Okay, Bob, Send Me My Copy of the 20 Secrets of Eternal Life for Five Easy Payments!
We are often asked to provide specific advice on how one might begin to develop a spiritual practice. Most recently, a typical reader asked for “any ideas on how I can overcome my fear of myself as well as my pride in myself, and sincerely invite God into my life.”
I was under the impression that I had devoted a number of posts to this specific topic, but when I went back and looked, I realized that my advice, such as it is, tends to be scattered throughout the One Cosmos bloggereliquary. I say, better to keep the knowledge hidden that way -- only available to the sincere and determined extreme seeker, safe from grubby hands qualified only to furiously deepak their own shriveled chopra.
Indeed, sacred things should only be spoken of in a manner that protects and guards against the distortions and simplifications of the spiritually unqualified, while at the same time posing a challenge to the sincerity and intensity of the true seeker’s aspiration.
This is not mystagogy or equivocation. It is actually similar to, say, psychotherapy. A seasoned therapist might get the gist of the patient’s underlying problem within a session or two. However, it would serve no purpose whatsoever to prematurely blurt this out to the patient, for truth that is given is truth that cannot be discovered, and that makes all the difference.
Not for nothing did Jesus speak in paradoxables. When asked about this by his inner brotherhood of Cosmic Raccoons, he responded, “For you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.... Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”
Therefore, Jesus is identifying and highlighting a perennial problem with spiritual knowledge: many who hear hear it do not hear it, and many more who understand it do not comprehend it. The assimilation of Truth is an organic process, in which the seed must be planted in fertile soil, so as to actually transform the person.
Again, it is analogous in some ways to psychotherapy. Very early in my training I learned various ways to deflect the inevitable question, “Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong? Just give it to me straight, and I’ll work out the rest myself.”
A particular patient comes to mind who had great difficulty getting beyond the idea that there was some unremembered event from his past, and that if he could only recall what it was, he would be magically transformed. Also, being a narcissistic character, he was convinced that he (being a special person) could bypass the usual drawn out process, and that I could simply disclose the Secret to him and send him on his way (he also unconsciously projected his narcissism into me, so that I was a special person in a special relationship with his specialness).
Long story short, his greed for truth was a symptom of his very problem. Whatever I gave was greedily swallowed so quickly (without even chewing!), that he had no time to metabolize it. Like a child, it was always "more!" And no one demands more of God than the atheist.
Now, in response to the above-noted reader’s question, I had a few thoughts off the top of my head: “For starters you need to either fall in love (easier with a human form) or be intellectually convicted, depending upon your personality style (bhakti vs. jnani). Only in that way does Spirit become the context, not merely the content, of your life.”
Also, “Remember, the greater the struggle, the greater the realization. Everyone is a unique ‘problem of God,’ and the great project of your life is how the Divine is going to get himself out of this terrestrial jam he's gotten himself into, just like any other nightmare.”
I pointed out the unhelpful truism that “the seeking is the beginning of the finding,” and noted the importance of being exposed to the direct testimony of others whom one respects -- in other words, a community of saints or at least wannabeatifieds. You know, people of good transpersonal breeding.
Speaking of which, many readers chimed in with their own helpful suggestions. Will recommended not becoming preoccupied with “the concept of ‘God.’ God exists and you don't have to ‘conceive’ Him any more than you have to ‘conceive’ the sunrise to know that it's there. The question is, how do you come to *perceive* God or at least His edges?”
This is exactly what I emphasize in the book, that while you may or may not be able to prove the existence of God to your satisfaction, what you can definitely prove is the existence of a part of yourself that may know or love God. It would be odd if there were no corresponding object for this instinct, but you needn’t be troubled by that at the start. It’s like appreciating a painting and wondering if beauty really exists. Who cares? Just enjoy the beauty. Religion provides a beautiful way to live and to think about existence.
