PART III: Christian Mysticism in Dialogue with the East (Continued)

Chapter 6: Christian Enlightenment?

Chapter 7: The Loss of the Affective Ego

Chapter 8: Conclusion: Critical Questions

A Note on Sources



Chapter 6: Christian Enlightenment?

Jim Arraj: The Question of Christian Enlightenment

Is it fitting that Christians try to pursue enlightenment in a Christian context? First, let’s look at the question itself. Enlightenment means the goal that is pursued in Zen Buddhism, or in certain schools of Hinduism like Advaita. The phrase “Christian context” asks whether Christians might create another setting, a distinctively Christian one, in which to seek enlightenment, a context that might be quite different from the current situation in which Christians seek enlightenment in a Buddhist or Hindu context. There are, in fact, several layers to this question. First of all, should Christians try to pursue enlightenment at all? Secondly, if they do, should they do it by practicing Buddhist or Hindu forms of meditation? Thirdly, should they create a distinctively Christian context in which to seek enlightenment?

In actual fact Christians who seek enlightenment for the most part do so in an Eastern context. They sit with a Zen group, follow the directions of a Buddhist or Hindu teacher, etc. How else could they do it? It is those Eastern traditions that are the containers that hold the wisdom that Christians are attracted to. But does this situation have to stay that way? Must one practice Zen Buddhism, for example, to reach enlightenment? The answer, I think, is a qualified no. There is no single path to enlightenment. There are many schools of Buddhism and even many schools of Zen. Zen Buddhists, themselves, admit that there are cases of spontaneous enlightenment even of people with no connection with Buddhism. But it is, of course, true that concretely it is within the Eastern traditions that this insight can be cultivated and raised to heights that are not likely to be seen in cases of spontaneous enlightenment.

Let’s admit, then, that concretely Christians have had to go to Buddhism or Hinduism to pursue enlightenment, but the possibility exists that enlightenment can happen outside of those contexts. Back to our question. Is it fitting that Christians pursue enlightenment in an Eastern context, or should they do so in a Christian context? Christians have much to learn from Eastern forms of meditation, but there the experience of enlightenment comes wrapped in Eastern philosophy, or perhaps better said, Eastern reflections on the nature of the enlightenment experience, and these reflections may not be compatible with Christian belief. If Christians sought enlightenment in a Christian context, this problem would not arise.

But there is a deeper level to this whole question. Should Christians be pursuing enlightenment at all? The answer will depend on what enlightenment is. Let’s look at the possibilities:

1. Enlightenment is equivalent to Christian prayer, and especially to Christian contemplation. Therefore Christians ought to pursue it.

2. Enlightenment is not Christian contemplation, but is some other kind of experience of the Absolute or, Christians would say, some other kind of experience of God. This second possibility could have different variations:

A. Enlightenment is an experience of the Absolute, but in such a way that it is tangential to the Christian journey and need not be pursued.

B. Enlightenment is an experience of the Absolute and is the flowering and fruition of a deep dimension of the human spirit which would prepare us in a very valuable way to go on to contemplation.

Let’s make these issues more concrete by looking at the story of the students of the Zen teacher, Koun Yamada. Koun Yamada Roshi had a zendo in Kamakura, and he possessed a special openness to Christians which drew them to practice with him. Some of them eventually completed their training and became official Zen teachers. So for the first time in its history the Catholic Church had priests and nuns who were also officially sanctioned Zen teachers. But this remarkable development has not been given the attention it deserves, nor does it by itself alone serve to answer the questions about Christians and enlightenment. In fact, it embodies those very questions.

Yamada Roshi never made his Christian students feel like they had to leave Christianity behind in order to practice Zen. But this was not an attitude universally held by the Japanese Zen community, some of whom wondered if Christians could actually fathom the depth of the Zen experience. Perhaps this was allied to an attitude sometimes found among Buddhists that Christians are caught up in a belief system that fosters a kind of dualism because God is seen as distinct from creation and from the human soul.

But what is important here is the attitudes of Yamada’s Christian students. They, themselves, could not agree, and still cannot agree, about the relationship between enlightenment and Christian prayer and contemplation. Some tend to identify the two, while others felt they are distinct. Obviously this is an enormously important question. If I think that contemplation is the same as enlightenment, then doing zazen becomes the equivalent of prayer, and I need not worry about enlightenment in a Christian context because Christianity and Zen Buddhism are but two paths to an identical goal. But if I believe they are distinct, then I must eventually take up the hard task of trying to see how they relate to each other. Then I will ask whether Christians should seek enlightenment, and if so, whether in an Eastern or Christian context. We will pursue this question by looking first at the case of Bernadette Roberts, and then at some remarks of Philip St. Romain.

Jim Arraj: Bernadette Roberts and the Experience of No-Self

There are many people who have been helped by the work of Bernadette Roberts. These reflections are meant as an invitation to open a discussion about her work and how we ought to understand it.

Bernadette Roberts’ The Experience of No-Self is a remarkable and valuable book. It is an account of an inner journey she went on after many years of trying to live out the Catholic contemplative life, a journey that ended in what she called the experience of no-self. But this very word no-self and an attentive reading of her description of her experiences reveal an inner structure and language that is much closer to Buddhist enlightenment than Christian mystical union, a fact made all the more interesting because the author was not trying to explain herself in Buddhist categories.

