Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses the goal of spiritual paths: union with God. Various meditative methods that lead to such union are also discussed. Then, union itself and its consequences are explored.
Right views, goals, actions, and efforts eventually lead to what Buddhist’s call right mindfulness and right concentration. For us, right mindfulness will mean certain mental states conducive to gnosis. And right concentration will indicate first-hand experience of or union with the Eternal—gnosis.
The process of achieving right mindfulness or right concentration is variously called contemplation or meditation since “meditation” and “contemplation” have opposite meanings in East and West.
In the West, “contemplation” refers to gnosis, to right concentration. For example, in Western Mysticism Edward Butler writes:
Contemplation at its highest limit is identical with the mystical experience, and involves . . . an experimental perception of God’s Being and Presence. ([B17],213).
“Meditation” refers to some sort of mental activity, for example reflecting on a biblical incident, a theological concept, or a doctrinal statement. (See [P09],421 for an example of this use of “meditation.”) It’s meant to lead to contemplation.
In Eastern religious literature, the terms are reversed. “Meditation” refers to experiential perception of God, while “contemplation” means mental reflection. Basil Pennington, a Roman Catholic monk, describes ([P11],29) this confusing situation and decided to use “centering prayer” or simply “centering” for what’s called “meditation” in the West and “contemplation” in the East.
The term “centering” is quite compatible with our world view since experience of the Ultimate Ground of Existence is also experience of the Center. The term “centering prayer,” however, is less general since prayer is religious. A secular person could think of drawing closer to the Center as a metaphysical, philosophical, but entirely non-religious process. For such a person, there’s nothing inherently religious about consciousness becoming aware of itself (not “Itself” since they don’t identify consciousness and deity). Similarly, a scientist might maintain becoming more directly aware of energy (again, not “Energy”) is entirely secular. For such individuals, “centering” is the appropriate term. Yet, centering can be religious, and religions have often acknowledged its value.
So, for some people, “centering prayer” is the more appropriate term. And for others, “centering meditation” is better. And for still others “centering” is preferable. I’ll generally use “centering” to indicate all three. So “centering” indicates right mindfulness, a mostly mental process which seeks to promote experiential perception of what can be viewed religiously as God, or non-religiously as our own true Self.
Centering seeks to still the thoughts, emotions, and senses that so often occupy our Consciousness so that Awareness may become aware of Itself. The Christian saint Albert the Great described centering when he wrote:
When St. John says that God is a Spirit, and that He must be worshiped in spirit, he means that the mind must be cleared of all images. When thou prayest, shut thy door—that is, the doors of thy senses. Keep them barred and bolted against all phantasms and images. Nothing pleases God more than a mind free from all occupations and distractions. Such a mind is in a manner transformed into God, for it can think of nothing and love nothing, except God; other creatures and itself it only sees in God. He who penetrates into himself, and so transcends himself, ascents truly to God. . . . Leave thy body and fix thy gaze on the uncreated Light. Let nothing come between thee and God. ([J03],219).
How to still the body? In normal circumstances it’s helpful if the body is fit. Aches and pains demand attention and capture awareness. So one aim of Hatha yoga is a fitness which prepares the body for centering. Of course, other types of exercise would also serve this purpose. If the body is fit, then sitting still and quiet in a comfortable position should allow awareness of the body to lessen.
Yet aches and pains can be a powerful motivation for lessening body awareness. Someone with an ill body might find it harder to lose awareness of body, but be much more motivated to do so.
How to still the emotions? Roman Catholicism defines ([N09],42) the “seven deadly sins” or “capital sins” as pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Gluttony and sloth keep us aware of the body; the others, the emotions. So one task is to reduce the pride, covetousness, lust, anger, and envy which may surface in centering. Resolving such emotions is not only good psychologically but aids centering. How can we reduce them? That’s one of the aims and results of a moral life. That’s why moral virtues are one of the first steps of the path.
Another task is reducing positive emotions which may surface in centering. Love of spouse or child, for example, should be put temporarily aside for a higher love, love of God. Later we’ll see how Ramakrishna found even the love of a God who was a Person a barrier to the highest level of centering.
If the body and emotions are quiet, then all remaining is to quiet the thoughts. The work of preparing the body and emotions are done in daily life. Although the work of controlling the mind can occur in daily life, too, it’s usually done during centering. Therefore, the main goal of centering is often viewed as quieting the mind so that various levels of gnosis become accessible.
