Mysticism as Frontier of Consciousness Evolution
Thoughts on Mysticism as Frontier of Consciousness Evolution
BROTHER DAVID STEINDL?RAST, PH.D.
I like to think about mysticism as a particular frontier of consciousness evolution. It is under this aspect that I would like to explore the problem of mysticism with you today. In the first part of my talk, I will focus, on some general and universal features of the mystical quest. In the second half, I will focus on its Christian version, specifying what makes a certain form of mysticism Christian. But obviously, even in discussing the most general aspects of mysticism, I will already be speaking as, somebody standing in the Christian tradition. It will not be a discussion of absolutely pure mysticism, if something like that is at all possible. Rather, I will be looking at mysticism as somebody who discovered it primarily through the Christian tradition. However, I, have been very fortunate to be exposed to other mystical traditions, particularly the Buddhist and the Hindu one. This has broadened and deepened my own view of mysticism.
Today's confrontation with mysticism will be a very personal task for you. Of course, if you face the frontiers of consciousness in the right way, you always make it personal, you always apply what you see to your own life. But when Fritjof Capra, for instance, speaks about physics, that is a field of knowledge out there. It is optional to what degree you personalize your insights. When we speak about mysticism as a field of investigation out there somewhere, we have already missed the point. It is your own mysticism that we are talking about—or else it is nothing at all.
The mystics are not a special kind of human being. But every human being is a special kind of mystic. The challenge for you is to discover as soon as possible what particular kind of mystic you are. Find where your own mystical experience lies and explore that. What I am telling you comes out of my own experience and wants to reach your experience. That is the important thing. Allow your own experience to resonate with what I put before you. Ask yourselves here, step by step, "Is this true for me? Does this ring true for me?" If it does not ring true, please speak up. We are cooperating here. Each one of us has to make a contribution so that in the end, we will be able to speak about mysticism in terms that are meaningful for all of us here. It will become clear as we go along that we are speaking about the mental realm in which all of us are one, the point where we all are connected. At the same time, we are speaking about the very experience that shows us what is true, the experience from which we take the standard for what we mean by "real." Our mystic experience is the point where we are all one. And it is at the same time the measure, the standard for what is real. Therefore, it is only on this basis that we can ever agree on what is true or real. Mystic awareness is the deepest anchor for human solidarity. But more of this later.
Our next step must be to remember our own mystical experience. It is necessary that you remember a moment in which you yourself had the kind of experience that we call mystical. We will explore this experience together as we go along, but we need something to work with. So you need to have your own experience clearly in mind. Whatever I say can then be checked out against this experience. Therefore, the first step is that you clearly remember an experience that will qualify. Remember a moment that stands out in your memory as making life meaningful. Something of which you would say, "Well, for that kind of experience it is worth being alive." That would be sort of the lowest common denominator. You ought to be able to say, "At that moment life made sense." Even if you say, "For me, most of the time, life makes no sense whatsoever," there surely was a moment when it seemed to make sense. That is the moment we want to latch onto. For some this is a rare occasion.
Another person may say, "I don't know which one to choose, I'm just showered with this kind of experience. I wallow in it, it comes fifteen times in one day." That does not make any difference. What matters is for you to remember a moment in which life made sense. That will be our starting point.
And in order to prime the pump I will read you a short passage that many of you will be familiar with. It comes from a well?known play, Eugene O'Neill's "A Long Day's Journey into Night." You do not have to know the play or the plot in order to appreciate this passage. Edmund is telling Tyron about this kind of experience. He is slightly drunk at the time, which makes it easier for him to talk about it. See if your own memory associates with what Edmund says:
You've just told me some high spots in your memories. Want to hear mine? They're all connected with the sea. Here's one. When I was on the Squarehead square rigger, bound for Buenos Aires. Full moon in the Trades. The old hooker driving fourteen knots. I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim?starred sky! I belonged without past or future, within peace and unity and wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself! To God, if you want to put it that way. And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason.
Some of this ought to ring a bell within us. That is the great thing about a poetic statement The key words are all there. "I lost myself." Maybe this is the only key phrase of which you can say, "I know what he is talking about. In that moment I lost myself." Or, as T. S. Eliot puts It, "Lost in a shaft of sunlight." You see this shaft of sunlight coming out of cloud, and looking at it you lose yourself. You look into somebody's eyes, and you just drown in them and lose yourself in this vision. I lost myself." Or, "I was set free." For a moment I was set free. It was like coming out of a cage. Most of the time I am caged; in my own cage. I am my own cage keeper. But for a moment I am out, I am free. For some unknown reason I go right back into the cage. Maybe I feel safer there. But we all have moments when we come out of the cage, "I was set free." Or another key phrase: "I dissolved in the sea. I became white sails." I dissolved in what I saw. I became one with everything that I saw. That is often an aspect of our mystic experience. "I belonged." "I belonged" may be one of the most important key phrases. Most of the time we feel that we are somehow left out. We are standing outside. There is all this wonderful world and life going on, and we're somewhat alienated from it, outsiders, as it were. But for a moment we belong. We are a part of that great dance, everybody welcomes us; everything welcomes. "I belonged without past or future." That is another aspect of our mystic moments: Time seems to fall away. Time stands still. It is what Eliot calls a "moment in and out of time." It is in time and yet it is out of time. "I belonged within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life or life itself . . . to God if you want to put it that way." We will not bring God in as yet. We are not ready for that. But we will come back to it.
