Chapter Summary: This chapter explores various types of goals, with emphasis on mystical goals. Various afterlife possibilities (heaven, hell, reincarnation) are also discussed. Lastly, it discusses how various mystical goals can motivate a spiritual quest and lead to direct experience of God.
Deciding what’s true is the business of a way of knowing. A world view’s function is to create a map of the world and our place in it. But the number of true facts may be infinite. Which are important? Which are valuable? The number of places on a map may be numerous. Towards which are we traveling, or being carried? How are we to direct our lives? What goals should we choose?
We’ll begin our discussion of these questions by examining various types of goals, various types of places on the map which is our world view. We’ll discuss three kinds of goals: common goals, afterlife goals, and beyond-the-show-world (transcendental) goals.
Common goals are common to people around the world, irrespective of their religion or philosophy. Common goals include physical goals such as food, clothing, shelter, and wealth; emotional goals such as love, friendship, and respect; and intellectual goals such as wanting to know, understand, and discover. Many examples of common goals may be given: someone drinks water to satisfy their thirst; someone works to earn money for life’s necessities and pleasures; people marry for, among other reasons, emotional fulfillment; a student goes to college to get a degree. Some common goals remain completed for only a short time: water satisfies my thirst, but my thirst soon returns; the money I earn this week soon runs out. Other common goals remain completed much longer. An academic degree, for instance, lasts a lifetime; a building may easily outlive its builder.
Yet time eventually destroys the building, and death, seemingly, destroys the builder. Is death really a destroyer? Some people believe death does, in fact, bring utter destruction, that there is no afterlife, no continued existence beyond death. Even though religion offers the promise of eternal life, it actually gives, they believe, only emotional satisfactions—the assurance of justification in the sight of a God who probably doesn’t exist, the fantasy of a pleasant afterlife.
Some reasons why this belief is not widely held are obvious. Many people find it impossible to believe our bodies, almost infinitesimal specks in the vastness of the universe, and our life spans, almost infinitesimal specks in the lifespan of the universe, are all we are. Is it really true, they argue, we love, hate, hope, and strive, and none of it endures or matters? What kind of universe, they ask, could create such pitiful entities as ourselves, giving us enough intelligence to realize our own contingency, finiteness, and futility, and then utterly destroy us? Moreover, if death brings destruction, then death puts us beyond the consequences of our actions. Saint and sinner both cease to exist, with no reward for the saint and no punishment for the sinner.
I use “saint” and “sinner,” by the way, in a loose sense. There are probably many thoroughly non-religious people who would reject the idea that a person who dies saving a bus full of children and a madman who dies bombing a hospital and nursery school both suffer the same fate—utter destruction—with the “saint” unrewarded, the “sinner” unpunished.
But if death isn’t a destroyer then it must be a transformer, a deliverer into some sort of continued existence, some sort of afterlife. And if we continue to exist after death, then possibly our past actions still affect us, even as they do in this life. But how can the effects of past actions extend beyond death? One possibility is through the agency of a God who rewards and punishes. Another possibility is a more subtle mechanism where actions affect character and character affects destiny. In this view, we not only create our actions; our actions in a sense create us.
If death indeed doesn’t bring utter destruction, then some part of us must survive in some sort of afterlife existence. Those who believe in an afterlife existence may act with an eye to preparing for their afterlife state. That is, afterlife goals may motivate some of their actions here.
It’s worthwhile noting that the usual association of the afterlife with religion isn’t absolutely necessary. If we find ourselves born into this world by purely natural means then it’s possible we’ll find ourselves born into another, after death, by purely natural means too. Those who think of themselves as the body assume that if anything survives, it’s the spirit. And so they naturally associate the afterlife with religion. But we’ve seen how the body is a entity with relative existence, lacking an enduring identity. Therefore, it’s possible our real identity—however one conceives it—persists after death through purely natural means, without the agency of a God.
But since the afterlife is almost always discussed within the context of religion, we’ll discuss it in that context too.
Many religions offer afterlife goals, such as the goal of everlasting life, of immortality, in the company of a God who is a Person. In some religions, such life begins immediately after death. In other religions, death is followed by reincarnation into another body; only after a long series of lives does the soul reach its final state, life with God.
Afterlife goals include the attainment of heaven, the avoidance of hell, and the avoidance of a bad reincarnation, such as rebirth as an unfortunate person or even an animal. My family’s religion offered the afterlife goals of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Even at an early age, however, I didn’t find these ideas completely believable. As an 8 year-old boy sitting in a Roman Catholic catechism class, I decided if only those who were baptized and believed in Jesus could get into heaven, then, for example, someone who lived in China 5,000 years ago was forever excluded from heaven—through no fault of their own but simply because they had been born 3,000 years too early.
Later, I doubted the Catholic teaching that dying with an unforgiven mortal sin resulted in eternal hell. At the time, deliberately eating meat on Friday was a mortal sin. I couldn’t believe some young boy who knew it was Friday but ate a hot dog anyway might die and spend all eternity tortured in hell. (Nevertheless, I never ate hot dogs on Friday!)
As I grew and saw more of the world, the very existence of heaven and hell seemed more and more doubtful. Nonetheless, I could still admire the intelligence of this explanation of why the good suffer and the evil prosper. The good sometime do evil and must suffer for it on earth so when they die they may go straight to heaven. The evil sometime do good and must be repaid on earth so when they die they may go straight to hell. The explanation’s cleverness pleased me. But I had lost belief in the existence of heaven and hell. Most people, it seemed, led moderately good and moderately bad lives, lives deserving of neither the eternal bliss of heaven nor the eternal punishment of hell.
