Foundations & Fundamentals, Part IV: The Heart and The Awakening

In our “Foundations” series this is easily my favorite topic–and quite difficult as it engages the previous three parts in new depths. Thus we will be revisiting them as we go along. Let us review where we have touched base: Part I, The Real; Part II, The Mystery & The Knowing; and Part III, The Self. One thing to note immediately: the use of the word “The” in front of each noun is not just a stylistic move. We are not talking about just any “mystery,” but the mystery, the Ultimate Mystery, God. In each and every case the underlying reality is the Divine Reality. Or as Abhishiktananda once whimsically whispered to his dear close friend Murray Rogers, “Mooory, perhaps there is only God!” Already we are swimming in deep waters! So what do you want to awaken to? This question describes the essence of the spiritual journey.

Let us begin in an unusual place– with two religious women of the modern era whom popular piety has made into extraordinary role models: Therese of Lisieux and Mother Teresa of India. We are not going to look at their extraordinary lives or example, but at something quite different: both shared deeply in an experience that was termed by John of the Cross as the “dark night.” It is well documented through their letters, through their writings and through what people close to them heard from them, that Mother Teresa during a period of over 2 decades and Therese for the last year of her life suffered incredible interior desolation. This is not just a case of feeling lost or having made mistakes or dejected by failure, etc. This is a desolation beyond any description. It is a case of a deeply and intensely religious person losing all sense of God, and even more the very idea of the existence of God and faith itself seeming as a mirage—like a person dying of thirst in the desert and grabbing for a handful of sand…. This could be crushing to a person’s psyche no matter how short such an experience (and indeed some psyches do break down and succumb to drink or some other relief and our age is very tolerant and plentiful of such “reliefs”), but imagine Mother Teresa having to endure this for decades and still continue in her work. And it appears that even on her deathbed she never came out of that tunnel in this life.

Whether such experience is a prerequisite to all mystical journeys is not clear. Western Christian mysticism is replete with such accounts(even with poets like T. S. Eliot), and Sufi masters also report many such similar experiences. In fact it was once thought that John of the Cross “stole” some of his ideas and language from some great Sufi mystics, but now we recognize that both sides have their own version with its own integrity. Now someone like Abhishiktananda who drew so much from the Advaitic mysticism of Hinduism seems to be totally free of such experience, but then we don’t really know what would have happened if he had lived longer. In any case, not all journeys are the same and one has to take that into account. And we have to avoid at all costs the kinds of evaluations, comparisons and “rankings” that make one prefer this tradition of mysticism to that one. Trust me, when you are real, there is no choosing, no “shopping” for a spiritual way, no copying of another’s way. It’s either real with you or it isn’t, no matter what anyone says in any book. And incidentally Eastern Christians also tend to deny that such experiences are part of their mysticism, but I wouldn’t be so hasty. Recall that other spiritual giant of the 20th Century, Staretz Silouan of Mt. Athos, or now St. Silouan. His mysterious words, those words which he heard in his heart: “Keep your mind in hell and despair not”—these words may be interpreted precisely as a harbinger of that “dark night” for indeed what is “hell” but the very absence of God. Silouan, that great hesychast, entered the great dark emptiness and made his home there night after night in prayer because…..

Ah, but let us not jump too far ahead of ourselves. So what does all this have to do with our topic, the heart and the awakening? Here Merton (in speaking of Sufi mysticism) will help us out:

“The basic thing in Sufism then is…the awakening to total awareness and to a real deep sense of the Reality of God. Not…a sense of God as object, not a sense of God as thing…not that we see God over there or out there or up there…and it is even to a great extent beyond this I/Thou dichotomy, because I would say that one of the characteristic things that affects mystical awareness of God is that it is somehow subjective. That is to say, an awareness of God as Subject, an awareness that God is within my own subjectivity, that He is the root of my own personality so that I do not see Him as somebody else entirely and yet He is Totally Other.” Now the really important part for us at this moment is the first half of his statement. What happens to people who have a very strong religious will that has been educated to focus on God and to “please” God is that inevitably they place God somewhere “out there.” The Reality of God is another object in the world of objects that vies for their attention, albeit through religious language and symbolism and involving a very sincere and heartfelt piety, that vies for their attention among all the other objects of what seems like reality. So God “becomes” their friend, their brother, their lover, their liberator, etc, but truly they do not yet know and love God as He calls them to an unspeakable intimacy beyond all intellectual distinctions and symbols. These metaphors and images are good and serve a useful purpose in a life of piety and service, but the true seeker is called to something far beyond–to a knowledge and a love that will entail a kind of death. The Sufis call it “fana,” extinction!