I will now give you a definition for "mystic experience." You may find it in any dictionary. It is nothing very special. But it will be helpful as a working definition. Mysticism in the broadest sense is "the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality." Each of these three points is important. It is an experience. Mysticism is not theory but practical experience--your own. And it is a special kind of experience, namely, an experience of communion. That communion aspect is very important. What stands in the foreground of your particular experience may be communion in a limited sense. You may experience deep communion by sharing with one other person or with an animal, with a pet. You may be focusing, for example, on a moment when you lost your pet and found it again. That may be one of those mystical moments. But this kind of experience always implies a greater communion, it always implies a communion that has no limits. That is why we speak of communion with Ultimate Reality. Now let us go through that definition point by point.
Experience is a helpful word, but it hides its own traps. Experience is a highly inflated term today. When I speak of experience, you may think, "Oh wow, this must be one of those big bangers, but I have never had one of those." But what is important here, when we speak of experience, it not its magnitude. What is important is that you become aware of something. Awareness is what we are after here. This awareness may have come suddenly and overwhelmingly, but it may also have come ever so gradually. My favorite image for this is the coming of spring. Sometimes spring comes suddenly, with a big bang. Yesterday it was still winter, but today spring is in the air. Spring came overnight. In other years it comes so gradually that you can not even say when it came. A long drawn out battle was going back and forth. But eventually it is spring. You do not know how it came, but all that matters is that spring is here. And so all that matters is that you eventually become aware deep within you of ultimate communion. Whether it came with one sudden explosion or very, very slowly does not make any difference. Remember Awareness is what counts no matter how it seeps into your consciousness.
You may not notice when you are passing that border of consciousness. Sometimes when you pass into another country you have to check your passport and undergo all sorts of border controls. Then there is no question where you are. But at other times you just pass through on the train. Nobody checked your passport, but there you are. Frontiers are not always the same. You may have passed a frontier of awareness without notice. The important thing is that you have passed it. And the awareness that concerns us here is experiential awareness of communion.
But "communion" is another one of those inflated words today. The perfect community is one of the most alluring mirages in our time. Well, what concerns us here is rather a deep sense of belonging .We may have that sense of belonging without ever finding its external expression in a closely knit community. What matters is our awareness that we belong. We are not aliens, outcasts, orphans in this world.
Kabir, the great mystic poet says:
We sense that there is some sort of spirit that loves Birds and animals and the ants— Perhaps the same one who gave a radiance to you In your mother's womb. Is it logical you would be walking around entirely orphaned now?
Remember your life in the womb. Something put you together; something fashioned you there; something brought you out; something saw you through. Is it possible that that one would leave you orphaned now? That is the mystical insight of belonging. Before anything else, you belong. Is it imaginable that you should no longer belong? Is it imaginable that you should really be orphaned now? When you ask yourself that question and at least begin to doubt that you should be orphaned now, then you are moving from alienation to belonging.
Belonging and alienation, that is the polarity about which we are talking. That polarity is the pivot of our spiritual life. One pole is alienation. We all know what that is. We know what it feels like: being cut off from everything, from ourselves, from anything that has meaning, from all others. And the opposite pole to alienation is belonging. All that ultimately matters in our life is movement from alienation to belonging, often with many setbacks. This has always been the essential struggle of spiritual life. But we need a vocabulary that makes sense to us today.
Alienation is our contemporary word for what has been called sin and, therefore, the contemporary word for salvation is belonging. Sin and salvation have become jargon words, and we may as well declare a moratorium on them. I am only referring to these terms because we do not want to lose the connection with the way people have been speaking about the same realities in the past. For us, "sin" is not a helpful word because our notion of sin has become limited to "do's and don'ts." Originally, the term referred to alienation from self, from others, from the divine reality within and beyond us. For us, today the word alienation conveys precisely what tradition calls "sin." And if you think of "belonging" in its ultimate, fullest sense, then you also know what "salvation" means. That is what we long for, namely, belonging, wholeness, communion with out own true self, with all others, with the divine.
This reference to communion with the divine leads us to the third element of our definition of mysticism as "experience of communion with Ultimate Reality." If we had problems with the terms "experience" and "communion," these problems are compounded when we come to speak of Ultimate Reality, or the divine, or God. We could avoid misunderstandings by speaking of Ultimate Reality rather than God. All those who feel comfortable with the word "God" will certainly agree that God is the Ultimate Reality. But there are many whom the term God makes uneasy, and often for good reasons. Yet, speaking of Christian mysticism, we shall have to face the notion of God sooner or later. Why not do so right now?
We must not start out with what someone else has told us about God. We have to rediscover God from within. And there we discover God as the one to whom we belong. That is all. Before we know anything about God, we know God. This is true for every one of us. We know God as the one to whom we belong. Anyone who uses the word "God" correctly uses it in this sense. If it is used in any other sense you are the judges of how this word is to be used because you know it from experience. Each one of us knows God from experience. The word "God" is a label, we do not need to use it. We could talk about religion forever without using the word God. But it can be a helpful word. It links our own experience with all the theistic traditions. We must start with our experience. But it helps to link that experience with what millions of people have experienced and spoken about in the theistic traditions of the world. Thus, we can profit from what others have experienced. You can compare your own experience with the experience of others if you have this key word. But do not allow anybody to give you this term God loaded already with lots of notions. Discover its content for yourself!
I would like to read you the short description of one of those discoveries of God. It comes from the autobiography of Mary Austin. It is amazing how often you find that kind of experience in the early parts of autobiographies. And it is important for you to find it in your own autobiography. So Mary Austin says here:
I must have been between five and six when this experience happened to me. It was a summer morning, and the child I was had walked down through the orchard alone and come out on the brow of a sloping hill where there were grass and a wind blowing and one tall tree reaching into the infinite immensities of blueness. Quite suddenly, after a moment of quietness there, earth and sky and tree and wind?blown grass and the child in the midst of them came alive together with a pulsing light of consciousness. To this day I can recall the swift inclusive awareness of each of the whole?I in them and they in me and all of us enclosed in a warm lucent bubble of livingness.
