficult. Without any rulebooks or external guidance, I’ve had to move through this, basically feeling my way through it, one terrifying step at a time. In the last few weeks in particular, the process turned outward, and I’ve been pushed into confronting some very real and serious external challenges, which have taken every ounce of strength, and faith, and courage to endure. They are all part of the healing and training process, but still they are extremely scary. It is only by the grace of God, and two exceptionally devoted friends, that I’ve managed to get through all of it. They say that if you have one really good friend you can get through just about anything. I am blessed with two such friends, for whom I am endlessly grateful. You know who you are!

Up until now it’s been too vulnerable for me to really share the details of these recent experiences, for a bunch of different reasons. Aside from fears and doubts, I didn’t quite have the words to convey the gravity or sanctity of what’s been happening to me. I still don’t. There are aspects of this that I can’t articulate, can’t conceptualize, and at times don’t fully understand. At first I found this to be intensely frustrating, but then resigned myself to the idea that not everything needs to be mentally understood or shared with others. (Shocking, I know. I’m kind of a blabber-mouth, so not sharing everything with everyone is weird for me. But I’m getting used to it.)

 

As fate would have it, just as I’d given up on sharing all of this, I met a very special person last week, who appears to have precisely the right words! Enter my new friend, Henry, the poet, from Cuba. A kindred spirit with a deeply intuitive heart, Henry magically appeared in my life in a rather unexpected way. Our seemingly random (and spiritually significant) encounter left us both a little shocked and reeling, I think. The magic and divine mystery that surrounds our lives is wondrous and truly extraordinary. No matter how many times I see it, no matter how many times I’m completed floored by the significance and intensity of it, my awe and surprise never seem to diminish. 

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Fear, courage, and the contemplation of mortality

 

It’s been a while since my last post, so I figured I’d pop in to add some new (ancient) thoughts and discoveries.

I came across the quote below by the controversial genius G.K. Chesterton a few weeks ago. It’s from his book Orthodoxy, which serves as an attempt at explaining his relationship with the Christian faith. I haven’t had a chance yet to explore his work as fully as I’d like to. It’s on my to do list. (I did watch the entire Father Brown series on Netflix, which is based on one of Chesterton’s fictional characters. Unfortunately, I don’t think that counts as a serious look at his work.). 🙂

Anyway, what I have read of his work so far, and of him generally, reveals some deeply mystical understandings. He is known for his infinite capacity to savor the mundane in the present moment; an early twentieth century Power of Now type. He was a prolific writer, poet, theologian, journalist, and art critic. His later conversion to Catholicism and the wondrous belonging he finds there remind me a lot of my own explorations. (He was also vehemently anti-semitic, which is part of what makes him controversial. I’ve learned how to appreciate the good aspects of a person, while accepting that there are also less than desirable ones.).

The subject of this quote, the experiential cultivation of courage, like so many other virtues, is intensely interesting. This quote captures some of the complexity and subtlety of the process, and the difficulty of articulating it in such a way that it fits into a contextual framework. (True virtue has this sort of you-know-it-because-you-live-it-and-feel-it quality that defies explanations.).

“Take the case of courage. No quality has ever so much addled the brains and tangled the definitions of merely rational sages. Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. It might be printed in an Alpine guide or a drill book. This paradox is the whole principle of courage; even of quite earthly or brutal courage. A man cut off by the sea may save his life if we will risk it on the precipice.

He can only get away from death by continually stepping within an inch of it. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Courage, like all virtues, is the natural default spiritual state. It is the inherent nature of all humans liberated from ego. It’s not something to be positively acquired. It’s not something you collect or build up, like muscles. Rather, like love, compassion, trust or integrity, it’s something that emerges when the barriers to it are removed. Namely, fear.

In truth, to really cultivate courage, one must focus on the undoing of fear. Then courage emerges on its own, without any effort or doing.

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The Divine Will

 

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. 

Here it is on youtube.

 

“Going Home”
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete

I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without this costume
That I wore

[Chorus]
 
I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit