Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede
While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.
It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?
Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.
Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.
(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)
So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.
(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)
Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.
Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.
But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.
Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the forest is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?
One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.
One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.
Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.
And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.
Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.
Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if we have the keenness to discern and the courage to follow our redemptive inner promptings, we will find ourselves happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes us more miserable and more aware of other people, other things.
Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID.
This post originally appeared at Little Teaboys Everywhere.
God is the offering, the One Who offers, and the fire that consumes. ~Bhagavad Gita 4:24a
I was walking through Center City Philadelphia on my way to a panel discussion on Creating Sacred Music. As I was feeling neither particularly sacred nor particularly musical, I cast about for a way to get into the right frame of mind.
Looking at all the colorful sights of the city, I remembered how, when my children were babies, everything I saw, heard, smelled or tasted would remind me of them. “Clare would like those flowers,” I’d think; street buskers would make me wish Sophie were with me; foods brought one or the other kid to mind, depending on their taste.
What if I could broadcast my experience directly into their minds, I thought, so they could experience my walk vicariously? Then I realized that we are called upon, in the Bhagavad Gita, to do more or less exactly that—with God as the audience of our sensory input:
Some yogis perfectly worship the demigods by offering different sacrifices to them, and some of them offer sacrifices in the fire of the Supreme Brahman.
Some [the unadulterated brahmacaris] sacrifice the hearing process and the senses in the fire of mental control, and others [the regulated householders] sacrifice the objects of the senses in the fire of the senses.
Others, who are interested in achieving self-realization through control of the mind and senses, offer the functions of all the senses, and of the life breath, as oblations into the fire of the controlled mind. (Bhagavad Gita 4:24-27; emphasis added[i])
As I walked along, I mentally transmitted all the sights and sounds to Jesus, as though He were looking out through my eyes and hearing through my ears. As I walked along, exercising this “control of the mind and senses” by offering “the objects of the senses” into the fires of perception, I not only felt extremely close to the Lord, but I found my usual way of seeing people–a highly judgmental and evaluative way in which I am subject and everyone else is object–giving way to a compassionate mode of seeing as Christ sees.
Icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Robert Lentz, OFM
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” wrote St. Teresa of Avila:
No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks
compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks about doing good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Shiva and Shakti
Tantra takes the relation of the senses to their objects even a step further, making the act of perceiving reflect the divine union of Shiva (the divine masculine and pure consciousness) and Shakti (the divine feminine and pure energy.)
A faculty and its object are like the primordial couple. The relationship of the eye to what is seen is the relationship of Shiva to his shakti. The ear and music, the eye and art, the tongue and flavour, all senses and their sensations are a participation in the eternal embrace.[ii]
I have written before about how the body–and in particular the senses–can be made the locus of divine service simply by an act of will by which we use them on God’s behalf. This act sanctifies both the senses and their objects, bringing us a greater awareness of the divine presence within and without, and preparing us to “be an instrument of [God’s] peace.” Going a step further, St. Teresa found such a dedicating of the senses to be a way toward divine union, in which Christ–the “bridegroom” of her Carmelite soul–entered into her and lived His risen life through her:
I was reflecting upon how arduous a life this is…I said to myself, “Lord, give me some means by which I may put up with this life.” He replied, “Think, daughter, of how after it is finished you will not be able to serve me in ways you can now. Eat for Me and sleep for Me, and let everything you do be for Me, as though you no longer lived but I; for this is what St. Paul was speaking of.”[iii] (1 Cor. 10:31) [i] Bhagavad Gita As It Is,
translated by Srila Pradhupada[ii]
Dupuche, John, Towards a Christian Tantra[iii] St. Teresa of Avila, Spiritual Testimonies. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 1. Translated and edited by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez.
There are some things that’s it’s almost impossible to teach by telling, or even showing, the student what to do or how to do it; the best you can do is to say how it ought to feel when done right. Singing is one: advice like “feel as though you were sipping air from a teacup” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve finally done it. Meditation that involves an internal mantra or prayer word–like Centering Prayer, Christian Meditation, or (I suspect) Transcendental Meditation–is another. When Fr. Thomas Keating, one of the founders of the modern Centering Prayer movement, says that we should internally repeat our prayer word as gently as “laying a feather on a piece of absorbent cotton,”[i] most of us will have no idea what that means until we’ve tried it. Maybe not even then.
I find it helpful to think of myself, not as “saying” or “repeating” my prayer word, but rather as “allowing” it to say itself–as though it were something I were inviting to happen rather than “doing.” Of course, like a Buddhist monk who, instead of “ringing” the gong, “invites the gong to sound,” I’m certainly still “doing” it–but if I think of it as “allowing,” I do it differently.
