In his poem, Love After Love, Derek Walcott writes of “the stranger who has loved you all your life.” The phrase evokes a secret romance waiting to be revealed. Sounds like the exciting stuff of which Harlequin Romances are made! Within the context of Walcott’s poem, however, the phrase is more enigmatic than may first appear, as we also learn that the “stranger” is none other than oneself: “You will love again the stranger who was your self.” Clearly, Walcott has another type of love in mind. Immediately below is the poem in its entirety:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
For me, the poignancy of this enigmatic poem resides in Walcott’s resolution of a theme that runs through every human life, namely, self-alienation and the journey back to self, and the rich imagery he employs to convey this experience.
The thought of self-alienation is quizzical, isn’t it? How can one be alienated from oneself? After all, I am always living in my own skin, am I not? During my morning ablutions I look in the mirror and discover myself looking back at me - without fail - every morning. As I go through my day people invoke me as “Alex” and I never have to pause and wonder to whom they are speaking. The thoughts I think as Alex today are fundamentally the same thoughts I thought as Alex yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that… as well as my emotions, and my sensations (It is always my right shoulder that is stiff after a workout.). Seems to me that I am always living in my own skin. What, then, is this talk of “self-alienation”?
To understand self-alienation one must understand that the sense of self is not revealed by the ego structure with which one is identified, i.e., thoughts, emotions, sensations, a name, the recognition of oneself in the mirror. Rather, the sense of self is revealed behaviorally - by the nature of the ego’s activity in the world, for at the root of every egoic action lies a motive that reveals the reality of who one truly is. [Cue Hamlet: “ay, there's the rub!”] Motive, my friends, is what reveals the sense of self.
The question of motive could entail a lengthy answer so I will cut to the chase and share the insight I have gathered over the course of my many years of navel gazing. While listing a number of adjectives could suffice for an answer to the question of human motivation, e.g., happy, sad, inquisitive... etc, there is a more primal motivation that drives ALL human (and animal) behavior. The primal motivation of which I speak is the desire for instinctual satisfaction, expressed in three different ways: one-on-one relationships (including sexual); social relationships; and efforts toward self-preservation, e.g., food and shelter.
The desire for instinctual satisfaction is a normal (and thereby healthy) modus operandi because it is necessary for survival. However, when instinctual satisfaction is pursued in excess it becomes instinctual gratification (an unhealthy modus operandi). For instance, while sex and food are necessary for survival, only a certain amount of sex and food are necessary for survival. Whereas, the exessive pursuit of sex and food is not necessary for survival and actually indicates a problematic psychological state (on which more shortly below). Another way of saying this is to say that instinctual gratification is instinctual satisfaction become addiction. (If you need a psychological safety net here, “creature comforts” are a gray area, a sort of neutral zone between instinctual satisfaction and instinctual gratification - a judgment call on your part.)
Here we have come full circle for it is instinctual gratification (addiction) that motivates most human action in our modern world (especially in the materialistic/capitalistic west, where instinctual gratification is the name of the game). (*Remember, I am cutting to the chase here. For those desiring a more detailed discussion of this topic, my upcoming core curriculum will delve more thoroughly into the matter.) As a motive for action in the world, instinctual gratification reveals something very telling about one’s sense of self. It reveals that oneself, in and of oneself, is not sufficient for oneself. Hence, one comes to the unconscious belief that satisfaction in life can only be found outside of oneself (in excessive pursuit of the objects of instinctual gratification). Claudio Naranjo, one of the earliest western enneagram teachers, stated the matter thusly: “Every person develops a style of compensating for the ontological emptiness that is at the center of ego.”
Though most people cannot put words to their experience of self-alienation, on some level they are aware that their sense of self is this experience of self-alienation. This is why Walcott’s poem, though enigmatic, offers profound comfort for people: it puts words to the experience of self-alienation. Love after Love tells you that you have ignored yourself, “for another.” In the words of this blog post, that other is the objects of instinctual gratification that have become the focus of your life. In this sense, the poem offers a type of diagnosis of your ontological crisis, as if a doctor finally diagnosed a chronic medical condition that has puzzled you your entire life. There is great comfort in finally being able to put words to one’s condition, for this holds out the possibility of resolution.
