To love “God,” love yourself as you would a spouse

3,700 words

1.

The Song of Songs

Nuptial imagery has been the gold standard for western mysticism from before the middle ages. Its origins can be traced to Christian antiquity when the Platonic mindset of Origen of Alexandria, who died in 254 c.e., reconceived the Biblical Book known as the “Song of Songs” as applicable to the individual Christian “soul” and its relationship to “God.”

The Song of Songs is a book of ancient Hebrew poetry celebrating the erotic love between a man and his lover incorporated into the Jewish Bible. It was originally used by the priests of the Temple to poetically characterize the relationship between Yahweh and the nation of Israel. It was an intentional theological application in which an individual relationship was taken as poetic metaphor for what was considered a literal collective reality.

The shift back to an individual understanding of those poems seems natural enough, especially for a Christianity that had embraced Platonism as the ultimate truth. The principal Platonic category dominating the Christian worldview was that the human person was a “soul,” ― individual, immaterial and immortal ― a “spirit” that was substantially distinct from the body which it inhabited as a temporary tenant. It had the ultimate effect of extracting the human person from the world of material things and situating it in another world where only “spiritual” entities resided. It eliminated the community as the primary locus of human reality and substituted the spiritual individual. For Platonists, the family, clan or nation were not “essential” ideas and therefore not “humanity.” Humanity resided in the human individual alone. The theory worked well for the Roman Empire and its state religion whose investiture with divine favor was claimed to supersede tribal prerogatives. The one imperial power, a theocracy chosen and protected by God, ruled a whole world of isolated individuals.

The other entities that inhabited Plato’s “real world” of ideas included, first and foremost, “God,” the One, Pure Spirit, uncontaminated with even the slightest hint of matter, and his Nous, Mind, Logos, a divine emanation who took the “One’s” creative ideas that constituted his own reality and “poured” them into amorphous matter as into an “empty receptacle” (Timaeus). Those ideas were spiritual realities which humans could access because they too were immaterial spirit.

“Spirit” for Plato was naturally immortal because it was not composed of parts as matter was. Not being composed meant it could not decompose, i.e., it could not die. But because, in the case of humankind, spirit was “married” to matter, the “soul” suffered the weaknesses and limitations of the body, the principal one of which was its inevitable decomposition. But being spirit, the human individual could transcend its material side, and in anticipation of the final liberation from the body at death, relate with increasing exclusivity to the spiritual world to which it alone among earthly entities belonged; that included not only “ideas” but also the One and its Mind. The “spiritual life” was conceived of as the “soul’s” systematic disengagement from the world of matter including its own body, and engagement with “spiritual” realities and entities, the highest of which was “God.”

But “God” was pure spirit and no shadow of matter existed in “God.” His Mind, Nous, Logos, was believed to play the role of mediator and interface with the world of matter, and that would of course include the human individual wedded to matter. Christian Platonists assimilated Jesus as Jewish messiah to the Nous or Logos, and generated a narrative in which “God” united humankind with “Him”self and His immortality through the incorporation of the human individual into the saving events of Jesus’ (Nous, Logos) death and resurrection in Christian baptism.

Thus, the achievement of immortality was imagined as the by-product of new relationship in which the original ties to the body and its communitarian relations ― the family and tribe ― were replaced by a “marriage” between “God” and the individual human soul, mediated by the Logos. This created a new universal community: the Catholic Church, identical to the Roman Empire when Constantine made it Rome’s state religion.

Hence, the nuptial imagery on display in the Bible’s Song of Songs became an aspirational symbol for Christian mystics. It was used to represent this union between “God” (mediated by Christ) and the human “soul.” Following Origen’s commentary, Greek Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa accepted it as part of the truths received from the Jewish tradition and even used it, to the degree that the poetics allowed, to draw theological conclusions. For Ambrose of Milan it revealed virginity to be more than a personal preference, it became a transcendent goal of Christian perfection. Because the Platonic theory said that both “God” and the “soul” were exactly alike insofar as they were “spirit-persons,” the nuptial imagery was increasingly taken literally. The patristic practice of commenting on the Song of Songs continued on through the Middle Ages. The commentaries and sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux composed about 1136 were probably the most famous and widely read; they were cited by Martin Luther as a principal influence on his own spiritual development, and may explain his insistence on maintaining the doctrine of the real presence in glaring contrast to most of his fellow reformers. As late as 1584, Spanish Carmelite John of the Cross wrote Spiritual Canticle, an exposition applying classic Thomistic theology to an understanding of The Song of Songs.

