In my previous post, A Misty Morning Musing, I raised the topic of the difference between occupying a dualistic perspective on the world verses occupying a nondual perspective, known in Eastern mystical traditions (originally in the philosophy of Vedanta) as advaita (dvaita = “two or three (or more)”; a-dvaita = “not two or three (or more)”). In sum, advaita, or the nondual perspective, is the perspective in which one experiences oneself as an aspect within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...”
Now, this can quickly become an overwhelming philosophical concept for the uninitiated, as I also indicated in my previous post. At the same time, it is a very important concept to understand from at least two perspectives: the mystical and the ethical. So, stay with me as I lead you to the ethical import of this philosophy. I think you will find advaita key to understanding not only mysticism in general but the ethical implications of mysticism as well (to wit, Jesus – yes, Jesus was, in my reading of him, an advaitist, as his ethics clearly indicate). Indeed, there are significant ethical implications that arise from mystical states, a subject not given nearly enough due - most people merely seeking the “mystical high” without regard for the demands that follow from such experience.
One of the best and simplest descriptions of advaita that I have encountered is in J. D. Salinger’s short story, “Teddy.” Teddy is a ten year old boy who is the reincarnation of an advanced soul. As such, Teddy fascinates as a type of “mystic-savant” (to steal an apt phrase from Kenneth Slawenski). He possesses exceptional intelligence and an apparent ability to know what ought not to be knowable (for instance, there are several places in the story where Teddy correctly anticipates the day and manner of his death).
Regarding Teddy and advaita, there is a point in the story where Teddy relates his first mystical experience:
"I was six when I saw that everything was God and my hair stood up," said Teddy. "It was on a Sunday. My sister was only a tiny child then. She was drinking her milk and all of a sudden, I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean."
In sum, it’s all God.
Now, advaita can be understood on two levels. First, it can be understood as an abstract idea. This is to understand advaita as a philosophical principle. Second, it can be understood as subjective reality. This is to understand advaita as a mystical perception. This latter understanding of advaita is what interests us, especially in regard to its ethical implications. For this we invoke Jesus...
In The Gospel of Matthew we find a story of Jesus meting out judgement:
To some, he says:
“Come, you who are blessed. Take your place in the kingdom, for I was hungry - and you fed me... I was a stranger - and you welcomed me... I was sick – and you cared for me... I was in prison - and you visited me.”
These blessed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and helped you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.”
To others, he says,
“Depart from me, you who are cursed, for I was hungry - and you did not feed me. I was a stranger, and you did not welcome me... I was sick – and you did not care for me... I was in prison - and you did not visit me.”
These cursed ones questioned Jesus, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison, and did not help you?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do unto me.”
Now, if we approach this scripture from the dualistic perspective, it will read as an ethical charge to care for “the least of these,” meaning all people in need. This is no mean ethical charge. Indeed, it is quite profound! At the same time, from the dualistic perspective other people – including “the least of these” - remain as objects; ultimately separate from us. Hence the protest, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, or as a stranger, or sick, or in prison...”
Read from the advaitist perspective, however, this scripture has an even more profound meaning and makes even more sense in the context of Jesus life and ministry. No one, including “the least of these,” is separate from anyone. People are not objects to which one applies ethical principles. Rather, all of us are aspects within the unity of being, being, as it were, “unified in a seamless whole, as in that Eden like state wherein Adam and Eve walked in union with God...” Hence, Jesus was the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... not in an abstract, philosophical, thought experiment sense but in actuality. Indeed, we, too, are the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the prisoner... there simply is no separation of being(s).
It is this advaitist perspective that the mystical Jesus held and it is from this perspective that his ethics originate. It is only when we understand this that we truly understand Jesus’ words: “...whatever you did for the least of these, you did unto me.” Sit and absorb that for a moment!
