"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.
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.
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...