Now up to this point there is nothing new. We know it from our own experience We have, heard it in Eugene O'Neill's experience. But now comes the reason why I am reading this particular passage to you. Because Mary Austin describes so wonderfully the discovery of God. "I remember the child looking everywhere for the source of this happy wonder and at last she questioned: 'God?' because that was the only awesome word she knew." So we have two moments here. First, the discovery of God?-then putting the word on it. Experience is the real discovery. Then there is this awesome word that does not fit anywhere else, so now you try this word on your experience. You ask yourself--that is the first stage--”God?” Could this experience have anything to do with God? And then, "deep inside, like the murmurous ring of a bell, she heard the answer, 'God, God.’”
That simply means, "okay, that will fit.” Let us try that word. “How long this ineffable moment lasted I never knew. It broke like a bubble at the sudden singing of a bird. And the wind blew and the world was the same as ever??only never quite the same." (From The Unattended Moment; by Michael Paffard, London, SCM Press Ltd., 1976.)
That is a discovery, the passing over a frontier of consciousness. From here you cannot go back. You have discovered something that you can explore from here on forever. Mysticism is the"exploration into God." Christopher Fry coined that expression. In his play, "A Sleep of Prisoners," he says, "Affairs are now soul?sized, the enterprise is exploration into God." This is what life is all about: exploration into God.” It is like opening your eyes. There it is, the land to which you belong This is where you are at home. And now you can spend the rest of eternity exploring this territory.
This is where the religious traditions come in. They all start from mystical experience. There is not one religious tradition in the world that starts from anything else. Often it starts historically with the mystical experience of the founder or reformer. Always it starts psychologically with the mystical experience of the believer. This is the starting point. And the end point of every religion in the world is the same. The goal of every religion is to make all experience ultimate belonging and act accordingly. That would be heaven. But if religion is this unifying force, if it starts with our deepest unity and leads supposedly to the point where everything will be an unfolding of this oneness, how come the religions are such divisive factors in the world? In other words, how does one get from the mystic experience that is within to the religions out there? How does one get from religious experience to religious tradition, from Religion to the religions? You know the answer. It is not only a process, something that happens out there. You know from your own experience how mystic experience inevitably turns into doctrine, ethics, and ritual, the key elements of every religious tradition. Let us check this out.
Mysticism is the heart of religion. Admittedly so. The heart of every religion is the religion of the heart. You know the heart of religion from experience. But how does one get from the inner core of religion to its paraphernalia out there? The answer is: inevitably! You inevitably get there somehow or other, even in your own private religion. There are certain things that the human mind inevitably does with any experience. Applied to our mystical experience, the mind turns it inevitably into doctrine, ethics, and ritual. Let us look more closely to see how this happens.
The first thing is that your intellect swoops down on your experience and starts interpreting it. You can not help that. When you were trying to remember your own mystic experience a little while ago, you were already beginning to interpret it. You said something about it to yourself. And by this interpretation, you began to form a religious doctrine. That is where religious doctrine begins. This process is inevitable. Wherever there is experience, there must be interpretation of that experience. We can not help it. Our mind works that way. And that is what doctrine is, interpretation of religious experience.
Every religion contains an element of doctrine. It may be merely rudimentary, or it may be highly elaborate. Even your private religion inevitably contains its own doctrine. If you had a long time to work with it, that doctrine will be more elaborate. In young religion it will be simpler. If a religion has lasted for millennia, you can imagine that a lot of interpretation has happened. At first, doctrine is closely linked with the experience which it interprets. The experience is still very much alive, and you can continue to reinterpret it. The next generation is already a bit removed from that experience. It is interpreting the interpretation of the original experience. And once you have twenty seven generations, each one is interpreting the interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. We get further and further removed from the original experience. You cannot help that. But the interpretation, the doctrine, should continuously be linked with your own mystical experience in order to stay alive.
As children, many of us were exposed to all sorts of doctrines about God without anybody ever encouraging us to discover God first?hand within ourselves. This is an injustice, a deprivation. When religion's teaching is no longer linked with your own experience, doctrine turns into dogmatism. By dogmatism I mean a hardened doctrine, a doctrine that is no longer alive, that just sits there. Doctrine, as the interpretation of your mystic experience, is necessary. But it always has the tendency to deteriorate into dogmatism. (Please understand that dogmatism and dogma are not necessarily connected. Dogma is simply meant to pin down a doctrine in a form that says, "Well, this one we have settled; now let us go on and continue to explore." Dogma is meant to be a firm sort of stepping stone on the way to further exploration.) Any doctrine an deteriorate into dogmatism. The great task of the intellect is to keep religion healthy by confronting and connecting again and again doctrine and mysticism with one another.
So much for the intellect. But your will (your willingness, not your willfulness) also has its task. Just like your intellect, your will does something with every experience. Whenever you experience something, your will says, "This is nice; let's go after that, or else "I don't want to have anything to do with that!" We are concerned with these two possibilities when we speak of the will. But unfortunately , it is not as simple as that, because our intellect and our will work closely together. After your mystic experience, your will may say, "Wow, this limitless belonging, that's terrific! It's all I ever wanted. Let's go on after that." But your intellect warns you, Be careful, you're going out on a limb, you don't know what all the implications are. Not so fast!" Your will is willing to commit itself, but you are fearful. Here we are suddenly in the realm of ethics, of morals. The realm where fearfulness struggles against commitment to limitless belonging, that is the arena of morality. That is why morality is another element of every religion.
