The saints play a big role in Hick’s understanding of world religion. They are “pointers” toward the Transcendent, and look remarkably similar across traditions. In the following quotation, Hick engages and expands William James’ “Profile of a Saint.”
“William James’ ‘composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions’, is excellent, except that whilst he does not exclude the political form of saintliness he does not sufficiently stress it. This is understandable, for the phenomenon of the political saint has become much more prominent since his time. James lists the four cardinal features of, first, ‘a feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power’; second, ‘a sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control’; third, ‘an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down’; and fourth, ‘a shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes,” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned’.
To these we must add more explicitly, I think, the rare attribute, evident in the greatest saints, of spiritual joy. This is not to be confused with the natural temperamental gaiety and happiness with which some people have the very good fortune to be endowed. As William James said, ‘There are [people] who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champaigne inscribed to their credit.’ They are not necessarily, however, less self-centred or more Real-centred than others with a naturally dourer temperament. But Teresa of Avila is representative of the great mystics of all traditions in having experienced the overwhelming joy of release from the ego as it becomes open to the Transcendent. This, she says, ‘gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose.’ This experience – either a quietly glowing inner peace and serenity or an outwardly manifest radiance of joy – is characteristic of the true mahatmas and saints.
It is this that William James refers to as an ‘immense elation and freedom’. Julian of Norwich, whose awareness of the divine reality took the form of visions and auditions of Christ on the cross, tells how ‘suddenly, as I looked at the same cross he changed to an appearance of joy. The change in his appearance changed mine, and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be ... Our Lord showed this to me to make us glad and merry.’ Evelyn Underhill, describing Francis of Assisi, Ruusbroec, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle, Catherine of Genoa, and John of the Cross, speaks of the ‘inextinguishable gladness of heart’, the ‘gaiety, freedom, assurance, and joy’, that seems to be a characteristic of the ‘unitive’ state which they reached after a long, arduous, and sometimes painful pilgrimage.
When we turn to the Hindu world we find that the ultimate, Brahman, is spoken of as sat–chit–ananda, being–consciousness–bliss, and that the experience of union with Brahman is an experience of this bliss. ‘I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded. The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman.’ Again Shankara speaks of the goal of mystical practice as ‘the highest bliss’ and declares that in our deepest nature one ‘never ceases to experience infinite joy’. Again, the Buddha taught: ‘He that crushes the great “I am” conceit – this, even this, is happiness supreme.’ One of the perfections of the bodhisattva is joy (mudita). And so the contemporary Buddhist monk Nyanaponika says, ‘Let us teach real joy (mudita) to others. Many have unlearned it. Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights.’ The Sufis of Islam are full of the joy of living in the divine love, which they describe poetically in ‘a great variety of images, most of them connected with love and wine’. ‘Oh, my spirit is joyful over Thee – may my spirit never be without Thee!’, sings Rumi.
At the same time, we must not imagine that the mahatmas/saints are perpetually cheerful, never weighed down by the pain and injustice around them. On the contrary, the more involved they are in the life and suffering of the world, the more they share its sorrows. For instance Gandhi, whilst he bubbled over with fun and delight much of the time, was emotionally devastated by the slaughter in the Punjab in the wake of the partition of India. And the more introverted mystics have generally been through their dark night of the soul, enduring a period of mental suffering and doubt from which they only emerged after a long ordeal. Nevertheless, despite its ‘dark nights’, and its agonies of suffering with those who suffer, the saintly or enlightened or awakened life is one that we can see to be intrinsically good and desirable, a state in which we would dearly love to be.
We spontaneously feel that such individuals are incarnating some of the higher possibilities of our common human nature. We sense that they are not only more unselfcentred but also, paradoxically, more truly fulfilled than ourselves. But in order to empathize with them we need to have participated, at least to some small degree, in their experience of the Transcendent, and to have experienced, again in however slight a degree, something like their inner illumination and joy. It is when we have known in some tiny momentary way that of which they speak, that we are entitled to trust their much greater and stronger and more continuous experience of the Divine, the Holy, the Real.”
One figure I think of when I picture the ideal “contemplative,” or saint, is Thomas Keating – largely because of the spiritual joy he seemed to radiate. Keating was a Trappist monk and was extremely influential in the development of the Centering Prayer movement in America. He passed away this week. Carl McColman wrote a nice piece honoring Keating here, and much of Keating’s teaching can be found on the Contemplative Outreach Youtube Channel.
Shinzen Young once remarked about contemplatives from various traditions that “they give off the same vibe.” Perhaps Keating, and others of his ilk, truly do experience the same transforming Reality which is open to us all.
Here is some brief audio from Keating entitled “What’s Next in Religion”:
This is a somewhat meandering lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Who Are We?".