Many books describe centering exercises. For example, The Relaxation Response ([B02]), written by an M.D., explains the health benefits of centering and describes, among other techniques, the technique ([B02],162-3) of “breathing mindfulness.”
Breathing mindfulness is a common centering exercise which may be used for religious or non-religious purposes. It seems of Buddhist origin, and Buddha recommended it highly. For example, in the Anapanasatissuta (the “discourse on mindfulness when breathing in and out”), he says
[m]indfulness of in-breathing and out-breathing, monks, if developed and made much of, is of great fruit, of great advantage. ([B10],124).
He described it as follows. A person
. . . sits down cross-legged, holding his back erect, arousing mindfulness in front of him. Mindfully he breathes in, mindfully he breathes out. ([B10],124).
Forms of breathing mindfulness appear in many religions. The Jewish Shneur Zalman, for example, believed
. . . God’s invisibility to be an illusion wrought by man’s ignorance. ([E04],132)
and therefore thought the
. . . best means for breaking the spell was consciously to motivate his soul by means of the breath . . . Only sustained contemplation could awaken the divine intelligence that resides in every soul. ([E04],132-3).
One type of breathing mindfulness is as follows. Sit in a quiet place and turn your attention to your breathing. Concentrate exclusively on your breaths. Count them, either on the inhalation or the exhalation. Or count both, the inhalation as one, the exhalation as two, etc. If you find yourself thinking of anything but your breath, go back to one. If you reach ten, also go back to one. Continue.
Surprisingly, breathing mindfulness, as well as other forms of centering, can give a mild form of ecstasy. The mind can find rapt attention on one fixed focus peaceful and soothing. Of course, this procedure can also be extremely boring, especially to a mind accustomed to frequent stimulation, particularly of the kind offered by television. Someone with a short attention span might find breathing mindfulness very difficult or even impossible. If they persevere, however, concentration and attention span increase.
A Quaker publication first describes the centering process:
. . . [S]ilence is not an end in itself but a way toward worship. . . . In the normal course of everyday life the mind is filled with flotsam from external stimuli. This must be calmly put aside . . . [W]orries . . . should not stand in the way of submerging your individual self in the one eternal Self. ([P08],21),
and then describes the usefulness of mantra:
The way to this union is through prayer. Some Friends use a short and oft-repeated prayer or a mantra as an aid to concentration. ([P08],21).
Concentrating on the breath can be difficult, especially at first. The breath is subtle and content free; the mind may demand something it can more easily grasp, something more definite. Therefore, a meaningful word or phrase is sometimes used as the focus instead of, or along with, the breath. If the word or phrase is “ah,” “peace,” or even “wealth, power, and fame” then the centering is non-religious.
Often, however, the phrase is specifically religious. In the Hindu religious tradition it’s called a “mantra”, and beads similar to the Catholic rosary are used to count repetitions. The Eastern Orthodox Hesychastic tradition uses the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”—often synchronized with the breath or heartbeat. (A good introduction to this method is given in [W04].) Hesychastic monks incessantly repeat this phrase, seeking to fulfill the recommendation of Jesus “that men ought to always pray” (Lk 18:1,[H08]) and Paul to “Pray without ceasing.” (1Thes 5:17,[H08]). In fact, in Christianity
[t]he ideal of the first monks was to carry on incessant prayer. ([P09],386).
Pennington notices ([P11],33) similarities in the dhikr centering method of Islam’s Sufis, the Buddhist nembutsu method, and the Jesus Prayer. He also says centering was the principal kind of prayer in Western Christianity ([P11],29) for a thousand years, until about the 14th century. Then, vocal liturgical prayers became dominant. Liturgical prayers are closer to what most people think of as prayer. In Teresa’s time, academic theologians ([B04],142) favored vocal prayer and opposed her insistence ([B04],144) on “mental prayer,” i.e., centering. Such theologians, however, were themselves opposed by ([B04],143) “people who disdained technical theology as dry and detached from the spirit of religion” and by ([B04],142) “people who exalted the knowledge gained through direct religious experience and prayer.”
In centering, one aims for the direct experience of one’s own Awareness. As such, centering’s focus is inward. Awareness is intentionally directed away from the external universe. Indeed, centering, by its very name, implies coming closer to something which is immanent.