Will added the importance of being patient and diligent, and of developing the imagination. This is a critical point. As I have mentioned on a number of past occasions, there are two forms of imagination, one passive, hypnotic, somnolent, downward pulling, and ultimately destructive, another that is active, creative, and aligned with your highest aspiration. One drags you into the abyss, the other draws you toward the Center and Origin. Religious language (including rituals) is carefully honed imaginative language, a symbol system “designed” to facilitate intellection, or “thinking of -- and being in -- higher things.
Reader BP made an interesting point, noting that in his “relationship with the living God I do not necessarily experience as much ‘pleasure’ as I did before, but don't seem to need it. For me, pleasures were always sought and indulged in as a form of temporary relief from my general dissatisfaction with myself. Now, though not necessarily satisfied with myself, I really ENJOY myself. Or better yet, I would say that I enjoy God's involvement in myself, sometimes to the point of laughing my ass off.
"As important, I also get to experience God's enjoyment and appreciation of me. Hard to explain until it starts happening, and it's usually pretty subtle, but when it does start happening it is pretty darn cool. Furthermore, as my enjoyments have increased in relation with God, I've started worrying less and less about when/how/where I will get my next fix of ‘pleasure.’”
BP touches on the centrality of the guffah HA! experience, which I have also found to be true. If one were to look at my outward life, one might find it rather mundane and predictable. But this is not at all what it feels like on the inside, in Raccoon Central, where the laughty revelations never stop.
I am reminded of a novel I read some 20 years ago. I don't remember anything about it except that it conceptualized reality as a system of concentric circles around a center. But unlike normal geometry, the more one converges upon the center, the “larger” and more spacious the world of each successive ring. Then, at the center, which should be the “smallest” area, one arrives at the most expansive and unrestricted space. The Absolute center is, of course “infinity” and "eternity."
Frithjof Schuon wrote a short piece about spiritual practice entitled “Fundamental Keys.” In it, he emphasizes the importance of meditation, concentration, and prayer: “These three words epitomize the spiritual life, while at the same time indicating its principal modes.
"Meditation, from our standpoint, is an activity of the intelligence in view of understanding universal truths; concentration, for its part, is an activity of the will in view of assimilating these truths or realities existentially, as it were; and prayer in its turn is an activity of the soul directed towards God."
First of all, why should there be three modes of spiritual life? Because man is a being made of intellect (which relates to truth), will (which relates to virtue), and heart (which relates to love). Meditation addresses itself to the intellect (not the profane intellect of the worldly intellectual, but to the uncreated intelligence), while concentration (as we will be using the term) applies to the will, and prayer to the heart (not the physical heart, of course, but the integral being, or “mind in the heart”).
Each of the three modes is polarized into a duality. In the case of meditation, the duality is discernment <---> union (the former being objective, the latter subjective; in the first instance, we must differentiate between the Real and unreal, and then assimilate the Real). Another way of saying it is that meditation is the way we transform religious know-how into spiritual be-who.
Before we proceed any further, I should probably emphasize that I am not a spiritual do-it-yoursopher. I tried the “willful” approach for a number of years, but didn’t really get anywhere with it. This is what the Buddhists call jiriki, or “self power,” as opposed to tiriki, or “other power.” For me, the former ended up being a barren circle jiriki.
In our language it is a matter of grace vs. effort. Being that I didn't have any faith in a higher being, I couldn’t very well rely upon the assistance of that higher being, now could I? Also, being then of a rationalistic (in the limited sense of the word) strain, I was initially drawn to "atheistic" and neurotechnological approaches such as Zen or Taoism. Left to my own efforts, I was simply unable to lift myself by my own buddhastraps and get nowhere fast enough.
It was only starting in 1995, when I made the decision to turn myself in to the authorities and consciously surrender to some nonlocal assistance, that I started gaining any traction in hyperspace. You know, harvesting. Born again from above. Leaving my alter egos on the ego altar. Repossessed and amortized. Cashing in my chimp. Nilling mysoph to a blank. Getting the keys to my luxury corps. Blissting off from the errport in the higher planes. Departing in order to bewholed. All that stuff.
So bear in mind that all my advice must be understood in the context of a real relationship with an unlimited partner. For me -- and I imagine for most westerners -- a human partner is best, since our consciousness is infused with the principle that the logos may go so low that it glows in human form.