Consider for instance “Pete,” who died when he was seventy. Pete had never been very religious. He had an average disposition, sometimes cheerful and sometimes moody. As a father, Pete was often attentive and loving—when he wasn’t too drunk. He’d committed adultery once, but felt guilty afterwards and had managed never to do it again. Yet many women were the object of his fantasies. Pete was mostly honest at business, but he paid his employees as little as possible. He wrote highly imaginative income tax returns. There were some people in town Pete didn’t like, and he usually let them know it—if they weren’t too powerful or influential. Over his life, Pete maintained a few close friendships. These friends as well as Pete’s wife and children grieved when he died. They missed him.
Does Pete deserve the eternal bliss of heaven in the company of God and angels? Or the eternal torment of hell in the company of Satan and demons? Or neither?
Such doubts may have motivated the Roman Catholic idea of purgatory, a place where souls go who die with unforgiven non-mortal sins. Since these souls are not sinless, they do not yet deserve heaven. But since their sins are not mortal, they don’t deserve hell either. So they go to purgatory. Eventually when they’re cleansed of their less-than-mortal sins, they advance to heaven.
For me, however, the addition of the after-death alternative of purgatory didn’t help. Purgatory was only for those who had died with unforgiven non-mortal sins. The young boy who knowingly ate the hot dog and died still went to hell. Forever.
Eventually after I’d come to some understanding of personal identity, I began to doubt that an individual person could dwell in heaven for all eternity. Believers in a God who is a Person often interpret immortality as perpetual existence for their own personal identity. However, if personal identity does not consist of the Eternal—if it’s changing and transitory, and forever distinct from the Eternal—then which relative personality or personalities get “frozen” into immortality?
A woman, “Anna,” is 12 years old when her 30 year-old mother dies. Anna herself lives to see ninety. During those 90 years, Anna is many different people: infant, child, adolescent, student, woman, wife, mother, attorney, Sunday school teacher, bridge player, grandmother, etc. At various times of her life, Anna is naive, sophisticated, generous, stingy, serious, playful, frivolous, patient, quick-tempered, trusting, suspicious, etc. Suppose a few traits such as jealousy, pride, sloth, or impatience appear in most, or all, of the people Anna is. That is, suppose Anna has a few characteristic vices.
Which of Anna’s personalities, which of her traits, are given immortality in heaven? Just one or, in some way, all of them? Is her characteristic jealous streak, her tendency to pride and arrogance, her slothfulness, or impatience incorporated into her heavenly personality? Certainly, most people don’t picture heaven with prideful, arrogant, slothful, or impatient residents. Are, then, only Anna’s good qualities included in her heavenly personality?
By the way, I’m assuming qualities such as honesty, patience, kindness, charity, and love are compatible with life in heaven, and qualities such as lust, hatred, greed, envy, sloth, and malice are not. Many religions where God is thought of as a Person have such a morality. Later I’ll discuss morality for followers of the God who is not a Person.
For 78 years, Anna looks forward to seeing her mother in heaven. But when Anna reaches heaven, will she have to assume the body and personality of her 12 year-old self to meet her long deceased mother? What if Anna would rather have the body and personality of her forty-fifth year? How could she relate to her mother, whose body and personality were set at 30? Moreover, Anna’s own children and grandchildren look forward to seeing her in heaven. Her children look forward to seeing Anna as she was in middle age; her grandchildren hope to see sweet, old granny Annie with the silver hair. When they all are in heaven, which body and personality does Anna have?
How can Anna’s different earthly personalities, the frivolous and naive child, the serious and sophisticated adult, fuse to form one single person, a person purified of Anna’s characteristic faults and vices? Isn’t an essentially new person created if Anna’s purified and fused heavenly personality has only Anna’s good elements, and lacks the bad? Doesn’t the transformation produce an essentially new person, only distantly related to the many people Anna was on earth?
Further, if we assume Anna is somehow transformed into a purified and fused person then we may ask: does a purified and fused person remain the same forever, throughout all eternity? If it does, it would forever lack any good qualities that Anna never acquired on earth. Or, at least, they’d be underdeveloped. For example, suppose Anna never learnt patience. Then even though her heavenly personality might never be obviously impatient, would it have perfect loving patience? How would a personality which was never patient on earth acquire perfect patience in heaven? It would have to be able to change, to evolve.
Suppose heaven’s fused and purified personalities can evolve, can acquire or bring to perfection any good qualities they lacked on earth. Eventually, after they’ve acquired and perfected all the virtues, they would be very similar to each other, if not identical. The originally distinct mother and child would have evolved into two, essentially identical persons. Purified of all vices and possessing all virtues, any heavenly person seeing another would merely see its own reflection. Anna and her mother would have evolved into two identically perfect and perfectly identical persons.
Proponents of reincarnation believe the process of purification and evolution just described occurs over a series of lives, on earth or elsewhere. Slowly, life after life, we move closer to our ultimate destination: experience of, and eventual union with, the One. Only when we’ve reached the level of purity enjoyed by the Absolute, they say, may our consciousness merge with the One; for only then is the purified soul identical to the One. Thus the merging doesn’t change the Unchangeable, or add to the One. Here, too, the assumption is the One possesses all the moral virtues in the highest degree and we too must acquire them before we may merge with It.