Indeed, Walcott’s poem not only offers profound comfort by putting words to the experience of self-alienation, it also offers profound comfort by prescribing a remedy for the condition. You must “Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life.” In other words, you must take stock of the fact that you have become alienated from your own heart by the excessive pursuit of the objects of instinctual gratification. Then, you must change the focus of your life. That is, you must redirect your attention and your efforts toward your own heart, where you will become reacquainted with your true self. This is the other type of love Walcott had in mind when penning this poem.
Becoming free of the entrapment of instinctual gratification and returning to one’s true self is a profound experience. It is a reacquaintance with the innate joy of one’s own being, leading to a palpable shift in one’s sense of self. Hence the rich imagery Walcott employs to convey this experience.
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
[Then you shall]
Feast on your life!
The quote from the Katha Upanishad and the video of Shaina Noll's song, Return Again (both immediately below) are additional material, consistent with the theme of this post. They are well worth pondering and listening...
Honey! That scoundrel reason is running loose in the neighborhood again!
He’s digging up the seeds of faith we planted when we saw the first robin this spring!
He’s scrawling skeptical graffiti on our garage door - in BIG RED LETTERS!
He’s peaking in the windows of our carefully constructed psyches!
Before you know it, he’ll be holding all our hearts ransom with syllogisms!
My Dear, you are overreacting.
He’s merely doing what all youngsters do.
It’s all part of growing up!
What he needs is a good influence in his life, that’s all.
Why not send Love out to play with him for a while?
I don’t know…
He’s a bad influence, that kid.
He never lets Love get a word in edgewise and he’s so insensitive to others.
I think it’s time to call the cops!
Recognition of the inherent tension between heart and mind is ages old. For instance, Plato, who along with Socrates is often credited with laying the foundation of Western civilization, sought to ban the arts from his Republic because the arts stir emotions, which in turn wreak havoc on reason. On this same theme, Plato elsewhere relates his allegory of the chariot, in which he describes reason as a charioteer struggling to manage two horses - our noble and ignoble instinctual tendencies – which lead us in opposite directions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chariot_Allegory (A similar allegory is found in Hinduism’s Katha Upanishad: https://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/sbe15/sbe15012.htm).
Regarding the tension between heart and mind, the famous phrase of Blaise Pascal also comes to mind: "The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing." What did Pascal mean by this? Did he mean that the mind is oblivious to our emotional states? Or, did he mean that the mind cannot comprehend the effects of our emotions upon us, e.g., “Love is blind.” Perhaps he meant something else entirely? Regardless, like Plato before him, Pascal saw a vast chasm separating heart and mind.
We live in a time when the tension between heart and mind is exacerbated by the fact that western culture disproportionately rewards thinking over feeling. From academics to the workaday world, people receive kudos for solving problems and having new insights. Design a jet engine or build a better mousetrap and you could be set for life. Contrariwise, author a poem or compose a piece of music and, unless you are one in 1 million, you’ll be lucky to pay the rent.
The tension between heart and mind shows up in the religious sphere as well. Indeed, so much of religion is mentally centered these days that religion rarely gets beyond the mental affirmation of creeds or rational debates about the nature of God. But is this what people really want from religion? I think not (Sorry, Descartes!). I think what people really want from religion is spiritual experience. (This is why the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is so en vogue these days.) Given this, we need to learn to suspend the mind at times in order to allow the heart to emerge as a valid way of knowing and experiencing the greater reality that upholds us - for it is the heart, not the mind, which has the capacity for religious experience.