Despite its revered tradition, it’s my contention that the Christian importance accorded to the literal interpretation of the imagery established by the Song of Songs is intimately connected to the Platonic world­view, and for that reason false and misleading. Even if the LIFE that has extruded and enlivened the material universe could in some philosophical sense be called a “person,” it is not as we are persons, and LIFE does not interact with us as we interact with one another which is what the nuptial imagery projects. Most specifically, the erotic dimension so prominent in the Song is entirely inappropriate. Relationship to LIFE does not demand sexual fidelity which has been the common application since Origen. The celibacy it enjoined reinforced Plato’s denigration of sexuality as hostile to the human “spirit” and justified Augustine’s outrageous claim that sexual desire was a corruption of the human body and that sexual intercourse performed under its influence transmitted Adam’s sin from parent to offspring.

Not only does nuptial imagery falsify relationship to “God” but it reinforces a radical individualism that detaches the human being from family and its extensions in the local community, and through the fiction of a “marriage to God” leaves the individual psychologically isolated and vulnerable to the control of impersonal forces like despotic empires, exploitive masters and bosses, and totalitarian religious hierarchies. This individualism cultivated by Platonic Christianity impels the believer to reject natural solidarity and transfer loyalty to “God” and his Church-State agent. The power of religion to galvanize new artificially created conglomerates has been recognized and exploited by empire builders since before recorded history. Traditional Christianity is not alone in lending itself to these efforts.

Moreover, the dualist Platonism implied in the literal take on the traditional imagery is a primary obstacle preventing understanding between spiritual aspirants of Eastern and Western mystical traditions. But I emphasize literal. As with all religious imagery, the nuptial analogy is metaphor, and simply acknowledging that fact will go a long way in opening closed doors and beginning the journey to the universalism that I believe is the final result of sincere and authentic religious dialog.

 

2.

Spiritual growth: growing up

The similarity of the imagery in the Song of Songs to an erotic fantasy is obvious. The appeal it could have for isolated, sexually frustrated individuals creates the suspicion that the claims of mystics like John of the Cross might be pathological projection. Along with the paternal imagery about “God” cited by Freud, it seems to be an added example of how religion can be used to maintain the childhood dependencies that result from (and contribute to) the failure to achieve adulthood. That such consequences correlate with the political effects of individualism makes the traditional imagery even more questionable.

This anomaly of traditional mysticism needs to be rectified. I would like to approach the issue by first bracketing all religious belief about the nature of “God” and the “soul,” and look at things strictly from the point of view of human experience. I want to start with what I think is the true state of affairs, i.e., that the first step in spiritual growth is growing up. Maturation is the response to what we call “the human condition,” something that is true for all people everywhere and does not depend on religious belief of any kind. By “human condition” I mean the endemic, universal, inescapable “problem” of human dissatisfaction with the parameters of life available to human organisms on the planet. It is an immaturity identified with childhood; in is grossest form it displays itself as selfishness ― a refusal to accept the responsibilities of the collective struggle for survival.

Humankind seems to be the only species on earth that is capable of not being happy with itself. We are restive and feel trapped by the limited capabilities of our organisms, the unavoidable material and social/psychological demands of survival (i.e., work and family), and the nature of the human life-cycle which is vulnerable to trauma and disease, and necessarily includes old-age and death. This general dissatisfaction with being human defines us as different from all other forms of organic life, plant and animal, who seem to embrace their evolutionary inheritances ― which have virtually the same limitations as ours ― without question, and live out their organic destinies which include the struggle for collective survival with unmitigated enthusiasm.

