Long Distance Calls by Keira Madsen at vaedder.com
The following four contemplative papers where written between 2007 and 2010 at Vancouver School of Theology (VST) for my Masters of Arts in Theological Studies. Although they were written a while ago now, these papers address a timeless quality of our being. They represent a journey of re-discovering and exploring the root yearning that I have carried since childhood — a yearning for the mystery that has always been close, and yet (seemingly) unattainable in everyday life. I hope that you find these contemplative writings helpful, and that we become friends on this most sacred journey of discovering our birthright — the Divine nature of the Universal Heart within each of us. I look forward to hearing from you in the Comments below. Namaste.
The MA Papers Appear in the Following Order
- A Spiritual Autobiography (written for a “Spiritual Autobiography” course by Rev. Dr. Sallie McFague, VST, 2008)
- I-Thou Relationship as Prayer of the Heart (written for a “Centering Prayer” course by Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault, VST, 2008)
- Kabbalah, Beyond the Self: Discovering God Within the Struggle (written for a Kabbalah course by Rabbi Dr. Laura Kaplan Chalmers Institute, Summer 2008)
- St. Teresa of Avila: God-Lover and Mystical Teacher (written for a “Spiritual Autobiography” course by Rev. Dr. Sallie McFague, VST, 2008)
A Spiritual Autobiography
My spiritual life has been rich with blessing, confusion, and pain. I have avoided immersion in traditional religious cultures, but my longing for God has been my most steadfast companion. Profound experiences of union have grounded my understanding of spirituality deeply within my body, but I have struggled from a young age to integrate the simple language of spirit into my everyday life. I recognized myself in Simone Weil’s efforts to authenticate her spirituality through her body. The desire to express experience that is foreign to one’s social structure makes for an awkwardness on both sides. (I do not have the advantage of Weil’s brilliance either.)
Over time, I learned to hide and protect the secret longing of my heart. I have selfishly guarded my spiritual experiences as “treasures,” erroneously thinking that I was protecting them (and ultimately myself). “For there is nothing hid, except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (Mk. 4:21) It would be remiss not to mention that the “hiding” I thought I was doing did not fool everybody. Since childhood people from various life stations have voluntarily presented me with their observations of my spiritual nature. This attention was frequently embarrassing for me; I did not feel I deserved this sort of feedback because I wasn’t “doing anything” to warrant it. However, it helped me to realize how the impersonal nature of spirituality makes it virtually impossible to hide from those who can “see” and/or who have shared similar experiences.
I have come to know that the spiritual path requires an acceptance of our aloneness before God. I resonate deeply with Dorothy Day’s book title, The Long Loneliness. The raw truth and magnitude of spirit demands attention and effort. Inevitably, spirit-knowing competes with alternate realities imbedded within my family, culture, and personality habits. This naturally creates the innate resistance that mystical orientation has towards the status quo — Dorothee Soelle’s main argument.
Ultimately we are asked to decide “Who am I”? My most acute bouts of confusion and pain have come when I am unable or unwilling to experience my spiritual identity. The reality of spirit is like a parallel universe that comes to life when we put our attention on it — immediately or eventually. I believe it to be a mutual calling to Divine relationship.
Spiritual reality can also come unannounced through near death experiences or other unusual intrusions upon “everyday reality.” While I have been blessed many times with such experiences, my journey towards surrender to God has been a struggle. With all of these sneak previews, glimpses behind the veil, life in technicolour, why would I not want to serve God with all my attention? It is the the great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind ( Mt. 22:37) Why, in fact, am I denying God? I suffer the most when I am living in such a state of forgetfulness that I forget even to ask this question.
Within the crucible of a regular meditation practice over the past ten years, I have finally been able to sustain this question deeply within my heart. In so doing, the pain of my resistance to spirit has become both teacher and transformative tool. I do believe that I understand Weil’s orientation towards affliction very well. I am no longer having spiritual experiences as intermittent “intrusions” into “the world according to Laura.” Gradually, a regular meditation practice and clear intention have allowed a place of “stillness” to stabilize within me. Spiritual revelation and insight arrive in the unexpected moments of space between thoughts, or when personal agendas and concerns have sufficiently receded. Nearly always these spacious moments cause a physical response in the area of my heart whereby I experience a literal lifting sensation, as though in response to a call. The “feeling intelligence” behind this physical sensation is one of profound gratitude and humility, as though I’ve just dialled into what life is really all about and can safely let go of the rest. It is an experience of awakening.
From the depths of this lived truth, I have experienced moments of serving the other simply through who I am, not so much from what I am doing. There is room for love to become a palpable force within relationships when I am no longer identified with my self doing it. The action of communication itself becomes “kenotic” in that it allows for a release of self into a greater relationship — one more vast than either individual. I believe that Woolman experienced this frequently in his one to one interactions regarding the slavery issues and in his communications with the “Indians.” People could hear him because he spoke with the humble authority of an internal peace. His speeches carried impact because they transcended the disputatiousness of individual differences of opinion.
As Teresa of Avila reminds us, it is the consciousness we bring to what we do, rather then the largesse of the deed. A true spiritual path demands the humbling and never-ending process of self-observation. If I lack this rare quality of sharp attention that Weil and Augustine also exhibited, I can easily fall prey to pride and misdirected efforts. Keeping myself busy doing “good works” can also be a way to avoid the Stillness that allows me to see myself clearly.
Teresa differed from Weil and Augustine in that she more readily handed over the burden of her imperfect self to God. Teresa was known to have said that the important thing is not to think much, but to love much.
Weil and Augustine, due to their mental brilliance, may have tortured themselves unnecessarily by clinging to the intense clarity they had of their personal imperfections. I believe that our culture exhibits an overbearing attachment to the mind’s intelligence. From a spiritual viewpoint, this can feed a sort of inverse sense of pride and attachment to seeing one’s own human failings. It is our pride that punishes us for our imperfections, not God. It has taken me years to learn this and to begin to let go of my personal judgments around seeing my inadequacies clearly. The third level stage in Teresa’s Interior Castle requires a shift towards radical reliance on God or, she suggests, the burden can become too heavy.
A History of Mystical Experiences
My first spiritual experience came at the age of five in the forests of the (then) virgin shores of north Shuswap Lake. I experienced a profound sense of oneness and great joy. I was to repeat this experience, albeit with less intensity, over the next several years while sitting under a favorite tree. With hindsight, I recognize this as my first meditation practice.
At ages eight, sixteen, twenty, and thirty-three, I should have died. That is to say, in two of the experiences my recovery made medical history and the other two I was just plain lucky. In their own way, each of these experiences shook me away from the ordinary consciousness of “I am just my body” towards a trusting impartiality for the “mystery.”
My mother has attended the United Church all of her life. It is a social support for her and I believe she continues to find scripture comforting. My father is an atheist and would respond to my “life” questions with “Life is simple Lor, the sun rises and the sun sets.” Questions were “cute” to my mother and “annoying” to my father.
I was twelve years old when I took a Sunday school class. I shall never forget the experience. Even now, my eyes fill with tears at the memory. Gradually the other students had dropped out of the class until only the teacher and myself remained. We read from the New Testament together. More than that, we experienced for ourselves the truth of Matthew 18:20 “for where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” I distinctly remember being amazed by the “beautiful energy” that seemed to be both in the room and within each of us.
Ages thirteen to fifteen were a time of conscious spiritual retreat for me. I experienced my peers as full of gossip and hidden agendas and simply could not abide relating to them. I was surprisingly nonplussed by my choice for social retreat. A surprisingly peaceful time, I used it to read through the entire Bible — without so much as a Commentary. At about the same time, our family doctor became a mentor and friend who encouraged my study of spirituality, but with emphasis on psychic-spiritual realms, rather than Christianity. I sensed a penetrating and timeless truth in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Throughout my life I have also been prone to prescient experiences. Fortunately, my mother took these in her stride by saying that I was just like her mother, my namesake.
I had an experience around the age of eighteen, where I should have been terrified. Instead, I proceeded fearlessly, as though I was invisible. I was a (young) counsellor at a camp at Seton Lake (near Lilloet) for troubled youth from ages twelve to sixteen years. The man running the camp decided we should all attend a dance on the Indian Reservation on the other side of the lake. At the end of the evening, as we were preparing to leave, we noticed that some of the First Nations (who were varying degrees of drunk) were becoming physically violent. As the only “whites” in the group, we were an easy target. We did the best we could to direct the “kids” to the truck, but I knew that there were some missing.
Much to the dismay of my coworkers, I jumped out of the truck and ran back to the dance hall. There were no children in the hall (I found out later) because many of them had run into the nearby woods to get away. By this time, the young aboriginal women were also getting in on the act by grabbing our girls by the hair and attempting to pull them from the truck. As I walked through these women to get to the truck, a feeling of complete calm enveloped me. I felt absolutely no fear. One aboriginal woman reached her hand out to grab my hair and literally stopped her gesture when our eyes met. I returned to the cab of the truck completely untouched.
I have not thought of this experience for years, although it typifies a spiritual experience in many ways. Firstly, I was completely wrapped up in my concern for our group and had no thought for my own safety. Secondly, I acted in the moment by returning to the hall, perhaps even putting the whole group at further risk (i.e., not a sane choice from “ordinary mind”). And lastly, I believe that it was my sincere concern for the group that put me in touch with the mystical dimension. I remember feeling like I was held within a bubble of “lightness.” This “light” had nothing to do with the violence around me, indeed, its existence felt other dimensional.
Finding a Spiritual Path
My heart yearns for God and my mind and ego habits do not. That has been (and continues to be) my biggest blessing and largest stumbling block to a spiritual path. For many years of my life, I have felt like I was just “treading water” waiting for “something more.” I didn’t know what it was or where to find it. At age forty, I married, inherited two pre-pubescent (very spoiled) step sons, and gave birth to a daughter. Amidst the joy and celebration of finally marrying my “soul mate,” I began to experience my darkest and most confusing times. Depression and repeated bouts of illness eventually resulted in the decision to terminate my permanent part-time work in psychiatry (with eating disorders). In my judgement I was now “only a housewife” and a “nobody.” I remember feeling as though I had disappeared off the face of the earth. My world as I knew it had shrunk to the point where I experienced my personal limitations and smallness constantly. Although unaware of it at the time, my willingness to “work with,” rather than deny, the discomfort and inconvenience of this experience led to my discovery of spirituality as a path. (As opposed to random experiences that just happen once in a while for some unknown reason.)
The discovery of a spiritual path culminated in the past ten years of my life being ones of deep personal retreat. The most astounding characteristic of this interior journey is that, for the most part, I have engaged in the retreat right here in my own home, with three children and part-time work. The initial permission and instruction for this retreat came with my introduction to the Western Baul Tradition in 1998 — a Sufi, Buddhist, and Hindu sect from Arizona with its roots in Bengal, India. I will always be grateful to my teacher Lalitha, her teacher Lee Lozowick, his teacher Yogi Ramsuratkumar (deceased 2001), and to this small group of dedicated spiritual practitioners. God works in mysterious ways and I believe this group came into my life through my heart’s profound call. (Although I was not aware that I was calling, just that I was very unhappy.)
