So, how can an individual realize that they are the universal self? In what way can a person who is under the impression that they are a separate individual enclosed in a bag of skin effectively realize that they are Brahman? This, of course, is a curious question. It proposes a journey to the place where you already are. Now, it’s true that you may not know that you are there, but you are. And if you take a journey to the place where you are, you will visit many other places than the place where you are, and perhaps when you find through some long experience that all the places you go to are not the place you wanted to find, it may occur to you that you were already there in the beginning. And that is the Dharma, or “method,” as I prefer to translate the word. That’s the method that all gurus and spiritual teachers fundamentally use. So, they are all tricksters.
Why use trickster as a word to describe them? Did you know that it’s terribly difficult to surprise yourself on purpose? Somebody else has to do it for you, which is why a guru or teacher is so often necessary. And there are many kinds of gurus, but among human gurus there are square gurus and beat gurus. Square gurus take you through the regular channels; beat gurus lead you in by means that are very strange indeed—they are rascals. Also, friends can act as gurus. And then there are gurus who aren’t people, like situations or books. Regardless, the guru’s job is to show the inquirer in some effective way that they are already what they are looking for.
In Hindu traditions, realizing who you really are is called Sadhana, which means “discipline.” Sadhana is the way of life that is necessary to follow in order to escape from the illusion that you are merely a skin encapsulated ego. Sadhana comprises yoga, which has the Sanskrit root yuj, which means “to join,” and it is from this root that we have the English words yoke, junction, and union. Strictly speaking, yoga means “the state of union”—the state in which the individual self, the jivatman, finds that it is ultimately atman. So a yogi is someone who has realized that union. But normally yoga as a word isn’t used that way; it’s normally used to describe a practice of meditation whereby one comes into the state of union, and in that sense a yogi is a traveler or seeker who is on the way to that union. Of course, strictly speaking, there is no method to arrive at the place where you already are. No amount of searching will uncover the self, because all searching implies the absence of the self—the big self, the Self with a capital S. So to seek it is to thrust it away. And to practice a discipline to attain it is to postpone realization.
There’s a famous Zen story of a monk sitting in meditation. The master comes along and asks, “What are you doing?” And the monk replies, “Oh, I’m meditating so I can become a Buddha.” Well, the master sits down nearby, picks up a brick, and starts rubbing it. And the monk asks, “What are you doing?” The master says, “Oh, I’m rubbing this brick to make it into a mirror.” And the monk says, “No amount of rubbing a brick can turn it into a mirror.” To which the master replies, “And no amount of zazen will turn you into a Buddha.” They don’t like this story very much in modern day Japan.
Suppose I were to tell you that you, right now, are the great Self— the Brahman. Now, you might feel somewhat sympathetic to this idea intellectually, but you don’t really feel it. You’re looking for a way to feel it—a practice for getting there. But you don’t really want to feel it; you’re frightened of it. So you get this or that practice so you can put it off, so that you can feel that you have a long way to go, and maybe after you’ve suffered enough, then you can realize you are the atman. Why put it off? Because we are brought up in a social scheme that tells us we have to deserve what we get, and the price to pay for all good things is suffering. But all of that is mere postponement. We are afraid here and now to see the truth. And if we had the nerve—you know, real nerve—we’d see it right away. But that’s when we immediately feel that we shouldn’t have nerve like that, because it would be awful. After all, we’re supposed to feel like a poor little me who has to work and work and suffer in order to become something far away and great, like a Buddha or Jivanmukta—someone who becomes liberated.
So you can suffer for it. There are all kinds of ways invented for you to do this. You can discipline yourself and gain control of your mind and do all sorts of extraordinary things—like drink water in through your rectum and push a peanut up a mountain with your nose. There are all sorts of accomplishments you can engage in. But they have absolutely nothing to do with the realization of the self. The realization of the self fundamentally depends on coming off it, just as when someone is putting on some kind of act and we say, “Oh, come off it.” And some people can come off it—they laugh, because they suddenly realize they’ve been making a fool of themselves.
So that’s the job of the trickster—the guru, the teacher—to help you come off it. And to this end, the guru will come up with all sorts of exercises to get you to come off it. And maybe after you get enough discipline and frustration and suffering, you’ll finally give it all up and realize that you were there from the beginning and there was nothing to realize in the first place. See, the guru is very clever. They don’t go out on the streets and preach and tell you that you need to be converted— they sit down under a tree and wait. And people start coming around and bringing their problems and propositions to the guru, and the guru answers and challenges you in whatever way they think is appropriate to your situation. Now, if you’ve got a thin shell and your mask is easily dispatched with, the guru uses the easy method. They’ll say, “Come off it, Shiva! Stop pretending you’re this guy here. I know who you are!” But most people won’t respond to that. Most people have very thick shells, so the guru has to invent ways of cracking those shells.
To understand yoga, you should read Patañjali—the Yoga Sutras. There are so many translations, and I’m not sure which is the best. This sutra begins, “Now yoga is explained.” That’s the first verse, and the commentators say that “now” in this context carries the meaning that you’re supposed to know other material beforehand. Specifically, you’re supposed to be a civilized human being before you begin yoga—you’re supposed to have been disciplined in Artha, Kama, and Dharma. You’re supposed to have engaged in politics, the arts of sensuality, and justice before you can begin yoga. The next verse is “Yogash chitta vritti nirodha,” which means “Yoga is the cessation of revolutions of the mind,” and this can mean many things—stop the waves of the mind, attain a perfectly calm mind, stop thinking entirely, or even eliminate all contents from the mind. How can you do that? Well, the sutra goes on to give you particular steps: pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi.
Pranayama means controlling the breath, pratyahara refers to preliminary concentration, dharana is a more intense form of concentration, dhyana—the same dhyana from which the word Zen comes—means profound union between subject and object, and then there’s samadhi—the attainment of non-dualistic consciousness. See what’s happening here? First, you learn to control your breath. And breathing is a very strange thing, because breathing can be viewed both as a voluntary and involuntary action. You can feel that you breathe and yet you can also feel that breathing breathes you. And there are all sorts of fancy ways to breathe in yoga which are very amusing to practice, because you can get quite high on them. So this sutra sets you up with all sorts of tricks and if you are bright you may begin to realize some things at this point.
But if you are not very bright, you’ll have to go on to work on concentration. You learn to concentrate the mind on one point. Now, this can be an absolutely fascinating undertaking. Here’s one way to try it out: find some bright, polished surface—say, on copper or glass or something—and select on it some reflection of light. Now, look at it and put your eyes out of focus so that the bright spot appears to be fuzzy, like a fuzzy circle. You’ll see a definite pattern of blur and you’ll have a wonderful time looking at that. Then get your eyes back into focus and look at an intense light and go deep into it, like falling down a funnel and at the end of the funnel is this intense light. Just go in and in an in—it’s a most thrilling experience.