I contend that the overarching pursuit for human beings is the thorough understanding and appreciation of exactly what we are and the decision to accept it. This is admittedly an intellectual quest, but it is undertaken as the necessary precondition for emotional self-acceptance. It is unavoidable. For it is the uniquely human feature of being reflexively self-conscious­ that lies at the root of the very possibility of imagining ourselves to be other than what and where we are, and therefore dissatisfied. Unlike all other animals who, as far as we can see, cannot imagine themselves differently from what they experience at any given moment, we humans must consciously choose to embrace what we are, and what we are doing, and the necessary prerequisite for that choice is understanding.

Laying out this premise in this way identifies the contours of the “human problem.” There is no solution that does not entail an accurate understanding of the boundaries and the possibilities of our situation ― what doors are closed and what doors are open ― and denying neither. No transcendent experience, no interpersonal relationship, no guarantee of survival or security here or hereafter, no accumulation of resources or of pleasurable, satisfying events, no accolade or recognition by others can substitute for knowing what we are as human organisms, acknowledging our limitations and responding to the demand of our potentials. The solution to the “human dilemma” is self-embrace; and it follows that unless we understand thoroughly, accurately, and without self-deception what we really are, what we can and can’t do, the possibility of choosing to-be something else, or wanting to be somewhere else ― some imaginary concoction ― is always there and bodes a continuance of the frustration. It is to fall right back into the problem, for that is exactly the nature of it. The human problem is that we are trying to be something that we are not and cannot be, in order to please and aggrandize ourselves at the expense of reality. Adulthood is the realistic acceptance of what we are ― and that includes both positive and negative ― bowing to what we cannot be or do, and obeying what our humanity demands of us.

The mystical quest

Being an adult is a basic condition of survival. But the total “end of sorrow” (words of the Bhagavad Gita) is the goal of the mystical quest and goes much further. It is not, as some believe, some kind of “end run” into an imaginary never-never land, an escape-fantasy chosen to avoid responsibility and struggle. The mystic begins with having achieved full responsible adulthood but goes far beyond simply tolerating our condition and reluctantly coping with the frustrations of life. The aim of mysticism is joy. There is no greater human achievement than to understand the full burden of our humanity and embrace it enthusiastically without disappointment, reserve, fear, reluctance or hesitation. All religious belief, all spiritual programs can be seen as attempts to reach such a state based on some set of beliefs thought to make it possible, and even mandatory.

In our case the beliefs begin with the discoveries of science. Science reverses ancient Platonic metaphysics which identified humanity with the individual relationship to “God” and “God’s” political agent, the state. Science identifies us as belonging to a universal community. Being human is a biological fact. Self-embrace, therefore, involves first of all, acknowledging that to be fully human is to have a human body, the result of the reproductive activity of male and female human beings. This applies to everyone. No one has to worry about becoming human through proper behavior, or “joining” the human family by some choice or another, like baptism. The human organism at birth is fully integrated into the evolving human community as it currently interacts with the material conditions of biological life on earth. Human Identity is biological in origin: clear, unambiguous and unchallengeable. This affects all of humankind. There are no distinctions, racial, ethnic, national, class, that make some more human and others less.

The second step, of course, is the details; it is the full elaboration of what being in a human community with this organism, evolved to this point of development from these people with this formation and on this earth, means. Unearthing the details is the work of meditation and mindfulness because it is a comprehensive self-conscious picture that must reflect reality. We are talking about understanding. If the end of sorrow is self-embrace ― accepting ourselves with the unmitigated enthusiasm that we see in all other forms of organic life ― it begins and ends with right thinking. We have to understand fully, without illusion, regret or rejection, exactly what we are where we belong and who belongs to us. The human community is universal. The responsibilities of mutually assisted survival bear on all of humankind. Those who do not see the egalitarian and universalist implications of this need to do some more meditating.