By saying this I am not suggesting that we deprecate reason in the name of emotion. The mind has its place in the religious life. Creeds are important. Theology is important. But so, too, is spiritual experience. With this in mind, I want to suggest that we learn to balance our religious lives with spiritual practices that get us beneath the mind and into the heart, for it is in the heart that we shall feel the connection to the greater reality that upholds us. So, take the time to sit in silent meditation every day, or chant, or sing, or dance, or pick up a flute… Give the heart a myriad of ways to help guide you on the path…
I will spare you from my speech about reason and books,
And let you hear it from the harp and the lute, who tell it best.
In my previous post, A Misty Morning Musing, I raised the topic of the difference between occupying a dualistic perspective on the world verses occupying a nondual perspective, known in Eastern mystical traditions (originally in the philosophy of Vedanta) as advaita (dvaita = “two or three (or more)”; a-dvaita = “not two or three (or more)”). In sum, advaita, or the nondual perspective, is the perspective in which one experiences oneself as an aspect within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...”
Now, this can quickly become an overwhelming philosophical concept for the uninitiated, as I also indicated in my previous post. At the same time, it is a very important concept to understand from at least two perspectives: the mystical and the ethical. So, stay with me as I lead you to the ethical import of this philosophy. I think you will find advaita key to understanding not only mysticism in general but the ethical implications of mysticism as well (to wit, Jesus – yes, Jesus was, in my reading of him, an advaitist, as his ethics clearly indicate). Indeed, there are significant ethical implications that arise from mystical states, a subject not given nearly enough due - most people merely seeking the “mystical high” without regard for the demands that follow from such experience.
One of the best and simplest descriptions of advaita that I have encountered is in J. D. Salinger’s short story, “Teddy.” Teddy is a ten year old boy who is the reincarnation of an advanced soul. As such, Teddy fascinates as a type of “mystic-savant” (to steal an apt phrase from Kenneth Slawenski). He possesses exceptional intelligence and an apparent ability to know what ought not to be knowable (for instance, there are several places in the story where Teddy correctly anticipates the day and manner of his death).
Regarding Teddy and advaita, there is a point in the story where Teddy relates his first mystical experience:
"I was six when I saw that everything was God and my hair stood up," said Teddy. "It was on a Sunday. My sister was only a tiny child then. She was drinking her milk and all of a sudden, I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean."
In sum, it’s all God.
Now, advaita can be understood on two levels. First, it can be understood as an abstract idea. This is to understand advaita as a philosophical principle. Second, it can be understood as subjective reality. This is to understand advaita as a mystical perception. This latter understanding of advaita is what interests us, especially in regard to its ethical implications. For this we invoke Jesus...
In The Gospel of Matthew we find a story of Jesus meting out judgement:
To some, he says:
“Come, you who are blessed. Take your place in the kingdom, for I was hungry - and you fed me... I was a stranger - and you welcomed me... I was sick – and you cared for me... I was in prison - and you visited me.”
These blessed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and helped you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.”
To others, he says,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, for I was hungry - and you did not feed me. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me... I was sick – and you did not care for me... I was in prison - and you did not visit me.”
These cursed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do unto me.”
Now, if we approach this scripture from the dualistic perspective, it will read as an ethical charge to care for “the least of these,” meaning all people in need. This is no mean ethical charge. Indeed, it is quite profound! At the same time, from the dualistic perspective other people – including “the least of these” - remain as objects; ultimately separate from us. Hence the protest, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison...”
Read from the advaitist perspective, however, this scripture has an even more profound meaning and makes even more sense in the context of Jesus life and ministry. No one, including “the least of these,” is separate from anyone. People are not objects to which one applies ethical principles. Rather, all of us are aspects within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...” Hence, Jesus was the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... not in an abstract, philosophical, thought experiment sense but in actuality. Indeed, we, too, are the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... there simply is no separation of being(s).
It is this advaitist perspective that the mystical Jesus held and it is from this perspective that his ethics originate. It is only when we understand this that we truly understand Jesus’ words: “...whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.” Sit and absorb that for a moment!
