How Deep Do You Want To Go?–Some Reflections, Some Questions

This is not really a true question seeking an answer; it is more like a rhetorical gesture soliciting a certain line of thought.  For one thing the words seem to imply that there is some choice here, like picking a travel destination.  We are a culture that places a high premium on “choice.”  But as Merton was fond of pointing out, perhaps the deepest things in life are not a matter of choice at all.  There is a “giveness” to our life, that which is gift and not choice, encompassing both pain and pleasure, sorrow and joy, happiness and sadness, life and death, success and failure; and it is in this giveness that we find our way into the real depths of existence.  Perhaps what you really need to “do” is a kind of awakening from all the myriads and mirages of “choice”; perhaps then you are empowered to say “yes” to what is Really Real.

Let us begin by touching base with some of the obstacles and obfuscations that we can encounter on this spiritual journey into the depths of the mystery that embraces all of us.  So, one of the wrong turns in this journey would be the absolutizing of the formal discourse of religion.  While it is true that the path of any one of the great traditions could open up the depths to us, it is also a sad fact that formal religion in all these traditions also provides numerous obfuscations and possible wrong turns.  This is not to suggest that it is beneficial to be “anchorless,” free-floating as it were, without any commitments.  Quite to the contrary, but it is important to realize what is truly essential in your tradition and what is in fact window-dressing; and to recognize the limitations of even that which is considered essential.

Let me ponder my own Christian tradition.  Various depths of spirituality can be found here.  We are filled with “God-language,” and the universe of symbolic discourse abounds exuberantly, especially in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.  It seems that anyone and everyone, no matter where you are on “the journey,” can find your niche here.  In high school I had a teacher who was an elderly Jesuit priest for whom Jesus was his “buddy,” his BFF as the social media denizens of today would put it.  At the other end of this spectrum would be the French Benedictine sannyasi Abhishiktananda for whom Jesus is a revealer of our nondual relationship to the One we call God. And so many other points in between employing a plethora of symbolic signals.  Without judging any particular person’s spirituality (because we are not privy to what really lies behind the words and symbols by which a person manifests his spiritual awareness and the conceptual resources that person has to express his/her depths), nevertheless not all of these “points” are equal or even worth considering.

A problem arises when we fixate on some spiritual language as if it were the “raison d’etre” of our journey.  Take for example the notions of “sanctity,” “holiness.”  I have on occasion lamented my Church’s proclivity to canonize people, to proclaim them saints.  Just my opinion, but I think this creates a serious confusion of what the spiritual journey is really all about, and it misleads people into a truly wrong-headed spirituality or just as bad it leads many to simply “drop-out” because the models of who they should follow seem so unreal.  Worse yet, the Church claims inerrancy in formally calling someone a “saint,” but then the ones who are held up as “holy” or as “saints” sometimes  show up as very ambiguous, fraught with problems, or downright frauds.  I have wondered many times why they canonized Pope John Paul II–I won’t go into all those reasons but it sure does seem like an ideological move, and this in turn then makes one suspicious about all this religious language about “sanctity.”  Consider even a more radical example:  St. Bernard of Clairvaux.  Bernard was a remarkable Cistercian monk, abbot, spiritual leader, author.  He was extremely popular and so he was declared a saint soon after death.  But what does sanctity mean when a person is so wrong, and not just intellectually but actually in his spiritual sensibility.  Consider his attitude concerning the Crusades.  Here is a quote from Know Thyselfby Ingrid Rossellini: “Relying on prejudice to demonize and dehumanize the Other was, and still remains, the best way to incite man’s zest for hate and killing. By embracing intolerance as a virtue, the medieval Christians became masters at it, as Bernard proved when he wrote, ‘The death of a non-Christian exalts Christ and prevents the propagation of errors.’”  This is only a small sample of much more of such language found in Bernard. He advocated the extermination of Islam from Palestine by killing, if needed, all the Moslems.  (In later centuries this attitude was carried on by Europeans as they encountered the “non-christian” indigenous peoples of the New World.)  By contrast, you cannot imagine Francis of Assisi saying such things. One wonders what really was going on in the spiritual awareness of Bernard.  But, more importantly for us, we have to question something much more subtle.

