MY COMPLIMENTS OF THE SEASON TO YOU during this holiest if not much misunderstood event of the Christian calendar. I normally amble to the local Catholic church to pay my respects but there was no sign at all to say Mass was being celebrated yesterday – I have to think I missed it… surely. The idea that the church decided not to open up is beyond even my thinking. Good Friday came and went because of appalling weather conditions and nobody was seen venturing out, so that’s my excuse. Dear God, how I have badly slipped, but in my defence, I was reduced to overwhelming tears with bowed head as I listened to an Easter hymn on my ol’ $5 radio. It’s the staggering beauty, you see…
For some reason, I went to my in-house library yesterday and pulled out 3 favourite books by the American Christian contemplative, Bernadette Roberts. To my great sadness, the Internet tells me she died last November aged 86. I just wish more people had known about her incredible gift for understanding consciousness and the path to liberation. Without her, I would be in a padded cell writing, “Kill Clouseau” with blue chalk stuck between my toes. I mean that. I seriously considered trying to reach her when I found her literary works but recognising she was very old, I felt the questions I wanted to ask might take us into the next century. The plan to fly to California to attend her retreat was also turned off at the thought Trump refusing me entry because my name, Selima, is muslim. I certainly don’t need the excitement of that immigration hassle so decided to find the answers through my own experience.
I have, however, found a fantastic interview* with her online with the well-known spiritual counsellor and author, Stephan Bodian, parts of which I would like to precis here because she delineates for us the stages of unfolding – and specifically here, the stage beyond oneness or unity. I might add that she uses the word consciousness differently to me: hers means the separate self, mine is ground zero, i.e. awareness. This is similar to the different connotations to the word “mind” which for the Buddhists has a different definition to the psychologists’ – I believe the Buddhists deem “mind” to be the separate self too – but I digress … the italics are mine, those italics in red are my quips as I interject.
The text can be heavy, so I want to make this humorous from my side because retrospect is 20/20 and I like to teach with humour …
Here we go:
Stephan: Could you talk briefly about the 1st three stages of the Christian contemplative life as you experienced them – in particular what you (and others) have called the unitive state?
Bernadette (Edited): Strictly speaking, the terms purgative, illuminative and unitive do not refer to discreet stages, but to a way of travel where letting go, insight and union define the major experiences of the journey. My view of that which some authors called the “unitive stage” is that it begins with the Dark Night of the Spirit – or the onset of the transformational process – when the larva enters the cocoon, so to speak.
Up to this point, we are actively reforming ourselves, doing what we can to bring about an abiding union with the divine. But at a certain point, when we have done all we can, the divine steps in and takes over. The transforming process is a divine undoing and redoing that culminates in what is called the state of “transforming union” or “mystical marriage”, considered to be the definitive state of the Christian contemplative.
In experience, the onset of this process is the descent of the cloud of unknowing, which, because his former light had gone out and left him in darkness, the contemplative initially interprets as the divine gone into hiding. In modern terms, the descent of the cloud is actually the falling away of the ego-center, which leaves us looking into a dark hole, a void or empty space in ourselves. Without the veil of the ego-center, we do not recognise the divine; it is not as we thought it should be. Seeing the divine eye to eye is a reality that shatters of our expectations of light and bliss. From here on we must feel our way in the dark, and the special eye that allows us to see in the dark opens up at this time. Yes, tentative steps as if the blind is leading the blind – hands on the wall, feet fumbling, other senses on high alert. It’s not a good look.
So here begins our journey to the true center, the bottom-most, innermost “point” in ourselves where our life and being runs into divine life and being – the point at which all existence comes together. This center can be compared to a coin: on the near side is our self, on the far side is the divine. One side is not the other side, yet we cannot separate the two. We call this a state of oneness or union because the single center has 2 sides, without which there would be nothing to be one, united, or non-dual. Such at least is the experiential reality of the state of the transforming union, the state of oneness.
Stephan: How did you discover the further stage which you call the experience of no-self?
Bernadette: That occurred unexpectedly some 25 years after the transforming process. The divine center – the coin, or “true self” – suddenly disappeared, and without centre or circumference there is no self and no divine. Our subjective life of experience is over – the passage is finished. Jeez, are you kidding… (Forgive me my lack of literary prowess, I cannot control myself – that response came from the deep nowhere). The OVERRIDING sensation is “IT’S OVER”. To those who say, “How do you know?” The answer is that you have hit a brick wall – it’s a cul-de-sac. This is it. Over, zero, nothing left. It is a knowing realisation that there is nothing more to achieve, seek, do, want, etc. It is death into the divine).
Bernadette (continues): I had never head of such a possibility or happening. Obviously there is far more to the elusive experience we call self than just the ego. The paradox of our passage is that we really do not know what self or consciousness is, as long as we are living it, or are it. the true nature of self can only be fully disclosed when it is going, where there is no self.
No-Self, then, means no-consciousness. If this is shocking to some people, it is only because they do not know the true nature of consciousness, we forget that consciousness is also a somatic function of the physical body, and, like every such function, it is not eternal. I disagree – this has to do with definitions of consciousness as explained above. Consciousness for me is not somatic, it precedes all form and is the holding-field of all material and perceivable forms, and thus is seen within soma but not intrinsically so.