So you’re doing this kind of practice when the guru suddenly wakes you up. And they say, “What are you looking at that light for?” And you stammer something about wanting realization because we live in a world in which we identify ourselves with the ego and we therefore get into trouble and suffer. And the guru asks, “Well, are you afraid of that?” And you respond, “Yes.” Well, then the guru points out to you that all you’re doing is practicing yoga out of fear—you’re just escaping and running away. And how far do you think you can get into realization through fear? So then you think, “Well, now I’ve got to practice yoga, but not with a fearful motive.” And all the while, the guru is watching you. They’re a highly sensitive person, and they know exactly what you’re doing—they know exactly what your motive is. So they put you onto the kick of getting a pure motive, which means getting a very deep control of your emotions. So you try not to have impure thoughts. You try and try and maybe manage to repress as many impure thoughts as possible and then one day the guru asks, “Why are you repressing your thoughts? What’s your motive here?” And then you find out that you had an impure motive for trying to have a pure mind. You did it for the same old reason. From the very beginning you were afraid, because you wanted to play one-up on the universe.
Eventually you see how crazy your mind is. It can only go in circles. Everything your mind does to get out of the trap puts it more securely in the trap. Every step toward liberation ties you up even more. You started with molasses in one hand and feathers in the other, and the guru made you clap your hands together and then told you to pick the feathers off. And the more you try to do so, the more mess you make. Meanwhile, as you get more and more involved in this curious process, the guru tells you how you’re progressing. “You attained the 8th stage today. Congratulations. Now you only have 56 steps remaining.” And when you get to that 64th stage, the guru knows how to spin it and drag it all out, because you are ever so hopeful that you’ll get that thing, just as you might win a prize or win a special job or great distinction and finally be somebody. That your motivation all along, only it’s very spiritual here. It’s not for worldly recognition, but you want to be recognized by the gods and angels—it’s the same story on a higher level.
So the guru keeps holding out all these baits and the student keeps taking the bait. And the guru holds out more baits until the student gets the realization that they’re just running around faster and faster in a squirrel cage. I mean, the student is making an enormous amount of progress, but they’re not getting anywhere. And this is how the guru tricks you. The guru impresses this realization upon you by these methods until you finally find out that you—as an ego, as what you ordinarily call your mind—are a mess. And you just can’t do this thing. You can’t do it by any of the means that have been presented to you. You can now concentrate, yes, but you discover you’ve been concentrating for the wrong reason, and there’s no way of doing it for the right reason.
Krishnamurti did this to people. He was a very clever guru. And Gurdjieff, too, although he played the same game in a different way. He made his students watch themselves constantly and told them to never, never be absentminded. And the Japanese sword teachers do the same thing. Their first lesson is to always be alert—constantly— because you never know where or when the attack is going to come. Now, do you know what happens when you try to always be on the alert? You think about being alert—you’re not alert. And you’re a hopeless prey to the enemy. So the trick is to be simply awake and relaxed. Then all your nerve ends are working and whenever the attack comes, you’re ready. The great teachers liken this to a barrel of water—the water sits there in the barrel, and as soon as you put a hole in the barrel the water just falls out. It doesn’t have to think about it. In the same way, when the mind is in a proper state, it is ready to respond in any direction without any sense of being taut or anxious. And the minute anything happens, it’s right there, because it didn’t have to overcome anything, like coming back from the opposite direction to respond to an attack. See, if you’re set for the attack to come from over there and it comes from here, you have to pull back from there and come here, but by then it’s too late. So sit in the middle and don’t expect the attack to come from any particular direction.
In yoga, you can be watchful and concentrated and alert, but all that will ever teach you is what not to do—how not to use the mind. You have to just let it happen, like going to sleep. You can’t try to go to sleep. It’s the same with digesting your food—you can’t try to digest your food. And it’s the same with liberation—you have to let yourself wake up. When you find out there isn’t any way of forcing it, maybe you’ll stop forcing it. But most people don’t believe this. They say, “Well, that won’t work for me. I’m very unevolved. I’m just poor little me and if I don’t force it nothing will happen.” I know some people who think they have to struggle and strain to have a bowel movement—they think they have to work to make it happen. But all of this is based on a lack of faith—not trusting life. How do you get people to trust life? You have to trick them. They won’t jump into the water, so you have to throw them in. And if they’re very unwilling to be thrown in, they’re going to take diving lessons or read books about diving or do preliminary exercises or stand at the edge of the diving board and inquire which is the right posture until somebody comes up from behind and kicks them in the butt to get them in the water. ♦
Excerpted from Out of Your Mind: Tricksters, Independence, and the Cosmic Game of Hide and Seek by Alan Watts. Copyright © 2017 Alan Watts. Preface © 2017 Mark Watts. To be published by Sounds True in March 2017.
From our current issue Parabola Volume 42, No. 1, “The Search for Meaning,” Spring 2017. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.
This interview appeared in "Transgression," a recent edition of the journal Oneing, published by the Rohr Institute.
Joelle Chase: Perhaps we could begin by talking about some of the ways in which you have transgressed, Cynthia! For example, your book on Mary Magdalene delves deep into a topic that has been taboo in many Christian circles. What has it been like for you to break the silence, to transgress some religious norms?
Cynthia Bourgeault: Well, it really was like saying “The emperor has no clothes on!” to those that continue to applaud the emperor’s magnificent clothes, blind to the fact that the emperor truly was naked. I would say my role was not so much transgressing as popping a bubble of illusion so we could see reality for what it is.
Joelle: It seems like you have been popping bubbles in other ways too. Your latest book, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three, explores the untouchable, non-negotiable doctrine of Trinity that Christians claim but don’t really understand and thus often ignore. And in this work you rely heavily on the teachings of Gurdjieff which, if known at all, are often considered esoteric. You’ve been breaking new, yet ancient, ground!
Cynthia: It has definitely been breaking new and old ground. These taboos are simply the power and control norms of a very tight little filter through which the institutional church sifts Christianity. What I have really been about is to suggest that we not mistake the filter for the whole thing and to offer more expansive ways of looking at our tradition, doctrines, and practice. I would say that I am only transgressing from the point of view of the power structure.
As you say, the Trinity is of no interest to most people because it has mostly been discussed in theological shop talk among those that are empowered. Nobody else knows how to talk about Trinity..., so I’ve basically been offering new ways for people to engage with the idea of Trinity.
Joelle: I was reading some of the passages that you quote from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene—which in itself is a break from the tradition of relying on canonical scripture—and was particularly struck by something Jesus said. Peter asks him, “What is the sin of the world?” and Jesus replies: “Sin as such does not exist. You only bring it into manifestation when you act in ways that are adulterous in nature. It is for this very reason that the Good has come among you pursuing its own essence within nature in order to reunite everything to its origin.”
Jesus goes on to say the disciples should not “lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, lest [they] too be dominated by them.” I see how the rules and codes ... [can] dominate, that transgression is necessary else the laws will control us.
Cynthia: I think there are at least three different definitions of transgression, depending on your perspective. The kind of transgression we have been talking about is basically breaking out of boxes. I would question whether that is actually transgression. I think it is far more of a transgression to keep people and God in the boxes!
