Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses the spiritual path, an idea that pre-supposes goals and values. Various types of actions and attitudes are explored.
There are many more attitudes and actions which seekers of gnosis value. So we’ll need a more detailed scheme than negative and affirmative way to discuss them, just as we needed a finer classification scheme than extrovert and introvert to discuss personal identity. This chapter uses the idea of path to place thoughts and actions into an overall scheme, to help organize some ideas we’ve already seen, and to introduce some new ones. It also discusses a few pitfalls on the road to gnosis.
A world view is a kind of map. It tells us who and where we are in relation to the world around us. And it shows us other places we could go, that is, it describes various goals we could work towards. The goals we choose express where we are going, or at least where we’d like to go.
A map also shows the intervening terrain. With a goal but no map, we might set out in the right direction, but encounter so many obstacles we turn back. But with a good map, we can intelligently choose a path which avoid pitfalls and obstacles.
Our values express the terrain we’d like to visit, and the terrain we’d like to avoid. Someone who values the affirmative way might choose a life in the normal world; someone who values the negative way might join a cloistered monastic community. Each would be taking a different path towards the same goal.
Paths appear in many religions. Christianity’s The Ladder of Divine Ascent ([C09]) for example describes a path back to God where each step on the path is like a rung on a ladder. And the Hindu sage Patanjali describes eight “limbs” of yoga:
(1) Abstention . . . (2) Devotion . . . (3) Posture . . . (4) Relaxation of Breathing . . . (5) Retraction of the Senses . . . (6) Fixation of Attention . . . (7) Fusive Apprehension . . . (8) Full Integration of Consciousness . . . ([Y01],94).
These limbs are actually milestones on the path. Abstention and devotion are moral practices, a list of do’s and don’ts. Posture, relaxation of breathing, retraction of the senses, and fixation of attention refer to meditative practices which lead to gnosis. The last two limbs correspond to different levels of gnosis, different types of knowledge of God.
In this chapter a path loosely based on the eightfold path of Buddha (refer, for example, [B07],74) will be useful. We’ll discuss right world views, right goals, right attitudes and acts in general, and right attitudes and acts specifically directed toward gnosis. These steps are similar to Buddha’s right views, aims, speech, action, livelihood, and effort. The next chapter continues with meditative exercises which lead to gnosis, and gnosis itself, steps similar to Buddha’s right mindfulness and right concentration.
The world view we’ve been developing is a “right view” in that it includes a “right goal,” a transcendental goal, the goal of gnosis. Other—sometimes vastly dissimilar—religious, philosophical, or metaphysical world views contain a similar goal. Since these systems contain a “right goal” we’ll call them each a “right view.” Of course, the systems don’t completely agree with each other and may contain errors. So, “right view” doesn’t necessarily mean a perfectly correct view, it means a world view which offers the goal of union with God.
For our purposes purely secular world views aren’t “right views.” Even though their rejection of superstition and ignorance may place them closer to objective truth and reality, they offer no right goal, no ideal of transcendence, no goal beyond the world of people and physical objects, emotions and thoughts. Science as it exists today isn’t a right view because it offers no goal beyond the physical, emotional, and intellectual spheres. If it had the goal of direct experience of the Eternal, however, it would become a right view.
Is a right view—a comprehensive world view which offers the goal of gnosis—necessary for an aspiring mystic? No. Sometimes, just having a right goal and a few associated beliefs are sufficient. For example, believing it’s possible to directly experience our Eternal Basis is enough to convince some people to undertake the arduous struggle for gnosis.
Most people, however, need some additional motivating beliefs. For example, believing that the world is soon to end has been a powerful motivation; based on it many people have eagerly sought That which will not pass away. We’ll discuss a few motivating beliefs. We’ll see some are sanely based on truth and insight; others are sane beliefs exaggerated to an unhealthy pitch; still others are unhealthy, or are based on falsehood and delusion.
Ideally, a right view should offer more than the goal of gnosis; it should offer some means of achieving it. Science unfortunately doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility of direct experience of or union with the Eternal, so it naturally offers no means of achieving gnosis, of transcending the physical, emotional, and intellectual spheres. Our world view offers a means of achieving gnosis, as do other world views. Right actions and right efforts constitute some of the means to gnosis.
A right action is an attitude adopted or an action performed for a goal other than gnosis which nonetheless contributes to, or at least doesn’t hinder, the journey toward gnosis. For example, we may work primarily to earn a livelihood but if our work helps our journey toward gnosis, then it’s right action. Right effort, on the other hand, is an act undertaken or an attitude adopted specifically to help our return to the Eternal. Examples of right effort include prayer, fasting, vigils, meditation, charity, humility, and compassion.
The distinction between right action and right effort is sometimes hard to apply since some actions may be performed either for their own sake, or for the sake of gnosis, or both. Someone can fast to lose weight, to purify the body, to deepen prayer or meditation, or for all those reasons. Many, if not most, situations and occurrences can be used to move towards gnosis. Almost daily, opportunities for patience, kindness, resignation, love of neighbor, etc. present themselves. In fact, the perfection of the affirmative way is to use everything as a stepping stone on the road to union with the One, to live one’s entire life as a prayer.
