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Souls Ascend and Descend

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Philosophy, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Imaginal, The Soul

“Although both [soul and spirit] are transpersonal, spirit takes you in one direction from the conscious mind or personality, and soul takes you in the other. The movement toward spirit is a journey of ascent, a journey of transcendence, while the movement toward your soul is a journey of descent, or what Thomas Berry calls “inscendence,” a journey that deepens.”

“Transcendence is commonly associated with the rising sun (and thus the compass direction of east), an ascension to the boundless emptiness of space, a journey into the upperworld, a union with the light — conversing with angels or the ascended masters. The soul path is often associated with the setting sun (and thus the direction of west), the descent to our earthy roots, into the wildness of the soil and the soul, a journey into the underworld, a voyage into darkness or shadow as in the apparent destination of the sun as it sinks below the western horizon.” —Bill Plotkin

“Marion [Woodman] defines spirit as ethereal, transcendent, heavenly, immaterial, perfect, ‘out there’, ‘above’ ordinary life, and … masculine. Marion and [Bill] Plotkin believe that we grow in two different directions: ascend towards spirit and descend towards soul. The spirit path takes us on a journey to the upper world–a boundless, timeless union with the transcendent or God–whereas the soul path takes us on a journey to the lower world–a meandering make-out session with the immanent and our individual selves.” –Sera Beak Red, Hot, and Holy p.94

I’ve spent a good deal of time on this site articulating the difference between spirit and soul work. I think experientially understanding both the points of contact as well as the points of difference between our souls and spirits is an absolutely essential part of becoming human. On this I’m in total agreement with Marion Woodman and Bill Plotkin.

Describing the difference between spirit and soul as that of ascent (spirit) and descent (soul) is however wrong in my view. In this piece I’ll show why I believe that distinction is misguided and what unhelpful consequences occur as a result of approaching spiritual and soul practice in this way. On the surface, this might seem like an overly technical semantics debate, I think it does have important implications. Mistakes about the precise nature of the soul and the spirit and how to access and incarnate them inevitably create imbalances in practice, misinterpretation of experience, and cut off others form of spiritual and soul-based realization.

First I’ll explore the mistake around ascent and descent, showing how both the soul and the spirit can be said to ascend or descend (or both). Second, I’ll critique the false binary between spiritual as “above”, “out there”, and masculine versus the soul which is then “below”, “in here”, and feminine. Lastly, I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how we can more wisely understand the difference between soul and spirit.

But before going there I do want to emphasize how much I appreciate the work these individuals (Bill Plotkin in particular) have done to differentiate spiritual practice from soul work. This distinction has been a major gift in my own life and lies at the heart of the work I do now. For that I am deeply grateful. I do however think we need to nuance the understanding of the precise nature of that differentiation between spirit and soul.

Spirit and Soul Both Ascend and Descend

The idea that spirit is about ascent and soul is about descent is the core mistake in my view. The masculine/feminine distinction is a corollary of this central belief.

Here’s a portion of that quotation again:

“The spirit path takes us on a journey to the upper world–a boundless, timeless union with the transcendent or God–whereas the soul path takes us on a journey to the lower world–a meandering make-out session with the immanent and our individual selves.”

This framework sets up a false dichotomy, one not supported in the great spiritual traditions themselves.

For example, in shamanism there is the classic description of the three worlds: upper, lower, and middle.

The upper world is what people typically call heaven but would be better termed paradise. The Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, the happy hunting grounds, the realms of angels, deceased ancestors and loved ones, the abode of Plato’s Archetypes, the Brahmaloka, and the realm of gods in Buddhism.

The lower world is the psychic reality of earth. It’s a realm where we burn contracts, retrieve pieces of our soul, and commune with the elements of fire, earth, air, and water.

The middle world is our world. To psychically journey in the middle world is actually the most complex and potentially dangerous of the three worlds (as it turns out).

Together these three worlds form a coherent unified order. The soul is what transits all three realms.

In shamanic practice one learns first to descend to the lower world. I imagine beginning with descent is the source of the confusion that soul is about descent only. But then one learns to journey to the upper worlds. Finally one learns to journey in the middle world.

All three of those worlds are accessed through the soul. It is true that the soul descends into the underworld, like Orpheus. It’s also true however that the soul ascends to paradise–think Dante meeting Beatrice in Paradise in The Divine Comedy or Prophet Elijah being taken up to paradise. Journeying in the middle world is neither descending nor ascending; middle world journeys are in a sense horizontal, neither up nor down but rather further within.

So the soul can descend, ascend, or move laterally.

Much of what people describe as belonging to the path of ascent belongs to the soul not the spirit. It’s the soul that unites to God. Our spirit nature does not unite to God (it is of the same essence as God, hence it does not need to unite to God). Countless however are the stories of souls flying to heaven and uniting with God.

Soul is energy, communion, proper boundaries, just and harmonious relationship, voice, vitality, and dreaming.

Spiritual realization on the other hand is not so much about flying up to heaven as it is about realizing heaven as the essence of everything as it is on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

Now it’s true that spiritual realization is often called Waking Up (there’s ascent of spirit). With a spiritual teacher like Saniel Bonder however it is called Waking Down (descent of spirit). In this video Adyashanti and Loch Kelly talk about how their spiritual realization started more in their heads and then descended to their hearts.

So in the realm of spirit, we also see a similar pattern of possible ascent as well as descent.

In the first chapter of The Gospel of John it states, 

“In the beginning was Wisdom and Wisdom was with God and Wisdom was God…and Wisdom became flesh and dwelt among us.”

That’s a descending model of spirit. Jesus, as the incarnation of God’s Wisdom, “comes down” from above. In fact all incarnational models of spirituality are descending by their very nature.

Or consider the words of the great Padmashambhava, father of Tibetan Buddhism on spiritual realization: 

Descending with The View, I climb the mountain of cause and effect.”

There’s spirt in both ascending and descending form in one integrated movement.

As the Heart Sutra says, “the formless is form.” The other world is this world. The transcendental reality is expressed precisely in, as, and through concrete materiality. (To use the fancy terms transcendence is experienced in and as immanence).

The Zen tradition is particularly alive to this aspect of spiritual realization–that it is not really about ascending or descending, it simply is attuned to What IS.

Frog jumps in pond, plop.
Rain on roof, marvellous beyond wonder.
Daisies float in the breeze, stupendous.

Spiritual realization is the realization that everything has but One Nature, One Condition, One Essence. Or in more Buddhist language, it is the realization that there is no separate existence, everything is empty (shunyata) of such qualities in an inseparable marvellous, seamless display.

No one needs go up or down or sideways to realize this truth. They simply need to see.

It is true that spiritual realization–as Adyashanti and Loch Kelly describe–tends to start in the head or mind. This probably is why spirit is often seen as (only) ascending. Just as with the soul it starts with descent to the lower world but that is not the final movement of soul.

It’s certainly true that spiritual realization or enlightenment can stay stuck in the head/mind. It can however continue to deepen and it does so by descending further down in the bodymind, to the throat, the heart, the belly, etc.

So to reiterate, souls can ascend, descend, as well as ‘move sideways’. So can spirits. Consequently, the metaphor of directionality doesn’t help us particularly discern the differences between soul and spirit.

Masculine Spirit versus Feminine Soul

If the metaphor of directionality doesn’t help us in distinguishing soul and spirit, I don’t think metaphors drawn from the realms of gender and sexuality are any better (a subject I’ve written on elsewhere).

It is correct to say that in many traditions the soul is described as feminine. But then again spirit can and is often described as feminine–e.g. Lady Wisdom. The word spirit in Latin is masculine in its gender casing (spiritus) but in Hebrew is feminine (ruach) and in Greek is neuter (pneuma).

This confusion results from the earlier mistake of seeing spirit as ascending and out there, rather than the essence of all that is and soul as descent, rather than the intrinsic particularity, relationality and subtlety of all existence.

Once spirit is seen as “out there” and “above” then it’s very easy to conflate that out there, aboveness with being masculine and “down here”, “within” being feminine. And typically in this kind of presentation there’s a not very subtle biasing towards the feminine over the masculine. Worse still, while feminine is not supposed to mean women and masculine is not supposed to be men, in practice those words tend to evoke precisely those understandings. Hence this presentation not-so-subtly is prejudiced towards women being seen as more important carriers of truth. As a consequence, the masculine very often becomes the holder of our shadows, the things we don’t want to acknowledge in ourselves.

In other words, I think we’re taking our metaphors way too seriously in this realm. Yes many traditions speak of earth as mother and sky as father but earlier Indo-European traditions actually reversed it with the heavens being feminine and earth being masculine. And ultimately of course neither is actually masculine nor feminine.

Offering this critique is not an attempt to reassert masculine spirituality (or worse some kind of patriarchal view of spirituality). For one I don’t really buy all that much into a concept of the masculine. Two, I think teasing out the differences between soul and spirit are hard enough on their own terms. It’s only made that much more difficult by adding in the the very confusing and complex interweaving that is the relationship between our concrete historical gender patterns, our biology, and our sexual orientations and how those relate to spiritual experiences, insights, and the spiritual realm itself. (For those interested in exploring that topic in greater detail, see this piece I wrote on the subject.)


What seems on the surface like a simple statement about soul being about descent (and feminine) and spirit being about ascent (and masculine) turns out to be a whole messed up jumble. Once again, I do think the distinction between soul and spirit is a very powerful one, one that is significantly missed in much spiritual teaching and literature. Again, I want to stress I’m in deep agreement with Marion Woodman and Bill Plotkin on that point.

I think a better way of proceeding comes from those authors themselves:

The sentence immediately before the quotation from Sera Beak with which I began this piece reads:

“Here’s another perspective I found helpful during this time, offered by Bill Plotkin, author of the masterpiece Soulcraft, which makes the distinction between spirit and soul: soul is our unique core, while spirit is that which we all have in common.” (ibid, p.94).

I think this view is much better.

I mentioned that we can define spiritual awakening as the realization that there is Only One Condition of all conditions, One Nature to all natures. Spiritual realization is to experientially grasp that all reality has but One Substrate. Or again in Buddhist language that there is a Zero Quality to all reality. There is no separation. The whole is Seamless.

Because of that we may say there is only One Spirit. Spiritual realization is the dying or dropping away of our normal self-centered frame of reference. What is left in the wake of the dropping away is the sense of The All, The One, What IS. This is the same for everyone.

In Plotkin’s words, spirit “is that which we all have in common” because there is only One (or Zero), not Two.

Soul then is unique expression. Each soul is a distinct expression. Like rays coming off of the Sun. There is but One Sun (Spirit) but it is expressed as many rays (Unique Souls).

It is not that all the rays need to be added up to make up the Sun. It is that the fullness of the Sun is intrinsic to each ray and each ray is simply that–it’s own utterly singular expression of The Whole. The ray is not separate from the Sun but nevertheless each ray is unique. That is the paradoxical wisdom of Soul.

What all of this points to is that soul work is very different from spiritual work. Each form of practice applies to a different aspect of our human incarnation and therefore both are intrinsically valuable and vitally necessary. When we stick to the precise understanding of spirit as recognition of Oneness (or Zeroness) and soul as expression of Distinctness then we have the capacity to stick to the actual experience and work itself. In my view, when we start adding in complicating ideas over the top like spirit is out there and masculine and ascending or soul is in here and feminine and descending then we inevitably create confusion.

04 Sep 2017 no comments / READ MORE

The (Fourth) Voice of Sovereignty

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Soul

Spiritual author Cynthia Bourgeault has written on a discernment process she has developed employing a conversation between what she calls the four voices, i.e. the four human identities of 1. ego/personality, 2. soul, 3. spirit, and 4. Heart. I follow the same basic four part scheme in my teaching, except that what Cynthia calls the Heart, I term The Sovereign (or Sovereignty). But essentially the perspective is the same.

I believe this fourfold teaching of the human being is a crucially important one for our time and age. I recommend reading Cynthia’s post in full (as well as this followup piece). There are a number of significant implications that develop from this basic fourfold scheme. Cynthia describes a very beautiful practice of letting each voice speak in turn in relationship to making a decision (aka discernment).

I want to extend this fourfold idea into some other domains.

The first and perhaps most important takeaway from this schema is that each of the four identities (or voices) has its own worldview. Each identity opens up a specific worldspace–it has a lens, a filter. Different phenomena arise depending on which identity is being accessed. In other words, different values, thoughts, feelings, and insights correspond with each of the four voices. Each identity brings its own world of experience. Each identity creates its own boundary of possible experience and understanding. Each identity is therefore a different world.

One of the extensions of this fourfold scheme that I’ve been working on is to think through essential teachings that derive from each of the four aspects of our being and learn a way to bring them together in a fundamental integrative human teaching. I’m going to explore this idea in greater detail below, but first we need to get a bit clearer on the four terms and to what identity each refers.

The ego or frontal personality is essentially a series of survival strategies. It’s not so much that the personality has various strategies. Rather the ego-personality is (for most people) those strategies. The ego/frontal personality is the aspect of us that we identify with it say at a party or business function. You meet someone for the first time you immediately introduce yourself by name. You both end up talking about where you grew up, what schools you went to, your job. Whether you’re married, divorce, single, have kids or not. The ego (or more simply the self) is the aspect of us that is born and will die. It also knows it will die. This aspect of us is highly conditioned. It has only a few go to moves and will always deploy them. Though even here we can grow into a deeper self maturity.

The soul (lowercase s) is the source of classic shamanic and animistic processes. The soul holds karmic and ancestral energies. The soul (lowercase s) is our connection to the psychic reality of Earth and the land. The soul is what carries forward lifetime to lifetime. The soul is the one who undertakes journeys to the otherworlds. The soul is what travels in our dreams and visions. The soul is the source of subtle energy, connections to angels, guides, deceased loved ones, saints, The Creator. It’s the realm of shadow work, exorcisms, and energy healings. It’s the domain of tarot readings, astrological connections, and the Akashic Records. Access your soul and these realities automatically start emerging. That is these realities exist in the worldspace the soul opens. They are not accessible, for example, by the ego (nor interestingly by spirit).

Spirit is our connection to the universal. Spirit is transpersonal. It is what is the same for all of us. Spiritual language is language of Unity, Oneness, Non-Separation. Spirit is the The One Without a Second. Spirit is Being Per Se. Spiritual teaching, spiritual enlightenment, and spiritual realization then all point us to the recognition of our spiritual nature and identity.

The Sovereign (or Sovereignty) is the aspect of us that integrates our self, our soul, and our spirit into one utterly singular unique expression. The Sovereign is the Flavor of our Incarnation. The Sovereign is a Master Weaver taking all of the aspects of our being, bringing them into our own manifestly distinct human being. The Sovereign weaves us each into an irreducible tapestry of being. The Sovereign is for each of us, the True Guide and Teacher of our being. The Sovereign is Infinity+1.

So with those four identities a bit more clarified, we can now turn to a way of simplifying and understanding the nature of various kinds of human practices. The basic premise here is that different practices are aimed at different voices/identities. For example, personal growth processes are aimed at the personality-ego. There are soul-based practices, e.g. shamanism. There are also teachings on the nature of spiritual awakening.

Each set of teachings is valid from within the bounds of the specific identity with which it works. Another way of saying that is that each set of teachings is true and yet partial. What true but partial means is that those teachings are not valid outside their area of legitimacy. For example it makes no sense to study personal growth techniques in order to about how to relate properly and lovingly to the souls of your ancestors. One is for the ego (personal development), the other is the work of the soul (the ancestors). Similarly it doesn’t help to study spiritual enlightenment in order to solve a psychological issue (that’s called spiritual bypassing).

In this way the four-identity or four-voice framework brings a great deal of clarity.

Working with a Tarot reading (soul) is not going to help optimize your email flow (personal growth/personality). An exquisite Tarot reading can however nurture your soul. Learning to meditate (spiritual teaching) doesn’t help your soul–in fact if you’re not careful it can actually teach you to bypass it. Optimizing your email flow also doesn’t teach you about the nature of your fundamental Consciousness. For that one you need spiritual teaching.

