There is purported to be a Chinese curse (No Chinese source has yet been found, however.) that masks as a blessing: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, we certainly do live in interesting times! We are facing the first worldwide pandemic in one hundred years. The global economy has been seriously shaken thrice in the last two decades. Most everyone reading these words clearly remembers the events of 9/11 and the wars that followed. Advances in science and technology are increasing exponentially, as are their detriments. The world faces ecological havoc, the likes of which threaten our very existence. And, for all its blessings and curses, the “internet of things” is knocking on our doorstep (I will be doing a sermon about the onset of A.I. this spring.). The list can be made very long... these are definitely interesting times!
This all reminds me of a teaching story from the Sufi tradition:
“Jesus (upon whom be peace!) saw the world revealed in the form of an ugly old hag.
He asked her how many husbands she had possessed. She replied that they were countless.
He asked whether they had died or been divorced. She said that she had slain them all.
‘I marvel,’ said Jesus, ‘at the fools who see what you have done to others yet still desire you!’”
Now, this could easily turn into an anti-worldly message. That seems to be its trajectory, does it not? But we’re going to peel the worldly onion one layer deeper than that. Rather than push back against the world, with all its vicissitudes, we are going to set this teaching story in the larger context of Jesus’ other teachings. We begin by asking, did Jesus deprecate life in the world? He did not. Quite the contrary!
Jesus saw the world as the abode of the kingdom, per the Gospel of Thomas, “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth,” and the Gospel of Luke, “For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” The problem, said Jesus, was not life on earth. The problem was that “people do not see it [the kingdom of God].” This gets to the crux of Jesus’ ministry. His ministry did not aim, as modern day evangelistic preachers tell us, at delivering people from this miserable world into a perfect, eternal state of heaven. Jesus’ ministry aimed at helping people see that they already inhabit the kingdom; that the kingdom is spread out among them now. Jesus’ was the quintessential spiritual optometrist!
Well, if Jesus taught that the “kingdom of God was spread out upon the earth,” why would he, per the Sufi teaching story, marvel at the fools who see what the world has done to others yet still desire the world? It’s all about desire and identification, those forces that cloud one’s vision like a cataract of the soul.
The earth is the realm of the sacred. And, it is inhabited by us creatures of desire. The spiritual life is the art of knowing the proper limits of desire (we must survive, after all), coupled with the ability to keep one’s eyes (and mind and heart) open to the sacredness in which we are enmeshed. When desire dominates, as it does with those (most) that live for the gratification of desire, the capacity to recognize life’s sacred depth is proportionately compromised (One cannot take in the lilies of the field when one is constantly digging for diamonds.). The result is an over identification with the objects of gratification: money, power, fame, food, sex... whose transitory and fleeting nature ultimately bring suffering (classic Buddhist teaching).
Those who live life for the gratification of desire, who are over identified with the objects of gratification, are ultimately “slain” by the world. That is, their spirits are depleted by the suffering that follows from the pursuit of what is transitory and fleeting; never realizing the sacred depth of life that offers ongoing sustenance and innate joyfulness.
Knowing this, Jesus’ counseled a shift of attention = a turn of the mind (metanoia) = “repentance.” He aimed to reawaken us to the kingdom by calling our attention to different objects, objects that are doorways to the sacred: the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the vineyards and the fields rips for harvest... the nature theme in general. (For those wanting to explore the imagery of nature themes in Jesus’ teaching, the work of Niel Douglass-Klotz regarding Jesus’ words in the original Aramaic is very informative.) Indeed, every phenomenon of nature, from the flowering fields to the running rivers to the floating clouds will, if we are receptive enough to the experience, open a doorway to the sacred.
Once we successfully turn our attention to the sacred and enter therein, our greatest longing is satisfied – our longing to know we belong to the greater reality of which we are, in essence, a part. When this occurs, when that longing is satisfied, desire returns to its proper place in our lives and we are no longer identified with the world’s objects of gratification. It is then that we are able, as Jesus’ counseled, to live in the world but not be of it.
Being in the world but not of it is the reconciliation of Jesus' teaching that “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth” with the simultaneous recognition that the world slays all who marry her. We need not deprecate life in this world, only engage it from our identification with Spirit.
Now, pause and breathe deeply... hear the birds calling to you out your window... respond to that call with your mind and heart... and enter in...
"God cannot be thought but God can well be loved."
– "The Cloud of Unknowing"
There is a similar phenomenon for many people on the spiritual path. Like the gambler, many spiritual sojourners feel as though they are perpetually living on the precipice of living the spiritual life. They, too, have some sense of being on the verge... near completion, fulfillment - of some sort. So they keep searching... for that one last bit of esoteric knowledge that will finally deliver the goods. Then life will be as they imagine - as it should be! They, too, say over and over again, "Let it ride, baby! Let it ride!"
The people to whom I refer are those - and there are many - who tend to "think the path." That is, they are those who believe, consciously or not, that they can think their way along the spiritual journey. The truth is, however, that the spiritual journey is not a thing that can be thought, as the opening citation to this post, from The Cloud of Unknowing, advises us. That is, spiritual experience is not a mental experience, nor, for that matter, is it an emotional experience (though paradoxically, the heart is the path, on which more in a future post). Rather, it is an experience that is had when the mind, emotions, and the body are at rest; when, through spiritual practice, the input from these three centers has faded into the background of one’s awareness. In such a state, which entails such notions as devotion, surrender, and grace (more on the role these notions play in spiritual practice, also in a future post), one is prepared to receive spiritual experience.
None of this is to say that the mind does not have a place in the spiritual life. It certainly does. For instance, the mind is needed to acquire information about the path. At the same time, spiritual experience is dependent upon the ability to relinquish the mind, to resist the temptation to confuse information about the path with the path itself.
In sum, to receive spiritual experience is to have direct experience of spiritual reality. Such direct experience is not only not dependent upon the mind, it has the prerequisite of "no mind." Returning to our opening metaphor, direct experience requires that one stop rolling the dice! Then, and only then, will the game be over. Then and only then will one know that one knows that one knows what it is that one seeks to know - which truly cannot be "known!" Sit (don't think) with that for a while.
Give up that bad gambling habit, friends, and sit, instead. You've already hit "black 17"! You just don't know it yet.
"Admit something: Everyone you see, you say to them, “'Love me.'"
For instance, the phrase that opens this post demonstrates our great need for positive regard from others. So strong is this need that our souls are actually imprisoned by it, though we are almost always unconscious of this fact, or at least burying such awareness beneath our psychological defense mechanisms so quickly that it is easily dismissed. Because of this, I find that it often takes a lot of convincing to get people to see their susceptibility to "the gaze of other." Hence this post, which aims to convince of this very fact, and, once convinced, to suggest how to "use the force" for the good.
Above and to the right is a short video, entitled "Still Face Experiment." In this video, Dr. Tronick demonstrates an infant's (6 month old) need for positive regard from its mother. It begins with the mother giving positive regard, the natural response of a parent to an infant. Then, the mother is instructed to withdraw her attention from the infant, for a brief instant. The mother quickly returns her attention to the infant but with an intentionally nonresponsive countenance. She holds this nonresponsive countenance for two minutes, during which the infant shows increasing signs of obvious distress. The point of all this is to demonstrate that we humans are hard wired for positive feedback from others from birth, and, the more positive the nature of the feedback the better!
Now, you may think that this strong need for positive regard from the other is a necessary requisite of the parent-child relationship that is outgrown as a child develops and becomes more independent. This is certainly not the case. It is the power of the gaze of the other that makes the late teen peer group experience so important (Any even quasi attentive parent can tell you that!). It is the power of the gaze of the other that is behind the multi-billion dollar health and beauty industries. It is the power of the gaze of the other that keeps one on edge in the workplace. It is the power of the gaze of the other that brings conformity to political parties and nationalist sentiments. And, it is the power of the gaze of the other that makes solitary confinement such a powerfully punitive punishment. These are but the tip of the gaze iceberg (which can only be threatened by a warming of hearts, not the globe).
In fact, if one were to develop the practice of introspection when one notices a negative feeling state within oneself, one could very likely trace that feeling state to an experience or thought (memory or imagination) in which one experienced negative regard in the gaze the other. Likewise, when one notices a positive feeling state within oneself, one could very likely trace that feeling state to an experience or thought (memory or imagination) in which one experienced positive regard in the gaze the other. If such a thought experiment remains unconvincing, you could try a real life experiment by delivering a negative gaze to the next person you meet (I DON'T recommend this, per se) and watch for the shift of that person's feeling state. You will quickly come to see the truth of the matter, namely, that from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are highly susceptible to the gaze of the other. Such susceptibility imprisons the soul.
To recognize the susceptibility one has to the gaze of the other is the beginning of one's freedom. (This is why psychodynamic work is so important on the spiritual path. Spiritual transformation is not possible without psychological freedom, on which more, perhaps, a few posts down the road.) Equally powerful to the experience of becoming free of the gaze of the other is the recognition that follows on the heels of such freedom, namely, that "the gaze" is a dynamic experience between the gazer and the gazee. Since we have been discussing the gazee, let's end with a few words about the gazer.
Given that we humans are so susceptible to the gaze of the other, it follows that to be the gazer is to possess great power ("With great power comes great responsibility!" Egads, two superhero reference in one post. What would my high school English teacher say?!). What, then, shall one do with such power? Shall we look out upon the world with stone cold eyes, prompting negative emotional states in others? Or, shall we look out upon the world with loving eyes, prompting positive emotional states in others? As for me, I think the world is a little too poor in love and goodness these days. I seek to affect the counterbalance...
...to wit, Hafez:
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.
A bird took flight.
A flower in a field whistled at me as I passed.
I drank from a stream of clear water.
And at night, the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a tress of God’s.
When I returned from Rome, all said,
“Tell us the great news,”
and with great excitement I did:
“A flower in a field whistled and at night,
the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a sacred tress…”
Musing on this piece by St. Francis is a good follow up to my last post, in which I mused on Mirabai’s poem, “A Hundred Objects Close By.” That’s because this poem invokes the “book of nature,” the centuries old notion (esp. the Middle Ages, to wit, Megenberg’s 14th century "Buch der Natur") that nature, as much as books of revelation, reveals to us the sacred depth and meaning of God’s creation.
“The heavens bespeak of the glory of God while
their expanse declares the work of His hands.”
– Psalm 19
On the one hand, the book of nature complements books of revelation (or vice versa). Indeed, as mentioned in my last post, sages from the world’s various religious traditions, some of whom are central figures in these very books of revelation, themselves invoke nature in their teachings: the lilies of the field, the lotus flower, mountains, wind... rainfall. It only makes sense that revelation, which is said to reveal God’s will, be consistent with God’s own creation: a harmony between nature and revelation just intuitively makes sense.
This raises an interesting question though, intimated by this poem. If it makes sense that the book of nature and books of revelation be harmonious, which has more authority, especially in those instances wherein the two seem to contradict one another?
One obvious example, given the theme of this post, is the theological doctrine that creation is “fallen,” which points to the further, logically implicit theological doctrine that human beings are inherently sinful; “born into sin.” Given that there is so much beauty and goodness in the creation, do these theological notions not run against the intuitive grain? Do not the book of nature and books of revelation (in this particular case, the New Testament) seem to contradict one another?
Those who would be prone to defend these theological doctrines can easily point to the “problem of evil.” They may ask: “Doesn’t the fact of evil in the world, from tsunamis to humankind’s aggressive tendencies, demonstrate the truth of these doctrines?” It certainly must be admitted that natural disasters and humankind’s destructive tendencies are undeniable realities in this world.
However, it may be countered, what about the “problem of the good?” The evidence of beauty and tenderness in the creation far outweighs the “problem of evil.” For every tsunami that occurs there are countless fiery sunsets, golden meadows, surging mountains, and flowing rivers. For every act of human aggression committed there are myriad examples of acts of compassion, often unnoticed but present nonetheless - present and deeply indicative of our essential human nature: spontaneous acts of compassion between children and moments of deep tenderness demonstrated to those in need.
Yes, there is misery in the world and people can behave “sinfully.” At the same time, beauty permeates the creation and human beings are capable of profound goodness as well. If we admit beauty and goodness as an equal part of the creation, if not even a predominant part of the creation, then the theological narrative of the “fall” is out of step with the book of nature. Pray tell, what then? Should theological doctrine determine our thinking (and behavior) or the book of nature? I think St. Francis is informative here...
Would St. Francis have sacrificed his fellowship with nature and the “great news” he learned from it in favor of theological doctrine? Or, would he have turned his mind away from such theological meanderings and gone back to sleep in a truss of God’s hair, leaving it to Rome to pontificate on such matters? Regarding this question of authority, St. Francis seems to be indicating that nature trumps revelation, or at least the Church Fathers’ interpretation of revelation, if not revelation itself (though I suspect he would hold to that as well). After all, when St. Francis returned from Rome, the seat of Church authority, with everybody chomping at the bit to hear the “great news” from Rome, he opted to read them the book of nature.
There is a profound anti-authoritarian impulse in St Francis, which could be interpreted as heretical. At the same time, one could also interpret St. Francis’ answer as a simple reminder not to lose faith with the creation itself and that the creation itself, if we bother to read the book nature, is already informing us about life’s sacred depth and meaning. “We do not,” he could be understood to be saying, “need theological mediators.”
Tennyson was correct when he said “nature is red in tooth and claw.” At the same time, he was remiss not to point out that nature is far more often cooperative and caring than it is aggressive (Darwin did attempt to convey this message in “The Origin of Species” but the message was missed.).
Now, I’m off to smell the roses and take in those other “hundred objects close by.”
Beauty is a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed. Think about it. We spend our days in a trance like state. The mind habitually runs like a hamster on its wheel, trotting over the same thought pattern day after day after day. Over and over again we become embroiled in the intensity of our fluctuating emotional states, sun up to sun down. While our bodies crave, from one minute to the next - almost without respite - food, sex, or comfort. With all of this intense politicking taking place within us, it is little wonder that our attention rarely escapes it and that the beauty in which we are enmeshed largely goes unnoticed. Really, who can sit quietly by the crackling fire when the kids are clamoring for attention til our bones ache?
Mirabai frequently poeticizes about beauty. She is reminding us that the simple observation of beauty, if we can let it sink in beneath the internal politics always taking place within us, is a spiritual practice that can free us of our mental, emotional, and bodily habits. She is exhorting us simply to observe the beauty of life - to be penetrated by it - and to let it affect us deep down inside. Beauty, she tells us, can enliven the soul.
I recall one particular moment when I was battling cancer. I had received my diagnosis a couple of weeks earlier. I had gone through surgery and was awaiting the lab results - day after surreal day. It was winter. It was 2am. My wife was asleep at my side and my five year old son was asleep down the hall. As for me, my existential angst was running amuck. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the frost on the window pane above my head, which skewed the winter moonlight into a pattern that magnificently radiated throughout the icy pattern that met my eyes. Immediately the thought came to me: “Fixate on wonder.” So I let that moonlit frostscape became my meditative object. Within moments my angst was alleviated as I felt a conviction deep within me that regardless of my fate, we are held in Spirit's loving embrace. Death, I understand, has a place in the scheme of things - despite my inability to understand this. That night beauty became a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed...
From the Taoist sages to aboriginal people to Jesus, the mystics have always called our attention to beauty as a testimony to the sacred. "Be as the lilies of the field." How poignant and incredibly deep these teachings go if we do more than mentalize them. Fixate on beauty, my friends. Watch the moon tonight. Feel the air of these cool, late summer nights enter your body. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling through the tree leafs. Let yourself enter beauty. Let beauty enter you. Let your soul be enlivened.
We sit together,
the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
- Li Po
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,
Splash! Godot wasn’t taking in the scene but becoming part of it, already cresting the once still water. Elbow deep, he turned to me with that particular stare he has that communicates, “Well, I’m waiting? Isn’t this why we are here?!” Before doing my duty I had to take an extra moment to absorb it all. Godot traipsed impatiently while I watched this thought cross my mind: “It would be so awesome, actually to be in that scene myself, maybe standing in the midst of that angelic mist on the far shore, like Adam surely did innumerable mornings in Eden...” [No. I am not a creationist. It’s literary license… ;-)]
Then, with a few whirls to gain momentum, I let the bumper fly. I love that moment of silence as the bumper arcs through the air, the magic of physics keeping it aloft just long enough to create a brief, meditative vision, until - another splash! Off swims Godot and while he retrieves said bumper, my mind returns to that Eden like scene. And, just as quickly, I realize the absurdity of that vision. I already am standing in the midst of that angelic mist on the far shore, like Adam surely did innumerable mornings in Eden! I had simply failed to see it because of my perspective. And what perspective was that, pray tell? It was the dualistic perspective we all inhabit when we are ego identified.
It is natural to be identified with our egos but when we are, we are also trapped in a false, dualistic perspective. That is, when ego identified I experience myself as subject and everything that is “not me” as object. Hence, I, the subject, did not experience myself as being part of this morning’s exquisite scene - the object. Such dualistic perspective is the cause of our perceived alienation from life, which in turn is the cause of a great deal of our suffering - on which more in some future post.
However, once I realized the absurdity of my Eden like vision I was able to become free of the false, dualistic vision of the world I was experiencing. With a simple shift of attention I became unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God - until someone told them they were naked (yet another post for another time, or, if you wish, you can catch me sermonizing on that topic here on YouTube.)
What I am speaking about here is what is called "advaita" in the Eastern mystical traditions; the unity of Being beneath appearances. This is a vitally important theme, both for the mystical experience and for the ethics that it entails.
If this is all starting to wax too philosophical, consider Hafez’s simpler, more humorous take on the same theme:
“I laugh when I hear that the fish in the water is thirsty.”
There is an interesting paradox revealed by juxtaposing the following two Sufi teachings. The first is a parable of sorts, by al-‘Ajami:
One day Habib went out to make ablutions and left his cloak behind on the road. Hasan came by and found Habib’s cloak. He thought to himself, “Habib has left his cloak. May God forbid that someone take it!” So Hasan stood watch over the cloak until Habib returned.
When Habib arrived he greeted Hasan and said, “O Imam of the Muslims, what are you doing standing there?” Hasan exclaimed, “Don’t you know that your cloak should not be left here? Someone might take it. Tell me, in whom were you trusting, leaving it here like this?” Habib replied, “In He who appointed you to watch over it.”