If I really belong in the way in which I have experienced it in my mystic moments, then I must draw certain consequences. But fear draws a line somewhere. In your wonderful mystical moments you were not drawing lines between educated and uneducated. You were not drawing lines between black and white. You were not drawing lines between male and female, even between human and nonhuman. You are not drawing any line. And if you belong to all, then you have obligations towards all. At the moment of your mystical experience, you happily accept all these obligations. Ethics. morality, is simply a spelling out of how to live when you take your ultimate belonging seriously.
Inevitably, we begin to formulate our obligations. After all, we do not live in a vacuum, but in society. When morality is first formulated, it is still alive. You can still go back to the experience and understand what you meant by the formulation. But life goes on. Time goes by. The "do's and "don'ts," once formulated, do not change. But now you have moved to a different spot. You would not express your obligations in the same way today. But there they stand, these "do's" and "don'ts," and they are no longer connected with your deepest sense of belonging. When that happens, morality deteriorates into moralism.
Just as we distinguished doctrine from dogmatism, we can distinguish morals from moralism. Morals is the expression of our commitment to belonging. When that commitment is formulated, the formation has a tendency to harden until the expression hardens. Difference sits out there by itself, unconnected with experience. It can even come into contradiction with the living experience of belong. The more you have had to do with formalized religion, the more you could give examples of morality coming into contrast with what that very religion preaches. To avoid moralism, you have to continuously go back to the experience at the root of religion. Morality has to be judged by your mystic experience.
But that is only one half. The mystic experience, if you really want to keep it pure and healthy, has to be judged by morals. The confrontation works both ways. If you want to have a healthy spiritual life, you have to allow for this interplay. It takes too long to reinvent the wheel. In religion, just as in other areas of human life, certain inventions have been made that can help us a great deal. Explorers check their findings against what other explorers have found. It would be a very impoverished life if you had to do everything yourself. At this point, I would put in a plug for religious traditions. All of them have their real problems, but they also have a great deal of wisdom that has accumulated. I certainly would not advise you to take it all, unchecked; that should be clear by now. But you might benefit by allowing yourself to be formed by tradition, just like artists are formed by a tradition before they set out to make their own discoveries. That is a delicate task.
There is a third area in which religion springs from the mystical experience, namely, ritual. There is no religion in the world that does not have some sort of doctrine. There is no religion in the world that does not have some sort of moral teachings. And there is no religion in the world that does not have some sort of ritual. But how does ritual arise from your mystic experience? Just as the intellect interprets the experience, and the will commits you to it, so your emotions, your feelings, celebrate that experience. And that is where ritual comes in.
Ritual is, first and foremost, a celebration of limitless belonging. Check this out against your own experience. Some of the rituals out there, in the traditional historic religions, may look bizarre. But you may have anniversary celebrations of a deep spiritual experience. Well, there you have a ritual calendar, like most religions have. You may keep going back to the place where that experience overwhelmed you. Well, there you have the ritual of pilgrimage. Let us say it happened at the beach. Every beach in the world is now a sacred place for you because it always brings back that experience. Or a tree becomes in that way a sacred tree for you. Ritual, when it is alive, is the celebration of mystic experience. It is a remembering that makes the experience present again. But ritual can deteriorate into ritualism. That happen whenever the ritual action no longer leads you back to the experience, but becomes an end in itself. You know no longer why, you just go through the motions. That is the way it has always been; that is the way it is supposed to be done; and so you go through this ritual; and it does not do anything for you. That is ritualism. But ritual, rightly understood, is meant to lead you continuously back, not only to something that happened in the past, but to your own most intimate mystical experience.
Allow me to summarize briefly what we have seen so far. First, we came to agree on a working definition of mysticism as "experience of communion with Ultimate Reality" (with God, if you can use that term). This definition is based on our own experience. It can be checked out against your own experience, for we are all mystics. The mysticism of which we are speaking here, the religion of the heart, is the heart of every religion. But the question arises, how do we get from the experience of communion with Ultimate Reality to all those religions armed us with their specific historical, cultural, and theological peculiarities?
My answer is that different times and different places have provided different conditions for interpreting, applying, and celebrating the mystic experience. This resulted in the variety of religions in the world. All of them, however, spring from the same seed, the mystic experience. And all of them ripen towards the same harvest, the full fruition of the mystic awareness in human society.
The essence of mystic awareness is a sense of ultimate belonging. The various religious doctrines come about as this mystic awareness is variously interpreted by the human intellect. The moral systems of different religions come about when the human will draws more or less radical consequences for human behavior from the mystic awareness of our belonging together. And religious ritual in its many forms comes about when human emotions celebrate the awareness of ultimate belonging, utilizing the different means which different cultural settings offer.
The health and vitality of a given religion depends on the constant interplay between doctrine, ethics, and ritual on the one hand and the mystic awareness of the believer on the other. Where this interplay dries up, doctrine hardens into dogmatism, ethics into legalism, and ritual into ritualism. Only the continuous renewal of a given religious tradition from its mystical core can keep it alive and aware of what religion essentially is, namely,“exploration into God" at the frontier of human consciousness.
An image that I have sometimes used to illustrate the relationship between the mystic experience and religious tradition is that of a between the mystic experience and religious tradition is that of a volcanic eruption. There is that hot magma gushing forth out of the depth of the earth. And then it flows down on the sides of the mountain. The longer it flows, the more time it has to cool off. And the more it cools, the less it looks like fire. At the bottom of the mountain, you find just layers and layers of rock. No one would think that this was ever bright, hot, fiery. But along comes the mystic. The mystic pokes holes through these layers and layers of rock until the fire gushes forth again, the original fire. Since each one of us is a mystic, this is our task. But as we rise to our responsibility, we will inevitably clash with the institution.