Although reincarnation is often thought to be an Eastern belief, it’s been held in the West as well. In Plato’s Phaedo, for example, Socrates says
. . . the living come from the dead, just as the dead come from the living . . . the souls of the dead must exist in some place out of which they come again. (Phaedo 72A, [D07],VI,424).
A more contemporary expression occurs in the modern fable Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Most of us came along ever so slowly. We went from one world into another that was almost exactly like it, forgetting right away where we had come from, not caring where we were headed, living for the moment. Do you have any idea how many lives we must have gone through before we even got the first idea that there is more to life than eating, or fighting, or power in the Flock? A thousand lives, Jon, ten thousand! And then another hundred lives until we began to learn that there is such a thing as perfection, and another hundred again to get the idea that our purpose for living is to find that perfection and show it forth. . . . [W]e choose our next world through what we learn in this one. Learn nothing, and the next world is the same as this one, all the same limitations and lead weights to overcome. ([B01],53-4).
The idea of reincarnation initially attracted me. I’d heard about cases like the ones in ([S24]) Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, and been impressed. (Years later, Children Who Remember Previous Lives ([S23]), by the same author, appeared.) A representative case is as follows.
A young child, Sarah, has memories of a previous life in another town, with another family. In some cases, Sarah remembers being a child in her former life; in other cases, a woman or a man. Sarah describes her former town, house, and family in detail. Her parents eventually take her to the town. Sarah immediately finds her former house and family; they are as Sarah remembered them. The person Sarah claims to have been indeed existed but died before Sarah was born.
Rebirth on earth seemed a fitting fate for most souls, an appropriate reward for moderately good and moderately bad lives. At first, it also seemed to explain why some are born to good circumstances and some are born to bad: their births are simply a reward or punishment for actions in previous lives. Certainly, that seemed much fairer than supposing some infants begin their one-and-only life in loving families, nurtured materially, emotionally, morally, and intellectually, while others begin their one-and-only life in hostile, deranged families, enduring material, emotional, moral, and intellectual deprivation and abuse.
But seeing birth circumstances as simply a reward or punishment for behavior in past lives doesn’t fit the facts. For certainly, some born to good circumstances have unprincipled, selfish, even degenerate natures. Conversely, others born to harsh circumstances have principled, loving, altruistic natures. These natures, the result of lifetimes of good and bad character development, should imply commensurate birth opportunities, but often do not. Moreover, seeing birth circumstances as a straightforward reward or punishment means an infant suffers blindness, physical deformation, or mental retardation because of actions in some past life. In effect, it says the baby deserves their fate; that innocents are, in fact, not innocent.
But if life circumstances aren’t a straightforward reward or punishment for past actions, then what are they? Do they occur with any rhyme or reason? Perhaps not. As we’ve seen, pain and suffering are an inherent part of our world. If we suppose multiple life spans, then it’s probable that, in some life or another, we’ll find ourselves in unfortunate circumstances. Thus birth circumstances need not reflect our evolution. Given enough lives, all of us will, in our experience of the variety this universe has to offer, experience unhappy, undesirable lives.
So perhaps chance determines why someone is born into a particular situation. There is, however, another possibility. It’s possible our experiences are meant to teach us something, to help us on our journey home to the Source. So, someone may be born into wealth not as a reward for previous good deeds, but as an opportunity to learn that wealth is ultimately unsatisfactory as a replacement for experience of the Absolute. After a number of such lives, this individual’s desire for wealth will be quenched. A much more evolved individual, on the other hand, may be spending this life learning to transcend an unhealthy body, or learning patience and forgiveness as a member of a despised minority. However, I don’t intend to promote passivity and acceptance of injustice; such an individual might just as easily be learning to fight for justice.
Whether our experiences are meant to teach us something or happen at random, it is up to us to make the most of them. How we respond leaves its record in our character, and character marks how far a consciousness has progressed in its journey toward conscious reunion with the Eternal.
Even if a person remembers parts of what appears to be a past life, they usually have no recollection or description of the time between death and rebirth. Life After Life paints a partial description based on the near-death experience of 150 people. A composite near-death experience is as follows.
A man . . . hears himself pronounced dead . . . He begins to hear . . a loud ringing . . . and . . . feels himself moving . . . through a long dark tunnel. . . . [H]e sees his own body from a distance . . . Others come to meet and to help him. . . . [A] loving, warm spirit . . .—a being of light—appears before him. . . . He is overwhelmed by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. . . . [H]e somehow reunites with his physical body and lives. ([M16],23-4).
Life After Life discusses similar experiences from the Bible, the writings of Plato and Swedenborg, and ([T05]) The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which has the most complete description. The Tibetan Book of the Dead claims to describe not only the immediate time after death, but the complete journey of the soul from death to rebirth as well. A summary follows.
The newly disembodied consciousness encounters ([T05],89) “the fundamental Clear Light . . . the Unborn Dharma-Kaya”, the ([T05],95) “Radiance of the Clear Light of Pure Reality” which is ([T05],104) “subtle, sparkling, bright, dazzling, glorious, and radiantly awesome.” An editorial footnote describes ([T05],12) this Light as “The Uncreated, the Unshaped, the Unmodified” and as ([T05],11) containing “the essence of the Universe.” Our Consciousness, unborn and undying, is that Light.
Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light . . . ([T05],96).