When I go about my daily tasks like folding laundry or cleaning the kitchen, I often repeat the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) internally, which redirects my mental energy away from daydreaming, planning, or brooding and allows me to experience my experiences much more vividly. (For instance, the other day I was rinsing the soap out of the underside of a saucepan lid by swirling the water around the upturned lid. At each swirl, a little warm water would slosh out of the lid onto my hands. It felt just as though I were juggling balls of warm water. I would never have noticed that if I allowed memory and anticipation to hijack the here-and-now. A small thing, for sure–but why should all the magic be in the past or the future?)
What makes this prayer exercise work is absolute gentleness in the repetition; if I’m saying the prayer to shout down my thoughts, the prayer just becomes, itself, an even more oppressive thought.
In sitting practice, I find it helpful to link the repetition of my prayer word to the breath. (In case you’re wondering, I say “Trust” on the in breath and “Love” on the out breath.) In order to keep the word from feeling like something I’m banging out on an inner anvil, I try to think of it as something carried in and out on the breath itself–almost as though it were passing over an infuser and carrying the fragrance of the word with it. I call this process “baptizing the breath.”
Suppose you worked somewhere where you had to wear an ID tag. Once the gatekeeper got to know you, you wouldn’t have to actually hold up the tag every single time you went in and out–just wearing it where it was visible would suffice. But if the gatekeeper didn’t recognize you, or there were a heightened state of security for some reason, you would show your ID again for a while.
Likewise, once you’ve established that the in breath carries the scent of your word and (if you have two words) the out breath is likewise redolent, you don’t have to “say” the word internally every time; you just let it come and go with the breath. Then, when you find you have wandered, let your breath “show its ID” again for a few cycles until you’re back in the moment.
It’s almost as though the word has to die “to the flesh”–to go from being something solid to being incorporeal, something that can float on a breath–in order to do its work in us. Jesus said that if He did not “go away” to the Father, He could not send the Spirit to His disciples. (John 16:6) Perhaps, like Jesus, if the “bodily” prayer word does not die and ascend, it cannot participate in the Spirit–the word for which, in both Greek and Hebrew, is “breath.”
Keating, Thomas, O.C.S.O.: Open Mind, Open Heart
You cannot see the seer of the sight. You cannot hear the hearer of the sound. You cannot think the thinker of the thought. You cannot know the knower of the known. Your own Self lives in the hearts of all. Nothing else matters.–Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, W.B. Yeats version
Most of my encounters with God are like this:
LUKE: I'm looking for someone.
YODA: Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?
The little creature laughs.
LUKE: (Trying to keep from smiling) Right.
YODA: Help you I can. Yes, mmmm.
LUKE: I don't think so. I'm looking for a great warrior.
YODA: Ahhh! A great warrior. (laughs and shakes his head)Moses may tell us that “the Lord is a mighty warrior,” but if we look for God expecting to find that, we are generally disappointed. Like Yoda, God often appears in small, even slightly embarrassing forms–a wise but unprepossessing a person, for instance, or someone in need, or a baby in a feed trough.
The God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) simply doesn’t behave the way we expect. For one thing, how seldom it occurs to us that the God whom we seek is all the while seeking us:
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Matthew 13:46) I think this parable is often misunderstood. We hear references to “the pearl of great price,” but they often sound like the person making them thinks the term applies to the kingdom—but the kingdom is the merchant, not the pearl. We are the pearl. It is us that God seeks, and gives everything to acquire.
Moreover, “looking for someone” is predicated on the assumption that someone is elsewhere than we are. Luckily, the Psalmist knew what nonsense that is:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast. (Ps. 139, 6-9)
“Wheresoever you look,” says the Qu’ran, “there is the face of God. (6:103) Like yeast in a loaf of bread, there is no place where God is not.
(Jesus) also asked, "What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” (Luke 13:20-21)[i]
Both our expectations of what God is like, and the fact that, as the Ground of All Being, God is utterly inescapable, make our little daily theophanies terribly easy to miss. Like someone looking through glasses in search of those very glasses, we do not see that the consciousness by which we seek, the faculty of awareness itself, is God-in-us, allowing light into our souls as the eye allows light into the body.
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. (Matthew 6:23-23)
So if there is any spiritual light in me, any awareness, any here-and-now-ness, that is of God. Which must be the reason that the more in the moment I am, the more fully present and aware of myself, the more I feel that I am not alone. Whether at a party or family gathering, or while washing the dishes, I am most aware of the Presence when I am most recollected and present to myself. And once I have touched the “Self that lives in the hearts of all,” I am able to see that Self in others–to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”[ii]
Found someone I have, hmmm?
[i] I am indebted to Swami Jnaneshwara Bharati at the Center for Non-Dualism for this interpretation of the parable.
[ii] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer