1. The contemplative life
2. The three vows
4. Unconditional love
5. Getting perspective
6. Role of teacher/guru
Materials needed: Journal, drawing materials
A listening heart
* The path to love
* Living from the heart
The way of the heart
* If today you hear God's voice
* Like a thousand suns
* The Holy Bible
* Parabola: Myth, Tradition and the Search for Meaning: The teacher
Parabola: The Magazine of Myth and Tradition: Solitude and Community
Exercises and practices:
The three vows
Prayer of Jesus
The water breath
* You will already have these books.
The Contemplative Life
Steindl-Rast (1983) says the heart is ". . the center of our being where we are most fully one with all that we are and all that is" (p. 7). Contemplation is the method used to access the heart and seek to heal the separations of this life. It means seeing what is really there beyond the illusions created by the ego and false self. It means going beyond our mental concepts, ideas and opinions to a more direct perception of reality as it is. Contemplation creates an openness to divine wisdom, and trust in the soul's opening process. It leads us to commit ourselves to becoming awake and staying awake in the midst of life. In contemplation we lose our egos and find our souls.
Christians say the goal is to grow into Christ-consciousness. Gunzel (1992) says Christ-consciousness is ". . a sense of self, fully aware of the unity of all being in the life of the creator" (p. 72). Blavatsky (quoted in Iyer, 1987) in an article on the mystery of Christostells us that Christos is the glorified Spirit of 'TRUTH,' the reunion with which makes the soul (the Son) ONE with the (Father) Spirit" (p. 50-51). This means becoming one with the Divine One, overcoming duality and separation. So we need to take a larger meaning of "Christ" in this context. When we do, we see that Christ-consciousness means we are conscious of our own innate divinity. Jesus would probably not object to this definition since he was the one who said, "I and my Father are One" (John, 10:30) and "Is it not so written in your law, I said, you are gods?" (John 10:34) This realization is sometimes called a rebirth, an initiation or a second birth.
If we choose a contemplative life, that means we choose to devote all
our time and energies to the realization of this unitive Christ-consciousness.
To do so, we need
the encouragement, support and guidance of others because it is virtually impossible to govern ego without outside assistance. Perhaps we seek out a monastic community. Steindl-Rast (1983) says, "Contemplative life is basically the attempt to expose oneself to the meaning of any given moment (through detachment, celibacy, obedience) in unlimited mindfulness" (p. 29). He goes on to say, ". . solitude is an integral part of this tradition in all its forms" (p. 29). Members live together in community to protect each other's solitude from both loneliness and misguided togetherness. It is retreat in the midst of community.
Exercise: Contemplative living
1. Read the Introduction and pages 15-30 in A listening heart.
What is the basis of a contemplative community? What are its most
At the other extreme is a monastery where individuals may spend their days in silence except for the prayers and chanting that occur several times a day. Some members may be cloistered in their cells with food left at their doors. They never see another person for days, weeks, months, sometimes years on end. How can they do that? And why would anyone want to? Other members of the monastery community may go out into the community to teach or otherwise offer selfless service to the world. They are said to be "in the world, but not of it." What does that mean?
Then there are others who follow the same precepts but without benefit of the protection offered by a cloister. There may be some in your midst, unrecognized mystics who are also "in the world, but not of it." You would know them by their equanimity, contentment, quietness and cheerfulness. But this person may be working in your local McDonalds, as a janitor, delivering your mail, or checking out your groceries at the local supermarket. Some are ministers or priests, but usually they go about their work in the world just like you and me. Only their demeanor is different. The last picture in the ox-herding series is of the man coming back into the marketplace with helping hands, a bodhisattva. This is one who has renounced enlightenment in order to help others. Joseph Campbell (1973) called it the "Return." He says that the one who survives re-entry into the world after the hero's journey becomes a master of the two worlds. This is a person who has been through the crack between the worlds and returned. What does this symbolism mean?
To leave the world means to sacrifice the ego, false self and all pretense at separation from all that is. It means to go to the bottom of one's existence and to gaze at the remains of wanting and needing, to be in hell from the ego's point of view. It means to renounce the world, attachments to others and all forms of self-will. When this is done, the world no longer has any pull. Therefore, the person can live in it without any attachments or desires. In order to do this, one has to be able to tolerate aloneness and solitude.
Choosing to leave the world, whether actually or symbolically, is a mammoth decision because it may involve others: family and friends, as well as one's own self. Any form of dependence or co-dependency is an impediment. So, if you change the rules of relationship by renouncing attachments, you may expect hostility from your partners, family members and friends. Of course, if you only do this in your mind, others may not notice anything except more acceptance of their behaviors on your part. A choice to renounce attachments does not mean that a person necessarily must give up being in a community. In fact, it is extremely difficult to maintain solitude without the support of a community of similarly motivated others. For this reason, in the past, people who intended to travel this path have founded monasteries, ashrams, abbeys, convents and other forms of sacred, intentional communities. They live together but do not engage in the usual social interactions. They are spiritual friends and relate to the God within each other. The "namaste" that is delivered by Hindus with palms together and a slight bow means, "The Divine in me salutes the Divine in you." This is the type of covenant that is made in spiritual communities. Only rarely do family members or friends follow you in making such a commitment. And, consequently, they may feel rejected, abandoned and extremely angry when you do especially if they have no basis for understanding your need to do so.