If the soul can recognize and unite with the Clear Light, it will escape from Maya’s show, i.e. it will attain liberation. However, most souls are unprepared to behold, much less unite with, the “radiantly awesome” Clear Light of Reality. As Huxley writes:
Following Boehme and William Law, we may say that, by unregenerate souls, the divine Light at its full blaze can be apprehended only as a burning, purgatorial fire. An almost identical doctrine is to be found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, where the departed soul is described as shrinking in agony from the Pure Light of the Void . . . in order to rush headlong into the comforting darkness of selfhood . . . ([H10],55-6).
Thus, most souls journey through various levels of phenomenal existence, encountering peaceful and wrathful deities and a judgement, and eventually are reborn, on earth or elsewhere.
What constitutes an “unregenerate” soul? What prevents a consciousness from uniting with the Real? A footnote in The Tibetan Book of the Dead discusses this question.
In the realm of the Clear Light, . . . the mentality of a person dying momentarily enjoys a condition of balance, or perfect equilibrium, and of oneness. Owing to unfamiliarity with such a state, which is an ecstatic state of non-ego, . . . the consciousness-principle of the average human being lacks the power to function in it; karmic propensities becloud the consciousness-principle with thoughts of personality, of individualized being, of dualism, and, losing equilibrium, the consciousness-principle falls away from the Clear Light. It is ideation of ego, of self, which prevents the realization of Nirvana . . . and so the Wheel of Life continues to turn. ([T05],97).
“Karmic propensities” refers to our habits, which are the results of past actions. Nirvana means union with the Real. We’ve already seen how attachment to dualistic perception of the universe veils the One.
What creates attachment to dualistic perception? Pleasure. Therefore, the yin aspect of pleasure is that desire increases and we become more enmeshed in the drama. And what creates detachment to dualistic perception? Pain. Therefore, the yang aspect of pain is that desire decreases and we draw away from the drama, we become less enmeshed in it. Therefore, pleasurable and painful entities actually have equal amounts of yang and yin.
By the way, there’s a more basic dualistic perception than perception of the universe: perception of our own relative selves, our ego. Individuality is still a kind of duality.
After many lives, we tire of the show. The dancing Light which is Maya fails to amuse. Component entities are transitory; we begin to seek something which is permanent. Component entities don’t really exist below the level of their components; we begin to seek the truly Existent, the Real. Component entities contain a measure of pain and are unsatisfying, at least partially; we begin to seek That which is perfectly fulfilling. Tired of perceiving the individual qualities of various thoughts, emotions, and physical objects, we seek to experience their Isness. Knowing component entities can never satisfy our thirst for the Eternal, we seek to transcend dualistic perception, to undo the flip that occurred in Eden. We wish to behold the One, the Source, the Ultimate Ground of Existence. We seek return to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Pure Land, Eden.
Now, desire has been born for experience of the One, the Eternal, the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Now, longing has begun for God, for religion in the root meaning of the word—re-joining or re-fastening. Now,
[t]he race is precisely the flight from creatures to union with the uncreated. ([M11],89).
[n]o man shall ever know
what is true blessedness
Till oneness overwhelm
and swallow separateness. ([S13],53).
[t]he wise have one wish left:
to know the Whole, the Absolute.
The foolish lose themselves in fragments
and ignore the root. ([B05],51),
Once the desire is born in someone for gnosis, for knowledge of the Eternal, either first-hand or unitive, a quest has begun which will eventually dominate their entire life.
“Here,” says Ruysbroeck on the soul which has been lit by the Uncreated Light, “there begins an eternal hunger . . . If God gave to such a man all the gifts which all the saints possess, and all that He is able to give, but without giving Himself, the craving desire of the spirit would remain hungry and unsatisfied.” ([U01],265).
Is gnosis a third type of goal? It certainly isn’t a common goal. It is an afterlife goal? In a sense it is, since union with God, once achieved, continues after this life. But, as Nicholson writes,
. . . the whole purpose of Sufism . . . is . . . a recovery of the original unity with The One, while still in this body. ([N11],16).
Thus, gnosis is not an afterlife goal; it’s a goal which can be achieved in the here and now. It is, in fact, the fourth state of consciousness open to us in this life, where the others are the awake, dreaming, and dreamless sleep states. Therefore, gnosis is a third kind of goal, a beyond-the-show-world or transcendental goal.
Of all the goals available to us, gnosis is the highest.
To surmount maya was the task assigned to the human race by the millennial prophets. To rise above the duality of creation and perceive the unity of the Creator was conceived of as man’s highest goal. ([Y02],311).
Gnosis—and perhaps only gnosis—fulfills religion’s promise. For it grants: salvation, since we are saved from Maya’s illusion; awakening, since we awaken from the dream world of Maya; enlightenment, since the world we perceive is filled with Light; Self-realization since we realize our true Self; and liberation, since it liberates us from yang and yin. Liberation from Maya’s drama gives transcendence, the “peace which surpasses all understanding” of Christian scriptures.
Gnosis is a purely transcendental goal when it’s motivated by a pure desire for the Eternal, a desire to know God simply for the sake of knowing God, with no other motive. Both motive and goal are grounded beyond the show world. So a desire to know and unite with the Center born of a pure love for the Ground which is our basis, the Eternal which is our Father, the Source which is our Mother, is an entirely transcendental goal. The Uncreated Light is loved for Itself, with no ulterior motive.
But pure love of That which we do not yet know and have not yet experienced is difficult. Therefore, the goal of gnosis, although ultimately leading beyond this world, is often grounded in it.