Having a family, working with a Guru lineage intensely for seven years, and developing a small private practice (assisting people to know themselves as spirit in and through the body) helped to constantly challenge my spiritual understanding and “ground” it in everyday reality.
In February 2001, my husband and I were meditating for our usual fifteen minutes before bed. At that time I was practicing Vipassana meditation which focuses on observing sensation (or feeling) without attachment. I began to notice a camera lens-like opening in the centre of my heart. To my surprise the opening continued until my heart became the universal sky — complete with a sapphire blue colour and stars and moons. My personal heart WAS the universal heart. I also noticed a strong exotic smell, perhaps it was jasmine. At the time I had a picture of Yogi Ramsuratkumar on my desk nearby and I recall thinking that this experience was somehow associated with him. (The intensity of the experience faded, but I “felt” its energetic impact for several days.)
Lalitha phoned me the next morning after she had spoken to a fellow-student and friend of mine, to whom I had related my experience. She informed me that Yogi Ramsuratkumar always said that his sincere students would know when he died because his energy would be more available to them once he had left his physical body. The timing of my meditation could not have been better apparently.
Returning to the Mystery through Christianity
In 2004 I travelled in India for five weeks with Lalitha, her husband, and four other students. It was a very rich experience, so it was surprising to the group (upon our return), that I had decided to pull away and relate from a more distant place of “community friend.” I was restless within the group for the year leading up to the India trip. I now believe that I needed to revisit Christianity. Scripture has been a silent spiritual backbone since my three year adolescent “retreat.” I can remember Yogi Ramsurtkumar saying that it was best to stay with the religion of one’s birth if possible. (Although I believe that he would have no problem with some cross-pollination in our increasingly global world.)
Two incidents of a spiritual connection with Christianity come to mind. Firstly, that my imposed teenage retreat ended at age sixteen when the Catholic school closed down and their students joined the public school system. A core group of half a dozen of these girls are still among my closest friends — although only one of them is a practicing Catholic. Secondarily, when my husband and I visited Turkey last year on a chartered sailboat, we spent one night anchored off a Greek Island. On the way into the harbour, I felt a distinct sense of “coming home.” I did not understand this because I had felt very comfortable in Turkey. I mentioned this to our Greek housecleaner upon our return and she immediately said, “Do you think it has anything to do with Greece being Christian”?
Whether Christian or Baul, I am learning that loving God means loving life just as it is. The clarity and surrender of love is what heals imperfections, not our judgements and opinions of self and others — even if they are “correct.” Like Teresa of Avila experienced, God says “Enjoy Me.”
I am here to learn to love and be loved, to weave the mighty thread of God’s love in and out of the everydayness of my life. When my heart is awake, I am aware that everything moves within relationship to God. As Cynthia Bourgeault chants in her chapter on “Songs of the Presence,” “There is nothing but God, there is only God.”
Through the crucible of this intimate, yet non-personal relationship, the language of my heart speaks far louder than personal preferences or political correctness. God needs me to be grounded in the reality of my own experience of His/Her Love before I can adequately serve Him/Her. Serving God is the core of my heart’s desire and through its expression, my only true hope for personal fulfillment and peace.
Augustine The Confessions. Translated by Maria Boulding. New York: New City Press, 1997.
Bourgeault, Cynthia. Chanting the Psalms. Boston: New Seeds, 2006.
Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist. New York: Harper & Row, 1980.
Ladinsky, Daniel, ed. Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. New York: Penguin Group, 2002.
Soelle, Dorothee The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance. Translated by Barbara and Martin Rumscheidt. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
Teresa of Avila The Interior Castle. Translated by Mirabai Starr. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Weil, Simone, Waiting for God. Translated by Emma Craufurd. New York: Perennial Classics, 2001.
Woolman, John The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman. Edited by Phillips P. Moulton. Richmond IN: Friends United Press, 1971.
“I-Thou” Relationship as Prayer of the Heart
Ken Wilber’s ideas on the evolution of human consciousness are framed within the context of our relationship with truth and how we experience it. For clarity and simplification, he divides our relationship with truth into the “The Big Three” of I (subjective truth), We (inter-subjective truth), and It (objective truth).
Contrasting it with the Three Jewels of Buddhism, Wilber states that Buddha would be the ultimate “I,” the Dharma the ultimate “It,” and the Sangha the ultimate “We.”
It is interesting to note that Wilber’s “Big Three” is a distillation of his famous Four Quadrant model of I (intentional-subjective) and We (cultural- intersubjective) on the left-hand quadrant, and It (behavioural-objective) and Its (social-interobjective) on the right-hand quadrant.
Wilber claims that he sometimes counts the right-hand quadrants as “one major domain” because they are both exteriors that can be described in it-language. According to Wilber, an over-indulgence of the right-hand quadrant’s “It-language” has contributed to a “collapse of the Kosmos.” He describes a flatland paradigm (or disqualified universe) where the four quadrants collapse into the empiricism and objectivity of scientific materialism and sensory mononature.
This paper focuses on the individual’s entanglement with Wilber’s collapsed kosmos by way of its affect on the “I-Thou” relationship of the prayerful heart. Pioneering the “I-Thou” relationship, philosopher and theologian Martin Buber describes the perpetual obstacle and conundrum “that keeps man from living in the spirit” as the inability to hold space for the You, whereby “all response binds the You into the It-world.”
In short, by not holding space for the You, we can never fulfill our heart’s desire for a “Thou” relationship. With brilliant insight, Buber claims that “whatever has thus been changed into It and frozen into a thing among things,” can — through our receiving of it rather than utilizing it — be changed into a response to a You rather than (yet) another observation of an “It” (italics mine).
The practice of an intentionally conscious relationship that takes us beyond habits of identification fosters the possibility for “I-Thou” relationship.
Fed by the “I-Thou” relationship, Wilber’s “Big Three” evolve into higher levels of consciousness, taking us beyond traditional paradigms of “I-Thou” God concepts into a living relationship with the depths of our own heart. Wilber reminds us however, that changing the mapmaker through an integral practice that exercises body, mind, soul, and spirit within self, culture, and nature is more critical than the perfection of the integral map of the Kosmos.
Wilber and Buber strive to awaken us from the (frequently) unconscious ways that we relate to self, other, and the world around us. I refer to this awakening as the birth of the “I-Thou” relationship. It is my experience that the heart’s deepest prayer is fulfilled within the “I-Thou” relationship — pushing us out of the nest of our Western habits of differentiation, independence, and God abstractions. Prayerful surrender of the heart to a “Thou” transcends personal “”it” preferences and spontaneously raises Wilber’s “I-I,” “I-We,” and “I-It” levels.
Buber first coined the terms “I-Thou” and “I-It” in an attempt to understand our relationship to life, to other people, and to God. In a pithy and perhaps over-stated article by John Barich, Buber’s “I-It” is summarized as objectification and manipulation of the (time and space) external world and “I-Thou” as the (eternal) meeting and honouring of souls.
Authentic and direct experience of the I-Thou relationship is an anomaly within most of Western spirituality. We are heavily identified with an “I-It” variety of understanding (historically) within the church and within many New Age spiritual movements. I have certainly been a stranger to the “I-Thou” mystery for most of my adult life. Without my 1998 introduction to the relatively unknown Bakti tradition of the Western Bauls, I may not have been graced with glimpses into the paradigm shift of “I-Thou” consciousness.
Along with an early aversion to church doctrine I (unconsciously) developed a deep inner aversion to the possibility of an I-Thou relationship. Ken Wilber succinctly states that the failure to acknowledge your own 2nd person Spirit results in the “repression of a dimension of your very being-in-the-world.”
My spiritual experience heavily endorsed varying levels of Wilber’s 1st-person or I-I relationship and there I remained — very stuck and defended. For example, twenty years ago when a friend suggested that I join her Gospel Choir, I wasted no time in telling her that I just couldn’t bring myself to say “those words.” It was not just the saying of the words that repelled me — I was quite capable of saying the Lord’s Prayer in meaningful solitude — it was the fact that these words of praise were being sung in a group. I had an “intuitive grasp” of Olivier Clement’s (I-centered) statement that the truly spiritual person must draw apart from everyone in order to have “one to one time” alone with God.
However, I used my intuition as judgement against “group church” consciousness which, in my mind, only supported a “social” (feel good) structure. I had not yet been graced with the “counter intuitive” state of “letting go” that Bourgeault discusses as central to Christian life (i.e, the gap she describes between my prayer life and my life was excruciatingly apparent to me).
In a sneak preview of her book on Mary Magdalene, Bourgeault cites that “… the real problem with any constrictive motion (taking, defending, hoarding, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the divine generosity that is always flowing toward us.”
Wilber refers to the “deep-seated arrogance” that can develop when the ego hides out in 1st-person (I-I) or 3rd-person (I-We) dimensions. Without “I-Thou” mediation, both 1st person and 3rd person experience can easily begin to resemble Buber’s dehumanized and mechanical “I-it” — or “us and them” mentality of differentiation. Bourgeault says that our Western ability to differentiate is well in place by the time we are five years old and that we are “differentiation junkies” by the time we are four years old.
Without the leveling (Wilber’s term) effect of an “I-Thou” relationship, this imbalanced identification easily festers into distracting thoughts of competition with others and/or my own lofty (spiritual) self-image. The habit of putting distance between myself and others decreased the levels of my “I-We” experience by turning it into an “I-it” interaction. In Wilber’s terms, I had not yet fully owned my shadow material (i.e., the “critical judge”) and my interaction with the group became an “I-it” pathology.
He correctly suggests that ownership of shadow material must occur in an “I-Me” before we can transcend into higher levels of “I-I” or “I-We” relationships.
Tragically, the result of this judgmental habit was a hardening of my most precious spiritual organ — the heart. I believe the tears of release and gratitude that I shed for several months at the beginning of my Baul meditation practice were a physical and psychological softening of my heart’s hardened separation from itself, others, and God.
Wilber claims that typically, people are comfortable with one of these three faces of Spirit, “but get a little bit stuck in acknowledging the others.”
While “a little bit stuck” might be a polite understatement, at least in my case, it nonetheless draws attention to the issue of being stuck. The landscape of stuck is addressed in the terminologies of Eckhart Tolle and Thomas Keating, who write for the purpose of increasing our self-knowledge. Using their terms, I had eventually become “mind identified” with my (“I-I”) position — an unconscious state of the ego (Tolle) or false self (Keating) — to the point where I was no longer able to access my Being or true self.