In sum, when we consider Jesus’ life and ministry from the perspective of advaita, we discover a much richer, more compelling, and truer sense of who Jesus was (a Jewish mystic) and how he exhorted us to live our lives. From a mystical perspective we are to realize that we already exist in a sacred reality: “The kingdom of heaven is spread out about you.” From an ethical perspective, we are to act in the world as though our every action ripples through the entirety of creation, from the smallest single celled organism to the Divine itself: “you did unto me.”
"I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together...
goo goo g'joob..."
- The Beatles
tat vam asi (“thou are THAT”) my friends,
Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.
– Carl Jung
In my work as a Spiritual Director, I have noticed over time that my clients almost universally encounter certain predictable impediments on the spiritual path. One such impediment is “ego death”; the realization that eventually dawns upon one that in order truly to make progress on the path, one must give up who one is in order to become who one is yet to be. Even though people may profess to want personal transformation, once they realize the cost – their egoic identity – they decide that the devil they know is better than the angel they don’t. Convincing, self-deceptive rationalizations for abandoning the journey usually follow in short order.
Another such impediment is when people realize (usually unconsciously) that they don’t have very deep conviction about the why and wherefore of their spiritual journey. Back in the day (read “somewhere between two and three thousand years ago”) the why and wherefore was very clear: to achieve direct, subjective experience of one’s essential (Divine) self:
The self-existent Lord pierced the senses
To turn outward. Thus we look to the world
Outside and see not the Self within.
A sage withdrew his senses from the world
Of change and seeking immortality,
Looked within and beheld the deathless Self.
- Katha Upanishad
Nowadays motivations vary quite a bit: idle curiosity, self-development, it’s the “in thing,” etc. The problem with these motivations, however, is that though laudable, what fuels them, namely, mental determination and self-will, have very little staying power. Because of this, people’s study and practice rarely delivers the goods and as is the case with ego death, they soon find convincing, self-deceptive rationalizations for abandoning the journey.
When I encounter a client whose motivation proves insufficient to the task (the greatest indicator is that her journey is one of lengthy fits and starts), I prompt her to reconsider her motivation. To cut to the chase, I eventually find the opportunity to relate the above passage from the Katha Upanishad. Then I ask, “So, what is your version of you? Do you believe that there is within you a ‘deathless self’; an essential (Divine) self that you can discover, or do you believe that the Katha Upanishad is part of a legacy of lies?”
Very few people have a ready answer for this question because very few people have actually thought it through (Remember, motivations for the spiritual journey are quite varied, most of which don’t prompt this question.). When encouraged to think it through, most people remain ambiguous about it. I attribute their ambiguity to the fact that we now live in a predominantly scientific and psychological age, two disciplines that have cast serious shadow over traditional notion of the self, i.e., that we have a soul. Given this, I invite you to consider the following.
In our modern world we are quick to psychologize away that against which we are biased. No offense intended to my psychologist friends (a very similar point could be made regarding scientists) but so ubiquitous has become the tendency to psychologize away mystical experience that when it comes to spiritual matters, many psychologists today (and much of the populace at large) are like the man holding the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. Rejoinder: Sometimes a mystical experience is just a mystical experience.
Granted that people often mistake egoic experiences as mystical, we should nevertheless be very hesitant to sweep the Upanishads and other mystical texts (i.e., Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi mystical texts) under the psychological rug. These texts do not represent a legacy of lies. Rather, they represent universal truth claims that result from deep meditative states achieved by lifelong practitioners of refined consciousness - within every one of the world’s major religious traditions. Having stated this, let us now return to the crux of this post.
If you are someone who has had a difficult time sustaining a spiritual practice, I invite you to reconsider your motivation for it is likely that that difficulty stems from a motivation that is insufficient to the task. Obviously, from what I have already written, the belief that one has an essential (Divine) self that one can discover is from whence proper and sufficient motive arises. At least, this is this mystic’s opinion. So, I ask,
What is your version of you?
In the meantime, I hear tell of a story about a merchant who once sold everything he owned to purchase a pearl of great price, on which more, see my next post...