Because the distinction between right action and right effort can be troublesome, we’ll often discuss acts and attitudes without deciding whether they are primarily, or only partially, concerned with gnosis. That is, we won’t always decide whether something is a right effort, or a right action.
Let’s begin with attitudes towards inanimate entities, towards things and events.
How might an aspiring mystic regard things and events? What attitudes might they adopt towards these nouns and verbs of the external world?
Many religions teach a disillusioned view of the things to which we are so attached. “Disillusioned,” that is, in a positive sense.
To one who wishes to know the truth, disillusionment—losing illusions—is desirable. Conversely, someone who wants to avoid disillusionment seems to feel our illusions are a precious shield against a truth too horrible to behold.
A disillusioned view of component entities is easily derived from what we’ve already seen: they are “empty,” that is, they lack enduring substantial identity and fully real existence; they are transitory and have an existence dependent on certain conditions; and they lack the ability to satisfy us completely, that is, they contain an element of imperfection, of suffering. Moreover, since they contain equal yang and yin, they’re only apparently desirable or undesirable, not actually.
Yet some entities certainly seem very desirable. As an antidote to this desire, religious teachers often emphasize, sometimes quite strongly, the unalluring, yin aspects of component entities. Buddha, for example, said:
Body . . is impermanent. Feeling, perception, the activities . . . consciousness is impermanent. So . . . the well-taught . . . disciple is repelled by body, is repelled by feeling, by perception, by the activities. He is repelled by consciousness. Being repelled by it he lusts not for it: not lusting he is set free. ([B08],20).
He repeated the same statements replacing “impermanent” with “suffering” and “non-self.”
I find “is repelled by” a bit too strong and prefer “is detached from.” The original version seems to border on that exaggerated depreciation of and aversion to things which often passes for genuine disillusionment.
Genuine disillusionment is a dispassionate, detached attitude based on insight. It’s quite different from and often confused with another attitude which I’ll call “sour-grape disillusionment,” after a famous Aesop fable. In the tale, a fox wants some grapes hanging from a tree, but can’t jump high enough to reach them. After many attempts, he gives up and walks away in disgust and disappointment. “They’re probably sour anyway,” he decides.
Sour-grape disillusionment is based on disappointment rather than insight. The fox would still like to have the grapes, if he could. He depreciates them only because of disappointment. Genuine disillusionment, on the other hand, is based on insight. Once someone fully realizes the yin inherent in pleasurable things and the yang inherent in painful things, or once they fully desire the Eternal above all else, then they’ve lost interest in grapes, no matter how sweet.
People who adopt a sour-grape attitude toward the world still very much desire its pleasures, which for some reason seem out of reach. They depreciate the world only because of disappointment. Often, their disappointment arises from injuries, disasters, and calamities they’ve suffered or witnessed. For example, many Europeans who endured the horrors of the Bubonic plague adopted sour-grape disillusionment toward the world.
Another example is found in ([M02]) Russian Hesychasm. During the 14th and 15th centuries C.E. the Russian people faced a series of calamities. Perhaps as a result, many people held the
. . . conviction of the world and all that is found in it as seditious and evil. ([M02],27).
Religious writings echoed the theme.
The ascetical tracts certainly painted the world in its worst colours . . . ([M02],27).
There was another reason to depreciate the world then. Based on biblical prophecy it was widely held ([M02],26) throughout Russia the world would end in 1492.
That the world is evil and will soon end are two powerful reasons for giving it up. They led some Russians to adopt the monastic life, since
[w]ith their thoughts so often centred on the destruction of this present world, the monastic life held out special appeal as the best preparation for the Heavenly Jerusalem. ([M02],27).
The impending end of the world has been a popular religious belief, although obviously wrong. In the past, many religions preached the world would end soon. Early Christianity, of course, was partially based on this belief. Similarly,
[t]o Muhammad the Final Judgment seemed a near reality, and he constantly urged his followers to abstain from material pleasures in order to lay up treasure in Heaven. ([A08],26)
Some religious sects even today expect the world to end soon. I once saw a person carrying a poster which announced this belief. The poster cited a scriptural prophecy. It occurred to me the scriptural prophecy had been penned over two thousands years ago. I couldn’t understand why I should believe a “prophecy” that had been consistently wrong for over two thousand years.
Believing the sour-grape disillusioned view of the world and believing it’s going to end soon can powerfully motivate the search for gnosis, for That which is perfectly fulfilling and never ends. Moreover, the two beliefs naturally give rise to detachment from things. After all, if the world is evil and soon to end, then we’ll soon lose our possessions. So clinging to them is futile. And if the world is a dirty, evil place then there’s no use desiring anything in it.
Yet they are inferior motivations. First, they aren’t based on truth. At least, there is no reason to expect the world to end soon. Whether it’s a dirty, evil place anyone may decide for themselves. They are inferior too since when the world doesn’t end as scheduled, a believer may abandon the search for the Eternal and even decide all religious and mystical activities are worthless. A much superior motivation is the type of disillusionment based on accurate, deep insight into the actual nature of things.