Then there is the role of transgression within the Law of Three—for any kind of new emergence there is also resistance. You can’t get directly to your goal. In fact, what you set as your goal is never what the real goal is. There is something that pushes back and deflects into another arena and makes a new arising possible. We learn more from darkness and descent than we do from ascent. Here transgression looks in some sense like it is negative or resistant but is actually a legitimate part of a new birthing.
There is also transgression in the classic sense of breaking the Ten Commandments or the Law of Love.
Joelle: Let’s focus on the Law of Three. How do you see transgression as part of this dynamic pattern?
Cynthia: The Law of Three is a basic metaphysical principle that was first articulated by G. I. Gurdjieff, though he claimed it had ancient roots. This principle states that in any new arising, anything that comes into being at any level, from the quantum to the cosmic, at whatever scale and in whatever domain—physical, physiological, or spiritual—is the result of the intertwining of three independent strands: affirming, denying, and reconciling. Note that reconciling is not the synthesis, but a mediating principle between the other two. This is a ternary, not a binary, system. Instead of paired opposites, we have the interplay of three energies that in turn creates a whole new realm of possibility.
Resistance or transgression is an absolutely essential part of any manifestation. It is a great mistake to try to eliminate resistance. Rather, you have to work with it, weave it, honor its presence—because what is going to come into birth is not what you want or expect. It is going to be completely new and surprising. The three forces working together dissolve gridlocks and move everything into a new playing field.
Joelle: Can you give an example of how this works?
Cynthia: In my work on Mary Magdalene and Trinity I think I represent an affirming force. I am pushing against something and it pushes back, and out of that something new is born.
All new arising is essentially cooperative amongst these three different roles which are never the same. Sometimes transgression can be the pushing or affirming force. Sometimes transgression is the push back, the denying. And at other times it might be the third force that relates or reconciles the other two….
Joelle: There is another wonderful quote from your Mary Magdalene book: “Ultimately it is not about clean living and purity but the total annihilation of one’s heart.” This seems to fit with the Law of Three—that the annihilation or destruction is also the new arising.
Cynthia: Quite so.
Joelle: Einstein said that you cannot solve a problem with the same consciousness that created it. How do we access or open ourselves to the third, reconciling energy that allows the new, fourth thing to arise?
Cynthia: Most people in the work say that human beings in their normal state of consciousness are third-force blind. The third force is there, right under our noses in most situations, but we do not see it because we are too embedded in either-or thinking. And we are identified with outcomes. This combination makes it very, very hard to spot third-force energy.
While you cannot cause third force, you can increase the conduciveness of third force in a situation. ... [Teaching] non-dual approaches has certainly served as catalyst. More people are doing the work of meditation; they’re spotting the triggers that make them go into reactive and inflexible positions, rather than identifying with the issue. The more you are aware, the more you are able to help something new arise.
Joelle: In your book on Trinity you look at the Enneagram as it was taught by Gurdjieff, not as a personality profiling tool, but as a pattern for how growth works. The nine points are steps or stages, with a “stopinder” every three steps. At these points (3, 6, 9) there is a challenge requiring an extra boost of energy to overcome the resistance to keep growing. Would you say more about that?
Cynthia: The Law of Seven intertwines with the Law of Three in the Enneagram. Science is now confirming this pattern. When energy flows out from an initial impulse it does not flow in a uniform motion like inertia; there are places of discrete stoppages or losses of energy, and if additional energy is not added there (and the right kind of energy) things will just begin to veer off from their original purpose. You don’t have to go back to the beginning and start all over again, but you need another burst of the beginning kind of energy so that you can move on and push through these places of attenuation. Otherwise, if you sail through the stop signs, you tend to veer off in a direction far different than where you started and intended.
Joelle: So forward motion involves some form of transgression, overcoming inertia.
Cynthia: In Thomas Kuhn’s classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he insisted that science wasn’t incremental. You don’t go from one major paradigm to another without paradigm malaise and distress. When someone proposes a new theory at first they’re shot out of the water and then finally everyone switches over to the new idea.
I guess this is what happened in regards to my study and writings on Mary Magdalene and the Holy Trinity. I have sensed paradigm distress in the church. The ideas surrounding Mary Magdalene and Trinity were not holding water. No one was interested. People were tuning out. You can’t move a paradigm along by constant tiny revisions. Sometimes you have to say something completely different and even crazy. At first everyone responds, “Oh my God! No, it can’t be!” And then all of a sudden they realize, “Oh yeah, it is.”
This is the way much of history works. Change always involves going through a time of discontent and then rupture and then reconstruction. I’ve been trying to lessen the drama by looking at the mechanics of this process. The Law of Three provides a pattern so that we really understand how change and new arising happens.
Don’t be afraid of darkness, of the things that look like they’re going in the wrong direction. The soul has to go through this overwhelm. So often I realize the difficulty was exactly the thing that needed to happen in order for there to be clarity. And now I’m back on the track I was really on. I’m a student of how change happens.
 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2010), 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Ibid., 29.
The Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, PhD, is an Episcopal priest, writer, and internationally recognized retreat leader. Cynthia divides her time between solitude at her seaside hermitage in Maine and a demanding schedule traveling globally to teach and spread the recovery of the Christian contemplative and Wisdom path. She is the founding Director of both The Contemplative Society and the Aspen Wisdom School and a member of the core faculty of the Rohr Institute's Living School. She is author of eight books, including The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three and The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity.
This Bernadette Roberts interview is reprinted from the book Timeless Visions, Healing Voices, copyright 1991 by Stephan Bodian (www.stephanbodian.org). In this exclusive interview with Stephan Bodian, (published in the Nov/Dec 1986 issue of YOGA JOURNAL), author Bernadette Roberts describes the path of the Christian contemplative after the experience of oneness with God.
Bernadette Roberts is the author of two extraordinary books on the Christian contemplative journey, The Experience of No-Self (Shambhala, 1982) and The Path to No-Self (Shambala, 1985). A cloistered nun for nine years, Roberts reports that she returned to the world after experiencing the “unitive state”, the state of oneness with God, in order to share what she had learned and to take on the problems and experience of others. In the years that followed she completed a graduate degree in education, married, raised four children, and taught at the pre-school, high school, and junior college levels; at the same time she continued her contemplative practice. Then, quite unexpectedly, some 20 years after leaving the convent, Roberts reportedly experienced the dropping away of the unitive state itself and came upon what she calls “the experience of no-self” – an experience for which the Christian literature, she says, gave her no clear road maps or guideposts. Her books, which combine fascinating chronicles of her own experiences with detailed maps of the contemplative terrain, are her attempt to provide such guideposts for those who might follow after her.
Now 55, and once again living in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised, Roberts characterizes herself as a “bag lady” whose sister and brother in law are “keeping her off the streets.” “I came into this world with nothing,” she writes, “and I leave with nothing. But in between I lived fully – had all the experiences, stretched the limits, and took one too many chances.” When I approached her for an interview, Roberts was reluctant at first, protesting that others who had tried had distorted her meaning, and that nothing had come of it in the end. Instead of a live interview, she suggested, why not send her a list of questions to which she would respond in writing, thereby eliminating all possibility for misunderstanding. As a result, I never got to meet Bernadette Roberts face to face – but her answers to my questions, which are as carefully crafted and as deeply considered as her books, are a remarkable testament to the power of contemplation.