An integral part of this second step is the honest perception of the deformative influences on our “thinking who we are” made by parents, siblings, family and the local social environment; these are all time and place dependent and their self-aggrandizing inclinations must be acknowledged and corrected. We are born into the current of human history and we bear the marks (scars?) of our location in that flow. It determines, among other things, exactly how much knowledge about our evolutionary biological origins is available to us, and how aware we are of the universality of humankind. If knowing what we are is crucial to an effective self-embrace, when and where we were born and what deformities our local community has passed on to us enters decisively into the possibilities of accurate understanding. The discoveries of modern science are particularly relevant to this question, for the narrative that paints the picture of what we are has radically changed under its tutelage. We now know we are a universal family.

This leads into the third step in the process of growth ― if indeed it can be called a “step” because it is the point of it all ― the unreserved acquiescence to what we have come to understand ourselves to be in both our limitations and our potentials, talents and responsibilities. This step acknowledges that merely understanding what we are is no guarantee of success. There is always the possibility of resisting, rejecting, ignoring, avoiding, disdaining and even destroying ourselves. The social dimension, the global extent of our community of mutual support, is always the most vulnerable to selfishness ― individual or group. There is always the possibility of a regression back into childhood or pre-scientific myth; it is a prime example of the suppression of reality. Even after painting an accurate picture of what it means to belong to the global human community, the ultimate challenge remains: to embrace it lovingly, without disappointment, doubt, ambiguity or reserve. There are many who feel this is simply not possible. We are, they say, irremediably unreconciled to what we are; we would simply rather not be human the way humanness currently exists. Besides national, ethnic and religious conditioning accomplished so early in life that the individual cannot avoid being misshapen, they adduce the fact of universal death as proof of their claim. It’s difficult to undo childhood formation, and no one can accept death. An examination of this claim and the consequences of abandoning the quest for self-embrace because of it will be discussed in a later reflection.

I am using the word “embrace” in an effort to incorporate as much affectivity as possible into this final step. This is the defining mark of the mystical quest which is not satisfied with merely accepting life; it wants to love it. I am aware that the word can be taken in less than the sense of intense self-abandon and enthusiasm that I mean it to include. I want the word “embrace” to bear the emotional weight of the word “love” plus the sense of active personal engagement that makes love more than a passive self-pleasing experience and converts it into passionate commitment. Self-embrace is really intended to mean “falling in love with your life.”

Hence, the nuptial imagery of western mysticism. As a poetic metaphor for the loving self-embrace of the mystics, it is quite appropriate. Betrothal and marriage evoke the affective dimension that is the proper component of authentic self-embrace. But notice, it is metaphorical. I am not talking about being “married to God” but rather loving myself and the humankind into which I was born and through which I survive. But I not only love myself as I am programmed to do by the conatus of my organism, for if I am to achieve anything like the enthusiastic self-accep­tance that I see in the in the myriads of organisms ― plant, animal, insect, fish ― that surround me on this planet, who all live in a state of total joy, I have to do more than just passively “accept” myself or tolerate my life. I must fall in love with myself as I have been made and, as is so poignantly expressed in the marriage vow, “abandon all other” imaginary ways of being. I have to fall madly in love with being human as I am with all the moral and social burden that comes with it. This is the goal of mysticism: not a mental escape but a total joy that puts me in sync with all the other forms of living organism evolved by matter’s energy.

This “fidelity” which requires “forsaking” anything other than what I really am, means “letting go” of any and all imaginary constructs ― selfish fantasies of escape ― that do not correspond to what is possible to and demanded by my humanity. My body bears forward in me the direction and intensity of the extroverted existential energy released at the birth of our universe. Matter’s energy comes to me in a highly evolved form. Material energy that comprises my organism is not a tabula rasa. It is already spoken for. It is an unquenchable energy focused on being-here that, in the pursuit of ever greater expansion has molted first into living and then into reflexive self-con­scious form. That is not a revealed truth but an undeniable fact drawn from 14 billion years of observed behavior and demonstrated direction. Material energy is committed to universal availability ― the work of limitless abundance. My body is composed of this existentially committed energy.