How can gnosis, something which is beyond the world of appearance, the world of maya, be grounded in it? By being a secondary goal, or even an unanticipated by-product of some other goal. There are religious goals, afterlife goals, and even worldly goals which lead to gnosis, some quickly, some slowly, some inescapably, and some only occasionally.
A few such goals are: escape from the transitory, from duality, from suffering, or from desire; realization of Self; immortality; spiritual rebirth; universal love; and following God’s will by emulating and obeying a religious saint or Incarnation. All these seemingly distinct goals may lead to gnosis. Just as the distinct goals of political power, prestige, social status, fame, or high salary might all lead someone to seek their country’s presidency, apparently different goals lead to the same end, gnosis.
Let’s examine some of these goals.
Achieving gnosis means transcending duality.
Until duality is transcended and at-one-ment realized, Enlightenment cannot be attained. ([T06],206).
Knowing the One implies recovering unitary vision. So, someone with a pure love of the Unchanging might wish to transcend duality because it’s an obstacle.
If you dare
call Him “Father”
and live this in reality
You must become a newborn child
and overcome duality. ([B05],139).
In this case, both goal and motivation are still transcendental; escaping duality is a means, not an end.
Sometimes, however, the desire is not so much to gain the Eternal as to be rid of duality, with its pain and imperfections, its fleeing entities with only relative existence. Like shifting sands and ocean waves, everything around us changes. It’s transitory; it passes away. Moreover, the entities possessing relative existence which compose our world lack a real identity. Their very existence is dependent, precarious, and temporary. In fact, they don’t exist at all below the level of their components.
Lay not up your treasures where rust corrupts and thieves steal, advised (Mt6:19) Jesus. Don’t build your house on shifting sands, he (Mt7:24-7) said, but on rock. As someone lost too long in the desert will desperately seek an oasis, someone lost too long in Maya will seek the pure Light of the Real. As someone lost at sea desperately reaches out for a boat, or a piece of wood, someone afloat in a world of fleeting, changing entities will reach out for the Eternal.
When escaping duality, when escaping an endless round of existence which is less than perfectly fulfilling, is the main goal then the goal is grounded in this world and is, therefore, less than purely transcendental. Nonetheless, since escape from duality necessarily implies perception of the One, such a goal will inescapably lead to gnosis.
Often, however, the goal is escape not from both yang and yin, but merely from yin, from the disagreeable, from suffering. People are usually quite willing to be rid of the painful, the disagreeable, the annoying. Giving up the pleasurable, the agreeable, the pleasing, is quite another matter.
But yang and yin are inseparable and their perception—dualistic perception—is the root cause of suffering.
The conception of duality is the root of all suffering; its only cure is the perception of the unreality of all objects and the realisation of myself as One, pure Intelligence and Bliss. (II,16,[A10],8).
We ignore the One and, as a direct consequence, live in the world of duality, a world where suffering is inevitable.
People who pursue the goal of escape from the yin aspects of existence, from suffering, pain, and distress, may someday realize yang and yin, pleasure and pain, are inseparable. At this point, no doubt, some will abandon their quest. Others, however, will decide to escape from yin and yang.
Therefore, the goal of ending suffering, of escape from yin, may lead to gnosis. If pursued far enough, sooner or later it may lead to a turning away from duality, which in turn will lead to gnosis. Therefore, even though the goals of escape from yin and yang, or from yin alone, are this-world goals, they can lead to gnosis.
But the world we live in is composed of yang and yin; can they be evaded? No, not until we perceive the Eternal. Only when we reach the One do we leave the “two” behind. But the desire for, the regard of, and the attachment to them can cease. They remain; but we lose our concern with them. Our concern is with the Eternal. The Bhagavad-Gita describes a person who has achieved such desirelessness as close to gnosis.
He neither longs for one thing
Nor loathes its opposite;
The chains of his delusion
Are soon cast off. ([S18],56-7).
Therefore, someone who wishes to experience the Real, or even someone who only wishes to escape yin and yang, may come to see escape from desire as a means. And even someone who wishes only to escape suffering may eventually wish to escape desire, too. In fact, this is what happened to Buddha.
In a very sheltered childhood, Buddha knew little of pain and suffering. One day, however, he realized how painful life could be. Specifically, he realized sickness comes to many, old age comes to those who don’t die young, and death comes to all. Driven by his vision of a world full of pain and suffering, he set out in search of a solution. How to escape life’s pain? was his question.
By giving up desire, was his answer.
But how to give up desire? One way is realizing the dual nature of entities, seeing that yang and yin are inseparable, that in the long run nothing is more or less desirable than another. Another way is the practice of asceticism, which we’ll discuss later. Still another is the dangerous path of Tantra, which we’ll also discuss.
Of course, the lack of unitary awareness is the root cause of desire.
as soon as we ignore
the divine essence
at our core. ([B05],105).
So perhaps the only way to genuinely extinguish desire is to achieve gnosis.
In any case, vision of the One often does leave someone desireless; it often gives them
. . . a general condition of indifference, liberty, and peace, and elevation above the world, a sense of beatitude. (Delacroix, Etudes sur le Mysticisme, p.370 in [U01],330).
Unitary awareness removes us from the world of yang and yin, pleasures and pains, desire and aversion.
And even a brief experience of gnosis may leave in the mystic’s heart the same “Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.” whose memory Pascal cherished. Not surprisingly, someone filled with such certitude, peace, love and joy may have no desires.