Stephan: Could you talk briefly about the first three stages of the Christian contemplative life as you experienced them – in particular, what you (and others) have called the unitive state?
Bernadette: Strictly speaking, the terms “purgative”, “illuminative”, and “unitive” (often used of the contemplative path) do not refer to discrete stages, but to a way of travel where “letting go”, “insight”, and “union”, define the major experiences of the journey. To illustrate the continuum, authors come up with various stages, depending on the criteria they are using. St. Teresa, for example, divided the path into seven stages or “mansions”. But I don’t think we should get locked into any stage theory: it is always someone else’s retrospective view of his or her own journey, which may not include our own experiences or insights. Our obligation is to be true to our own insights, our own inner light.
My view of what some authors call the “unitive stage”is that it begins with the Dark Night of the Spirit, or the onset of the transformational process – when the larva enters the cocoon, so to speak. Up to this point, we are actively reforming ourselves, doing what we can to bring about an abiding union with the divine. But at a certain point, when we have done all we can, the divine steps in and takes over. The transforming process is a divine undoing and redoing that culminates in what is called the state of “transforming union” or “mystical marriage”, considered to be the definitive state for the Christian contemplative. In experience, the onset of this process is the descent of the cloud of unknowing, which, because his former light had gone out and left him in darkness, the contemplative initially interprets as the divine gone into hiding. In modern terms, the descent of the cloud is actually the falling away of the ego-center, which leaves us looking into a dark hole, a void or empty space in ourselves. Without the veil of the ego-center, we do not recognize the divine; it is not as we thought it should be. Seeing the divine, eye to eye is a reality that shatters our expectations of light and bliss. From here on we must feel our way in the dark, and the special eye that allows us to see in the dark opens up at this time.
So here begins our journey to the true center, the bottom-most, innermost “point” in ourselves where our life and being runs into divine life and being – the point at which all existence comes together. This center can be compared to a coin: on the near side is our self, on the far side is the divine. One side is not the other side, yet we cannot separate the two sides. If we tried to do so, we would either end up with another side, or the whole coin would collapse, leaving no center at all – no self and no divine. We call this a state of oneness or union because the single center has two sides, without which there would be nothing to be one, united, or non-dual. Such, at least, is the experiential reality of the state of transforming union, the state of oneness.
Stephan: How did you discover the further stage, which you call the experience of no-self?
Bernadette: That occurred unexpectedly some 25 years after the transforming process. The divine center – the coin, or “true self” – suddenly disappeared, and without center or circumference there is no self, and no divine. Our subjective life of experience is over – the passage is finished. I had never heard of such a possibility or happening. Obviously there is far more to the elusive experience we call self than just the ego. The paradox of our passage is that we really do not know what self or consciousness is, so long as we are living it, or are it. The true nature of self can only be fully disclosed when it is gone, when there is no self.
One outcome, then, of the no-self experience is the disclosure of the true nature of self or consciousness. As it turns out, self is the entire system of consciousness, from the unconscious to God-consciousness, the entire dimension of human knowledge and feeling-experience. Because the terms “self” and “consciousness” express the same experiences (nothing can be said of one that cannot be said of the other), they are only definable in the terms of “experience”. Every other definition is conjecture and speculation. No-self, then, means no-consciousness. If this is shocking to some people, it is only because they do not know the true nature of consciousness. Sometimes we get so caught up in the content of consciousness, we forget that consciousness is also a somatic function of the physical body, and, like every such function, it is not eternal. Perhaps we would do better searching for the divine in our bodies than amid the content and experience of consciousness.
Stephan: How does one move from “transforming union” to the experience of no-self? What is the path like?
Bernadette: We can only see a path in retrospect. Once we come to the state of oneness, we can go no further with the inward journey. The divine center is the innermost “point”, beyond which we cannot go at this time. Having reached this point, the movement of our journey turns around and begins to move outward – the center is expanding outward. To see how this works, imagine self, or consciousness, as a circular piece of paper. The initial center is the ego, the particular energy we call “will” or volitional faculty, which can either be turned outward, toward itself, or inward, toward the divine ground, which underlies the center of the paper. When, from our side of consciousness, we can do no more to reach this ground, the divine takes the initiative and breaks through the center, shattering the ego like an arrow shot through the center of being. The result is a dark hole in ourselves and the feeling of terrible void and emptiness. This breakthrough demands a restructuring or change of consciousness, and this change is the true nature of the transforming process. Although this transformation culminates in true human maturity, it is not man’s final state. The whole purpose of oneness is to move us on to a more final state.
To understand what happens next, we have to keep cutting larger holes in the paper, expanding the center until only the barest rim or circumference remains. One more expansion of the divine center, and the boundaries of consciousness or self fall away. From this illustration we can see how the ultimate fulfillment of consciousness, or self, is no-consciousness, or no-self. The path from oneness to no-oneness is an egoless one and is therefore devoid of ego-satisfaction. Despite the unchanging center of peace and joy, the events of life may not be peaceful or joyful at all. With no ego-gratification at the center and no divine joy on the surface, this part of the journey is not easy. Heroic acts of selflessness are required to come to the end of self, acts comparable to cutting ever-larger holes in the paper – acts, that is, that bring no return to the self whatsoever.
The major temptation to be overcome in this period is the temptation to fall for one of the subtle but powerful archetypes of the collective consciousness. As I see it, in the transforming process we only come to terms with the archetypes of the personal unconscious; the archetypes of the collective consciousness are reserved for individuals in the state of oneness, because those archetypes are powers or energies of that state. Jung felt that these archetypes were unlimited; but in fact, there is only one true archetype, and that archtype is self. What is unlimited are the various masks or roles self is tempted to play in the state of oneness – savior, prophet, healer, martyr, Mother Earth, you name it. They are all temptations to seize power for ourselves, to think ourselves to be whatever the mask or role may be. In the state of oneness, both Christ and Buddha were tempted in this manner, but they held to the “ground” that they knew to be devoid of all such energies. This ground is a “stillpoint”, not a moving energy-point. Unmasking these energies, seeing them as ruses of the self, is the particular task to be accomplished or hurdle to be overcome in the state of oneness. We cannot come to the ending of self until we have finally seen through these archetypes and can no longer be moved by any of them. So the path from oneness to no-oneness is a life that is choicelessly devoid of ego-satisfaction; a life of unmasking the energies of self and all the divine roles it is tempted to play. It is hard to call this life a “path”, yet it is the only way to get to the end of our journey.
Stephan: In The Experience of No-Self you talk at great length about your experience of the dropping away or loss of self. Could you briefly describe this experience and the events that led up to it? I was particularly struck by your statement “I realized I no longer had a ‘within’ at all.” For so many of us, the spiritual life is experienced as an “inner life” – yet the great saints and sages have talked about going beyond any sense of inwardness.