She will say, for example, “Where there is no personal self, there is no personal God.” (p. 24) or God “is all that exists... God is all that is.” (p. 31) The individuality of the object observed is overshadowed by “that into which it blends and ultimately disappears.” (p. 34) What is is that which can neither be subject or object. (p. 67) God is not self-conscious (p. 75) and we must come to “terms with the nothingness and emptiness of existence,” (p. 75), which seems equivalent to “living out my life without God.” “I had to discover it was only when every single, subtle, experience and idea - conscious and unconscious - had come to an end, a complete end, that it is possible for the truth to reveal itself.” (p. 75)

But if there is no self, “What is this that walks, thinks and talks?” (p. 78) The end of the journey is “absolute nothingness,” (p. 81), but “out of nothingness arises the greatest of great realities.” (p. 81) It is the “one existent that is Pure Subjectivity” and “there is no multiplicity of existences; only what Is has existence that can expand itself into an infinite variety of forms...” (p. 83) Our sense of self rests on our self-reflection and “when we can no longer verify or check back (reflect) on the subject of awareness, we lose consciousness of there being any subject of awareness at all.” (p. 86) This leads to the “silence of no-self.” (p. 87)

1 don’t think it is necessary to go to great lengths to draw out Buddhist, especially Zen, parallels to these thoughts. There we will find talk of no-mind, and letting go of body and mind, and the question of who is walking, and the famous saying that emptiness is form and form is emptiness and so forth. Let’s let one brilliant passage from Huang Po suffice: “When your glance falls on a grain of dust, what you see is identical with all the vast world-systems with their great rivers and mighty hills. To gaze upon a drop of water is to behold the nature of all the waters of the universe. Moreover, in thus contemplating the totality of phenomena, you are contemplating the totality of Mind. All these phenomena are intrinsically void and yet this Mind to which they are identical is no mere nothingness. By this I mean that it does exist, but in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. It is an existence that is no existence, a non-existence which is nevertheless existence. So this true Void does in some marvelous way ‘exist’.” (The Zen Teachings of Huang Po, translated by John Blofeld, p. 108)

Bernadette Roberts as a Catholic and someone relatively unfamiliar with Buddhism has rendered an important testimony to the universality of this kind of mystical experience. But inevitably, she has had to face the question of its relationship to her own Christian contemplative heritage, and it is here that her conclusions need a careful examination. Since she had a deep life of prayer in the Christian contemplative tradition before she went on this journey that ended in the experience of no-self, it is understandable that she will see this experience as the next stage in the Christian contemplative journey, and a stage that the Christian mystics like John of the Cross know very little about. (The one exception is Meister Eckhart, a predilection which is shared by D.T. Suzuki.) Thus she is forced to put the no-self experience at a level higher than the spiritual marriage described by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and therefore place her own experience above that of the Church’s mystical doctors. I don’t think this interpretation is correct. This mysticism of no-self, as well as Zen enlightenment, is not a supernatural mysticism that comes from grace and leads to an experience of God’s presence and of sharing in His life. It is a very different kind of experience that attains to the absolute, to God, but through emptiness.

Just what Bernadette Roberts’ experience of Christian mysticism was like is not a large part of this book, but it is striking that her no-self experiences began very young and it is possible they colored her practice of the Christian contemplative life. While she recognizes the differences between these two journeys, she regards “the second movement as a continuation and completion of the first.” (p. 106) And she sees a possible progress of spiritual development starting “with the Christian experience of self’s union with God... But when the self disappears forever into this Great Silence, we come upon the Buddhist discovery of no-self...” (p. 109) “Then finally, we come upon the peak of Hindu discovery, namely: “that” which remains when there is no self is identical with “that” which Is, the one Existent that is all that Is.” (p. 109)

Given this kind of schema I can only surmise that the original Christian mystical experience that Bernadette Roberts is talking about is not that of John of the Cross at all, for what St. John is talking about is of an intensity and depth that would be a completion of these Buddhist and Hindu experiences. It is an experience of what lies in the heart of this emptiness that in some marvelous way exists.

Once the no-self experience is placed above the Christian experience of union, then there is an almost irresistible movement towards reinterpreting Christian dogma in the light of this experience. This seems to be what is happening when Bernadette Roberts says, “and when I finally saw ‘that’ which remains when there is no self, I thought of Christ and how he too had seen ‘that’ which remained - a seeing which is the resurrection itself.” (p. 131) Or “...even the seeing of the Trinitarian aspect of God is not the final step. The final step is where there is no Trinity at all, or when the aspects of God are seen as One and all that Is.” (p. 132)

This approach immediately runs into immense theological difficulties which threaten to obscure the real contribution that Bernadette Roberts can make to Catholic thought. We can accept the value of her experience without being compelled to accept her interpretation of its relationship to Christianity. If she is experiencing what the Buddhists call enlightenment, then she can help us understand the nature of this experience, for she is describing it afresh and from a Western point of view and in a non-Buddhist language, and by doing so she can help us to deal with the difficult problem of how to relate Christian mysticism to Buddhist enlightenment.

Phil St. Romain: I have quibbled with Bernadette Roberts many times over her, “God is everything that exists . . . except the self.” What I would like to suggest is that enlightenment is only a perspective on reality, but it is not the whole truth. Because the created human soul is spiritual and interfaces with God cosmically, enlightened people (who are very few, by the way) are given to experience -- generally for a brief period of time -- a perspective on reality from the vantage point of this cosmic interface. Because this perspective is not mediated through the mind, a profound non-duality becomes manifest, and a moral perspective from the vantage point of unity begins to inform one’s actions. In many ways, Christian contemplative experience is similar, but it is also significantly different.

What I would like to opine, here, is that enlightenment, though a wonderful experience, is not the real goal of Christian spirituality. I would also suggest that the kind of practice one embraces moves one toward enlightenment or, in the case of Christian spiritual practice, toward a relational union with God. So one must ask oneself what one is really seeking, and why? Do you want enlightenment? If, yes, then you will need to deconstruct your human consciousness so you can eventually perceive reality without the inconvenient mediation of the psyche. That’s possible, as the Buddhists and advaitan Hindus give witness to, but you’re going to have to pay a huge price. You’re going to have to sustain an intense spiritual practice to keep your “illusion-bound” human consciousness deconstructed--counting breaths, repeating mantras, doing yogic postures, and all sorts of other exercises intended to frustrate the re-integration of the psyche with the body and spirit. If that’s what you want, go for it.

Christian spirituality is not about all that, however. It is about renewing the human person in Christ, and of finding the divine in our ordinary human experiences. The essence of Christian spirituality, even in its most apophatic contemplative manifestations, is relationship: with God, other human beings, creation. Relationship implies duality--a very ugly word, I know, but we take it for granted that creation is real, that I am real, that my wife and children are real, that I am not them, that they are not me, that we are not God, and in the end, that this is all very good, for it makes possible relationships. Even the God we worship is essentially relationship, as are all things in the universe in relationship. Goodness is not unity, but quality of relationship. When this quality is unimpeded by selfishness and infused with active willingness, unity emerges on its own. This unity is not of the sort where existents lose their identity in “The One,” but where they are more themselves than when they are isolated in selfishness. Unity in love differentiates. Duality is real, but it is duality in God, who is also duality, or Trinity, even while Being One.