In contrast, one might aim for direct experience of the Ground of the external universe. Here, the focus is outward. Awareness is directed to the external world. Of course, we already experience the external universe, but we don’t usually experience its transcendental Basis. Such experience is the object of merging.
How is merging practiced? Someone begins by seeking the transcendental Basis of some particular external object. Underhill describes how this might be done. First, the object is chosen. It
. . . may be almost anything we please: a picture, a statue, at tree, a distant hillside, a growing plant . . . ([U01],301).
Next, we are asked to
[l]ook . . . at this thing which you have chosen. Wilfully yet tranquilly refuse the messages which countless other aspects of the world are sending; and so concentrate your whole attention on this one act of loving sight that all other objects are excluded from the conscious field. Do not think, but as it were pour out your personality towards it: let your soul be in your eyes. Almost at once, this new method of perception will reveal unsuspected qualities in the external world. First, you will perceive about you a strange and deepening quietness . . . Next, you will become aware of a heightened significance, an intensified existence in the thing at which you look. . . . It seems as though the barrier between its life and your own, between subject and object, had melted away. You are merged with it, in an act of true communion: and you know the secret of its being deeply and unforgettably, yet in a way which you can never hope to express. ([U01],301-2).
Teresa may have practiced such merging, for she writes she
. . . found gazing at fields, water, or flowers a great help, for they spoke to me of the Creator, and served as a book in bringing me to a state of Recollection. . . . I used at times to feel . . . the presence of God . . . ([C10],42-3).
Merging may lead to illumination, one of the first and most common forms of gnosis. At this stage, the world is lit up; the mystic perceives a glow and knows it is of God. For such a mystic,
[n]othing appears to him any longer as purely profane. . . Creatures . . . become sacraments which proclaim the presence of God everywhere . . . ([P09],425).
In fact, such experience may be an unrecognized, first-hand experience of the Uncreated Light. Illumination is like seeing a glow but not recognizing the fire from which it comes. However, if recognition is present, if not only the glow, but the fire itself is seen, then we have first-hand experience.
In addition to helping achieving right concentration, centering and merging have other benefits. Let’s begin with an analogy.
Many tasks require a steady hand; if a person’s hand is unsteady and always shakes, that person can’t do calligraphy, sculpture, and surgery is certainly out of the question. A steady hand, a hand which can be held fixed on one point at will, is prerequisite to these activities and others.
Many people have a steady hand, but an unsteady mind; they can’t concentrate steadily at will. True, their mind is sometimes concentrated when something grabs their interest, a thrilling novel or show, perhaps. But they can’t steady and concentrate their mind where and when they please.
But just as a person might develop a steady hand by practicing holding it fixed, a person may developed a more steady, concentrated, “one-pointed” mind by practicing holding it fixed on some object of centering or merging.
Not only is a quiet and controlled mind a help for various activities, it can also reduce suffering.
Imagine a young child, a boy of six, whose parents take him to a physician to be vaccinated. They don’t mention the vaccination needle. After an examination, the physician quickly rolls up the little boy’s sleeve and gives the shot. The boy yells and starts to cry, but soon, with his parent’s encouragement and perhaps some candy, he feels better. He’s suffered a brief sharp pain and a few minutes soreness.
Now imagine instead the boy is brought to the physician’s office, and shown the needle he’ll receive the next day. Perhaps he sees another child vaccinated. At home, he can’t eat and has trouble going to sleep. The following morning he feels terrible. He cries and begs his parents not to take him to the physician. The ride to the office isn’t pleasant for him or his parents. When it’s over his parents, as before, give him words of encouragement and candy.
The little boy has suffered much more than in the first scenario. For twenty-four hours, his thoughts and emotions have given him much torment and little peace.
Imagine now an ability rare for adults and even rarer in children—the ability to control the mind and heart. If the little boy had this ability, he would have been able to put the thought of the needle out of his mind for twenty-four hours. He would still have had to experience the pain of the first scenario, but would have saved himself from the added torture, the worry and fear, of the second. The ability to control his thoughts and emotions would have saved him from pain. Even an imperfect, limited ability to partially control his thoughts and emotions would have saved him from some pain.