Bernadette: Your observation strikes me as particularly astute; most people miss the point. You have actually put your finger on the key factor that distinguishes between the state of oneness and the state of no-oneness, between self and no-self. So long as self remains, there will always be a “center”. Few people realize that not only is the center responsible for their interior experiences of energy, emotion, and feeling, but also, underlying these, the center is our continuous, mysterious experience of “life”and “being”. Because this experience is more pervasive than our other experiences, we may not think of “life” and “being” as an interior experience. Even in the state of oneness, we tend to forget that our experience of “being” originates in the divine center, where it is one with divine life and being. We have become so used to living from this center that we feel no need to remember it, to mentally focus on it, look within, or even think about it. Despite this fact, however, the center remains; it is the epicenter of our experience of life and being, which gives rise to our experiential energies and various feelings.
If this center suddenly dissolves and disappears, the experiences of life, being, energy, feeling and so on come to an end, because there is no “within” any more. And without a “within”, there is no subjective, psychological, or spiritual life remaining – no experience of life at all. Our subjecive life is over and done with. But now, without center and circumference, where is the divine? To get hold of this situation, imagine consciousness as a balloon filled with, and suspended in divine air. The balloon experiences the divine as immanent, “in” itself, as well as transcendent, beyond or outside itself. This is the experience of the divine in ourselves and ourselves in the divine; in the state of oneness, Christ is often seen as the balloon (ourselves), completing this trinitarian experience. But what makes this whole experience possible – the divine as both immanent and transcendent – is obviously the balloon, i.e. consciousness or self. Consciousness sets up the divisions of within and without, spirit and matter, body and soul, immanent and transcendent; in fact, consciousness is responsible for every division we know of. But what if we pop the balloon – or better, cause it to vanish like a bubble that leaves no residue. All that remains is divine air. There is no divine in anything, there is no divine transcendence or beyond anything, nor is the divine anything. We cannot point to anything or anyone and say, “This or that is divine”. So the divine is all – all but consciousness or self, which created the division in the first place. As long as consciousness remains however, it does not hide the divine, nor is it ever separated from it. In Christian terms, the divine known to consciousness and experienced by it as immanent and transcendent is called God; the divine as it exists prior to consciousness and after consciousness is gone is called Godhead. Obviously, what accounts for the difference between God and Godhead is the balloon or bubble – self or consciousness. As long as any subjective self remains, a center remains; and so, too, does the sense of interiority.
Stephan: You mention that, with the loss of the personal self, the personal God drops away as well. Is the personal God, then, a transitional figure in our search for ultimate loss of self?
Bernadette: Sometimes we forget that we cannot put our finger on any thing or any experience that is not transitional. Since consciousness, self, or subject is the human faculty for experiencing the divine, every such experience is personally subjective; thus in my view, “personal God” is any subjective experience of the divine. Without a personal, subjective self, we could not even speak of an impersonal, non-subjective God; one is just relative to the other. Before consciousness or self existed, however, the divine was neither personal nor impersonal, subjective nor non-subjective – and so the divine remains when self or consciousness has dropped away. Consciousness by its very nature tends to make the divine into its own image and likeness; the only problem is, the divine has no image or likeness. Hence consciousness, of itself, cannot truly apprehend the divine.
Christians (Catholics especially) are often blamed for being the great image makers, yet their images are so obviously naive and easy to see through, we often miss the more subtle, formless images by which consciousness fashions the divine. For example, because the divine is a subjective experience, we think the divine is a subject; because we experience the divine through the faculties of consciousness, will, and intellect, we think the divine is equally consciousness, will and intellect; because we experience ourselves as a being or entity, we experience the divine as a being or entity; because we judge others, we think the divine judges others; and so on. Carrying a holy card in our pockets is tame compared to the formless notions we carry around in our minds; it is easy to let go of an image, but almost impossible to uproot our intellectual convictions based on the experiences of consciousness.
Still, if we actually knew the unbridgeable chasm that lies between the true nature of consciousness or self and the true nature of the divine, we would despair of ever making the journey. So consciousness is the marvelous divine invention by which human beings make the journey in subjective companionship with the divine; and, like every divine invention, it works. Consciousness both hides the chasm and bridges it – and when we have crossed over, of course, we do not need the bridge any more. So it doesn’t matter that we start out on our journey with our holy cards, gongs and bells, sacred books and religious feelings. All of it should lead to growth and transformation, the ultimate surrender of our images and concepts, and a life of selfless giving. When there is nothing left to surrender, nothing left to give, only then can we come to the end of the passage – the ending of consciousness and its personally subjective God. One glimpse of the Godhead, and no one would want God back.
Stephan: How does the path to no-self in the Christian contemplative tradition differ from the path as laid out in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?
Bernadette: I think it may be too late for me to ever have a good understanding of how other religions make this passage. If you are not surrendering your whole being, your very consciousness, to a loved and trusted personal God, then what are you surrendering it to? Or why surrender it at all? Loss of ego, loss of self, is just a by-product of this surrender; it is not the true goal, not an end in itself. Perhaps this is also the view of Mahayana Buddhism, where the goal is to save all sentient beings from suffering, and where loss of ego, loss of self, is seen as a means to a greater end. This view is very much in keeping with the Christian desire to save all souls. As I see it, without a personal God, the Buddhist must have a much stronger faith in the “unconditioned and unbegotten” than is required of the Christian contemplative, who experiences the passage as a divine doing, and in no way a self-doing.
Actually, I met up with Buddhism only at the end of my journey, after the no-self experience. Since I knew that this experience was not articulated in our contemplative literature, I went to the library to see if it could be found in the Eastern Religions. It did not take me long to realize that I would not find it in the Hindu tradition, where, as I see it, the final state is equivalent to the Christian experience of oneness or transforming union. If a Hindu had what I call the no-self experience, it would be the sudden, unexpected disappearance of the Atman-Brahman, the divine Self in the “cave of the heart”, and the disappearance of the cave as well. It would be the ending of God-consciousness, or transcendental consciousness – that seemingly bottomless experience of “being”, “consciousness”, and “bliss” that articulates the state of oneness. To regard this ending as the falling away of the ego is a grave error; ego must fall away before the state of oneness can be realized. The no-self experience is the falling away of this previously realized transcendent state.
Initially, when I looked into Buddhism, I did not find the experience of no-self there either; yet I intuited that it had to be there. The falling away of the ego is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it would not account for the fact that Buddhism became a separate religion, nor would it account for the Buddhist’s insistence on no eternal Self – be it divine, individual or the two in one. I felt that the key difference between these two religions was the no-self experience, the falling away of the true Self, Atman-Brahman. Unfortunately, what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, craving, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless state of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. Unless we clearly distinguish between these two very different experiences, we only confuse them, with the inevitable result that the true no-self experience becomes lost. If we think the falling away of the ego, with its ensuing transformation and oneness, is the no-self experience, then what shall we call the much further experience when this egoless oneness falls away? In actual experience there is only one thing to call it, the “no-self experience”; it lends itself to no other possible articulation.
Initially, I gave up looking for this experience in the Buddhist literature. Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” And there it was – the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bulls-eye. It was a remarkable find. These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on. In the same verse he says, “Again a house thou shall not build,” clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a “true center,” a sturdy, balanced ridgepole.