Knowing which identity a practice is oriented towards allows the practice to do what it does best and not be asked to do things it’s not designed to do. As Ken Wilber says practices and teachings are “freed up by being limited”.

An upshot of this meta-frame is that allows spiritual teaching to be relieved of the burden of having to solve all problems for all people all the time. It also restores the inherent value and proper place of soul work–which is often marginalized and/or outright denied in our day with its dominance of personal growth and spiritual teaching. This fourfold meta-perspective also creates a role for personal growth work in relationship to soul work and spiritual teaching that does not allow the personal growth side of things to co-opt soul and spiritual traditions as in much of the contemporary spiritual wellness lifestyle crossover scene (aka LOHAS).

That’s a first key piece coming out of this fourfold framework: seeing how to incorporate aspects from each of the three traditions in a harmonious, mutually supportive manner.

The second aspect is opening an entire new domain of practice and exploration: namely that of The Sovereign. I’m going to explore that rich topic in a later article.

But for now the key point is that when deploying this fourfold meta-frame, spiritual teaching ceases to be the end all be all. Personal growth ceases to be the highest value. Enacting your soul purpose (while crucially important) no longer takes priority of other aspects of being: like spiritual awakening or personal health.

The central learning is how to incorporate at least some of each of the three major traditions to create a basic integrative framework for human practice. By the principle of true but partial, each of these traditions is relativized (in the best sense). They are freed up by being limited.

In the ego-personality realm we have the traditions of psychotherapy, somatic bodywork, and personal growth.

In the soul realm we have energy healing traditions as well as shamanic practice, with all its multitudes of variations and diverse expression.

In the spiritual realm we have teachings of nondual awakening and realization.

We put all these traditions on a horizontal line. Therapy is not greater than nor lesser than spiritual enlightenment. Soul work is similarly neither greater than nor lesser than either psychotherapy nor spiritual awakening.

All need to work in harmony. Each has a specific piece of the puzzle that is unique to it: therapy, soul work, spiritual practice. No one of them can fill in the essential elements brought by the others. Spiritual teaching doesn’t help heal your ego. Working on healing your ego (in therapy) doesn’t teach how to realize your spiritual identity (as for example meditation teaches). Neither of those teaches you about the nature of you as a soul.

Ken Wilber writes that the problem is never partiality. The problem is always wholeness without partiality. When a spiritual teaching claims to be the final ultimate and only valuable teaching it’s preaching a wholeness without partiality, aka an ideology, a fundamentalism.

When however we recognize the partially true value of each of these streams we begin to ask how we can have them work together for the mutual benefit of all. We begin to ask the right set of questions: how do I begin to incorporate elements of ego-personality practice, soul work, and spiritual teaching into a cohesive, integrated process?

That question leads to a very fruitful line of inquiry to be lived. That question is the one I believe we need to be asking of ourselves and each other right now. How do we wisely include them all in their respective truths? That I believe is the one of the core benefits that an understanding of Sovereignty brings (the one that creates a big enough home for each.)

19 Apr 2017 no comments / READ MORE

In Defense of Doctrine

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Philosophy, Spirituality, The Imaginal

Nowadays it’s very common to hear someone say they want genuine spirituality not religion. In that mindset, genuine spirituality is said to consist of personal exploration and journey but definitely not doctrine. One is supposed to be open-minded and accepting not dogmatic (in this view). Being doctrinal or dogmatic is now in many places an outright shibboleth. It’s a word said with disgust and disdain.

Here I’d like to argue against this commonplace perspective and instead defend what I believe to be a right understanding of doctrine. I think doctrine is more important than ever before (if we understand rightly what true doctrine is and is not). In my view the anti-doctrinal attitude of our day is causing enormous suffering and I believe we need to retrieve a right understanding of doctrine to help remedy that ill.

I use the terms remedy and illness there purposefully because the word doctrine derives from the same root as the word doctor, e.g. as in a medical doctor or a doctorate in philosophy.

That is to say doctrine means “teaching”. Doctrine is a body of teachings.

Hence, saying that one is against doctrine literally means one is against teaching. The consequence of a cultural pattern of being against doctrine means there is no desire to be taught or to learn. This problem is rampant and serious in the contemporary spiritual scene.

Let me use another example to try to make my point–a very closely related one—the word judgment. What goes on in the spiritual-but-not-religious/New Age/individualistic spiritual path is a heavy valuation of tolerance, which is to say not “being judged.” Of course there’s a long history associated with judgment. There’s has been a great deal of negative judgmental behavior in traditional religious expression. The critique of judgment has it’s (partial) validity. However there’s not a clear enough distinction made between healthy and clarifying judgment versus unhealthy and degrading judgment, which results in judgment altogether being thrown out. Throwing out judgment (altogether) means people are throwing out their street smarts, their critical faculties of discernment, and their ability to make sound discriminating decisions around right and wrong. (The effects of disowned and poor judgment are everywhere in the contemporary spiritual scene).

The same underlying problem is a the root of the bias against doctrine (i.e. against teaching) nowadays. In the worst of cases this leads to a very strongly fenced-in, fortressed ego.

“Don’t judge me.” 
“This is my path, my truth, my personal reality, and it can’t be judged.”

As a consequence individuals end up more and more isolated, sealed-in in their hermitic enclosures, unwilling to let others or the world in.

It’s the same with doctrine (teaching). Just as there was negative judgmentalism, there’s (negative) doctrinal attitudes. There’s a long, negative history in Western culture of such reality. Negative doctrinalism would be things like:

–Tying doctrine to the civil state and punishing those who have a different body of teachings (doctrine), including torture or execution.
–Enforcing doctrine through arguments from authority, i.e. because Teacher So-and-So said X, X must be true.
–Teaching doctrine without having any grounding in the experience/spiritual insight which the doctrine teaches, aka spiritual ideology or dogmatism.
–Doctrines that divide the world into radically segregated good vs. evil, black vs. white
–Doctrines that scapegoat entires classes of people as inherently wicked and evil: e.g. gays, lesbians, trans, queer, atheists, etc.
–Declaring one’s own doctrine to be the one and only right one and all others to be false and dangerous.
–Doctrines that repress basic human realities: e.g. emotions, sexuality, bodily reality as such.

These types of dehumanizing processes are what most people think of now when the hear the “d” word: doctrine.

If that is all that doctrine means, then it’s certainly understandable as to why we would would want to reject that en toto. But as with judgment, to throw out doctrine is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

As noted, being against doctrine is etymologically, literally, being against teaching, which is to say being against learning. Being anti-doctrinal means one does not want to be a student. There’s a strong fortification for the ego.

Now in saying this I’m not saying doctrine (i.e. teaching) has to necessarily be handed down from the mountain on high. We can and should in my view be updating our teachings in light of our contemporary world, while retaining the everlasting wisdom of the ancients (knowing which is which is not always easy admittedly).

If however we are going to have any form of community, any form of truly working together in becoming fully human, then yes we need a body of teachings. That is, we need doctrine.

In defending the need for doctrine, I’m swimming directly against the tide of our times that says that we can’t have doctrine because doctrine is about exclusion and our age must be one of inclusion. Doctrine inherently draws boundaries and we should live without boundaries.

Having worked both in a liberal Christian church setting and now in the wider spiritual but not religious/New Age/contemporary spiritual scene, I’ve seen and heard this perspective repeatedly.

In this liberal telling, conservatives are labeled exclusionary and dogmatic.* Liberals on the other hand label themselves inclusive.

The problem though is that exclusive and inclusive go together. They are right and left hands. In Buddhist-ese, they dependently originate. They require each other. Inclusive only makes sense as the opposite of exclusive and exclusive only makes sense in relation to inclusive. Like breathing in only makes sense in comparison to breathing out (and versa vice).

Conservatives include themselves and exclude others. Liberals include other self-described open minded people like themselves and exclude more reactionary types (often with reason). But it doesn’t make sense as an absolute statement to say one group is inclusive and the other is exclusive. All groups are by nature inclusive and exclusive simultaneously. The question is how inclusive or not, how exclusive or not, in what manner are they inclusive or not, and so on.

Exclusion, in other words, is not automatically wrong or evil (though it certainly can be). There are times when it’s totally legitimate to draw moral boundaries. For example I hold it’s completely valid to say that a group is not going to allow homophobic vitriol to be spouted. That’s excluding. Healthy excluding in my book but excluding nonetheless.

A cell wall that lets everything in and has no boundaries would be totally inclusive. And it would die. Conversely, a cell wall that lets in no nutrients or water would be totally exclusive and would also die. The optimal state for a cell is semi-permeability. There is enough of a filter for the cell to maintain it’s own autonomy while at the same time allowing in what is of life to it and releasing what is not.

When it comes to spirituality, doctrine is a cell wall. It is ideally meant to be semi-permeable. It needs to be open to outside influences and it needs to have enough solidity unto itself that it creates its own coherent reality.

My own view is that all of the traditional religious paths are far too closed off at this point to be of help to us. There’s an enormous amount of wisdom in them to be sure, wisdom that should be conserved. But I think as a whole they are far too rigid for our contemporary reality. They’re not anywhere near permeable enough.

On the other hand, the individual make-it-up-as-you-go path has failed as well. It is far too permeable. It’s not structurally sound. It’s too porous–the evidence for that claim is I believe everywhere: spiritual celebrity culture; guruism; cultishness; lack of commitment, lack of ethical, emotional, and energetic boundaries.

(Sidenote: I’m also, for what it’s worth, opposed to the attempt to create a secular doctrine based on combining Theravadin Buddhist meditation techniques with neuroscience and materialist philosophy–at least I’m against doing that and calling it “scientific” and “non-religious”.)

A profound lack of understanding of doctrine, of how to engage wisely in relationship to teaching is at the root of this malaise.

The first thing to say is that doctrine (i.e. teaching) is there to help create boundaries for a group. There’s a danger in that of course in that the walls can be drawn far too rigidly and/or those on the inside can be treated in a terrible ways. The alternative is not to have boundary-less existence however but rather to create healthy boundaries, not simply jettison boundaries altogether (which leads to terrible consequences.)

No boundaries means no integrity.

So that’s number one.

Number two is a point made by philosopher Ken Wilber. Namely that there’s certainly such a thing as a wrong interpretation but there is never a final right interpretation.

This point is a subtle one and it has enormous implication in terms of creating a healthy 21st life-affirming, human-affirming spiritual doctrine.

Wilber uses the example of Hamlet. There are wrong interpretations as to the meaning(s) of the play. For example, Hamlet is not about three daughters and their intrigue in relationship to their aging, monarchical father (that’s King Lear of course).

Though consider all the themes that do run through Hamlet: suicide, love lost, and the outside role of young women in society (Ophelia); betrayal, political plotting, and problematic sexual dynamics within families, particularly among the aristocracy (Hamlet’s Father, Uncle and Mother); mortality and the meaning of life (“Oh poor Yorick…”), as well as numerous others. Some more obvious, some more perhaps less so but nevertheless powerful and evocative. Some intended (it would seem) by Shakespeare, others possibly not but nevertheless potentially truthful.

The point being is that great art as well as great spiritual teaching never exhaust their meaning. That is why there is never a final right interpretation. There are a multitude of right interpretations and conversely there are a multitude of poor interpretations.

Doctrine shifts into doctrinalism (negative doctrinal approach) when it forgets that there is no final right interpretation. Doctrinalism takes one interpretation and makes it the final right one, when such a thing is not valid. In forms overt or covert, doctrinalism has to invoke some kind of power abuse and violence in order to maintain the illusion of it’s interpretation being the final right one.

When however we hold in mind that there is never a final right interpretation, but that there are more truthful, more beautiful, more moving interpretations (as well as those that less so and others that are simply out-of-bounds), then the process becomes creative. We participate in the process of the development of the doctrine as much as the doctrine participates in the development of us.

Doctrine is interpretation of spiritual experience and realization.

That’s actually all it is. Saying that we need to move beyond doctrine is saying we need to no longer interpret our experience. But it’s only in interpreting our experience that we come to embed it concretely in our lives, in our relationships, in our existence. Interpretation means reflection, which means learning, which means there’s teaching (i.e. doctrine).

Simply having a bunch of experiences without reflecting on the meaning of them, without trying to figure out a generative frame of reference within which to hold our experience does nothing for anyone. And this non-interpretation interpretation is everywhere nowadays, where people want spirituality to make them “feel good” or that we’re supposed to get “out of our heads and into our bodies”, “stop thinking and start feeling”. All of these problematic views spring from the bias against (healthy) doctrine.

In the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm one begins with action, which leads to experience, and then one interprets/reflects upon one’s experience, draws conclusions from it, and then decides upon a new course of action based on that interpreted experience. In taking new action a new cycle of experience-reflection-interpretation and learning occurs.

The same process can (and should) apply to spiritual teaching. Philosopher Mark Edwards calls it the integral cycle of knowledge. We start with a context and description of our current situation, introduce some practices which help reveal new experiences, which are then reflected upon/interpreted, leading to new action.

That’s how it’s supposed to work but the postmodern bias against doctrine has throw a monkey wrench in the cycle. It stops reflection.

The contemporary post-religious (or whatever to call it) spiritual scene is rife with people addicted to having spiritual experiences, being hooked on techniques and practices (“the actions”) and essentially learning nothing from them. There’s no learning because there’s no doctrine. There’s no body of teaching, there’s no generative interpretative scheme within which to place one’s experiences and make sense of them.

So many popular contemporary spiritual teachers spend so much time pointing out they aren’t teaching dogma. I find them very dogmatic about their anti-dogmatism. To quote the aforementioned Shakespeare: “they doth protest too much methinks.”

It’s better, in my mind, to acknowledge what our various doctrines (teachings, interpretations are), where they come from, be open to their truths and potential blindspots. Make them as transparent as possible.

The choice is not between no doctrine and doctrines. It’s between good and bad doctrine, conscious and unconscious ones, healthy and unhealthy ones.

The more unconscious the doctrine (teaching) is, the more damage it can do.

Arguably in the Oprah-ified spiritualized discourse of the day the only sorta quasi-doctrine that is allowed, that is essentially sacrosanct, is that the highest value is personal happiness and fulfillment. “If it makes you happy…”

Here I think is the real rub. There’s no growth in that frame. If it’s about what makes you happy, then the ego is always in charge. Except the ego never actually makes people happy. What it does is make them further bound to the wheel of seeking happiness, which is itself a marker of fundamental unhappiness.

Doctrine–held and related to rightly–is actually deeply freeing, creative, and joy filled. Learning to relate well to doctrine, to a body of teachings, is absolutely necessary to maturing in any path.

And I mean any path of any significant depth.

If you work with plant medicine there’s an entire set of doctrines (teachings) about the nature of the plants, the meaning of communing with them, the ethics of doing so, the changes wrought in a person, the path of transformation, on and on. Those are doctrines. That is, they are teachings about how to rightly understand what is taking place when working with plants—this doctrine/teaching is hard-earned wisdom gained through centuries of practice, careful observation, and interpretation.

Now plant medicine is popular and a bunch of Westerners come to it wanting to skip all the “rules” and the “religious” part and just get to the experience. Too many bring an unconscious cultural lens to the plants, namely that the plants are drugs for taking an awesome trip. The doctrines (the teachings) of the plant medicine keepers is that they are not drug trips for their sake of getting high and to treat them as such is a potentially very bad idea. Having worked with people who went on bad trips and experienced horrible pain as a result it’s pretty clear to me that those warnings ought to be seriously heeded.

Or consider Eastern religions, often held up as some kind of non-doctrinal spirituality as opposed to Western religion. If you think the Eastern religious traditions are somehow less doctrinal than Western religions, go hangout at a Tibetan Buddhist teaching. There’s more doctrine (i.e. dharma) that you can trample down with a yak.