Sometimes, an aspirant, especially one who’s introverted, isn’t motivated by the transitoriness or imperfection of the exterior world, since they aren’t very concerned with the external world in the first place. Rather, they’re concerned with themselves. They look inside and ask: Where did I come from? Where am I going? Where is my enduring identity? Who or what am I?
Who am I? This question, the basis of “the question of personal identity,” is also the basis of the spiritual method (refer [S19],3-14) of the Hindu sage, Ramana Maharshi, who recommended the aspirant always keep it in mind. Why? Because full realization of our true Self, the Eternal, leads to gnosis—in fact, is gnosis.
In those who have cognised the Self, illusion is dispelled, and the light of pure consciousness shines through them; their distress is at an end and they live in bliss. (XVIII,6,[A10],40).
How is someone to discover who they are? Through gnosis, in the long run. There is, however, a preliminary step.
Someone who has realized who they are has gained some knowledge. Let’s call this positive knowledge. And someone who realizes they don’t know who they are has zero knowledge. Can a person have less than zero knowledge? Yes! They can have “negative” knowledge; they can think they know something when in fact they do not.
If I realize I don’t know which country Paris is in, I can go to a dictionary or encyclopaedia and find out. But if I think Paris is in Italy, I may never discover its true location. Negative knowledge can be more of a hindrance to knowledge than plain ignorance. The story of Socrates illustrates this.
The oracle at Delphi declared Socrates the wisest of men. “How can this be?” thought Socrates. “I know nothing. Yet the oracle cannot lie.” Socrates eventually realized he was wise because he knew the extent of his ignorance. Everyone else he met thought they knew or understood things they in fact did not.
So the first step in discovering our real, enduring self is realizing that what we think of as our self—our body, our emotional or intellectual centers, our changing personality—is not really us.
Moreover, it seems identification with Self and identification with self, the ego, are mutually exclusive. As the Sufi Nifari wrote:
When thou regardest thyself as existent and dost not regard Me as the Cause of thy existence, I veil My face and thine own face appears to thee. ([N11],85).
A commentary explains:
If a man regards himself as existing through God, that which is of God in him predominates over the phenomenal element and makes it pass away, so that he sees nothing but God. If, on the contrary, he regards himself as having an independent existence, his unreal egoism is displayed to him and the reality of God becomes hidden from him. ([N11],85-6).
If identification with Self and identification with self are indeed mutually exclusive, then identification with Self must bring a kind of “death” to the self. A person who identifies more and more with Self must identify less and less with self. In a sense they “die” to ego, to self.
Those only who do not believe, call me Gotama, but you call me the Buddha . . . And this is right, for I have in this life entered Nirvana, while the life of Gotama has been extinguished. ([C04],160).
How complete and actual is “dying to self”? Some Sufis believe the death is to the self, not of the self.
When they say, “Die before ye die,” . . .[they] do not mean to assert that the lower self can be essentially destroyed, but that it can and should be purged . . . ([N11],41).
Other mystics teach an absorption in God so total that their individual self is obliterated.
Identification with Self leads to detachment from self. Some mystics teach the inverse relations holds too—that dying to self leads to awareness of Self. For instance, the Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi wrote:
Become pure from all attributes of self,
That you may see your own bright essence ([N11],70).
And Nicholson writes:
. . . in realising the non-entity of his individual self the Sufi realises his essential oneness with God . . . ([N11],155).
In fact, he claims:
The whole of Sufism rests on the belief that when the individual self is lost, the Universal Self is found[,] . . . [T]hat ecstasy affords the only means by which the soul can directly communicate and become united with God. Asceticism, purification, love, gnosis, saintship—all the leading ideas of Sufism—are developed from this cardinal principle. ([N11],59).
Dying to self, by the way, may be the object of religious practices such as humility and obedience.
Sometimes, lessened identification with self is seen as a kind of death. The Quaker John Woolman seems to have experienced gnosis in this way. Woolman’s journal records a dream where he heard an angel-like voice say “John Woolman is dead.” Interestingly, a question of personal identity seems to have provoked his experience.
In time of sickness . . . I was brought so near the gates of death that I forgot my name. Being then desirous to know who I was, I saw a mass . . . of human beings . . . I was mixed with them, and . . . henceforth I might not consider myself as a distinct or separate being. ([F01],59-60).
It was then he heard the voice. Later, he realized
“John Woolman is dead,” meant no more than the death of my own will. ([F01],61).
A Quaker publication suggests:
He . . . realized that the dream had shown him the death of his individual will and his submergence into the divine unity. ([P08],28).
Woolman lost his identification with his ego when he ceased to consider himself “a distinct and separate being.” He felt he’d died. Yet he still lived—not as a separate ego but submerged in “the divine unity.”
Thomas Kelly is another Quaker who may have had a similar experience. He wrote:
It is an overwhelming experience to fall into the hands of the living God, to be invaded to the depths of one’s being by His presence, to be, without warning, wholly uprooted from all earth-born securities and assurances, and to be blown by a tempest of unbelievable power which leaves one’s old proud self utterly, utterly defenseless . . . [A]s Moses knew, no man can look on God and live—live as his old self. Death comes, blessed death, death of one’s alienating will. ([F01],64-5).
And the Quaker George Fox noted that a certain part of the self seems incompatible with consciousness of Eternal Light, and must die if consciousness of the Light is to live.