The second Sufi teaching is a simple, anonymous phrase:
Trust in God but tie your camel’s leg.
Juxtaposing these two teachings we are left with the paradox that we can trust God to watch over our interests and that it is up to us to watch over our interests. By which teaching should we abide?
Often in life we are presented with apparent either/or choices. Sometimes these apparent either/or choices are what we call a “false choice,” meaning that in such situations other choices remain with which we have not been presented (or of which we have not thought), for instance, “none of the above,” or, “both/and.” The answer to the paradox in question is both/and; we should abide by both teachings. Regarding some matters we can trust God to watch over our interests while regarding others matters it is we who should watch over our interests.
Regarding what matters can we trust God to watch over our interests? God’s involvement in our lives regards those matters we would normally label philosophical, e.g., ontological and existential matters (questions of being and meaning). Regarding these matters we can trust in God (though our egos may not always be satisfied with the manner in which God manages these matters). The theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher coined the phrase “absolute dependence” to describe our relationship with God in this regard. (For Schleiermacher, “religion is neither knowledge nor a set of moral codes; it is the immediate and intuitive consciousness of the infinite, of man’s absolute dependence on the infinite of God.”) - www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/friedrich-daniel-ernst-schleiermacher-1768-1834-3/
In fact, the measure of the spiritual life is not the ability to wax philosophically prosaic but the manner in which we conduct our daily affairs, including issues as mundane as where we leave our cloaks. How so? The manner in which we conduct our daily affairs is a direct indicator of the condition of one’s psyche. A messy life indicates a fragmented psyche whereas an ordered life indicates a unified psyche: as within - so without.
Surprisingly, this works the other way as well, meaning that if we take on the management of our daily lives as a spiritual task, the successful management of our daily lives can help bring about a unified psyche (which is required for spiritual experience - a much lengthier topic, on which more at some other time and in some other vein). This may seem counter-intuitive but it is true. By organizing our outer life we experience a shift in our inner self.
So, balance that check book, sweep that floor, and fold those clothes! You will be surprised just how much attending to these practical matters will support your spiritual journey!
This post is the fourth (and final) in an informal series (maybe you’ve noticed the interplay between these four posts) on love and realization. The first post, Where There Is No Love There Is No Enlightenment, connected love with realization/enlightenment. The second post, Those Who Don't Feel This Love, expanded on the subject of love. The third post, A Legacy of Lies?, asked the question whether one believes there is an essential (Divine) self even to realize. In this post I ask the question, what price is one willing to pay to attain realization of one’s essential (Divine) self?
As stated in my last post, motivations for the spiritual journey vary and most motivations are insufficient to the task. I then suggested that the belief that one has an essential (Divine) self that one can discover is from whence proper and sufficient motive arises. This point is beautifully and simply expressed in Jesus’ parable of the pearl of great price. “The kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus,
is like unto a merchant seeking goodly pearls. When he found the pearl of great price he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
This is not a difficult parable to understand but in order to understand it in the context in which we are considering it, i.e., spiritual motivation, we need to tease it out a bit.
First, we need to understand that the kingdom is not an afterlife abode promised to believers. Rather, it is something that already lies “within you” (Luke, Ch. 17). In other words, the kingdom is the realization of one’s essential (Divine) self. (I know there are those who would debate this understanding but this post is not for that debate.)
Second, let us consider the merchant. It is important to note in this parable that Jesus chose a merchant to make his point, rather than some generic figure (He could have simply said, “...a man...”) So, why a merchant?
The merchant is someone who peddles in the acquisition and sale of fine things. This means two things. One, he possessed a chest of riches. Two, being a peddler of fine things he would recognize the value of the pearl (Many people might have “eyes to see” but still not see. It has always been the case that many people seeking spiritual wisdom fail “to see it” when they see it.).
Third, and most pertinent for us here, the merchant sold all that he had (his chest of riches) to obtain the pearl. That is, he was motivated enough to obtain the pearl that he was willing to pay the highest price he could. Now let’s consider that price.
By selling all he had to obtain the pearl the merchant was sacrificing his livelihood, the means by which he provided for his personal security: food, clothing, shelter, etc. This is no mean feat, especially in Jesus’ day when one’s livelihood was an all-consuming (24/7) endeavor. But the merchant understood: the price one is willing to pay for a thing is in direct proportion to one’s motivation to obtain that thing. Such is the value of the kingdom/realization.
The pursuit of realization is a costly endeavor - one’s life as one currently knows it. One must undergo a reevaluation of one’s life context and the influences therein, then make the decision to relinquish the egoic attachments that do not support the spiritual journey. This usually requires significant life change, including everything from the material one chooses to read to how one spends one’s free time to with whom one chooses to spend one’s time. All such choices indicate the price one is willing to pay – or not.
There is another saying attributed to Jesus: “Many are called. Few are chosen.” I am not a Biblical literalist so sometimes find myself reinterpreting what I read therein, in a manner more consistent with the other mystical traditions I study (I consider Jesus a mystical Jew – not a Christian). In this case I have reinterpreted Jesus’ words thusly: “Many are called. Few Choose.” (Matthew, Ch. 22) I prefer this version of Jesus’ words because, well, given my own study and practice they seem likely to be more historically accurate. And, this puts the onus of responsibility on the individual rather than God. Truly, isn’t this where it belongs, anyway?
Now, what say ye?
Ego, or, agape?
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...
In my last post ("Where There Is No Love There Is No Enlightenment") I wrote about the importance of discerning between realized and unrealized teachers. In sum, it is less important what a teacher professes than the quality of that teacher’s Presence; the extent to which the fruits of the Spirit shine through him/her. Of course, the greatest fruit of the Spirit is agape, unconditional love.
I went on to end that post by reminding us that we, too, are called to embody agape. After all, each of us is on the path to our own realization, are we not? (For more on this, see my next post…) Given this, this seems like a good time to emphasize the point, with a little help from Rumi.
In his poem, “Those Who Don’t Feel This Love,” Rumi says, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.” He goes on to say that the study of theology is “trickery” and “hypocrisy.” The significance of this juxtaposition of heart and mind is indispensable to the spiritual journey and has even greater meaning when one understands that it is also deeply biographical for Rumi.