The “holy go-between.”  This is a short way of pointing to a whole range of problem issues in Christianity–not just the canonized saint.  Our Church seems to feel that we require all these “go-betweens” because the Reality of God is so “beyond” us.  This notion of “beyondness” is at the root of some of the problems that hold people back from a deep spiritual awareness.  Part of the problem stems from our notion of the “otherness” of God.  In traditional theology and mysticism God is the Wholly Other, the Absolute Transcendent One.  But these are words and what one makes of them is crucial.  For way too many people their sense of God’s “otherness” is decidedly impoverished and even misguided.  God’s “otherness” seems to be located in the realm of all “otherness.” Just like you are an “other” to me in my experience, so is God, just much more so.  Yes, we might find it helpful to admit an I-Thou map of our relationship to God;  but if we lose our sense of the absolute Mystery of the One we call God, then this “map” can become a trivial reality.  Due to a kind of “gap” established by this enfeebled “otherness,’ we experience (or we are told we do) a need for “go-betweens” to bridge that gap.  (By the way this is at the root of what is termed “idolatry.”)  One very important antidote to all this is to encounter and dwell in the Holy Mystery of the Absolute Reality which is (usually) called God.   I wonder how many Christians would be bewildered by this quote from Gregory of Nazianzen:

“You who are beyond all, what other name befits you?

No words suffice to hymn you.  Alone you are ineffable.

Of all beings you are the End, you are One, you are all, you are none.

Yet not one thing, nor all things….

You alone are the Unnamable.”

            from the Hymn to God Beyond All Names

Another part of our problem that hinders us from journeying into the depths  is the way many of us perceive the reality of Jesus Christ.  A very crucial matter to us because our very identity as Christians seems to be at stake.  And here we again seem to be locked into a rigid dualism:  Jesus and me.  This comes from a misunderstood, misconceived, misplaced theology and spirituality of the Incarnation.  So people start “worshipping” the baby Jesus at Christmas time, then “imitating “  Jesus, then there is Jesus simply as God “up there” who has saved us, whatever that means to someone.  I don’t mean to be flippant about this very serious matter, but there is a very real misplaced focus on the Jesus of history. Abhishiktananda had quite a struggle in articulating this knotty problem.  We can’t go very far in examining this problem here, but let us touch on one aspect of it.

As Paul puts it in one of his Letters, we no longer “know” Christ “according to the flesh”—note how little there is of the historical Jesus in Paul.  His primary focus is on what Christians call the “Risen Christ.”  This begins to resonate with a kind of nondualism. The language is there; you simply need to be sensitive to it and not hindered by shallow piety.  However, even here we have to recognize the inevitable limitations of Paul’s language.  Abhishiktananda had a keen sense of that.  Both the Semitic and Hellenic conceptual and language structures shape the early understanding of the Christ event.  The Church has absolutized this and made it normative for its own self understanding. However, as Abhishiktananda points out, in the encounter with India’s deep religious tradition(and others also) we are called to reinterpret and, yes, deepen our insight into this Mystery. India presents us with the challenge of advaita, the experience of nondualism; and for us Christians now the Christ-event needs to be rediscovered in this light.  This is the way into the depths.

Here’s a few quotes from Abhishiktananda:

“I am interested in no christo-logy at all….  What I discover above all in Christ is ‘I AM,’….  Of course I can make use of Christ experience to lead Christians to an ‘I AM’ experience, yet it is this I AM experience that really matters. Christ is this very mystery “that I AM,” and in this experience and experiential knowledge all my christo-logy has disintegrated.  It is taking to the end the revelation that we are ‘sons of God,’….  The discovery of Christ’s I AM is the ruin of any Christian theology, for all notions are burnt in the fire of experience….  And I find his mystery shining in every awakening man, in every mythos.”

“To find Christ is to find the self.  In so far as I have contemplated in myself an image of Christ other than my own image, I have not found Christ.  Christ in reality, for me, is myself—but myself ‘raised up,’ in full possession of the Spirit and in full possession by the Spirit.”

“I do not say that the human being is God or that God is the human being, but I deny that the human being plus God makes two.”

“In the process of man’s awakening to himself and to the father, that is, of his salvation, his deification, there are not two(God and soul) working independently and complementing each other, any more than within the Trinity itself the divine Persons can be said to be independent and complementary in their being or their activity.  Words cannot properly express the inner relations of God; nor can words express the no less intimate relationship between man and God.  Christian faith simply makes us realize that man’s freedom essentially echoes, reflects, and shares in the divine freedom, and that human freedom is grounded in the impossibility for it ever to be isolated from God’s.”