Although one form may transcend and surpass the others -- I don’t want to get into that argument right now, since I want to remain ecumaniacal -- I know for a fact that genuine saints are capable of transmitting a real grace and a real spiritual power and presence. Of this I have no doubt, because, for one thing, we are talking about a cosmic principle, not a one-time violation of a cosmic principle.
Also, bear in mind that it is almost always necessary to find this nonlocal assistance in an established orthodox tradition. This is why manmade, improvised new-age approaches wrenched from their sacred context do not work. Real traditions are protected by forces that guard against egoic vulgarians who wish to take heaven by storm.
Outwardly this is called “dogma,” but there is an interior protection as well that ensures that the fruit of the usurper or false prophet will always be unsound. Once you get your bearings in the domain of spirit, it is easy to pick up most any new age book and play Spot the Heresy!, usually on the first page. It gets boring real quick.
According to Schuon, in meditation, “The contact between man and God becomes contact between the intelligence and Truth, or relative truths contemplated in view of the Absolute.”
In other words, meditation acts upon the intelligence (in the deeper sense, as defined above) in order to awaken certain timeless “memories” (vertical memories, as it were) and to engage the higher imagination (as discussed above). This is how truth is metabolized and assimilated into the being -- it is an organic process which exactly mirrors everyday horizontal learning.
That is, the process is identical, just applied to a different plane. In both cases, there is a knowing subject, a plane of phenomena, and a transformational space in between. In each case we are dealing with what Aquinas called adequation between subject and object. It is just that in spiritual knowing, we are working with knowledge that transcends the senses (although not always, and not forever, since the higher intellect is capable of seeing the material world as a “theophany” of God, a principle that we routinely rely upon in order to appreciate the noetic light that shines through a great work of art, or simply perceiving the naturally supernatural beauty of the Old Master Painter himself).
I agree with Schuon that, “Contrary to what is too often stated, meditation cannot of itself provoke illumination; rather, its object is negative in the sense that it has to remove inner obstacles that stand in the way, not of a new, but of a preexistent and ‘innate’ knowledge of which it has to become aware.
"Thus meditation may be compared not so much to a light kindled in a dark room, as to an opening made in the wall of that room to allow the light to enter -- a light which preexists outside and is in no way produced by the action of piercing the wall.... The role of meditation is thus to open the soul, firstly to the grace which separates it from the world, secondly to that which brings it nearer to God and thirdly to that which, so to speak, reintegrates it into God.”
While truth is truth, it must be realized in order to begin transforming the person. It is not like scientific knowledge which, once known, stays that way. Rather, the realm of spirituality involves truths that must be known and reknown repeatedly, in a spiraling process. There is no end to it on this side of manifestation.
The following is a transcript from a book called "Conversations on Yoga," but is easily translighted to a Christian context:
Q. Is not an increasing effort of meditation needed and is it not true that the more hours you meditate the greater progress you make?
The Mother: The number of hours spent in meditation is no proof of spiritual progress. It is a proof of your progress when you no longer have to make an effort to meditate. Then you rather have to make an effort to stop meditating: it becomes difficult... to stop thinking of the Divine, difficult to come down to the ordinary consciousness. Then you are sure of progress... when concentration in the Divine is the necessity of your life, when you cannot do without it, when it continues naturally from morning to night whatever you may be engaged in doing...
Q: But is not sitting down to meditation an indispensable discipline, and does it not give a more intense and concentrated union with the Divine?
The Mother: That may be. But a discipline in itself is not what we are seeking. What we are seeking is to be concentrated on the Divine in all that we do, at all times...
There are some who, when they are sitting in meditation, get into a state which they think is very fine and delightful. They sit self-complacent in it and forget the world.... This is not a sign of spiritual progress.... There are some who act and seem to feel as if meditation were a debt they have to pay to the Divine; they are like men who go to church once a week and think they have paid what they owe God....
To enter the spiritual life means to take a plunge into the Divine, as you would jump into the sea. And that is not the end, but the beginning....