For what it’s worth, the entire New Thought “manifest your reality” tradition is a set of doctrines. It’s a set of teachings. Teachings that include practices, descriptions of experiences arising from those practices, and means of interpreting the experiences–i.e. how to tell if you’re doing it well or not.

Even spiritual but not religious is its own set of teachings. It’s a doctrine. It’s, in my mind, a particularly unhelpful, unconscious form of teaching. It’s a kind of anti-teaching teaching, anti-doctrine doctrine but it’s a doctrine nonetheless.

How often do I hear yoga teachers complain about students just wanting to learn physical postures so they look better and never actually be interested in the doctrine (the entire body of teachings) which the asanas are meant to support and within which they make deeper sense?

I can’t stress this enough, a body of teachings is a doctrine. It’s absolutely necessary to learning as well as to the creation of community and the development of an ethics congruent with spiritual practice.

Now in defending and promoting doctrine, I’m definitely not advocating a return of the Spanish Inquisition, social ostracism, witch hunts, jihads against the infidels, or aggressive, dehumanizing, and unethical proselytization.

I personally favor what I call a “lean” doctrine. I do believe we need some coherent set of principles to guide our interpretation, to at least have something to work with and from, but that this foundation must be very lean. No filler. No excess fat. A key point in the lean approach is Wilber’s:

There is never a final right interpretation but there are wrong interpretations.

(If you want to learn more about what this lean approach might constitute of, I recommend browsing through other pieces I’ve published here on the site. They’re all written with the lean doctrinal approach in mind.)

The traditional religions are (I believe) far too weighed down with all manner of accretions, like barnacles on a boat. Except, contrary to the fundamentalist view, there’s no way to get back to the pristine boat by simply removing all the historical accretions. The boat itself is no longer a seaworthy vessel.

What we can do is take some of the valuable treasure on board the boat and put it in a new vessel and bring it with us and see what value it may have for us going forward. And what value we may have for it.

I’ve been accused simultaneously of being too conservative, too beholden to the traditions, while at the same time also being accused of being far too arrogant and disrespectful to the traditions. The approach I offer strikes me as the best attempt to honour the past while not being bound to it either. Since I’m being attacked from both sides hopefully I’m onto something here.

But that approach is admittedly an interpretation. It’s a hunch. It’s not the final only right interpretation. I simply hope A) it’s not a wrong interpretation and B) it offers something new going forward.

Regardless of whether you subscribe to something like the lean view I advocate for or not, I hope the notion of re-embracing, re-owning the value, the truth, and the beauty of doctrine (teaching) speaks to you.

* For the record, the root meaning of dogma is “opinion” or “what one thinks to be true”. By definition then everyone is dogmatic insofar as they hold opinions and stick to what they think is right. That’s good in principle, sticking to your beliefs. The question is how to be dogmatic in a healthy sense as opposed to a negative sense? Not whether one is or isn’t dogmatic.

24 Jan 2017 no comments / READ MORE

Climate Change and The Retrieval of The World Soul

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Healing Arts, Philosophy, Shamanism, The Imaginal, The Soul

A client recently asked me how I would take the learnings from my private practice with individuals in soul work and apply to climate change.

What does soul work have to say about climate change? 

It’s a crucial question and in order to do justice to it a bit of background is necessary. 

A while back I wrote a piece on the interplay of soul work with racism. It was an initial foray into the exploration of what I think soul work means in relationship to collective human identity and expression. 

One definition of a soul is that it is the coordinating subtle field of a being. The soul is what brings coherence to a being. The soul co-ordinates all the information of a being–their pasts, presents, and potential futures–into one fluid, coherency. The soul is what makes us fit (more or less) together as a being. The soul is the deepest essence, the unique expression of a being. The soul is what makes someone that particular being that they alone are and not another. The soul is what makes us us.

The word soul however can also be used in a more collective sense. For example, the soul of a nation, the soul of a people, the soul of a place.

One of the most important aspects of our souls is that they can be hurt. Souls are powerful yes, but also tender and vulnerable. Just like individual souls, collective souls, can experience wounding, negative conditioning (i.e. karma), fragmentation, and illness. In that earlier piece I considered white American racism towards black Americans through the lens of a collective soul illness, a stain on the collective white American soul. Just as there are traditions (e.g. shamanism) that deal for individuals with healing and transforming soul illness, so there are such ways to heal and transform collective souls of their illnesses.

The healing and transformation of a soul (whether individual or collective) goes hand in hand. In my understanding, soul work can be summarized as clearing on the one hand and healing (or transmutation) on the other. In clearing there are certain energies that must simply depart or be recycled. In classic language that’s called an extraction or an exorcism (from the Greek “to cast out”).

On the other hand we have healing or transmutation, also called shadow work. Once energies that need to be cleared are cleared, then what remains is what is to be worked with. In soul work we go into the (remaining) darkness only to find a light hidden in the darkness. We then learn how to release the light. Once the light is released, the darkness dissolves. Transmutation comes from the traditions of alchemy (and tantra)–where it is said that the poison becomes the antidote. The antidote to snake venom is often created from the very same venom itself. The venom in its transmuted or liberated form becomes the antidote. 

Knowing the difference between which energies are to be cleared and which are to be transmuted is central to the entire process.

I’ve written many pieces exploring that transmutation model through the medium of emotions–hate, fear, shame, terror–how all of them have their own enlightened expression. Rather than putting certain emotions into positive or negative emotions, we simply have emotions. The question is whether the emotion is in its conscious and healthy or unconscious and unhealthy state (or some in between state). What is positive or negative is our relationship to our emotions and how we act from our emotions, not the emotions themselves. 

In alchemy lead, the basest metal, was transmuted into gold, i.e. the most purified metal. We take the base or unconscious forms of emotions and transmute them into their purified expression. The lead becomes gold, the poison becomes antidote, the darkness becomes light. That is soul work.

(Keep this view in mind as I’m going to apply it to climate change in a moment).

This soul work view is opposed to views that seek to “destroy evil”, i.e. the war mindset that dominates our world. Wars against poverty, terror, crime, drugs, cancer, you name it. These wars only ever worsen the problems. Has the drug war done anything except create a gargantuanly greater degree of violence, suffering, and pain? 

In soul work the (re)solution always lies hidden within the problem itself. The war view only seeks to destroy the problem/enemy. All the war mindset does is create further brokenness and fragmentation. This occurs automatically because the solution lies within the problem itself, not in the eradication of the problem.

The problem (really the symptom or exterior expression) however has to be handled with exquisite, and extreme care. It is a live wire and needs to be worked with in a very sensitive, refined manner. But when it is done properly, the light will be released from the darkness, the lead will turn to gold, and the poison will transmute into its own antidote.

With that background we can approach this topic of collective urgency, arguably the most important issue facing humanity as a whole: climate change.

Does the framework of collective souls and soul work-transmutation reveal a deeper meaning to climate change? And if so, what?

So first how does the idea of collective soul patterning shed light on the subject? Consider two major collective souls—the soul of humanity and the soul of the Earth (aka The World Soul or Anima Mundi).

The World Soul, the Soul of the Earth, is the collective organizing subtle field of all life on and as Earth. The World Soul is the energy, the essence of Earth Life. The waters, the winds, the tides, the tectonic plates, the grasses, insects, mammals, birds, all animal life, the trees, the skies, the mountains, the plains, the coastlines, the deserts, the forests, the jungles. The psychic reality of all of that is the World Soul. 

The World Soul is not simply then a concept but a lived, conscious reality. The World Soul has been experienced by seers and visionaries through a multitude of human cultures and time periods, e.g. through the artful use of plant medicines, as well as in more classic meditation or visionary shamanic journeys.

On the other hand we have a collective soul to humanity. This soul of our humanity carries the deep memory of all of our human stories and journeys, all our pasts glories and tragedies, all our present experiences, and all possible future paths (at least in potential). 

My belief is that climate change is a symptom, a global symptomatic, material, physical response, to the psychic fracture between The World Soul and the collective Human Soul. 

As humans, our collective soul has disowned The World Soul.* Earth is disowned in our human soul expression. Since soul is the organizing subtle pattern of all reality, this disowning of the World Soul infects each and every sector of human expression.

For example, in economics the impact of technology and commerce on Earth is put in a category called “externalities”. To “externalize” the Earth is an act of psychic dismemberment. It is a kind of psychic lobotomy or amputation. 

To externalize the Earth is to put the World Soul in the shadow. It is to disown and “otherize” an aspect of one’s own being.

In soul work there’s an understanding that once an energy is sent into the shadow it will always reveal itself in a distorted, twisted, “sideways” manner. The reason the energy comes out in a distorted, sideways form is in order to be heard. It is trying to being seen, understood, appreciated, and welcomed back home. In practice however we often become so focused on the negative symptomatic expression of the shadowed energy that we miss the deeper message. 

Climate change is the symptomatic expression of humans putting The World Soul into the shadow. The World Soul is sent into the shadow, it is disowned, it is “externalized” and then it comes out in a distorted, twisted form. Namely climate change. 

The symptoms of climate change become the focus of attention, controversy, and struggle. Meanwhile the deeper message is all but muted: the World Soul has to be re-owned by humans.

The solution always lies hidden within the problem. The light is always hidden within the darkness. 

To “solve” the climate crisis will require many people working on many fronts simultaneously. But one necessary form of such endeavors must be psychic transmutation work. At the core, climate change is the outward expression of inward shadow in the collective human soul.

Please recall however that the poison transmuted becomes the antidote.

Climate change is the goading psychic act attempting to initiate us as humans into actual maturity. Either we will meet that initiation or, in true initiatory experience, if we fail, we will die. We will not just die, we humans will largely be annihilated. Perhaps AI will have become sentient by then and they will spontaneously learn to adapt and continue the evolutionary trajectory. Perhaps life will collapse back to the explosion and profusion of insects, viruses, bacteria, and the like and begin a new process from there. Perhaps like mammals at the time of dinosaur comet, some other life form not even in our radar/awareness right now will come to propagate a future. 

If however we were to meet the initiation, truly transmute the energies and re-own The World Soul, then a very different world than the one we currently live would be concretely realized.

Naomi Klein has written persuasively that climate change changes everything. She is particularly focused in that book on how if we deal with climate change correctly then it becomes the opportunity/medium through which to rebalance the structural injustices of poverty and power in our collective human expression. The upshot of correctly addressing climate change is we end creating a truly just economics.

She’s right. Emphasis on the word “if”….“If we deal with the climate change issue correctly…”

Still she’s correct. In shadow work the problem transmuted releases light and wisdom that we cannot imagine beforehand. Climate change is as I said an initiation. If we passes through the initiation, if we squeeze through the eye of this needle, then what will be revealed on the far side would be more glorious than we could have ever imagined.

(Re)solving climate change opens up a world far more beautiful than one any of us can currently imagine. But the only way out is through. Conversely not dealing properly with climate change will continue bringing forth a world we can partially, nightmarishly imagine at this point (but only minimally feel I would argue).

I would take Klein’s thesis one step further. Climate change is the opportunity to solve the underlying economic injustice of the world, yes absolutely. Climate change is also the opportunity to overcome the psychic alienation between The World Soul and our collective Human Soul. 

That alienation is wreaking incalculable damage, a damage so great the only term for it is the loss of soul.

Shamans speak of soul loss. Souls lose pieces of themselves due to trauma, illness, or negative choice. These pieces are not obliterated or destroyed. They fragment. They go into exile. They are strewn along the road somewhere, hidden. Missing-in-action. 

Shamans then help with soul retrievals, finding the lost pieces of a soul and restoring them. 

The World Soul is in exile in relationship to humans. Or our human soul is in exile from The World Soul. The World Soul itself is in a state of soul loss. Climate change is the symptomatic expression of such global soul loss. 

What is needed then is a collective soul retrieval of the World Soul. That is the interior psychic work whose exterior representation is creating a world of economic and ecological justice and sustainability. The inner and the outer are mirror images of each other, both are two sides of one integrated process.

* It could be argued that it is not the collective human soul but the collective Western human soul refracted through globalization that is the cause of the alienation to the World Soul.

30 Nov 2015 2 comments / READ MORE

Getting Purgatory Over Early

“She who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.” –Origen

“St. Ambrose of Milan speaks of a kind of ‘baptism of fire’ which is located at the entrance to Heaven, and through which all must pass, at the end of the world.  (wiki on purgatory)

“You’re getting purgatory over early.” –My Mom

November 2nd (yesterday) is, in the Roman Catholic Calendar, the Feast of All Souls. This feast is a Catholicizing Christianizing one, predicated on the earlier aboriginal traditions of ancestor veneration, both in European (“pagan’) religions as well as in The Americas, e.g. Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico.

November 1st in the Roman Catholic Calendar is All Saints Day, a day to remember those whose souls entered into paradise directly upon death. All Saints is the root of the word Halloween–which is Eve of All Hallows (hallowed = saintly).

All Souls, on the other hand, (Nov 2nd) remembers those who died with, as it were, “work still to do.” That is to say, the remembrance of those who experienced grace but the more comprehensive purifying effects of grace had not yet taken place.

During the Middle Ages, the practice of remembering one’s ancestors became connected to the rising doctrine of purgatory. All Souls Day became in particular a day to pray for the release of souls from purgation.

In the later middle ages, a series of abusive and manipulative practices around purgatory became big business. It was these practices–for example the selling of indulgences–that became the rallying cry for the Protestant Reformation.

Consequently, the doctrine of purgatory later came to be denounced in total with the Reformation. While I agree with the criticism of the abusive practices surrounding purgatory, I think the loss of purgatory has been a major loss for Western consciousness.

What I mean is that though the term purgation evokes a lot of resistance in people, I think it’s a wonderful term and a beauteous grace–one we need to recapture. It’s important to keep in mind that the doctrine of purgatory is for those who have already been saved and the healing and purifying effects of salvation still have to do their work.

In The Divine Comedy, when Dante arises from Hell and sees Mt. Purgatory he immediately weeps, for he knows he is already (as it were) in paradise. He is already assured a place in paradise. The long climb up on Mt. Purgatory towards Paradise (Heaven) is a path of graceful unburdening so that he might rise up. (I’m going to come back to this point in a bit).

I was raised very traditionally Roman Catholic. Praying for those in purgatory was a common part of my upbringing.

When things would be rough or unnecessarily harsh, my mom would say (as quoted above) that I was “getting purgatory over early.” What she meant of course was that one could go through purgatory while alive here on earth. Basically one could work off one’s purgation here on earth so as to have less of it on the other side of the veil of death.

Now as weird (or potentially masochistic) as that worldview might appear, I actually think there’s something to it, though not in the way I believe my mom tended to (mis)understand it. It isn’t about just random suffering happening to you, causing you to pay off some kind of penalty and either you go through it now or later. That makes God a sadist.

The truth of purgation is that to be saved one must pass through a baptism of fire as Origen and St. Ambrose said. That fire of grace is purging, purifying. It is alchemy–turning the lead of our being into gold. (This view accords with shamanic traditions the world over btw). And that fire can be experienced on this side of the grave (otherwise it will be experienced on the other side).

“He who comes to be saved, comes to be saved through a fire.”

Saved here means experiencing the entrance into paradise, i.e. the soul (the lowercase ‘s’ is important here) ascends to the realms of paradise.

In traditional shamanic cosmology there are classically three worlds: the lower world, the middle world (our world), and the upper world. The upper world is what most people would call heaven (though more technically should be called paradise). The middle world is our world. In Roman Catholic theology, the lower world is divided into two sections: hell and purgatory. I see hell and purgatory more along a continuum than a strict division as in Roman Catholic thought.*

The point is this: the imagery purgatory consists of fire.

When the fire is embraced it turns out not to be the source of suffering but rather the source of healing and purifying grace.