What all this means is that one must be careful about the kind of faith/beliefs one brings to spiritual practice, for these set up a kind of a-priori receptivity that disposes us to receive from reality what we’re really asking for. You want to lose yourself and be one with the universe? That’s what will probably happen, then, with lots of hard work at repressing some basic human inclinations. You want to relate with God? OK, but you’ll have to watch out for all kinds of crazy beliefs that dispose you to see God as naught but an extension of your ego. In other words, in Christian spirituality, a proper theological formation is indispensable, and that’s hard work. Healthy Christian spirituality and theology go hand-in-hand; you can’t have one without the other. Sorry, it just won’t work, which is why I’ve spent so much time writing about that in my life. This is the last thing people seeking enlightenment really want to do, however, as that’s all nonsense going on at the level of mind. And that seems to be the impasse between East and West, in my opinion. It’s a pretty big one!

What we need to ask is if we want to know what Jesus Christ came to reveal to us. If the answer is yes, then you’re on the Christian pathway, and you’ll have to embrace those “ugly realities” like Christian community, learning the Bible, etc. If no, or if you think Jesus is saying the same thing as Sri Ramana Maharishi, Buddha, Krishna, etc., so it really doesn’t matter which one you pick--they’re all the same, just using different language--you’re going somewhere else and I can’t be of assistance with regard to kundalini or anything else on those other pathways, because I don’t know them and am not traveling them.

Perhaps all this helps to clarify some of the limitations I have concerning advice to those on advaitan pathways. I don’t really understand what kundalini is doing in that context, as I’m not of those traditions and have only experienced it in the context of Christian spirituality. In some ways, I guess, kundalini is kundalini and is always doing the same kind of work. So I can speak of that, but not much more.

Philip St. Romain: Christian Enlightenment?

The Experience

Since the late 1980’s I have been experiencing a state similar to what is described in the Zen literature as enlightenment. In my journals, I have called it the “awareness state,” or the “cosmic state.” It may not be appropriate to call it enlightenment since that terminology belongs to the Zen tradition, and my own experience has not been validated or confirmed by a representative from Zen. The term, “Christian enlightenment,” is, perhaps, sufficient nuancing since it acknowledges both the context in which this state has been developed and its similarity to the Zen experience.

My first experience of this was while taking a shower sometime in 1988. It was just a regular old shower--not particularly enjoyable. But at some point, I “noticed” the droplets of water running down the wall and felt as though I had entered another world. There was nothing outstanding about these droplets, only that I found myself observing them in such a manner that they were immediately present to me. I use the words “I” and “me” here only as conventions of language, for what was most unique about the “experience” was that it was as though there was no personal, intentional self at all. Observer and observed had fused somehow; the droplets were dribbling “inside of me.” Within a few seconds (I don’t really know how long it was), my mind snapped into action and I began to try to understand what had happened. The experience vanished just as quickly as it had arisen.

During the days and weeks that followed, this sort of thing happened again and again. I would be talking to someone, walking, working in the garden, and then all of a sudden, I was immediately present to what was happening. All boundaries seemed to disappear, and with them, all fear. I did not know what was causing this to happen, although I sensed that it had something to do with the deepening of my prayer, and the activity of the energy I was calling kundalini in my brain--especially in the third eye.

Having experienced contemplative prayer many times through the years, I noted similarities between this new experience and contemplation. There were distinctive differences, too, however. Whenever I experienced contemplative prayer, there was absolutely no doubt that I was in God’s presence. The silence was of varying degrees, sometimes so deep that the mind could not even think, other times a bit more shallow, as in the prayer of quiet. I felt as though I was being grasped from deep within by God, and was being drawn to deeper union with God through the energy of love. This new experience was similar to mystical contemplation in the depth of mental silence and in the clarity of perception that ensued. It was distinctly different, however, in that there was no sense whatsoever of a relational union with God through love. In fact, it seemed as though God disappeared completely (or else “I” disappeared); it is difficult to describe this non-duality, but that is one of its primary characteristics.

After a year or so, I had learned how to “tune in” to this state, and how I fell out of it. No operation of the mind or will could produce it; what was called for was a certain shifting of my awareness from the particular to the general, then the state came in and of itself. It was never the same in depth and clarity; the condition of my body, mind, and intention seemed to account for something of its intensity and clarity, but not its manifestation. In time, I came to see that this state was, in fact, always there, and had always been there. It was the “background consciousness” out of which all my experiences of intentional consciousness had arisen. Everyone has it, only most people take it for granted and don’t know how to tune into it.

Description of the State

It is difficult to make positive statements about this state. In fact, there is a danger doing so, for the mind can then latch onto the words and try to create something similar using its own creativity. As I have mentioned, however, the mind can do nothing to create this state; it adds nothing to it, and enriches it in no way. It is possible to think while in this state, although there is a very definite disinclination toward judgmental thinking, philosophy, theology, and other exercises of the mind which attempt to organize reality in conceptual terms, or to project judgments onto it. And yet, it is possible to think out plans, to converse, to create, to describe, and to do all kinds of non-analytical things with the mind while in this state. That is a positive thing to say about it: its intuitive and creative manner of dealing with things.

Again, words are a danger, for the intuition I am referring to here is more mystical than imaginative. This is not the intuition of Jung, but of the mystic, who knows things without knowing how she or he knows them. This kind of intuition is quite at home with sensory awareness, while Jung’s is not. In the state of cosmic awareness, there can be intuitive knowing happening simultaneously with profound sensory perception. Cosmic awareness is not an introverted state, nor is it extroverted. Inner and outer have no meaning in this state, for it seems that there is no boundary between the inner and the outer. “External” events like a bird singing or the sun shining seem to be happening inside of one’s being just as surely as they are happening outside. The unity of all things is a reality experienced in varying degrees of depth, depending on the quality of the state.