In sum, when we consider Jesus’ life and ministry from the perspective of advaita, we discover a much richer, more compelling, and truer sense of who Jesus was (a Jewish mystic) and how he exhorted us to live our lives. From a mystical perspective we are to realize that we already exist in a sacred reality: “The kingdom of heaven is spread out about you.” From an ethical perspective, we are to act in the world as though our every action ripples through the entirety of creation, from the smallest single celled organism to the Divine itself: “you did unto me.”
"I am he
As you are he
As you are me
And we are all together...
goo goo g'joob..."
- The Beatles
tat vam asi (“thou are THAT”) my friends,
Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.
– Carl Jung
In my work as a Spiritual Director, I have noticed over time that my clients almost universally encounter certain predictable impediments on the spiritual path. One such impediment is “ego death”; the realization that eventually dawns upon one that in order truly to make progress on the path, one must give up who one is in order to become who one is yet to be. Even though people may profess to want personal transformation, once they realize the cost – their egoic identity – they decide that the devil they know is better than the angel they don’t. Convincing, self-deceptive rationalizations for abandoning the journey usually follow in short order.
Another such impediment is when people realize (usually unconsciously) that they don’t have very deep conviction about the why and wherefore of their spiritual journey. Back in the day (read “somewhere between two and three thousand years ago”) the why and wherefore was very clear: to achieve direct, subjective experience of one’s essential (Divine) self:
The self-existent Lord pierced the senses
To turn outward. Thus we look to the world
Outside and see not the Self within.
A sage withdrew his senses from the world
Of change and seeking immortality,
Looked within and beheld the deathless Self.
- Katha Upanishad
Nowadays motivations vary quite a bit: idle curiosity, self-development, it’s the “in thing,” etc. The problem with these motivations, however, is that though laudable, what fuels them, namely, mental determination and self-will, have very little staying power. Because of this, people’s study and practice rarely delivers the goods and as is the case with ego death, they soon find convincing, self-deceptive rationalizations for abandoning the journey.
When I encounter a client whose motivation proves insufficient to the task (the greatest indicator is that her journey is one of lengthy fits and starts), I prompt her to reconsider her motivation. To cut to the chase, I eventually find the opportunity to relate the above passage from the Katha Upanishad. Then I ask, “So, what is your version of you? Do you believe that there is within you a ‘deathless self’; an essential (Divine) self that you can discover, or do you believe that the Katha Upanishad is part of a legacy of lies?”
Very few people have a ready answer for this question because very few people have actually thought it through (Remember, motivations for the spiritual journey are quite varied, most of which don’t prompt this question.). When encouraged to think it through, most people remain ambiguous about it. I attribute their ambiguity to the fact that we now live in a predominantly scientific and psychological age, two disciplines that have cast serious shadow over traditional notion of the self, i.e., that we have a soul. Given this, I invite you to consider the following.
In our modern world we are quick to psychologize away that against which we are biased. No offense intended to my psychologist friends (a very similar point could be made regarding scientists) but so ubiquitous has become the tendency to psychologize away mystical experience that when it comes to spiritual matters, many psychologists today (and much of the populace at large) are like the man holding the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. Rejoinder: Sometimes a mystical experience is just a mystical experience.
Granted that people often mistake egoic experiences as mystical, we should nevertheless be very hesitant to sweep the Upanishads and other mystical texts (i.e., Buddhist, Christian, and Sufi mystical texts) under the psychological rug. These texts do not represent a legacy of lies. Rather, they represent universal truth claims that result from deep meditative states achieved by lifelong practitioners of refined consciousness - within every one of the world’s major religious traditions. Having stated this, let us now return to the crux of this post.
If you are someone who has had a difficult time sustaining a spiritual practice, I invite you to reconsider your motivation for it is likely that that difficulty stems from a motivation that is insufficient to the task. Obviously, from what I have already written, the belief that one has an essential (Divine) self that one can discover is from whence proper and sufficient motive arises. At least, this is this mystic’s opinion. So, I ask,
What is your version of you?
In the meantime, I hear tell of a story about a merchant who once sold everything he owned to purchase a pearl of great price, on which more, see my next post...