This introduces another perspective that reinforces the validity of the nuptial imagery. This existential commitment to an ever-expanding abundance on the part of matter gives me a sense of the “otherness” of the living energy that resides in the components of my organism. My self-embrace is ultimately grounded in the prior presence of this energy that is undeniably independent of me and present in everything else in the material universe. It suggests that I am not only myself; LIFE transcends me. The LIFE that I enjoy and that energizes my every thought and desire is 14 billion years old and was not my creation either in design or production. This “outside” source of my “inside” energy puts me in the presence of a mysterious wellspring that I call LIFE. It suggests a unique immanent relationship between myself and that source that I did not initially suspect was there, and it reboots my relationship to all other things constituted of this selfsame living material energy: it makes all other things made of this universal matter, in some sense, “me.” This train has been running for 14 billion years and shows no sign of changing course or slowing down. We’re already on board when we awaken to its reality. Once we understand that WE ARE THAT, everything falls into place. We are at home in the universe.

I and my source are one and the same thing. My ancient pre-scientific tradition may not have completely anticipated that my unity with my source and creator had such a concrete ground and was so total, but it seems to have at least suspected that it was more than met the eye because since ancient times it characterized the relationship as “nuptial.” The implication was that the two were one flesh.

Being “married to God” is a poetic symbol that can be used to evoke our relationship to that in which we live and move and have our being. Like all poetry it becomes grotesque and meaningless if it is taken literally. Alongside of other poetic symbols that come down to us from our pre-scientific ancestors, it can remind us who we are, and what we are doing here. These are things, for some reason, we all find easy to forget.

 

 

JOY

3,200 words

Both Buddha and Jesus offer their followers a life of sustained joy ― Buddhists through constant ascetical practice, and Christians through faith in Jesus’ message and the witness of his life and death. Where does the joy come from? I contend that in both cases it comes simply from being alive ― being-here as you are. Neither adds anything to life as it is..

Joy is the natural state of all living things. This is also true of human beings. Look at the infant. Except when it’s hungry or lacking something it needs, it lives in a state of spontaneous and unmitigated joy ― unsuspicious, unthinking, unmotivated, unselfconscious, unyearning, un-nostalgic, imageless, aimless, care-less, joy. How is that possible? Because the infant wants what it has and has what it wants. What does it have besides being alive? Nothing. What more does it want? Nothing. Its joy comes exclusively from being here exactly as it is.

What about mother’s love? It’s taken for granted. Mom is no big surprise . . . She did not implant the joy, it was already there, she simply became part of it … just another strand in the seamless cloth of the joy of being alive. The infant lives in total joy because it is totally identified with its life; it fully embraces what it is. It has no idea it is a separate and helpless “self.” It loves its life. It has no regrets or nostalgia for the past, it has no hopes or fears for the future. It has no thoughts or images. It wants nothing else but being-here, and it has what it wants.[1]

The “absorption” or “immersion” that Buddhists often speak of, refers to the ultimate result claimed for meditation, arrived at only after years of continuous practice, but adumbrated much sooner, where the practitioner’s cognitive and affective self-appropriation begins to resemble the simple, all-inclusive self-embrace of the infant. The joy experienced does not come from somewhere else or someone or something outside, like “God” or some other “lover,” or from some accretion added in the course of life, like wealth or possessions or children or the recognition of the community, nor does it come from any secure hold on the continuation of life after death because even for those who believe in such a thing, it is a future hope, not a present possession. Joy comes from only one source: being alive as oneself.[2] It recapitulates the joy of the infant who has what she wants and wants what she has. Those that do not arrive at such a point of balanced stillness may not be suffering, but they do not experience joy.

Seen from this perspective, the difficulties and discoveries encountered in the process of living add obstacles to the infant’s simple self-appropriation and self-apprecia­tion. Those obstacles come in the form of deceptions that generate and distort our desires, deflecting them from wanting what we have and having what we want towards ersatz “outside” goals that do not satisfy human hunger. The Buddha claims that what we want is LIFE, and that we already have it. His program, then, is a negative, subtractive one: it is a “letting go” designed to eradicate the deceptions, empty desires and false goals ― all “other” than what we are ― that prevent us from resting in the LIFE that we have and are.