The deepest hell, as Dante so brilliantly understood, is coldness. Hell is pure isolation, incoherence, dissociation, alienation, and traumatic freeze. Hell is not hot. Hell is ice cold. Having worked with hellish energies and realities in people, I can tell you that Dante’s depiction of the bottom of hell as total frozen is not a metaphor but a literal description.

Purgatory is fire. Paradise is the ecstasy that occurs when one acclimates to the temperature of God’s fire. The fire no longer burns but becomes pure bliss.

So if November 1st (All Saints) is the day to remember all those in paradise. If November 2nd is to remember those in purgatory. Then I would propose that November 3rd is a great day to pray for our own purgation here on earth. November 1st is All Saints, November 2nd is All Souls, November 3rd could be Day of Our Own Purgation.

When people work with plant medicines, they purge, literally, bodily. In energy work, deadened energies are burned off us. In trauma work, when places of freeze re-awake, they release the flight or fight mechanism (“the fire”) held underneath the frozen exterior.

It’s like going outside on a cold day and your fingers become numb. You come back indoors and your fingers start to thaw out. As they do, your fingers ache, even hurt because feeling is coming back to them. The ache however is a wonderful sign because you know that once your fingers warm back up to room temperature, the pain will go away. You know the numbness is wearing off.

It’s the same with purgatory–whether you face it in this life or on the other side.

Our souls are deeply numb. Only heat is going to wake them back up and bring back feeling. In the intermediate period between the numbness beginning to wear off and the fingers being fully back to normal temperature, that is the period of purgation.

The fire brings back feeling. Our world is predicated on dissociation, on numbing out, on frozen traumatic conditioning. Our souls are ill. Pieces of our souls lie forsaken and strewn about.

What is needed then is a cleansing fire. A fire of Love, to reignite our frozen souls. With that fire comes pain but not suffering.

And this is a key point. Anyone who has ever gone through a truly purgative and cleansing process knows that that what occurred is they felt into and through the pain and as they did the suffering (amazingly) decreased.

Suffering is largely what happens when we do not stay directly with pain–or rather with the series of sensations we typically unhelpfully label as pain. So with the fire comes the purging, no doubt. But it is not a pain built around moral punishment. Here in the popular traditions of medieval Christianity really are problematic. The pain is not to pay off some penalty. Purgatory is not jail time with God the Vengeful Judge.

The process is not built out of a negative sense of Judgment but rather proper Judgment, which is to say Merciful, Loving Justice.

I can’t stress this point enough. In my experience working with people what prevents them from facing purgation is the sense that they are being punished. In other words, they resist the process because they believe the process communicates a message of negative shame. 

“You’re a bad person.”
“This is karmic retribution for your sins.”
“You deserve this [as punishment].”

These false beliefs need to be burned.

“They who comes to be saved, come to be saved through a fire.”

Being purged has nothing to do with being judged as a failure or fundamentally bad. It is precisely the opposite.

Purgation is a process that reminds us that in our essence we are fundamentally good. In our essential nature we are whole, redeemed, beloved.

We have however strayed from our essential nature. As such we have picked up the residue, the accretions of living in ways out of alignment to our essential nature.

Purgation is a message from God saying we are Loved and offering us a way to be released of the violence, trauma, dissociation that burdens and haunts our souls.

An ancient image in the Christian tradition is that the soul is a mirror. The mirror has unfortunately becomes obstructed by layers of mud that have clung to the surface of the mirror. The mirror is still a mirror but in practice is is not functioning as one–i.e. the essential light of a person (their soul) is still present but no able to be experienced. 

Purgation is to remove the mud that has caked onto the soul. It is one of the best feelings in the world just after having been purged. To feel the release of some weight one has been carrying for years, decades, lifetime, or maybe even lifetimes. That is a direct experience of Grace.

Once the mud is gone, the mirror naturally reflects the light of God. That is what is meant by Paradise.

In my practice, I’m blessed to be able to witness the purgation of souls in real-time. In my own path, I have experienced numerous times the grace of having my soul purged by God.
The reason St. Ambrose said there was a baptism of fire one must go through before entering the gates of paradise is precisely that. We want to be as cleansed as possible, as much as grace will allow in our case, to reflect the Light of Loving Truth.

The way is to trust that purification is happening with a space of Grace (a fundamental space of Resource and Safety). When we learn to co-operate and work intelligently with purgation, we can make it go relatively more smoothly.

But go through purgation we will.

The word salvation comes from a root meaning “healing”–like the world salve. Purgation is the pain that occurs as the Great Doctor lances boils, excises growths, and extracts the poisons held in our souls.

That is why purgation is grace. It’s not a moralistic process. It’s not a criminal process. It’s medicine for the soul. Shamans, recall, are called doctors of the soul.

On All Saints Day (Nov 1) we pray for the saints and ask them to pray for us. On All Souls (Nov 2) we pray for the souls of our ancestors and ask them to pray for us. On what I’m calling Purgation Day (Nov 3) I recommend we pray for the graceful purgation of our souls. We pray for our souls and ask our souls to pray for us.

I can testify to how truth of Origen’s words that all who be healed (saved) must do so through a fire. I can testify to the truth of St. Ambrose’s words that all would enter into paradise (bliss) must first go through the graceful baptism of fire. And I can testify to the truth of my mom’s words that it is possible to go through purgatory while here alive in this reality.

* Personally I tend to the view, strong in the Eastern Christian tradition (e.g. Origen) of the apocatastasis, i.e. that there will be a universal salvation. Or at least the option of it. Contrary to Roman Catholic theology, I don’t believe in eternal punishment in hell. I do believe in the possibility of everlasting damnation–though I’m unsure if that actually applies to any soul. What I mean is that I believe all souls are given infinite chances to be redeemed. Whether they will accept that offer I cannot say.

02 Nov 2015 1 comment / READ MORE

Fear Is Not The Opposite of Love: A Critique of A Course in Miracles

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Shamanism, Spirituality, The Soul

“Fear is the opposite of Love.” –A Course in Miracles

A Course in Miracles is one of, if not the, most popular spiritual texts of The New Thought tradition. The back story of the writing of a the text is a bit complex and quite fascinating actually (see history here). Essentially A Course in Miracles is claimed to be the words of an inner voice, given to Helen Schucman. Schucman believed that voice to be the voice of Jesus. The text is often popularly shortened to The Course and I’ll use that shorthand throughout but important to remember the official title is A Course in Miracles (A, not The).

The Course or Course-inspired views of spiritual life have come into mainstream popularity, particularly through the writings of contemporary spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson. Those ideas have now extended to a new generation of spiritual teachers, particularly strong in what’s known as the spiritual but not religious community of seekers in North America. I encounter ideas who have their roots in The Course (and certain strands of New Thought theology more broadly) constantly in my private practice. Overall what I see are Course ideas and beliefs creating problems for practitioners. While it’s far too much to explore the entirety of the teaching of The Course, I do want to explore this quotation:

“Fear is the opposite of Love.”

This is the core claim of The Course. It’s also in my view misguided. In what follows, I want to explore why I believe that claim to be false, as well as what relationship, if any, fear and love should have to each other.

To explore this topic I’m going to use quotations from Marianne Williamson’s classic book Return to Love. Return to Love is a popular rendering of A Course in Miracles. Return to Love I think brilliantly portrays and clarifies the overall teaching of The Course. My disagreements are with elements of the teaching of The Course itself. But in order to understand what The Course is arguing for, Return to Love is, in my mind, the best entry point.

Here for example is a very important quotation from the beginning of Return to Love that lays out the overall vision of A Course in Miracles:

“A Course in Miracles calls itself a ‘mind training’ in the relinquishment of a thought system based on fear, and the acceptance instead of a thought system based on love.” (Return to Love p.20).

I want to be clear then about what my critique is because it’s a somewhat subtle point. I’m NOT arguing that The Course in Miracles fails to achieve what it sets out to do. I do see people who follow The Course moving from a thought system based on fear towards a thought system based in love. I do see The Course’s teaching fulfilling its stated mission. Of course no one ever completely follows that path in every moment of their lives, but as a teaching it does I believe succeed in its stated goal.

It’s that goal however that I believe is a problem. I think starting with the mind (‘a thought system’) is ultimately the wrong place to start spiritual teaching. The mind needs eventually to be incorporated into an overall integrated spiritual teaching yes, but I don’t believe it’s the place to begin. More importantly I don’t believe the ultimate aim or purpose of spiritual practice should be to move us from fear to love.

Not starting with the mind and not moving from fear to love. The two are related but distinct elements. The rest of this piece is an exploration of those intertwined critiques.

Now before diving fully into this topic, I realize I’m stepping into some tender territory here. I know plenty of people who have received enormous benefit from following The Course. For example, Marianne Williamson’s Return to Love is a testament to the grace The Course brought to her life. I acknowledge that I’m going to be touching some raw nerves.

It’s certainly true that people can (and do) receive benefit from following The Course. This isn’t an abstract proposition–I know people who fit this profile. They are friends, acquaintances, clients, and the like.

Nonetheless I still maintain that the benefits of The Course bring with them unforeseen shadows. It’s these shadows I want to explore. I believe it’s important to explore these shadows because they often go unspoken. Bringing the shadows to light allows us to retain the beauties of The Course while releasing it’s flaws (of which I think there are some significant ones).

So to the critiques….

A central reason I believe that the mind is a poor place to begin spiritual practice is that the mind inherently creates binaries: light versus dark, up versus down, truth versus falsehood, feminine versus masculine, the list of such binaries is endless.* This binary formulation is the very nature of the mind. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

In The Course the fundamental binary is between Fear and Love. Once that fundamental binary is set, then The Course becomes a mind training to move from fear to love. Very often when a binary is set up, one side will be seen as positive and one as negative. In the Course this is definitely the case. In the Course, Fear is wholly negative and Love is wholly positive. One is hell (fear) and one is heaven (love).

Since the teaching is sourcing itself in the mind and has created a binary, then the training has to focus on how to move out of one (fear) and into the other (love). If one views the world as divided between Fear and Love, with fear being evil and Love being holy, then obviously and rightly the next question to ask is:

“How do I move from the evil (fear) to the holy (love)?”

It’s in that context that we can understand The Course’s emphasis on the notion of “shifts in perception”. Perhaps the most quoted line of The Course is “a miracle is a shift in perception”. A shift that is from fear to love.

Having created the fundamental metaphysical binary between Fear and Love, The Course will then argue that fear is unreal. The illusory nature of fear is the key to moving from it to love. In the teaching of the Course, once we see that fear is not real and connect with what is real (Love), then fear melts away.

Unfortunately the human being is much more than simply a mind and fear is much more real than a thought. And here is where things begin to unravel.

The crux of the problem is this:

Fear is an emotion. It is also intimately related to the proper functioning of the human nervous system.

Love, on the other hand, is a choice.

Contrasting Fear with Love is contrasting an emotion with a choice. That’s not comparing apples to oranges. It’s more like comparing apples to 747s. Or apples to duplexes.

The Course teaches a way of mentally shifting from fear into the spiritual state of love. Unfortunately the shadow-side of that maneuver is that it bypasses human sensation and emotion.

Describing Fear as illusory may be true when looked at from the level of the mind, but it’s definitely NOT true when it comes to the level of the human body and emotional life.

Attempting to route around fear, rather than turning towards it, leaves the person subtly (or not so subtly) quite fearful and anxious. Paradoxically it is only when we turn towards and embrace our fears that fear stops controlling us.

But that is not what The Course teaches.

What The Course does is exploit a temporary short-circuiting mechanism of the human bodymind. That’s why it can and does work but only for so long and only in a partial way.

Williamson states:

“The Course teaches that fear is literally a bad dream. It is as though the mind has been split in two; one part stays in touch with love, and the other part veers into fear. Fear manufactures a kind of parallel universe where the unreal seems real, and the real seems unreal.” (p.23)

Fear is not a bad dream. At least it need not be. It’s no illusion. Fear is simply an aspect of human existence as a sensory, emotive, incarnate being. Realize this and the neat and tidy metaphysical system of strict separation between love and fear begins to blur and break down.

The Course is named a course for a reason. As a course, it uses imagery of training. There’s a method. Life is a school.

I’d submit that all these metaphors are a consequence of the fact that one is beginning the process at the point at which fear is most calcified, i.e. the mind. Fear begins as sensation, from which it takes on its emotional charge. When Fear is met at the level of our sensation and emotion then it can be worked with. Fear can be raw, even intense at times, or more garden variety. But fear in the sensory and emotional realms–when rightly worked with–is actually quite supple and fluid. It’s dream-like in its movement but it is literally not a bad dream. Fear is literally a sensation and emotion.

When we deny our fear such that it spreads from our nervous system through our emotional self into the mind, then we are too late. Fear in the mind is far too rigid. Therefore it takes the most forcefulness to undo it from that point. Hence a course, a training regimen.

Realistically there are only two options at the point at which fear has overrun the mind:

1. return back to the level of sensation and emotion and learn to work with fear (i.e. work on it where it originates)


2. deny its reality and try to route around it.

The Course chooses the second option. It therefore does not undo fear so much as skips over it.

The second option–the one the Course chooses–would be a solution if one could maintain that state of Love 24/7. That however is wildly unrealistic. Consequently as soon as one falls back from Love then the fear will return, likely with more power attached to it.

If however we sink to the level of our sensation and our emotions, then fear is simply another aspect of our human existence. Fear has wisdom to teach us. If we set up our spiritual system as moving from Fear to Love, then we will never learn from Fear. We will never gain the gifts of Fear because we are always running from it, rather than turning toward and (intelligently) facing it.

It’s not possible to turn towards and embrace our Fear from the place of our minds. The Course is right about this point, but wrong in its assumption that therefore fear is to be denied altogether.

It is however very much possible to turn towards, to become intimate with, and to embrace our fear. It becomes possible for fear to be transmuted. It is possible–indeed I would argue essential–that fear be transmuted and its hidden light released.

“Fear is to love as darkness is to light.” –Return to Love, p. 22

The view of The Course is that there is only Fear and Love, Darkness and Light and we embrace the Light and deny the Darkness. I argue instead we should become darkwalkers, we should critique the bias towards The Light (aka “High Vibrations”) and instead learn to find the Light hidden in the darkness.

In the perspective of The Course, fear is never redeemed. Fear is never transmuted or turned into Light. No part of fear is connected to the Light.

But all those views turn out to be wrong. I would take the wisdom of Fear any day of the week (and twice Sunday) over the foolishness of such seeming profundity.

Fear is actually a word commonly used for three related but distinct emotions: fear, anxiety, and terror/panic.

–Fear is an emotional response to perceived threats.
–Anxiety is an emotion that warns us that we’ve entered a place of some instability in our lives, like a boat rocking on choppy waves.
–Terror/Pain is the wisdom that comes forth under great duress to take the hit of trauma for us.

From the point of the view of the nervous system, fear is a process intricately related to our flight, fight, and freeze responses.

From the point of view of the soul (or our energy), fear is often a harbinger, a call to enter the cave and descend into the underworld, to become initiated–like Batman.

From the point of view of our emotions, fear is an invitation to connect to our animal nature, to sharpen our senses, and attune to our environment.

Different teachings exist to cultivate this intimate relationship with fear–emotionally, instinctually, and energetically. We can learn to regulate and work with our fear emotionally, bodily, and energetically.

All of those are ways of wisdom.

The Course however does not offer us such wisdom, wisdom we so desperately require in our world. The amount of fear, anxiety, and terror in our world continues to rise. The Course offers no solution to working with those emotions, only a way to try to flee from it. Except, in trying to run from fear, we are bringing unconscious fear with us. 

As Williamson states quoting directly from The Course itself:

“The ego is literally a fear based thought.”

No it’s not. The ego is literally not at all a fear based thought.