. . . [T]here did a pure fire appear in me . . . (ch.1,[J05],14)
wrote Fox. He then described the parts of the self which were in conflict with that Fire.
And that which could not . . . endure the fire . . . I found to be the groans of the flesh (that could not give up to the will of God) . . . and could not give up self to die by the Cross, . . . that which would cloud and veil from the presence of Christ, that which the sword of the spirit cuts down and which must die . . . (ch.1,[J05],14-15).
Those who have died to their self have mastered the “Art of Dying” to self. They’ve undergone a death which renders them immortal, for they have nothing to fear from the death of the physical body or of the relative selves.
I do not face my end in fear
for, knowing death must come,
I let my Me die long ago
and watched desire disappear. ([B05],122).
Thus a person, rather than seeking some form of immortality for their relative selves, can realize a form of immortality by transcending their own ego and identifying with their true Self, their Ultimate Ground of Existence, which already is immortal.
His life is everlasting: whoever sees it is thereby made everlasting. ([N11],7).
The idea of transcendence of the finite, contingent selves, of the ego, is found in a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, an imaginative Argentinean writer. His story The God Script tells of an Aztec priest, Tzinacan, long imprisoned by the Spaniards. One day, Tzinacan experiences
. . . union with the divinity, with the universe . . . God has been seen in a blazing light . . . ([B11],172).
Now, Tzinacan believes he can shatter his stone prison, destroy the captors who tortured him, evict all Spaniards from Mexico, rebuild the sacred pyramid, and rule the entire land. Yet he knows he never shall, for he no longer identifies with Tzinacan.
Whoever has seen the universe . . . cannot think in terms of one man, of that man’s trivial fortunes or misfortunes, though he be that very man. ([B11],173).
Many religions have the idea that ego transcendence gives a kind of immortality and deathlessness. Swami Paramananda, for example, wrote
When we thus realize Him as the underlying Reality of our being, we transcend death and become immortal. ([U03],116),
while a Buddhist monk writes
. . . the truth of nonselfhood or emptiness, makes a man immortal because it makes him free of the ‘self’ idea. When there is no self, how can there be death? ([B13],17).
Ego transcendence, by the way, can occur in meditative states. The Taoist philosopher Ch’i, for instance,
. . . looked strangely dazed and inert, as though only part of him were there at all. “What was happening to you?” asked his disciple . . . [S]aid Ch’i; “when you saw me just now my ‘I’ had lost its ‘me’.” ([W01],116).
We’ve been using “ego” to indicate our self image. It’s also sometimes used in a wider sense to refer to our body, heart, and thinking centers, to all but our Self. Therefore, gnosis may be described as separating the Self from the self, the relative selves, the ego. Ch’i achieved this state when his “I” lost its “me.”
Yet, our ego exists in the external world—at least, in other people’s external world. Therefore, separation of Self from ego may also be described as separation of Self from world. And since the emotions are sometimes considered a function of the heart, and thoughts a function of the brain—both bodily organs—gnosis is sometimes pictured as separation of “I” from body.
According to Plato, Socrates thought that separating “I” from body was the true aim of philosophy. Calling the process “purification” Socrates said
. . . purification is nothing but the separation of the soul from the body, . . . the habit of the soul gathering and collecting herself into herself from all sides out of the body; the dwelling in her own place alone . . . (Phaedo 67C, [D07],VI,418).
. . . the true philosophers . . . are always occupied in the practice of dying . . . (Phaedo 67C, [D07],VI,418).
Physical death separates Consciousness from physical sensations and, perhaps, emotional and intellectual sensations, for a time. The “practice of dying” of Socrates was, I believe, a meditative exercised which also temporarily separated Consciousness from physical sensations and, perhaps, emotional and intellectual sensations.
Some people, it seems, are born with a Consciousness detached from the physical, emotional, and intellectual facilities. For example, a Hindu saint said
My consciousness has never associated itself with this temporary body. Before I came on this earth . . . ‘I was the same’. As a little girl, ‘I was the same.’ I grew into womanhood; still ‘I was the same.’ When . . . this body married, ‘I was the same.’ And . . . now, ‘I am the same.’ Ever afterward, though the dance of creation change around me in the hall of eternity, ‘I shall be the same.’ ([Y02],524).
Since some form of the individual still exists, dying to self may be experienced in a positive manner, as the birth of a new self. Thus, the art of dying, paradoxically, brings Life. As St. Symeon the New Theologian wrote:
A man who has attained the final degree of perfection is dead and yet not dead, but infinitely more alive in God with Whom he lives for he no longer lives by himself. ([W11],132).
And Meister Eckhart described his death to the temporal, finite ego as an “eternal birth.”
To this end I was born, and by virtue of my birth being eternal, I shall never die. It is of the nature of this eternal birth that I have been eternally, that I am now, and shall be forever. What I am as a temporal creature is to die and come to nothingness, for it came with time and so with time it will pass away. ([M11],231).
Moreover, Rufus Jones wrote Eckhart teaches
. . . by a Divine birth the soul may rise to a mystical insight, which is above knowledge and which is union—an experience beyond subject-object. So only does the soul escape from the show-and-shadow world. He only can arrive at reality who can rise to the Ever-present Now in which all things are together. ([J03],232).