The question is: Do we have the grace and the strength and the courage to take on our prophetic task? You see, the mystic is also the prophet. And the prophetic stance is a double one. It demands a double courage, the courage to speak out and the courage to stay in. It takes a good deal of courage to speak out, not necessarily with words. Often a silent witness is much more of a witness. By word or by silence,, the prophet speaks out. It is difficult enough to speak out and then to get out as quickly as you can, to say your thing and run. But the second half of the prophetic stance is to stay in, stay in the community against which you have to speak out. But it will not do to stay in and to blend with the woodwork, to stay in and lie low. That is not prophetic either. The most difficult thing is demanded from us: to stay in and to speak out. Nothing less will do.
To stay in would be easy if we could disappear. To speak out would be easy if we could get out. But then you would no longer be a prophet, you would merely be an outside critic; that has happened to many tired prophets. They have become outside critics. As long as they were prophets within, they had leverage; they were able to change things. Now, on the outside, they say the same things, but it does not phase anybody anymore. But to stay in and speak out means crucifixion. The staying in is symbolized by this cross because you stay in; you can not go anywhere else. It is rammed into the ground, and it is the vertical post of the cross. The horizontal post symbolizes the speaking out. It happens to fit in the Christian tradition very nicely. But the cross of the prophet is there in every tradition.
This leads right into the second great question of our topic: What is it that makes mysticism Christian? Mysticism is a phenomenon that we find in all the great religious traditions. It is a basic human phenomenon. Every human being is a mystic, although some may be more talented than others. Some may have developed that capacity further than others; but basically mysticism belongs to every human being. It is universal. Now, among the many different forms of mysticism, we find also Christian mysticism. Why do we call it Christian? What makes it Christian? We could answer that mysticism is Christian when it is related to the person of Jesus Christ in one way or another. That is enough for a starting point.
It seems important to me to start out in this way, because this definition allows for degrees. A particular form of mysticism may be more or less Christian depending on the extent to which it is connected with Jesus Christ. But to the degrees to which it has some relationship to Jesus Christ, we have a right to call a given mysticism Christian. No one has a monopoly on Jesus Christ. Therefore, nobody has a monopoly on Christian mysticism. It is not as if somebody could tell you: "This is Christian mysticism, but now you have crossed the line, and it is no longer Christian mysticism. You have passed out of it, you have fallen." We are not setting up a tidy box, but are establishing a relationship to a radiant center that radiates indefinitely. There may be areas that are just barely touched and dimly lit by this particular light, yet receive the full impact of another light. We can get twilight zones. If we speak about it in this way, we remain closer to actual reality than if we try to impose a more rigid definition.
If mysticism is Christian to the degree to which it is related to Jesus Christ and if our task is to speak about Christian mysticism, then obviously, we have to speak about Jesus Christ. Three aspects under which this topic relates to frontiers of consciousness evolution will be particularly important to us. One is the fact that mysticism as such is a frontier experience, as we have already the background discussed. The second is that Jesus Christ is a pioneer of consciousness. The third aspect will form the background to our investigations. It consists of the fact that biblical scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century is passing a frontier with far?reaching consequences for Christian consciousness.
Biblical scholarship today has renounced the ambition to achieve a detailed biography of Jesus. The available data is simply insufficient to do so. But we can achieve something far more important: we can reconstruct quite reliably what kind of person Jesus was. There is considerable interest today in the Jesus before Christianity. The image that emerges shows us Jesus as a pioneer of human consciousness, and this precisely on the frontier of mysticism. The impact of Jesus can be understood as a new phase in the human "exploration into God." Moreover, his life's work and teaching stands and falls with mysticism. It hinges on "the experience of communion with God"— Jesus own and that of the people to whom his message is addressed.
We can get our teeth into this topic by asking two basic questions about the Jesus before Christianity. What did he actually teach? And who, did he teach? Let me anticipate the answers. (Scholars are , practically unanimous on these two points.) The gist of Jesus' message is the proclamation of the Kingdom of God. And his most character teaching method is in parables. But now we will have to unpack the content of these two succinct answers and see what trail Jesus blazed across frontiers of consciousness, allowing others to follow.
Mark, the earliest of our extant Gospels, summarized the teaching of Jesus in Chapter 1:15. He puts it all in a single verse so that you really get the gist. And this is what he says: "Jesus came . . . proclaiming the Good News from God and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Be converted and believe the Good News.' " "The time is fulfilled."." That means "now." Do not wait for anything else. Now is the moment??"The Kingdom of God is at hand." At hand means right here. Here and now, that is the setting for the proclamation. This is the time, this is the place, do not look for anywhere else; do not wait for any other moment. This is it! (Now you are cornered.) And now comes the message: "Be converted and believe the Good News!"
If you look that up in your King James version, it will say "Repent ye, and believe the gospel." That is a very problematic translation for us today. I Repentance means, for most of us, making up for what we have done wrong. And gospel means, for us today, the gospel book. So you get the idea that Jesus told us to make up for our sins and then believe what is written in that book. Unfortunately, that is a widespread misunderstanding. And what a misunderstanding! What would be new about Jesus’ message if that were what he meant? And what would be good about it? What Jesus is really saying is this: Here and now God's saving power has been made manifest. Put your trust in it and let it turn your whole life around!
The word Mark uses for conversion means a complete change of heart. It means a fuming upside down of our habitual way of thinking and living. What, then, does Kingdom of God mean to warrant such a world?shaking response? The answer to this question leads us right back into the realm of mysticism and helps us understand how Jesus expanded the frontiers of consciousness. Biblical scholarship today is quite unanimous on the meaning of Kingdom of God in the message of Jesus. It does not mean a place, a realm, like the British Empire. Nor does it mean a community??all those who belong to Jesus as king. Nor does it mean God's reign or power in the abstract. On the contrary, it refers to the most concrete, experiential reality. Kingdom of God means for Jesus God's saving power made manifest.