An attitude akin to sour-grape disillusionment is fatalism, the view that everything is preordained and already fated, that effort is useless, for what shall happen shall happen. Fatalism says we are helpless pawns at the mercy of powers beyond our control, and must resign ourselves to the inevitable. Believing the world will soon end may encourage fatalism, since if the end of the world is preordained then perhaps all other occurrences are, too.
Is the future already determined? The movie we see at a theater certainly is; events are fixed before the film begins to run. Is the movie which is our life preordained as well? Is the future already immutably fixed? Or do we have free will; are we free to choose our actions?
These questions obviously concern predestination and free will, issues to which entire books have been devoted. In this book, I just assume we have free will. If we do, then value systems are useful as guides to action, and we can in fact choose our goals, actions, and attitudes. If we don’t, then value systems and goals are useless; we’ll perform whatever actions are predestined. But if we don’t have free will, then I can’t help assuming we do.
Predestination, by the way, isn’t the only position which denies free will. Another is presented in a book I read as a child, What is Man? by Samuel Clemens who wrote as Mark Twain. Clemens attempted to prove we are machines, incapable of making real choice, always choosing the path of least pain. In his view, the future wasn’t preordained, but the choice we’d make in any circumstances was.
Whether they believed in free will or predestination, many mystics recommended equanimity, an even-tempered, balanced acceptance of good and bad fortune. Equanimity can be based on the insight that both yang and yin aspects inhere in events, or on resignation to God’s will. In either case, it’s a help to gnosis. For it promotes a peaceful, calm state of mind detached from the world’s drama. Equanimity becomes unhealthy, however, when it turns into fatalism.
Things and events are part of the external world, part of what is often beyond our control. Our own physical, emotional, and intellectual actions, on the other hand, are usually under our control, at least partially. We’ll discuss them next.
Physical methods are methods which work with the body, for example, hatha yoga or asceticism. One ascetic practice many religions recommend, or even require, is fasting.
For Symeon there could be no serious prayer life without fasting. ([S26],31).
Fasting is said to deepen prayer and meditation, as well as purify and revitalize the body. The bibliography contains a few references ([C17], [P06], [R08]) on fasting. Many monastic traditions recommend not only occasional fasting, but a permanently restricted diet, as well as vigil, long hours of prayer, and other ascetic practices. Buddha, for example, said a monk should be
. . . moderate in eating. . . . should take food reflecting carefully, not for fun or indulgence or personal charm or beautification, but just enough for maintaining this body . . . ([B10],180).
The negative way uses asceticism to help detach Self from body. Asceticism also aims at a dying to self, a detachment of Self from self, the ego. At least one monastic author believes the two are related.
It is self-deception to think that we can eradicate our self-love without doing violence to our flesh, which is the favorite breeding ground of egoism. ([P09],232).
He believes ascetical practices are necessary (at least, for monks), since while they
. . . do not constitute perfection, . . . the experience of centuries has taught that they are an efficacious means to obtain it, and that it can scarcely be achieved without them. ([P09],232).
Of course, the body and ego may resist. Therefore asceticism can become ([P09],192) “ascetical combat.”
Asceticism’s ultimate aim is equanimity and indifference to pleasure and pain. Buddha listed some practical consequences of such equanimity and indifference when he described a monk as someone who is
. . . able to endure heat, cold, hunger, thirst, the touch of mosquitoes, gadflies, wind, sun and creeping things, abusive language and unwelcome modes of speech; he has grown to bear bodily feelings which . . . are painful, acute, sharp, severe, wretched, miserable, deadly. ([B10],182).
Equanimity can lead to gnosis since someone who sees the yin aspects of pleasurable things and the yang aspects of painful things sees “pleasurable” and “painful” things equally. They’re less enmeshed in dualistic vision and therefore closer to gnosis. Similarly, insensitivity to pleasure and pain means insensitivity to dualistic vision, which means some measure of release from duality. Such a person is closer to gnosis.
There’s a pitfall which sometimes traps the would-be ascetic. They allow their desire to discipline the body to turn into a hatred of the body. Shankara seemed to fall into this trap when he wrote the body is
. . . a bundle of bones held together by flesh. It is very dirty and full of filth. ([S11],57),
and, therefore, should be regarded as
. . . impure, as though it were an outcast. ([S11],75).
Similarly, while many early Christian saints of the Egyptian desert were models of holiness, some exhibited a “ascetical one-upmanship” that seemed very unhealthy. Therefore, St. Benedict warned his monks against
. . . an inhuman kind of asceticism which would destroy the very faculties that must be perfected. All ascetical practices are nothing more than means . . . ([P09],230).
Rather than ends in themselves, they are means to gnosis. Like St. Benedict, Buddha condemned the “self-tormentor.”
He is a plucker out of hair and beard . . . He remains standing and refuses a seat. . . . He is a “bed-of-thorns” man, he makes his bed on spikes. . . . He lives given to these practices which torment the body. ([B06],219).