A few pieces I find interesting:
- What we think of as "I" is really a small part of what is going on in our "mind-body." Our conscious self is not our total self. Huxley uses the example of raising our hand. We aren't consciously flexing the necessary muscles; we will it, and it just happens. Likewise there are a host of processes our body completes without our explicit effort (digestion, circulation, etc.). He also uses the example of a parrot (5:10), which somehow has the ability to mimic sounds. Huxley refers to these unconscious processes as a "type of intelligence" that we experience, but are not consciously producing. The identity and nature of "the self" is a massive ongoing debate within religion and especially in contemplative forms of religion. A takeaway for me is simply that, when thinking about "who we are," things are not as straightforward as they first seem.
- (11:20) Huxley here speaks about his famous image of the "brain as a reducing valve," in the sense that its primary function might be to limit the amount of reality we consciously experience, selected for survival value. We simply can't be aware and conscious of all that is going on around us as we would be too overwhelmed. Huxley believes that this reducing valve can be opened, and has been opened, by the great mystics and that similar experiences can be induced by various substances.
- (21:00) We experience the world in terms of concepts, not direct immediate experience. Right now I think of myself as sitting on my couch and typing on my computer. In fact, I am experiencing a huge variety of sensations including various color impressions, a variety of sounds in my basement and from outside, many touch sensations coming from virtually all parts of my body, etc. When we experience life conceptually, we are actually one step removed from out immediate experience. This is one aspect of reality that vipassana meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) helps us to realize. Language and concepts are always "fingers pointing at the moon" of actual experience.
- (36:50) "We have to combine relaxation with activity." In art, sport, the intellectual life, the spiritual life, etc. we are at our best when we get out of the way of inspiration. The painting paints itself, the song writes itself, the dance dances itself, the life lives itself. We are at our best when we are passive channels of what might be called "inspiration." In the contemplative/spiritual life, this might be spoken of as "letting God live through you."
- (44:40) How do we open ourselves to God / The Ultimate? How do we get rid of the "partial, relative, ego-centered view of the world?" At 51:54, Huxley discusses various spiritual exercises including concentration practices, and eventually seems to describe vipassana at 54:00, which he sees leading to "an awareness of consciousness," or "consciousness without thought." I would also posit Centering Prayer as a method of reaching this state. In my mind the practice of Centering Prayer is actually a more natural fit for reaching the state that Huxley describes. Of course one's experience of a particular practice is a personal matter and how each practice uniquely affects the mind is up for debate.
Just a reminder that spiritual practice can induce periods of increased anxiety. In Centering Prayer, my own tradition, this is sometimes spoken of as the "unloading of the unconscious" which can include exposure to past traumas.
"I call this third moment in the circular movement of Centering Prayer 'the unloading of the unconscious.' 'Unloading' refers to the experience of psychological nausea that occurs in the form of bombardment of thoughts and feelings that surge into our awareness without any relationship to the immediate past. That lack of connection with the source of painful thoughts or feelings is what identifies them as coming from our unconscious...Having carried this emotional pain for twenty or thirty years (or longer), the evacuation process may be extremely painful..."
–Thomas Keating, Intimacy with God
"...Centering Prayer is a psychological method and will produce results in that realm, some of them initially painful. In Intimacy with God Keating recounts how a graduate student recently did a thesis on Centering Prayer, along with several forms of Eastern meditation, recommending them as a way to reduce anxiety. Keating wrote back to the man saying, 'Centering Prayer will reduce anxiety for perhaps the first three months. But once the unconscious starts to unload, it will give you more anxiety than you ever had in your life.' For individual practitioners he recommends a limited dosage— twenty to thirty minutes twice a day is the normal prescription— to prevent the premature emergence of material into the conscious. Ten-day retreats rely on a trained staff to help handle a more intensive unloading process."
– Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening
I have heard and read of similar experiences from those who practice Vipassana and Zazen meditation. While "the benefits of meditation" in the long term may include a more consistent inner calm, ups and downs are a normal part of most spiritual paths.
Boom goes the dynamite...
Right Concentration is the eighth branch of the Eightfold Noble Path and involves the practice of Jhana meditation.
I understand the concept of a concentration practice, but dang official Jhana meditation is complicated. The basic practice itself seems to start fairly simply, with concentration on the breath (as a side note, this is essentially zazen meditation), but as it progresses you are moving through a lot of different objects of concentration and there is a high degree of systematizing of various mindstates that arise (i.e. am I in First Jhana? Second Jhana? etc.).
From a non-Buddhist perspective this is extremely esoteric. I can see why mindfulness practice is extremely widespread while Jhana meditation is not. It's just flat out complicated, and far more embedded within the Buddhist structure itself.
This is about as accessible a conversation I have heard about Jhana meditation and the book is good as well.
This is a guided vipassana meditation and lecture from Joseph Goldstein, a senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society. The first 20 minutes is a guided meditation; the next 40 minutes is a lecture on mindfulness; and the rest is a question and answer time. Goldstein defines mindfulness as "observing present experience, free of any filters" (41:30). This is sometimes stated as "non-judgmentally" observing present moment experience. Right Mindfulness is the seventh step of the Buddhist Eightfold path.