So at some point for the prayerful and true “seeker of God,” who already feels the “gravitational pull” of the Presence, it may happen that the “gushing spring” of their piety suddenly dries up. Their religious life that has been under the control of their ego self, even unconsciously and unbeknownst to them as they are probably very used to speaking the language of renunciation and spirituality and maybe monasticism, that religious life has to die; or perhaps to put it better, it has to be liberated from the ego self, from its grasp and control. But something even more important will also be taking place at this time. All notions of the reality of God will vanish and seem unreal. What is happening then is that the senses and the intellect are being weaned away from those “mirages” of God’s Presence which we so ably construct, even subconsciously and sometimes with much feeling and thought and energy and will-power. What is happening is, in Eckhart-like language: we are “losing God” in order to “gain God.” What is happening is that what is truly Real, what is the Ultimate Mystery, is now our sole reality; and because it can never be limited or fully symbolized or ever be simply an object out there, even as a friend, as another “Thou” somewhere “out there,” everything in us and about us will feel an unspeakable emptiness–and maybe for a long time. Because truly there is nothing, (or as some would put it) no-thing, “out there”—meaning that which is of ultimate concern to us is not a “something” or even a “someone” somewhere out there, and that means even within our own intellect and psychology and its feelings and emotions. What is happening is the person discovering his/her true heart and its awakening, a truly different reality–which is not possible as long as we objectify “our heart,” our relationship to God, and God Himself. But the darkness of the awakening is only the paradoxical emergence of a “Wholly Other” Light that is still somehow our light but which cannot be objectified.

So finally we have come to our topic: the heart! The best sources for understanding this topic come from the Christian Hesychasts and the Islamic Sufis with a hefty portion of Abhishiktananda’s Advaitic mysticism thrown in. To be sure there are examples and insights in other traditions that may run very deep and true, but we are already in danger of being too scattered! So what is the meaning of any discourse about this reality of “the heart”? Let us listen to the hesychast scholar and bishop-monk, Kallistos Ware: “It means that the human person is a profound mystery, that I understand only a very small part of myself, that my conscious ego-awareness is far from exhausting the total reality of my authentic Self. But it signifies more than that. It implies that in the innermost depths of my heart I transcend the bounds of my created personhood and discover within myself the direct unmediated presence of the living God. Entry into the deep heart means that I experience myself as God-sourced, God-enfolded, God-transfigured.”

And Merton again: “Sufism looks at the human person as a heart and a spirit and a secret, and the secret is the deepest part. The secret of man is God’s secret; therefore, it is in God. My secret is God’s innermost knowledge of me, which He alone possesses. It is God’s secret knowledge of myself in Him, which is a beautiful concept. The heart is the faculty by which man knows God….” And so here we add the notion of self-knowledge. An Arabic word that often stands for “Sufism” in the texts is ma’rifah which simply means “knowledge” or “recognition”—but this is a very deep and special knowledge, not one gained from books or just the intellect. This kind of knowledge that both the Sufis and the Hesychasts talk about demands knowing one’s innermost deep self, and this so-called self-knowledge is a prerequisite for knowing God. Here again, it will not be a simple knowledge of subject-object which makes up the world of the ego self. However, a direct knowledge of self and God will flow freely when there is purity of heart. “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” And so what you awaken to can also be expressed in another metaphor as in Eckhart’s words: “The eye [of the Heart] with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.” End of duality! Indeed, and actually then you see all of reality that is truly “out there” very differently. Consider the following words of a modern Sufi master, the Moroccan Shaikh ad-Darqawi, who relates this experience during one of his prayer sessions:

“I was in a state of remembrance and my eyes were lowered and I heard a voice say: ‘He is the First and the Last and the Outwardly Manifest and the Inwardly Hidden.’ I remained silent, and the voice repeated it a second time, and then a third, whereupon I said: ‘As to the First, I understand, and as to the Last, I understand, and as to the Inwardly Hidden, I understand, but as to the Outwardly Manifest, I see nothing but created things.’ Then the voice said: ‘If there were any outwardly manifest other than Himself, I should have told thee.'” [emphasis mine] Recall Abhishiktananda’s words to “Mooory.”

But let us take a few steps back now. Kallistos Ware, commenting on a Macarian Homily: “‘There [the Heart] also is God’: the heart is the place where created personhood becomes transparent to the Divine, where God the Holy Trinity is at work within me. ‘All things are there’: the heart is all-inclusive, all-embracing, a symbol of wholeness, integration, and totality, signifying the human person as an ‘undivided’ unity.” Thus the whole spiritual life and the very meaning of so-called mysticism rests on this “awakening of the Heart.” But listen to Eckhart:

“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.” And almost every tradition has something similar to say, and we will have to discuss this in another blog posting. But the Sufis put it most profoundly, I think, when they say that we need to “break all the idols” that we carry within ourselves. This is part of the function of a “dark night” experience. (It is not the experience of intense ecstasy or any other physical manifestation that insures the truth of what is going on within ourselves or measures what we might call “progress”; and any attempt to detour self-knowledge is delusional) It is only then that we awaken to the Divine Indwelling in the Heart.