As a Christian, I saw the no-self experience as the true nature of Christ’s death, the movement beyond even is oneness with the divine, the movement from God to Godhead. Though not articulated in contemplative literature, Christ dramatized this experience on the cross for all ages to see and ponder. Where Buddha described the experience, Christ manifested it without words; yet they both make the same statement and reveal the same truth – that ultimately, eternal life is beyond self or consciousness. After one has seen it manifested or heard it said, the only thing left is to experience it.
Stephan: You mention in The Path to No-Self that the unitive state is the “true state in which God intended every person to live his mature years.” Yet so few of us ever achieve this unitive state. What is it about the way we live right now that prevents us from doing so? Do you think it is our preoccupation with material success, technology, and personal accomplishment?
Bernadette: First of all, I think there are more people in the state of oneness than we realize. For everyone we hear about there are thousands we will never hear about. Believing this state to be a rare achievement can be an impediment in itself. Unfortunately, those who write about it have a way of making it sound more extraordinary and blissful that it commonly is, and so false expectations are another impediment – we keep waiting and looking for an experience or state that never comes. But if I had to put my finger on the primary obstacle, I would say it is having wrong views of the journey.
Paradoxical though it may seem, the passage through consciousness or self moves contrary to self, rubs it the wrong way – and in the end, will even rub it out. Because this passage goes against the grain of self, it is, therefore, a path of suffering. Both Christ and Buddha saw the passage as one of suffering, and basically found identical ways out. What they discovered and revealed to us was that each of us has within himself or herself a “stillpoint” – comparable, perhaps to the eye of a cyclone, a spot or center of calm, imperturbability, and non-movement. Buddha articulated this central eye in negative terms as “emptiness” or “void”, a refuge from the swirling cyclone of endless suffering. Christ articulated the eye in more positive terms as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Spirit within”, a place of refuge and salvation from a suffering self.
For both of them, the easy out was first to find that stillpoint and then, by attaching ourselves to it, by becoming one with it, to find a stabilizing, balanced anchor in our lives. After that, the cyclone is gradually drawn into the eye, and the suffering self comes to an end. And when there is no longer a cyclone, there is also no longer an eye. So the storms, crises, and sufferings of life are a way of finding the eye. When everything is going our way, we do not see the eye, and we feel no need to find it. But when everything is going against us, then we find the eye. So the avoidance of suffering and the desire to have everything go our own way runs contrary to the whole movement of our journey; it is all a wrong view. With the right view, however, one should be able to come to the state of oneness in six or seven years – years not merely of suffering, but years of enlightenment, for right suffering is the essence of enlightenment. Because self is everyone’s experience underlying all culture. I do not regard cultural wrong views as an excuse for not searching out right views. After all, each person’s passage is his or her own; there is no such thing as a collective passage.
In the study of theology, if one studies long enough, it’s likely that they will come across a method of study called, “Via Negativa.”
Via Negativa is the Latin for, “The Negative Way.” It’s a type of theological thinking that attempts to describe God by negation— to speak only in terms of what may not be said about God.
The Irish theologian and philosopher, John Scotus Erigena defined Via Negativa as such:
“We do not know what God is. God does not know what God is because God is not any created thing. Literally God is not, because God transcends being.” - John Scotus Erigena
When he says, “God is not anything,” and, “God is not,” Erigena doesn’t mean that there is no God. Instead, he means that God cannot be said to exist in the way that other things exist. He’s using negative language to emphasize that God is something “other.”
This way of thinking is a struggle for those of us in living here in the west, because we pride ourselves (especially those of us who are Evangelical) in knowing who and what God is, and how to explain God in simple terms so that our friends and neighbors can understand what we believe.
Though this way of thinking about God is useful in smalltalk, it falls horribly short when it comes to discussing the deeper things. It makes the Divine something cheap— something that can be read off of an index card— when in truth, we can’t even explain a grain of salt in such with such simplicity.
Think about your life for a second. Think back over the years that you have lived on this earth. Do you remember when you were in grade school? High school? What about college? Think of all that you wanted to do and be in this life that, for some reason just never materialized for you.
I think back over my own life, look at where I am today, and I can’t draw any sort of line between the various stages of chaos and disorder that have caused me to arrive where I did. I never planned to be where I am. In fact, growing up in a pastor’s home, becoming a pastor was the one thing in my life that I said I would never do. Yet, now that I am, I realize that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life.
Had I gotten everything that I wanted when I wanted it and how I wanted it, I’d be something else. Life is strange like that. We are taught at a very young age to set our sights and pursue our dreams, but in all the setting and pursuing our lives seem to drift off course. We are pointed at something, but we never reach it.
Realizing that we arrive where we are supposed to arrive, not with determination, skill, or a carefully crafted plan, but because of chaos and disorder, is so important for us to learn and own. This is grace at work in us.
Do you really want what you think you want? Could it be that getting everything that you want in this life would turn you into something that you would detest in the long run?
All of the avoidance and the padding that we build into the construct of our lives and our routines to keep us from experiencing the smallest bit of dissatisfaction— could that be why we are so unfulfilled in the deepest parts of us?
In 1934 John O’Hara published his first novel, titled, “An Appointment In Samarra.” The book title is borrowed from on an old Mesopotamian tale about a merchant’s servant who is trying to avoid Death, a character in the story.
The tale goes like this:
A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant down to the marketplace for provisions. Soon afterward, the servant came home, white as a ghost and trembling. He told the merchant that he saw Death in the marketplace and that she made a threatening gesture toward him.
Borrowing the merchant’s horse, the servant fled at great speed to Samarra (a city about 75 miles away) where he knew Death would never find him.
The merchant, intrigued by the story of his servant went down to the marketplace to question Death about why she made the threatening gesture toward his servant. Death replied, “That was not a threatening gesture that I made. On the contrary, I was startled to see him in Baghdad, for I knew that I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
We all have all have appointments with things that we are trying to avoid. And the harder that we try to avoid them, we put ourselves right in their path.
What are you avoiding in your life today? What are you terrified of?
Instead of running from it, maybe you need to run toward it, embrace it, and learn from it.
Category:Parker J. Palmer
“…I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept.”
— The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton
I met Thomas Merton a year after he died. I met him through his writing and through the communion that lies “beyond words,” met him in the seamless way good friends meet again after a long time apart. Without Merton’s friendship and the hope it has given me over the past forty-five years, I’m not sure I could have kept faith with my vocation, even as imperfectly as I have.
My vocational journey to what Merton calls “the margin of society” — at least, the margin of my known world — began in 1969 when I was completing my doctoral work at Berkeley. As the 1960s unfolded, the academic calling that brought me to graduate school had become less and less audible. Vietnam, a spate of assassinations, race riots and “the fire next time” in several major American cities — all of this had me hearing an insistent inner voice saying, “Your vocation is in the community, not the classroom.”
I turned down several opportunities to become a professor, and in July of 1969 moved with my wife and two children to Washington, D.C., to begin work as a community organizer. No one could understand what I was doing, beyond committing professional suicide. In truth, I could not explain it to myself, except to say that it was something I “couldn’t not do,” despite the clear odds against success.