Those who don't feel this Love pulling them like a river,
those who don't drink dawn like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don't want to change...
let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way...
I've given up on my brain.
I've torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.
If you're not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words around you…
Rumi’s father was a great scholar and Rumi followed suit. He was trained in Islamic law and served as an Islamic Jurist. In other words, he was an expert in the social and personal application of Islamic theology. In short, his was a religious life of the mind alone. Enter Shams…
Shams-e Tabriz was a dervish (a Sufi ascetic) and Rumi’s encounter with him radically changed Rumi’s life. Rumi and Shams developed a profound spiritual friendship and a deep love for one another. Indeed, after shams was killed (some believed he was killed because of a suspected homosexual relationship between the two) Rumi wrote the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a lengthy lyrical poem in which he expressed his love (and bereavement) of Shams. Thereafter, Rumi spent the remainder of his life as a love mystic and mystic poet, having come to understand that the path to Spirit was through the heart, not the mind: “I’ve given up on my brain. I’ve torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.”
Shams had lit the spark of Divine Love within Rumi and Rumi’s life was forever changed. He saw the limitations of a religious life centered in the mind and thereafter became a lover of God. He wrote of this love in a myriad of ways in his plethora of poems. Elsewhere he says: “There is no salvation for the soul but to fall in Love,” and, “The Rose of Glory can only be raised in the Heart.”
There is a strong affinity between Jesus and Rumi that lies in their eschewing of rational theology in favor of Love in matters of the Spirit. “One cannot serve both Mammon and Spirit,” said Jesus. Likewise, said Rumi, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.”
Jesus and Rumi are thus exemplars of the Spirit and to fail to understand their emphasis on Love is to fail to understand the Presence they bequeathed to the world. They realized within themselves the possibility that remains dormant within each of us - agape as modus operandi. This of course begs a question, namely, how do we awaken to that Love that we might also embody the same quality of Presence as the likes of Jesus and Rumi (They are not exceptions to the rule but prototypes of human possibility.)?
Awakening to Love implies a willingness to enter into a loving relationship with Spirit that is commonly omitted from people’s spiritual lives these days (I mean as a subjective experience rather than as an abstract idea.). Yet consider this. If “God is love,” as stated in First John, does it not follow that God would desire a loving relationship with us? Of course it does, and that relationship is twofold.
In the first place, we are to minimize our egoic attachments to the world and set our minds on the Love of God. Hence, a life of meditation and prayer. In the second place, our actions in the world are to be consistent with that Love. Hence, an ethical life that reflects the fruits of the spirit (see previous post). These two things combined, meditation and prayer, and an ethical life, are the foundations of a life of devotion that will awaken one to Love.
Ease yourself into the current, dear friend… let Love pull you like a river…
In our “spiritual but not religious” age I find that people sometimes miss the deeper meaning of Jesus’ parables. For instance, “Consider the lilies of the fields…” was not simply a groovy Jewish hipster’s way of telling us to “R… E… L… A… X.” It was a realized being’s way of using the simplicity of nature to teach about psychodynamics (the dynamic relationship that must be managed between the human psyche and Spirit on the spiritual path). Likewise, “Consider the birds of the air…”
Another parable concerning which people miss the deeper meaning is the parable of trees and their fruits:
Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit while every bad tree bears bad fruit. - Matthew 7:15-17
What is Jesus telling us with this parable? He is telling us that it is important to discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher (As we are often cautioned in the Upanishads, we are only to sit at the feet of a “realized” teacher: someone who has had the subjective experience of their own Divine nature.). This is a very important lesson, especially in the age of the self-appointed guru and other self-assessed spiritualists. So, how does one discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher?
The world in which we live is very rationally centered. Hence, we tend to discern things via the mind, e.g., “If something makes sense to me, it is true.” The reasoning that underlies this type of discernment is this:
I have a personal understanding of how the universe operates.
What this person says confirms my personal understanding of how the universe operates.
Hence, what this person says is true.
I have a personal understanding of how the universe operates.
What this person says disconfirms my personal understanding of how the universe operates.
Hence, what this person says is false.
The fallacy of this type of reasoning is rather obvious, once one takes a moment to consider it. The fact that a person says something that confirms one’s own understanding does not mean that what that person says is correct; both could be wrong. And, the fact that a person says something that disconfirms one’s own understanding does not mean that what that person says is false; that person could nevertheless be speaking the truth.
In sum, to use the mind as one’s process of discernment tends only to affirm one’s own biased understanding how the universe operates. This is a long way from discovering truth or discerning whether or not a teacher is realized. Given this, how is one to discern a realized teacher from an unrealized teacher? Jesus gives us the answer in this same parable…
When Jesus says, “You will know them by their fruits,” he is telling us that what a teacher professes is far less significant than the quality of that teacher’s Presence. Indeed, it is the quality of Presence that reveals whether or not one is realized.
The quality of one’s Presence is made known by the extent to which the fruits of the Spirit shine through one’s being. What are those fruits? Many of them are named in Galatians: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” Of course, the greatest fruit of the spirit is agape, unconditional love. Jesus embodied this state – it shone through his being - which is why his Presence was so compelling (and how we know that he was a realized teacher).
But the story doesn’t stop there. Jesus went on to call us also to strive to embody agape, as that was the essential message of his ministry. Some of the disciples understood this and so strove. Consider, for instance, these words from First John:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.
Indeed, everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
The one who does not love does not know God -
for God is love.
Not long ago I had a meditative experience from which I emerged with the following mantra, which has been the inspiration for this particular post. I suggest printing it out and attaching it to your refrigerator, your bathroom window, or the visor in your car… whatever mnemonic device works best for you:
“Where there is no love there is no enlightenment.”
In chapter 15 of the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu writes:
Do you have the patience to wait
Until your mud settles and the water becomes clear?
Can you remain unmoving
Until the right action arises by itself?
There is great wisdom in these two questions for they speak to the heart of what often ails us. When faced with challenging situations (We will consider interpersonal relationships for the sake of this conversation.) we are often overcome with the impulse to react rather than having the patience to wait for them to unfold - at which point we are more likely to recognize right action. With this in mind let’s take a moment to look at these two questions but first, let’s consider the mechanism of our reactivity.