Though fasting and asceticism play a role, in the affirmative way physical acts which affect other people are more common. Examples are humanitarian efforts which either alleviate suffering, such as the care of the sick or elderly and the feeding of the hungry, or help people in some other way, such as education or public service. Such efforts not only help the recipients, but help the giver become more concerned with others and less concerned with self, that is, to die to self. And if self-centeredness is the problem and Self-centeredness the cure, then whatever helps us become less egocentric is also a help to gnosis.
The affirmative way also offers a physical method which is the opposite of asceticism. This method, formalized in India under the name of “Tantra,” teaches that the world’s people and objects are to be loved and quite literally embraced, rather than rejected. It teaches one can rise above desire and reach gnosis through the fulfillment and satiation of desire. In particular, Tantra ([M15],40-1) teaches that sexual desires shouldn’t be suppressed, but indulged.
Move toward union with God while enjoying all sorts of pleasures along the way? Tantra sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Some mystics denounce the Tantric path as no path at all but an excuse for debauchery; others seem to grant it some measure of legitimacy by condemning it as a path which is extremely dangerous. Many of Rajneesh’s disciples ([M15],38-42) followed the path of Tantra; some of them probably wished they hadn’t.
There’s a phenomena which passes for asceticism though it’s not. Once some measure of union with the One has been achieved, the mystic may naturally transcend duality, and therefore be naturally insensitive to dualistic pairs.
Having . . . transcended the influence of the pairs of opposites, the Sage, free from desire, does not feel pleasure or pain in anything he experiences. (III,14,[A10],13).
At this point, the mystic isn’t ascetic. They aren’t resisting their natural inclinations, rather they are following them. But clear vision of the One has robbed the Two of its attraction, so their inclination is to be unattracted to component entities with relative existence. Similarly, they don’t have to help and love others to detach their Self from their self. Rather they have a natural regard for other people, who they see as embodiments of the One they love.
Physical methods also include the use of certain “mind-manifesting” substances, that is, of certain drugs. During the 1960s, these drugs were well-known and widely used in some circles. What wasn’t well-known, however, was that some people used the drugs to achieve mystical experiences.
Aldous Huxley observes
. . . it is a matter of historical record that most contemplatives worked systematically to modify their body chemistry, with a view to creating the internal conditions favorable to spiritual insight. ([H10],155).
Their methods included ascetic practices such as fasting, vigils, self-flagellation, continuous psalms, and breathing exercises. He thought certain drugs could bring about similar changes in body chemistry, and recommended ([H10],156) them over the older methods. In fact, Huxley himself experienced mystical insights under the influence of mescaline, a drug derived from the peyote cactus and used sacramentally in the religious services of some Native American tribes. The Doors of Perception contains a record of his mescaline experience.
The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss—for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to. ([H10],18).
Sat Chit Ananda is a Hindu phrase for the experience of Brahman, the God which is not a Person.
Can drugs really bring about direct knowledge of God?
The religious use of drugs (refer, for example, [F04] or [N05],v14,201) is ancient. Thousands of years ago, Hindu sages sang the praises of soma, Jews and Christians drank consecrated wine, and Aztecs used sacred psychedelic mushrooms which they called “flesh of the gods.” More recently, William James found nitrous oxide greatly stimulated his mystical consciousness. And philosopher Alan Watts had drug induced religious experiences which he described in The Joyous Cosmology. Watts seemed to experience the God which is not a Person.
. . . . I see . . . a face which reminds me of the Christos Pantocrator of Byzantine mosaics, and I feel that the angels are drawing back with wings over their faces in a motion of reverent dread. But the face dissolves. The pool of flame grows brighter and brighter, and I notice that the winged beings are drawing back with a gesture, not of dread, but of tenderness—for the flame knows no anger. Its warmth and radiance—“tongues of flame infolded”—are an efflorescence of love so endearing that I feel I have seen the heart of all hearts. ([W03],78).
Timothy Leary was another proponent of drug-aided religious experiences. While still a Harvard psychology professor, Leary
. . . ate seven of the so-called sacred mushrooms . . . During the next five hours, I was whirled through an experience which could be described in many extravagant metaphors but which was, above all and without question, the deepest religious experience of my life. . . . I have repeated this biochemical and (to me) sacramental ritual several hundred times . . . ([L04],13,4).
Leary also administered psychedelic drugs to others and studied their experiences. He found
[s]ubjects speak of participating in and merging with pure (i.e., content-free) energy, white light . . . ([L04],24).
He regarded such energy as God.
God does exist and is to me this energy process . . . ([L04],275).
And he believed psychedelic experience was best described in mystical terms.
[T]he panoramas and the levels that you get into with LSD are exactly those areas which men have called the confrontation of God. The LSD trip is the classic visionary-mystic voyage. ([L04],260).
Thus, much of Leary’s drug experience was religious, at least to him. Even R. Zaehner, who criticized mystical claims for drugs, recognized Leary believed LSD could bring about
. . . direct religious experience of the eternal being that pervades all that is ephemeral and transient. ([Z01],76).