In The Power of Now Tolle explores a “different consciousness” as an alternative to mind identification, stressing a basic but pivotal point: that “the problems of the mind cannot be solved on the level of the mind.”
As an addendum to Tolle, or perhaps even a departure, I believe that this “different consciousness” is the “I-Thou” relationship and its correlative, a life of prayer and faith. Through heart-felt surrender and the deep experience of our own longing, we initiate the spaciousness for a personal experience of an “I-Thou” consciousness. The challenge within Western Christianity however, is that the historical theistic “I-thou” has been ruthlessly exclusive of a personal or “I-I” experience of the Divine. As Wilber points out, the theistic traditions have traditionally been violently opposed to the I-I relationship, whereby the claimant is crucified, hanged, or burned at the stake.
The ironic twist here of course, is that the only place “I-Thou” consciousness can seed itself is within the open heart of the individual “I-Thou” experience.
Divine Circuitry: “I-Thou” as Key
Traditionally, prayer has “belonged” to the church and they have wielded their authority through restrictions on “I-I” communication with everything from the brutalities of the Inquisition to the pedagogy of the prayer ladder (i.e., the devil will get you if you open your mind up).
As previously mentioned, I am among those who, offended by rigid theistic doctrines of “I-Thou,” have rejected the Christian church — a classic case of the baby being thrown out with the bath water. We clever Westerners have thrown away what I am coming to understand as one of the most profoundly sacred and thorough teachings on the divine “I-Thou” relationship — the Wisdom Tradition of Jesus. Like many, who are stuck in “I-It” habits of “I-I” or “I-We” relationships, I have experienced the vacuousness of a spirituality devoid of the heart’s mystery. Ironically, my rejection of the church because of its undeveloped understanding of “I-Thou” contributed to my heart hardening against the possibility of “I-Thou” development in my own spiritual life. I had lost myself within the harsh scrutiny of my own judgement. Beatrice Bruteau refers to this phenomenon as being trapped in “human particle form.”
Bourgeault describes this phenomenon as inherently unstable and anxiety-ridden, leaving us prone to judgement and (even) violence.
Maurice Nicoll writes that for the vast majority of people, “whatever they are ignorant of does not exist for them.”
Self-knowledge affects our sense of identity, and as Bruteau recognized, will be evident in our prayer life and how we address God.
Nicoll cleverly demonstrates the need for sincerity (fueled by self-knowledge) in the parable of the two men praying — one from arrogance and superiority and the other from great humbleness (Luke 18:10-14).
If we remain ignorant of our “cramp” or “false self-system,” we risk praying from an unconscious and therefore insincere place. Our “I-Thou” relationship is then predicated upon an incorrect (ego-driven) idea of ourselves and/or of God. Raimon Panikkar personally reframes the need to know himself in the following manner: since he must rely on himself to distinguish the temporal from the eternal, then his priority task is to purify his “entire self.”
Revealing his humility, Panikkar acknowledges that this is a never ending task, but values the process itself because it keeps him from “absolutizing [his] convictions.”
Wilber might applaud Panikkar for engaging in the work of re-owning his shadow and avoiding the trap of “I-It” limitations. At some point in our spiritual maturation, we experience the price of attachment to our convictions, judgments, and other forms of insidious and subtle differentiation habits.
I believe that it is within the “I-Thou” relationship of prayer, the kenotic action of letting go, that who we are is revealed (through experience) and who we are not is released — Panikkar’s eternal and temporal domains (above). All “I” can do to facilitate this process is to acknowledge my shadow honestly, and continue practices of prayer and contemplation. If I have a “lucky day” (my teacher Lalitha’s expression) and experience the “I-Thou” of the heart, I am physically and energetically touched, or graced by a divine flow or circuitry. “I-Thou” consciousness can become the portal for initiating the union of all three of Wilber’s “faces of the spirit.” The “I-Thou” experience naturally opens an expanded consciousness of the “I-I” and “I-We” dimensions.
It is within the realm of divine circuitry that Panikkar’s christophanic experience of trinitarian life blossoms — I am neither the same as God, nor separate from God (monotheism), but “the thou of an I.”
The relevant point, I believe, is that God is the I, and I discover myself as “thou,” God’s thou. (Italics mine.) As Bourgeault summarizes, within the mystical understanding of the Trinity, Jesus is able to experience the “sonship,” “identity,” and “surrender” of his individual selfhood.
It is not difficult to recognize Wilber’s I-We in “sonship,” I-I in “identity,” and I-Thou in “surrender.” “I-Thou” is a crucial gateway because it opens communication with God, the divine other. Unlike any other form of communication in our life however, this one only happens through continuous levels of personal kenosis — eventually even “letting go” of our desire for God. The flow of divine circuitry between the three identities depends on the completeness of surrender and self-emptying within the I-Thou dimension. Bourgeault describes a self-emptying from Father into Son, Son into Spirit, and Spirit into the Father.
What is it that sparks our human will to engage in such a process? Sometimes an authentic starting point can be the full and unprotected experience of the limitations and pain of our human condition. I have experienced the desperation of Evellyn Underhill’s dark night of the senses as a beginning place.
St. Augustine was certainly illuminating in his description of the pain and separation of his divine longing for “I-Thou” union. Thomas Kelly quotes Meister Eckhart as saying “There are plenty to follow our Lord half-way, but not the other half… .”
Kelly describes it as an “astonishing life” that is willing to disown itself through complete obedience, without any restrictions. He denies that this is an experience of ecstasy, but rather an unshakable quality and a firmness of life orientation.
Complete obedience speaks of the surrendered state of the “I-Thou” experience. I continue to experience times of profound psychological resistance, easily summed up as NO — to others, to God, to anything that I perceive as threatening. It took three years of “no” before I could even begin six years of study and practice with the Western Baul Guru Lineage. There was, and still is, a part of me that would rather die than give up control. I experience its root as the cold and calculating need for differentiation behind Buber’s “I-It.” This attribute, although easy to see as part of Keating’s “false-self system,” is a regular impediment to a surrendered experience of the “I-Thou” relationship.
My only hope, as I see it, is a regular contemplative practice and the simple recognition of my false self habits for what they are. Bishop Kallistos Ware talks about repentance being the “change of mind [that says] … I am accepted by God: and what is asked of me is to accept the fact that I am accepted.”
Both Ware and Keating refer to God as the Great Physician, “restoring what is broken and renewing life.” The “I-Thou” relationship is only to do with the internal life of the heart through our connection and surrender to God. Thomas Merton says that “contemplation is not and cannot be a function of [the] external self … the ‘I’ that works in the world, thinks about itself, observes its own reactions and talks about itself.”
Observing habits of resistance and knowing them as part of ego’s “cramp” is one thing, surrendering that awareness through Divine relationship is another. (The “cramp” is the term the Baul tradition uses to refer to the psychological defense or survival strategy.) As Kelly says, we have “fugitive islands of secret reservations.”
The Baul tradition speaks of the “brutal honesty” required for an authentic spiritual journey. This helps to ameliorate the “double mindedness” that Kelly warns is “wholly destructive of the spiritual life.” Keating refers to the “false self system” as the habitual emotional reactions we must see clearly in order to let go of them.
In the Guru-disciple relationship, the Guru works with the student to gradually collapse this system, but there is a danger inherent in seeing my false self clearly; it can too easily lead to Kelly’s brilliant analogy of “polishing the acorn” of the false self, rather than engaging in the “I-Thou” (my term, not Kelly’s) consciousness that is capable of resonating with the mighty oak tree.
Discovering the riches of the “I-Thou” relationship through prayer and contemplation naturally exhumes the egoic cramp or the false self system. It is precisely the uncomfortable tension created by this exposure that can lead one to cry out for God. I believe that this cry sets up a receptivity or a willingness to be moved by something deep within, that “I-I” consciousness alone cannot access. Panikkar writes about letting himself be “guided” at times by a more subjective response and then during times of suffering, addressing a “Thee,” a “Father,” and a “Divinity.”
Addressing a “thee” is a crucial act of voluntary surrender. Rather than reacting to my pain, I stand still with it (Wilber’s re-owning) and ask for direction, thereby opening myself to the possibility of transmuting pain into fodder for “I-Thou” communication. By initiating cataphatic prayer, and then waiting in the receptivity of apophatic prayer, I make my (identified) “I” an offering rather than the rule. Through initiating and persisting in the “I-Thou” energetic, I have effectively freed myself from the (tyrannizing) trap of Bruteau’s “human particle form.” (“I-Thou” spaciousness naturally spills over into expanded levels of “I-We,” and the “I-Thou” energetic becomes available to others.)
Bruteau’s work is a brilliant exposition of the natural flow between prayer identities. As Bourgeault acknowledges in her introduction, Bruteau’s work allows for a less sentimental and cleaner approach to contemplative prayer than the popular focus on its ability to heal emotional wounds.
Bruteau’s brilliance lies in her ability to bypass “mind content” and focus her argument in the realm of Divine relationship. She claims that “the work of prayer is to transform our sense of identity,” adding that this transformation also calls for clarification of our sense of identity. Bruteau’s clarification however, refers to the in-the-moment location of a “slide-rule” identity rather than a fixed identity. Using Jesus Gospel quotes, she distinguishes three points of identity reference: I as separate from God (I-I), I as obedient to God (I-Thou), and I and God are one (I-We).
(The reference to Wilber’s “I’s” are mine, not Bruteau’s.) Jesus is an example of “a praying consciousness” (Bruteau’s terminology) that transitions with ease through the Wilber/Buber identity referents. I have referred to this movement as divine circuitry.
Although her approach is entirely different from Bruteau’s, I believe that St. Teresa of Avila’s book, The Interior Castle has a similar message about our identities in relationship to God. Teresa was a master of the “I-Thou” relationship. “Before we can progress on the path, our great God wants us to know that he is king and we are his humble creatures.”
Her persistent “I-Thou” communication, humility, and self-emptying prayer seemingly allowed her to travel Bruteau’s “praying consciousness” with as much ease as Jesus. The following statements indicate this: “the human soul is so glorious that God himself chooses it as his dwelling place (“I-I”); the path to God, then, leads us on a journey of self-discovery (I-Thou”); to know the self is to know God (“I-We”).”
(Again, I have taken the liberty of applying Wilber’s terminology.)
Teresa emphasizes the need for an “I-Thou” dimension in order to progress between the third and fourth dwellings of her interior castle. She recommends ceasing efforts to “figure God out in the mind” and to concentrate on “feeling God with the heart,” where the personal will is surrendered to the “will of the Beloved.” The first three dwellings she describes as the soul’s evolution through “conscious effort” (such as contemplation through self-knowledge, persistence, and humility), and the second three dwellings are where “God takes over.”
This is certainly reminiscent of Panikkar’s Trinitarian self-emptying and perhaps why he has drawn upon Teresa’s writing for clues as to how this pivotal “I-Thou” relationship works.