So the Heart has to do with truly knowing and loving God through a very deep and profound self-knowledge. One can and must say that also and at the same time one can only know one’s true self in the light of God. So the two are concurrent, and this is part of the Awakening. As Merton put it in the quote in the beginning, the Awakened Heart will no longer know God as object or even as “another Thou”, but for the Awakened Heart the Reality will spring up from within one’s own “I am.” The “I AM” of God will be within the “I am” of my own subjectivity. Recall Augustine’s famous words:

“God is closer to me than I am to my own self”; and St. Paul’s, “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.” These point us in the right direction of what is at stake in the Awakening of the Heart. An additional point: And the Sufis are real strong on this–that the God whom we find in unspeakable communion with our being is not just some “generic God,” but precisely because we find Him in the depths of our own subjective being, there is something very deeply personal about this relationship. Sounds even odd to speak that way, but that’s why those evangelicals who speak of a need to “have a personal relationship with Jesus” are really not far off; they are on the right track, only they have Him too far away as it were and too locked into an image of a friend, a brother, etc. I don’t know how to relate all this to the Upanishadic vision or to Zen; and people who tend to follow those routes, like Abhishiktananda, are not real strong in this regard. We shall discuss this another time. Anyway, for the Sufis and the Hesychasts what is important here is that each and every person (and indeed every being) is called by God by a name known only to God, and our whole life and our whole being, our whole existence is a saying of “Here I am.” And each and every creature is saying that as it exists, and because it is being called into existence by Love, so each and every person’s proper way of responding, “Here I am,” is by love–and here again we shall discuss this later. Now at the same time, in the depths of our Heart, we have an infinitely unique name for God by which we call Him. It is the Name by which he has become “My God,” not just a generic ruler of the universe! And the marvel is of course that He himself has placed that Name in my Heart, and the name by which He calls me and the Name by which I call Him become one Name in Love, and this constitutes my truest and deepest uniqueness. Merton again: “The desire of God is tied up in our hearts with this deep sense, the deepest thing in our nature, not that He is a god, not that He is God or the Supreme Being, but that he is Our God, that He is My God. When Jesus says on the cross, “My God why has thou forsaken me?” it isn’t just God, it is “My God.” Sufism is a particular way of realizing that “Yes” in a total love, a total surrender of ourselves to God.” And in another place, Merton again: “…the Sufis have this beautiful development of what this secret really is: it is the word ‘yes’ or the act of ‘yes.’ It is the secret affirmation which God places in my heart, a ‘yes’ to Him. And that is God’s secret. he knows my ‘yes’ even when I am not saying it.” This is that “Here am I” that I was referring to. And in a sense this is the key to what the Hesychasts call Prayer of the Heart, but about that also another time.

So it must be emphasized that it is in the very ground of one’s own being and subjectivity, one’s deepest sense of “I am,” that it is in this true nothingness we become the very ground of God’s Presence and Manifestation and Love–again, like Moses’s Burning Bush, or the Desert Father “becoming all fire.” This requires a deep plunge into the depths of one’s self because we are not speaking here of the ego self’s “I am” that we broadcast to the world with all its credentials–but it is true also that the deep self is always there at our fingertips as it were, as we are washing the dishes or taking a walk or bandaging someone’s wounds, etc.–we are always grounded in Ultimate Mystery, surrounded by Ultimate Mystery, facing Ultimate Mystery, and without any need for any words or formulas. That’s why I think there are some very deep mystics among us who don’t even realize what their sensitivity means, but that’s ok. Abhishiktananda summed up the whole spiritual journey in one phrase: the total surrender of the peripheral ego to Absolute Mystery. Another of his profound contributions in this area is his criticism of any spirituality that would “superimpose” the Reality of God on the rest of life, which was extremely common for the religious of his time and even now. With the Awakened Heart there is nothing that we do that is not the ground of realization and mysticism. Abhishiktananda said that the most contemplative religious he ever knew was that busy nursing sister, Mother Theophane, who was his friend at Indore and who took care of him as he was dying.

Let us conclude this mere introduction to our topic with the words of a great modern Sufi scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr:

Through quintessential prayer, within the framework of an orthodox tradition, one reaches the inner heart, where God as the All-Merciful resides, and by penetration into the heart-center, man moves beyond the realm of outwardness and the domain of individual existence to reach the abode of inwardness and the universal order. In that state his heart becomes the eye with which he sees God and also the eye with which God sees him. In that presence he is nothing in himself, as separate existence. He is but a mirror whose surface is nothing, and yet reflects everything. In the heart, the spiritual man lives in intimacy with God, with the Origin of all those theophanies whose outward manifestations constitute all the beauty that is reflected in the world around us. He lives in that inner garden, that inner paradise, constantly aware of the ubiquitous Gardener. On the highest level of realization, man becomes aware that all theophanies are nothing but the Source of those theophanies, that the house itself is nothing but the reflection of the Master of the house, that there is in fact but one Reality which , through its infinite manifestations and reflections upon the mirrors of cosmic existence, has brought about all that appears to us as multiplicity and otherness, and all the apparent distinctions between I and thou, he and they, we and you. At the center of the heart, there resides but one Reality above and beyond all forms. It was to this Reality, far beyond all individual manifestations, that Mansur al-Hallaj was referring when he sang:

I saw my Lord with the eyes of my heart; I asked Him, Who are Thou? He said, Thou.


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