Zaehner described this as experience of
Brahman. . . ‘boundless being’ . . . the base of all becoming. . . . It is this ‘principle of eternity’ rather than any personal God that the takers of psychedelic drugs claim to experience. ([Z01],43).
So Leary and others believed psychedelic drugs could help bring about direct experience of God, not of some God who is a Person, like Jesus or Krishna, but of the God which is not a Person.
Eventually Leary and some associates moved into a mansion, which they regarded as a religious community,
. . . a religious center. About 30 people are devoting their lives and energies to a full-time pursuit of the Divinity through the sacrament of LSD. ([L04],293).
One of the people who lived there, Richard Alpert, later known as Baba Ram Dass, describes his spiritual journey in ([A04]) Be Here Now. His book greatly influenced the spiritual journey of myself and many others.
Leary advocated using LSD to bring about mystical states of mind.
Drugs are the religion of the twenty-first century. Pursuing the religious life today without using psychedelic drugs is like studying astronomy with the naked eye . . . ([L04],44).
But some people felt Leary’s estimation of LSD was not entirely accurate.
. . . Huxley, Alan Watts, and others . . . in their various writings imposed upon the psychedelic experience essentially Eastern ideas and terminology which a great many persons then assumed to be the sole and accurate way of approaching and interpreting such experience. ([M05],260).
LSD and other psychedelic drugs enjoyed some popularity in the 1960-1970’s during the “Hippie” era partly due to the efforts of Huxley, Watts, Leary and Alpert. Many people found the drugs didn’t live up to their reputation as doorways to mystical experience. Psychedelic drugs induced all kinds of experience from beatific to hellish and anything in between.
What had gone wrong? An answer may lie in the drug experiences of the poet, Allen Ginsberg, who had a non-drug religious experience in 1948 reading a poem by the mystic William Blake, and spent 15 years vainly trying to recapture it with LSD. His efforts not only failed, but were counterproductive.
Ginsberg found that . . . self-programming could create formidable psychic tensions often resulting in awful bummers. ([L06],110).
On one trip, he
. . . felt faced by Death, my skull . . . rolling back and forth . . . as if in reproduction of the last physical move I make before settling into real death—got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered with snakes . . . I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe . . . ([B15],56).
Ginsberg eventually saw the attempt to control psychedelic trips was futile.
It’s just like somebody taking acid and wanting to have a God trip and straining to see God, and instead, naturally, seeing all sorts of diabolical machines coming up around him, seeing hells instead of heavens. So I finally conclude that the bum trip on acid as well as the bum trip on normal consciousness came from attempting to grasp, desiring a preconceived end . . . ([L06],112).
Therapists who used psychedelic drugs in their practice before 1966 while it was still legal seemed to have reached a similar conclusion. For they
. . . simply sought to help subjects relax and remain open to the experience without defining what was supposed to occur. ([L06],109)
But psychedelic drugs had induced religious experiences in Huxley, Watts, and Leary. How could the same drugs give such different experiences?
It was a well-known in the 1960’s that “set and setting” influenced the drug experience. “Set” referred to a person’s “mind set,” their basic attitudes, character traits, education, etc. “Setting” referred to their environment while under the drug’s influence. A night club could induce a very different experience than a beach. Huxley had a long-standing interest in spiritual matters, as witnessed by The Perennial Philosophy written over a decade before his mescaline experiments. Alan Watts had a masters in theology, a doctorate in divinity, and was a professional philosopher. I believe I once read Leary had considered the priesthood in his youth. That such people would have religious drug experiences is perhaps not too surprising.
And when they tried to describe their religious experiences, Eastern terminology would be a natural choice because Eastern religions have so much more to say about the God which is not a Person than Western religious thought. As Zaehner wrote of Leary:
Among the Eastern religions, then, he is drawn principally to the pantheism developed in ancient India by the authors of the Upanishads and to Taoism in China. In neither is God as a person relevant. ([Z01],73)
About 1964 Leary re-wrote the Tibetan Book of the Dead as The Psychedelic Experience ([L05]), an LSD tripping manual describing what was supposed to happen under the influence of LSD.
Leary now presented turning on as a process of initiation into a great brotherhood of free souls christened by the mind-blowing apprehension of the Clear Light during the peak of an acid trip. ([L06],109).
It’s one thing to say mystical experience, or any other kind of experience, may occur under the influence of a drug; it is quite another thing to say it is supposed to happen. Based on Leary’s writings, many people took psychedelic drugs to gain spiritual insights. The result seems to have been a repetition of Ginsberg’s experience on a much larger scale.
It is as if (Leary) . . . polluted the stream at its source and gave half the kids in psychedelic society a bad set to start out with. Almost every acidhead I talked to for years afterwards told me he had, as a novice, used The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a “guide”—and every one of them reported unnecessary anxiety, colossal bummers, disillusionment, and eventual frustration and exasperation, for which, in most cases, they blamed themselves, not Tim or the book. ([K04],29).