When we understand the term Kingdom in the message of Jesus as "God's saving power made manifest," then we can readily see how relevant it is in our context of Christian mysticism. In our own experience, when do we experience "God's power” and "salvation"? If we understand these terms correctly, the answer will be: in our alive moments, in those mystic moments, about which we spoke already. How, then, do terms like "God's power" and "salvation"link up with our contemporary experience? We might prefer to avoid the term God. Today, it often causes confusion if you introduce this term. But on the other hand, we are talking here in terms of Christian tradition, of Jewish tradition. That is why we must try to understandthe terminology of that tradition.
When do we today experience what may be the equivalent to God's saving power? I would suggest that it is in those moments when we are "overpowered," as we say, by an overwhelming inrush of aliveness. Remember the examples I read to you from Eugene O'Neill and Mary Austin. Those were moments in which people were overpowered. And we too, if we remember similar moments, know that we were carried beyond the frontiers of our normal consciousness by a power, a saving power. Remember, it is like being let out of a cage. A power beyond ourselves is freeing us, liberating us, pulling us out from drowning.
Normally, we focus narrowly on this life?saver model when we think about being saved. The basic idea is that you are in trouble and somebody pulls you out. Remember how many advertisements play on this particular concept of saving: You are in trouble, and we will save you. First we show you how you are in trouble, and then we will show you how you can be saved by our product. Even the dog faints when you take off your shoes! And then comes the deodorant that will save you. These are the two parts of every advertisement. First they show you that you need salvation; then they show you how you can be saved.
But that is not the only notion of saving. In fact it is one that we rarely use in everyday language. More often we speak of saving money, saving energy, saving water, or the like. There is a different concept of saving behind this. You are not saving the water from drowning or money from being in trouble! Saving in this context means not wasting. But not wasting is only the negative aspect. The positive aspect is affirming the value??of every penny, of every ounce of energy, every drop of water. And that aspect of saving is most important in our mystic experiences. Suddenly we are saved from alienation. (Remember alienation stands in our terminology today for all that we need to be saved from.) Suddenly we find our value affirmed. That is what saves us. We are at home. We are not orphans. We are not outcasts. We belong. Thus we experience, in our best moments, a saving power, a power that liberates us by affirming us.
We walk taller now that we are affirmed. We are more truly ourselves now that this saving power has been made manifest to us in our experience. That is in itself a conversion, a turning, a thinking upside down . Most of the time we lie as if we were alienated, but now we know that we belong. And this manifestation calls us to further conversion. If we could live out, in every moment of our dally life, what we experience, what we are aware of in our mystical moments, that would be conversion. Life lived in that power would altogether change the world.
On the basis if this experience you can understand Jesus as a person who has experienced profound intimacy with God, a person who experienced communion with God's saving power. How he goes around and tells everybody, "Haven't you experienced that? It's a reality here and now, this Kingdom of God, the manifestation of God's saving power. The time is fulfilled. The kingdom is at hand. Put your trust in that awareness; that is all you need to do. And, above all, live accordingly. That's conversion." But this Good News is too good to be true. That is why we do not live by it. Nor do we live by our own best experiences. We have them and an hour later we almost forget that sense of aliveness. We suppress it again. We doubt it. Maybe it was just an illusion. Our mystic awareness is too good to be true. We repress it. But Jesus says, "Don't forget it. This is reality. Live accordingly!" That message reverberates in so many ways throughout the whole New Testament.
And that is why Jesus teaches in parables. There is no other teacher in the history of religion who taught so predominantly in parables. Jesus taught most typically in parables; not exclusively, but so much so that Mark can say that he taught only in parables. That he never taught in any other way except in parables is an exaggeration. But parable was the most typical way. That is why it is so important for us to understand what a parable is. It is a very simple teaching device. It can be a little story, it can be somewhat longer, or it can be just a very short saying like a proverb. The way some proverbs work gives us a good idea how a parable works. Take this one for example: "Early bird catches the worm." That is common sense. You can observe it if you get up early enough. Later on, most of the worms are gone. Late comers do not get any. You may have observed that many times, but it did not mean much to you. But then one day, you find yourself coming late to lunch at Esalen, and you do not get anything. Or maybe you go to a record shop and that new record is sold out. All of a sudden you remember that early bird catching a worm. Your situation has nothing to do with birds, nor with worms, but it has a lot to do with the truth that lies behind the proverb.
That is the way a parable starts out. It reminds you of a common sense observation. Often it starts with, "Who of you does not know that?" Who of you who is a parent does not know how parents feel towards their children? Who of you who has ever baked bread does not know how yeast works? Who of you has ever lost something and does not know to what extent one goes to find it again? The "who of you" appeals to the audience and says, "Don't you all know this anyway?" This is part one of every parable. Who of you does not know that the early bird catches the worms. Something as commonplace as that. Then comes part two. That is the response of the audience. The audience says, "Well, obviously, that's common sense. Isn't is?" And then comes part three, and that is, in the best examples, just silence, but sometimes it is spelled out, and it is the part in which Jesus says, "Ah, so it's common sense, okay. Well then why don't you act accordingly? Whoops, now you are caught!