The “self”

One of the principal deceptions to which Buddha directs his corrective program is the “self.” He claims that what we call the “self” is a figment of our imagination, a fiction concocted to assign roles and responsibilities within society. We tend to think of the self as a real, separate, stand-alone entity. It is the feeling of certainty about the substantial reality of the self that lends credibility to the projection that we live on after death.

But for Buddha there is no such thing as an independent self. In fact, he says, everything that we identify as the constitutive elements of our self is the product of a myriad of causes that are not in any way our selves. My very body, for example, was not produced or designed by me, I did not determine my genetic components, my gender, intelligence, strength, size, appearance, much less the later basic psychological formations stamped on me by childhood experiences with these parents and these siblings. I did not choose the language I would speak, the cultural beliefs that I would embrace as undebatable truth, my religion, the amount and quality of education I would receive. Everywhere I look, as I meditate deeply on what has gone into making me to be me, I find that all those constitutive factors were not me. I “arose” from a multitude of “non-self” causes that conspired to produce what I call my “self.”

Modern science adds background to this panoply of “non-self” influences. The most important one is time. The evolutionary origins of living things means that the human organism was the slow and painstaking product of eons of development spearheaded by ancestors that we would hardly recognize as human, who were in turn the inheritors of even more ancient forebears who definitely were not. We are all descended from primitive progenitors who bequeathed these spectacular evolutionary achieve­ments to all of us. What are we but the ultimate leaves on a massive ancient tree of life that has been growing since the beginning of time.

The Buddha said that the “establishment” of mindfulness of the body ― by which he meant, the full and sustained realization of everything that went into making my body ― would lead to the awareness of “no-self.” “No-self” means that the belief that the self is a stand-alone “thing,” separate, independent, and distinct from other “things,” comes to be understood and felt deeply to be a fiction. The long range effect is the clear-eyed perception of my self as the product of virtually the totality of the evolving material universe which I have heretofore erroneously thought of as “not myself.” It is confirmed by the scientific identification of all existing things in our universe as being comprised of the very same material energy in each and every instance. Everything is made of the same clay. Nothing is only “itself.”

Buddha’s exercises are designed to reduce the insistent demands of the false “self” for aggrandizement and satisfaction of desires all of which become obstacles for wanting what I have and seeing that I already have what I want. For it is the very decision to comply with those false demands that creates and sustains the inflated sense of self. The self as a separate stand-alone entity is conjured into existence by chasing the wind, and chasing the wind keeps the inflated self visible like a hologram ― a surreal projected image of what is not really there. Its voracious and insatiable appetite is created and sustained by “feeding the tiger blood” ― attempting to satisfy the cravings of what is only the product of our imagination.  And I know they’re imaginary because when I stop feeding them they go away.

Institutional Christianity and Jesus’ message of joy

Traditional institutional Christianity as we have inherited it at least since the time of its Roman Imperial iteration, claims that Christian joy is the result of faith in the promises of an afterlife of bliss, the reward of a life lived in compliance with the commandments of “God” as identified and codified by “God’s” exclusive agent on earth, the Christian Church. It warns us that happiness is not possible in this valley of tears; it is not natural for us to be happy. Thinking otherwise is delusional and dangerous. Secure happiness only comes after death and is a gift of God, earned for us by the death of Christ paying for our sins. It says Original Sin passed on to us a human nature that is irremediably corrupt and distorted. It is responsible for the bodily cravings that incline us to disobey the commandments. These urges can be contained and controlled through the infusions of a quasi-substance called “grace,” from the accumulation of Christ’s earnings, that is delivered through the sacraments, which are rituals regularly performed in the Church precincts by an elite corps of males and attended by believing Christians. Participation in those rituals is a requirement, for they are the exclusive vehicle for the “grace” needed to control desires and avoid sin. Dying in sin means punishment for all eternity in excruciating torment. Hence belonging to the Church is not optional. Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, “outside the Church there is no salvation.”

