Expressions of Mysticism
A Well Trodden path…
by Michael Lewin
"Accept my words only when you have examined them for yourselves; do not accept them simply because of the reverence you have for me. Those who only have faith in me and affection for me will not find the final freedom. But those who have faith in the truth and are determined on the path, they will find awakening."
All the world religions contain at their core, a profound desire to search for spiritual truth. A path that leads us from the everyday reality of our rational world to venture forth, to search into the unknown, the 'beyond-ness' of our routine experience, and embrace the diversity and mystery of life. The Buddha's journey took him from a regal privileged position to that of an ascetic in search for the truth. He embraced and abandoned many spiritual practices in his quest before he surrendered to a deep and profound meditation under a bodhi tree where, as legend has it, he gained enlightenment. Such was his experience of awakening that he felt compelled to share his insights with a growing number of disciples that gathered around him. The truths that he discovered could not be repressed, ignored or denied, there was only one option available to him - to share his hard won wisdom with others.
Very few of us are brave enough to leave our familiar, comfortable life settings to embark on an austere, spiritual quest that can be fraught with personal hardship, adversity and difficulties. Thankfully seekers of truth like the Buddha have trod the mystical path to an eventual awakening.
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) was writing from a Christian perspective on mysticism at the beginning of the 20th century. Her work is still widely respected and highly regarded today providing us with a relevant, over-arching framework in which to understand this spiritual process. She outlines five stages of development that I believe are relevant to all spiritual traditions. In the search for ultimate truth Underhill identified the first stage as that of 'Awakening'. This is the opening up of our spiritual consciousness, the blossoming of a higher state of feeling and experience. for some it's a slow, natural, cumulative process; for others it's a sudden eruption, a surge of startling proportions. Often brought about through our exposure to Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) - a form of anxiety and discontent that we feel when our lives start to become unsteady, unmanageable and questionable in terms of meaning. Dukkha, in all its manifest forms, can act as a catalyst, a wake-up call that tells us that there is more to life than what we are currently living. And through our contact with this feeling of disconnectedness we can start to awaken to the idea of searching for a better way of being in this world.
Underhill calls the second stage 'Purgation'. This is where the spiritual aspirant - cleanses - his/her past unskilful deeds, feelings and intent. It's a purification process characterized by a rapidly growing awareness of personal fragility, vulnerability and imperfections. This stage is pragmatically driven finding expression in terms of engagement with practices that will move the aspirant forward into a more spiritually nourishing mode of being. Surfacing within them, acting as a key motivator, is a strong desire to leave the old, worn out ways of doing and being in order to explore a spiritual path that can lead to an eventual breakthrough into the nature of reality. Various methodological 'tools' can be harnessed for this process. The study of sutras, parables, doctrinal texts, theological discourses, etc: seeking counsel from elders: adopting a meditation and prayer practice: commitment to reflective and contemplative guidance: acknowledging and recognizing the power of direct experience and our innate intuition. finally, above all seeking out the ability to wait patiently in grounded stillness, simplicity and silence.
The third stage is one of 'Illumination'. Here Evelyn Underhill includes artists and other visionaries who have attained, through deep and enduring engagement, a transcendent vision. In her groundbreaking book: Practical Mysticism she cites the painters: Watteau, Turner, Manet, Degas and Cezanne - also the poets Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Whitman as artists who have penetrated the realms of transcendental truth and beauty. Traditionally artists have always occupied this place, exploring and experimenting, trying to draw the essence out of their particular aesthetic medium. Trying to take their chosen genre to new heights - to push it forward into a fresh and invigorating vision of what is, and here they rest. However, for the great mystics there are further stages to this process of mysticism…
Following the Spanish mystic St John of the Cross, Underhill names the next stage 'The Dark Night of the Soul'. Here is the point of selfquestioning and self-doubt. The journey has taken the mystic to the very edge of all they know, as far as their rational, intellectual mind can lead; suddenly they are confronted with a barrier that mirrors back confusion and bewilderment.
However, this is the very stage of metanoia (spiritual transformation) that can suddenly and quite dramatically turn things around. The American Mythologist Joseph Campbell referred to this point:
"Where you stumble, there your treasure is…The world is a match for us and we are a match for the world. And where it seems most challenging lies the greatest invitation to find deeper and greater powers within ourselves." With strength of character, strong resolve and dedication the mystic penetrates this chaos of confusion to find, on the other side insights on the true realm of reality. The dualism of the material, objective world starts to falter and slowly reveals another reality - that of a deeper truth, beauty and unity.
In the last stage, Underhill sees the final surrendering of the ego as a key factor. This process is called 'unselfing' and sums up succinctly the essence of what has taken place. It's a breakthrough to liberation, a new life, a new way of seeing things, a new way of being connected to the world. There is no going back once this higher state of consciousness is attained. In Buddhist terms it's often called perfect vision or even further - enlightenment. However, we must be cautious here. We cannot infer from this that the position is somehow remote, detached or removed from the real world of samsara. It is not an isolationist stance that is distant from the everyday pain and suffering that people endure. In fact it's the complete opposite; it's an actual centering in sympathetic understanding, compassion and forgiveness that sees the unity and sanctity in all life. The interconnectedness of everything into a unified whole. As a consequence there is a desire to contribute fully and completely to the general wellbeing of others, especially those that are going through difficult times. At one level it can be seen as a spiritual bonding where the psyche speaks of something much greater than the concept of ' me ' - whether it is called life, the Tao, God, Krishna or Allah.
Evelyn Underhill's five Stages of Mysticism do not constitute an exact description of the mystical path, even within the confines of Christianity. They are a compression and simplification of a very deep and profound process but they still, I would argue, provide a valuable framework from which we can learn - a spiritual paradigm in which we can begin to understand the process of spiritual transformation.
In his work the Divine Comedy, Dante reaches the last leg of his allegorical journey with Virgil. Up to now Virgil has been his guide and mentor but as they confront a mountain Virgil leaves Dante telling him that from now on this is spiritual territory and that Dante must journey alone, without guidance and support. Ultimately, the spiritual quest for enlightenment and liberation always rests firmly with the individual - no one else can undertake this journey for us. It is in essence a solitary pursuit like no other, although it should be grounded in appropriate preparation that reflects study and our counsel with elders. for without relevant accumulated wisdom and support we run the risk of being led astray into some esoteric realm that may not serve us well.
The mystic way is not purely for a spiritual elite, a few saints and ascetics with everyone else excluded. It is far more encompassing than this. It is a well trodden path, a living, breathing reality available and accessible to all of us in the common ground of our humanity. It is a pilgrimage to who we are, and importantly, who we can become. An astonishing journey we can undertake in the here and now, in this moment - it's never too late…
"Before enlightenment -
chopping wood, carrying water. After enlightenment - chopping wood, carrying water."
Underhill, Evelyn: Practical Mysticism: A little book for normal people (1915)
Top photo: Fiona Wells Martin