So, control of thoughts and emotions can reduce pain, while uncontrolled thoughts and emotions (worry, fear, etc.) may themselves cause us much pain. In fact, much if not most of the pain people in advanced countries suffer—people who have enough to eat, sufficient clothing and housing—is this type of pain. Controlled thoughts and emotions could greatly reduce it.
It’s easy to feel such control is not within the reach of the normal person. Yet the normal person clearly has the potential. It’s not uncommon to cut yourself while playing a sport, basketball or soccer for example, but not realize it until you notice the blood. Your intense concentration on the game made you insensitive to the moment’s pain. If we could produce such intense concentration at will, might we not be able to lessen pain?
It’s interesting, by the way, that religious beliefs such as “God always provides” have effects similar to those obtainable with control of thoughts and feelings. The beliefs give some measure of control over thought and emotion, since genuine belief in Divine Providence banishes worrisome regard for the future. Also, religious forgiveness and atonement provide a powerful antidote to regret and worry over the past. Thus, some religious beliefs produce results similar to centering or merging practice: they effectively limiting negative, useless, painful thoughts and emotions. (Of course, religion sometimes promotes negative, useless thoughts and emotions, too.)
Ideally, a quiet body, emotions, and mind lead to gnosis. Unfortunately, they can lead to pitfalls instead. Rolt writes:
There is a higher merging of the self and a lower merging of it. The one is above the level of personality, the other beneath it; the one is religious the other hedonistic; the one results from spiritual concentrations and the other from spiritual dissipation. ([D08],34).
Underhill describes the lower merging as a ([U01],322) “half-hypnotic state of passivity”, a “meaningless state of ‘absorption in nothing at all’”, and ([U01],324) “vacant placidity”. She associates these evils with “Quietism.”
Quietism, a unbalanced mystical theory which appeared three to four hundred years ago in Europe, overemphasized (refer [U01],471-2) the passive nature of centering and merging and carried it over into all aspects of life. In Quietism, it seems, a quiet body, heart, and mind lead to a Consciousness aware of nothing at all. Of such quietness Ruysbroeck wrote:
Such quietude . . . is nought else but idleness, into which a man has fallen, and in which he forgets himself and God and all things in all that has to do with activity. This repose is wholly contrary to the supernatural repose one possesses in God; for that is a loving self-mergence and simple gazing at the Incomprehensible Brightness . . . ([U01],322).
Quietism was suppressed, perhaps overly so since the effort, writes Huxley, resulted not only in its elimination but also ([H11],66) “to all intents and purposes the extinction of mysticism for the better part of two centuries” in Europe.
So how can a quiet body, emotions, and mind lead to gnosis? We’ve seen the Real is immanent in the world, yet transcends it. Therefore, some mystics experience the God Which is not a Person immanently, as their very own, true and deepest Self, while other mystics experience It transcendently, as external to, and different from, their own self or selves. Gnosis may be experience of That which is immanent or That which is transcendental. Since we’ve identified Consciousness with the Eternal, we’ll describe right concentration, gnosis, mostly in terms of immanence. We’ll present it primarily as an immanent, inward experience where Consciousness becomes aware of Itself.
Usually, Consciousness is aware of something external to Itself, of body, emotion, or thought, all entities with only relative existence. Imagine someone with a large measure of detachment from thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations who is sitting still in a quiet place. Their senses are unstimulated, so their bodily awareness is minimal. Their emotions, too, are still; they’re at peace, neither loving or hating. Their mind is calm and quiet, with little or no thought. Moreover, though the practice of humility and selfless action they’ve turned away from their relative selves. What remains for their Consciousness to be aware of?
For a Consciousness aware of only Itself there’s no duality. It has temporarily become unconscious of the body, heart, and mind. It knows only Itself. The triad of knower, knowing, known disappear since Consciousness is all three. A Consciousness aware of only Itself has escaped from duality and ceased to be aware of entities with only relative existence. Such an Awareness is in a self-referential state. Self-referential states and processes naturally lead to infinity, physically, mathematically, and logically.
An example of a physically self-referential state or process occurs when an audio speaker’s output is (usually inadvertently) fed back into a microphone. A feedback loop is established where output becomes input becomes output, etc.—each time passing through the amplifier and getting louder. If the amplifier’s electronics allowed, this self-referential physical process would eventually produce infinite volume. Instead, the amplifier quickly reaches the limits of its electronics. The resulting, high-pitched squeal is familiar to anyone who has ever set up a music or public address sound system.