That description stands in stark contrast with the message of Jesus, whom the Church likes to claim it follows. But I contend that for Jesus and those who follow his counsels, joy is not created by rewards from God or by the assurance of continuous existence after death. The consolations of faith as Jesus taught it have to do with the awareness of being loved by a compassionate, generous and forgiving “Father,” and the self-appreciation that that evokes, not from any sense that life will go on forever. Jesus’ message had great magnetism. Following Jesus meant learning, credibly and palpably, who you were by being presented with the living dynamism of God’s loving-kindness in Jesus’ words and comportment. He embodied that love, as the Buddha embodied compassion, and in each case the messenger became a central piece of the message ― the “religion” ― that emerged from their work. People were transformed in their presence, and the change in their attitudes and behavior made them happy ― “blessed” ― as described in the beatitudes (Mt 5: 1-12). What the message announced was not a new product or a new contract or a way out of dying, but a new and definitive appreciation of yourself. “Forgiveness,” the leitmotiv of Jesus’ message, gave you back yourself.

Both these teachers, I contend, were focused on the same phenomenon: a joyful, loving self-embrace that implicitly included the whole universe. You came to love yourself for what you were: what we describe scientifically today as the extrusion of cosmic evolution. The Buddha pursued it systematically. He carefully analyzed, classified, and prioritized the psychological dynamics that worked in his own case and then presented it in detail to those who followed him. Meditation and mindfulness were the key because Buddha saw that by controlling the mental images that drifted unconsciously through our minds, we could shape and direct what we thought about ourselves and ultimately the actions we took to protect and advance ourselves. “As irrigators lead water to their fields, as archers aim their arrows, as carpenters carve wood, the wise shape their lives.” (Dhammapada, 10: 145).

Controlling the mind was the key to controlling the way we lived. Thinking the right thoughts meant realizing that the self is the sustained product of the whole evolving universe and that protecting and advancing your self meant protecting and advancing the totality. Thus was born the selfless compassion and universal love that characterizes the Buddhist vision.  Once you realize that your self is the offspring of whole universe, you stop living for yourself and your embrace expands to include everything and everybody. You begin to understand that your selfishness was the result of deception not malice, and that the selfishness of others must be understood the same way.

In Jesus’ case, his blinding insight into the warmth and forgiving generosity of Yahweh, his “father,” dominated his imagination. Jewish people who were intimately familiar with the same psalms and prophets that had inspired Jesus resonated with his message. They knew exactly what he was talking about because since the return from the exile, Yahweh’s forgiveness and compassion had displaced Judaism’s earlier focus on power and punishment in their contract with their God. Having failed to keep the commandments was now understood to be met with forgiveness, not punishment.

In Jesus’ scheme of things, as is clear in the narratives and letters of the New Testament, this transformation was believed to occur instantaneously. It was called metanoia, in Greek, a “change of mind” usually translated “conversion” or sometimes “repentance.” Jesus himself had such an experience at the start of his mission. It is produced by being overwhelmed by the sense of invulnerable self-worth implicit in the message of the fatherly love of “God.” Once, as the Christmas carol says, “the soul knew its worth,” a global change in attitude and behavior occurred automatically. The Christian convert experienced a self-acceptance and concurrent joy that was often described as “being born again.” The moral compliance, compassion and generosity toward others, and the enthusiasm to work for justice and peace that followed could hardly be called obedience.

The Buddha, clearly, while he did not rule it out, did not expect any such instantaneous transformation. His message amounted to the systematization of the process of learning to rethink who you were (and who others were), using moral and socially cooperative behavior as a tool for identifying correct imagery about yourself and re-training your mind to embrace it. The Dharma, the “natural law” provided the content for meditation, like an image to be copied, and the practice of constantly being aware of and controlling the images that drifted through your mind was the work of a lifetime. Whether you sat for long periods silently meditating about conforming to the Dharma, or understanding “no-self,” or undoing the judgmental “knots” in your mind about yourself and others tied by the false belief that you were an independent and separate “self” amassing and accumulating “stuff” for an illusory endless living, you were constantly occupied with re-training your mind to see itself as an integral part of a larger whole and identify yourself with others. “As archers aim their arrows, the wise aim their restless thoughts, hard to aim, hard to restrain.” (Dhamma­pada 3: 33)