Enough about all that; now let us touch on a key point about this journey into the depths.  From the Tao Te Ching:

“In the pursuit of learning, something is gained every day.

 In the pursuit of the Tao, every day something is lost.”

The Gospels also point to this key paradox—discipleship involves a radical loss of sorts.  The Mediterranean mindset (both Semitic and Hellenic) is not comfy with this notion so it tries to soften this with the language of gain; but the Indian goes the whole way into it.  It becomes embodied and symbolized in a concrete way of life: the sannyasi. 

We will get back to this in a moment, but first let me emphasize how really important, how critical, and how truly universal this notion of “loss” is.  In different ways, in different languages and symbols, in different stories, this “loss” is highlighted, celebrated and proposed as our existential goal—not just in words or thoughts.  Very few “connect” with this reality(as the Gospels quite clearly recognize) because, in fact, it seems to go against the grain of everything within us.   We seem made for “possessing,” for “having,” for “owning,” for saying “This is mine.” The whole of human culture (universally), economics, society, politics is built on this foundation.  Thus it all is, in the words of the Gospel, a house built on sand; and why there seems to be so much anxiety in human endeavors.  Also, for many the language of loss strikes them as unacceptably negative and this becomes another kind of mental obstacle to make the “deeper journey,” to reach the “further shore.”

But what if you “let it all go”!?  This is a question posed at the heart of every major serious spiritual tradition. And it points at the importance of this notion of authentic “loss.”  I say “authentic” because there can be a kind of fake loss, meaning another manifestation of gain disguised as loss.  Any loss that we ourselves construct has this character of the inauthentic; or at best it can be a symbol of the real thing, maybe even a kind of preparation for the real thing.  A lot of things about formal religious life can be located here!  Real loss can never be something “we do”; it is always something we undergo, something which comes to us—like the thief in the Desert Father stories or the Zen stories. 

Now let us zero in on the central reality of this loss we are pondering. It has little to do with the peripherals of our existence, the stuff of our daily lives, etc.  Nor is this a numerical thing:  I have 5 things; I lose one; then I lose one more; so now I have only 3 things; I call this “progress.”  Emphatically this is not what I am pointing to.  All the great spiritual traditions recognize, in one way or another, that this seeming “loss” is all about the central issue of who I am, my real identity, the very meaning of my existence.  What happens in this “loss” is that we shed our multi and varied senses of identity….until we become Nobody, that is in a sense no longer on ANY map of identity whether it be social, psychological or even religious. This dynamic of loss may in fact involve various peripherals of our life—honors, possessions, achievements, power, talents, relationships, etc.—because the problem of our self-understanding arises as we mistakenly identify in some way with the connections all these provide.  We seem to need and relish the feedback all these give us:  you are talented; you are valued; you are known; you belong; you are happy (and yes even sadness provides one with a sense of selfhood); you are smart; you are loved; you are somebody.  But the peripherals are not the essential thing here and should not be the primary concern.  They may all be present in our life in one way or another, but the primary focus should be on what Ramana Maharshi expressed so succinctly and so eloquently:  in all situations and all circumstances we need to ask WHO AM I?  

The incredible thing about life is that inevitably we answer that question one way or another with some construct or acquisition, and life comes along and takes “our answer” away.  And this dynamic of loss is wrapped in an enormous and unravelable paradox: loss is gain, the lowly way is the great way, whoever loses his life gains his life, darkness is light, etc., etc.    In the light of this paradox we have to be attentive to when life brings this loss to our doorstep.  There is an old adage common among all authentic spiritual masters that the person who speaks ill of you is the one you should most cherish. For one thing this person gives you a measure of your own spiritual state; you feel anger arising, you feel the desire, even the need for striking back with a harsh word—“turning the other cheek” is just some nice words, you feel the need to defend yourself, etc. After all this is a “thief” who has come to take something away from you; not an item, but your own image of yourself.  And how you respond is how you answer that supreme spiritual question: Who am I?  

And everyone without exception has this dynamic, this work to do because everyone has the afflictions and conflicts of multiple and varied self-images. Even into the depths of the subconscious.  But life unfolds and the entropy of life confronts us in both small ways and big, critical ways.  The disintegration of our bodies in old age is but one example.  We build our house on “looking good,” and note how our society values youthfulness and physical good looks; but the “thief” of old age comes along and the struggle to maintain that and ward off the thief becomes a big industry.  And of course the ultimate, absolute and final thief is Death.  Whatever final self-images we might have protected from all the “precursor thieves,” this is the one that finally finishes the process and we move from being “somebody” to being Nobody.  A scary thing to ponder indeed—that’s why in all cultures there is so much mythology about the death process.  But what they are all trying to say underneath all the verbiage and all the symbols is not to be afraid and simply let go and fall into the Mystery of God because that is where our real identity is—to be lost in the Mystery of God is to be hidden in the Mystery of God and so to be as unnamable as the very Absolute Reality of God.  

Now let us return briefly to the sannyasi—the way of life that most eloquently and most profoundly and most beautifully speaks of this whole process. I wish I could say that Christian monasticism is on a parallel track, simply another variant of this archetype. I won’t go into that here, just simply that even though a person can find the resources within the monastic life for the deepest journey, yet the institution as a whole seems more likely to entangle one in a lot of peripheral stuff disguised as spiritual realities. One “gives up” this or that and then one receives a “hundred fold,” to borrow some Gospel language.  Don’t mean to be flippant, but in my estimation it seems like a reality that is only a shadow of its potential.  Now of course the sannyasi in actuality is quite a mixed reality also; there is plenty of fakery there, pretending, etc.  But the key is that the sannyasi ideal is articulated so much more clearly and radically than any modern monasticism in the Christian world.  The sannyasi is the one who embodies this loss to a radical degree to become a pure empty space manifesting the Unmanifest Mystery of the Absolute Reality. Ramana Maharshi expressed this ideal in a very existential way:

“The ground to sleep on,

the air to be clothed with,

the elbow as pillow, and

the hands a begging bowl,

there is a feast in my heart.

I have a smile for everybody;

I am free from all desires,

I am master of the world,

and in possession of supreme joy

because I have renounced it all.”

Abhishiktananda gives us a more theological read of the sannyasi ideal:

“Sannyasa confronts us with a sign of that which is essentially beyond all signs—indeed, in its sheer transparency to the Absolute it proclaims its own death as a sign….  However, the sannyasi lives in the world of signs, of the divine manifestation, and this world of manifestation needs him, ‘the one beyond signs,’ so that it may realize the impossible possibility of a bridge between the two worlds…. These ascetics who flee the world and care nothing for its recognition are precisely the ones who uphold the world….  They go their way in secret….  But the world…needs to know that they are there, so that it may preserve a reminder of transcendence in the midst of a transient world…. The sign of sannyasa…stands then on the very frontier, the unattainable frontier between two worlds, the world of manifestation and the world of the unmanifest Absolute.  It is the mystery of the sacred lived with the greatest possible interiority.”

Now Abhishiktananda is also very aware of the pitfalls in actual, historical sannyasa, and his words here would apply even more to Christian monasticism:

“The sannyasi has no place, no loka…so if there is a class of Sannyasis, it’s all up with sannyasa!  They have renounced the world—splendid!  So from then on they belong to the loka, the ‘world’ of those who have renounced the world! They constitute themselves a new kind of society, an ‘in-group’ of their own, a spiritual elite apart from the common man, and charged with instructing him, very like those ‘scribes and Pharisees’ whose attitude made even Jesus, the compassionate one, lose his temper. Then a whole new code of correct behavior develops, worse than that of the world, with its courtesy titles, respectful greetings, order of precedence, and the rest.  The wearing of the saffron becomes the sign, not so much of renunciation, as of belonging to the ‘order of swamis.’”

Now you just might wonder if there is anything “beyond” the sannyasi so to speak. Yes there is—the Vedic figure of the kesi.  Here also Abhishiktananda is our authority:

“The kesi does not regard himself as a sannyasi.  There is no world, no loka, in which he belongs.  Free and riding the winds, he traverses the worlds at his pleasure. Wherever he goes, he goes maddened with his own rapture, intoxicated with the unique Self.  Friend of all and fearing none, he bears the Fire, he bears the Light.  Some take him for a common beggar, some for a madman, a few for a sage.  To him it is all one.  He is himself, he is accountable to no one.  He is himself, he is accountable to no one.  His support is in himself, that is to say, in the Spirit from whom he is not ‘other.  Any diksa, any official recognition by society, would amount to bringing him back to the world of signs, the world of krita, that which is made, fabricated, …; but ‘without sign, without name, the yati goes his way’ [from the Upanishads].”

So….we return to our question: How deep do you want to go?