Ego’s identity is subsumed within the internal focus of the “I-Thou” relationship because ego’s conditioning and “raison d’etre” lie only within the external world. Panikkar translates a poem written for Teresa of Avila in which God speaks to her, telling her that if she wishes to find Him, not to go “hither and thither… but Me you must seek in yourself.”
There is a unidirectional quality to the sincere “I-Thou” consciousness that the splintered consciousness of ego simply cannot sustain. As suggested by one of the authors of The Cloud of Unknowing, “… a naked intent direct to God is sufficient without anything else.”
Nicoll calls this unidirectional force “Faith.” He brilliantly translates Christ’s cry of “O faithless and perverse generation” (Mt. 17:17, when learning that his disciples could not cure the epileptic boy), into “O generation without faith and turning in all directions.”
If I am occupied with external ideas and judgments about myself, God, or others, I risk being distracted by a “hither and thither” or “turning in all directions” consciousness. One of the most difficult lessons for me is simply allowing my sincere desire for God to be more consistently at the centre of my life.
The Bakti Path: A Personalized I-Thou Heart Lesson
The devotion and surrender of the Bakti path is the energetic equivalent of receiving continuous and increasingly relentless perforations to ego’s identity. There is less room to squirm (i.e., the ego’s tendency to be “turning in all directions”) because the transmission from the lineage, as well as direct instruction from the teacher help to hold me in place. In Guru-yoga, the teacher represents the “tangent point” for the divine, not the divine itself. The lineage (through Laltiha) and its practices (study with the sangha, meditation, and vegetarian diet) became the focal point of my spiritual life.
Over time, a more spacious “I-Thou” consciousness allowed me to experience a tangible reality outside of my usual patterns of resistance. My first taste of the profound nature of “I-Thou” was with Yogi Ramsuratkumar (the Indian “saint” of the Baul lineage whom I never met and who lived in the south of India). I experienced “I-Thou” consciousness as a gateway into something infinitely larger than me and the experience of it humbled me greatly. I have experienced many energetic tremors in my heart since, but this was a “big earthquake.”
In February 2001, my husband and I were meditating together for our usual twenty minutes in the evening. At this point I had been involved with Lalitha and the Western Baul lineage for almost three years, but I had not yet “officially” committed to her as my teacher. I did, however, have a picture of Yogi Ramsuratkumar sitting on the desk in my room. At some point my heart began to feel like a huge camera lens that was growing ever larger. Years of training my observer or “witness” was useful as I just became still and “watched” (in increasing amazement). A few minutes later, I noticed that the back of my heart chakra was also opening in similar fashion. I recognized that my heart was no longer “mine” as it had become a sapphire blue night sky, complete with stars and moons. An eternal feeling of love and goodness filled this universal heart, which also was my heart, but nothing like I have ever known. I also became aware of a strong smell of jasmine flower. At some point I recall intuiting that the experience had something to do with the picture of Yogi Ramsuratkumar that I had recently placed on my desk (with Lalitha’s encouragement).
The next day Lalitha phoned me to tell me that Yogi Ramsuratkumar had died. After a short retelling of the previous night’s events, I learned that he was dying at the same time that I was having my experience. Lalitha added that Yogi Ramsuratkumar had always said that his sincere students would know when he died because his energy would be much more available after leaving his physical form.
The freedom and spaciousness that I felt inside and outside my body was one and the same energy. I felt connected to everything and had no fear, although I was very present in my body. (Like Eckhart Tolle, the Baul Path believes that transformation is in and through the body, “… where the essential work of transformation takes place.”) The devotional practices I had been doing with teacher and lineage suddenly morphed into an experience of much higher levels of Wilber’s three faces (I-I, I-It, and I-We).
My story is only a taste of the heart’s mystery and its astounding characteristic of being personal and impersonal at the same time — simultaneously the “I” and the “Thou.” I suspect that I was blessed with the experience of Panikkar’s pneumatic approach — a personal encounter with the living and mysterious companion — the thou (albeit not with Christ). Divine circuitry was in full swing and I had a “lucky moment” of being in the right place at the right time.
Seven years later, I am continually amazed by the “energetic shift” that has occurred in the area of my physical heart through this experience and my work with the Baul lineage. A fresh and immediate awareness in my heart, frequently comes at unexpected times, i.e., the pain of resistive contraction as well as a joyful and gentle lifting sensation. I have learned to recognize that this energy lives completely independently from my thinking mind and it therefore creates some confusion and high levels of tension at times. I attempt to meet the challenge of heart-mind discord through singing, prayer and contemplation, private work with clients, and of course, writing term papers! In the realms of the mystery, it seems that I called the Bauls into my life when I was helplessly trapped in my self-made web of “I-I” resistance. The Baul lineage is a gift of heart remembrance that I am still digesting, a gift of humility through the grace and surrender of the “I-Thou” mystery.
It seems incongruous that I have pulled away from a tradition from which I have received so much. Strangely enough, I made a clear decision to leave during a transformational five weeks in India with them four years ago. My heart is okay with my decision, but my mind still struggles with the “why.” Is it my ego running away, was the Baul experience merely a vehicle for a fertile return to Jesus teaching and Christianity, or does it even really matter what the tangent point for the “I-Thou” relationship is?
Wilber describes the 2nd-person “I-Thou” as the great devotional leveler, or ego-killer. He claims that “Vipassana, Zen, shikan-taza, Vedanta, TM, and so on, simply do not confront [our] interior with something greater than me, only higher levels of me.”
I believe that, because of the intense “I-Thou” focus, Guru-Yoga and devotional paths do confront us with something greater then me — hence their Western unpopularity. As challenging as it has been for my differentiated and judgmental I-I/I-It consciousness, this form of relationship has awakened my heart in ways that I could never have imagined. I have experienced the core of my heart as both a universal and an independent organ of simple truth, faith, and love.
There are times when my heart is able to travel along Bruteau’s slide rule and to move easily beyond the stuck ignorance (I prefer this word to Wilber’s arrogance) of the “I-I” dimensions. I have come to know the physical and energetic location of my heart as beyond time and space and that its level of comprehension is far beyond my personality and thinking mind. In short, six intense years of working with a Guru lineage have awakened me to (previously) unfathomable depths in my own/universal heart. Knowing my shadow-material, ego, and/or false self may indeed be necessary at times along the way — I have engaged in this rigorous practice for many years. However, nothing has fueled my contemplative practice more than the deep experience of knowing the core of my heart as the simple purity of devotional love.
Ware describes the heart (in part) as the deep self, the seat of wisdom and understanding, and the inner shrine in which we experience divine grace and the indwelling presence of the Holy Trinity. He stresses that it is when the mind is within the heart, that prayer includes the sense of mystery that makes us truly human. I also hear him cautioning against the dehumanizing effects of the mind-identified “I-It” dimension.
The still language of my heart is so vastly different from my “cramp” (Baul) or “false-self system” (Keating) that I sometimes find myself amused by the relentless chasm of separation. Deep quiet is required for my heart to speak. Contained within that is my willingness to practice kenosis and ascesis, the whole purpose of which Clement describes as getting around obstacles and tearing away dead skin, so that Christ can arise in us.
My daily challenge is trusting in my heart’s core affinity for surrender to “I-Thou,” which is none other than a continuous state of apophatic prayer. Then Clement’s “tearing away” is more like a “soft melting,” usually accompanied by tears of gratitude.
Maintaining the unidirectional quality of Nicoll’s faith in prayer can be challenging, especially when my life is going well. Bourgeault cautions that a healthy ego must not be mistaken for the true self.
I find that I need constant reminders as I continue to struggle more often than not with an energy that is “turning in all directions,” rather than rooted solidly in a life of faith and prayer. Yogi Ramsuratkumar reminded his disciples to say his name continuously and his teachers instructed him to do the same with their name for God. Yogi Ramsuratkumar referred to a date in 1952 when “this beggar died,” referring to himself only in the third person tense since that time.
It is this motion of surrender to the Other, to the “Thou” beyond the world of “I-I,” that allows me to know my true heart. Eventually I am no longer saying prayers, but prayer is being said through me and it feels good. It feels good because I am aligned with a universal energy that has no conflict with who I am. Wilber’s three faces of “I,” Bruteau’s slide rule identity, and St. Teresa’s beautiful descriptions of “I-Thou” relationship, all expand in the full expression of the heart through prayer. After all, as Ware reminds us, we are created to pray, it is our true nature and everything is to be turned into prayer.
With a fully engaged “I-Thou” relationship, everything is.
Bourgeault, Cynthia Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 2004; “Theology and the Practice of Prayer,” Class Handout: Cliff Notes by Cynthia Bourgeault of Christophany by Raimon Panikkar, Fall 2008; Bourgeault, Cynthia “Theology and the Practice of Prayer,” Class Notes, Nov. 20, 2008.
Bruteau Beatrice “Prayer and Identity,” Spirituality, Contemplation & Transformation, Intro. by Cynthia Bourgeault. Class handout from “The Theology and Practice of Prayer,” Fall 2008.
Buber, Martin, trans. Walter Kaufmann, I and Thou. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970.
Clement Olivier The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Texts from the Patristic Era with Commentary. New City: New City Press, 1993.
Hohm Sahaj Mandir Study Manual, volume IV Prescott: Holm Press, 2002.
http://www.rjgeib.com/barich/papers/martin-buber.html, accessed Nov. 29, 2008.
Keating, Thomas Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer. New York: Cross Road, 2006.
Kelly Thomas A Testament of Devotion. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Merton Thomas New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 2007.
Nicoll Maurice The New Man. “Faith,” Chap.10, Class Handout, Fall 2008; Nicoll Maurice The New Man. “The Idea of Prayer,” Chap. 8, Class Handout, Fall 2008.
Panikkar, Raimon Christophany: The Fullness of Man., Trans. by Alfred DiLascia New York: Orbis Books, 2004.
Starr Mirabai, trans. The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Tolle Eckhart The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste, 2000.
Ware, Bishop Kallistos The Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works. New York: Vladimir’s Seminary, 2004.
Wilber, Ken The Collected Works of Ken Wilber, volume six: Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Boston: Shambala, 2000; Wilber, Ken Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston: Integral Books, 2006.
Kabbalah, Beyond the Self:
Discovering God Within the Struggle
The inspiration for this paper originated from two sentences that triggered a deep acknowledgment, or perhaps even a spiritual awakening within me. Such a forceful reaction deserves investigation into the nature of my own experience as well as the traditional wisdom behind the words. The following two sentences were written by Arthur Green, one of todayʼs most respected teachers of Jewish mysticism, in his book EHYEN: A Kabbalah For Tomorrow.
“This God knows us because our struggle to integrate love and judgment is not ours alone, but the reflection of a cosmic struggle. The inner structure of our psychic life is the hidden structure of the universe; it is because of this that we can come to know God by the path of inward contemplation and true self-knowledge.” (1)
Far from a mere intellectual grasp of the meaning, Greenʼs words threw a wrench into the workings of my mind and I experienced a moment of spontaneous insight into Godʼs completeness within the fragments of my own life. A shocking harmony reverberated between my heart and mind (love and judgement, Gedullah and Gevurah) and an inner stillness enveloped me. It seemed as though my whole being woke up with the bold truth of Greenʼs statement.
If our human struggles are the very ground and means through which we can find God and through which God can find us, then our psychological struggle ceases when we know God. We begin to see with the eyes of our heart into the non physical or transcendental realm of Kabbalah and the mystical traditions. Green succeeds in cutting through centuries of mistaken cultural and religious identities that regularly obscure our immediate relationship with God. He awakens us to the reality that we are God, and that through our struggles, we are held in His covenant — irrevocably and completely.
The following paper will explore my relationship with the transcendental in chronological fashion. Experiences of “reality beyond the self” have been a regular “intrusion” into my ordinary consciousness. It has been an ongoing challenge to know how to skillfully incorporate these experiences into the ordinary consciousness of my everyday life.
Ordinary consciousness is just that — ordinary. As such, it includes the cultural and familial conditioning that fosters the “us and them” mentality of differentiation. The centrality of “me” eventually leads to clear definitions of “us” and “them.” Over time, this can easily lead to a personal identity that relates to other “identities.” Our skills of differentiation and judgement are quickly supported and validated within the culture. If we relate to God in this way, as an “identity” outside of self, as many religions do, then we inevitably distance ourselves from God. God is limited to a mental concept rather than a lived experience in the mystical sense that Green speaks of.
The following experiences, although varied through different ages, have all contributed to my overwhelming acknowledgement of communion with another reality and/or another way of being in the world. All of these experiences have involved struggle in one way or another and they have vastly expanded my self-knowledge beyond my ordinary understanding. At times the physicality and directness of my experiences have been frightening because the “ordinary I” is simply not featured.
Over the years, I have frequently had the sense that I am being guided and taught through a deeper understanding then I had reason to have. Often in a rather formless way, I could feel the Truth within my body as a sort deep calling. I have therefore found it reassuring when various teachings validated my undeveloped understanding. Kabbalah is one such teaching.
Rabbi Laura Kaplan describes Kabbalah in one sentence: “Everything in this world and every other points beyond itself.” (2) I hear these words with a good measure of relief because the burden of a conflicted “self,” reinforced by a well developed judge, is incapable of pointing anywhere but to itself. In the crowded quarters of personal struggle there is little room for movement beyond a personal pre-understanding.
A delightful paradox I have discovered, and experienced within Greenʼs quote, is that embracing God allows space for self-acceptance. Another way to say it would be that, with remembrance of God, our habitual personal struggles bear different fruit as we deliberately reach beyond ourselves. With that gesture, connection and spaciousness take the place of isolation, judgement, and distance. Openness takes the place of psychotherapyʼs striving to “fix self” or blame our struggle on the “other.”
The revolutionary reality that God exists within our personal and collective struggles is foundational to Jewish traditions and what I most love and respect about them. Daniel Matt describes the Zohar as a challenge to the normal workings of consciousness that dares us to examine our usual ways of making sense of our assumptions about tradition, God, and self. (3) We cannot be fully alive in our God longing until we have engaged in the fire of conscious struggle. Like Isaac and the angel, struggle prepares the way for peace — within ourselves first and then without.
Acknowledging personal suffering can become the portal through which the Divine creation of God has room to move within us. Adin Steinsaltz says that it is “only after the soul passes through the sickness, torment, and pain of the spiritual existence of its own self-produced evil [that it can] reach a higher level of being…” (4) It is a story told again and again in the Hebrew Bible, the Zohar, and perhaps most empirically — through Kabbalah and the Sefirot. We are quite literally in Godʼs hands and even more radically, as Green says, God is also in ours.
This concept ignites nothing less than an explosion throughout my being and I am able to see my life within the context of this profound spiritual understanding. It has given me a graph with which to connect the dots. Could it be that Godʼs mercy and my complete surrender to Him are one and the same thing? Can it really be this beautiful and simple — as close as my surrendered heart?
Gershom Scholem refers to the Sefer Hasidim doctrine (recommended by Eleazar of Worms) which claims that “God is even closer to the universe and to man than the soul is to the body.” (5) Blessed moments throughout my life tell me that God is immanently simple and therefore elusive to my ordinary consciousness. Godʼs Covenant holds us in our deepest Truth and is reflected in the mystical face of a timeless Reality. Various “lucky” experiences have given me glimpses into a few larger realities where the small “I” of ordinary consciousness is divinely integrated — without struggle. (6)
The First Decade
My first memories of a rudimentary understanding of the largesse of life came from being in nature at my familyʼs summer cabin on Shuswap lake. Spending every summer barefoot and free was the most awesome spiritual gift for a child. I recall a communion-like experience with the wind and the trees at about five years of age. A deep stillness enveloped me and also rose from within me, as though in answer. Within a few years I had developed a relationship with a tree and in similar fashion, although less intense, I would sit at the base of this tree when in need of quiet. Once again, I felt an easy sense of communion.
At the age of eight I had my first near-death experience. Suffering a severe concussion after falling on my head (onto the cement floor of a basement), hope for recovery was slim according to the medical staff. The necessary equipment for draining the swelling from the injury was in Vancouver. In Kamloops they could only offer twenty- four hour watch in critical care. I was in a coma for one week. My waking experience was most strange and something I have puzzled over until recently.
When consciousness finally returned, I stared in surprise at the nurse beside my bed and she, equally surprised, stared back at me. Her surprise was a response to my consciousness and mine was because she had two eyes and not one. Wherever I had been, everyone had only one eye in the centre of their forehead. The only recollection I have from my time with the one-eyed beings is that my five year old nature experience felt vaguely similar.
Two years ago, while reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, I was stunned by a particular passage describing the Astral universe. Sri Yukteswar (Paramahansaʼs teacher) had resurrected following his death and was giving an after-death lesson to Paramahansa. Not unlike descriptions I have since read in Adin Steinsaltzʼ The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Sri Yukteswar described the Astral world as infinitely beautiful, clean, pure, and orderly — with no terrestrial blemishes such as weeds, bacteria, insects, and snakes. (7) Sri Yukteswar tells Paramahansa that he (Sri Yukteswar) has been chosen by God to serve on an astral planet (or heaven) called Hiranyaloka or “Illumined Astral Planet” as a saviour. (8) He explains that these beings have passed through ordinary astral spheres (where nearly all beings from earth must go at death) and have destroyed many seeds of karma connected with their past actions in astral worlds. (9) Sri Yukteswar adds that there are also nearly perfect beings from the superior causal world who have come to Hiranylaloka. (10)
Again, similar to Steinsaltz, he teaches many more things, including the darker realms where fallen angels who, expelled from other worlds, are working in the prison of the gloom-drenched lower astral cosmos (while working out their evil karma). (11) Astral beings of different grades are assigned a suitable planet or vibratory quarter just as human beings live on the surface of the earth, worms inside the soil, fish in water, and birds in the air. (12) The astral cosmos is attuned more naturally to the divine will and plan of perfection than the earth, with astral objects primarily a manifestation of Godʼs will and the will-call of astral beings. (13) No one is born of woman, but drawing from similar mental and spiritual tendencies, a recently physically disembodied being arrives in an astral family through invitation. (14)
Sri Yukteswarʼs long discourse on astral worlds supplied the missing piece of a puzzle that I had carried for forty-four years. It offered the first explanation as to where I was during the week of my coma. “Unlike the spacial, three-dimensional physical world cognized only by the five senses, the astral spheres are visible to the all-inclusive sixth sense — intuition,” Sri Yukteswar went on. “By sheer intuitional feeling, all astral beings see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. They possess three eyes, two of which are partly closed. The third and chief astral eye, vertically placed on the forehead, is open. Astral beings have all the outer sensory organs — ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin — but they employ the intuitional sense to experience sensations through any part of the body; they can see through the ear, or nose, or skin. They are able to hear through the eyes or tongue, and can taste through the ears or skin, and so forth. (15)
Prager reflects upon a similar phenomenon within midrashic interpretation of all who experienced revelation at Sinai: “… [they] heard with their eyes and saw with their ears in a fusion of senses overtaking the whole body”. (16) She describes a “full body knowing” where inner and outer voices blend in a “singular epiphany.” (17)
The Second Decade
Perhaps these early experiences explain why the Truth has always resonated deeply within my body. This is not a personal truth at all. Upon hearing the Truth, a stillness or a sort of “vibration of remembering” occurs that cuts through the usual disparate pieces of myself. As mentioned earlier, there is a stunning sort of quality to these experiences, like a huge bell sounding the “gong” of Truth, and all is quiet in the magnificence of that.
Such was the experience during my only Sunday School class series at age twelve. I donʼt remember how I even ended up in a Sunday school as we were usually away skiing on the week-ends. After the first few classes, the other students dropped out of the class and the teacher and I were left to study the Synoptic Gospels on our own. We read in “lectio divina” style (out loud to each other). Each week it seemed we were “visited” by a golden light. Thoughts and concerns were silenced and my body felt suspended and connected to the lightness that seemed to exist in the air around us.
Ages thirteen to fifteen years were times of great inward happiness. Although I did not relate to my peers at school, I donʼt remember being lonely. During this time, I read the entire Hebrew Bible and New Testament on my own. Intellectually I was aware that the stories were a bit of a puzzlement, but I seemed to be standing in another reality while reading these sacred texts and it nourished my soul deeply. (The Hebrew Bible even more so than the New Testament.) I was a good student and put effort into my studies, played piano, even competed on the ski team, but my real life came from a place deep within.
Joseph Chilton Pearce refers to these teenage years as an important time for the development of poignant and passionate idealism.(18) He refers to the teenagerʼs passionate expectation that “something great is supposed to happen” and his or her exuberant belief in “the hidden greatness within me.”(19) I mention this because Pearce says that the brain is the heartʼs modus operandi, or means, for transcendent experience.(20) Referring to the heart as the greatest intelligence, Pearce claims that this “stage” would be a lifelong development if the teenage stage were to unfold.(21) By some Divine play, it unfolded in spades for me and, as Pearce suggests, it has become a lifelong development and passion for me.
My near-drowning experience at the age of sixteen was without an obvious spiritual dimension, but interesting from the point of view of the complete neutrality with which I observed it while it was occurring. While calmly “breathing” in the water at the bottom of the pool, I watched various obscure moments in my life pass by before going unconscious. I awoke draped over the side of the pool and choking up water. I never once felt fear or thought I might be dying. Ironically, we were doing an exercise as part of our Red Cross Life Guard Training. An exercise that was permanently suspended from the program forthwith.