The Eightfold Path seems to be very much a systematization of spiritual experience. The claim is, if you just do A + B + C + D you will get to Enlightenment. It's spiritual math.
In a lot of the contemplative traditions there is a tension between forming yourself (i.e. disciplining yourself morally, willing your mortification, "right effort" in the Buddhist path) and being formed (i.e. letting the meditative practice, or God, from some points of view, "do It's work").
Theravada Buddhism is more on the "forming yourself" end of the spectrum. Karma is an immutable law. The effort you put in is what you will get out. The meditative practices do need to "act on you," but the emphasis is more on personal effort.
In the Christian tradition, we can open ourselves, we can prepare our spirits, but at the end of the day we are dependent upon the work of God for transformation:
"Then why is this work so toilsome? The labor, of course, is in the unrelenting struggle to banish the countless distracting thoughts that plague our minds and to restrain them beneath that cloud of forgetting which I spoke of earlier. This is the suffering. All the struggle is on man’s side in the effort he must make to prepare himself for God’s action, which is the awakening of love and which he alone can do. But persevere in doing your part and I promise you that God will not fail to do his."
"Now, very briefly, I must just touch on the means for reaching this state. Here, again, it has been constantly stressed that the means do not consist in mental activity and discursive reasoning. They consist in what Roger Fry, speaking about art, used to call 'alert passivity,' or in what a modern American mystic, Frank C. Laubach, has called 'determined sensitiveness.' This is a very remarkable phrase. You don’t do anything, but you are determined to be sensitive to letting something be done within you."
– Aldous Huxley, Symbol and Immediate Experience, The Divine Within
There is certainly also a tension in the Christian tradition. We are responsible for our moral lives. We are responsible for putting ourselves in a place for God to act. But in the end, true transformation has to come passively. It has to be a gift.
Personal effort and "alert passivity" are required in both paths. It's a matter of emphasis.
I found this text, which seems to sum up the Eightfold Noble Path, in a different collection by Bhikkhu Bodhi called In the Buddha's Words. I'm a little confused as to why I haven't seen this elsewhere as it gives a succinct overview of the Path. There are some details and elaborations missing (for instance there is no discussion of what constitutes "Right Livelihood" and no discussion of the immaterial jhanas), but overall I think it is a helpful text for putting it all together.
The following is from the Samyutta Nikaya 45:8 V 8-10:
"'Monks, I will teach you the Noble Eightfold Path, and I will analyze it for you. Listen and attend closely; I will speak.'
'Yes venerable sir,' those monks replied. The Blessed One said this:
'And what, monks, is the Noble Eightfold Path? Right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
And what, monks is right view? Knowledge of suffering, knowledge of the origin of suffering, knowledge of the cessation of suffering, knowledge of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: this is called right view.
And what, monks, is right intention? Intention of renunciation, intention of non-ill will, intention of harmlessness: this is called right intention.
And what, monks, is right speech? Abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, abstinence from idle chatter: this is called right speech.
And what, monks, is right action? Abstinence from the destruction of life, abstinence from taking what is not given, abstinence from sexual misconduct: this is called right action.
And what, monks, is right livelihood? Here a noble disciple, having abandoned a wrong mode of livelihood, earns his living by a right livelihood: this is called right livelihood.
And what, monks, is right effort? Here, monks, a monk generates desire for the nonarising of unarisen evil unwholesome states; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind, and strives. He generates desire for the abandoning of arisen evil unwholesome states... He generates desire for the arising of unarisen wholesome states...He generates desire for the continuation of arisen wholesome states, for their nondecline, increase, expansion, and fulfillment by development; he makes an effort, arouses energy, applies his mind and strives. This is called right effort.
And what, monks, is right mindfulness? Here, monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. This is called right mindfulness.
And what, monks, is right concentration? Here, monks, secluded from sensual pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states, a monk enters and dwells in the first jhana, which is accompanied by thought and examination, with rapture and happiness born of seclusion. With the subsiding of thought and examination, he enters and dwells in the second jhana, which as internal confidence and unification of mind, is without thought and examination, and has rapture and happiness born of concentration. With the fading away as well of rapture, he dwells equanimous and, mindful and clearly comprehending, he experiences happiness with the body; he enters and dwells in the third jhana of which the noble ones declare: 'He is equanimous, mindful, one who dwells happily.' With the abandoning of pleasure and pain, and with the previous passing away of joy and dejection, he enters and dwells in the fourth jhana, which is neither painful nor pleasant and includes the purification of mindfulness by equanimity. This is called right concentration.'"
I am going to begin a short series on The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Noble Path of Buddhism. It's not uncommon to hear that "the teaching of the Buddha surrounds the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path," and Western Buddhist teaching is often introduced in this way.