Let us look at an example to see how this teaching method of parable works. Most parables deal with the kingdom, but this one is told in answer to a question. The question is this: If I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself, who is my neighbor/? We call this the parable of the good Samaritan. You have heard it, I am sure. To call this story of the good Samaritan is like telling a joke and giving it a title that spoils the whole point of the joke. For Jews at the time of Jesus, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. The only good Samaritan was a dead Samaritan, as we would say today. The Samaritans were the absolutely bad ones. And besides, the story is not about the Samaritan. That is another problem. The story is about a man who fell among the robbers. (This is a handy rule of thumb: In parables, as in jokes, you always have to identify with the first person mentioned, otherwise you do not get the point. You may get something else out of it, as in the story of the “good” Samaritan. All sorts of good, interesting teachings have been based on it. But if you want to know what Jesus said, follow the rule for any folk tale, joke, or folksy saying; namely identify with the first person mentioned!)
Well, then, someone asks, "Who is my neighbor?" and Jesus tells this story. There was a man (that's you!), who went from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers. Between Jerusalem and Jericho one can still fall among robbers today. The road leads through a steep canyon, and all sorts of things can happen to you there. So this man falls among robbers, who beat him and strip him. They steal whatever he had, and let him lie there, half dead. It is very important that this man is only half dead. That means he is still half alive and can see what is going on. Remember, you are this man. Parables are not told from the helicopter perspectives, but through the eyes of the first person mentioned.
So you are lying there and somebody comes by. Suddenly you know who is your neighbor. Your heart cries out, "This is my neighbor; he ought to help me!" But he walks by on the other side of the road and you lie there. Then somebody else comes by. Again you cry out, "Help me. I'm your neighbor!" But this one, too, walks by. You are still lying there hoping somebody will recognize you as a neighbor and act accordingly. Who comes by next but a Samaritan! Well, do you want this outcast to help you? Yes, of course, aren't we all neighbors? And, lo and behold, this dirty Samaritan does act neighborly. So Jesus asks, "Who showed himself your neighbor?" And the answer is, well, the one who helped me. Can you hear the silence that follows? In that silence Jesus is turning the tables on you. If he is your neighbor when you are in trouble, is he still your neighbor when he is in trouble?
I came across a wonderful contemporary version of that parable. When I told to a group in New Zealand what I just now shares with you, a Josephite Sister in the audience said: "Wow, this happened to me. I was driving from Auckland to Hamilton not too long ago, and I got terribly tired. All of a sudden I find that my car is on the wrong side of the road. I stopped right there. I pulled over onto the curb (facing the wrong direction), and I said, 'I am going to sleep a little. Driving like this is too dangerous.' " She wakes up, and somebody is knocking on the window. Just waking up, she is totally confused and rolls down the window, contrary to all precautions. There is a man in a leather jacket, and he says, "Are you all right, dear? Move over, you are on the wrong side." In her confusion she moves over, He sits down, pulls her car in the right direction, and says, "You seem to be in pretty bad shape. Where are you going?" "Hamilton," she says. "We'll give you an escort." So this nun in her veil drives into Hamilton escorted by a motorcycle gang in leather. Jesus proclaims the saving power of God made manifest among us and he appeals to common sense. This common sense should really be written with capital "C." It is our common sense; we have it in common. And it has something to do with sensing. These are two very important aspects of Christian mysticism: emphasis on Community and emphasis on the senses. And both are contained in the notion of Common Sense.
It is to this common sense that Jesus always appeals. This fact is important in understanding Jesus and the mystic breakthrough that happened to him and through him. Ask yourself, to what authority did Jesus appeal? The answer is to common sense. When you go to churches and hear sermons, you may get the impression that he appealed to God's authority like the prophets of old. But on closer examination, Jesus never uses the typical prophetic formula, "Thus says the Lord...." He did not simply appeal to God's authority and least of all to his own authority. (People who do that have never much of a following. For that reason alone we can be sure that he did not do it.) He appealed to the divine authority in the hearts of his hearers, to Common Sense.
That is what gets Jesus into trouble; that is how the whole historical crisis in Jesus' life came about. Someone who appeals to common sense necessarily gets in trouble with the authorities. To both religious and political authorites, nobody is more suspect than persons who have learned to stand on their own two feet and empower others to do the same. That is Jesus. And that is the mystics. The mystics continuously get in trouble with religious authorities, but often also political authorities. By his teaching and by the very way he lives, Jesus drives a wedge between common sense and public opinion. He appeals to common sense and blows the pretense of public opinion to pieces. That is why Mark relates that common people said, "Wow, this man speaks with authority, not like our authorities." You can imagine how the authorities felt about it and how they reacted: "This man has to die!"
This is also the way the Gospels present it to us. Remember, we said that religion starts with mysticism and eventually hardens into doctrine, morals, and ritual. That is why in the gospels, you have Jesus somewhat schematically set over against three groups of the authorities: the scribes (who stand for doctrine), the lawyers (who stand for the law), and the pharisees (who stand for ritual). The gospels in themselves and the rest of the New Testament show— and we would know it even if they did not show it??that there were excellent holy scribes and lawyers and pharisees. But they are turned into types, and these types still exist today. In every church you can meet the scribes, the lawyers, and the pharisees, and we find them within our own heart. They stand for the dead letter over against personal experience, for legalism over against action that springs from a live sense of belonging, for ritualism over against a celebration of life as a whole. But Jesus gets in trouble not only with the religious authorities but also with the political authorities. They make common cause in the end and wipe him out. That is where the cross comes into the story of Jesus.