The Third Decade
I began my third decade with a return from living in Denmark and traveling in Europe for one year. I had returned home and within ten days was involved in a near- fatal car accident. While in Intensive Care for one week, I encountered a group of about sixteen out-of-body beings who greeted me with so much tender love that I was very drawn to go with them. I have since only had glimpses of the enormity of this love in moments of profound stillness during meditation. I believe that I recognized one of the beings as my Dadʼs mother — I was very close to her and she died when I was eight.
There were also times when my body would be immersed in a deep red energy fighting for its life. I went in and out of these two states for the week. My mother came to see me after I was out of intensive care. I was unconscious at the time, but above my body. It was the first time my mother had seen me and she was crying and grieving and threw her upper body across my legs. I recall being extremely frustrated because I could not get into my body enough to place my hand reassuringly on her head. I also tried to communicate with her to tell her that I was well — very well in fact — and that she didnʼt need to grieve. Again, I felt frustrated because I was using all my telepathic strength to attempt to communicate with her, but I could not penetrate what appeared to be a sort of “fog” caused by her grief.
I often think that God also has similar frustrations with us as we “live in a fog of our own making.” Steinsaltz refers to the “lower worlds” being predominated by a sense of “separate selfdom [which] blocks the divine plenty and at the same time obscures the truly unchanging essence that lurks beneath the individual personality.”(22) Meeting the loving group of angel-beings was incredible, but the experience with my mother was a huge lesson for me. It is why I believe that we need to talk with God and then we need to be still and listen. I believe that God is whispering (and perhaps even yelling) beautiful and wise things that we canʼt hear because we are steeped within our cultural, personal, and religious identities.
Green says that the mysticʼs response to evil lies in training the self toward greater openness and less dependence on the “thickness of our shells.”(23) The process of weaning oneself from the confusion and pain of our personal identities is perhaps lifeʼs biggest challenge. It certainly has been mine. Estelle Frankel, in Sacred Therapy, stresses the need for ego to be the humble servant of the higher self rather than its own master.(24) I appreciate Frankelʼs comparison of Ein Sofʼs contraction (allowing the finite world to come into being) with our need to complete our own self-tzimtzum through nullifying our separate selves.(25)
A lengthy process of self-discovery began for me following graduation from nursing in 1979 when I trained and taught energy techniques for seven years with the Washington Psychic Institute.(26) W.P.I. techniques focused on self from the experience of energy rather than through the usual mental processes. The main techniques were “grounding” from the first chakra and a technique called the “centre of the head.” The first or root chakra contains survival information and supports the bodyʼs energetic connection with the earth which fosters feelings of safety and belonging. The latter (C.O.H.), corresponds to the pineal gland and with practice, allows space to observe various psychic, physical, and emotional energy patterns from a place of neutrality or non-judgement.(27)
I learned to trust what my body was telling me, to allow space for psychic-intuitive expression, and I became very good at doing “Aura Readings” (the seven major layers in the auric field that corresponded to the chakra system). However, I eventually concluded that, while psychic ability could be a valuable tool, it did not go far enough.
The Fourth Decade
At the age of thirty-five, I entered into intense shadow-side psychotherapy for four years (as client and trainee) with authors and therapists, Doug and Naomi Moseley. Their work focused on facing the fear of internal issues and loosening the grip of unconscious patterns. Naomi used to call her work “end of the road therapy” as it was difficult and unattractive unless one was desperate! Over time I came to experience that a more accessible “shadow” helped me to relax with “what is” rather than react against “what is” (or isnʼt). I was intuitively drawn to this position as a healthy approach for spiritual work. (Although Naomi claimed that neither she or her work were spiritual.) Loosening the grip of shadow material made space for a willingness to commit to a long term relationship through marriage, have a daughter, and inherit two pre-teen step sons at the age of forty. The crushing and immediate demands of family life quickly put me, once again, into a place of intense personal struggle and depression.
The Fifth Decade
Kabbalist David Ariel describes todayʼs seeker as searching for “… truths that serve as the unassailable anchor of their personal experience.”(28) I found such teachings in the form of Lalitha and the Tantric teachings of the Western Baul Tradition. The teachings focused on Divine worship “in and through the body” and helped to soften my resistance to the demands of my life as wife of busy doctor, mother and stepmother. Working with Lalitha was a priceless reminder that a life with God is a continuous surrender of our (limited) understanding of who we are. Lalitha taught within a Guru-lineage called the — a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi traditions. I was introduced to concepts of “reality just as it is,” and “annihilation in God.” A Baul prayer that I continue to say was written by Lalithaʼs teacher, Lee Lozowick.(29) Over the years it has become a sort of as it helps to remember God in my experience. Prager describes as helping to reorient oneʼs life towards holiness.(30)
We are in Your hands and Your eyes.
We have no reason to ask of You a favour, yet still,
Let us be in Your Heart and annihilated in Love,
for all of this we Thank-You.
Even our failure to love You is Yours,
For all of this we Thank You.
Your Blessing is just this,
All Praise be to You Beloved God.
In February 2001, my husband and I were sitting for our evening meditation when I began to notice a peculiar stirring in my heart. My heart began to feel like a huge camera lens that was growing ever larger. I noticed that the back of my heart chakra was also opening in similar fashion. My heart was no longer “mine” as it had become the night sky, complete with stars and moons. The magnificent beauty of timelessness was accentuated by a strong smell of jasmine. At some point I knew that the experience had something to with the picture of (Indian lineage Guru) Yogi Ramsuratkumar that I had recently placed on my desk. I felt the energetic impact of this event for several days.
The next day Lalitha told me that Yogi Ramsuratkumar had died at the time I was having my experience. She said that he had always said that his “sincere students” would know when he died because his energy would be much more available after he left his physical form. Seven years later, I only have to say his name in my heart and I can feel my heart lift in response. Yogi Ramsuratkumar is described as a God- intoxicated universal Guru rather than a direct teacher. He rarely taught with words, but being near him, many people had varying reactions, ranging from incredible joy to spasms of intense psychological or physical pain. I never met him in person.
The Sixth Decade
At the time of my fiftieth birthday I was in India for five weeks with Lalitha, her husband, and four other students. Although we travelled north to Calcutta and Bengal, it was at Yogi Ramsuratkumarʼs ashram in Tiruvannamalai (south India), that I made the clear decision to leave Lalitha as a teacher. I had privately wrestled with the decision for the year leading up to the India trip.. Exposure to the tradition was very helpful in bringing spirituality into my daily life as a practice, but I could not accept Lalitha as “one and only teacher.” In a Guru Yoga lineage this is an expectation. Green describes “Eyn Sof, God as ENDLESS, LIMITLESS, undifferentiated reality, is the beginning and the end of truth.”(31) However, one of the most terrifying things that we — as separate entities — can experience is our annihilation or “nothingness” in relationship to this undifferentiated reality. I have had a direct physical experience with an undifferentiated reality during my first week-long silent retreat at Loon Lake in the Fall of 2006. (32)
In the early morning I had awoken from a terrifying dream where I was flying very high and quickly into huge dark thunder clouds over the north shore mountains of Vancouver. My only source of comfort in the dream was that two of Lalithaʼs students were slightly ahead of me, although flying at a lower level. Later that morning, while walking on the trail above the lake on my way to the meditation hall, I found myself noticing the incredible stillness of the lake. I calmly noticed that there was no difference between its stillness and the stillness at the centre of my heart. It seemed to be merely a matter of fact and an inconsequential observation at the time. When meditation began a few minutes later however, an intense and unrelenting crushing sensation immobilized my chest, forcing me to “belly breathe” for the entire 50 minutes.
Thoughts and emotions were not involved at all in this experience. It seems that my body may have tasted Eyn Sof and then the contraction of zimzum! Green describes the core and shell analogy, whereby the core represents pure and untainted soul and the shell that surrounds the core serves as self-preservation and defense.(33) My psyche (in the dream) and my body (while awake in meditation) were not ready to let go of that shell!
Synopsis: The Essence of Torah
There was a man who lived in the mountains. He knew nothing about those who lived in the city. He sowed wheat and ate the kernels raw.
One day he entered the city. They brought him good bread. He said, “What is this for?”
They said, “Bread, to eat!”
He ate, and it tasted very good. He said, “What is it made of?”
They said, “Wheat.”
Later they brought him cakes kneaded in oil. He tasted them and said, “What
are these made of”?
They said, “Wheat.”
Finally they brought him royal pastry made with honey and oil.
He said, “And what are these made of”?
They said, “Wheat.”
He said, “I am the master of all of these, for I eat the essence of all of these:
Because of that view, he knew nothing of the delights of the world;
they were lost to him. So it is with one who grasps the principle and does not know all those delectable delights deriving, diverging from that principle.(34)
In many ways, I am like the mountain man who has had mystical experiences, but is lacking in the refinement of traditional religious teaching. In the summer of 2007 I began part-time studies at Vancouver School of Theology in the hopes of deepening my understanding of my experiences within an academic Christian setting. Kabbalah and Christian mysticism point towards the God of my heartʼs desire. I am slowly coming to know and trust the living reality at the centre of my heart — that there is only God. The paradox in truth is that the end of the journey is where one has begun. I have come full circle back into my Christian roots.
I have the sense that my whole life has been nothing more than preparation for learning how to be faithful to, and live within, Godʼs consciousness. Striving to position myself within any other context other than faithful and humble servant leads to suffering. Attaching any other meaning to my spiritual unfolding is to cut myself short in my quest to Know God within my everyday existence.
I know that I am in good company within the Christian wisdom traditions and Kabbalah. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn. I am currently studying the Psalms through Cynthia Bourgeaultʼs class on Centering Prayer.
My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to thy word!
Put false ways far from me;
and graciously teach me thy law!
I have chosen the way of faithfulness,
I set thy ordinances before me. (Ps. 119: 28-30)
The long and well worn paths of tradition serve as a reminder to place our struggles within a Divine context, from which we are never separate. The energetic footprints of the saints and prophets eventually become imprinted on our own hearts and minds. The struggle for true self-knowledge bears fruit when we know that God is with us in that struggle. I believe that our struggles are in vain otherwise. With “right effort,” the “struggling I” learns that its stumbling does not have to mean division within oneself, or separation from God.(35) On the contrary, our conscious struggle is a valid and necessary part of the journey towards deeper self-knowledge.
I am encouraged by Daniel Mattʼs Zohar interpretation that says “Whoever delves into mysticism cannot help but stumble, as it is written: ʻThis stumbling block is in your hand.ʼ You cannot grasp these things unless you stumble over them.”(36) The message of hope from both Green and Matt is that our struggle holds the possibility of maturing us into Godʼs people — the language of our sacred Covenant.