In particularly intense experiences of unity, I have a sense that the one who is looking out of my eyes is looking out of every one else’s eyes, including animals’ and even plants’. Plants have no physical eyes, of course, but it seems, nonetheless, that they are apertures through which awareness views reality in the space-time world. This overwhelming sense of unity does not annihilate one’s ability to relate to others, nor to fulfill one’s responsibilities. Quite obviously, it provides a qualitatively different context in which individual life is exercised. Individual life is real, and this is seen clearly. It is not separate from other lives, however, nor from the awareness which “sees” through all reality.

Several other positive characteristics of this state deserve mention here:

absorption in the present moment; the past can be remembered, and plans can be made, but without nostalgia, anxiety, or other interfering emotions.

benevolence toward all creation; compassion toward all forms of life; after beginning to experience this state, I gave up hunting.

deep serenity and subtle bliss; other emotions--even positive ones--disturb the state.

sense of having a body through which one acts in space and time, but of possessing a consciousness that greatly exceeds the boundaries of skin and bones.

there is no memory of what it was like when it is gone; it leaves no impression on the brain, no affective trace whatsoever, except a vague recollection that things were more clear; and yet, strangely, it is “missed,” although the mind cannot produce what it was that it misses.

immediacy of attention and objects present in field of attention.

This last characteristic is a highly distinctive one. It is what I noticed when I first saw the droplets of water in the shower. By immediacy of attention, I mean that whatever comes into the field of attention is present without triggering a mental reaction of any kind. There is no movement of the mind to relate the perception to a previous one, nor to a particular intention we may be working out of. What is seen (or heard or touched) is present to one without distortion, as though reflecting off of a spotless mirror within one’s being. In this state, it is possible to know an object “as it is,” rather than for any kind of meaning imposed on it by the mind. There is a natural delight in encountering anything in this manner. Even the simplest of things--a leaf, or blade of grass--can be a source of deep mystery and wonder.

Conditions for Realizing the State

In one sense, there are no conditions for realizing this state, for it is always there and only needs to be noticed. It is, in reality, the simple fact of awareness. After one learns to become attuned to this, one can tune into it at any time, although the depth and clarity will vary depending on a number of circumstances. This does not change the fact that, as the Zen people say, this state is naught but the ordinary, everyday mind. By mind, here, I am sure they do not mean the reflecting, analyzing intellect. They mean mind in the larger sense, as our native intelligence, prior to its conditioning by society. We all possess this “natural mind,” or general awareness state. We just need to learn how to get in touch with it.

The primary obstacle to experiencing this state is the noisy mind. Even so, once one learns about this state, and how to tune in, even the noisy mind is no obstacle (but it does diminish the clarity). When the mind is noisy with fragmented thoughts, desires, emotions and memories, attention is also fragmented and dissipated. The natural, compensatory nature of the psyche is to correct this disharmony, and so psychic energy is recruited in the interest of reconciling conflicts within. There is little inclination to notice the background awareness, for the natural focus is toward specific kinds of issues, some of which carry great personal import. Most of life can be spent attending to these narrow issues, with the consequence that one never “wakes up” to the larger reality out of which the psyche itself emerges.

The mind must be calmed, and the self-seeking tendencies of the will must be diminished. There are many, many ways to do this, of course, and Christian spirituality has much to contribute unto these ends (as do all the world religions, of course). So long as one wants anything with sufficient intensity to generate anxiety about not getting it, this constriction of consciousness will detract from opening to cosmic awareness. Self-seeking must go, and the mind must be content with the limited knowledge it has about reality.

Learning to tune into the background awareness is the next step, and it is here that some very specific disciplines can be helpful. The simplest and most effective way for me is to let go of all ideas concerning “who I am,” and to look out of my eyes as though they are windows into space-time reality. I then simply note that a being is peering out of these eyes, and I rest in this awareness of the fact “that I am.” Sometimes, I will also note that the observer is greater than the body, and I experience that this is so--that my body is part of my being, and that my being goes out beyond my body. The mind can suggest these simple disciplines, but what happens after that is not in any way created by the mind. Before the simple awareness “that I am” a being whose boundaries are virtually limitless, the mind is struck dumb, for it has no sensory perceptions upon which to operate. Its conceptual understanding of God and soul is such that it does not shut down the experience by generating anxiety or confusion, but I wish to make it clear that the awareness state is not like other roles or identities created by the mind to accomplish a certain task. It is, instead, an experience of being-here-now: nothing more, nothing less.

Certain meditation practices can also help to awaken one to this state. I am convinced that contemplative prayer makes this state more easily accessible, although the awareness of God as loving Subject is infinitely more attractive than cosmic awareness. Nevertheless, contemplative prayer opens the will and calms the mind. When the experience fades, it ought to be possible to shift the attention more easily into the cosmic state.

Other prayer and meditative practices that I use are, with eyes closed in a quiet place, to simply be present to God in the moment, consciously surrendering to God all thoughts and desires that make any claim on my attention. This is similar to Buddhist vipassana meditation, only it is done in a relational context. By letting go of everything with the intent to be present to God more deeply, the mind and will are calmed. If the grace of mystical contemplation is given, I enjoy it. If not, I rest in the deep silence of cosmic awareness with eyes closed. There is boundless tranquility, and sometimes I see brilliant blue and purple lights, which energize the mind and heart.

At one point in my journey, I made a Zen retreat. That was before I knew of this state, and Zen meditation (zazen) did not help to awaken it in my case. I do not see how zazen has any connection with this state, other than helping to calm the mind and will. Indeed, if one takes up Zen or any other practice with the idea that the practice can awaken this state, this very intent will frustrate it. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do to create this state. As long as one is engaging in a practice in the hope of somehow producing or realizing this state, it will not work.

Until one has experienced cosmic awareness a few times, however, I am not sure one can tune into it. It is so utterly simple and obvious that it goes unnoticed. If it does not make itself known somehow, then I do not know how one can learn to live in it. It must emerge as something of a grace, and then one can learn to see it for what it is. The confirmation of it by another who knows it can also be helpful. This I received from a friend and from the literature on Zen, particularly the Zen master Bankei.