When we react to a challenging situation what is actually happening within us?
1) There is an environmental stimulus (e.g., a slight by a coworker, an insensitive comment from a romantic partner, a non-cooperative child, etc.).
2) We judge that stimulus negatively; it doesn’t jibe with the way we think the world should be.
3) We have an emotional reaction as the result of our judgment.
4) We have a physiological reaction as the result of our emotional reaction.
5) We act, in order to alleviate the mental, emotional, and physiological tension that has arisen within us.
Understanding this, let look at these two questions.
Do you have the patience to wait
Until your mud settles and the water becomes clear?
While taking action in the midst of challenging situations can be cathartic it is often not productive because we take those actions under mental, emotional, and physiological stress. That stress is the stuff of Lao Tzu’s mud metaphor. That is, when we act under conditions of stress our vision is “muddy” and we incorrectly perceive the situation. Incorrectly perceiving the situation we often take wrong action. Hence Lao Tzu’s counsel to have the patience to wait until our mud settles (stress dissipates) and the water becomes clear.
Can you remain unmoving
Until the right action arises by itself?
Having patience means to “remain unmoving;” not to take action. There are two benefits in not taking action until the mud has settled. First, not taking action until the mud settles prevents us from taking unproductive (or even destructive) action. Second, not taking action until the mud settles allows clarity of vision to give rise to right action. Note the language here - “give rise to right action.”
Lao Tzu tells us that “right action arises by itself” and this is true. The action needed in a given situation tends to emerge of its own accord when we can occupy a neutral position relative to that situation rather than being overly identified with it (Hopefully the reader recognizes this as different language summarizing what we’ve just discussed.). It can be hard to understand or have faith in this when we are in the midst of challenging situations, when the cathartic impulse to act is so strong. However, if we can manage to heed Lao Tzu’s counsel to have the patience to wait until the mud settles we will see, even after just a few instances, that he is correct.
There is a popular poem by Rumi that begins:
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
There is much that can be said about this part of the poem, especially about the relationship between love and devastation but I will save that for another post at another time. What I want to discuss today is the second half of this poem:
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
they are given wings.
I have a thing for raptors. I have always been mesmerized by their ability to stay aloft on invisible air currents. Sure, I understand the physics of all this. Nevertheless, I find the sight mesmerizing. Visually, it strikes me as an incredible act of freedom. Indeed, I spent many an hour one particular summer taking in such sight while seated on a butte in the Badlands of South Dakota. This is probably why the second half of Rumi’s poem interests me so much. Those “great sky-circles of freedom” reflect my own deep desire. Like Rumi, I, too, wonder, “How do they learn it?” Rumi gives the answer. “They fall, and falling, they are given wings.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird leaving the nest for the first time, hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground, never before having taken flight - falling… falling… falling… before ever having used your wings? What a tremendous act of faith that must be! What a risk taking! What a thrill! What fear! What hope! Yet without leaving the nest that first time, without tumbling into the unknown one cannot fall and if one cannot fall, one cannot be given wings.
Of course Rumi is using this as a metaphor, by means of which he wishes to convey a spiritual lesson. In simple terms that lesson is this: one must let go of what one knows before one can become what one will become. Risk, Rumi is telling us, is the prerequisite for spiritual growth.
What is it that Rumi wants us to risk? Everything! Spiritual growth requires that we free ourselves from the narrative we hold in our heads about who and what we are. We must relinquish our identification with everything from the historical facts of our being to the subjective experience of our being. That is, we must let go of things like birthdates, achievements, family dynamics, financial successes (or lack thereof), and romantic successes (or failures). We must let go of things like addictions, aversions, anxieties, pleasures, and neuroses. These historical facts and subjective experiences comprise the narrative that we hold in our heads about who and what we are. This narrative is our psychological nest. Rumi is telling us to let it go - to tumble into the unknown.
Leaving this nest would seem an easy thing to do but it is not. The truth is that we are adamantly attached to that narrative. It is our identity, for better or worse. Relinquishing it is a daunting prospect. But until we do, until we leave this nest through an act of faith, until we take that risk, until we experience the thrill, the fear, and the hope such leave taking entails, we will not fall and if we cannot fall, we cannot be given wings.
Come! Soar with me!
In 1876 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche penned these words:
If the doctrine of sovereign becoming; the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal – doctrines which I consider true but deadly – are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has by now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification, and greed, [then finally] falls apart and ceases to be a people. In its place systems of individualist egoism, brotherhoods for the rapacious exploitation of the non-brothers, and similar creations of utilitarian vulgarity may perhaps appear in the arena of the future.
In numerous citations scattered throughout Nietzsche’s corpus the philosopher proved uncannily prophetic. This citation is no exception. In it he speaks about the effects Darwinism would have upon humanity, as the teaching of evolution became more widely known. He warned that rampant egoism would prevail if we came to understand ourselves as arising from the swamp rather than having a transcendent origin. It is hard to debate the fact that we now live in an age in which rampant egoism is ascending. Was Nietzsche right? Is this rampant egoism attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin? Let us look at this question from the perspective of the mystics.
As mentioned in my previous post (see “What Is Faith?”) the mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings (i.e., we have a transcendent origin). The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifests Divine virtues. Hence, the aim of the spiritual journey is the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues, e.g., compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
From the point of view of the mystics then, if we abandon belief in our higher (spiritual) nature there is no transformation of being to be had. There is no motivation, let alone possibility of becoming anything other than what we already find ourselves to be. We shall forever be dominated by our lower (physical) nature, trapped in the egoic state, which has no other agenda than personal survival. The ego thus left to rule, Divine virtues lay dormant while egoic tendencies dominate: self-centeredness, instinctual gratification, the use of the other (people, animals, and natural resources) as means to personal ends, etc. Does this mean that Nietzsche was right, that rampant egoism is attributable to the loss of belief in a transcendent origin?
