I am not going to delve into grammar or the use of language, though that is a topic worthy of reflection also. This is simply a collection of observations, reflections, questions, etc., on a topic of enormous importance for all the great spiritualities and all the major religions. To put it more negatively way, though clearer, if you get this wrong, you will get lost in a serious way. I speak from experience! So: Who am I? What is being pointed at when we have the word “I”? The great spiritual question!
Lets start with Monchanin and Abhishiktananda. Monchanin was a genuine intellectual, a brilliant thinker who was well-read in theology and philosophy, and at the same time a true spiritual man who sought to somehow translate the spiritual heritage of India into Christian terms. Abhishiktananda was very different in personality and in his approach to India once he really got into it. He was very impatient with intellectual /conceptual investigations, but rather sought to dive straight into the experience of India’s Advaita tradition, especially as exemplified by the sannyasi. The two men respected each other, and each had their own strengths and weaknesses. But also each had their criticisms of the other. Monchanin had this interesting thing to say about Abhishiktananda toward the end of their companionship at Shantivanam. He was worried about the so-called experiences that Abhishiktananda had related from his extensive sojourns in solitude and meditation. Here is the quote from a letter he wrote:
“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered on the other side of Advaita. Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss. Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom. I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living trinitarian God.”
Very interesting indeed! That last sentence is very telling, and it shows a faulty line of thought. But how to proceed to evade Monchanin’s conceptual trap?
From a certain standpoint it is impossible to tell what another person is experiencing, but there are certain signs and signals about what that experience may be all about. When it comes to the Ultimate Reality which we call God, I certainly don’t mean anything dramatic—I am not a member of the “miracle and special effects” school of religious authenticity. No, what we might look for is a depth of person there, a deepening of compassion, a broadening of vision, an inner freedom….and from what I can tell from Abhishiktananda’s diary and letters, that is largely there. But, then again, we really can’t know, and it’s best to leave individual cases alone. But Monchanin’s words do raise a legitimate possibility of an inquiry in a general sense. He seems to be saying that when we go deep into our self in meditation we might only encounter our own self OR God. He assumes the “separate self” that then must be “united” with God. This is who you are and the whole point of life and existence and Christian identity. But advaita presents a different vision of who we are.
Monchanin approaches advaita conceptually, and it’s practically impossible to reconcile that with these Christian concepts of “who I am,” and Christian concepts of that “I’s” relationship to the Ultimate Reality. But Monchanin’s concern is legitimate because there is a very real way of getting trapped within one’s own ego identity within one’s extensive meditation. Some American Zen people have written a whole book about it. And consider these cautionary words from Ramana Maharshi:
“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego?”
(Words that resonate well with our Desert Fathers!)
Authentic advaita is NOT about “supersizing” the ego self; quite the contrary.
But I also fear that Monchanin’s words do seriously lead one away from a most deep and profound realization. I think he misses something important because he is so intensely committed to standard traditional theological language; and that great philosopher of language, Wittgenstein, warned us: the limits of our language are the limits of our world and our thinking. A Christian advaita definitely shatters the usual patterns of Christian theology, and also how we answer that question: Who am I? A number of Christian mystics and profound theologians have caught a glimpse of a Christian advaita without using that same language.
Consider these quote from Catherine of Genoa, a late medieval mystic:
“In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so…in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss.”
“I see without eyes, and I hear without ears. I feel without feeling and taste without tasting. I know neither form nor measure; for without seeing I yet behold an operation so divine that the words I first used, perfection, purity, and the like, seem to me now mere lies in the presence of truth. . . . Nor can I any longer say, “My God, my all.” Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seem to be wholly mine. I am mute and lost in God…God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God, and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”
And then there’s this more radical statement from her:
“My “me” is God nor do I recognize any other “me” except my God himself.”
Basically, Catherine is a pointer to a Christian version of nondualism. It is there. And it can be found in a number of other Christian mystics, like Eckhart. (And interestingly enough, Catherine’s words are very much in tune with Rabia, the great female Sufi.) Abhishiktananda discovered this nondualism through his immersion in India and the Upanishads, the sannyasi tradition, and the lived experience of the holy men he encountered there. He discovered that the “I Am” of God is spoken in his heart, and from that Absolute flows the little, the relative, the contingent “I am” of his own being. This “little I am” is what we might call the peripheral ego, the “nafs” of the Sufis; and modern spirituality speaks of “letting it go,” the Sufis call it “fana,” “annihilation(!), the old Christian mystics call it a “death of the self.” Your “I am” gets lost in the “I Am” of God. But this will seem like becoming “nobody,” a nothing with no name, etc.
Modern sensibility is not comfortable to say the least with the language of classical spirituality of any tradition; you know, all that stuff about “me” dying to self, annihilation, etc. (even the language of Jesus in the Gospels causes some to wince or just ignore or interpret very metaphorically). The science of psychology is all about building up the ego, helping it function well. It does not know or recognize the area of experience which we are alluding to. A pop guru of the ‘60s, Ram Dass, once said that psychologists are “fender repairmen”—might be good to remember that he had been a Harvard psychologist before he “dropped out.” What he means is that psychology is really only concerned with the periphery of the human identity, not the core reality. It cannot answer the question: who am I? It cannot recognize that the ego self is embedded in a much deeper sense of self that cannot be objectified, cannot be the object of our analysis.