We see here the problem of defining the central aspect of humanity as our minds. The Course is locked into a worldview characteristic of the 17th and 18th centuries European thought, e.g. that of Rene Descartes. A worldview in which the human being is a disembodied mind only marginally attached to a material object it possesses called ‘it’s body.’ Our minds are only one aspect of our incarnation which include our physical, emotional, instinctual, energetic, and spiritual aspects. What The Course does is take one aspect of us (the mind) and separates out of the context of the entire range of our humanity and declares it the center around which everything else orbits. This decision is deeply confused and problematic.

Since The Course defines the mind as the central aspect of our humanity (as opposed to one important aspect of our humanity) it has to turn everything into a thought. It turns Fear, which is an emotion, into thought. It’s turns Love, which is an aspect of will, into thought. It turns the ego–which is a feeling mechanism of being a human organism–into a thought. It even turns our spiritual nature into a thought:

As Williamson states, “The altar to God is the human mind. To ‘desecrate the altar’ is to fill it with non-loving thoughts.” (p. 24)

In so doing, The Course denies our souls and spirits as transcendent of our minds, which all the great mystical traditions will most certainly tell you they are. Our souls and spirits include our minds yes but they transcend them as well.

The human mind is not the altar to God. Saying so ends up convincing people that thinking about being spiritual is the same as actual spiritual realization (which by definition transcends the mind).

By defining us simply as minds, The Course cuts out our nervous systems, our emotional lives, as well as the aspects of us that are beyond our minds. It’s represses both the “lower” range of our incarnation (sensation, emotion) as well as the “higher” range of our incarnation (souls, spirits), leaving us claustrophobically trapped in the middle range of our incarnation (the mind).

Which brings us back to the ego. The ego is not a fear-based thought. The ego is what it feels like to be a bodily human organism. The ego is the feeling of being an individual homo sapien sapien. The ego is the feeling of being a bodily human self-conscious organism.

The human body is a feeling mechanism. The human organism feels and senses moment to moment. It feels and senses the environment, other beings, and its own internal state(s). Sensation is how your nervous system feels. Emotions are how your heart feels. Thought is how your brain feels. And the ego is how the bodymind as a total, single organism feels.

When understood this way the ego is not the enemy, just as fear isn’t either. When however we don’t understand the ego in its proper depth as the total feeling response of the human bodymind organism, then we come to experience ourselves as an isolated egoic subject separate from the body. And such a being is inherently fearful (in the negative sense). The Course starts from that isolated fearful stance and then tries to correct it by shifting out of it into Love.

The result of doing that however is that The Course doesn’t understand the deeper feeling reality of the ego. It takes a very immature form of the ego and then defines the ego only as its immature form.

This is why a spiritual system based on the idea of a mental training course is precisely unhelpful. Learning a mental training system does not teach anyone how to feel. In particular The Course does not teach us how to feel with and through our fear.

“Our work is the work of casting fear from the world.” –Return to Love

I don’t believe this is true. Franklin Roosevelt said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. I think he was wrong. The thing to fear is not knowing how to work with fear wisely. Not knowing how to transmute our fear is indeed a quite scary proposition. It’s one that rules our world.

But Fear as such is not our enemy. What we do with Fear–use it to abuse people, project it onto others, allow it to debilitate us–these must be cast out. What we do out of unconscious, negative, shadowed Fear that is negative.

Healthy conscious integrated fear however is the way to resolve those issues. It’s not Love that has an answer to negative, unconscious Fear. It’s only healthy awakened fear that can solve that problem. And we will never access awakened healthy fear if we have denied its very existence by labelling all fear as inherently illusory and destructive.

When we treat Fear as the enemy we make it into the scapegoat. We seek to purge it from ourselves and purify it from the world. That is a truly terrifying prospect (with terrible historical weight behind it).

Fear is very much real on the level of our nervous system and our emotions. To deny the reality of fear on the levels of our being on which it exists is a dangerous and ultimately foolish perspective. Any spiritual system like The Course that teaches that fear is not real is inevitably leading to anti-material spirituality, a spirituality that will deny body, flesh, and earth as the truly spiritual abode because fear is very much an intrinsic aspect of our bodily human existence. Fear is in our bellies, our hearts, our spleens, not just our brains.

Saying fear is the opposite of love and that we need to move from fear to love weirdly leaves fear forever unloved. The way fear is cast from the world is not by making it unreal, but rather by transforming it. It is Love, the choice to embrace Fear and transmute it in the heart, that alone can cast the negative expressions of Fear from this world. In the view of The Course there is no redemption, there is no transfiguration, no true liberation of physicality, materiality, earth, emotion, flesh, and blood. In the Course there is only a spiritual escape from it all, leaving fear further marginalized only to return in darker, more terrible forms. Fear needs to be transformed by being brought into the Heart of Love, not denying its reality.

Fear does not intrinsically lead to the dark side (contra Master Yoda). Fear can be our ally and it needs to be an ally in the struggle for goodness and love. This path we must walk.

* Though this isn’t my focus here, it is true that the mind can also do various forms of self or meta-reflection. In can work with binaries as dialectics. It can deconstruct the binaries. It can begin to integrate them in various complex ways. But no matter what it’s still within the basic whirl of the binary.

09 Oct 2015 3 comments / READ MORE

Infinity +1: Spirituality for the 21st Century

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Mystics, Philosophy, Spirituality, The Soul

This site is dedicated to soul work. It’s especially dedicated to the development of a spiritual teaching for the 21st century, a spiritual teaching that takes souls seriously. Consequently, I’ve written a number of pieces exploring the nature of spiritual awakening. I’ve written about loving presence, bliss, and most recently on the true understanding of Shakti (Radiance). 

In so doing, I’ve been revealing classic signs or expressions of spiritual awakening.

But it is important to recognize that Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are NOT the ultimate truth. They are effects in the human bodymind of touching into something we might call the ultimate truth. Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are the consequence of this “something” flooding our humanness, not the something itself. 

This something is called variously The Ultimate, The Divine, Spirit, The One Without a Second, The All, Buddha Mind, The Godhead, The Void, etc.

What this means is that spiritual states like Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are not to be sought as ends in themselves. We aren’t seeking them as spiritual states to consume for personal gratification. The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche labeled that false approach “spiritual materialism.”
Rather Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are attributes of that prior something. We’re interested in that prior something whatever or whoever it may be. Presence, Bliss, Heart, and Radiance are pointers. They are signs that as humans we are connected and properly in touch with this “something.” Presence being when the human mind uncoils in the face of The Ultimate. Heart the center of the chest, The Creative Impulse the belly, Radiance the root, and Bliss the breath-energy and body as a whole.

This approach is a “descending” or “incarnational” model of spirituality because it starts with Presence and works “down” from there. Down in the sense of our bodyminds opening in a descending fashion to the Ultimate Reality.

Because these spiritual effects or attributes are so powerful, however, they can become alluring, even addictive. We can easily forget they are pointers. We forget what they are pointing to and take them as ends in themselves. We see to grasp, cling, and hold onto them (i.e. “spiritual materialism”). 

So it’s crucial to remember that what I’ve been exploring through my writing and in actual experience through my teaching is how connecting to the spiritual pointers point us back to that Something.

Words like The Ultimate, The One, Spirit, The Divine are stand-in words for that Something, that something of which Presence, Bliss, Radiance, Creativity, and Heart are attributes. 

A term like Spirit is just that…a term. It’s not something to be taken literally. As if Spirit were actually some kind of gigantic ethereal spirit.

In fact all those terms: The Ultimate, The Divine, Spirit, The One Without a Second, The Buddha Nature, these are all just that–terms. metaphors. Any term that has ever been chosen in history to name that something is just a term. Some terms are relatively speaking more helpful and illuminating than others, but none contain that something. 

No word, no term, no metaphor can adequately name that something. 

In Buddhism this teaching is known as shunyata, i.e. emptiness. All terms are empty of the ability to name that something. The word “that something” is itself inadequate because it’s means some-thing as opposed to other things. And this “something” is not in opposition to other things.

It’s empty, it’s vacant of such a meaning. 

All the words, all the phrases are Void (shunyata). The terms are not the ultimate truth. They are void. In Taoism they say,

“The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao.”

So names for that something are never in the end adequate to the task. At best they are imaginative metaphors.

But this something is something. No word or phrase can ever adequately contain and control and name that something. All those terms, all those words are empty. But that something is not an absence. That something is definitely not empty.

In fact, it’s the total opposite. It’s not empty but absolute fullness. It’s a Void yes. But a Void that turns out, the moment one experiences it, to bring forth Love, Creativity, Radiance, Bliss, and Luminous Presence. It brings these qualities forth spontaneously, without effort. It is a pure Grace.

The Void then, Sprit, is not a lack of something but an emptiness that allows for everything to happen simultaneously. This Void, This Spirit, is not something other than the world of our experience. It is the opening, the clearing, in which everything is happening and which everything is an expression of. To experience that is to experience the natural, spontaneous, unplanned for, arising of Wakeful Presence, Radiance, Bliss, Creative Desire, and Unconditional Love. 

In other words, the way we know we’ve “locked into” that All-Encompassing, Bright Void is again through the effects, the attributes of Presence, Bliss, Radiance, Heart, and Creativity.

This is true nonduality or spiritual awakening. 

My argument goes one step further, one step beyond the traditional enlightenment or nondual teachings. The argument of this teaching that the only way to truly incarnate this something, this Void of Pure Light and Love, is as a Soul. That is, each of us is a singular, irreducible version of That Luminous Void. We are the entire process of Creation manifest in a personalized form. The entire process–gross, subtle, and causal. Physical, emotional, mental, cultural, political, psychological, subtle, spiritual.

Put them all in the blender, hit puree and you get a Soul.

Said another way:

Only by becoming properly bounded can we truly embody infinities.

In traditional enlightenment teaching there tends to be a bias towards “no boundaries”. Spirituality is typically about becoming one with The All. Spirituality is about what is universal, the same for all of us. There is a very important truth there–the truth of deep equality and humility. But what traditional spirituality does not offer (in my mind) is a concrete way to manifest and incarnate this realization in the midst of daily life…at least for those of us not living in caves or monasteries.

If we take our spiritual nature however to be our True Nature, then our True Nature turns out to not be our own but rather a universal (and therefore non-personal) one. Spiritual teaching that over-emphasizes The Oneness over The Many-ness promotes a conformist model, it tends to deny emotion, and creates a very static homogenous kind of space (e.g. everybody shaves their heads or wears the same color robes or takes new names, etc.)

The Soul is about what is singular, distinct, and flavorful about our being. The Soul is about irreducible-ness. The Soul creates the proper sphere of one’s being. The Soul creates a true awakened boundary for a being. It’s not a boundary that separates them off (like the ego) but a boundary that allows for true participation, true communion, and true relationship.

Only by becoming properly bounded can we truly embody infinities.
Only as Souls can we incarnate our realization of Spirit. 

So to review:

Spiritual attributes like Presence, Heart, Radiance, Bliss are natural, spontaneous expressions of the realization of something prior to (yet inclusive of) those realities.

Call that something prior The Godhead, The Divine, Spirit, The Void, The One. Just don’t take those names to be anything other than pointers because most precisely there is No Name for That One (including even The Unnamed). 

Because Presence, Radiance, Bliss and the like are expressions or attributes of The One, they are not to be sought as ends in themselves. They are simply pointers or graces, signs of realization. The realization of The Void-The Divine is what is ultimately important. Presence, Radiance, and Bliss are not to be denied but they aren’t to be sought or clung to either (that is the error of spiritual materialism).

To truly live and incarnate realization of The One (The Void, The Godhead) one must do so through The Soul. It is only the Soul that paradoxically can create a unique sphere or boundary of one’s being, a boundary that is somehow able to hold the infinite within it. 

As kids you may remember the game where you would be constantly one-upping each other.

Someone would say, “I’m smarter times a hundred.” “Yeah, well I’m smarter times a million.” “I’m smarter times 300 million.” “I”m smarter times a billion”. “I’m smarter times a trillion.” 

And on and on it would go until someone said: 

“I’m smarter times infinity.” 

And then the reply would inevitably come: “Smarter times infinity plus one.” 

To which the counter-reply was always, “You can’t have more than infinity.” 

In this teaching however we can. Infinity +1 turns out to be correct view. The Infinite (Spirit) is embraced by a Soul, which adds a +1. The +1 there being a unique, singular, irreducible incarnation of The Infinite. It is the +1 quality of The Soul embracing Spirit (rather than the other way around) that creates the possibility for spiritual awakening to be incorporated genuinely into daily life.

15 Sep 2015 1 comment / READ MORE

Will The Real Shakti Please Stand Up (And Dance)?

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Philosophy, Spirituality, The Imaginal, The Soul

I’ve written a great deal on this site (and elsewhere) on my disagreement with the notion of the divine masculine and feminine. I’m not going to rehash that whole argument here–if you’re interested see herehere, and here for example (I did say I wrote A LOT about it).

The basic issue I have with the masculine-feminine is that it uses terms (masculine and feminine) which are derived from human biology and gender to try to describe something that is, in theory anyway, not biologically or gender dependent.

To poke fun for a moment, this would be like if I were to attempt to describe a teaching, a polarity between burger (vegetarian) and bun (gluten-free). So burger and bun. One (burger) represents meatiness, solidity, and substance, while the other (bun) represents the energy of holding, containing, embracing. But as I say that it’s absolutely imperative you not think of an actual hamburger. Don’t think of actual food!!! It’s not food based because everyone has within them burger and bun.

Of course this analogy is purposefully a bit ludicrous. But in another way, not really. Notice that the energetic metaphors of meatiness, substance as well as containing and holding are derived from the concrete experience of eating a burger. The same goes for masculine and feminine as spiritual metaphors that are supposedly non-biological and non-gendered. When you get down to what each polarity is supposed to represent, you see they are metaphors drawn from concrete gender norming. The Masculine is said to be agentic, driven, and er penetrating. While the feminine is receptive, compassionate, and nurturing.

I’m not opposed to the idea (or even the practice) whereby there is a polarity between for example direction and reception. The problem I have is with labeling the one masculine and the other feminine, then trying to convince me that those have nothing to do with assumptions about gender (which they can’t but have since the words are themselves gender terms). Using language of Masculine and Feminine inevitably brings gender and biology debates to the fore (which is great actually) but then shuts that conversation down by saying it has nothing to do with gender and biology. Which again is like saying the polarity of burger and bun is not about food. Well yes, obviously it is, since that is what the words mean.

There’s lots of other problems that flow from that one, but for now that’s enough. As a consequence of that criticism I’ve been labeled (this is no exaggeration) all of the following: anti-woman, anti-male, secretly privileging androgyny, even anti-heterosexual. Which is equal parts hilarious and depressing given that I’m very (happily) a biological male, with a very dude gender identity whose 100% heterosexual. I’m not anti-myself. My point is simply that I don’t want metaphors drawn from my experience to be the one and only (and automatically assumed to be true and final and ultimately right) way of being for all others. Relatedly, I don’t experience energies like agency and reception have anything to do with gender, so why bring in gender terms to confuse the matter?

So given that I’ve written that much on the topic and have made clear repeatedly my disagreement with the language of Masculine and Feminine, I actually want to break custom here and actually use that very language. At least I want to explore one classic image in this tradition: The Shiva-Shakti symbol. In this symbolism, Shiva stands for Consciousness, The Masculine, Formless and Shakti is said to represent Manifestation, The Feminine, and Form. Shiva is Dark, Shakti is Light. Shiva is Unmoved, Shakti is Movement, Shiva is Heaven, Shakti is Earth, and so on.

Why do I want to write this way after all the time criticizing it? The answer is that even though I have a beef (no pun intended) with teaching Masculine and Feminine, if one is going to do it at least they should get it right on its own terms. Much as disagree with the framework, at least it should be honored and properly understood for its enduring truths.