I'm not convinced that it's as straightforward as that. In fact, browsing through the texts of the massive Pali Canon, it sometimes seems that these concepts are just a very small subset of an extremely large and diverse body of teaching. I agree with Eknath Easwaran when he makes the following remarks about the Pali Canon and its relation to the Eightfold Path:
"...not even a fraction of this literature directly deals with the steps of the Buddha's Eightfold Path. Instead there is much discussion of insights attained on that path, and the philosophical doctrines derived from those insights – so much, in fact, that the reader of Buddhist scriptures might tend to forget that the actual practice of the Eightfold Path was the Buddha's central teaching."
In my opinion, these comments apply to the Four Noble Truths as well. Because "the Dhamma" (the full body of Buddhist teaching) is so large and diverse, it's hard to say what is and is not an essential piece. Even in the Dhammapada, which, in the minds of some, boils down Buddhist teaching to the basics, the Noble Truths and Eightfold Path are only mentioned twice, and are never defined, simply alluded to.
That said, almost all Buddhist teachers do see these concepts as essential to Buddhist philosophy and practice, and there are texts which make these concepts primary.
One such text is the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (found in the Samyutta Nikaya, a division of the Sutta Pitaka – the division of the Pali Canon which contains the Buddha's discourses), in which the Buddha is recorded as briefly introducing both the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path.
"And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; this is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, and leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering,; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving that leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, nonattachment.
Now this, monks, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is the Noble Eightfold Path..."
Thus, the Four Noble Truths, according to this text, are:
2. The Origin of Suffering
3. The Cessation of Suffering
4. The Path to The Cessation of Suffering
The First Noble Truth paints a frustrating picture of life. Although we experience periods of happiness and peace, in Buddhist thought, life is ultimately marked by suffering. We are born into the world crying, confused, and immediately dependent on our parents to save us from starvation and death. As we develop, we experience bodily injury as well as mental anxieties. We find things in life that promise to please us; we strive for them, and yet often can't have them. Even when we do attain what we desire, the enjoyment seems to only last a moment before we are attracted to something new, with its own promise. "It never seems to be enough." If we find something that does seem to give lasting happiness, we immediately develop anxiety around the need to keep it, lest we lose the object that completes us. Over it all looms old age, sickness, and death. All this is duhkha – suffering, unsatisfactoriness.
The Origin of Suffering
The origin of suffering lies in our natural way of approaching life. Various authors (and I believe various texts in the Pail Canon, although I am not sure on this point) present the Origin of Suffering in different ways. I have seen the root cause of suffering referred to as craving/desire (as it is in this text), attachment, and ignorance.
Craving/Desire and Attachment: The most common way the Origin of Suffering is presented is in terms of desire and attachment. These seem to be two ways of saying virtually the same thing, desire referring to our inner disposition and attachment usually referring more to the actual things we desire (i.e. What are we "attached to"?). In this particular sutta, the phrase "seeking delight here and there" stands out as an appropriate image. We seek delight for ourselves here and there. I want physical comfort. I want money. I want sex. I want to be seen as attractive. I want to be seen as intelligent and successful. I want a nice house in a good part of town. We desire many exterior things in the world and become attached to them because we believe they will bring us happiness. Attachment can be to physical things, to people, and often to ideas about ourselves. The attractive young woman worries about wrinkles. The wealthy man worries about having more money or status than his neighbor. Any threat to losing something which we are attached to brings ongoing anxiety. Thomas Keating, speaking from a Christian contemplative perspective, refers to this state of being (a state of being we naturally inherit as human beings) as "The False Self." Our craving is never quite satisfied and leads to ongoing unrest and suffering.
Ignorance: Some authors present the Origin of Suffering in terms of ignorance. From this point of view, suffering arises because we do not experientially know the truth about reality (i.e. the Four Noble Truths and the entire Dhamma). Ignorance leads to seeking happiness in places it cannot be found.
Although these ideas are complimentary, I find it confusing that different authors present the Second Noble truth in different ways. Correct translation of this concept seems to be an ongoing debate within Buddhism as a whole.
The Cessation of Suffering
The Third Noble Truth essentially states that there is a way to end suffering. To do so, personal craving needs to be extinguished and one must become "unattached" to all things.
The Path to The Cessation of Suffering
The way to the Cessation of Suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.
The Four Noble Truths lead directly to the Eightfold Noble Path. The Truths are the philosophical underpinning, the Path is the concrete and pragmatic Way.
Here is also a short take on the Four Noble Truths from Alan Watts:
I'm about to start a short series on the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path, but before that, I'd like to do a post on the Pali Canon.
As I've mentioned before, Buddhism has always seemed incredibly diverse to me. Every time I read a new Buddhist author, it almost seems like I have to pick up a whole new vocabulary, and engage in a whole new set of concepts. Sure, there seem to be some constants – the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path stand out here – but I find myself wondering if even those "basics" are as core to the tradition as some authors make it seem. My hunch is that even saying that "the Buddha's teaching surrounds the Four Truths and Eightfold Path" may be a gross oversimplification. That's just my hunch.
Part of why I believe Buddhist teaching seems to be so diverse is that the primary set of Scriptures (at least for Theravada and what may be called "Western" Buddhism), the Pali Canon, is absolutely massive.
Estimates vary, and page counts depend on the translation (and page size), but you are talking about a group of writings that is probably more than 10 times the length of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, perhaps 15,000 - 20,000 pages of printed text. To get a feel, look at this translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, which is one of the five subdivisions of the Sutta Pitaka – itself only one of the three divisions of the entire Pali Canon. The translation of the Samyutta Nikaya itself is almost 2,000 pages.
That is a ton of text to draw from. On top of that, it doesn't seem the each individual sutra is necessarily connected to what surrounds it. It's more just a list of sayings/discourses, mostly grouped simply by the length of the discourse (i.e. "the long discourses," "the middle length discourses," "the short discourses"), than a connected narrative.
The Canon is separated into three "baskets" (sometimes referred to as the Tipitaka): the Vinaya Pitaka consisting mainly of rules for monks; the Sutta Pitaka consisting of basic teachings of the Buddha in discourse form; and the Abhidhamma Pitaka which contains systematic Buddhist philosophy and is sometimes referred to as the "higher dhamma" (i.e. it is more esoteric, philosophical, and specialized teaching). Each basket is also further separated into smaller subdivisions.
What the nature of the Pali Canon leads to, it seems to me, is the potential to choose a select group of sutras, and form a "Buddhist teaching" based on them. Teacher A's analysis of what is "core" to all these texts may be vastly different than the view of Teacher B. Hence the emphasis on lineage within Buddhism (i.e. I follow the Dhamma as taught by Teacher X who is of the ____lineage.).
This dynamic is true of all religion. People read the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Scriptures and come up with different theologies. But it seems to me that Buddhism is more open to a huge diversity of teaching due to the nature of its Scriptures. In Christianity, the recorded teaching of Jesus is contained in the four Gospels – maybe 100 pages of text. In Buddhism, the recorded teaching of Siddhartha Guatama is contained in 20,000.
This is David Frenette, a disciple of Thomas Keating, talking about his experience of Centering Prayer on the Buddhist Geeks podcast (sadly discontinued).
Frenette, along with Bourgeault, is what you might call a "second generation" Centering Prayer teacher as he has studied under Keating. Frenette has also published a book on the topic, called The Path of Centering Prayer.
As seen with Frenette, there continues to be a link between Zen Buddhist practice and Centering Prayer. Several people I have interacted with through this site share that same link.
Alright, following the St. John series, I'd like to post two talks about Centering Prayer, one from Cynthia Bourgeault and one from David Frenette. In The Dark Night, St. John talks about a stage of spiritual development in which the soul must be exclusively passive. He calls this moving from meditation (i.e. the use of discursive excercises including images, words, and "form") to contempletion, or "infused contemplation." Thomas Keating sometimes talks about Centering Prayer as a way to prepare oneself for the gift of contemplation. This is one way to understand Centering Prayer, but, as seen below, different authors have different ways of understading the practice.
This is Cynthia Bourgeault giving a series of talks about "The Heart of Centering Prayer" (the title of her latest book) at Boston College School of Theology. In Part 1, she tells the story of the beginning of the Centering Prayer movement (0:30), talks about her own experience of the prayer (9:30), and explains her primary paradigm – what she calls "developing non-dual consciousness" – for understanding what is happening during Centering Prayer (18:00). Bourgeault is the first author to interpret Centering Prayer through this lens. These are new ideas, and she adds a new set of vocabulary, to the movement.
In Part 2, Cynthia discusses The Cloud of Unknowing, and its relation to Centering Prayer, in detail.
Part 3 consists of discussions of apophatic vs. cataphatic practice (2:30), and the active vs. contemplative life (23:00) as seen in The Cloud of Unknowing.
In Part 4, Cynthia talks briefly about the Divine Therapy and then does a Q & A.
When I first read Cynthia Bourgeault's new book, The Heart of Centering Prayer, I thought she was distancing herself from the Christian tradition. The way in which she speaks of Centering Prayer as a means of forming non-dual consciousness seemed to me to relativize the role of God, however you want to describe that term. It seemed to me that, by emphasizing simply the practice of releasing thoughts, and how this discipline can affect our "operating system," she was turning Centering Prayer into an almost secular practice.
After watching these lectures I think otherwise. There are still pieces of her book that give me pause. For instance, in the following quote she talks about "God being the sideshow":
"I was several years into the practice of Centering Prayer before I came to appreciate the cumulative effect of this patterning. Like most beginners, I thought that the aim in Centering Prayer was to let go of my thoughts so that God could 'fill' me with his presence. One day I suddenly realized that the God story was the sideshow and the letting go was the main event. That was when the practice flipped for me, as I recognized that thoughts were not the obstacle; they were the raw material, as every opportunity to practice releasing that focal point for attention deepened the reservoir of 'free attention' within me and strengthened the signal of the homing beacon of my heart."
– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Heart of Centering Prayer
These statements seem to me to edge the practice away from being "God-centered." And I do think that her book tends towards the esoteric. But the way she carefully describes objectless awareness (a meditative state associated with Centering Prayer) as a place where "Divine awareness and our own awareness co-mingle as one diffuse field of inter-abiding" (Part 1 41:40) makes me think that she is still faithful to The Cloud of Unknowing and rooted in the Christian contemplative tradition.
Overall, I think Bourgeault is brilliant, but re-framing the practice in terms of non-dual consciousness seems obscure and confusing. Take, for instance, how she defines the term in her book:
"Imagine that there might be a different way of structuring the field of perception, an alternative way of wiring the brain that did not depend on that initial bifurcation of the perceptual field into inside and outside, subject and object. Instead, one would grasp the entire pattern as a whole – holographically – through a perceptual modality quantitatively more immediate and sensate, working on vibrational resonance rather than mental abstraction. Then one would indeed experience that signature sense of oneness – not, however, because one had broken into a whole new realm of spiritual experience, but because that tedious, 'translator' mechanism of the self-reflective brain has finally been superseded. You see oneness because you see from oneness."
I feel like she is essentially describing what a Buddhist would call the experience of "no-self" which can be achieved through vipassana meditation. On top of this, I feel like this is a slightly different state than what she elsewhere describes as "attention of the heart":
"Perhaps the subtlest fruit of the practice is a gradually deepening capacity to abide in the state of 'attention of the heart,' as it's known in the Christianity of the East. You might describe this as a stable state of mindfulness or 'witnessing presence,' but emanating from the heart, not the head, and thus free of intrusion from that heavy-handed mental 'inner observer' who seems to separate us from the immediacy of our lives. The essence of this kind of attentiveness is perhaps best summed up in those words from the Song of Songs: 'I sleep, but my heart is awake.' Once you get the hang of it, attention of the heart allows you to be fully present to God, but at the same time fully present to the situation at hand, giving and taking from the spontaneity of your own authentic, surrendered presence."
This, it seems to me, is equivalent not to "no-self" but to what a Zen Buddhist would call "Neither man nor circumstances are deprived."
Oh boy, this is quite confusing.
This is why I prefer to simply think of Centering Prayer as opening yourself completely to the presence and action of God. Transformation will happen in that process, and the way, or categories through which, you see that transformation may change over time.
When we start talking about how consciousness is changed when off the mat, maybe we can just let what happens happen.
So far, in St. John's progression, the soul has actively tried to mortify its attachments to the things of the world and also the pleasures that come from various spiritual exercises. It has also allowed itself to be passively purged of its attachments to these spiritual delights in the Passive Night of the Senses.
Through the aridity of Passive Night of the Senses, God has led the soul away from and beyond discursive meditation (i.e. the use of words, concepts, images, or any "content" in prayer), towards what St. John will call contemplation.
"At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of the spirit – that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation – where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God."
Now, absorbed in the work of contemplation, the soul is completely passive, and can do nothing but be acted upon by God:
"When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way of infused contemplation. On this road God himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."
Passing through the Passive Night of the Senses and entering into the contemplative work is a great joy and the soul is again at peace in God, although this time no longer attached to specific discursive exercises. The soul is content to rest in loving awareness of God:
"The soul readily finds in its spirit, without the work of meditation, a very serene, loving contemplation and spiritual delight."
This state, according to St. John, may last for years and this is, in fact, where the journey ends for some, maybe even most, contemplatives. But for others there is one final purgation to undergo – the Passive Night of the Spirit.
This is the deepest, longest, and darkest night. Just when the soul feels that it has abandoned all that is not God for God's sake, it then, in this night, feels rejected by the very God it has given all for. St. John describes this Night in several ways.
"Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it, it so disentangles and dissolved the spiritual substance – absorbing it in a profound darkness – that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death. It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers and anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale."
"But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness."
"The afflictions and straights of the will are also immense. Sometimes these afflictions pierce the soul when it suddenly remembers the evils in which it sees itself immersed, and it becomes uncertain of any remedy. To this pain is added the remembrance of past prosperity, because usually persons who enter this night have previously had many consolations in God and rendered him many services. They are now sorrowful in knowing that they are far from such good and can no longer enjoy it."
"They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."
Bellies of whales, dungeons, spiritual death, anguish, abhorrence, darkness. Not a happy place.
But at the end of this long and dark night lies the unitive state, one in which the soul proclaims:
"I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."
The blessedness of final Union allows the soul to look back on the various Nights and say, with St. John, "Ah, the sheer grace!"
The Dark Night ends abruptly and unexpectedly, as we may come to expect with St. John.