I had no training or experience as a community organizer; much of the work had to be funded by grants I had no track record at raising; and I was an idealistic and thin-skinned young man temperamentally unsuited for the hard-nosed world of community organizing. Compared to accepting a salaried and secure faculty post, as such posts were back in the day, I was stepping off the edge into “a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk.” Companions would have been comforting, but few are to be found when you go over the cliff.
Thomas Merton at a picnic at Gethsemane in 1967. (The John Jacob Niles Photographic Collection / © All Rights Reserved)
After five months in D.C. — when the thrill of my free-fall had been replaced by the predictable bruises, cuts, and broken bones — I walked into a used book store near Dupont Circle. A friend had recommended that I read The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. It was not on the shelf, but in the place where it would have been was another book I knew nothing about: The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. I remember thinking, “It’s about a mountain and the author’s surname begins with M. Close enough…” So I bought it.
That was early in December, 1969. Merton, I soon learned, had died almost exactly one year earlier. But he came alive as I read his autobiography, as he had for millions before me. I never felt that I had merely discovered a new author worth reading. Instead, I knew I had met a kindred spirit who understood me better than anyone alive, better than I understood myself, a fellow traveler who could accompany me on the strange path I had chosen — or had it chosen me?
Wanting to learn more about my new friend, I set out to read everything he wrote. As Merton devotees know, this turned into a lifetime project. The man published at least sixty books, and that counts only those published while he was alive: I’ve lost count of how many more have been published since his death. Merton’s posthumous literary output is, I believe, the first documented case of “perish and publish.”
A few years after I began reading Merton, I learned about his correspondence with Louis Massignon, a French scholar who introduced Western readers to the life and work of al-Hallaj, a ninth century Muslim mystic. Massignon felt that his relation to al-Hallaj was not so much that of a scholar to his subject as it was “a friendship, a love, a rescue.” He did not mean that he had rescued al-Hallaj from historical obscurity, but that the Muslim mystic had reached out across time to rescue him.
That’s what Merton did for me as I read and re-read The Seven Storey Mountain. Forty years later, I’m still reading him, still finding friendship, love, and rescue — essential elements in serving as a messenger of hope. Imparting hope to others has nothing to do with exhorting or cheering them on. It has everything to do with relationships that honor the soul, encourage the heart, inspire the mind, quicken the step, and heal the wounds we suffer along the way.
Merton has companioned me on my journey and illumined my path, offering life-giving ways to look at where I’ve been, where I am right now, and where I’m headed. I want to say a few words about four of those ways.
John Howard Griffin
The Quest for True Self
First comes the pivotal distinction Merton makes between “true self” and “false self,” which helped me understand why I walked away from the groves of academe toward terra incognita. No reasonable person would call my early vocational decision “a good career move.” But looking at it through Merton’s eyes, I came to see that it was a first step on a life-long effort to be responsive to the imperatives of true self, the source of that inner voice that kept saying, “You can’t not do this.”
I grew up in the Methodist Church, and I value the gifts that tradition gave me. But at no point on my religious journey — which included religious studies at college, a year at Union Theological Seminary, a Ph.D. in the sociology of religion, and active memberships in several mainline Protestant denominations — was I introduced to the contemplative stream of spirituality that Merton lived and wrote about. His notion of the quest for true self eventually led me to Quakerism, with its conviction that “there is that of God in every person.” The quest for true self and the quest for God: it’s a distinction without a difference, one that not only salvaged my spiritual life but took me deeper into it.
“Most of us,” as Merton brilliantly observed, “live lives of self-impersonation.” I cannot imagine a sadder way to die than with the sense that I never showed up here on earth as my God-given self. If Merton had offered me nothing else, the encouragement to live from true self would be more than enough to call his relation to me “a friendship, a love, a rescue.”
Bob Cunnane, John Howard Yoder, and Thomas Merton in conversation at the 1964 peacemaker retreat. (Jim Forest)
The Promise of Paradox
The notion of paradox was central to Merton’s spiritual and intellectual life, not merely as a philosophical concept but as a lived reality. Given the many apparent contradictions of my life, nothing Merton wrote brought him closer to me in spirit than the epigraph to The Sign of Jonas: “…I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.” It is no accident that my first book featured a lead essay on Merton and was titled The Promise of Paradox.
Merton taught me the importance of looking at life not merely in terms of either-or but also in terms of both-and. Paradoxical thinking of this sort is key to creativity, which comes from the capacity to entertain apparently contradictory ideas in a way that stretches the mind and opens the heart to something new. Paradox is also a way of being that’s key to wholeness, which does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.
For me, the ability to hold life paradoxically became a life-saver. Among other things, it helped me integrate three devastating experiences of clinical depression, which were as dark for me as it must have been for Jonas inside the belly of that whale. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the question that came time and again as my quest for light plunged me into darkness. In response, Merton’s lived understanding of paradox came to my rescue. Eventually I was able to see that the closer I move to the source of light, the deeper my shadow becomes. To be whole I have to be able to say I am both shadow and light.
Paradoxical thinking can also save us from the crimped and cramped versions of faith that bedevil Christianity and are, at bottom, idolatries that elevate our theological formulae above the living God. Merton — who had a deep appreciation of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufism — once put this in words so fierce that, if taken seriously, could generate enough energy to transform the Christian world:
The Cross is the sign of contradiction — destroying the seriousness of the Law, of the Empire, of the armies…. But the magicians keep turning the cross to their own purposes. Yes, it is for them too a sign of contradiction: the awful blasphemy of the religious magician who makes the cross contradict mercy! This is of course the ultimate temptation of Christianity! To say that Christ has locked all the doors, has given one answer, settled everything and departed, leaving all life enclosed in the frightful consistency of a system outside of which there is seriousness and damnation, inside of which there is the intolerable flippancy of the saved — while nowhere is there any place left for the mystery of the freedom of divine mercy which alone is truly serious, and worthy of being taken seriously.”
— from “To Each His Darkness” in Raids on the Unspeakable
Untitled photo of Thomas Merton, 1967-68. (Ralph Eugene Meatyard)
The Call to Community
For several years after the 1948 publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, the Abbey of Gethsemani was flooded with young men who wanted to join Merton in the monastic life. Though I came to the party twenty years late, I too wanted in. But I had a few liabilities when it came to becoming a Trappist monk, including a wife, three children, and Protestant tendencies. I needed to find another way into “life together” in a spiritual community.
So in 1974, I left my community organizing in Washington, D.C. and moved with my family to a Quaker living-learning community called Pendle Hill, located near Philadelphia. For the next eleven years, I shared a daily round of worship, study, work, social outreach, and communal meals with some seventy people in a spiritually-grounded community that was as close as I could get to my image of the life Merton lived. That image was of a “community of solitudes,” of “being alone together,” of a way of life in which a group of people could live more fully into Rilke’s definition of love: “that two (or more) solitudes border, protect and salute one another.”
