I WANT TO RETURN TO A subject I was discussing at Easter which I omitted to address in my last post. I was contemplating the interview between Bernadette Roberts and Stephan Bodian and interpreting it from the EmW perspective, and so I will continue as before. Here is the original discussion:
My emphases are in italics; my interjections in red/italic. I have edited the interview because it is philosophically heavy so I’ll comment humorously, and remember Bernadette’s ‘consciousness’ is the separate self – my ‘consciousness’ is pure awareness:
Bernadette: As long as any subjective self remains, a center remains; and so, too, does the sense of interiority. And proprietary.
Stephan: You mention that, with the loss of the personal self, the personal God drops away as well. Is the personal God, then, a transitional figure in our search for ultimate loss of self?
Bernadette: Sometimes we forget that we cannot put our finger on anything or any experience that is not transitional. Since consciousness, self, or subject is the human faculty for experiencing the divine, every such experience is personally subjective; thus in my view, “personal God” is any subjective experience of the divine. Yes.
Without a personal, subjective self, we could not even speak of an impersonal, non-subjective God; one is just relative to the other. Before consciousness or self existed, however, the divine was neither personal nor impersonal, subjective nor non-subjective i.e. pure awareness – and so the divine remains when self or consciousness has dropped away.
Consciousness by its very nature tends to make the divine into its own image and likeness; – hence the rise of religions – the only problem is, the divine has no image or likeness. Hence consciousness, of itself, cannot truly apprehend the divine. Clear.
Christians (Catholics especially) are often blamed for being the great image makers, yet their images are so obviously naive and easy to see through, we often miss the more subtle, formless images by which consciousness fashions the divine. I would offer that the Hindus are major image makers, the Buddhists lesser so; the Muslims are forbidden to deify the Absolute in form as also in orthodox Judaism.
For example, because the divine is a subjective experience, we think the divine is a subject; because we experience the divine through the faculties of consciousness, will, and intellect, we think the divine is equally consciousness, will and intellect; because we experience ourselves as a being or entity, we experience the divine as a being or entity; because we judge others, we think the divine judges others; and so on.
Carrying a holy card in our pockets is tame compared to the formless notions we carry around in our minds; it is easy to let go of an image, but almost impossible to uproot our intellectual convictions based on the experiences of consciousness. And cultural/familial programming.
Still, if we actually knew the unbridgeable chasm that lies between the true nature of consciousness or self and the true nature of the divine, we would despair of ever making the journey. Not necessarily today – some have seen the Absolute at a very young age. It’s about remembering. Today, there is a massive awakening happening, without question.
So consciousness is the marvelous divine invention by which human beings make the journey in subjective companionship with the divine; and, like every divine invention, it works.
Consciousness both hides the chasm and bridges it – and when we have crossed over, of course, we do not need the bridge any more. So it doesn’t matter that we start out on our journey with our holy cards, gongs and bells, sacred books and religious feelings. All of it should lead to growth and transformation, the ultimate surrender of our images and concepts, and a life of selfless giving. Indeed – whichever religion, whichever culture. They all point to ultimate surrender.
When there is nothing left to surrender, nothing left to give, only then can we come to the end of the passage – the ending of consciousness and its personally subjective God. One glimpse of the Godhead, and no one would want God back. Bernadette was a tough-speaking Californian; she said it as it is! She means the subjective God of our imagination. But I love this … and yes, she’s right.
Stephan: How does the path to no-self in the Christian contemplative tradition differ from the path as laid out in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?
Bernadette: I think it may be too late for me to ever have a good understanding of how other religions make this passage. She was 55 here.
If you are not surrendering your whole being, your very consciousness, to a loved and trusted personal God, then what are you surrendering it to? Or why surrender it at all? Loss of ego, loss of self, is just a by-product of this surrender; it is not the true goal, not an end in itself.
Perhaps this is also the view of Mahayana Buddhism, where the goal is to save all sentient beings from suffering, and where loss of ego, loss of self, is seen as a means to a greater end. This view is very much in keeping with the Christian desire to save all souls. Yes.
As I see it, without a personal God, the Buddhist must have a much stronger faith in the “unconditioned and unbegotten” than is required of the Christian contemplative, who experiences the passage as a divine doing, and in no way a self-doing. Yes, with the idea that the Buddhists seek the unbegotten/unmanifest and the Christians are sought by the unbegotten to save their souls – “God is looking for you…”
Actually, I met up with Buddhism only at the end of my journey, after the no-self experience. That was the same for me, except I did not have the Christian perceptive per se as I had moved into eastern contemplation many years ago. The Catholic church was the epitome of hypocrisy and pomp so I moved towards the rising sun.