I say that because what I’m noticing is a huge degree of misunderstanding of Shakti in particular. I would even go so far to say a deep denigration of her, under the guise of various attempts to be her devoted follower. There’s a lot of discussion, exchange, and controversy around Shakti-The Goddess nowadays. There probably always has been in some place or other but right now it’s taking a particularly, how shall I say, interesting form. It shows up in a lot of the Goddess Revival type work which I can appreciate on many levels for what it is attempting to accomplish but nevertheless I think there’s some significant flaws in what I’m seeing. I want to explore this territory because there’s deep value here but only (in my mind) if it’s held in an updated form.

In what follows then I’m going to use the traditional He-She language of Shiva-Shakti. I’ve made clear that I personally don’t buy into that framework in a metaphysical or literal sense but to honor that teaching I will use the language for this post.

But before we dive into why I think many of the invocations of Shakti are missing the mark, we need just a little bit of conceptual background. This conceptual background will help to make sense of why I think there are so many mistaken notions of Shakti floating around.

In the traditions of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism there is the teaching of the three great realms: gross, subtle, and causal. Other traditions have other names for this same basic tripartite structure. For example Christianity has purification, illumination, and union. Gross, subtle, and causal I think works well (just so long as we remember this same overall teaching exists in other traditions).

The Gross is the world of waking consciousness. Gross as in most dense (not icky). Subtle is the world of dreams, illuminations, visions, ancestors, realms of the afterlife, The World Soul, and so on. Causal is the Groundless Ground of All Being. It is the Cause or Source, The Origin of All.

The Vajrayana-Vedanta traditions also speak of a fourth realization called Nonduality. This term (or the realization that the term points to) is available in other traditions. For example, in Christianity it’s called indistinct union. But again the term nondual perhaps has a more user-friendly quality about it or at least is more commonly used, so I’ll work with it.

Labeling nonduality a fourth in a series–gross, subtle, causal, and nondual–is in one way totally correct and in another way totally inaccurate. When one first awakens to nonduality it feels as if the space of nondual awakening is separate from the three realms of gross, subtle, and causal. It feels like a fourth thing. But as one steeps like tea in this space, they come to realize that there are only the three spaces of gross, subtle, and causal. The Nondual isn’t a separate state/reality apart from the gross, subtle, and causal. Rather nonduality is the Essence, the Deep Intensity of all gross, subtle, and causal.

The traditions describe this as first awakening to a kind of Sphere that encompasses and pervades everything and everyone (Shiva). And then one realizes that within this Sphere is Radiant Light blasting in all directions infinitely (Shakti).

In this deeper (more maturer) nonduality, there is nothing other than gross, subtle, and casual. One is awake (Shiva) and dancing (Shakti) through all the three realms. And at that point one has now come to experience true Shakti. There is only the shaking of Shakti on all levels which we call creation.

Before the realization of Consciousness (symbolized by Shiva), then one lives at the mercy of Shakti. Shakti plays her game on you. And she is fickle to put it (quite) mildly. Being bound to Shakti’s shake without realization is cruel and terrifying on so many levels. Being bound to Shakti is being unconsciously bound to the inevitable turnings of the wheel of life. One day you might be up, the next day you’re being crushed under the wheel. 

As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Affixing our minds, our sense of self to any form in life is a painful choice because that form–no matter how beautiful, alluring, or pleasurable–will inevitably decay and die. And to the degree you (or I) am identified with that form in death, you die with it. Some part of you dies with it.

Everything that has a beginning in time will eventually have an end. Our physical bodies last perhaps 80 or so years. Our legacy may live on perhaps somewhat longer but will die as well. Affixing our identities to those inherently mortal forms is to invite great suffering. 

If one follows this path they are at the mercy of Shakti’s play. She will play them and inevitably it will end badly. It’s only a matter of time.

Keep that in mind because it’s trendy nowadays to invoke the Goddess and talk about embracing our bodies and whatever else, but the searing, horrendous truth, is that we are being played. All of us, all of the time. Lauding one’s practice as an embodied spirituality is usually a lot of smoke and mirrors. To be truly and utterly free (as much as is possible for any of us as humans) is a true undoing. We are undone by Freedom, by God.

And nobody wants to be undone in God. Nobody wants to be undone by Lord Shiva. Everybody wants to be the Goddess. They want to be told that they can just do whatever it is they are already doing and then say it’s enlightened. They want assurance that whatever compulsion, whatever dissociation, whatever addictive distraction they are already up to is proof of their own liberation (rather than their actual enslavement). And if someone has money they will pay lots of it to anyone who confirms their belief that they are already awakened. It also helps if she (almost always a she) shows a lot of skin because The Goddess after all is fleshy and sexuality is (automatically) sacred.

Don’t you realize how all these evil awful old patriarchal religions suppressed sex and wealth and so now so long as we simply embrace those, voila, we’re enlightened?

Didn’t you get the memo? Being rich is spiritual.

Didn’t you read the status update? Your sex is your power.

Apparently that goes doubly for you ladies–at least that’s what many of the (self-appointed?) mouthpieces of the Goddess keep seem to be shouting in my ear.

Except for this…One can never really be Shakti unless one is Shiva. Here’s the uncomfortable, obliterating truth. Here’s the turd floating in this particular spiritual punchbowl.

There’s a reason Shiva hides in graveyards. He’s dead. He’s undone.

He’s unraveled, like a sweater. He ceases to get to be somebody, anybody, anything. A zombie in a graveyard. That’s like death three times over. The brutal irony there.

Weirdly, paradoxically, perhaps even perversely, only such a multiply dead one can be a true devotee of life.

In other words, anyone who wants to be a devotee of Life, of Shakti, must be undone like Shiva.

And being undone in the beautiful Lord (Shiva) is no Sunday picnic in the park let me tell you. Nor is it necessarily some epic story of victorious triumph. It can be quite boring. It might not win you thousands of social media followers. It might, it might not. But who cares either way?

The realization of Shiva alone however is no great help either. That represents the classic path of spiritual disconnection from life. If the problem of so much Shakti-spirituality nowadays is its negatively regressive and self-centered tendencies*, then the disease of Shiva is spiritually bypassing.

Shiva-ites bypass. Shakti-ites regress.

Both are of course flawed but its only nowadays that regression is being lauded as spiritual enlightenment. Bypassing has become the new taboo of our day so regression must be our mana.

Not so fast.

Only as Shiva can you feel that there is only Shakti. Only then can you realize that there are only the gross, subtle, and causal worlds. Causal becomes Deep Presence. Subtle becomes Radiance, Luminosity. Gross becomes the Creative Pulsation of each moment.

That is the path of true bliss, the most dangerous spiritual reality there is.

A person who is undone in God and realizes there is only Shakti, that person transmits. That person transmits the siddha, the sensible touch of Divinity. At that moment we could say everything is Shiva-Shakti or that there is only Shatki, or even still, that there is no longer Shiva or Shakti at all. They themselves are gone, as separate nameable realities.

That is what it is to be a devotee. To live with and as nothing other than Gross-Subtle-Causal. Nothing other than Shakti’s shake. Not bound to it. Radically Free AS it.

Only from such a place can one truly learn their part in the overall dance. No longer about finding your purpose or actualizing your potentials or living your fullest life or whatever. But simply recognizing the true compulsion of your soul. You are one dart in the Divine Quiver. You need to find your mark. That is the wisdom of your soul.

Your soul needs to flow out of this spiritual ground I’ve been exploring here. When there is only Shakti, when there is only gross-subtle-causal, then you find you are a distinct flavor, a distinct articulation of that whole. It is not that the part is in the whole. It is that the whole is in the part, entirely, as a singular part.

It’s not that you, as a drop, fall into to the ocean and are dispersed into the whole. It is that the ocean flows through your drop. Only to the degree that your drop, your essence is undone, is transparent, is utterly unwound, only to that degree can the ocean flow through.

This Ocean is no blue one however. This Ocean is Liquid Love. This Ocean is Iridescent Impulse.

Remember that saffron is both the most brilliant color of shine (Shakti) as well as the color of renunciation (Shiva). The two go hand in hand. Most only want to sell you or one or the ‘tother. Such persons, however well-meaning and sincere (or neither) are not ultimately trustworthy. Eventually they will be forced to let you down or worse directly betray you. Or you them. Or all of the above.

Here’s the crux of the problem.

Lauding Shakti without being undone inevitably creates new brutal dualities. Dualities that will indicate certain forms of life are “Radiant” and others that, by definition, are not. A most obvious version of illusion-based Shakti-derived duality are the constant declarations of “OMG, You’re a Radiant Goddess” to women spiritual practitioners who happen to adhere to conventional standards of physical hotness. This tendency is only magnified by the women who use their hotness to get declared a goddess. Others get called it without actually wanting it. But either way they are separated out from the whole and made into the only proper incarnation of the Goddess.

Which is a serious problem because then women who don’t meet those cultural beauty standards don’t get called Radiant Goddesses very much, if at all. When in spiritual fact they may well be far more truly radiant than some hot chic with a yoga butt.

A distinct but related problem with this ill-conceived Shakti spirituality is that it teaches (straight) men to not identify with Shakti and forever be searching for The Feminine, the alluring Other, principally in a woman, who exists no longer as her own being but as an Embodiment of a Principle. And once you put her on the pedestal and angelize her, it’s very easy to knock her off that pedestal and demonize her.

That’s terrible no doubt. But it gets worse. Or at least it gets subtler.

To realize, to confess that there is nothing other than Shakti means we see and experience Shakti in the midst of everything. And I mean everything. And that is a truly terrifying proposition. The false-Shakti religion around today will always be choosing only certain kinds of experiences as Radiant. Experiences that are empowering, full of light, desire, health, and beauty. But what about pain, loss, grief? Is Shakti absent from those? If so, she’s not worth worshipping. If she is indeed present in and through and as all those (as I believe She is) then how can we justify continuing to only glorify one set of her expressions? That’s idolatrous.

To truly follow Shakti is to worship her wherever you see her. But if you only see her in places that feel good for you, it’s not that she is absent from the others, it’s that you don’t want to look there. You don’t care then (ultimately) about Shakti for her own sake. You care more about how Shakti can you make you feel better. You don’t serve Shakti then, she serves you.

Ask not what Shakti can do you for you. Ask what you can do for Shakti.

To worship and transmit Shakti is to experience radiant glory in all circumstances. This is not to say that everything goes and that ethics are thrown out the window. It’s more about the redeemed, glorified essence of each moment. Shakti’s presence (which again is Shiva) may not be recognized and honored in many places–and the consequences of that denial are suffering–but She is always present. She is always shinning. But she might shine through one moment of a luminous darkness, another of ethereal light, or yet another of boring, neutral grey. All of them are her.

That’s why if you follow Shakti she turns you into Shiva.** Shakti wants you to stop choosing which forms of her manifestation you like and which ones you dislike. She wants you to be full of joy and radiant in all of them. That’s her purification. For how could one be so Joyous except at the cost of burning up? What would be left spiritually except a kind of Empty Death–Like character in the Graveyard (Shiva)?

Only a Soul can truly be born from such ashes.

You have to be Shiva to be Shakti but you have to be Shakti to be Shiva.

The Shakti-ite school in our day offers only side of Shakti (the light side) and never therefore brings one back to Shiva. At that point it is entirely a not so subtle campaign of politicking and jockeying for spiritual position. Once the game is set up in this horrible way, then the fight is on to look the most like Light Shakti. Because remember without Shiva all forms are inevitably heading to their death. A Shakti-Goddess religion, sans Shiva, is a created form that is very much time bound and therefore very much conditioned and very much mortal. Its adherents will therefore be compelled to keep up the charade, to keep feeding the beast and working to keep away the death (Shiva) just outside the door.

(And for the record invoking Kali or Dark Goddess imagery nowadays seems on the surface to be something different but really is just part of the same game. Because Kali is always seeming to be on the side of more ferocity, more rawness, more epic-ness. She’s just as culturally packaged now as Shakti.)

The cultural packaging—almost entirely for woman of course–is that being Shakti’s devotee will make you feel good. Many women feel badly about themselves because in large measure that is how they’re controlled. This reality is a deeply unmerciful and unjust one. But rather than confess that truth, rather than seek to heal it, rather than begin ask what is wrong that so many feel this way, too much effort is spent trying to alleviate the symptoms.

Shakti will not make you feel good. Shakti will make you FEEL period.

Feeling good is not the same as Joy. Sometimes Joy is ecstatically happy and pleasurable yes. Other times it’s worse than the worst pain imaginable. Still other times it’s as mind numbingly pedantic as it can get.

And I don’t mean epic pain, pain that is part of some great hero(ine)’s journey of profound meaning and purpose and fulfillment. If that happens great. But I’m talking pain and loss even where there is no great meaning. No epic narrative. No marketable story to tell. Times where things just fall apart, never to come back, and perhaps never to make sense. The small daily deaths. Tell me those are as much Shakti as the enormous epic times. Then I will believe.

Until then we need to inquire in each and every moment, “Where is Shakti in this experience and how can I worship her?”

* There is a place for regression in service of transcendence as well as healthy self-orientation. But these are typically not what is going on under the label of Shakti work.

** That’s what the imagery of Kali is all about. How the Radiant Light Shakti also eats up separation. She can therefore be depicted in both Her Glorious Compassionate expression but also her Terrible Numinous expression.

23 Aug 2015 3 comments / READ MORE

Bliss: The Most Dangerous Spiritual State of All?

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Mystics, Philosophy, Spirituality, The Soul

Awhile back I wrote a piece for the website Reality Sandwich entitled “Why Following Your Bliss is Bulls#@%.” I took a mostly (but not entirely) critical view of the now cliched saying to follow your bliss, originally from the great Joseph Campbell.

I’m not going to rehash that entire argument but there’s one section from that piece I want to expand on here. Namely what precisely is the spiritual state of bliss.

In the earlier piece I explored the confusion of Campbell’s understanding of bliss from the two most common meanings of the word, one emotional and one spiritual. Bliss being the English translation of the Sanskrit word ananda, as in Sat-Chit-Ananda (Being- Consciousness-Bliss). Both the emotional and the spiritual meaning of bliss are not what Campbell had in mind when he spoke of following your bliss. This difference in meaning has created a serious amount of confusion and misunderstanding.

When it comes to the emotional meaning of bliss, I wrote:

“Sometimes people will translate ananda into English as happiness, joy, or even elation. Joy, happiness, and elation are temporary emotional states (good ones no doubt!) but ananda they ain’t.* Ananda doesn’t come and go like happiness or joy. Happiness or joy exist in relation to other emotions like sadness, grief, fear, and anger. Ananda doesn’t have any such relations. There’s nothing to compare ananda to. Ananda is not like happiness which we know as different from sadness (and vice versa). Moreover, it’s possible to experience ananda while also experiencing an emotional state of joy or sadness, boredom or elation, fear or contentment.”

The problem then with advising people to follow their bliss is that if they understand bliss to be an emotional state, then they will be seeking an “emotional high.” They will become addicts in other words. This thinking massively pervades the personal growth and spirituality of much of North America (aka “bliss junkies”).

So having made clear that the emotional state of bliss is not something to be attached to, in this piece I want to explore the spiritual state of Bliss. I’ll explore why I think the spiritual state of bliss to be a very grace-filled experience but also a signicantly dangerous one. In fact it’s likely the most dangerous spiritual state known to humanity. I’m not being overly dramatic. In a very sober way, I mean it when I say bliss is very dangerous.

For reference: I’ll use Bliss capitalized to distinguish the spiritual state of Bliss from the more temporary emotional state of bliss (indicated by lowercase ‘b’ bliss).

Here’s what I wrote in my earlier piece about the spiritual meaning of Ananda (Bliss):

Ananda is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.

Now these are just words. Without the experience of actual Bliss the words are by themselves meaningless. Even with the experience of Bliss those words are far from perfect but at least work I believe as a beginning entry point to make sense of Bliss.

I’m going to unpack this statement and show why Bliss is so powerful but also at its heart very ambiguous. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how to set a proper context for the integration of Bliss as an element of an overall human spiritual life. An element, not the element. I want to stress that last point–Bliss should be a part of an overall spiritual life it should not become the final and most important part of a spiritual life.