This unit is about a stage of spiritual development that transcends daily life in the world. So we will be reading about life in the desert (a metaphor for monastic life) and studying some of the practices that take us to higher levels of consciousness. In Christianity, a cloistered center is called a convent if it is for women and a monastery if it is for men. An abbey may be either. In Yoga, such a place is called an ashram which is defined as a place where the guru lives with his/her disciples who are in training. In Buddhism, it is called a monastery, dharma center or lamasery if it is home to lamas (Tibet). In Sufism, the one center I know of is called The Abode. In the past, most monasteries were segregated by sex probably because residents were required to be celibate. More recently, visitors of the opposite sex are allowed and most modern ashrams are coed.
To give you a flavor of life in a monastery, I will describe life in the ashram with which I am most familiar. Usually there are levels of participation in the ashram activities. The newest residents, and often the temporary ones, follow a fairly rigid schedule and do most of the mundane work such as cooking, cleaning and gardening. They will have a mentor and will be expected to attend classes and engage in spiritual practices as well as attend satsangs regularly. When ready, the person may take a mantra initiation which involves a vow of obedience to the guru and receipt of a personal mantra which must be practiced faithfully. A Sanskrit name may be given at this point. After a pre-arranged period of time, the person may petition for a kind of apprentice status or conditional residency and may take a second initiation into brahmacharya which entails a vow of celibacy. Still later, full membership in the community may be achieved, often followed by a third initiation into sannyas which requires a vow of renunciation and formal clothing restrictions, i.e., the orange robes, saris and shaven heads. This is an oversimplification and may vary from one monastery to another, but the sequence of vows will be similar. The vows are not necessaily tied to the residency status. Meditation may or may not be required. It was not required where I was, but I believe it is in most such settings. Some monasteries require silence throughout the day, others may only require it at meals, others not at all. Likewise, schedules vary in flexibility. Most start the day at 4 AM with chanting or prayers or meditation. And most end the day with some sort of ritual gathering for prayers, chanting and meditation. In between there may be any number of practices, observances and classes that are required.
You could expect not to have a life of your own, and there is a reason for this. The main focus is on training ego and the mind. So every time you turn around, you are getting another ego lesson. It can be extremely painful, and many people drop out. But it does test your commitment to the sacred path and your willingness to go the distance. Often, if not always, aspirants who want to take up residence are asked to make substantial contributions from their assets and/or to burn other bridges behind them in addition to paying their room and board. I assume this tends to support the commitment during difficult times. Some places allow your work to pay your way, and this is usually the case at higher levels of commitment. In the end, what you do on a daily basis is determined by someone else and is not your choice. It is viewed as selfless service and regarded as a spiritual practice. I know of nothing else in the world that is like it. Churches and conventional worship rituals do not even come close.
Exercise: Monastery life
1. Take a look at pages 314-321 in The path to love.
2. In Living from the heart, read chapter 11 on the earth element and begin to work with the practices. These will help you to ground yourself.
3. If you have the opportunity, visit a monastery or do a retreat in one.
The Three Vows
There are generally three vows taken by monks and nuns which may bear slightly different names depending upon the tradition in which they are found, but the essence is the same. These are obedience, chastity (celibacy, brahmacharya) and renunciation (poverty, sannyas). These are disciplines that train the ego and enable the supplicant to endure the solitary life in God.
Steindl-Rast (1983) defines obedience as learning to listen. "Obedience in the full sense is the process of attuning the heart to the simple call contained in the complexity of a given situation" (p. 10). By tuning in to the heart, we can find the meaning in our lives. These descriptions are deceptively easy. They require constant vigilance so as to stay in the moment and the mindfulness to attend to everything that is transpiring directly before us. There is no option for day-dreaming. In fact, the Buddhist mindfulness training is exactly the same thing as obedience as explained by the Christians. We practice this in a number of ways: by listening to others, tuning in to nature, trying to get in touch with our hearts, listening to God in prayer and meditation. We do everything when it is time rather than when we want to. The practices require us to stay in the moment and to be silent, so we can hear.
Exercise: The Three Vows
1. Read pages 9-14 & 31-56 in A listening heart.
What is the listening heart and why does Steindl-Rast put it at the center
of monastic life? What is the inner secret, the mystery one finds
in contemplation? What is the descent and why is it necessary?
What is a peak experience? Have you ever had one? Make some
notes about what you can remember of it. What was its significance
in your life? What are the three seed experiences and how do they
relate to the three vows? How does loneliness become aloneness?
What does aloneness then mean? What is the mystery of obedience?
What is the goal of contemplation? What does the author mean by ".
. the monastic vocation is not primarily a Christian, but a basic human
phenomenon?" How does a monastery differ from a regular conference
center or other intentional communities?
Silence. Silence creates space for detachment and meditation. It helps us to govern our speech and to get in touch with the inner domains. However, this is not a silence to dread but one to cultivate. Steindl-Rast (1983) says, "Monastic silence is not dead silence; it is alive with the presence of mystery like the silence of a deep forest . . . And all this recollected silence is intent on one goal: 'to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time' - the still point" (p. 80-81).
Read the Prologue and pages 27-49 in The way of the heart.
Then sit with what you have learned for a time until it settles.
For the next week or so, keep notes on how you feel in silence vs how you
feel when you are talking. Is it possible to be silent inside while
you are in the midst of your daily chores? Is there talking going
on in the silences? If so, who is talking? How might you establish
quiet on the inner levels?
Independence. Steindl-Rast (1983) says one of the goals of monastic training is independence. By this he means inner freedom, freedom from enslavement primarily to the ego's self-will, prejudices and preconceived notions. Strangely, to accomplish this, we hand over the direction of all our time to a mentor. However, this is for the sake of guidance, and, when we have mastered the disciplines, we are on our own. In my experience, the most freeing thing that happened to me at the ashram was getting rid of the need for the approval of others. In a sense, you learn to listen to or to be governed by a higher power. And this frees you from your social conditioning to always bow to feedback from others. But you cannot hear this higher power unless you learn how to quiet your mind and speech.
Chastity means purity which goes well beyond the usual understanding of it as celibacy although that is included in the concept. Purification is one of the major stages in the spiritual journey following awakening. It is necessary to clarify all of one's ideas and motivations through extensive self-examination and investigation in order to attain liberation from the egomind. Because the ego is the primary deterrent to Self-realization and the transcendence of dualism, we have to look at and get rid of all of its separative tendencies. What this amounts to is becoming free of our neurotic hangups. In the Christian tradition, this is called purgation and is sometimes relegated to purgatory after death which offers a convenient excuse not to deal with it in the present. In the eastern traditions, we would be looking at more lives in which to suffer and cleanse ourselves instead. However, given the current state of the world, would you want to come back?
Another meaning of chastity is moderation which simply means not going to extremes in anything. This makes sense vis a vis purification. If we care for the body, we give it the nourishment and exercise it needs to maintain health. If we care for the mind, we do not feed it stimulation to violence, hatred, greed or other negative emotional outcomes, nor do we allow it to wander indiscriminately nor to rehearse unhealthy thoughts. If we care for others, we approach them with love and forgiveness rather than malicious gossip. Apathy is as bad as overstimulation or negativity. Lack of care allows deprivation, degradation, famine, poverty of all sorts, war, and all the rest of humanity's sufferings.
Celibacy is abstinence from the use of one's energy in sexual expression and includes not only genital contact but other forms of sexuality including thoughts. This is not to deny eros but to redirect the energy into one's spiritual journey and service to others. As you may recall from the first guidebook, we have a certain amount of neutral energy at our disposal. What we do with it is our choice. If we expend it in sexual activity, it is no longer available to us for other purposes. It is true that sexual intercourse calms the body and mind and makes us feel good. However, there is a higher form of union that far exceeds intercourse in its beneficial outcomes. It is called maithunaand is experienced as a scintillating ecstasy that may go on for days at a time. It is what happens when the bodymind-spirit is suffused with divine light. Most of the saints have described this better than I can. In Christian mysticism, it is called "rapture."
You will also remember that the kundalini energy rises from the first chakra eventually to the seventh which results in unity consciousness,samadhi, or Self-realization. Kundalini has sexual overtones probably because it is a form of prakrti or matter. So we can make the connection between sexuality and higher forms of expression. It is the same energy. We merely choose how to use or express it.
There are other reasons that are more practical for observance of celibacy in monastic communities. Active sexuality involves other motivations than genital union especially in males. It leads us to become territorial and possessive with respect to our mates often resulting in jealousy and other forms of conflict. This has an obvious function with respect to survival of the species. But, given the present state of the world's population which has doubled from 3 to more than 6 billion people since 1960 (Episcopal Life, 2001), we need not be concerned about that. Furthermore, attending to sexual urges distracts us from the focus on our spiritual direction.