I have found the study of Centering Prayer (meditation) very helpful for experiencing God within the struggle. The practice of kenosis or “self-emptying” allows for something other than the ordinary or everyday “self” to exist within our consciousness. We discover that there is something there at the centre of the struggle — something constant and true that I have come to experience as my deepest Self or God. The action of kenosis in Centering Prayer is a humbling and incredibly freeing action. It requires a continuous letting go of attachments to thoughts, emotions, and psychological entanglements. Without releasing these we are inclined to get trapped in “struggle” as a personal issue, rather than allowing the space of a larger context.
“Be Still and Know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) is a call to remember who we are in our times of struggle. We cannot know God without the deep stillness of contemplation and self-knowledge. Prager describes brakha as the completion of an energy exchange with God where we are partners in a sacred cycle of giving and receiving.(37) With unspeakable relief, I am glimpsing experiences of this sacred cycle. Within that mystical unraveling of self, my “personal struggle” is not separate from my yearning for God, or Godʼs yearning for me. Tangible — barely perceptible — shifts are occurring in my relationship with self, God, and others. Glimmers of possibility flicker within the Divine play of universal love and judgement.
(1) Arthur Green, EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004), 50-51. (2) Rabbi Dr. Laura Kaplan, “Kabbalah: A Jewish Philosophy”, Chalmers Summer School, V.S.T., 2008. 3 Daniel C. Matt, Zohar: Annotated and Explained (Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2002), xxv. (4) Adin Steinsaltz, Yehuda Hanegbi trans,The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 24.(5) Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 108. (6) My spiritual teacher Laltiha used to refer to spiritual awakenings as “lucky” experiences.(7) Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiograpy of a Yogi (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship,1998),402,(8)400;(9&10)401;(11)403;(12)402; (13&14)403;(15)404;(16&17)Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003),156;(18,19,20)Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Biology of Transcendnence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit (Rochester: Park Street, 2002),53;(21)54;(22)Steinsaltz,14;(23)Green,EHYEH,148;(24&25)Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness (Boston:Shambhala,2005),83;(26)This was the conflict between Naomi and me as she saw their work as “not spiritual” -- her concept of spiritual work being “an excuse to get out of the body”, and mine being “body-centred.”(27)This description of W.P.I.was taken,in part,from a paper I wrote entitled “Embodied Faith: Our Gift and Our Work,” Conversations from the Heart; Chalmers Summer School, July,2007;(28)David Ariel, Kabbalah:The Mystic Quest in Judaism (New York:Rowman&Littlefield,2006),xiv.12;(29)Lee Lozowick left his physical body on November 16,2010;(30)Prager,142;(31)Green,EHYEH, 39;(32)Sponsored by the West Coast Dharma Society of Vancouver;(33)Green, Ehyeh,147;34 Daniel C. Matt,The Essential Kabbalah:The Heart of Jewish Mysticism(New York: HarperCollins,1995),3;(35)“Right effort” is a Buddhist term that I appreciate as it implies a choice in how we apply ourselves to our circumstances;(36)Matt,Zohar,163;(37) Prager,14.
Ariel, David Kabbalah: The Mystic Quest in Judaism. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
Chodron, Pema compiled and edited by Emily Hilburn Sell, Comfortable with Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2008.
Elson, Shulamit Kabbalah of Prayer: Sacred Sounds and the Soulʼs Journey. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2004.
Frankel, Estelle Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner. Wholeness Boston: Shambhala, 2005.
Green, Arthur A Guide to the ZOHAR. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. Green, Arthur EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. (Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004.
Kaplan, Rabbi Dr. Laura “Kabbalah: A Jewish Philosophy”, Chalmers Summer School, V.S.T., 2008.
Krishnamurti, As One is: To Free the Mind from All Conditioning. Prescott, Arizona: Hohm Press, 2007.
MacKnee, Chuck “Sex Brings Christians Closer to God,” Douglas Todd interview, The Vancouver Sun, Saturday, July 26, 2008.
Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. New York: HarperCollins, 1995; Zohar: Annotated and Explained. Woodstock: Skylight Paths, 2002.
Myss, Caroline Anatomy of the Spirit: The Seven Stages of Power and Healing. New
York: Three Rivers Press, 1996.
OʼDonohue, John Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong. New York: Perennial, 2002.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton The Biology of Transcendnence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. Rochester: Park Street, 2002.
Prager, Marcia The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine. Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003.
Rumi, Jalaludin Daniel Ladinsky, ed. Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. New York: Penguin Compass, 2002.
Scholem, Gershom Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.
Shapira, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman, trans by Andrea Cohen-Kiener, Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
Steinsaltz, Adin Yehuda Hanegbi, trans,The Thirteen Petalled Rose: A Discourse on the Essence of Jewish Existence and Belief. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Ulanov, Ann and Barry Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer. London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982.
Yogananda, Paramahansa Autobiograpy of a Yogi. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship,1998.
St. Teresa of Avila: God-Lover and Mystical Teacher
“Teresa of Avila” was born Teresa de Ahumada y Cepeda and lived from 1515 to 1582. According to author and translator Mirabai Starr, Teresa’s family had “hidden Jewish roots” with her wealthy grandfather, Juan Sanchez, purchasing his “titled gentleman” status so that his daughters could marry well.
The youngest child, Teresa’s father, Alonso, never forgot the humiliation his family endured in having to denounce the Sabbath of their people and to kneel in every church, chapel, and shrine in the city while the townspeople stoned, spit, and hurled verbal abuses at the “nasty Jews”.
He consequently focused on building a life of prestige and status for his family. The sudden death of his first wife left Alonso with two children. He married his wife’s fourteen-year-old cousin, Beatriz, who bore him nine children before dying in childbirth at age thirty. Teresa was twelve years old at the time.
Teresa’s Life in Overview
Alonso adored his “wild child” Teresa while struggling to control her imaginative adventures with siblings and neighbouring cousins — especially with the onset of puberty. At sixteen, she had “socially unacceptable” liaisons with a distant cousin and Teresa was banished to a convent as a result. To her own surprise and the surprise of her father, Teresa quickly developed a liking for the quiet prayer of her exiled life. Given that marriage or the convent were the only options for women in her day, Teresa eventually decided that the convent would be preferable to married life.
Teresa suffered much in the latter part of her life from undiagnosed attacks that took the form of throbbing headaches, inflamed joints, rocketing temperatures, and a fit of paralysis that took months of recovery time. She would frequently return to her father’s home to recover.
After twenty years of “ordinary” interior life, Teresa began being affected by God states around age forty. Rather than finding these states exalting,Teresa found them to be humbling and sometimes embarrassing (when occurring in public places). It is said that she was equally devoted to praising God as she was to the sanctity of the ordinary. She enjoyed cooking and eating and is quoted as saying “God lives also among the pots and pans.” From her first mystical experience until her death, Teresa lived in fear of the Spanish Inquisition — who were hyper-alert to the growing threat of the Protestant Reformation.
Teresa’s extraordinary “God experiences” attracted the attention of the Inquisition. She, along with them, spent years trying to determine whether her visions and raptures came from God, the devil, or a mental pathology (“melancholia”). Teresa’s brilliant mind, physical beauty, charm, and charisma served her well in her tenuous position with the Inquisitors. She frequently referred to herself as “nothing but a stupid woman” in between beautifully written phrases about her inner life. This was in part due to her incomplete education and awareness of her colloquial writing style, but it was also her desire to protect herself from accusations of heresy.
While recovering from one of her health setbacks at her uncle’s farm, he loaned her a copy of A Third Spiritual Alphabet by Franscisco de Osuna. His insights into contemplative prayer served as a catalyst for a radical shift in her inner life.
“What Osuna taught and Teresa learned with alacrity,” writes Cathleen Medwick in her beautiful biography Teresa of Avila: The Progress of a Soul, “is something that might be defined as a spiritual fitness: a kind of alert praying, a limbering up and bracing of the faculties to weather God’s onslaught of love.”
Teresa had a tumultuous relationship with St. John of the Cross whose insights she revered and whose criticism (of her dramatic spiritual episodes) she resented. Like Teresa, John was intolerant of the “lazy slide” of their Carmelite Order where the original foundation bore ideals of simplicity and silence.
He was twenty-five and on his way into the mountains to live as a hermit when he met the fifty-two year old nun, who converted him to her cause. Together with Fr. Jeronimo Gracian they founded what came to be called the “Discalced,” or “Barefoot Carmelite” order (indicating the hemp sandals they wore even in winter to express their commitment to simple values). A year before Teresa’s death at age sixty-seven, the Discalced Carmelites were finally sanctioned as an official Order of the Catholic Church. There were seventeen Discalced Carmelites Centres at the time of Teresa’s death in 1582.
The Interior Castle exists only because Teresa was under an oath of obedience and her superior requested her to write about her spiritual experiences. It is said that she asked for God’s help and in a flurry of what could be described as “automatic writing,” she is said to have completed the assignment in a matter of months — often with her eyes focused upwards and her hand frantically writing.
Autobiography and Spiritual Autobiography
Without the fine introduction given by Mirabai Starr, The Interior Castle is a disappointing autobiography in the sense that it lacks details of Teresa’s family history and the culture of her daily surroundings. However, Teresa was asked to write about her spiritual experiences and as such, it becomes an insightful and illuminating “instruction manual” into divine relationship. Within the context of her spiritual work, Teresa gives personal details ranging from the “disappointing” behaviour of her spiritual seniors (whom she thinks should know better) to the exquisite details of the soul’s interior journey. From within the Sanctuary of Divine Union, described as the Interior Castle, Teresa takes us on an exquisite and rare journey. She is nothing short of genius in her ability to illustrate the inherent challenges of personal annihilation as one surrenders into God union.
Roy Pascal points out that the dominant direction of any worthwhile life is not accidental, so that a life’s story can be a graph linking certain experiences. In this sense, he says, the graph could be described as “imaginary” as it neglects to portray the volatility of the nature of experience.
With Teresa’s autobiography, the graph is already fixed in that it is a “spiritual autobiography,” but her interpretation is idiosyncratically hers. One only has to read St. John of the Cross or St. Augustine of Hippo to confirm the variance of writing style and focus in a spiritual autobiography.
John’s writing, for example, reflects his theological academics and has a precision and depth about it that could almost be considered calculating. Teresa, on the other hand, writes from the passion and commitment of her own experiences rather then the refinement of intellectual insight. Truman Dicken states that we are indebted to John for what he taught and to Teresa for the gift of herself.
As a reader, I have found this a fascinating process of discovering myself within the immediate reading of Teresa’s text. Her earnestness is almost painful at times as she attempts to alert her nuns to the many deceptions and benchmarks of authentic spirituality. In so doing, however, she reaches beyond time into a spacious reality that is forever available to us.
Augustine, even though his writing is every bit as intense as Teresa’s, is not writing to an audience, save God. Through Augustine’s Confessions we bear witness to a man doing battle with his own consciousness as it is illuminated in the direct experience of his relationship with God. Without knowing it, Augustine contributed to both permission for empirical experience of God and, later in his life, to the banishment of such claims (through harsh denial of the body and rejection of personal contemplation).