It was while presenting a retreat in Amarillo, Texas, and visiting with Bob Curry, the director of the DeFalco Center there, that I became acquainted with The Unborn, a book of sermons attributed to Zen master Bankei (1622-1693). I had been having these spontaneous experiences of cosmic awareness, as I have described above, and I shared this with Bob. He was well versed in Zen literature, owing primarily to his relationship with Fr. Patrick Hawk, a Catholic priest and Zen master who resides at the DeFalco Center. “That’s it!” Bob exclaimed, when I told him of my experiences. “That’s enlightenment!” He then gave me Bankei’s book, which confirmed Bob’s words. Here is an example of Bankei’s teaching:

When your mother bears you, you have neither bad habits of behavior nor selfish desires of any kind; your mind has no inclination to favor yourself. There’s nothing but the Buddha-mind. But from the age of about four or five on you begin to learn all manner of wrong behavior by watching the people around you, and by listening you learn from them their ill-favored knowledge. Making your way through life under such conditions, it’s little wonder that selfish desires emerge, leading to a strong self-partiality, which is the source of all your illusions and evil acts. If this self-partiality ceases to exist, illusion doesn’t occur. That place of nonoccurrence is where you reside when you live in the Unborn. Buddhahood and the Buddha-mind are found nowhere else. (The Unborn: The Life and Teaching of Zen Master Bankei, p. 83).

This was it, all right. Even the term, “The Unborn,” validated my sense that cosmic awareness was uncreated insofar as it was not a fabrication of the mind. None of this is to suggest that my experience was formally validated by a Zen master (I never got to discuss this with Fr. Hawk, who was also leading a retreat at the time). What I was left with was a conviction that others had known experiences similar to my own, and that it was recognized to be liberating and valuable.

In terms of conditions for realizing the experience, one can see that Bankei emphasizes “that place of nonoccurrence,” or the inner freedom which is awakened when self-seeking is relinquished. This is the most critical of all conditions, as I have already stated. It is also the most difficult condition to attain.

Christianity and Enlightenment

But what to make of all this from a Christian context? After all, I was not (and still am not) a practicing Buddhist. Even though I had read about the beliefs and practices of other religions for years, and had made a retreat on Zen, my coming to this experience was in the context of Christian spirituality. I had heard of enlightenment, and had an inclination of what it was – thanks in large part to the writings of Thomas Merton. But I had never expected to experience it, and had certainly not set the realization of it as the goal of my Christian life. It appeared spontaneously, and whenever it did so, I endeavored to learn what I could about from whence it came, and how it went. That I could eventually tune into it at will distinguished it from mystical contemplation, whose comings and goings I could not control, even though I desired it greatly. It was, to me, an experience of the “natural” order. But what kind of experience was it? A good one, for sure: there was no doubting that! Yet finding confirmation of this experience in the Christian literature has not been easy. The overwhelming concern seems to be with mystical contemplation.

I will not pretend to have a completely satisfactory philosophical or theological explanation of this experience. To say that it is natural, for example, does not in any way imply that it is not also an experience of God. The identity of the “observer” is a great mystery. It is clearly not the intentional Ego, and yet it is very familiar. That it leaves no impression in the personal, affective memory also makes me suspect a transpersonal origin; so does the experience of the observer looking out from all of creation. Increasingly, I tend to think of it as a deeper experience of self. In The Human Core of Spirituality: Mind as Psyche and Spirit, Daniel Helminiak (following the lead of Bernard Lonergan, his mentor) writes of a non-reflective aspect of self that is simply attentive and present to all of our experiences. That resonates, and even helps to explain how it is that one can learn to tune in to this attentional state: it is the spiritual consciousness of the soul, awake to the simple fact of existence prior to any reflective activity of the mind (Zen’s face we have before we are born?). That I am, that creation exists, and that God is, all seem to be one perception in this radically simplified attentional state. The mind can “notice” all this in wonderment, but if one tries to define “who’s who,” then the state fades away. I wonder if this gives a glimpse of what the consciousness of the first humans must have been like?

And yet, as I have related, mystical contemplation is a different encounter with Christ. In contemplative experiences, I sense that Christ is sharing with me his own inner, Spirit bond with the Father. In mystical contemplation, one is brought into the inner life of God--a life which is present to the deep Self, but which the Self cannot penetrate. Even in the state of cosmic awareness, where other people are seen in clarity and freshness, the inner life of another remains an inaccessible mystery. I might see the other clearly and know my spiritual connection with him or her, but the other must reveal his/her inner life to me for me to know it. Cosmic awareness cannot penetrate into the inner life of another person, much less God. Mystical contemplation is such an experience of God, and so it is a supernatural grace rather than a natural capacity.

In my view, there is no conflict between the two states. Even though they are not the same kind of experience of God, they can co-exist in a person, and even enrich one another. Mystical contemplation can help to open one to cosmic awareness, and cosmic awareness can provide the optimal conditions for opening to mystical graces. The role of faith, here, is extremely important. Cosmic awareness does not annihilate Christian faith in any way. When in this state, there is a disinclination to seek God through words, symbols and rituals, but faith preserves an openness to receive communication from God (Who is not a concept). One is content to simply rest in God as the Ground of one’s being, but this does not imply a resistance to mystical grace. If it should happen that the Ground wants to erupt, or to communicate something of Itself, there is no boundary to obstruct It. This openness to a mystical relationship with the Ground is a contribution of Christian faith, and it is in no way diminished by cosmic awareness. Faith transcends all states of consciousness, and continues to be one’s primary stance toward God even in the state of cosmic awareness. For this reason, there is no reason whatsoever for a person of Christian faith to denounce Eastern experiences of enlightenment. Nor, as I have shared in this brief report, is it really necessary to turn to the East to come to enlightenment. As the Buddhists say, we are already enlightened! We just need to learn how to wake up to this fact. That we can do so within the context of Christianity is, perhaps, an affirmation not sufficiently appreciated thus far.