The mystery of celibacy, according to Steindl-Rast (1983, p. 44) is that it moves us from exclusive belonging to one other to universal belonging or brotherhood as it is often called. However, that even goes beyond communion with others to the nurturance we enjoy when we are resting quietly in the heart of God. It seems that there is a limit to our ability to sustain close, erotic contact; and, therefore, it is better to attend to that at the highest, most inclusive level possible. We also can move from loneliness-in-isolation to solitude-in-community in a monastic setting. The latter involves bonds of friendship and love that are striking in their inclusive-ness and simultaneous regard for privacy.
Renunciation means to give up our attachments to things, people, attitudes, concepts and preconceptions, ideas, opinions, self-will and all else that will distract us from the love of God and dedication to the spiritual life. We tend to think of renunciation as what we do when we give up meat for lent. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we refuse meat for lent but spend our energies longing for it, that is not renunciation. It is rather the attachment to the idea of meat that is what needs to be renounced. That may be symbolized by abstinence from eating it, but the essential benefit accrues from learning to not want it.
All addictions are attachments. They come from the emptiness within that is a longing for God which will not be satisfied with anything less. The problem with attachment is that we do not usually know just exactly what it is that we want and need. So we hook into the most likely sources and then wonder why we are still dissatisfied.
Poverty is a word often used for renunciation because it focuses attention on the "needs and wants" perspective. In a monastic community, residents are encouraged, sometimes required, to live as simply as possible reducing their needs and wants to subsistence levels. In India, aspirants often go into the hills and live in caves surviving on only what others bring them to eat in order to discipline their attachments. This route is only recommended in the east where it is customary for everyone to feed wandering monks and nuns. But you get the point. There is a comparable movement in the west toward observing voluntary simplicity which means living lightly on the earth using only what we need and restoring as much as possible back to the earth. At the same time, sustainable agriculture is observed. This is not only good for the soul, it results in a healthy body as well.
Self-will. Self-will, or wanting one's own way, is the most resistant form of attachment probably because it is directly related to control which is the central issue for ego's survival. It can take numerous forms including judging, self-justification, self-importance, arrogance, pedanticism, manipulation and dominance, to name a few. It is true that we need to learn how to control others and the environment to the extent of being able to protect ourselves, but most of us go way beyond what is essential. It is characteristic of Americans, in particular, to believe that we can control everything around us and bring it to serve our own selfish desires. This attitude is about to destroy the planet and is creating extremely serious group karma for us.
The will is what enables us to direct and take action in the world, so it is very necessary to our ability to function. However, it needs to be educated, or re-educated, to take others and the environment into consideration. When it merely serves our own egos, it is pure, egocentric selfishness. Jesus said, "Not my will but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42). Another version from the Hermetic tradition with similar meaning is "As above, so below." This means that the microcosm (individual) is a reflection of the macrocosm (whole). Since this is so, the individual must, eventually, do the will of the Ultimate One. That we do not always do so is the result of free will or choice which, incidently, is a gift of the fourth chakra and the Seal of Solomon according to the Pentagrammatica Libertas (quoted in Sadhu, 1978, p. 134).
It is important to take this discipline a little bit at a time, as we can manage it, rather than risk failure. The ego cannot be mastered all at once especially in those who have devoted a lifetime to satisfying it which is probably why most people do not attempt it. It is best to secure some guidance when you are ready to undertake it, so you can get some objective feedback on your progress. In addition, teachers and guides usually know of practices and exercises that facilitate and hasten one's development. Many of those who set out on this course cloister themselves with others who are working on these same issues under the guidance of a master. The monastic life is geared to the practices of obedience, chastity and renunciation which are primary steps in the ego purification process.
Solitude is a voluntary and authentic withdrawal from social life in order to come to terms with our aloneness. Nouwen (1991, p. 9) says, "Our society is. . a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul." Solitude is the "furnace of transformation," he says (p. 13), where we struggle with our compulsions, meet the living God and engineer the death of the false self. Solitude is a place of purification and encounter in which the transformation can take place. "Silence completes and intensifies solitude" (p. 27) because it screens out the distractions that enable the ego defenses of the false self to operate. The fruit of solitude is compassion.
1. Read pages 7-26 in The way of the heart. What happens to the false self during solitude? Who is the True Self? What is compassion? What is the goal of our lives?
2. Read chapter 13 in If today you hear God's voice. Compare Gunzel's ideas about solitude with Nouwen's. What is prayer for? How does he define sin? What does he say about compassion? What happens in solitude according to Gunzel?
3. In Parabola: Solitude and community, read "Dweller in the cave of the heart" by Wayne Teasdale, "Between work and prayer, prayer and work" by Thomas Merton, and "On solitude and the attainment of God" by Meister Eckhart. Compare these three views on the monastic life. Which would you prefer?