Since I knew that this experience was not articulated in our contemplative literature, I went to the library to see if it could be found in the Eastern Religions. This is very interesting. In the entire canon of Christian literature, there is no reference to the no-self experience except for Meister Eckhart who alluded to it. St John of the Cross skirted around the possibility but deemed it impossible when man is incarnate.
It did not take me long to realize that I would not find it in the Hindu tradition, where, as I see it, the final state is equivalent to the Christian experience of oneness or transforming union. If a Hindu had what I call the no-self experience, it would be the sudden, unexpected disappearance of the Atman-Brahman, the divine Self in the “cave of the heart”, and the disappearance of the cave as well. This is an extraordinary observation. Bernadette was 10 years as a Carmelite lay-nun and speaks from pure experience about the state of unity with God and divine bliss. She is stating that the final Hindu state is not complete.
It would be the ending of God-consciousness, or transcendental consciousness – that seemingly bottomless experience of “being”, “consciousness”, and “bliss” that articulates the state of oneness.
To regard this ending as the falling away of the ego is a grave error; ego must fall away before the state of oneness can be realized. Yes.
The no-self experience is the falling away of this previously realized transcendent state. Unity with God has vanished with the bath water, in effect.
Initially, when I looked into Buddhism, I did not find the experience of no-self there either; yet I intuited that it had to be there. The falling away of the ego is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it would not account for the fact that Buddhism became a separate religion, nor would it account for the Buddhist’s insistence on no eternal Self – be it divine, individual or the two in one. This is important for its logic.
I felt that the key difference between these two religions was the no-self experience, the falling away of the true Self, Atman-Brahman. Revelation!
Unfortunately, what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, craving, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless state of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. I know this to be a fact after discussing with the Zen Master from Japan. The falling away of the ego is a completely different event from the no-self happening and my own experience validates this. It was the entire evacuation of a distinct energy field containing everything that I ‘felt’ as my individuation.
Unless we clearly distinguish between these two very different experiences, we only confuse them, with the inevitable result that the true no-self experience becomes lost.
If we think the falling away of the ego, with its ensuing transformation and oneness, is the no-self experience, then what shall we call the much further experience when this egoless oneness falls away? Most people do not know a final step exists.
In actual experience there is only one thing to call it, the “no-self experience”; it lends itself to no other possible articulation. Exactly.
Initially, I gave up looking for this experience in the Buddhist literature. Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” Yes. I could not feel my body separate from the ‘outer’ world. There was no separation; just absolutely nothing left. I could not navigate space between objects because I had no sense of the size of my individual field as it no longer existed for me.
And there it was – the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bulls-eye. It was a remarkable find. Agreed.
These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on.
In the same verse he says, “Again a house thou shall not build,” clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a “true center,” a sturdy, balanced ridgepole. Also known as self-development, empowerment of the self, therapy, psychology, etc. The fact that is experientially realised is that there is NO centre at all – just pure, unbounded emptiness. This is why I take unmitigated glee in putting Jung to bed, and, yes, I should know better.
As a Christian, I saw the no-self experience as the true nature of Christ’s death, the movement beyond even is oneness with the divine, the movement from God to Godhead. Though not articulated in contemplative literature, Christ dramatized this experience on the cross for all ages to see and ponder. She claims in her books that when Jesus cried on the cross, “Father, why have thou forsaken me?” He realised at that moment that there was no external Father… this is a Christian interpretation, of course, but it begs contemplation.
Where Buddha described the experience, Christ manifested it without words; yet they both make the same statement and reveal the same truth – that ultimately, eternal life is beyond self or consciousness. After one has seen it manifested or heard it said, the only thing left is to experience it. Yes, and to explore what is left.
Stephan: You mention in The Path to No-Self that the unitive state is the “true state in which God intended every person to live his mature years.” Yet so few of us ever achieve this unitive state. What is it about the way we live right now that prevents us from doing so? Do you think it is our preoccupation with material success, technology, and personal accomplishment? I am not sure what is meant here by unitive state – Hindu or Buddhist? The no-self is not a state because it cannot be changed.
Bernadette: First of all, I think there are more people in the state of oneness than we realize. For everyone we hear about there are thousands we will never hear about. Believing this state to be a rare achievement can be an impediment in itself. Unfortunately, those who write about it have a way of making it sound more extraordinary and blissful that it commonly is, and so false expectations are another impediment – we keep waiting and looking for an experience or state that never comes. But if I had to put my finger on the primary obstacle, I would say it is having wrong views of the journey.