Self-referential processes also lead to infinity logically. As Rudy Rucker writes in Infinity and the Mind:
The philosopher Josiah Royce maintained that a person’s mental image of his own mind must be infinite. His reason is that one’s image of one’s own mind is itself an item present in the mind. So the image includes an image that includes an image, and so on . . . The old can of Pet Milk, for instance, bore a picture of a can of Pet Milk, which bore a picture of a can of Pet Milk, etc. ([R06],38).
As another example: We said long ago that when a knower transcends the triad of knower, knowing, and known, when they merge with the known, then only One remains. But does only the One remain? Rather, aren’t there two elements, knowing and the now united knower/Known? A common answer to this objection is that since God is One, God’s self-knowledge is not different from God. Thus, there are not two elements, but One. God and God’s self-knowledge are identical.
If the answer is accepted, then it follows that God is, in some way, a self-referential process. Why? Because if God’s self-awareness is itself the same as God, then we have awareness aware of itself, that is, self-referential awareness.
Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician who gave the world the Cartesian coordinate system of high school Algebra, may have experienced self-referential consciousness. Descartes believed the soul or mind resided in or near the pineal gland. Let’s see why this suggests self-referential consciousness.
First of all, which is it, soul or mind? We consider these as two separate functions: the mind, the intellectual function, and the soul, the consciousness function. Descartes may not have made that distinction. The caption to a figure ([T02],137) taken from the 1677 edition of his De Homine, for example, shows the soul near the pineal gland. However, another reference ([N05],v5,601) has Descartes dividing the world into matter and mind. So perhaps Descartes used the same word for what we consider two separate functions. If so, either soul or mind might be a valid translation.
Second, where is the pineal gland? An atlas of anatomy ([C07],25,95) shows it about level with the ear tops, slightly rear of center. So, Descartes believed consciousness or mind resided somewhere in that area. Of course, he may not have believed it actually resided in the pineal gland.
Finally, why? What could have suggested to Descartes that soul or mind resides in that part of the body? Perhaps, it was a “centering” experience like the following.
Sometime when you’re alert, not fatigued or sleepy, sit up straight in a quiet place and close your eyes. Become aware of the space around you. Attach these labels: front, behind, above, below, left, and right. For example, picture the floor or ground and think “below”; picture the ceiling, or the sky, and think “above”; picture the tree to your left and think “left.” Now begin to zero in on the center point by thinking of closer things: if you are conscious of your left ear, think “left”; if you feel the air in your nostrils, think “front.” If you feel your jaw, think “below.” Try to get as close as possible to the center point which divides front from back, left from right, and above from below. This point seems to be the base of consciousness, the place from which you now look out at your body and the world beyond. It also happens to be close to the pineal gland.
If consciousness actually resided in or near the pineal gland, then our exercise would be slowly bringing Consciousness closer to awareness of Itself, the Center. The situation, however, is a bit more complicated since we know today that consciousness may reside anywhere in the body. As Wilder Penfield, a neurophysiologic researcher, writes:
To suppose that consciousness or the mind has localization is a failure to understand neurophysiology. ([P10],109).
Fred Wolf, a physicist, deduces from this quote that
. . . mind appears to be everywhere. It is observing on the scale of atoms and molecules, neurons, cells, tissues, muscles, bones, organs—in other words, it is observing on all scales of physical existence. ([W10],244).
Wolf’s statement easily follows if Consciousness and Center, the Ultimate Ground of Existence, are one and the same.
Even if Awareness doesn’t actually reside near the pineal gland, something crucial does seem to be going on in that part of the body. Penfield continues:
The great mathematician and philosopher, Rene Descartes (1596-1650), made a mistake when he placed it in the pineal gland. The amusing aspect is that he came so close to that part of the brain in which the essential circuits of the highest brain-mechanism must be active to make consciousness possible. ([P10],109).
It seems consciousness somehow connects to body there.
. . . [I]t became quite clear in neurosurgical experience, that even large removals of the cerebral cortex could be carried out without abolishing consciousness. On the other hand, injury or interference with function in the higher brain-stem, even in small areas, would abolish consciousness completely. ([P10],18).
