Wednesday, February 27, 2008


In our culture, we have been taught one perspective when it comes to reading – to add one line to the next and climb the stair of reason or ride the roller coaster of emotion to a conclusion. Either way, we are on a linear journey to a goal, either rational understanding or emotional reaction. We read a text book in order to learn to know or do something; we read novels and the like to have a certain kind of feeling – love, lust, excitement, fear, etc.

There is a third kind of reading that we have not learned, though we do occasionally encounter it, and that is learning to read soulfully. This is reading which appeals to the neglected Psyche; not the psyche of modern material, diagnostic and statistical psychology, but the Psyche of ancient wisdom and modern Depth Psychology. This kind of reading does not present a linear argument or straightforward narrative leading the reader into an emotional or rational cul de sac. This sort of approach to literature does not aim to find the meaning or significance of something. This type of reading is not for the mind or the emotions, but for the neglected soul. Billy Collins touches on it in his "Introduction to Poetry":

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

A book or article written soulfully need not be understood or felt in a predictible way. When we are ‘done’ reading it, we may wonder what in the world we have read. It may seem to be full of some sort of sense, but we did not absorb any of it, yet we want to go on reading. This type of encounter changes or rearranges us soulfully. It is not spiritual. Spiritual always takes us higher, “into God”. Soulful reading takes us deeper, causing us to wander and wonder as we do in a dream. In fact, we need to allow the material to read me as a dream dreams me.

Dreams are often quite pleasant and entertaining until we wake up and the ratio-emotive mind takes over. That is when we tie the dream to the chair and beat the meaning out of it. Such an approach loses soul and puts the human mind and emotions back in control, trivializing and limiting the effect of the dream encounter. Soulful reading is like looking into a kaleidoscope. At first, the mind wants to find meaning in the cylindrical tube filled with bits of broken glass seen through the twisting kaleidoscopic lens, but then we relax and realize there is nothing to make sense of - and we see only the parade of chaotic images which somehow captivate and fascinate.

The soul-filled literature is not taking us anywhere, yet in some way it is taking us everywhere. Certain phrases and ideas may cause our hearts to soar, only to be followed by a line that leaves us utterly baffled. We may finish a paragraph and wonder what we have read, then read it again feeling that some elusive meaning is right in front of us. The experience of being lost, befuddled and frustrated is the meaning, yet there is a kind of psychological knowing (gnosis) that some thing is being grasped beyond the rational and feeling levels. It might be more accurate to say that some thing is grasping us, but we are not quite sure how, where or why. I personally believe that it is at this level where most of our so called 'development' or psychic rearrangement takes place.

One such author for me is James Hillman, especially his book Re-visioning Psychology. He says, ''The call of soul convinces; it is a seduction into psychological faith, a faith in images and the thought of the heart, into an animation of the world.''

This quote from Hillman is a statement I am tempted to tie to a chair and beat with a hose, try to extract meaning and in fact I do. There is nothing wrong with chewing on and trying to ‘see the meaning’ in such writings or having a visceral response, but one will most often feel like he has ‘not quite gotten it’; again, much like a dream. That is where faith in the dynamic Psyche enters, causing us to trust that there are personifications and soulful entities in this animated cosmos which operate beyond the ego mind and emotions. We are pulled into the depths, beyond logic, feeling overwhelmed by what we do not and cannot know.

I think the ancient Christian Gospel of Thomas touched on this when Jesus said, "When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before you and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will have to bear!" Gospel of Thomas, saying 84

It is bearable to see our likeness which can be digested by reason and emotion, but it is excruciating to encounter images which transport us beyond rational explanation and emotional categories. Another author who does this for me is Nietzsche, and Lao Tze of the Chinese Tao Te Ching. This experience may also occur in movies, music, true science, math and other mediums.

I am not talking here about literature that is just poorly written, or rotten movies and bad music. There is plenty of that around. I am speaking about that experience which draws some part of me into the depths while leaving me intellectually and emotionally baffled, frustrated, angry and feeling just a little or a lot stupid. It is that encounter that teases the ego and requires the momentary suspension of the intellect and emergence of imagination.