Final Thoughts on St. John of the Cross
This will end the series on St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night. One major takeaway for me after reading St. John is the tentative nature of any structured, sequential spiritual path. Not only does St. John not stick to one scheme to describe the spiritual journey, he himself believes that some experience these stages in different ways than others. He also sometimes speaks of the stages being simultaneous or overlapping. Everyone's experience is going to be unique. It is insightful to read about the paths of others, for instance the one St. John presents in these works, but to make any one sequence normative is probably a mistake.
Another, related, takeaway is the continued understanding from the Christian contemplative tradition that the path is winding. There are times of aridity, of doubt, of pain, of the feeling of absence, and these are normal, even necessary for progression. Meditation teachers from any tradition that don't speak about this reality set practitioners up for disappointment. I continue to believe that this is a relative strength of the Christian tradition as compared to others which speak only of peak experiences or a road that leads straight to the top without major trials along the way.
St. John is one of the harshest of the Catholic mystics. He insists on nothing less than complete mortification and non-attachment. An interesting contrast would be reading him next to The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is gentler and, perhaps, more suited to modern, non-monastic audiences.
As an additional resource about the life of St. John, here is a introductory lecture from the Boston College School of Theology:
The Myth of Sisyphus has always stuck in my head.
In the story, as punishment for a crime (apparently his crime differs in various versions of the story), Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to an eternity of labor. His task is to push a boulder up to the top of a mountain, knowing that each time he reaches the top, the boulder will come tumbling down and he will have to start again. This is his task for all eternity. Heavy labor which serves no purpose; endless, exhausting, meaningless work. Work he knows is meaningless.
Albert Camus wrote a famous essay entitled The Myth of Sisyphus in which he uses Sisyphus as an example of the Absurd Man – the person who accepts the absurdity of life and embraces it. He concludes his essay with these thoughts:
"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."
For Camus, "the absurd" is "the divorce between the actor and his setting." We find ourselves as beings who desire meaning and purpose, only to be put in a world in which meaning seems absent. We live. We die, and seemingly enter an eternity of non-being. Anything beyond that is a hope, not knowledge. All the things we create and accomplish seem to go for naught. Our work, our lives, seem meaningless in light of our fate.
"...in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity."
"The absurd is born of this confrontation between human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."
"The absurd is essentially a divorce. It lies in neither of the elements compared; it is born of their confrontation."
Camus' essay is an exploration of whether intellectually accepting that life is absurd should logically lead to suicide or not. In the end Camus rejects suicide as the logical conclusion of the absurd.
Part of the reason that Camus rejects suicide is that he doesn't think the absurd should be solved. For Camus, to resolve the problem in any way doesn't do justice to the true nature of life. We must look absurdity straight in the face and embrace it. We must be happy Sisyphi.
In the course of his essay, Camus interacts with other philosophers who "solve" absurdity in some way. One example is Soren Kierkegaard who, in the end, appeals to God as a solution to the absurd.
"For him...antinomy and paradox become criteria of the religious. Thus, the very thing that led to despair of the meaning and depth of this life now gives it its truth and clarity. Christianity is the scandal, and what Kierkegaard calls for quite plainly is the third sacrifice required by Ignatius Loyola, the one in which God most rejoices: 'The sacrifice of the intellect.' This effect of the 'leap' is odd, but must not surprise us any longer. He makes of the absurd the criterion of the other world, whereas it is simply a residue of the experience of this world. 'In his failure,' says Kierkegaard, 'the believer finds his triumph.'
It is not for me to wonder to what stirring preaching this attitude is linked. I merely have to wonder if the spectacle of the absurd and its own character justifies it. On this point, I know that it is not so. Upon considering again the content of the absurd, one understands better the method that inspired Kierkegaard. Between the irrational of the world and the insurgent nostalgia of the absurd, he does not maintain the equilibrium. He does not respect the relationship that constitutes, properly speaking, the feeling of absurdity. Sure of being unable to escape the irrational, he wants at least to save himself from that desperate nostalgia that seems to him sterile and devoid of implication. But if he may be right on this point in his judgment, he could not be in his negation. If he substitutes for his cry of revolt a frantic adherence, at once he is led to blind himself to the absurd which hitherto enlightened him and to deify the only certainty he henceforth possesses, the irrational. The important things, as Abbe Galiani said to Mme d'Epinay, is not to be cured, but to live with one's ailments. Kierkegaard wants to be cured. To be cured is his frenzied wish, and it runs throughout his whole journal. The entire effort of his intelligence is to escape the antinomy of the human condition."
For Kierkegaard, God solves the absurd, either simply because He willed our existence or because He makes possible a better future (i.e. Heaven) – a future which retrospectively makes sense of the present.
In the Christian scriptures, the writer of Ecclesiastes makes the same move. He first spends chapter after chapter lamenting the seeming meaninglessness of life:
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever... There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after."
"I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This is also vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun...What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity."
"But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hands of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event (death) happens to the righteous and the wicked, the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun."
But, like Kierkegaard, in the end The Preacher appeals to God:
"The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil."
Even though he doesn't have a firm eschatology to speak of (although he may be alluding to the hope of a final judgment), he solves the absurd by appealing to our duty to God. For the writer, this is what gives our life meaning. It is what we are here for.