To understand what happens next (after the unified state), we have to keep cutting larger holes in the paper (she had previously described the moving outwards from the centre of awareness after the divine centre itself has disappeared). One more expansion of the divine center and the boundaries of consciousness, or self, fall away. The path from oneness to no-oneness is an egoless one and is therefore devoid of ego satisfaction. This part of the journey is not easy; heroic acts of selflessness are required to come to the end of self. I would add that there is impulse to do this because there are no other alternatives. One is still alive, that’s all.
The major temptation to be overcome in this period is the temptation to fall for one of the subtle but powerful archetypes of the collective unconsciousness. As I see it, in the transforming process we only come to terms with the archetypes of the personal unconscious; the archetypes are reserved for individuals in the state of oneness because those archetypes are powers of energies of that state, Jung felt that these archetypes were unlimited; but in fact, there is only one true archetype, and that archetype is self. Yes.
What is unlimited are the various masks or roles self is tempted to play in the state of oneness – saviour, prophet, healer, martyr, etc. They are temptations to seize power for ourselves.Both Christ and Buddha were tempted in this manner, but they held the “ground”: that they knew to be devoid of all such energies. Yes. I have written about my dismissal of Jung and Psychology in one of my first blogs here.
We cannot come to the ending of self until we have finally seen through these archetypes and can no longer be moved by them.
Stephan: In the Experience of No-Self you talk at great length about your experience of the dropping away or loss of self. Could you briefly describe this experience? I was particularly struck by your statement “I realised I no longer had a ‘within’ at all.” For so many of us, the spiritual life is experienced as an “inner life” – yet the great saints and sages have talked about going beyond any sense of inwardness. This is the most devastating realisation of all for me – that there is no within. My description was “hit through the abdomen like a cannonball”. There was NOTHING there. This has remained a zero spot to this day.
Bernadette: Your observation struck me as particularly astute; most people miss the point. You have put your finger on the key factor that distinguishes between the state of oneness and the state of no-oneness, between self and no-self. So long as a self remains, there will always be a center. Few people realise that not only is the center responsible for their interior experiences, of energy, emotion and feeling but also the center is our continuous mysterious experience of “life” and “being”. Yes, the whole damned lot goes.
If this center suddenly dissolves and disappears, the experiences of life, being, energy, feeling and so on come to an end because there is no”within” any more. And without a “within”, there is no subjective, psychologic, or spiritual life remaining – no experience of life at all. Exactly, and they call this divine. Exercise: Stop reading here, look up and notice an old lover walk in the door. Just before recognition (when the memories come back), as you compute who has disturbed you – notice you are way out of centre. THAT state is what we are discussing here… a permanent “non-state” to be pedantic.
Imagine consciousness (self) as a balloon filled with and suspended in divine air. The balloon experiences the divine immanent, “in” itself, as well as transcendent, beyond or outside itself. This is the experience of the divine in ourselves and ourselves in the divine: the state of oneness. But what makes this whole experience possible is the balloon, i.e., consciousness for self.
But what happens if we pop the balloon – or better, cause it to vanish like a bubble that leaves no residue. No, let’s pop it. God was hard on my balloon. All that remains is divine air. Divine?? Mis-nomenclature. There is no divine in anything, there is no transcendence or beyond anything, nor is the divine anything. That’s better. We cannot point to anything or anybody and say, “this or that is divine.” So the divine is all but consciousness or self (which created the division in the first place). Indeed. This is of course, the INITIAL experience. As it matures, it leads later to something beyond language.
In Christian terms, the divine known to consciousness (self) and experienced by it as immanent and transcendent is called God; the divine as it exists prior to consciousness (and after the self is gone) is called Godhead. Obviously, what accounts for the difference between God and Godhead is the balloon.
I will leave us dangling in mid-air with this thought because she continues to discuss the differences between the spiritual realisations of the Hindu and Buddhist masters compared with the Christian canon which is what I want to explore next time. It is fascinating. I will however admit a second moment of mine regarding the triumphant eradication of modern psychology which happened recently.
My sparring partner is a PhD in Theology (looking back it was bound to happen, I regret to say); and he was commenting on a paper of mine discussing the Myers-Brigg Personality Test derived from Jungian thought. I, of course, abhor anything like that and called it labelling and compartmentalising. I had further written about the great demands of modern life for a woman. It read something along the lines of, “Many women today face…” and for some apparently unprovoked reason, he made the comment that I should own this remark.
Of course, he was ticked off I had criticised his beloved test, but as I was paying for the privilege of his tantrum I wrote back immediately and thanked him for his remark asking him who should own the remark, and to describe that who… I really should have known better. My point is that I saw those tests used indiscriminately by the American banks in the 1970s and 80s to decide upon a potential candidate, and thought it was an outrage if not highly intrusive to determine the feasibility of a person seeking a job.
Did I think, “Take that, you and your PhD in Theology,” or,”Put that where the sun …, pal.”?
Pity, I can’t remember. Life arising in consciousness and all that empty space, you know …
With love and much Spring joy to you.
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/