Not entirely, not even from the mystics’ point of view. Mystics have always understood the transformation of being to be a great struggle; the vast majority of people have always served their lower (physical) nature in lieu of their higher (spiritual) nature (“One cannot serve both God and mammon,” taught Jesus). Our modern age is somewhat exceptional, however, in that the tendencies of the lower nature are exacerbated in a world in which capitalism and materialism are held up as evidence of one’s personal, even existential worth (that mammon thing again…). In sum, the loss of belief in our transcendent origins may contribute to the rampant egoism we see in today’s world but capitalism and materialism (and other factors) also contribute to this phenomenon. It’s a complex situation...
While it is not a panacea, we do need to return to belief in a transcendent origin in order to help counteract rampant egoism. This belief is not rooted in wishful thinking nor is it a psychological strategy conjured up simply to counteract rampant egoism. Rather, it is a known truth rooted in the mystics’ direct experience of our essential nature. We are, the mystics tell us, sparks of the Divine and being such, our essential nature partakes of Divine virtues: compassion, forgiveness, charity… unconditional love.
By returning to belief in a transcendent origin we can resume the project of the transformation of being, a project jettisoned with the rise of Darwinism. This is what we modern mystics have to offer our world, namely, the possibility of becoming other than what already find ourselves to be. It is our task, even our destiny to become vehicles for the manifestation of Divine virtues, as the Shvetashvatara Upanishad tells us:
“Hear, O children of immortal bliss!
You are born to be united with the Lord.”
Such love does the sky now pour
That whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light when I get home.
- St. Francis of Assisi
What a tremendous image and beautiful sentiment Saint Francis gives us! Indeed, the mystics often regale us with such imagery and sentiment, too beautiful even to be believed at times. Yet they intend us to believe them, for theirs is not an imaginative hope with which they console themselves a la Freudian wish fulfillment. Rather, their imagery and sentiment arise out of a direct experience of the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. No, theirs is no wishful thinking but an honest report - sometimes invitation - of and into the reality of Being.
But we doubt our beloved mystics, or explain them away (Modern psychology is a great tool for this: "To those that hold hammers everything looks like a nail," and all that...), or simply ignore them because theirs is not our experience and for what one has no reference point, one will have no ear (or vision, as the case may be.) Jesus said this very thing, as reported in saying 113 of The Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: "When will the kingdom come?" [And Jesus said,] "It will not come by watching for it. People will not say: 'Look, here it is,' or 'Look, there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth and people do not see it."
The great Hindu mystic Shankara said something very similar when he spoke of a rope mistaken for a snake, regarding his teaching of adhyasa (fundamentally meaning misperception due to past conditioning). In short, taught Shankara, ignorance gives rise to skewed perception which in turn causes one to misperceive reality. That is, we live in a world of illusion and, returning to the application of this fact to Saint Francis, fail to see the love that the sky pours down.
What if one wanted to know for oneself the truth of Saint Francis (or Jesus', or Shankara's) words? What if one wanted this experience as one's very own? Then what?
All that is needed is a shift of attention and enough trust to surrender. That is, one simply needs to direct one's attention away from one's thoughts, one's feelings, and one's sensations; become internally silent - then surrender to the moment. When one does this, perception corrects itself and one sees the reality of Being; the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. Is this a struggle? If so, consider taking on the practice of silence...
"Be still and know..."
Spiritual fads come and go (Yes, you guess rightly. This is a critical take on “The Secret.” Hopefully that does not mean I will lose its fans before the end of this post.). “The Secret” is one such fad whose time should have come and gone by now, at least according to my calculation. But over and over again I see it reappear in all its New Age glory.
"The Secret" is a supposed spiritual principle that holds that focused concentration on certain desired goals (e.g., objects, situations, wealth) will help one realize said goals. To buttress the claim, advocates of "The Secret" invoke its many famous historical adherents, such as Plato, Newton, and Emerson. Setting aside this logical fallacy of the argument from authority, which in and of itself ought to raise suspicion about "The Secret," let us focus on the principle itself.
"The Secret" begs the question, Why would someone on a spiritual journey desire certain goals (a Tesla, a bigger house), situations (a particular job, a particular relationship), or wealth (nuff said). The answer proponents of "The Secret" give is why not?! Well, here's the rub, folks... "The Secret" is a form of New Age prosperity preaching with which the soul holds no kin.
The aim of the spiritual journey is a journey from ego identification to self-realization (Who am I, really?) Any spiritual journey that does not bring one to this realization is an ego masquerade Given that, the problem with "The Secret" is easily identified, namely it promises egoic treasures which not only serve the ego alone, they are impediments on the path to self-realization Despite the argument, the ego may pose the acquisition of objects can aid the journey or are fruits to be harvested along the way, "The Secret" does not lead to self-realization. It is a New Age dead end.
Rather than spend one's time in meditation with focused concentration on desired objects, one ought to spend one's valuable practice time relinquishing such desires in order to come closer to one's true self, which is already perfected. That is, one's true self neither needs nor desires the objects of egoic satisfaction that "The Secret" promises. Once this is realized, one realizes that a better use of a spiritual practice is the cultivation of the Divine qualities inherent in one's true self: compassion, forgiveness...unconditional love, etc. A spiritual life that bears these fruits will quickly realize the secret of the "The Secret."
If this critique does not convince you of the secret of "The Secret," consider swami Puppetji's take on the matter...
It’s 2:30am here in Kerela, my fifth night on pilgrimage in India and still I am not adjusted to the time change. There’s a 10 and a half hour difference between here and home. So, I am enjoying being wide awake in the middle of these glorious Kerela nights. And what a productive time this has proved to be! I’ve completed four blog posts so far in these wee hours of the morning. Though best not to try this at home for the gift will surely wane as I become accustomed to Kerela time. But before that happens I will leverage my sleeplessness, hoping to create an audio blog.
Our theme during these ten days in Kerela with Russill Paul is healing. We are discussing the importance of healing the egoic structure while we walk the spiritual path. This is an important topic because it is our woundedness around which the ego constricts and that constriction is part of what prevents the surrender necessary in one’s practice.
Anyone who honestly reflects on their life surely can identify the numerous wounds with which they are afflicted. There are wounds we suffered in childhood at the hands of others who expressed their own woundedness on our childhood innocence. There are wounds we suffered in childhood as we ourselves thoughtlessly hurt others, only to feel the remorse of our transgressions after the fact. And of course there are wounds we have suffered in adulthood, again, because of what others have done to us or what we have done to others. (You’ll notice here that even when it is we who are the culprit we still suffer wounds ourselves. Self-recrimination sets in and we carry that with us throughout our lives. No transgressor gets off conscience free!)