So, even if our exercise doesn’t bring us closer to the actual seat of consciousness, and even if there is no fixed seat of consciousness in the body, our exercise does bring us closer to a point to which consciousness enjoys some sort of special relation.
The affirmative way, the negative way, the moral virtues, the other steps along the path, and right mindfulness all aim towards right concentration, towards gnosis. If we think of the Eternal immanently, then they all aim at freeing an Awareness from involvement with the relative, the transitory, and aim instead to have It become aware of Itself. For when a mystic’s
. . . consciousness of I-hood and consciousness of the world disappear, the mystic is conscious of being in immediate relation with God Himself; of participating in Divinity. (Delacroix, Etudes sur le Mysticisme, p.370 in [U01],330).
There are degrees of right concentration. At first, the mystic may draw closer to God in illuminative experiences. These experiences change the mystic even as wood drawing closer to a fire begins to take on some of fire’s qualities: it glows, or even burns with the fire’s flame. If the wood draws close enough, it eventually enters the fire.
When the soul is plunged in the fire of divine love, like iron, it first loses its blackness, and then growing to white heat, it becomes like unto the fire itself. And lastly, it grows liquid, and losing its nature is transmuted into an utterly different quality of being. ([U01],421).
The wood, glowing and burning even as the fire glows and burns, may begin to see its real self as indistinguishable from the fire’s. Its flame merges with the fire’s flame. Similarly, as the mystic lives more and more in awareness of the Eternal, a like merging of consciousness may occur. In the words of Symeon:
‘It is a truly divine fire, uncreated and invisible, eternal and immaterial, perfectly steadfast and infinite, inextinguishable and immortal, incomprehensible, beyond all created being.’ This light ‘has separated me from all being visible and invisible, granting me a vision of the uncreated One. . . . I am united with the One who is uncreated, incorruptible, infinitely invisible to all.’ ([L09],118).
Eventually, the wood is transformed into fire. Similarly, if mystical experiences reoccur, the mystic may have
. . . more and more the impression of being that which he knows, and of knowing that which he is. (Delacroix, Etudes sur le Mysticisme, p.370 in [U01],330).
The mystic may begin to see their real self as no different from the Self, the Eternal. Such a mystic may say:
I am, verily, that supreme Brahman which is eternal, pure, free and one, impartite bliss, non-dual, and existence, consciousness and infinite. ([S09],54)
Or, as the writer of the taittiriya upanishad, expressed it:
I am established in the purity of Brahman. I have attained the freedom of the Self. I am Brahman, self-luminous . . . I am immortal, imperishable. ([U04],54).
Complete union, however, isn’t fully achieved as long as the mystic experiences any sort of duality. Feeling identical to the One is not the same as actual perfect conscious union with the One, since the duality of knower, knowing, known still exists. Thinking or even knowing the experience is of the Self is not sufficient for union. For as along as the mystic doesn’t experience the Eternal as their own Self, their gnosis remains first-hand, not unitive.
The lower states of samadhi . . . lack . . . completeness of union. Ramakrishna knew that Mother Kali was not other than Brahman; yet, because of his great love for her, he was at first unable to accept this fact completely. . . . Ramakrishna’s love for Kali was the last-remaining trace of dualism in his mind. When he could go beyond that, he could attain union with Brahman. ([I04],118-9).
For a while, Ramakrishna’s love of Kali as something other than himself, as “the effulgence of pure consciousness”, kept him in duality. He couldn’t free himself from seeing the Eternal as something other than himself. He worshiped the One as Kali, the Mother of the universe, the Uncreated Light, and couldn’t rise above this duality.
The mind withdrew itself easily from all other things but, as soon as it did so, the intimately familiar form of the universal Mother, consisting of the effulgence of pure consciousness, appeared before it as living and moving . . . ([S01],225).
Knower, knowing, and known still remained.
Ramakrishna was eventually able to rise above all duality.
With a firm determination I sat for meditation again and, as soon as the holy form of the divine Mother appeared now before the mind as previously, I looked upon knowledge as a sword and cut it mentally in two with that sword of knowledge. There remained then no function in the mind, which transcended quickly the realm of name and forms . . . ([S01],225).