Remembrance. Re-member means to put oneself back together again. It also means to recall who we really are. The putting back together is part of the self-reflection process. We sit and allow the unconscious to unfold while we watch without interfering. What happens first is that all the repressed contents re-emerge and we get to meet the shadow, all those parts of ourselves that were not acceptable to others. Trauma that we could not cope with at the time may also come forth. This part of the process is like psychotherapy and is specifically engaged in Centering Prayer. We need to accept and integrate all the negative aspects of ourselves that have not been acknowledged. In the process, they can be transmuted so their negativities, where there are such, cannot do any further damage. Gunzel (1992)says,
And Kabir (Tagore, 1995) says:
1. Read chapter 14 and the conclusion in If today you hear God's voice. Can you see how repressed matter constitutes sin? Remember our definition of sin as that which is separating. How does remembrance contribute to soul retrieval? How do we deal with resistance from the ego? What does it mean to "surrender to the God-life within?"
2. Continue to work with Centering Prayer.
Cultivate receptivity. In solitude when nothing else can disturb us, we can realign our attention to focus on the Divine One. When we master the art of silence, the voice of Spirit can come through, and we can receive information and instruction. We are obedient, listening for whatever the Higher Power wishes to give to us. It is impossible to receive a direct knowledge of God's love and compassion when we are wrapped up in the chaos of daily living. Solitude is necessary. If it is not practical for us to step out of our usual activities to visit a monastery, we can still create periods of stillness and quiet, so this can happen. Your daily meditation practice is an excellent beginning.
If you are not already engaged in a regular meditation practice, now
is the time to begin one. If you do have such a practice, check to
see what is going on in it. You might want to begin a meditation
log to track your progress if you have not already done so. Are you
quiet and unengaged with other thoughts? Do you experience times
of utter stillness when you lose awareness of your ego and false self?
Can you hear Spirit?
Prayer. Nouwen (1991) introduces us to the prayer of the heart which is unceasing after sufficient practice. He says that Hesychastic prayer means to "come to rest" in God. Hesychasm means "come to rest." An hesychast is one "who seeks solitude and silence for unceasing prayer" (p. 53). Nouwen says that "Prayer is standing in the presence of God with the mind in the heart" (p. 59). Can you get a mental picture of that? It seems to be so difficult to imagine oneself in the heart center. Does it help to picture the mind there? Nouwen also calls the heart the seat of will and a place where the soul can rest in God. You may recall that the Yogis also say that the seat of the mind is in the heart.
The way to God is through the heart, and the heart is the "kingdom of God" (Nouwen, 1991, p. 60), so to enter the heart is to enter the kingdom of God. We also find the Christ inside our heart: "Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you. ." (2 Corinthians, 13:5). So, according to Nouwen, "the prayer of the heart is the prayer of truth" (p. 61). He recommends this version of it: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (p. 61). A shorter version is the Prayer of Jesus.
Practice: Prayer of Jesus
1. Read the chapters on Prayer (pp. 53-73) and the Epilogue inThe way of the heart. What is unceasing prayer and why is it desirable? What is Hesychastic prayer? What does Nouwen mean by "heart?" What is the prayer of the heart? Outline his directions for how to pray? Do you think they are useful guidelines? How can one enter with the mind into the heart?
2. Practice the Prayer of Jesus.
This version of the prayer comes from The way of a pilgrim (French, 1979) which is an account of a peasant man who learned to pray without ceasing sometime between 1853 and 1861. He found a spiritual guide (starets) who taught him the prayer and, as he wandered throughout Russia, he practiced it and studied The Philokalia (Palmer, et al, 1993). The way of a pilgrim is a translation of his notes. If you would like to try it, here are his instructions (p. 30):
To prepare, you look into your heart and become aware of its beating. [If you have been doing the practices from Living from the heart, you already know how to do this.] Then, on the inhalation, look in spirit into your heart and say, "Lord Jesus Christ," On the exhalation, say "Have mercy on me" (p. 30). You practice this whenever you can remember it until it becomes autonomous in your heart and runs itself without your conscious direction.
The pilgrim (French, 1979) says the practice bears fruit in three ways:
Read chapter 12 in Like a thousand suns and compare this teaching with what you have been learning about Christian contemplation. What are the similarities and differences? What is the keynote of genuine mystical experience? Have you encountered this in the other traditions? What does advaita mean? Why does God incarnate? How do we undo or go beyond our conditioning to respond largely to the physical world rather than to the spiritual domains? How can you still the mind? What is the role of attention in stilling the mind? How can we decondition our personalities? What are the four paths recommended in the Bhagavad Gita? What makes self-will such a problem? Why is transformation of the personality referred to as a "battle?" What is the role of respect in conflict resolution and how can you solve conflicts amicably? What is the source/cause of depression according to Easwaran? How do you attain freedom in relationships? Make a list of all the ways. What are samskaras and how should we deal with them? Do you have any? If so, what are they? Describe really true Love. What is the final goal and what is the barrier?