All three authors are making a (Pascal) graph by connecting with certain experiences and choosing those as the important and relevant ones. Each of them is also working with what Mary Bateson refers to as an “improvisational” model of autobiography. She claims that traditionally, women (and men more recently) have had to learn to adapt to the discontinuity and fluidity that is central to our everyday reality.
Teresa and John lived in a time of religious zeal. Fueled by the experiences of the Alumbrados (a fringe group of Catholics), the Roman Catholic Church was alert to the emphasis on ecstatic states over formal prayer.
Teresa was therefore not alone in her struggles to embrace the empirical while paying respects to the dominant power authority. Even within the Carmelite Order, the Reform movement of Teresa and John (the Discalced Carmelites) threatened the dominant order of the Calced Carmelites (who eventually gave way to violent retaliation — of which St. John of the Cross was a victim). Improvisation was equivalent to survival for Teresa and John whose mystical experiences and teachings regularly threatened the religious power structure of their day.
Teresa as Mystical Teacher
In many ways Teresa is reminiscent of a spiritual Helen Keller. Blind and deaf as most of us are at the outset of our journey toward God, she was able to successfully stumble and grope her way through her own learning process. Weathering the storms of inner and outer battles, she finally finds her footing and is able to move, with God’s Grace, through the soul’s interior landscape with increasing certainty. Similar to John Woolman, her dynamically personal communication with God is at the heart of her journey and her teaching. Teresa converses with God through every aspect of her life. She shares with Him her disappointments and anger, her personal failings and fears, everyday tasks, and her boundless love. In return for her constancy, Teresa is gifted with ecstatic states of mystical union and insight into the Divine Mystery.
History has blessed us with many mystics, but St. Teresa is outstanding for her unique mystical metaphors and simplicity. Her writing is accessible in part, I believe, because she was a naturally strong and loving woman. From a young age her womanly wiles helped her to survive her unyielding environment and (later in life) regular interrogations from the Inquisition. St. John, for example, did not share the same privilege. Her natural feminine charms were so developed that even Teresa herself became suspicious of them in her younger years! I believe this also impacted her writing style and contributed to its idiomatic manner — beguiling through its unmitigated innocence and good will. Had she been educated, which likely would have been if “she” were a “he” (given her family’s wealth), it may have constrained her candid, colloquial, and direct writing style.
Being a woman also gave Teresa her mother-hen like devotion to her nuns. Like many mothers, she was at times annoyed, disappointed, and challenged by them, but she never stopped giving them her love and best advice. Her role as teacher and devoted nun-mother were intrinsically bound and I believe that this not only makes her writing powerfully instinctive and penetrating, but drafts into simple discourse the highest of human aspirations — the experience of Divine Love.
Teresa’s Teaching for Today
Throughout history the spiritual path has frequently been occluded by our own best efforts. Teresa is well aware of this, and says that we can even delude ourselves with the urge God gives us to “help others.” Always working from the ground level, Teresa advises us to “make the best possible use of our feet first.”
We must know ourselves first before we “float off to other places.”
She cautions us against the temptation of pride that would have us elevate ourselves through our worldly capacities. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa coined the term “spiritual materialism” to alert his students to this temptation. I have been the uncomfortable witness to this trend within myself and among New Age friends when we claim wisdom teachings as our own, simply because we have an intellectual affinity with them. This widespread tendency would likely be at odds with Teresa’s advice to “stay on the ground level.”
Another symptom of pride and “floating off” is manifested in what Teresa describes as “reckless zeal.” She says that it can be harmful and foolish to think we have “special entitlement.” As Shirley Sullivan points out, our basic longing for God draws us into the first mansion, but there are many entrances to the first mansion, because there is never a set way for all to travel to God.
The excitement we may feel with initial shifts in consciousness can easily lead to bouts of zealous proclamations concerning the faith-system that initiated our experience.
In her self-effacing and straight-forward approach, Teresa advises (instead) that each one look to themselves. It is easy in our action-oriented, intellectual world to frustrate our longing for God by validating only an external framework. It has been my experience that the institution of the church has historically done enormous harm in this regard. At best, religious ideologies can provide a benchmark that sanctions the possibility for internal spiritual experience, but they will never take the place of it.
The purity of Teresa’s relationship with God is stunning and allows her insight to penetrate deeply into the tragic varieties of “divine misconceptions” inherent in the human condition. Her encouragement at each level or “dwelling” of the spiritual journey is palpable and incredibly tender, as though she is holding a wounded bird. Loving God and each other are her two foundational disciplines. She reminds us that God loves us more than we could ever love ourselves, admitting that she endured twenty years of thinking she was a “bad person” before realizing this.
Loving God and the Other is a deceptively simple formulae and at every stage of the journey Teresa repeatedly warns about the tricks of the “spirit of evil.” It is apparent that one needs to know equally about the “dark forces within” as well as the “light” on their intimate journey towards God. Humility, self-knowledge, and perseverance provide the light of consciousness which is imperative for navigating the first four levels of the castle according to Teresa. She states that even from the fourth level it is easy to slide back into the second level, where one is “deaf” or the first level where one is “deaf and blind.”
Teresa teaches both cataphatic (active) prayer and apophatic (passive) prayer. Elaine Storkey claims the first three levels of the castle are ascetic, with a dependence on human endeavour (cataphatic and apophatic prayer), but the next four levels depend on the transforming presence of God
Mystical or apophatic prayer then takes over, whereby the action is through God’s Grace alone. With a humble grassroots consciousness, Teresa’s teaching unfolds as a “manual of preparation” for what Thomas Keating refers to as the “Divine Indwelling.”
To all intents and purposes, Teresa is teaching a refined spiritual practice.
When one is sufficiently prepared (upon reaching the third level), Teresa advises surrender and abandoning oneself to God. She warns that this stage becomes arduous and burdensome if we fail to do so. God’s purity reflects our impurity, she explains, and love is not yet powerful enough to overwhelm reason. By the third level God is ready to take us to the fourth level where the natural and supernatural merge and we are susceptible to pride. As an antidote, Teresa says that love must be awakened — whatever that takes. Practicing the humility she teaches, Teresa reminds us that love is pleasing God, not about bringing ourselves personal happiness.
Teresa teaches from her own experiences. Differentiating between thinking and mindfulness, she says that her “soul faculties” can be absorbed in “God remembrance” at the same time that her thoughts are extremely agitated. She says that we suffer because we do not understand ourselves and confuse our mind’s activity with who we are. She compares the mind’s activity with the stars hurtling across the sky — implying that we can’t stop either. Teresa suggests that we just let our thoughts go “clacking round and round” like “grinding your own flour,” but not to let them distract us. She claims that thoughts are either from the spirit of evil, a legacy of Adam’s weakness (our own imperfection), or possibly God’s will that we suffer bad thoughts.
According to Gerald May, Teresa was plagued with twenty years of self-doubt and fear. Not unlike Augustine, Teresa became excessively conscious of her “failings,” to the point where she felt unworthy even to pray. She gave up the practice of prayer for nearly two years (which she later regretted), and when she began again, she could hear God speaking to her.
Liberation came to her when she finally surrendered to God alone — no longer to her own judgments or to those of her spiritual directors.
A Personal Response
After reading the first three levels of Teresa’s Interior Castle, I felt a great sense of sadness in regards to my own tenuous relationship with God and with the many ways that we collectively delude ourselves. A great weight of feeling the hopelessness of our human condition descended upon me and I was forced to reflect from a painful and newly-revealed depth of insight and understanding. It is as though Teresa handed me a finely polished mirror, so precious and pure that it would not allow for distortion. I am clearly exhibiting the burdensome nature of a third level experience!
Teresa encourages us to trust more in God’s mercy than in our own judgement because in the early stages our soul is not yet ready to be weaned from God. The gateway into the Interior Castle is through prayer. To enter paradise, we must enter ourselves. As Teresa reminds us in the concluding paragraphs of her book, the Lord looks less at the grandeur of our deeds than at the love with which we perform them.
The reciprocity and delight that Teresa eventually embodied in ecstatic states of Divine Union is abundantly apparent in the following poem from Love Poems from God. Translator Daniel Ladinsky describes this humble teacher and determined mother-nun as “undoubtedly the most influential female saint in the Western world.”
Her legacy is eternal and includes seven books, four hundred and fifty letters, and assorted mystical poetry and prose.
Laughter came from every Brick
Just these two words He spoke
changed my life,
What a burden I thought I was to carry —
a crucifix, as did He.
Love once said to me “I know a song,
would you like to hear it?”
And laughter came from every brick in the street
and from every pore
in the sky.
After a night of prayer, He
changed my life when
1 Mirabai Starr, trans. The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila (New York: Riverhead Books, 2003), 4. 2 Ibid., 5. 3 Ibid., 9. 4 Ibid.,12. 5&6 Roy Pascal, Design and Truth in Autobiography (London: Routlidge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2003), 17. 7 Trueman Dicken, The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross (New York” Sheed and Ward, 1963), 20. 8 Mary Catherine Bateson, Composing a Life (New York: Plume/Penguin Group, 1990), 13. 9 Starr, 16. 10&11 Starr, 46. 12 Shirley Darcus Sullivan, Transformed by Love: The Soul’s Journey to God in Teresa of Avila, Mother Aloysius of the Blessed Sacrament, and Elizabeth of the Trinity (New York: New City Press, 2002), 41. 13 I am struggling my way back into a Christian setting through rigorous re-examination of the tradition’s spiritual treasures and my personal relationship to them — the V.S.T. curriculum is very helpful. 14 Battistina Capalbo ed., Paula Clifford, trans., Elaine Storkey, fwd. Praying with Saint Teresa (Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997), xv. 15 Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer (New York: Crossroad, 2006). 16 Gerald G. May, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 22. 17 May, 21. 18 Ibid., 23. 19&20 Daniel Ladinsky, ed., Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 268.
Bateson, Mary Catherine Composing a Life. New York: Plume/Penguin Group, 1990.
Capalbo, Battistina ed., Clifford, Paula, trans., Storkey, Elaine, fwd. Praying with Saint Teresa. Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997.
Dicken, Trueman The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.
Keating, Thomas Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer. New York: Crossroad, 2006.
Ladinsky, Daniel, ed. Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. New York: Penguin Group, 2002.
May, Gerald G. The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.
Pascal, Roy Design and Truth in Autobiography. London: Routlidge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2003.
Starr, Mirabai, trans The Interior Castle: St. Teresa of Avila. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Sullivan, Shirley Darcus Transformed by Love: The Soul’s Journey to God in Teresa of Avila, Mother Aloysius of the Blessed Sacrament, and Elizabeth of the Trinity. New York: New City Press, 2002.