Ceasing to experience the Uncreated Light as something other than himself, he now saw It as his true Self. Losing all distinction of knower, knowing, known he united with It. A monk of the Ramakrishna order describes what happened next:
In that rapturous ecstasy the senses and mind stopped their functions. The body became motionless as a corpse. The universe rolled away from his vision—even space itself melted away. Everything was reduced to ideas, which floated like shadows in the dim background of the mind. Only the faint consciousness of “I” repeated itself in dull monotony. Presently that too stopped, and what remained was Existence alone. The soul lost itself in the Self, and all idea of duality, of subject and object, was effaced. ([L07],161).
Notice that with this kind of experience, unconsciousness of the external world is due to the nature of the experience itself, rather than any physical weakness. For self-referential awareness is, by definition, Consciousness aware of Itself, rather than the exterior world. It’s also been called pure consciousness since for an Awareness aware only of Itself there’s no mixture or combination of It and something else.
Another description of the unitive experience Ramakrishna enjoyed is as follows:
Beyond the realm of thought, transcending the domain of duality, leaving Maya with all her changes and modifications far behind, towering above the delusions of creation, preservation, and destruction, and sweeping away with an avalanche of ineffable Bliss all relative ideas of pain and pleasure, weal and woe, good and evil, shines the glory of the Eternal Brahman, the Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, in the Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Knowledge, knower, and known dissolve in the menstruum of One Eternal Consciousness; birth, growth, and death vanish in that infinite Existence; and love, lover, and beloved merge in that unbounded ocean of Supreme Felicity. . . . Space disappears into nothingness, time is swallowed up in Eternity, causation becomes a dream of the past, and a tremendous effulgence annihilates the oppressive darkness of sense and thought. . . . [O]nly Existence is. . . . His illumination is steady, his bliss constant, and the oblivion of the phenomenal universe is complete. ([L07],153).
It’s claimed Ramakrishna’s body, became ([L07],161) “motionless as a corpse.” It’s also claimed his breathing and heart stopped!
. . . [T]here was not the slightest function of the vital force in his body . . . [H]is face was calm and sedate and full of effulgence. . . . completely dead to the external world . . . [H]is mind, merged in Brahman, was calm and motionless like an unflickering lamp in a windless place. ([S01],256)
. . . when he ascended the highest plane of non-dual consciousness his heart-beats and functions of the senses were stopped . . . and the body lay like a corpse; all the modifications of his mind, such as thought, imagination etc., came to a stand-still and he dwelt in absolute Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. ([S01],589).
Are such claims accurate? We’ll return to this question later.
Many mystics ([S01],151) never return from the unitive state; they merge with the Eternal and leave the external world behind, forever. The wood is consumed; the finite, separate identity vanishes without a trace. As a drop of water enters the ocean and loses its individual identity, Consciousness merges back with the One.
Deprived of soul, the body ([L07],154) eventually dies. Although Ramakrishna believed suicide ([G03],164) a “heinous sin,” he didn’t consider a gnosis experience which resulted in death of the physical body as suicide. Indeed, if gnosis is the aim of human life, then the physical body has fulfilled its purpose once permanent union is established. Once someone reaches the other shore, they may discard the boat.
It’s said, however, that some people do return; in fact, this was said of Ramakrishna. Such a person, however, is forever transformed. Like wood almost totally transformed by fire, the ego remains as a kind of ash, an insubstantial residue. For such a mystic,
. . . that ‘I’-ness of theirs lives in constant unbroken consciousness of an intimate relation with God, such as ‘I am a servant, a child, or a part of Him’! . . . Knowing that God is the quintessence of everything, that “I” does not any more hanker after the enjoyment of worldly objects such as sight, taste, etc. . . . Those who were till then in worldly bondage, but have now attained perfection . . . and are living the rest of their lives in some loving relation with the divine Lord are known to be ‘liberated-in-life.’ ([S01],356).
Now, living beyond the show world and seeing all things as one, that person sees
. . . all things equal . . .
Absorbed in Brahman
He overcomes the world
Even here, alive in the world. ([S18],60).
For them, illumination is permanent; they see that the Eternal One has become all. For them, the world’s people and objects, their own selves and Self, and God, are one and the same; for them, there is only One.
We know a man, a cow and a mountain merely as such. He saw that the man, the cow and the mountain were indeed a man, a cow and a mountain; but at the same time, he saw that the indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss, the cause of the universe, was gleaming through them. ([S01],589).
For such people, all is pure, all is God.