Next, read the passage for meditation that follows chapter 12 called
"TheWay of Love." This is just a translation of this chapter of the Gita
without commentary. Taken this way, what do you see as its central
meaning? Take your time with this chapter and spread it out over
the rest of this section. You will find lots of correspondences.
Surrender to the Unknown. In the fourteenth century, a monk wrote a manuscript, presumably to a young man who was contemplating joining a monastery, about what to expect. Called The cloud of unknowing (Progoff, 1981), it is an account of the depths of spiritual journey and what it requires of the novice. The author, who is anonymous, says that a cloud hangs between us and God that prevents us from seeing Him with reason in the light of understanding. Nor can we feel Him. We can only cry out to Him with longing. This darkness, he calls the "cloud of unknowing." We yearn for God with all that is in us, but we do not know who He is. The Divine One is the Great Unknown. We cannot understand It but we can reach out to It in Love. "You are to strike that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love; and you are not to retreat no matter what comes to pass" (Progoff, 1981, p. 73).
Throughout these books, there has been a constant theme of surrender. It is exceedingly difficult to generate enough trust and faith to surrender to the unknown, but that is exactly what must be done. And this is required in the face of all our fears. We have been bombarded on all sides by warnings against cults and occultism; yes, and against mysticism too though it does not belong in the same category. So there is a great mass of ignorance in the media about what we can safely encounter in our quest for the true Divine One. So what does one do? What risks can we take? How can we minimize the risks?
Someone once said that the path is like a razor's edge. However, we can study and gain as much information about the disciplines and spiritual practices as we can. And we can learn how to discriminate between cults and genuine mysticism. As we do so, we shall see that the teachings that are true are identical in all the disciplines that are genuine. All the mystic paths teach exactly the same thing. This should be pretty obvious by now since we have explored all of the major traditions except the Native American and Taoist ones, and we will come to those presently.
Once we have learned from all the great teachers, we have to fall back upon our own truth centers. When in doubt, you may run the information through your heart center, and you will know immediately whether it is true or false. However, you must first learn to control the ego and mind as they may confuse you by giving you unreliable information that is subject to their own agendas. Still, the Higher Self knows, and when you can access this part of yourself you can and must depend upon It for guidance in these matters.
So we surrender only to the Most High, the Unknown with a capital "U" which is the unknowable Ultimate Reality. When the surrender is complete, the separation is ended and we participate in God, ". . the establishment of a fact of existence, a condition of life, in which the individual is God - and vise [sic] versa - in actuality, even if only for the briefest atom of a moment" (Progoff, 1981, p. 37). This is not an experience of God, but an identity with God. Obviously, most of us have a way to go. In the meantime, think of the practice of surrender of the ego to lesser goals as preparation for the big moment.
Redemption means that we are restored to unity. We have encountered and been reunited with the transcendental reality. Christians say they have been "saved." Being saved from sin does not necessarily mean being forgiven for doing something wrong nor even from breaking the ten commandments though that is one level of interpretation. In this context, being saved means being rescued from our illusion of separation from God and/or the overcoming of our perceptions of duality.
To put things in perspective, disobeying the ten commandments may result from separation from God, but it is not the act itself that separates. We are never separate from God as there is only one entity in existence. We become separated from the knowledge of our identity with God as a result of ego and superego development. The ego is the guilty agent, so to speak. What is considered to be right or wrong behavior is dictated by the rules and values of a society and what it deems necessary to preserve the group's identity and functioning. "God's Will" is then brought in to lend support to the laws that were created.
Balance. In the end, we have to find a balance between
unity and diversity; at least as long as we inhabit bodies and have to
cope with a physical world. I am alone in God on the one hand, yet
I live in the midst of a population of millions of so-called separate individuals
all of whom guard their individuality jealously, and most of whom have
no idea that they are an integral part of each other. The challenge
becomes one of how to be in the world, but not of it. How can I function
day to day in the world doing my appointed tasks without becoming disspirited
because no one knows who they are and, thus consequently, are unable to
love one another?
Read chapter 12 in If today you hear God's voice. What
things does Gunzel want to balance? Why? What happens if they
are not balanced? What happens when we encounter the living God?
How do we find meaning? Why is the true contemplative seeker a solitary
traveler? What is the mystical consciousness? Why do we need
to be grounded in reality? What happens to our self-awareness as
we practice? What is vulgarization of faith and why is it dangerous?
What is the role of meaninglessness in contemplation? Can you see
a new meaning for suffering in chapter 12?
The moment of truth. To make our lives meaningful, we have to find our Truth and commit to it. What is the highest value in your life? For what purpose do all your activities, thoughts and feelings direct themselves? What is your highest truth, your highest goal in life? What does the Divine in you want you to do with this life? The answers to these questions lie within your own heart, and you must seek them there. The heart center - the center of your beingness; there is where the Truth can be known.