Saying “Follow Your Bliss” and understanding Bliss as a spiritual state creates its own set of problems–namely the bias towards Bliss as the final, most important form of spiritual awakening. Bliss is very important. Bliss IS NOT however the final and most important spiritual realization.

I’m interested then in exploring Bliss and figuring out a balanced view of its truths and limitations and how best to approach it in order that we can receive the truths and graces of Bliss and not become enmeshed in its limitations and potential shadow sides.

The English language on this point is really unhelpful. I want to describe spiritual experiences and interpretations that are my own but by having to speak of ‘my experience’ it carries a strong sense of personal ownership that isn’t correct in this context. For in Bliss, the normal sense of “I” or “me” isn’t present such that “I” could claim to have interpretations or understandings of that experience. “I” wasn’t even there (I in the normal self-sense that is).

That being said, I don’t also want to give the impression that my experience and interpretation is the final and complete one for all time and places. So I do need to claim some personal responsibility for the interpretations without it becoming an avaricious ownership kind of thing, like Gollum with the Ring of Power. This isn’t my precious.

Still with all that being said, I also am NOT advocating a view of “everybody’s got their own experience, so to each their own.” I do think what I’m proposing, while not the final ultimate interpretation of Bliss, is nevertheless A right and valid interpretation of Bliss. My interpretation is not THE final right and valid interpretation of Bliss, but there are many other interpretations of Bliss that I find wrong or misguided. So I am drawing some clear lines here.

As we proceed, I hope it’s clear I’m trying to tightrope walk with this one.

The only other prefatory comment to add is that my experience of Bliss is, to use some technical language, endogenic. That means it’s an experience internally generated, i.e. through spiritual practice like meditation. In contrast, there are people who experience Bliss through exogenic means, for example by ingesting mushrooms or taking an acid trip. I don’t have any experience in that realm so I can’t speak to it.

With all those provisos, back then to my working definition of Bliss:

Ananda [Bliss] is the energetic state of awakening. It’s the energetic space that comes from the realization of pure release in the state of utter liberation.

Breaking down that definition there’s three component parts:

Energetic space/state
Pure Release
Utter Liberation

In the actual experience of Bliss those three can’t be separated from each other, but for the purposes of teasing out the experience, we can differentiate them, at least conceptually.

Bliss is a spiritual state of Burning Fire. In Bliss it is as if the world melts into Liquid Brilliance. It is as if there is an electrical charge. There’s a dynamism, a vitality, an energetic “pow”.

Pure Release
Bliss is Aloneness. Bliss is solitude in a desert oasis at night illumined by fire.

Utter Liberation
In Bliss one is freed even from having to be free. One is freed from all constructs, including “good” ones like Truth, Freedom, Enlightenment, Goodness. It’s a Liberation from Liberation. In Bliss, stupidity as well as intelligence are Liberated. Confusion and Clarity are seen as two sides of one coin. Heaven and Hell, Nirvana and Samsara, are just forms of Bliss.

Bliss is an Undertow. It’s a Current. It pulls one out to sea. It’s an alluring pull. It’s as if Bliss opens up the pores on my skin. In the space of Bliss, everything else starts to melt away. I find myself simply taken away in the current. This current however has no destination. It’s just the experience of being pulled out to sea, Infinitely, Indefinitely, Eternally. No destination, no goal, no purpose, other than the ride itself.

In the space of Bliss, everything that arises is just gently poured in to the sea. It could be the most creative thought in the world, a most painful memory, a very pleasurable sensation, even seemingly fundamental aspects of my identity, it doesn’t matter. They all arise and simply get buried in the Sea of Bliss. Everything is left in the Desert Oasis of Bliss.

Put all three of these aspects together and you have the spiritual state of Bliss. Because Bliss so charged and because it takes out beyond all categories, all conceptions, all ways of splitting the world into right and wrong, it is very powerful. It is also however, for all the exact same reasons, potentially dangerous.

The Dark Sides of Bliss

Now there are significant dangers associated with each of those three elements. I hear spiritual teachers (or students) often extol the virtues of Bliss, but I hear less often an honest assessment of the dangers involved. I think it’s best to squarely face the dangers and bring them right out into the open.

Danger #1: Addictions, Trauma, and Psychological Shadow

The most obvious danger is the danger for all spiritual states–namely spiritual bypassing. Bliss can and is used as an escape for those suffering from addictions, traumas, mental illness, emotional disease, and/or soul ailments. As a spiritual state, Bliss is free from pain, terror, turmoil, confusion, or trauma. That is a gift of the state but also potentially a curse. Traumas, addictions, and nervous system disturbance are endemic within our culture. PTSD is not only for people who’ve been to war and addiction is not only for people going to 12 Step meetings for alcohol or drug abuse.

In that context, spirituality can then become a siren song, calling us wounded beings to an easy escape from dealing with our challenges on the level which they exist. For example, if you have an emotional problem, then you need to deal with it on the emotional level of your being. Having a spiritual realization will temporarily move you into a different space where the emotional problem doesn’t arise in the first place. That’s a great solution if you could hold that spiritual state for every moment for the rest of your life (which frankly is more or less the advice of classical spiritual teachers btw).

Assuming however you can’t hold that state in the entirely of your being for every waking moment of the rest of your existence (a good assumption btw!), then when the spiritual state recedes, the emotional problem will return. This return of the emotional problem can leave a sense of despair in the practitioner. They’ve struggled with something, then it goes away, now it’s back, so not surprisingly their initial response is to try to return immediately to the place where it doesn’t hurt. Worse still, the emotional problem (or addiction or trauma) can come back charged with spiritual energy. With Bliss this is doubly the case given how strongly energetic (in some cases even erotic) the experience is. A person with a trauma pattern can easily spin out from an injection of Bliss–i.e. they can experience a dissociative state. This isn’t per se a fault of Bliss but we live a pervasively traumatized society. The more we study about trauma the more we realize it’s not something relegated only to people in terribly violent accidents and the like. It’s a much more common experience. Consequently anyone teaching Bliss needs to be very aware of the risks involved and screen accordingly.

Danger #2 Beyond Good and Evil

This one is straightforward. Bliss is definitely beyond our human conceptions of good and evil. It is deeply freeing to be released from our subtle bindings of wanting to be good people. But when Bliss is idealized as the final summit of spiritual perfection (as it often is) then we have a serious issue on our hands. Bliss does not give any indication about ethical behavior one way or another. Bliss is not interested in such matters. Not at all. In the most extreme cases, this can led a human being to claim that they are beyond good and evil. Charlie Manson made just such a claim btw. A person who has experienced Bliss can (mis)interpret the experience to mean that they exist in what is known as a “state of exemption”–i.e. they don’t believe the rules of being a good human being apply to them. Abuse by spiritual teachers, cultism and the like all flow from this basic error.

Danger #3 No Purpose

This element is also quite clear. Not only does the spiritual state of Bliss have no orientation to right or wrong, it has no orientation to purpose. It has no point. It has no direction or aim. This can be radically destabilizing and disorienting for the realizer. Again, if Bliss is articulated as the final, ultimate point of spiritual realization (of a human life even), which in some cases it is, then the final point is pointless. With Bliss there’s the strong possibility of wanting to flee or abandon the world to its own demise and suffering, while one simply “Blisses Out.” Here again is the problem of uncritically advocating “Following Your Bliss.”

The spiritual state of Bliss is not “your” Bliss or “my” Bliss or “anyone’s” Bliss. Bliss SIMPLY IS. It cannot be owned. Further, it goes nowhere, hence it cannot be “followed”. Only something with direction, aim, or purpose can be followed. Bliss has no aim, purpose, or direction. The only way one could “follow” the spiritual state of Bliss is by becoming overly fixated or even addicted to the state. And this, like all addictions, is an unhealthy response to unhealed trauma.

The Solution

Given the severity of these dangers associated with Bliss maybe Bliss should be abandoned altogether? While I can sympathize with that idea, I don’t believe it’s the right choice. There is a reason the Indian tradition valued Bliss so highly by naming it as one of its triad of spiritual realization. Bliss has something to teach us about being human that nothing else can. Bliss has an utterly unique wisdom associated with it. If we deny Bliss altogether we lose access to that very important truth of our humanity. Bliss is part of us whether we acknowledge it or not. The only choice is whether we make Bliss a conscious, integrated aspect of our human existence or not. If we choose not, then we will suffer the consequences of not owning this aspect of ourselves. In that case, Bliss won’t go away it will simply express itself in unconscious, negative forms. Unconscious Bliss leads us forever seeking for some release elsewhere and forever suffering right where we are.

Therefore, the question we needing be asking is: how can we incorporate the beauty of Bliss without its dark sides taking over? 

The way to responsibly work with Bliss involves two main pieces.

1. Proper Preparation
Teachers should be open and honest with students about the dangers of bliss. Students should not be introduced to Bliss until they have some capacity to properly regulate their nervous system, understand their emotions and relate to them in a healthy fashion, as well as having learned how to work with their shadow. They will also have to be introduced to other (somewhat safer) spiritual states first, like Peacefulness, Presence, Awakened Heart and so on. Only then are they ready to be introduced to Bliss.

Placing Bliss Within The Soul

Of all the controversial statements I’ve made so far in this post, perhaps this is most controversial. This site is dedicated to The Soul. It’s my contention that it is our nature as Soul that is the proper container of a human incarnation. It is The Soul, in other words, that is the proper context for integration of our spiritual nature. (For a little more on soul versus spirit see here and here.)

In very very broad strokes, spiritual enlightenment teachings of all varieties almost always advocate that our spiritual nature is the proper context for us to live as awakened beings. Basically we should be and live from our spiritual nature all the time and that’s the “meta-solution” to all of our suffering.

I get the argument but just look at the term: spirit-ual teachings. The bias is right there in the name. So it’s not surprising spiritual teachings advocate being our spiritual nature. I define our spiritual nature as that which is universal and the same for all of us. Bliss is one expression, one state of our spiritual nature.

Spiritual teachings often divide the human up into simply two parts: the ego (bad) and the spirit (good). The path then is very simply to deny, crucify, transcend, or in some way annihilate the ego in order to be spiritually awake. When spiritual teaching is set up as one part bad (e.g. the ego) and one part good (spirit), then inevitably the whole of the teaching is about how to get out of the bad and into the good and once having gotten into the good how to stay in the good permanently.

I used to practice this way for years. I don’t agree any longer with that viewpoint. In that regard, I’m standing athwart much of spirituality yelling ‘Stop!’ (as William Buckley once famously said in an extremely different context).

I argue instead we should see our Soul–i.e. our singular, distinct manifestation and expression of The Universal–as the proper vessel or vehicle for living a fully human and fully divine life. What this means practically is that the spiritual aspects of us need to be incorporated into our Soul. Whereas in the history of spirituality most spirituality draws the biggest circle being Spirit and believing the Soul should fit inside Spirit. I’m advocating a reversal of the ordering (Spirit fits inside Soul).

Where spirituality would advocate No Boundaries, Soul-teaching advocates Sovereignty–the space where each Soul in an empowered way draws a sacred boundary around itself and incorporates and integrates all aspects of itself in a fully enfleshed manner. All aspects. Spiritual, psychological, emotional, etc.

So in other words, let’s imagine you experience the spiritual state of Bliss through meditation. Then you (I argue) should identify with your Soul. The Soul sets a proper container and context for Bliss to enter in and be welcomed. Bliss is not the final voice but simply now a Voice. Bliss is now “freed up by being limited” (in the words of Ken Wilber). Bliss is freed up to offer its wisdom without bringing in its wake all the baggage and dangers associated with it. These dangers largely occur when we look to Bliss to solve the problem of being human (which it doesn’t). When Bliss is not set up to solve a problem or be our salvation then it works quite well. It’s a profoundly amazing state and aspect of our being. But Bliss needs to held by the Soul–the aspect of us that does have a sense of purpose, of proper discernment (right/wrong), and doesn’t seek to route around or bypass any difficulties on any levels of our being.

What Joseph Campbell actually meant by Bliss was the Soul. So it turns out in the end he was right–we should Follow Our Bliss, i..e we should Follow the inherent impulses and charges of The Soul. But that is not what people hear when they hear the word Bliss. I think Campbell should have chosen a different word to describe the inherent drives and pull of The Soul than Bliss. What Campbell meant by bliss is neither a temporary emotional state of the personality nor is it the Bliss of our spiritual nature. I think we should leave Bliss to be what it is (a spiritual state of energetic awakening beyond all categories) and find a different word to describe the pull of our Soul.

Both are very important but they are very different and using the same term to describe both causes category errors and unnecessary pain and suffering for spiritual practitioners.

Coda: Special Note on Aurobindo

The great Indian realizer Sri Aurobindo gave an alternative interpretation to Ananda. He saw Ananda as the purposeful movement into incarnate reality of the spiritual. Aurobindo, as a consequence, was very critical of the classic Vedanta tradition of awakening represented by figures like Shankara or Ramana Maharshi. My experience of Bliss is much more in the Vedanta lineage. I do however believe Aurobindo was correct that there is a Creative or Incarnating Impulse. What some call an Evolutionary or Creative or God Impulse. For me this Evolutionary or Creative Impulse is actually a new revelation or insight. Where for Aurobindo the Incarnating Nature of Bliss was the original insight of the Indian lineage (he cited the ancient Indian texts the Vedas to support his claim).

I understand Aurobindo’s desire to ground his experience and teaching in his own lineage and his interpretation of the Vedas and the Upanishads is quite revolutionary in that regard. But I think he was actually talking about a new insight. There are some points of contact between his view and the ancient one–the connection is through the energetic pulsation of Bliss. But in the Aurobindian line that pulsation has desire to express and is existing within a frame of spiritual evolution, i.e. the Descent of Supermind, Supermind being the first expression of Sat-Chit-Ananda. In other words, I think Aurobindo (along with others) really discovered/co-constructed a 4th term to Being-Consciousness-Bliss. It would be for Aurobdino (as I see it) something more like:


In my understanding then there is room for both the Vedanta and the Aurobindian schools of realization and interpretation. The Vedanta tradition connecting more with the first three and the Aurobindian tradition the fourth.

* There is a way to speak of Joy in a spiritual sense as a deep underlying ease and sense of blessedness of simply being alive. Joy, in this understanding, is the Feeling of Being Herself. This view is totally valid but I still argue it is different from the state of Ananda, which is I think actually correctly translated into English as Bliss. The differentiation from Joy and Bliss is already there in the difference between Sat (Being) and Ananda (Bliss). Trying to translate Ananda into Joy conflates Sat and Ananda, which are intimately tied into one another but nevertheless are distinct.

17 May 2015 2 comments / READ MORE

Why Forgiveness Will Always Be Necessary

Posted by Chris Dierkes in Emotions, Philosophy, Spirituality, The Soul

I’ve seen a number of pieces and threads recently-mostly through my Facebook feed-where folks are advocating that we should move beyond forgiveness. I’ve noticed a number of different variations on this argument, but most I think come down to a version of some or all of the following points of view:

In forgiveness there is judgment and judgment is wrong.
In forgiveness we continue to hold onto being right and focus on who is wrong (usually not us).
Forgiveness assumes separation. Ultimately we are all one, so who really is there to forgive or be forgiven?
Everyone is on their own path and they’re simply learning their lessons and everything is perfect.

I’ve followed the Christian path my whole life and forgiveness is at the heart of that path. The gospels tell the story of a resurrected Jesus, still showing the marks of his torture and execution. His first words are to offer peace. (These words, it should be noted, are said to a number of friends who abandoned him during his time of need.)

When his disciples asked him how to pray, Jesus said they should pray this way:

Our Father in Heaven
Holy is your name.
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial,
And deliver us from evil.