There’s an historical analogue to the story of psychedelic drugs and mystical experience. The ancient world had beer and wine but no “hard” liquor. When the distillation process was discovered about 1,000 years ago, some people were certain the thousand years of peace and plenty foretold in the Bible (Rev 20:1-7) when Christ would reign over the earth had arrived.
Now let’s turn to right actions and efforts which concern the emotions.
Because the negative way seeks to reduce an Awareness’s attachment to emotions, it places restrictions on social interaction. For example, some Christian monks are advised against ([P09],197) excessive talking, a habit which has been found to interfere with meditation, contemplation, and prayer. Similarly, Teresa recommended that
[a]s much as they can, the sisters should avoid a great deal of conversation with relatives . . . ([B04],129)
. . they will find it difficult to avoid talking to them about worldly things. ([B04],129).
And Buddha recommended the monk turn away from talk
. . . which is low, of the village, of the ordinary folk, . . . not connected with the goal, which does not conduce to . . . detachment nor to . . . calm nor to super-knowledge nor to self-awakening . . . ([B10],156-7),
more specifically, talk about ([B10],157) thieves, great ministers, armies, battles, food, drink, clothes, relations, vehicles, towns, women, men, and streets. He recommended, instead, talk which is
. . . austere, . . . which conduces to . . . detachment, stopping, calm, super-knowledge, self awakening . . . ([B10],157).
Eliminating excessive talking is but one example of the withdrawal from society the negative way often involves. Some Christian monks are also advised against ([P09],237) pursuing friendships and associations with secular people. And, of course, cloistered and hermetical monks withdraw from society entirely.
Sometimes, the seeker finds social withdrawal difficult, especially from family. Teresa, for example,
. . . recognized that for many the most difficult aspect of “detachment” . . . involved severing ties with family members. ([B04],128).
On the other hand, sometimes withdrawal is easy, even desperately desired. For at one point along the path, a seeker with an intense love of God may
. . . desire to shun like poison his wife and children and other relations, worldly connection with whom deflects him from the divine Lord; ([S01],366).
Ramakrishna once had this state of mind.
I could not then bear the very atmosphere of worldly people, and felt when in the company of relatives, as if my breath would stop and the soul leave the body. ([S01],366).
And perhaps Jesus referred to this state when he said:
If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life, also, he cannot be my disciple. (Mk 14:26,[H08]).
The companionship of the opposite sex is another area where social withdrawal can be difficult. Since the affective and sex drives are so strong, someone pursuing the negative way may have difficulty giving them up. Drastic means, therefore, are often advised. Ramakrishna, for example, taught ([G03],874) a male monk should keep his distance from women, shouldn’t talk to one, and shouldn’t even look at picture of one. He also taught a man could conquer passion and lust ([G03],601,701) by “assuming the attitude of a woman”. He himself, at one point, dressed like a woman! And some hesychast monks were taught to avoid, not only the sight of women, but ([M02],90) “youthful, beardless, and effeminate faces,” as well.
Reduced involvement with emotions and withdrawal from society may seem less than loving. Ideally, however, they’re motivated by love for the Eternal, rather than hatred of people. Ideally, they’re based on insight, not on a negative view of people. A few pitfalls are probably obvious.
One pitfall is when involvement with emotions remains, but negative emotions replace positive ones. Underhill describes a mystic who viewed
. . . with almost murderous satisfaction the deaths of relatives who were “impediments.” ([U01],216).
Hating, as much as loving, still involves the hater in duality. There’s still emotional involvement. And moving from a loving concern of relatives to hatred can hardly be considered a step towards gnosis. To avoid this pitfall, a path would lead from the loving concern of the affirmative way to a transcendent indifference of the negative way, around, not through, the pitfall of hatred and aversion.
Another pitfall is when other people are seen as evil, and derided, scorned, or shunned. Underhill describes a mystic whose idea of chastity included ([U01],216) shutting “himself in a cupboard for fear he should see his mother pass by”. If avoiding the opposite sex is to remain healthy, it should be understood that the danger is one’s own lust, not the other person. To a man who wishes to practice celibacy, a woman, particular a beautiful woman, is certainly a hindrance. But to her, he may be a similar hindrance.
So the hindrance is not the other person but lust. Why? Lust, along with anger, envy, hatred, and other acknowledged vices, make entities with only relative existence seem quite real. Vices enmesh us more in the drama; this, in fact, is what makes them vices. So, a person’s attitude becomes unhealthy when they see another person, rather than their own anger, lust, envy, hatred, greed, etc., as the problem. This attitude is similar to sour-grape disillusionment; it’s based on an overly negative view of other people rather than insight.
A healthy attitude may be easier to maintain in a help/hindrance system. A good/evil system, on the other hand, seems more liable to promote unhealthy attitudes. If I’m trying to be good and find someone else an impediment, then it’s natural to feel that they must be evil. After all, if something is good, its opposite is evil. If I am of one gender and those of my gender are good, so this thinking goes, then those of the other gender must be evil; if my race is good then other races must be evil.