Jim Arraj: Conclusion

The problem with enlightenment for Christians is not in what enlightenment is in itself, for in itself it is a deep perception of the very nature of things from the point of view of their existence as it springs forth from the hand of God, and as such it could and should be welcomed by Christians.

The problem with enlightenment for Christians resides in the context in which they usually find it in which it is wrapped up in nondual terminology as if it is in opposition to a relationship of love with God, which is at the heart of Christianity. It is not. But if Christians are attracted to enlightenment, and in the process imbibe a false nonduality, then they have lost their most essential treasure, and then the quest for enlightenment will become an obstacle to Christian faith, and such Christians will erect on that spurious nonduality a philosophical and theological Christian nonduality which will be a reworking of Christianity into a nonduality incompatible with its true nature. This tendency is already wide-spread in modern Buddhist-Christian and Hindu-Christian dialogues as I have tried to show in my Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue.

Should Christians then pursue enlightenment? Yes, but not in an Eastern context where they run the risk of losing their fundamental Christian perspective. What is necessary is enlightenment in a Christian context, an enlightenment which is transparent and open to Christian contemplation.

In actual practice the challenge of creating a Christian enlightenment is quite daunting. In the case of kundalini, for example, it is undeniable that the experience of kundalini has come to Westerners, and sometimes even spontaneously. Therefore we cannot deny the fact and reality of it. This does not mean that we need to understand it in a traditional Hindu way, however important it is to try to understand what Hinduism has had to say about it. Kundalini also presents itself in Tibetan Buddhism, Taoism, and elsewhere, so it need not be identified with the particular way it is conceptualized in Hinduism. Therefore, the way is open to create a new explanation of it using modern neurobiology, psychology and a philosophy that is compatible with Christianity. In short, the core experience of kundalini must be honored, but we need to attempt to explain it in a way that is open to Christianity and its own contemplative practice.


Chapter 7: The Loss of the Affective Ego


Jim Arraj: Dark Nights, Depressions and the Loss of the Affective Ego

John of the Cross’ “dark night” has entered into our common vocabulary. People will talk of suffering a dark night when going through some interior crisis. But what did these words mean for St. John himself, and how do they relate to depression and what could be called the loss of the affective ego?

John recognized a link between his dark night and depression, which he called melancholy. In a rather subtle analysis in his book The Dark Night, he tells us that melancholy can accompany the dark night and increase its intensity. But this implies a distinction between depression and the dark night. Depression is a loss of energy that leaves us feeling unable to get on with our lives, and which can stem from both external and internal causes. We may, for example, be depressed over the loss of someone dear to us, or from some biochemical imbalance, and while St. John recognizes that depression can play a role in the dark night, he makes it clear that the dark night is not depression.

St. John also realized that the dark night had various aspects, or phases; there is his well-known distinction between the dark night of sense, and the dark night of spirit. But he makes another implicit distinction that is not often focused upon. There is a dark night that we can call the dark night in the wide sense of the term, which stands in contrast to the dark night in the strict sense. He tells us that many people who devote themselves to the life of prayer are seen to enter the dark night, and often fairly quickly. By this he means that they discover that they can no longer pray like they did before. The sense of consolation and progress that accompanied their serious conversion to the life of prayer has disappeared. This may happen either gradually or suddenly and can be very disorienting. These people can even worry that God has abandoned them. But this dark night is not identical with the dark night that St. John wishes to discuss. How do we know this? It is because it is only after John describes this general situation that he goes on to give his famous three signs for the passage from ordinary prayer to infused contemplation. If every inability to pray like we did before was the dark night, then there would be no need for the signs. The signs are meant to differentiate between this general situation and the dark night that leads to contemplation. It is this dark night that St. John concentrates upon.

The first sign - following the order given in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel - is this very inability to pray. But since it might arise from reasons other than contemplation, St. John gives us a second sign. Our inability to pray should not be accompanied by a particular interest in the things of the world. This sign is to rule out lukewarmness or some moral fault as the cause of our disability.

But even this sign is not enough. We may, St. John tells us, have no inclination for anything because we are suffering from some kind of melancholy or depression. Therefore he gives us the third and most important sign. This is the beginning of infused contemplation, itself. We are drawn to that mysterious experience of loving union even though we are disconcerted by the fact that it is not coming to us through the normal working of the natural faculties, i.e., the senses, imagination, intellect, memory, and will, but is welling up from the depths of the soul. Without some inkling of the beginning of contemplation, St. John tells us we cannot leave the ordinary practice of prayer.

Thus, the dark night that John wants to talk to us about is the dark night directly connected to infused contemplation. In fact, it is brought about by contemplation. Contemplation causes this dark night because it is communicated to the spirit, not by the ordinary channels of the faculties, but in the depths of the soul, and this causes a withdrawal of energy from the faculties, and thus the experience of the dark night. There are, therefore, distinctions to be made between depression, the dark night in the wide sense of the term, and the dark night leading to contemplation.

It is equally important to distinguish between this dark night brought about by contemplation, and what we could call the loss of the affective ego. This is an issue that is rarely talked about and difficult to express. Yet there seems to be a family of experiences that center on the loss of self. We may, for example, look at the no-self experiences described by Bernadette Roberts. Philip St. Romain’s book on kundalini and Christian spirituality, which has also been discussed in these pages, contains a striking passage in which he realized that the old Philip St. Romain was dead. And while his memories remained, they had lost the affective character that is so much a part of normal memories. David Spillane has called my attention to similar no-self experiences recounted by Ann Faraday, an English psychologist, who woke up one morning to discover that her self had disappeared, and Michael Washburn, in his Ego and the Dynamic Ground, reports on the work of a psychiatrist who described psychic black holes. It would be a valuable project to analyze these kinds of accounts, and try to come to a better understanding of what they mean in terms of the loss of self. (For more on modern loss of self experience see my Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue.)