I encourage you to read soulfully. Find some artist or author who acts as a soulful catalyst to rearrange your psyche like the shards of colorful glass in a twisting kaleidoscope. Without this experience we become boring intellectuals, shallow emotionalists or angry ideologues.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Four Stages of Mysticism

I often refer to the four universal stages/cycles of psycho-spiritual growth, first brought to my attention by the work of Dr. M. Scott Peck. I have found these four stages in every one of the world’s religions. This paradigm for developmental spiritual growth recognizes that humans are on this planet to grow souls. Just as nature operates by moving through stages and cycles, so does the invisible human psyche. We grow from self centered egoism to an expanded awareness of the other, and from other-centeredness to skeptical individuation, and from individuation to mystical union. Scott Peck calls the stages:

1. Chaotic-Antisocial: The world revolves around me and my pleasure.
2. Formal-Institutional: As self centeredness brings increasing suffering, I discover the ‘other’ – a person or ideology which makes me expand beyond narcissistic self obsession.
3. Skeptic-Individual: Eventually the ‘other’ no longer fills me up, and I fall into a period of disillusionment and seeking, asking ‘who am I’?
4. Mystic-Communal: After a period of seeking, sorting, wondering and wandering I come to some sense of who I am without being completely self centered or by finding my identity in the ‘other’. I surrender to a Higher Power, discovering purposeful peace of mind and a sense of mystical connection in a universal communion.

Recently, I have come to see that each of the four stages can be divided into sub-stages by the stages preceding each. For example, the Mystic-Communal stage actually has four sub-stages:

1. The Egoistic-Mystic
2. The Otheristic-Mystic
3. The Sketpical-Mystic
4. The Mystical-Mystic

Why would we not need to grow through each stage? One does not become a full blown mystic overnight! After all, we never really jettison the prior stages, we just haul them along into each successive stage slightly altered.

1. The Egoistic-Mystic has experienced a state of personal surrender to a Higher Power. This person is moving from a life of victimization by troubling external circumstances and people. I begin to realize that my mind has the ability to affect my perception of reality. I see that I have personal choice and must take responsibility for all situations in my life. However, I am still self obsessed. In this infant stage of mystical awareness, I really think that the Universe exists primarily to serve me. I begin to focus on my mental, emotional and material prosperity. Spirit exists to make me healthy, wealthy and whole, most often at the external levels.

This is a normal and necessary stage for growing an infant soul, but those of us who have been raised in consumeristic America are especially susceptible to getting stuck in this stage. The recent book and DVD, The Secret, reveals a nation of nascent baby boomer mystics who have awakened to spirituality of the egotistical mystical variety. If you have been critical of The Secret, take heart; we are seeing a host of baby mystics awaken to a Source beyond the ego alone.

2. We eventually graduate into the Otheristic-Mystic stage. In this phase we align ourselves with some mystical teacher or organization which we think is going to enlighten or save the world. Personal prosperity is subjected to a larger vision of mystical awareness. It could be Al Gore’s mission to stop Global Warming, a recovery program like Alcoholic’s Anonymous or the Pro-Life campaign to stop abortion. It could be devotion to a particular spiritual path like Buddhism or Scientology. We often find a particular teacher, minister, guru or cause with which we passionately identify. This too is normal and necessary as a phase. But it will grow old.

3. It is not uncommon for a person to eventually burn out in this phase and become a Skeptical-Mystic. The fizzle is often related to being let down by the cause or teacher. Sometimes we feel it's 'just not working.' The ex Beatle, John Lennon, wrote the song Sexy Sadie about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when Lennon heard a rumor that the Indian guru was a flirting with a female devotee. Disillusioned and cynical, Lennon left the ashram and wrote the song. He later found out that the rumor was unfounded. The point is that we must lose our mystical ‘other’ and learn to trust completely in Spirit. Jesus pointed out that none is good but God. In this phase, one can never really abandon the original blissful mystical experience, but one can become a very cynical, miserable and bitter sage. But it need not end here.

4. Finally, there is the Mystical-Mystic stage. This is when one is really surrendered to a Higher Power. Peace of mind does not depend on divine physical healing, a huge bank account, the ideal relationship, an enlightened teacher or set of teachings. We come to see the mind, emotions and body as necessary but temporal instruments of soul-making. We are at peace with the fact that everything on this planet is designed with flaws and built in obsolescence so we can learn to let go. Like Jesus, one can face his death, no matter how horrible and painful, with tranquility and forgiveness toward all who have harmed him.

Remember, these are normal and necessary stages. There is no skipping over them, however, there does seem to be the possibility of getting stuck in one. We must pay attention to the progressive nature of soul-making. Take stock. If we have been in a stage which no longer serves, it may be time to get on our knees and ask God to help us move forward.