Since the affirmative way doesn’t deny them but employs the emotions in the journey to gnosis, often directing them toward some God who is a Person, it’s less likely to lead to emotional pitfalls, in particular unhealthy attitudes toward other people. Since its followers are often motivated by love of some God who is a Person, their attitudes tend to be healthier. In Christianity, for example, one is encouraged to live a virtuous life for the sake of Jesus who died for us. Love of Jesus is supposed to promote love of people in general.
However, the love of God can lead to the pitfall of hatred of those who don’t worship the same God, or who worship in a different way. Certainly, religion has motivated many wars, although political and economic factors often contributed too.
Or such love may create a self-righteousness toward those who are not on as good terms with God as one supposes themselves to be. Or it may lead to a neglect of others. For doesn’t every expensive religious meeting place and every gold religious object represent money which could have been better spent relieving hunger, disease, pain, and suffering?
Studying philosophy, metaphysics, or theology are intellectual acts which can help bring about experience of the Absolute. If the study is primarily undertaken to bring one closer to gnosis, then it’s right effort. On the other hand, if the study is directed toward purely intellectual enlightenment, or to winning academic position or honors, then it’s only right action. In either case, understanding the nature of things, ourselves and the world around us, can motivate a search for the Eternal.
Moreover, some groups see a lack of true understanding of ourselves and the world around us as the main cause of suffering. In this view, we need to overcome not sin but ignorance “of the way things are.” Buddha, for example, declared:
If ye could see things as they are, not as they appear, ye would no longer inflict injuries and pain on your own selves. ([C04],200).
And Buddhadasa declares ([B13],111) suffering is the result of acting inappropriately which in turn is the result of not understanding the “true nature” of things.
. . . [W]e are ignorant of the true nature of things; thus our behavior results in suffering. Buddhist practice is designed to teach us how things really are. ([B13],111)
Therefore it’s designed to eliminate suffering as well.
Some ancient, non-orthodox Christians called “Gnostics” also
. . . insisted that ignorance, not sin, is what involves a person in suffering. . . . Both gnosticism and psychotherapy value, above all, knowledge—the self-knowledge which is insight. . . . [L]acking this, a person experiences the sense of being driven by impulses he does not understand. ([P01],149).
Of course, understanding presupposes a capable mind. Buddhists believe deep insight and understanding of the true nature of things comes easier to the calmed and controlled mind. Conversely, a turbulent mind and short attention span hinder understanding and insight. Television has been criticized for promoting a fickle, uncontrolled mind, incapable of sustained concentration. I don’t know if Buddhist monks are advised against it, but at least one Christian spiritual director warns his monks that too much television, newspapers, magazines, and radio can ([P09],237) “deaden their sense of the supernatural.” He also advises the curbing of indiscriminate intellectual curiosity and recommends instead a ([P09],237) “careful selection of worthwhile objects of knowledge.”
Intellectual discrimination should avoid the pitfall of overly depreciating learning and curiosity. For if curbing is taken to an extreme, then all secular learning may be scorned. As a result, the study of arts and sciences will probably decline. Since a scientific religion is a science as well as a religion, it would probably not thrive in an environment hostile to other sciences. In contrast, traditional religion may flourish in such an environment. It may even promote it. Dampier writes ([D01],65) that early Christians little valued secular learning for it own sake. In time,
Christian thought became antagonistic to secular learning, identifying it with the heathenism which Christians had set out to conquer. . . . [I]gnorance was exalted as a virtue. ([D01],65).
Perhaps as a result, Europe eventually lost much of its knowledge. During those “Dark Ages,” the Christian religion peaked in power and prestige. And Thomas Kempis, fourteen hundred years into the Christian era, could write in an otherwise highly valuable Christian book
. . . there are many matters, knowledge of which brings little or no advantage to the soul. Indeed, a man is unwise if he occupies himself with any things save those that further his salvation. . . . Of what value are lengthy controversies on deep and obscure matters, when it is not by our knowledge of such things that we shall at length be judged? . . . [W]hat concern to us are such things as genera and species? ([K03],29-30).
Someone has a detached attitude toward things because they believe the world is soon to end; another, because they seek detachment from things with relative existence, and attachment to the Real. Someone avoids society out of hatred for other people; another to pursue the negative way in solitude. Someone practices celibacy because they believe the other sex, or sexuality itself, is inherently evil, a doorway to hell; another, because they find celibacy a help to union with the One. Someone practices asceticism because they believe the world of matter, of body and things, evil; another, because they seek release from the drama. In each case, the action is similar, but the attitude is quite different.
Excessive and erroneous beliefs can motivate actions and efforts helpful to union with the One. But anyone seeking the truth should, it seems, avoid them as a matter of principle. Moreover, even though they offer short-term gain, they may also entail long term loss. When the world fails to end as predicted, for example, the believer may lose faith entirely, in all things religious or spiritual.
Yet, might not excessive or erroneous beliefs be better than nothing? Is it better to tread the spiritual path motivated by delusion than to live content, exclusively in the world of relative existence, lacking any goal beyond the physical, emotional and intellectual? I’ve met many people who apparently think it is. For they practice a religion half-heartedly. “You need something,” they say. Or “Kids need something.” It seems that a spiritual path followed under delusion or with skepticism is widely preferred to the natural world seen clearly.
Yet there is another alternative. Someone may practice helps to gnosis because one finds them appealing, because they are naturally drawn to them. Moreover, this is clearly the very best motivation.
That mystics have embraced practices such as silence, solitude, fasting, or chastity may seem odd, unnatural, even perverse. That they have eagerly embraced such practices—passionately desiring to achieve passionlessness, becoming deeply attached to unattachment—may seem entirely unbelievable. (And paradoxical, as well. The paradox is acknowledged by the mystics themselves who explain with analogies such as “a thorn is used to remove another thorn, then both are thrown away” or “a boat is used to cross the river, then the boat is abandoned.” Said Ramakrishna, “If you must desire, desire God.”)
Mystics often actively seek out apparently “unnatural” and “disagreeable” attitudes and activities. Why?
What’s unnatural for one person may be natural for another. Consider the following illustration. “Tom”, an 8 year-old boy, has a 12 year-old brother, “Frank.” Tom has recently noticed some peculiar changes in Frank. Formerly, Frank, like Tom, saw girls as mostly a nuisance. Tom and Frank once shared a mutual disgust of “icky” movie love scenes. Now Frank’s eyes glaze over at such scenes. Frank walks Nancy home from school every day and even carries her books.
Tom doesn’t understand what’s happening to Frank; he hopes it’s not contagious. What’s happening, of course, is puberty. It happens to almost everyone. And it’s not contagious even if you wish it was.
Suppose Tom wanted to be just like his big brother. Suppose he tried to make his eyes glaze at movie love scenes. Suppose he walked little Sue home every day, and forced himself to talk to her an hour each night on the phone, just like Frank talks to Nancy.
It wouldn’t work, of course. Aping the actions of someone undergoing puberty wouldn’t change Tom a bit. He just can’t feel it yet. As Ramakrishna said:
One cannot explain the vision of God to others. One cannot explain conjugal happiness to a child five years old. ([P12],628).
Let’s suppose, however, that puberty only happened to a few people; suppose it could happen at any age; suppose it was contagious, that it could be caught either from someone who had it, or by merely adopting appropriate attitudes and values; and suppose once you had it you could loose it if it wasn’t nurtured. Then puberty would have much in common with spiritual awakening.
Until the first birth into spiritual life, many things the mystics said and did, many of their attitudes toward God, themselves, and the world, are as mysterious to us as Frank’s actions are to Tom. During our first awakening, however,
. . . the eye is opened on Eternity; the self, abruptly made aware of Reality, comes forth from the cave of illusion like a child from the womb and begins to live upon the supersensual plane. Then she feels in her inmost part a new presence, a new consciousness—it were hardly an exaggeration to say a new Person . . . ([U01],123).
The second eye is opened of which Angelus Silesius wrote:
Man has two eyes.
One only sees what moves in fleeting time,
what is eternal and divine. ([B05],43).
Curiously, it’s not uncommon for someone undergoing spiritual awakening to experience very advanced mystical states for a while. It’s as if novice piano students often played like a master during their first few weeks of lessons, but later reverted to a beginner’s level.
After awakening, the spiritual sight of the newly awakened, would-be mystic is
. . . weak, demanding nurture, clearly destined to pass through many phases of development before its maturity is reached . . . ([U01],123).
The mystic stands at the beginning of the path to God.
We’ve seen making gnosis, direct experience of Reality, a goal implies certain values. These values, in turn, imply a path. And someone seriously wanting such experience will order their lives accordingly. Yet, “path” and similar concepts such as “way,” and “method” shouldn’t be taken too literally. We’ve already seen practicing religion can’t guarantee gnosis. Indeed, nothing we can do can compel gnosis. For experience of the Unconditioned is itself not conditioned, not obtainable through so many prayers or so many fasts, much less through taking a drug. It seems to happen freely, unforced. The experience is obtained only as a free gift.
Nonetheless, many things promote experience of the Eternal. These things are like knocking at a locked door. The knocking doesn’t, in and of itself, unlock and open the door. It does, however, show we want the door opened. Until we knock, there is no reason for anyone to open the door.
Until someone opens the door, we can only repeat our knocking—and wait. Often aspirants have had to knock for quite a long time before the door opened. Some, no doubt, gave up, deciding there was no one behind the door, that the door would never open. Yet, as we’ve seen, experience of the Eternal is possible, and, moreover, is experience of our very Self. This being the case, why should such experience be difficult to obtain?
We previously saw Alan Watts’ mythological, Vedantist description of creation. Here’s his answer, also expressed in the form of myth.
Now when God plays hide and pretends that he is you and I, he does it so well that it takes him a long time to remember where and how he hid himself. But that’s the whole fun of it—just what he wanted to do. He doesn’t want to find himself too quickly, for that would spoil the game. That is why it is so difficult for you and me to find out that we are God in disguise, pretending not to be himself. ([W02],14).