Rebirth imagery is common in mystical writings, as well as religious literature in general. Rebirth may refer, as it does here, to the final union with the Eternal, the last step of the path. Or it may symbolize the initial awakening, the first step on the path. Eckhart’s eternal birth is, of course, to be understood in the second sense. These words of Angelus Silesius, however, might apply to either birth:
Were Christ a thousand times
reborn in Bethlehem’s stall
and not in thee, thou still
art lost beyond recall. ([S13],20).
The ancient Greek language distinguished ([M07],975-6) four different types of love: epithemia, eros, philia, and agape. In contrast, English uses the single word “love” for essentially different things. Writes Huxley:
. . . love, unfortunately, stands for everything from what happens when, on the screen, two close-ups rapturously collide to . . . when a John Woolman or a Peter Claver feels a concern about Negro slaves, because they are temples of the Holy Spirit—from . . . when crowds shout and sing and wave flags . . . to . . . when a solitary contemplative becomes absorbed in the prayer of simple regard. ([H11],83).
Let’s examine a few types of love. First, there is the “love” of objects which please us, which give us pleasure. A child loves chocolate ice cream, a man loves to watch sports, a woman loves a dress. In this love, the thing is loved not for its own sake, but only for the pleasure it brings. Should the dress become torn or soiled, it’s discarded.
Second, there’s affection between people, the love found in friendship. This love also depends on pleasure; people usually become friends because they enjoy each other’s company or have common interest. Yet it doesn’t depend entirely on pleasure; sometimes friends argue and cause each other pain but remain friends nevertheless.
Third, there’s the love between parent and child, or between very close friends. This love depends even less on pleasure. It’s more self-sacrificing and can withstand much trial. A parent may care for a disabled or mental-disturbed child for years. A son or daughter may tend an elderly, senile parent who doesn’t even recognize them. In this love, someone may care more for the welfare of the other than for their own comfort or welfare. In an extreme case, they may even give their life for the sake of the other.
Erotic love can have elements of all three kinds of love. When it’s mostly the first kind of love, the kind based solely on pleasure, it’s more lust than love. In fact, many people wouldn’t call it love at all. For them, erotic “love” needs an element of friendship, at least, to be genuine love. Of course, erotic love may go beyond friendship and reach the closeness of the third type of love.
The lower forms of love are based on pleasure derived from the object or person. The higher forms of love are not, but are still based on the other person. That is, the other person is loved because of who they are. All people in general aren’t loved equally, regardless of their characteristics. Universal love is love which is independent of not only pleasure but person, too. It’s love which shines like the sun, on everyone, universally, depending upon nothing. It’s disinterested, not in that there’s no interest in the other person but in that nothing the other person is or does will diminish it. Huxley calls ([H11],81) disinterested love charity and writes:
. . . “charity” has come, in modern English, to be synonymous with “almsgiving,” and is almost never used in its original sense, as signifying the highest and most divine form of love. . . . [C]harity is disinterested, seeking no reward, nor allowing itself to be diminished by any return of evil . . . [S]ince charity is disinterested, it must of necessity be universal. ([H11],82-3).
The founder of a medieval religious order advocated such love when she recommended
[t]he sisters should not have particular friendships but should include all in their love for one another . . . ([B04],131).
How can someone develop charity, that is, universal, disinterested love? One method is to
. . . take the whole universe as the expression of the one Self. Then only our love flows to all beings and creatures in the world equally. ([P12],610).
That is, if we love the Eternal and if we see all persons as Its manifestations, then we’ll naturally love all people; we’ll love them for the Root which is their basis. How can we develop love of the eternal? By directly experiencing It, by gnosis. As Nicholson writes:
Gnosis and love are spiritually identical; they teach the same truths in different language. ([N11],101).
Many people who have none of the preceding goals wish to live according to God’s will. Often they try to obey the teachings and emulate the life of some religious founder or saint. This goal can lead to gnosis.
For example, Gotama’s direct experience of the “Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed” was what made him a Buddha.
Realization of . . . the Voidness, the Unbecome, the Unborn, the Unmade, the Unformed, implies Buddhahood, Perfect Enlightenment . . . ([T05],97).
Therefore, out of a desire to follow Buddha, a Buddhist might aspire to realization of the Eternal.
Similarly, Jesus spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven,” and the “Pearl of Great Price,” the possession of which was worth every earthy thing. These, I believe, were references to gnosis. Moreover, unitive gnosis, by uniting a mystic with the Perfect, allows them to fulfill the command of Jesus:
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Mt 5:48,[H08],996).
Spiritual teachers, however, often speak of God in personal terms; Jesus, for example, spoke of the Father. We may wonder if emulating or following the teachings of someone who taught or revealed a God who is a Person leads to gnosis.
We’ve seen Gods who are Persons are like blocks of ice in the infinite, eternal ocean of the Ultimate Ground of Existence, and moreover that only unitive knowledge of the Absolute in Its pure form is ultimate knowledge. Therefore, we might suppose following the teachings of Christ, Krishna, Mohammed, or some other spiritual teacher would eventually bring one to experience and knowledge of God. At first such experience and knowledge might be only of some God who is a Person. But since the Real underlies such a God, deep and intimate experience and knowledge of that God might naturally lead to the ultimate knowledge of Godhead, to That which manifests in the forms of Gods who are Persons. Therefore, the goal of practicing the teachings of some spiritual teacher, even if they teach a God who is a Person, may ultimately lead to gnosis.
We’ve examined various goals in this chapter, with emphasis on the goal of gnosis and various other goals which lead to it. The next chapter discusses various principles and values, ethics and morals which someone might adopt who has the goal of gnosis.