Perhaps we have come here to learn to love. This seems a plausible hypothesis since so few of us really know how to do it. Our relationships are mostly based on reciprocal favor-granting. You meet my needs and I will meet yours. You can easily test this one out. What happens when you refuse to meet someone else's needs when they expect you to? The key word here is "expect." We are brought up to hold a certain set of expectations of others' behaviors. Among these are reciprocity in relationships. All of our manners and codes of behavior are based on reciprocity and consideration for others. That is what makes society and culture work. If we were only governed by our instincts, we would have long since annihilated the human race given our propensities to aggression. So I am not condemning social rules and mores, nor am I recommending a mass rebellion against lawful behavior.
However, if we examine our expectations of others' behaviors, we may find that most of our frustrations in relationships are due to our own thoughts about what someone else should be doing for us or with us. This involves a set of internal standards against which we judgeothers. We then hand out punishments or rewards in the form of pleasant or unpleasant behaviors on our part in return. Pretty autocratic, wouldn't you say? The sorry part is that we do all this in the name of love.
Unconditional love is unconditional. We love someone because they are there. Not because they deserve it. Not because they have done something nice to or for us. Not because we need them. Not because they give us what we want. All of that is irrelevant to real Love. Real Love is love for God - whom we all are. We are all equal before that Love. There is no provision in that position for manipulation or for judgment with all its consequences.
The practices of monastic life prepare people to love each other for God, as God. The Beloved within wishes to be known and to love and be loved. Love, lover and love are One. So, where is there room for conditions?
Practice: The Water Breath
1. Read chapter 12 in Living from the heart. Use these practices to bless those you love, and then try to transcend local loves and go into the heart of the Beloved.
2. Read pages 322-328 in The path to love.
There are a few things we might want to remember in order to help us stay oriented in the right direction whether or not we go into a monastery. Let us briefly review them.
It is important to stay centered. The center of our spiritual life is in the heart chakra. So we need to return to it again and again until reaching out into the world from that place becomes habitual. The practices from Living from the heart and the Centering Prayerwill be useful in this regard. In addition, we need to remember who we really are and make space for the Beloved to manifest through us. The more we can set ego aside, the more likely it will be that the Beloved can come through. Meditation can lead us to the stillpoint, and the more we practice, the easier it becomes to access that place in the midst of daily life.
1. Read pages 57-82 in A listening heart. What is the stillpoint? What is a peak experience? What are its characteristics? What is the ultimate meaning experience? Why does Steindl-Rast use haikus to make his point? How can the stillpoint heal duality? How do the three vows relate to the stillpoint? What is Liberation? What is the seed fruit of monastic contemplation? What happens in the ultimate self-detachment? Why do contemplatives need group support? What do we find in monastic silence? What is prayerful recollection?
2. Find or draw a mandala that represents your soul in relationship
with the Divine One. Put it on your altar and use it as a focus of
concentration practice. As you gaze at it and become it, what do
you learn about yourself? yourSelf? The Beloved?
The essence of spiritual practice and especially that of mindfulness is to stay in the present. There is no past nor future except in our minds, so to place our consciousness in either of them results in loss of the present moment in which we might be manifesting Spirit. So we need to be grounded in the Now. If you have problems with this, the Buddhist mindfulness practice is for you.
Practice: Tai Chi
Get a tape or take lessons in Tai Chi. Notice how you learn to
center and ground yourself in the hara. This is an excellent practice
for folks who are stressed out because it is quiet and slow and it helps
to bring you down from an adrenaline high.
To the extent possible, develop trust in the process of spiritual growth and development and in the Beloved. Your spiritual development is going to occur whether you do anything or not. The only reason for taking conscious control over it is to speed up the process and avoid unnecessary pain and suffering. With luck you might avoid future reincarnations as well.
Keep in mind that surrender is a gradual process, and there is no need to do violence to yourself. The days of hair shirts and self-mutilation are over. It is better to work compassionately with ego to help it release its strangle hold on control and graciously surrender to the Higher Self or to the Beloved. Love is more effective than punishment in achieving results. Far too many of us already know the suffering caused by authoritarian methods and hierarchial control systems.
Working out a system of humility maintenance is essential. It is not we who are doing any of this, so it is important to remember where the source of help is and that we badly need to make use of it. For many of us, pride is a major stumbling block especially when it comes to asking for help, so it might be well to keep in mind that likeminded others can be a great help on the path because they can offer both corrective feedback and support. If you do not have someone in your life who will tell you things about yourself that you do not want to hear, look for such a person. They will become a true and loyal friend. Remember that ego is going to look for confirmation, not correction. Prayer and gratitude are useful in this regard since they enable you to confer with a higher power.