At some point the practitioners’ behavior and attitude begin to conspicuously resemble the Dharma on which they meditate, generating the beginnings of a deep self-respect and self-appreciation ― a forgiveness of yourself and others. Then, meditative concentration becomes more sustained and intense over time until the practitioners become totally absorbed in the objects of their contemplation and mental striving, which, because of the focus on “no-self” tends toward “non-duality:” i.e., that there is no distinction between the self and the non-self and there develops a sense of immersion in the totality of being. It’s then that the joyful, self-oblivious self-embrace of infancy begins to re-emerge. The distinction between oneself, others and the rest of reality blurs, becomes irrelevant and tends to disappear.

The remarkable Meister Eckhart

Efforts of Christians to find a way to sustain the transformations of conversion, led to experiments in systematization that were not unlike the Buddhists’ and generated similar insights. The following passages come from a Christian mediaeval mystic and theologian, Johannes Eckhart, called “Meister.” They are from a sermon designated #52 and entitled “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit …” a reference to one of the beatitudes of Mt 5. It was written in the vernacular German in the fourteenth century, most likely in the decade after 1310.

Eckhart’s theology relied on Neo-Platonic philosophy to a degree that was not true of his scholastic contemporaries. Neo-Platonism held to the pre-existence of the “soul” before birth, which Eckhart understands to be an ocean of undifferentiated being where the “soul” is immersed, indistinguishably, with all things and “God.” Eckhart uses that theory as an explanatory backdrop for his mystical teaching about “blessedness” (which we should remember means “happiness”). But what is important to me is not the speculative metaphysical explanation, but the description of the lived experience. The similarity to the notions explored in this essay is easily discernible. (All quotation marks are from Eckhart himself). He is trying to explain how “poverty of spirit” equates to blessedness:

… so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.

When I stood in my first cause, I had no “God,” and then I was my own cause. I wanted nothing, I longed for nothing for I was an empty being and the only truth in which I rejoiced was in the knowledge of myself. Then it was myself I wanted and nothing else. What I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted and so I stood empty of God and everything. But when I received my created being, then I had a “God,” for before there were any creatures, God was not “God,” but he was what he was.[3]

. . . so therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of “God” and that we may apprehend and rejoice in that everlasting truth in which the highest angel, and the fly, and the soul are equal ― there where I was established, where I wanted what I was and was what I wanted. So I say, if a man is to become poor in his will he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way, a man is poor who wants nothing.

. . .   [Blessedness] does not consist in either knowing or loving; but there is something in the soul from which knowing and loving flow that does not know or love … Whoever knows this knows in what blessedness consists. That something has neither before nor after, and is not waiting for anything that is to come, for it can neither gain nor lose. … it is itself the very thing that rejoices in itself as God does in himself. … The authorities say that God is a being and a rational one., and that he knows all things. I say that God is neither being nor rational, and that he does not know this or that. Therefore God is free of all things, and therefore he is all things.

. . . In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of my will and of God’s will and of God himself, then I am above all created things and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain now and eternally … in this breaking-through I discover that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase … with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find. [4]

 

[1] I am tempted to include here my belief that the wellspring of this stillness, this complete contentment with just being-here, is that matter’s living energy is existence itself, the ultimate eternal reality, the stasis beyond all change, the final equilibrium. Matter’s living energy is being: there is no “nothing” that preceded it from which it came. Nothing preceded it; there is no such “thing” as “nothing.” Being is first, only, everywhere and always. This will be elaborated at another time.

[2] This is corroborated by the poverty which is enjoined on Christian and Buddhist aspirants alike. Likewise, one of the goals of all mystical traditions, declared explicitly by the Sufis, is to achieve a love of “God” that is totally detached from any desire for heaven or fear of hell.

[3] The comment of Bernard McGinn, the translator and editor, on this particular phrase is that it is an allusion to Ex 3:14, “I am what I am,” which modern exegetes agree was a way of emphasizing the unknowability of God.

[4] Colledge and McGinn tr. Meister Eckhart, Paulist Press, 1981, pp. 199-201