The logic of the prayer is clear. First we acknowledge the holiness of The Divine. Then we pray that the reality of heaven would be true of earth. And how would we recognize that heaven is true on earth? Well, according to Jesus, two things above all would reveal this heavenly kingdom on earth. One: Everyone would have enough to eat (“give us this day our daily bread”). Two: People would practice mutual forgiveness (“forgive us our sins as we we forgive those who sin against us”).

So hearing the idea that we need to move past forgiveness, is for me, the same as hearing that we should move beyond caring to feed hungry people (or for that matter that we should move beyond needing to eat!). I think Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness has something to say to all of us regardless of path or affiliation. I think it teaches us something crucial about our human condition.

In what follows then I’m going to share some personal stories that I hope will persuade you of the enduring necessity and value of forgiveness, rightly understood and practiced. A heads up to you dear reader: some of these stories are pretty rough.

The first story takes place when I was in 7th grade. That year a new student came to school. He and I were the two shortest boys in our class. He made friends with another student, previously a friend of mine, and together they began to bully me. The bullying was verbal and emotional (not physical) in nature. I realize now that he was simply applying basic prison rules: beat somebody up on the first day or become someone’s bitch. He choose the former. The two of them would humiliate me on a regular basis. I had every one of my classes with them and then when school was over we played on the same sports teams where the taunting and humiliation would continue.

Since we went to private school they knew they couldn’t physically assault me or they’d be expelled. The logic of the bullying was quite transparent: to keep pushing me to the point where I would break. They hoped I would snap and take a swing at one of them. The other kid (my erstwhile friend) was really skilled in martial arts. So if I ever had totally lost my cool and went after them, they would have scored a double victory. One, they would have most certainly beat the living shit out of me. And two, I would have been expelled from school.

Prior to the bullying I was a very lighthearted and easygoing boy. After the bullying I became more sullen and withdrawn. I tried to put on a good face and not show they were getting to me, but that wasn’t very successful. I just mostly tried to keep my head down, stay quiet, and hope the abuse would end.

Eventually we moved onto different schools and the bullying stopped and mercifully I was never bullied again. Sadly the effects of the bullying lasted much longer.

Somewhere during my late teens, I began to have recurring dreams involving my bullies. At first they were nightmares with my two persecutors tormenting me in the dreamworld. They’d be chasing me and I would wake in a cold sweat. After awhile I began to be able to turn around and face them down in the dream (something I didn’t feel equipped to do in waking life).

Eventually I found I could overpower them in the dream. And this where things take an even darker turn. I experimented in these dreams with returning evil for evil. I gave free rein to my feelings for revenge which were always just beneath the surface. I began to dream of hurting them like they hurt me. The darkest dreams were ones in which I would torture them, e.g. slowly cutting out their tongues (obviously symbolizing the desire to stop them from hurting me with their words). I would take real pleasure from inflicting cruel pain upon them. The most horrific versions involved me murdering them in front of their families.

Now I’m not sharing this to reveal that I’m secretly a psychopath or that I had actually worked out plans to kill my bullies in real life. I certainly didn’t. I share it because many years later, for more than a decade actually, I had these dreams on a sporadic basis.

I had to come to terms with a couple of facts. First, it was completely natural to feel the desire for revenge. It was a totally normal human response, entirely understandable given the circumstances. I wasn’t an evil person for having these feelings. Second, regardless of how normal such feelings were, they were eating up me from the inside. They were like an acid burning up parts of my soul.

I returned to the teachings of Jesus who said:

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven.
If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

I realized I was quite literally retaining their sins. Their sin had left this desire for revenge within me and it was a poison. It was a lingering form of the bullying. It felt like they were still bullying me long after it had factually ceased, as if they had injected a virus within that was slowly crippling me.

I had worked to feel compassion for my bullies for some years. I could remember that their home lives weren’t the happiest. It was not hard to think that they didn’t fully understand the ramifications of their actions. “Kids can be cruel” as the saying goes. I could imagine that if I felt this badly, they must have been really hurting even more deeply on their insides.

These responses softened me for sure, but the poison was retained in Jesus’ words. I still wanted revenge.

It was then, following Jesus’ instruction, that I realized forgiveness was a liberating act. It was the only antidote to the poison of revenge. They didn’t ask for my forgiveness (fortunately I never had to interact with them again). I forgave them anyway.

And then the dreams stopped. The desire for revenge was gone. There’s still hurt to be sure and compassion towards them. What was done was and is still wrong. In a just world, the adults in this situation would have created a context which would have minimized bullying and when it did occur be dealt with in an appropriate manner. I don’t want my talk of forgiveness to be interpreted as support for kids (or adults) to be bullied or abused because, “Jesus accepted suffering and he forgave people, so you should too.” That would be a gross abuse of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness.

Forgiveness made sense in this case because I was out of the immediate harming environment. I’m not burdened any longer with the poison of revenge. Forgiveness was for me a grace.

The second story requires a little bit of personal background. I was adopted as a baby. I always knew I was adopted growing up. Since I’m white and my parents are white it wasn’t obvious to others that I was adopted. I could tell or not tell people as I pleased.

As is common with adoptees, in my early twenties I decided to do some searching and see if could learn more about my biological parents. My adoption was closed, which meant that the adoption agency was able to offer me a basic storyline of my birth, redacted of any potentially personally-identifying information. So at about 23 or so I learned the basic story of my birth.

My biological mother and father met in their first year of university. She became pregnant and he promptly ended the relationship, leaving her with me. She decided to complete the pregnancy but felt (probably rightly) that she was unready to be a mother, so she decided I should be adopted. My biological mother had left me a note that the adoption agency had kept for more than 20 years in case I ever asked to see my file. The note explained to me why she gave me up for adoption. While I felt a lot of sadness and grief, I never felt any hatred towards my biological mother. I figured she did the best that she could do under the circumstances. I tried to contact and meet her a few years later, which she declined to do. Again I was sad and deeply hurt by that decision, but I understood it, even if I didn’t agree.

But my biological father – that’s a very different story. I had never had any interest in contacting or meeting him. Honestly I really only ever felt loathing towards the man, sometimes more low-level, sometimes more intense. My dad (i.e. my adopted father) is a loving man who has taken great interest and appreciation in my sister and I. My dad’s always represented to me what fatherhood is really about–he’s who I model myself after as a new father. My biological father had always seemed to me the opposite of that–selfish and cowardly for abandoning a mother and child, for not owning up to his actions.

Only in the last year or so did I realize that I was yet again retaining the sin of another. I was holding a kind of sneering revulsion towards the man. I didn’t want revenge but I definitely didn’t wish him well. It was subtler than the bullying. I didn’t have dreams about hurting him. Still, it was similar in that it was eating away at some vital part of me.

As with the first case, I had previously practiced an empathic attempt to walk in his shoes. How would I have handled at 18 or 19 years old the news that I had impregnated a woman? My wife and I thought once we had gotten pregnant when we were both still in school. I was 26 or so at the time and I freaked the hell out. And I had seven or eight years on my biological father at the time. So yes I could most definitely feel compassion while at the same time recognizing that he could have and should have made better choices. There’s no excuse for what he did, however difficult a situation it must have clearly been for him.

Nevertheless I was holding an energy that was not wishing the best for him. I forgave him, even though he never asked for it, and again I felt a deep release.

The third story I want to share comes from my years of being a priest. In my time I heard many confessions. People came to me to share deep pains and to lay bare before another (confidentially) actions that haunt and shame them, hoping they would find mercy. (In my work now I also hear stories of deep pain and loss.Though not formally confessions the practical import is essentially the same).

I heard stories of true tragedy. And they weren’t the first I had heard either. Earlier in my studies to be a priest, I worked as a chaplain on the men’s maximum security wing of jail in Detroit. Needless to say I’ve heard truly God awful things–particularly the kinds of pain that drove many of these men to do destructive things.

I heard the horror of addiction and the cruelty of a society that responds neither compassionately nor wisely to such pain. Stealing money from a demented grandmother out of her nursing home to get a fix, missing the death and funeral of a parent because they were on a bender, victims who became the perpetrators and victimized others. On and on the litanies could go.

When the story was complete then I would tell these individuals that my deep and abiding belief is that God (or Spirit or Higher Power or The Universe or whatever term one might prefer) is unconditionally merciful. That God always forgives those who are sincerely sorry for what they have done and for what they have failed to do. I would say that God is not an angry tyrant ready to punish them for their evildoing. God, for me, is the Face of Infinite Love. Admittedly, it can be painful for the parts or us we don’t want to have loved or healed to be looked upon by Pure Love. Still Unconditional Love means exactly that–Uncondtional. No conditions, no strings attached.

And then I would see years of self-recrimination, punishment, and hatred begin to melt away. For many of these folks I wondered if any person in their lives had ever told them they were lovable, that they were beings of infinite dignity. I felt it was my role to simply witness to the truth I believe, namely that all of us are made in the image and likeness of The Divine. Our unloving choices may create a kind of layer of crud or dirt over our true nature but they can never completely destroy that nature. None of us, I believe, are ever beyond redemption. We are always offered the invitation to be forgiven and loved. (And yes I do believe even the Adolf Hitlers of the world are offered the possibility of forgiveness. Whether they accept it or not is a separate question which I don’t think we can ever know.)

I’m not in a position to speak on behalf of those whose stories I heard. I would just say from my position as the listener, I think the loss of forgiveness would be unspeakably detrimental.

The last piece I can only briefly mention is the role of forgiveness in social sin, i.e. social forms of violence and injustice. In Canada, where I live, the government created a policy of taking aboriginal children away from their families, placing them in residential schools in an attempt to assimilate them to Western culture. They were forced to cut their hair (short) like Westerners and only speak English. Children in these schools were physically, sexually, and emotionally abused, were experimented upon, and died of poor health. My own church, the Anglican Church of Canada, along with a number of other churches, ran a number of these schools for the government. They were actively complicit in the evil.

In the US context, we might think of the genocide of native peoples, as well as the history of slavery and Jim Crow and how those still create pain, division, and injustice to this day. How they affect every person living as part of this land, whether we want to admit the fact or not. In the world context, sadly fill in the blank of a local genocide, ethnic prejudice, imperialist oppression.

Twenty years ago, Archbishop Michael Peers offered a public apology to aboriginal leaders for the Anglican Church of Canada’s role in the systematic evil and injustice of the residential schools. You can read his apology here. It’s an incredibly moving statement. What’s more incredible is that those who heard it forgave him and those he apologized on behalf of. As Archbishop Peers correctly states in his apology, asking for forgiveness is a good and holy beginning but it will be an empty gesture if there are not corresponding actions to build a different future. Sadly, there’s plenty of work on that front still to do.

Well-meaning and self-identified nice, polite white Canadians by and large simply don’t know or don’t care to know about this history. If they really took it in, their image as more liberal and enlightened than their supposedly backward conservative American cousins south-of-the-border would crumble. They might learn that when South African whites in the early 20th century were doing some studies that eventually led to apartheid, a primary model was the Canadian Residential School System.

Speaking of South Africa….In post-apartheid South Africa, they formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a model that’s been replicated elsewhere. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu emphasizes, it’s Truth and Reconciliation. Truth needs to be told, truth about what was done. Those who were hurt have to tell their stories. Those who either actively participated in the wrong, or turned a blind eye to it, and even those who did not commit any wrongdoing but benefit (say economically or culturally) from the wrong have to hear those stories. The second half of that dyad is Reconciliation. It’s not revenge that’s sought but rather to see each other, across ethnic or religious or economic or historical divides and pains, as members of the same human family, and together walking the path of healing and wholeness and build a better future.

No forgiveness without truth telling. No forgiveness means no hope of reconciliation, justice or peace. Though again by itself forgiveness is only a beginning step–questions of concrete and systematic restitution for the economic, social, and political losses endured by oppressed peoples remains (this is true of South Africa as well as essentially the entire globe). So while Forgiveness is always necessary, it is not by itself the final answer.

Now I suppose it could be argued that I’ve stacked the deck in this piece. Abandonment by a father, bullying, colonialism, addictions–isn’t that all rather extreme? Haven’t I been rather heavy handed in my critique of the current forgiveness-questioning? My response to that would be to ask are these examples really all that extreme? Either you or someone close to you has been sexually or physically or mentally or emotionally violated (or all of them). Either you or someone you love is struggling with a serious addiction issue. All of us are feeling the deep effects of the history and contemporary reality of human injustice and our cruelty towards each other and our disconnection from the earth. I contend these are not extreme examples but rather common examples that we go to extreme measures to try to avoid.

For these and many others, we will always need forgiveness. Forgiveness is by no means a panacea. It is however one process we will always require and any spiritual teaching that suggests otherwise needs to seriously consider these and similar such stories. Any spiritual teaching that suggests we need to transcend forgiveness is not offering transcendence but the disease of spiritual bypassing.

In that light, I’d like to bring us back to that list of criticisms of forgiveness and re-examine them in light of these stories.

In forgiveness there is judgment and judgment is wrong.
In forgiveness we continue to hold onto being right and focus on who is wrong (usually not us).
Forgiveness assumes separation. Ultimately we are all one, so who really is there to forgive or be forgiven?
Everyone is on their own path and they’re simply learning their lessons and everything is perfect.

Response to #1:

Yes, forgiveness does involve judgment. But no, judgment isn’t always wrong. There’s healthy judgment and unhealthy judgment. The judgment here is about actions and choices, not about humans. It’s about which ways of living are life-giving and which are death-dealing. In fact, I argue we should be more judgmental, not less. Being more judgmental goes with being more forgiving and vice versa.

Response to #2

When we properly follow through with forgiveness, this idea that we’ll be stuck in who’s right and who’s wrong isn’t my experience either personally or working with others going through a forgiveness process. In my experience forgiveness asks us to be able to enter and sit with the pain, anger, hurt, sorrow, grief, and remorse that underlie our brokenness and fragility as human beings. It calls a deep tenderness and vulnerability forth.

Response to #3

Two responses to this one. First, yes it’s true that we’re all one. Therefore we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and to treat others in return the same way. When respect and dignity are denied, then the Oneness that we share is also being fundamentally denied. Second, we’re all One precisely in and through being diverse expressions of The One. We’re all One and we’re all distinct. Proper practice of forgiveness recognizes and validates both sides of that paradox, whereas sayings about how we’re (only) all one do not.

Response to #4

Yes, we’re all on our own paths. We are again united in our diversity. Our paths intersect at many points and forgiveness upholds the everlasting value of ethics–of making sure those intersections are loving, just, and affirming ones. Yes, we are all learning (hopefully). Making right choices is not always easy. We live in a very grey world and there’s a deep ambivalence to all our ethical choices. No one is in a place of supreme righteousness. We’re all prone to errors and choices that cause ourselves and others pain. For me, that’s precisely why we have forgiveness. It’s an empowering act. It connects us to the Unconditional Love and Mercy of The Divine.

But what about teachings that speak of the perfection of each and every moment? Doesn’t forgiveness undercut that teaching?

Here again I would say that I believe the teaching of Jesus serves us well. Sometimes Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God (or the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth) as already present. Other times he referred to the Kingdom as yet to come (re-read the Our Father prayer where both ways of speaking occur). Christian theologians summarize Jesus’ teaching as saying: The Kingdom is Already but Not Yet.

In other words, in its essence, in its fundamental nature, everything and everyone is perfect (already). However in its expression, its manifestation, things are not perfect (but not yet). In fact they are far from perfect. In truth, the world we live in is an utter shitstorm of pain, degradation, and appalling, unconscionable violence, cruelty, and injustice. There’s always beauty, goodness, and kindness in the midst of that truth, but any spiritual teaching worth anything has to make us more aware, not less.

Forgiveness, done properly, is an act that unites both the already but the not yet. It partakes of the Eternity of Perfection while recognizing that Perfection needs to be not only the essential nature of all but its concrete expression as well. It heals the tears that come from Perfection not being upheld.

Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.

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