After the fact, we can interpret the cross in many ways as it has been interpreted by the Christian tradition. But you miss the point if you do not pay attention to how it came about historically. Jesus had to die because he broke through frontiers of consciousness, because he broke through frontiers of what it means to be religious. We better ask ourselves if we have the courage to stand up for common sense against public opinion. You run a frightening risk when you let yourself be caught by the parables. Once I say "yes" to common sense, why do I not live accordingly? Why do I not live with the aliveness of my best moments? Why do I make all these concessions to public opinion? Why do I not stand on the authority of God within me? Why do I bow to the authorities? And there are many hidden authorities. Just think of peer pressure. There are all sorts of authorities to which we bow. And why? If you do not, you end up where Jesus ended up, on your own cross, inevitably.
That is the shattering end of the life of Jesus. This man still comes through so beautifully in some of the earliest writings as one of whom others could say, "Wow, this is what we would like to be if we were really ourselves." He lives out of those mystical moments, and we do not. We just have them once in a while, and then we betray them again. He lives out that reality. Therefore, he is wiped out. Dead. Historically that is the end of his story.
But then comes an event that is not in history and not out of history, an event that marks the edge of history; that event is called the resurrection. You cannot tell the story of Jesus fairly without referring to the resurrection. It is not merely an appendix. Without it, nothing that has happened since and not even the picture that we have of Jesus, makes any sense. But what is that resurrection? How can we reconstruct what really happened?
Let us go back to the earliest report. The earliest report tells us that he dies on the cross. They take him down, they bury him hastily because it is the eve of the great feast, and soon after the feast women find the tomb empty. Women??that was very embarrassing to the earliest church because women had no right to testify. Women had no voice in court. There was no such thing as a female witness. Yet, women were the first witnesses. of the resurrection, and their testimony was accepted. That marks a change in the whole status of women. They had (and still have) a long way to go, but from the beginning tradition knew that women were the first to find the tomb empty. And they believed that Jesus, whom they had seen dying and dead, was alive. That went far beyond any account that the tomb was empty. At the time, even those who said that his body had been stolen admitted that the tomb was empty.
Some people look now at this tomb, see it empty and say, "Well, he must have been stolen." Others see the same empty tomb and believe. They say "Now we understand! Why should we seek the living one among the dead? This man was life personified. He showed us what it means to be alive. It stands to reason that he isn't here among the dead." And then comes the question: "Where is he, if he isn't here?" "He is hidden in God," says an early answer (Col. 3 3). God is also hidden. And yet, we experience the power of God. Jesus is with God, hidden in God, and he continues to empower us with God's power. Thus, the shattered followers of Jesus came to realize that the kind of life he lived is stronger than death. And two thousand years later the world still reverberates from the shock wave of their faith in his resurrection.
What makes all this extremely exciting for us today is that we too are confronted with the empty tomb in an altogether new way. (Again, that is one of those frontiers we have broken through in this century.) How are we confronted with the empty tomb of Jesus? You may have heard about the so?called Shroud of Turin. That is a remarkable piece of historic evidence. It is a linen sheet about fourteen feet long that was used to enfold a corpse. The body was lying on half of the sheet, and the other half was folded over the body. This linen sheet bears some faint marks. With the naked eye you can just barely make out the imprint of a body. But when the shroud was photographed for the first time at the beginning of our century, the negative showed a positive image. In other words, what you have on that sheet is a sort of negative. Its positive shows many details of the face and the body.
After careful study, several pathologists concluded that the image derives from the body of someone crucified in a manner identical to that recorded of Jews in the Gospels. A few years ago, a team of scientists examined the shroud for several days and nights with the most modern methods. The verdict is that the image was not produced by any method known to us today. Some scientists ventured the hypothesis that the image must have been produced by something like a miniature atomic blast emanating from the dead body before decay set in.
So there was a crucified body wrapped in this shroud, and then before decay set in, there was some sort of miniature atomic blast, and the body was gone. This is our version of the empty tomb. It is our confrontation with the question, "Where is he?" Obviously, he is not here. And just as with the empty tomb, two thousand years ago, there are those who say, "It must be a fraud." And there are those who look at the same evidence and believe. The evidence cannot prove his resurrection. At best it can trigger faith that the life this man lived and evoked in others is stronger than death. But that is a lot!
What Jesus proclaimed as the coming of God's Kingdom, the Church throughout the ages proclaims as the Resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Both proclamations have the same content: God's saving power made manifest. There is the mystic core of the Christian religion, the volcanic eruption of a new beginning. And now the whole process begins all over again, inevitably. The encounter with Jesus is interpreted, and experience hardens into doctrine. The implications of Jesus' all?embracing love are formalized and harden into morals. They remember how he celebrated life when he ate with them and drank with them, and they turn this breaking of bread into ritual.
And so you have again and again the Christ?like figures within the church getting into the same troubles that Jesus got into with his religious authorities. And yet the Good News is herded on to us through the church, in the church, and in spite of the church. That is where you find all these saints who lived such Christ?like lives throughout the centuries up to our own time. But you also find the pharisees, the lawyers, and the scribes in that same church. When we asked, "What is one who accepts being a mystic to do with religion?" my answer was, "You have the responsibility to make religion religious, because left to itself it will deteriorate into something that is irreligious. Now we ask, "What is a Christian to do who recognizes what Christ is all about?" And the answer is, "Well, spend the rest of your life making the Church Christian"." It is called the church of saints and of sinners. It is also the church of the mystics and the church that gives mystics a hard time. That is where we are. Let us be realistic. But at the heart of this church is the mystic element, which is what makes it tick, the very inheritance of Jesus. To penetrate to this mystical core is again and again the ultimate frontier experience of Christian mysticism.
Presented at the month?long seminar on Frontiers of Consciousness Research coordinated by Christina and Stanislav Grof, Esalen Institute May 1985.
Edited by STANISLAV GROF with the assistance of MARJORIE LIVINGSTON VALIER Human Survival and Consciousness Evolution State University of New York Press
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