Exercise: Humility maintenance
Write a general confession for yourself and make a neat typed copy of it to put on your altar. You may draw ideas from church confessions and other sources if you like, but give some thought to what you really need to work on to achieve more humility. What are your thorniest ego issues? Acknowledge and ask forgiveness for those in your confession. If you have an established ritual you do on a regular basis, you can include the confession in it. If not, set up a simple ritual that will give it a context. You might begin with an invocation and thanksgiving for what you have received. Then use your confession. Then see yourself forgiven and cleansed, and vow to abstain in the future. Use whatever images or ideas are useful to you. The main purpose is to humble the ego in its self-will. Repeat this ritual on a daily basis for at least a month. At that time, you might want to re-evaluate whether it is still current. Do some self-reflection around these issues and revise your confession accordingly.
Bowing before your altar when you approach it for meditation or prayer
is symbolic of surrendering your ego. Consider this each time
you bow. Likewise, you may greet people who will understand using
the namaste of Yoga. With palms together at your heart center, you
bow and say, "Namaste" which means "the Divine in me salutes the Divine
in you." This is a good reminder of who you are. Both of these
practices work like affirmations. The more you do them, the deeper
they are driven into your consciousness.
Consider the benefits of sacrifice, perhaps of some of your favorite ego pastimes such as gossip or self-gratification. You will recall that sacrifice is a form of gratitude, and that gratitude is the giving back that completes the cycle of gift giving when you are on the receiving end. Coupled with ritual, returning the favor to the Divine One, results in joy of the purest kind. It is also a form of purification: of motives, values, and cognition.
Exercise and Practice: Gratitude
1. Read pages 83-95 in A listening heart. Why does Steindl-Rast think gratitude is important? What is the relationship between thanksgiving and gratitude? What are the three steps of ritual? Why do we have to do violence to pride? What does sacrifice mean? How can a person be a sacrifice? Could you sacrifice yourself? To what or whom? Under what conditions? What is the true meaning of the sacrificial meal? Do you have a spiritual community where sacrificial meals are celebrated? What is the central meaning of the Eucharist? What are some of the things included in a sacrifice?
2. Read "A Bow for One's Students" by Doug Thorpe in Parabola, 25(3), Fall 2000, pages 28-30. Why would one bow to one's students? What does that mean for you in your life?
3. Add a sacrificial element to the confessional ritual you created
One of the most beneficial means of returning thanks is to offer selfless service in the world. This need not mean that you go to India to help the starving in Calcutta. A quick look around you right in your own home town will furnish you with more ideas than you could possibly fulfill. Select a level of service that you can cope with over time if you decide to do this, so you can sustain it.
Practice: Selfless service
Find a place where or a person to whom you can offer selfless service and commit to doing it for at least a month. Select carefully, so you do not backslide. Make a modest effort at first until you find out what it is like, then you can extend yourself if you wish. If you don't know how to get started, consult your local government to find out what social services are offered in your community and check those out. Or go to your local church or place of worship and see what they are doing. Or visit your local hospital. There is always a need to visit or minister to the sick and injured. Find out how the poor are served. How are they fed and sheltered? How do the aged get to the doctor or get their meals brought in? Or do you have some special skills you could offer a charitable group? If there is a monastic community or retreat center near you, they might be grateful for some help. Be prepared to do menial or routine tasks that no one else wants to do. That is what makes it selfless. If you get a reward, especially to your ego, it is not selfless. So make your selection with this in mind. At the end of the month, write a self-reflection paper on what you have learned and what your intentions for the future are with respect to selfless service.
Role of the teacher or guide
There is nothing new here except to remind you that guidance helps to smooth the path and to avoid mistakes that can be costly and uncomfortable. Although feedback may sometimes be painful, the support and encouragement is well worth it over the long haul. Discernment is necessary when a trusted teacher or guide has to tell you something you do not wish to hear, so that you do not interpret the guidance as rejection. A good teacher or guide will make sure that you know you are loved and valued by them before initiating such feedback.
Others in your environment may not be so considerate. In such cases, you should still make an effort to be grateful because the information, if true, can help you on your journey. However, in cases of unsolicited, negative feedback, you must examine it to see if it is true before accepting it. There is no requirement that you accept abuse from anyone. Women especially need to be careful about this as many of us have been socialized to take the blame for everything that goes wrong, and this often results in a low level of self-esteem. If this is true of you, you may feel inclined to accept negative information about yourself without checking its veracity. Keep in mind that it takes a long time before we can be sure about what is our stuff and what belongs to others. So you may need to reality test the information given to you about yourself. This is particularly important if you feel reluctant to do so. Clarity is of the essence!
Solitude is essential on the spiritual path to give us time for reflection and to create adeequate space for reunion with the Beloved. It is just in those cases where it is difficult to find time to be alone that it is most necessary. Those of you who are in the work force and who are also maintaining a home for others are especially vulnerable to stress and burnout. So you need to allow yourself the time and space to rejuvenate. Remember that the Lord created the seventh day for purposes of rest. Please try to reclaim that interval for your soul's health.
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