But what do these experiences mean? I don’t think that it is a question of what could be called a metaphysical loss of self. There is someone who reflects, makes decisions, and acts, even after this kind of loss of the ego. But what runs through these various accounts is a sense that the interior landscape of these people has been vastly altered. Their ego is, indeed, lost in some very real way. They don’t possess the same sense of self as they did before, and I would like to venture a preliminary sketch of what might be happening. Our egos, or sense of self - taken in a concrete or empirical way and not in a metaphysical sense - are glued together by the acts we make with our natural faculties, and these faculties, in turn, are driven by our desires and the gratification we receive by fulfilling these desires. In other words, what holds the empirical ego together could be called affective energy. It is this affective energy that motivates us to act, and is a vital part of our sense of identity which is intimately connected with our memories. Our memories contain affective energy, and that is what binds them to us and allows us to recognize them as our own.

But in the various experiences of no-self it appears as if this affective energy drains out of consciousness. Then, in a very real way, the ego disappears, and this is what is reported. But, as I said, I think it is better to qualify this as the loss of the affective ego, and not give it a metaphysical meaning, as if there is no ego in the sense of no human soul, or spirit.

Clearly, descriptions of the loss of the affective ego have a certain affinity with the way that John of the Cross describes the onset of the dark night that leads to contemplation. The inability to pray in the way we prayed before is an affective disability. We no longer, St. John tells us, experience the satisfaction we did before. In some fashion the energy that animated our desires for the things of God is quenched. Indeed, the second sign says that this energy is quenched not only in regard to the things of God, but the things of the world, as well. John is not saying that we suffer a complete inability to use the natural faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory and will. If we did, we would be nonfunctional, or comatose, or even catatonic. Instead, we no longer have the affective energy that bound us to our former spiritual practices.

This loss of affective energy could therefore be seen as a dimension of the dark night that leads to infused contemplation or brought about by the beginning of contemplation. As contemplation begins in the depths of the soul we can imagine it drawing into those depths the psyche’s affective energy. This means that as the affective energy leaves the ego it gives rise to St. John’s first two signs. The third sign, the active presence of contemplation, is the critical one because other factors, like depression, could cause this loss of energy.

Jung described the psyche as a closed system of energy. Therefore, if affective energy drains out of consciousness, we would expect it to appear somewhere in the unconscious. And St. John does, in fact, describe in graphic detail certain temptations that manifest themselves on the road to contemplation. These temptations, i.e., of blasphemy, scrupulosity and sexual excess, can all be understood from a psychological point of view, as manifestations of psychic or affective energy in the unconscious. In a similar way, the disorientation of the ego, or its fear that God is displeased with it, can come about from a loss of the ego’s affective energy. Further, since it is this affective energy, itself, which gives the ego its sense of identity, its loss can lead to a feeling of ego disintegration, or death.

Despite the fact that there appears to be a dimension of the loss of the affective ego in St. John’s descriptions of the beginning of infused contemplation, it would be a mistake, I think, to identify the two states. There is no particular reason for believing that every loss of the affective ego is brought about by the beginning of contemplation. We are thus left with four closely allied but distinctive states: depression, the dark night in the wide sense, the dark night due to the beginning of contemplation, and the loss of the affective ego.

Summary: Let me summarize these four states, and some of the practical consequences of this kind of analysis.

1. Depression.

a. Organically based depression, which can, and should, be treated physically.

b. Depression due to external circumstances, which can be treated psychologically and spiritually.

2. The dark night in the wide sense of the term. This inability to pray can stem from depression, or our own faults, or our need to pray in another fashion, or from the beginning of infused contemplation. If it stems from a need to pray in another fashion, this may be a call to psychological work in which we integrate various aspects of our personality which, in turn, provide the foundations for a new way of praying.

3. The loss of the affective ego. Clearly there is some sort of loss of affective ego in depression and other psychological disorders, but I would like to use this phrase to describe a loss of ego that is not necessarily connected to any psychological illness or to any impairment of the natural faculties, themselves. It may accompany the beginning of contemplation, or some state of enlightenment, or arise from unknown causes. What is critical is to see it for what it is, and not let it trigger depression by construing it as something that is negative in itself.

4. The dark night intimately connected with infused contemplation. This dark night demands the taking up a new attitude of loving receptivity in which we do not insist on maintaining our old ways of praying, which are based on the working of the natural  faculties.

In actual situations I imagine we will find various combinations of these four states, but I think it is important to attempt to distinguish them if we are going to respond appropriately.

Response (by the author of “A Journey into God” in Chapter 4):  I was greatly interested in your essay, “Dark Nights, Depressions and the loss of the Affective Ego.” What you are exploring in that essay, albeit speculatively, is the Darkness of God or the Apophatic Mystical Tradition of the Church.

There is no doubt that there are many kinds of darkness which can beset us in this life, not all of them, in fact, very rarely, are these darknesses associated with the infused contemplation of Christian Mysticism. To discern what is authentic and what is not is an extremely difficult task to accomplish speculatively. As Evelyn Underhill has pointed out, and I agree with her, only the mystics can discern what is authentic darkness and what is not, for only they share in that common Life with their Head and each other.

Like you I have pondered deeply the differences that exist between the darkness of psychological illness on the one hand, and the darkness which the Christian Saints and Doctors of the Church have experienced ultimately as supreme psychological integrity and well-being on the other. To that end I have studied the works of St John of the Cross since 1995.

My explorations into mysticism are not, and have not been, however, motivated by academic interest, but by the need to find a written account of the same lived experience in another, and to learn from that account how I might ‘word’ and faithfully correspond to the promptings of an interior life which has unfolded itself in my psyche over the course of the last 26 years.

In Book 1 of John’s Dark Night of the Soul, he explains why our journey into God comes to us as a dark night to the psyche. He gives three reasons, these are;

1. “The point of departure, because individuals must deprive themselves of their appetites for worldly possessions. This denial and deprivation is like a night to the senses.

2. The second reason refers to the means or the road along which a person travels to this union (with God). Now this road is faith and for the intellect faith is also a dark night.

3. The third reason pertains to the point of arrival, namely God. And God is also a dark night to the soul in this life. These three nights pass through the soul, or better, the soul passes through them in order to reach union with God.”

But, in fact, only two of these nights mark clearly the development of an infused interior life as it progresses through its various stages, these are; The Night of Sense - the point of departure, and The Night of Spirit - the point of arrival. Both nights are interlinked and permeated throughout with the luminous darkness of faith which is the road which we must travel to union with God.