Paradoxical though it may seem, the passage through consciousness or self moves contrary to self, rubs it the wrong way – and in the end, will even rub it out. Because this passage goes against the grain of self, it is, therefore, a path of suffering. Yes.
Both Christ and Buddha saw the passage as one of suffering, and basically found identical ways out. Yes.
What they discovered and revealed to us was that each of us has within himself or herself a “stillpoint” – comparable, perhaps to the eye of a cyclone, a spot or center of calm, imperturbability, and non-movement.
Buddha articulated this central eye in negative terms as “emptiness” or “void”, a refuge from the swirling cyclone of endless suffering. Christ articulated the eye in more positive terms as the “Kingdom of God” or the “Spirit within”, a place of refuge and salvation from a suffering self. Important.
For both of them, the easy out was first to find that stillpoint and then, by attaching ourselves to it, by becoming one with it, to find a stabilizing, balanced anchor in our lives. I don’t think this is well explained or clear. Bernadette and Stephan are discussing the state of unity not no-self. Both the Buddha and Christ at this stage are attaching the suffering self to the stillness of the inner void and becoming one with it. There is still a functioning entity here – no-self has no understanding of this. The entire experience of no-self is one of complete emptiness without bliss and extraordinariness. It is a step beyond. See below.
After that, the cyclone is gradually drawn into the eye, and the suffering self comes to an end. And when there is no longer a cyclone, there is also no longer an eye. So the storms, crises, and sufferings of life are a way of finding the eye. Sure – we find the still point of retreat when life become hell.
When everything is going our way, we do not see the eye, and we feel no need to find it. But when everything is going against us, then we find the eye. So the avoidance of suffering and the desire to have everything go our own way runs contrary to the whole movement of our journey; it is all a wrong view. Correct.
With the right view, however, one should be able to come to the state of oneness in six or seven years – years not merely of suffering, but years of enlightenment, for right suffering is the essence of enlightenment. Again, this implies the state of unity is the final step. It is not.
Because self is everyone’s experience underlying all culture. I do not regard cultural wrong views as an excuse for not searching out right views. After all, each person’s passage is his or her own; there is no such thing as a collective passage. Most certainly.
In this small extract, we see that Bernadette has isolated the major difference between the Hindus and the Buddhists as far as I have experienced it too. We have to remember that the Buddha would have been a Hindu, so what happened to him that differentiated his experience from the phenomenal and ancient traditional spiritual teachings of India? The step beyond unity with the divine – the no-self. Otherwise, the Buddha would have just been a realised Hindu master merged with the divine. As for the Christian tradition, understanding her works has made me re-think the crucifixion, ascension and reincarnation, and I have realised that Christianity might need a second look.
The experience of no-self is the death of the illusory, separate self – something entirely created out of fantasy – not the merging of the self into anything divine. It is known as the Great Death in Zen Buddhism, and forgive my light-heartedness, but it is when you know you are kicking the bucket and watching the process, but realise something is still here. And then, as I have regularly expressed, the work really begins if you were unprepared.
Bernadette also makes a vital observation about each person’s passage is their own. This is the most important thing we have to remember. It explains why there are apparent discrepancies in ‘teachings’ because often we cannot determine whether it is the man or the teacher who is talking. We are human, and, please believe me, so are the so-called gurus. I have seen such appalling blindness in spiritual groups slavishly following their white-bearded holy men garbed up for performance that it leaves me stunned. For me, those on the path HAVE to learn discrimination and not play follow my leader. Don’t confuse the exotic for the excitement – you are not aiming to munch mushrooms and drift off into bliss because you will find out that you have to return to pay the mortgage, put gas in the car and wipe off dog crap from your shoes. FACT.
It is HERE where you will learn to see the separate self, as life delivers you blitz-schnell uppercuts hard to the jaw to round your corners and smarten up to the realisation that you are nobody at all, and when that happens, you have found utopia.
Selima Gurtler is a spiritual writer, philosopher, poet and Jnana yogi.
Her modern teachings to Self-Realization and Liberation are uniquely flavoured through the perceptive eyes of her Indian and European heritage.
Free copies of her books are available for download here: https://www.emwpeace.org/publications/
His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Grace Archbishop Desmond Tutu are patrons of her work.
- Extracted and edited for brevity from Stephan Bodman’s interview with Bernadette Roberts from his book Timeless Visions, Healing Voices, copyright 1991. (www.stephanbodian.org). Taken from his exclusive interview in Yoga Journal Nov/Dec 1986 seen here: http://www.spiritualteachers.org/bernadette-roberts-interview/