This is not the place to write about the many ways a decade-plus at Pendle Hill deepened and strengthened my sense of vocation, a topic I have explored elsewhere. Suffice it to say that in the Quaker tradition I found a way to join the inner journey with social concerns, and eventually founded a national non-profit, the Center for Courage & Renewal, whose mission is to help people “rejoin soul and role.” My experience at Pendle Hill also gave me the impetus to take one more step toward “the margin of society.” For the past quarter century, I have worked independently as a writer, teacher, and activist, unsheltered by any institution.
When my courage to work at the margins wavers, I take heart in what Merton said in his final talk, given to a conference of monks in Bangkok a few hours before he died. Quoting a Tibetan lama who was forced to flee his monastery and his homeland, Merton advised the monks, “From now on, Brother, everybody stands on his own feet.” In words that ring true for me at a time in history when our major social institutions — religious, economic, and political institutions — are profoundly dysfunctional, Merton goes on to say:
“…we can no longer rely on being supported by structures that may be destroyed at any moment by a political power or a political force. You cannot rely on structures. They are good and they should help us, and we should do the best we can with them. But they may be taken away, and if everything is taken away, what do you do next?”
Untitled photo of Thomas Merton with friends, 1967-68. (Ralph Eugene Meatyard)
Hidden Wholeness in a Broken World
As the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously reminded us, “things fall apart.” But in “Hagia Sophia,” one of Merton’s most lyrical pieces, he writes about the “hidden wholeness” the spiritual eye can discern beneath the broken surface of things — whether it’s a broken political system, a broken relationship, or a broken heart:
“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.
These words, too, have served as a source of hope for me. Once one has eyes to see it, wholeness can always be discovered, hidden beneath the broken surface of things. This is more than a soothing notion. It’s an insight that can shape what the Buddhists call “right action,” if we have eyes to see. Here’s an instance of what I mean.
In the early 1970s — as I was reading Merton and learning about organizing for racial justice in a rapidly changing neighborhood — I began to understand that my job was not to try to compel people to do things they did not want to do, such as protesting against unscrupulous real estate practices like blockbusting and redlining. Instead, I needed to give them excuses and permissions to do things they really wanted to do — things related to the justice agenda — but were too shy or fearful to do under their own steam.
For example, the people in the neighborhood where I lived and worked had already run from “the other” once, driven by the fear that animates white flight. But in their heart of hearts, they had come to understand that there is no place left to run, no place to escape the diversity of the human community, and that embracing it might bring them peace and enrich their lives.
I knew that step one in stopping real estate practices that manipulate fear for profit was simple: give the old-timers and the newcomers frequent chances to meet face-to-face so they could learn that “the other” came bearing blessings, not threats. But instead of asking folks to do the impossible — e.g., “Just knock on a stranger’s door and get to know whoever answers” — my colleagues and I began creating “excuses and permissions” for natural interactions: door-to-door surveys, block parties, ethnic food fairs, and living room conversations about shared interests, to name a few.
Amid the racial tensions of our era, we helped people act on their deep-down desire to live in the “hidden wholeness” that lies beneath the broken surface of our lives. And it worked. Over time, because of our efforts and those of many others, a community that might have ended up shattered became diverse and whole.
Things do not always work out so well, of course. History is full of tragically failed visions of possibility, and the more profound the vision, the more likely we are to fall short of achieving it. But even here, Merton has a word of hope for us, a paradoxical word, of course:
“…do not depend on the hope of results. …you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.”
As long as we are wedded to “effectiveness” we will take on smaller and smaller tasks, for they are the only ones with which we can get results. If we want to witness to important but impossible values like love, truth and justice, there must be a standard that trumps effectiveness. The name of that standard is “faithfulness.” At the end of the road, I will not be asking about outcomes. I’ll be asking if I was faithful to my gifts, to the needs I saw around me, to the ways in which my gifts might meet those needs, to “the truth of the work itself.”
For helping me understand this — and for imbuing me with the faith that, despite my many flaws, I might be able to live this way — I owe a debt of deep gratitude to Thomas Merton, friend, fellow traveler, and messenger of hope.
(I have saved my favorite Merton line for the end of this piece, relegating it to the status of a footnote to keep myself from prattling on about it: “I had a pious thought, but I am not going to write it down.&rdquo
This essay appears in We Are Already One: Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope — Reflections in Honor of His Centenary (1915-2015) from Fons Vitae Press.
PARKER J. PALMER
is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.
He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.
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We live in unprecedented times. Science is answering age-old questions about the nature of reality, the birth of the cosmos, and the origins of life. We are witnessing technological advances that a century ago would have seemed science fiction, or even magic. And, more alarmingly, we are becoming increasingly aware of the impact our burgeoning growth is having on the planet. Yet, along with these rapidly unfolding changes is another development that is passing largely unnoticed. We are in the midst of an unprecedented spiritual renaissance, rediscovering in contemporary terms the timeless wisdom of the ages.
Most spiritual traditions began with an individual having a transforming mystical experience, some profound revelation, or inner awakening. It may have come through dedicated spiritual practice, deep devotion, facing a hard challenge, or sometimes unbidden, out of the blue—a timeless moment in which one’s personal dramas pale in the light of a deep inner security. However it came, it usually led to a delightful joy in being alive, an unconditional love for all beings, the dissolving of the sense of self, and an awareness of oneness with creation.
The profound transformation they experienced caused many to want to share their discovery, and help others have their own awakening. But those who listened to their teachings may have misunderstood some parts, forgot others, and perhaps added interpretations of their own. Much like the party game of Chinese whispers in which a message whispered round a room can end up nothing like the original, as the teaching passed from one person to another, from one culture to another, and was translated from one language to another, it gradually became less and less like the original. The timeless wisdom became increasingly veiled, and clothed in the beliefs and values of the society in which it found itself, resulting in a diversity of faiths whose common essence is often hard to detect.
Today however, we are in the midst of a widespread spiritual renaissance that differs significantly from those of the past. We are no longer limited to the faith of our particular culture; we have access to all the world’s wisdom traditions, from the dawn of recorded history to the present day. And the insights of contemporary teachers from around the planet are readily available in books, recordings, and via the Internet. None of this was possible before.
Rather than there being a single leader, there are now many experiencing and expounding the perennial philosophy. Some may be more visible than others, and some may have clearer realizations than others, but all are contributing to a growing rediscovery of the timeless wisdom. We are seeing through the apparent differences of the world’s faiths, past their various cultural trappings and interpretations, to what lies at their heart. And, instead of the truth becoming progressively diluted and veiled as it is passed on, today our discoveries are reinforcing each other. We are collectively honing in on the essential teaching.
As we strip away the layers of accumulated obscurity, the core message not only gets clearer and clearer. It gets simpler and simpler. And the path becomes easier and easier.
At the leading edge of this progressive awakening is what contemporary teachers such as Francis Lucille and Rupert Spira call “the direct path”. Recognition of our true nature does not need studious reading of spiritual texts, years of meditation practice, or deep devotion to a teacher; only the willingness to engage in a rigorously honest investigation into the nature of awareness itself. Not an intellectual investigation, but a personal investigation into what we truly are.
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