An entry from Abhishiktananda’s Diary, a reflection on the moment of his massive heart attack that soon led to his death:
“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this ‘I’ which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing. Disconnection! That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”
Perhaps we can borrow something from Buddhism to shed some more light on this topic. Mahayana Buddhism has this central doctrine of the Two Truths: relative truth and absolute truth. There are extensive and elaborate explanations of these, but here is a brief, succinct account from the magazine Lion’s Roar:
“What is the relationship between absolute reality-whatever that may be-and the relative world we inhabit? That question is at the heart of all religions. Mahayana Buddhism’s answer is called the two truths.
Relative truth includes all the dualistic phenomena- ourselves, other beings, material objects, thoughts, emotions, concepts-that make up our lives in this world. These are sometimes called maya, or illusion, because we mistakenly believe they are solid, separate, and independent realities. But the problem is not relative truth itself, which is basically good, but our misunderstanding of its nature. That is revealed when we understand….
Absolute truth is the reality beyond dualism of any kind. It’s also the true nature of relative phenomena. In Mahayana Buddhism, it can be called emptiness or interdependence. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term “interbeing.” In Vajrayana Buddhism, absolute reality is also referred to as space, complete openness, or primordial purity.
The two truths are what’s called a provisional teaching in Buddhism-helpful for where we are on our path but not the final truth. The final truth is that there is only one reality, and it unites the relative and absolute. Absolute truth is the true nature of the relative. Relative truth is the manifestation of the absolute.”
So perhaps it can be helpful to see our little ego self to be part of that relative truth of our everyday conventional existence. It has its importance as it is the ground of the manifestation of the absolute truth of our existence and our identity. Therefore it is good and proper to have a healthy ego, and the psychologist has a true role in this; but he/she do not have access to the absolute truth of our identity with the tools of their profession.
All human beings, but especially Westerners, have this amazing capacity to build up this ego self, becoming an elaborate construct like one of those fantastic sand castles some kids build out of beach sand. And I am afraid this ego construction is about as durable as that beach construction! Thus, the deep-seated anxiety about the whole project, and the therapist is there to help us live with that. We use wealth, power, status, achievements, reputation, sex, badges and markers of all kinds, etc., etc. in this construction. Even formal religion does not always provide a true diagnostic of what’s going on but in fact enhances the whole project with a religious clad version of all the above. Thomas Merton once said that it is truly a gift to meet the Zen “man of no title.”
The issue is “personhood.” I am a person; God is a person. Think how important that is especially in western thought. Politics and philosophy and religion and economics and psychology all are focused on this “reality.” Every one is looking for personal happiness, personal fulfillment, personal success, personal satisfaction, etc. But what is this “person,” what is personhood?” Again, what is this “I” that is doing all this seeking? Conservative Christians reject Buddhism and other Asian religions because these seem to deny or diminish this reality we call “personhood,” in regard to both the human and the divine. After all, what’s important for them is the “personal relationship” to Jesus, to God. The personhood of God and the personhood of the human being are the two poles around which their whole religious consciousness moves. In a sense one can see what their concern is; but one can also see the danger in this language of utter superficiality and trivializing the religious journey—which happens all too often. The “nafs,” the peripheral ego, becomes the norm and the guiding light to delineate “personhood.” Modern western culture almost automatically sets you up for this problem. But they also make the same mistake that Monchanin made, overlooking something very important.
Here I will recall one of my favorite quotes from Aquinas: “At the end of all our knowing we know God as something unknown; we are united with him as with something wholly unknown.” Indeed.
And who we are, then, is immersed in the depths of that very Mystery. At one point Abhishiktananda asks: “what constitutes personhood?” What Jesus communicates is at the heart of personhood in the absolute sense: that experience of being “from the Father” and “going to the Father.” If you wish you can drop that Semitic metaphor of “father” and simply insert “Mystery.” Who you are is embedded in the Mystery of the Ultimate Reality. As Abhishiktananda well recognized, Jesus reveals the ground of our advaita.
Let us conclude with a poem from Thomas Merton, “The Fall”:
“There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and there
You do not enter except without a story.
To enter there is to become unnameable.
Whoever is there is homeless for he has no door and no identity
with which to go out and to come in.
Whoever is nowhere is nobody, and therefore cannot exist except
No disguise will avail him anything.
Such a one is neither lost nor found.
But he who has an address is lost.
They fall, they fall into apartments and are securely established!
They find themselves in streets. They are licensed
To proceed from place to place
They now know their own names
They can name several friends and know
Their own telephones must some time ring.
If all telephones ring at once , if all names are shouted at once and
all cars crash at one crossing:
If all cities explode and fly away in dust
Yet identities refuse to be lost. There is a name and number for
There is a definite place for bodies, there are pigeon holes for
Such security can business buy!
Who would dare to go nameless in such a secure universe?
Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.
They bear with them in the center of nowhere the unborn flower
This is the paradise tree. It must remain unseen until words end
and arguments are silent.”