In all this conversation about woundedness a question is begged, namely, “Who, ultimately, is to blame for my woundedness?” While we can clearly point to culprits, even ourselves at times, the fact of the matter is that no one is to blame for our woundedness. “But wait!” you might be protesting. That scoundrel clearly wounded me! Well, on one level that is true. On another level that scoundrel can point to yet another scoundrel who caused their woundedness and had it not been for that experience, they would not have wounded you. When their transgression toward you occurred they were coming from a place of woundedness themselves. Given this, are they then to blame? No more than you are when you wound others when you act from woundedness. In otherwords, transgressions that cause woundedness are born out of transgressions that caused woundedness which are also born out of transgressions that caused woundedness. It’s an infinite regress of woundedness and unless you buy into the Christian explanation that it all began with Adam, the only person who cannot point to his own woundeness as a justification for his actions, no one is to blame. This reminds me of a story I once heard in a Philosophy class as an Undergraduate at The University of Michigan.
A school teacher was lecturing on the nature of the universe and had just finished explaining the mechanisms of our own solar system. When she asked whether the class had any questions a young girl raised her hand and asked a question most everyone wonders upon seeing a visual representation of the solar system for the first time: “How does the earth manages to stay in its place?!” Another hand immediately shot up and without waiting to be called upon a young boy shouted, “I know! “I know! It sits on the back of a giant turtle!” The amused teacher saw a perfect teaching moment and gently inquired of the boy. “And on what does the giant turtle sit?” The boy paused for a moment then responded, “It sits on the back of another giant turtle!” The bemused teacher couldn’t help but inquirfurtherthinking that with this next question her point would surely be made. “And on what does that turtle sit?” she asked. “Why, another giant turtle!” exclaimed the boy. “And THAT turtle?” inquired the increasingly impatient teacher. “Why,” said the boy, “it’s turtles all the way down!”
In case you missed the relevance of this humorous anecdote relative to our topic, it is this. Don’t look for culprits. Wounds are not healed in a court of moral law as no one is to blame. Accusations and justifications will go on forever in the search for a conviction, which is ultimately a fruitless endeavor - though the ego will find temporary satisfaction in the attempt.
Rather, notice the ego’s tendency to contract around your woundedness and have the courage to relax that contraction – without first requiring that culprits be identified. As difficult as this is it is very important for your spiritual practice and hence for your spiritual journey, because the contracted state of the ego is not in fact protecting you from your woundedness. Quite the contrary - it is preventing your progress, both psychologically and spiritually.
In order to understand this we must take a moment and consider the mystics' understanding of human nature. The mystics believe that we have both a lower nature and a higher nature; that we are both physical and spiritual beings. The lower (physical) nature operates through the ego. The higher (spiritual) nature manifest Divine virtues. This understanding of human nature is what accounts for the moral struggles we humans face in life. We feel an inherent tension between our lower (physical) nature and our higher (spiritual) nature, that is, we would like to manifest Divine virtues but our ego often overpowers our best intention. Thus the moral struggle, which the apostle Paul illustrates so well in his letter to the Romans:
...what I am doing I do not understand, for I am not practicing what I would like to do but I am doing the very thing I hate... I find then that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good, for a while I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin...
The mystics further teach that the spiritual journey is a journey of the transformation of being, from the dominance of lower (physical) nature to higher (spiritual) nature. Complete transformation of being is the state in which the ego, eventually free from the influence of the lower (physical) nature becomes the vehicle for the manifestation of Divine virtues. Then one acts with compassion, forgiveness, charity...unconditional love. This is what the prophet meant when he said that faith manifests itself through the ego, that faith is "the knowledge of the heart, the words of the tongue, and the actions of the body." It is also what Jesus meant when he said, "you will know them by their fruits." As for his part, Paul was still ripening at the time he wrote his letter to the Romans, as are we all, in this season of life...
There is a straw man run amuck in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Greg Epstein, Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, has proffered that one can be “good without God.” The book has received wide acclaim, more for the title, I suspect, than the reasoning contained therein. In fact, so popular is the book’s title that it has spawned a billboard war between believers and nonbelievers. But that is not why I throw my fellow Harvardite under the theological bus. Well then, pray tell?
The problem with Epstein’s book is not the title’s proposition, that nonbelievers can be morally good despite a lack of belief in a deity. Anyone not blinded by the right and who has the least bit of sociological savvy can observe that faith is not a prerequisite to living the moral life. Hence, Epstein’s argumentation toward this end amounts to a rather moot point (though his is an admittedly kinder, gentler Humanism than the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens). Rather, the problem with the book is that the title’s proposition itself rests upon a shaky proposition, namely, that the notion that one cannot be good without God has ever had traction beyond the minority Christian movement we call “the Christian right,” which happens to be wrong about most things theological (which in turn begs the question as to why intelligent Humanists with the public’s ear continually deplete their air time engaging that community).
If Humanists want to engage the religious world in a constructive way (of course continual publications attacking theological straw men does fascinate the public and so predictably sell books, which may be their ultimate goal, in lieu of genuine dialogue) a better point of contact begins with the following proposition: The aim of the religious life is the transformation of being toward the end of realizing one’s full human potential. And, it might be added, that that potential is hardly tapped by merely living the moral life.
It was Voltaire who said that “God made mankind in His image and mankind returned the favor.” But whether mankind is a construction of God’s or God is a construction of mankind’s, the notion of the imago dei (to be made in the image of God) speaks to my very point. In the imago dei we have the highest conception of human potential in that the imago dei represents an amalgamation of the highest virtues: compassion, forgiveness… unconditional love. In the end, this is that toward which the religious life calls us via the transformation of being.
In sum, merely to live the moral life, while laudable, is no remarkable achievement and certainly is not something that requires belief in God. Indeed, those who thusly view the religious life utterly fail to understand the religious life. The point of the religious life is the transformation of being; it is to hold out the invitation to become other than we already find ourselves to be - to be better than merely good.
Can we be good without God? Of course we can. But, we can be better with…