Camus sees this as a cop-out, a turning away from the true nature of life.
I just don't. I agree with Camus that, without appealing to some type of meaning giver, or some final eschatological solution, life remains absurd. We hunger for meaning, we want the things we do to be important in some way, but, in the end, we return to dust. On that view, it will not matter whether we were ever alive or not. Ultimately nothing will have mattered.
But I disagree with Camus in that I don't think it's a cop out to look for, and ultimately embrace, an intellectual solution to the absurd. Accepting the absurd is depressing as hell.
And so I appeal to God. Along with Kierkegaard and The Preacher, I hope that this will all somehow all make sense in the end. That there is something more to existence than a meaningless life and then an eternity of nothingness. That God is somehow both the Creator and the Redeemer of life. I don't know what that might look like, and the different religions all have different conceptions of how it will be in the end. But living with that faith gives me hope, and it allows me to find meaning in life as it is.
Victor Frankl once wrote:
"...ultimate meaning necessarily exceeds and surpasses the finite intellectual capacities of man... What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic."
We don't know what the ultimate meaning of life is. But the hope that there is one is a hope that can keep me going. Maybe there are some out there who can be happy Sisyphi, but I can't push a rock up a hill without the hope that it's for some greater purpose.
Saint John of the Cross (born Juan de Yerpes) was a mystic from the Catholic Carmelite order in 16th Century Spain. He was a contemporary of Saint Teresa of Avila, and the two are probably the most well known mystics from Catholicism in the Middle Ages.
Although he attempts to outline his own work several times, St. John is not necessarily a systematic writer. He does eventually touch on all the themes he promises to, but perhaps not in as sequential a way as we would like. This is not uncommon among the Catholic mystics as their theological reflections sometimes take their writings on paths they didn't originally intend.
St. John opens The Ascent with a poem which underlies his writing. He introduces the stanzas and then records the poem as follows:
"This treatise explains how to reach divine union quickly. It presents instruction and doctrine valuable for beginners and proficients alike that they may learn to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union. It was composed by Padre Fray John of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite.
The following stanzas include all the doctrine I intend to discuss in this book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. They describe the way that leads to the summit of the mount – that high state of perfection we here call union of a soul with God. Since these stanzas will serve as a basis for all I shall say, I want to cite them here in full that the reader may see in them a summary of the doctrine to be expounded. Yet I will quote each stanza again before its explanation and give the verses separately if the subject so requires.
A song of the soul's happiness in having passed through the dark night of faith, in nakedness and purgation, to union with its Beloved.
1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
– ah the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
2. In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.
3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.
4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.
5. Oh guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.
6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.
7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.
8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies."
– St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel
Although St. John will deviate from his original structural plan of citing each verse and commenting on it, this poem provides the backdrop for both The Ascent of Mount Carmel and, later, The Dark Night.
Although he doesn't use the term "Perennial Philosophy," the worldview presented in this lecture is representative of the Perennial Tradition. This is a fascinating lecture regardless of your religious viewpoint; it's worth listening to the whole thing if you have the time.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an Islamic Philosopher. He teaches at George Washington University.
James Cutsinger is a professor of Theology and Religious Thought at the University of South Carolina. This is a longer interview in which he "talks around" a lot of different topics regarding the Perennial Philosophy.
I don't know that he ever gives a hard, propositional definition (the closest he probably gets is at 4:00 where he talks about a fundamental unanimity of thought of many philosophers throughout time about transcendent reality, something which is "transcendent and saving"), but this is a good introduction to the ideas that come out of the Perennial Tradition.
I think the discussion at 27:25 regarding religious relativism vs. what might be called "absolutism" is helpful and the interview also turns towards how perennialism can be understood from an orthodox Christian perspective in the second half (39:50).
This is Shinzen Young giving a somewhat winding talk about world mysticism from a Buddhist perspective. I find his contrast (at 9:00 and following) between pseudo-mysticism – the experience of "weird stuff" (gods, ghosts, ancestors, acquisition of powers, etc.) – and Mysticism with a Capital M – which he defines as "touching the Formless Source" – to be helpful in understanding what people mean when using the term.
Most of this talk compares Eastern systems (Buddhist, Yogic, etc.), but at 40:30 he also addresses major Western traditions.
"...being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself, be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself, by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love, the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence."
– Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
So after writing the post on Progressive Christian authors, bloggers, and podcasters, I came across The Liturgists Podcast. Mike McHargue is definitely another name to add to the list. I read his Finding God in the Waves and have been bingeing this Podcast ever since.
I found this episode, which explores what it means to hear "the voice of God," particularly fascinating. Take a listen and then check out The Liturgists website.
The whole thing is worth a listen, but I especially resonate Mike's reflections starting at 49:45, where he compares connecting with God to the phenomena of lightning. I think it's a really interesting way to think about what is happening when we "experience God."