For John, faith is the only proximate and proportionate means of union with God. The faith he speaks of is synonymous for him with infused contemplation or, as the Cloud author would put it, knowing in unknowing, an obscure dark habit of the soul which, at the same time as being dark, is filled with luminosity.

What is it then, that we must unknow in order to know God as He is in Himself in Luminous Darkness? Experience teaches that we must renounce, or unknow, our own affectivity as belonging to us. For it is the misuse of that affectivity, and its power to drive our Will and the soul’s other faculties of Intellect and Memory which keeps us tied and distracted by, and to, what John calls “worldly possessions.” In that respect our affective Ego, when we consent to its darkening, is not destroyed, but redeemed, recentered, enthralled and held captivated by the Will of the Other, Who, by His grace, is in us, but not of us.

From my own experience of working with depressed patients, and from comparing and contrasting their dark experience with my own, it seems to me that the most telling difference between depression and infused contemplative darkness is this; those who suffer from a depressive illness, unlike the mystic, never come to the point of finding within their darkness a loving, intimate Presence revealing Itself, and in that revelation, healing and psychological integrity.

In depression there is loss of affectivity with concomitant darkness and psychological upheaval in which the person struggles vainly to regain some semblance, albeit in a more stable form, of the ‘status quo ante’. The result is psychological breakdown as the two poles of the psyche war against each other. In infused contemplative darkness there is also loss of affectivity, darkness and psychological upheaval, and though there is a struggle to begin with to recover the ‘status quo ante’, eventually there is acceptance of the darkness and a desire to move with it rather than against it. The two poles of the psyche begin to come into line with each other and the result is breakthrough rather than breakdown.

The element of faith which is supremely important for moving us away from breakdown and into the breakthrough of infused contemplation, the element which is most overlooked by those who teach and study such things, is the volitional element of faith. It is by a movement of our own will, albeit aided by grace, that we must consent to the loss of affectivity, no longer desiring to experience it as belonging to us. Our Lord has promised us in Scripture, “That whoever humbles himself will be exalted”. And, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Anyone who loves his life [the life of affectivity and the associated possession of ‘worldly goods’] loses it; anyone who hates [such a] life in the world will keep it for eternal life.”

Ultimately, such a movement of one’s own will, an identification with Our Lady’s Fiat and Christ’s, “Not my will but Your Will be done,” the renunciation of what Evelyn Underhill calls the “Me, My and Mine,” is a movement of supreme detachment and heroic charity. It is the movement of this charity in the will which begins the unification of our own will with God’s Will, since it renders our charity connatural with Christ’s.

From this connaturality spring the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit which, through the gifts of Understanding, Knowledge and Wisdom, principally, comes breakthrough and illumination to the psyche. One moves from the Purgative Way of Beginners into the Illuminative Way of Proficients in which one attains conformity of one’s own will with the Will of God. It is in the Illuminative Way that Spiritual Betrothal is wrought.

In the Illuminative Way, though one has lost the desire to be master of his own affectivity, it still functions, but in relation to things of the Spirit and no longer the ‘world’. There is, consequently, much affective prayer in the Illuminative Way. One has only to read the Song of Songs, or John’s Canticle and what passes between the Bridegroom and His Bride, to catch glimpses of the deeply sensuous nature of the Illuminative Way. Often there are raptures and ecstasy as one’s own affectivity ‘swoons’ and is drawn out of itself in, and into, His Presence. All this, as John tells us, in order to capture and accommodate the senses to the Spirit.

But there is yet to come another Night, much darker than the Night of Sense, the Night of Spirit, or point of arrival, as John puts it, which must also be borne in order to arrive at Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage.

Each of the stages of an infused spiritual journey mark the long slow movements of the soul or psyche. Although John’s Nights form one suppositum, as he tells us, they are nevertheless staged, each of the stages holding sway over the psyche for a number of years. Hence the images of journey and climbing to a mountain top.

Each stage, i.e., The Purgative Way of Beginners with its Night of Sense, The Illuminative Way of Proficients, and The Unitive Way of the Perfect leading to Transforming Union or Spiritual Marriage, marks clearly the organic process through which the psyche must pass in order to reach maturity and psychological well-being in Christ. Each of these stages can be thought of, in fact, in a similar way to the stages which mark the organic process of our physical growth, i.e., Childhood, Adulthood, Old Age and Death. I labour this point here, for it seems to me that those who write of the infused spiritual journey without having first lived through all its movements, often give the impression that its three stages happen all at once and together, and not only to individual souls, but to society in general, my point is that they do not, and cannot. Our God is a personal God and He converts our souls to Himself gradually and individually, and only with our explicit consent.

In the Night of Spirit then, the latter of the two Dark Nights which reform and redeem our affectivity, the affective Knowledge of God which was enjoyed in the Illuminative Way, is withdrawn, cut off. It is the withdrawal of this affective Knowledge, which causes the feeling of being abandoned by God and indeed all one’s friends. Of being brought into a vast unbounded desert of solitude, for if one can no longer enjoy the Knowledge of God affectively, neither can one enjoy affective knowledge of ‘creatures’ either.

A huge void opens in the soul’s faculties, for the Will has been dispossessed by Love Himself, the Intellect by Faith and the Memory by Hope. In effect the mystic is Transformed into God’s Affectivity. But, since Love is interior to Itself and Knows only Itself, albeit, in this case in a human frame, nevertheless, such Love, such Affectivity, is its Own Cause, and does not depend on the will of another to move it. Such self-causing Affectivity is as Nothing to our natural intelligence, will and memory, for such Knowledge moves in the soul secretly, unobservable to our natural faculties.

All that can be known of God in Transforming Union is a feeling of having lost oneself and yet, curiously, at the same moment, of having been found. “No longer,” as John puts it, “seen or heard on the common,” for the soul knows that it no longer functions in the way that is common to all, i.e. to be moved by one’s own affective needs, but is now moved by the Affectivity of Christ.

St Paul, and all the Christian Mystics who have followed after him, say of this conversion of their minds into Christ, “With Christ I hang upon the Cross, and yet I am alive: or rather, not I: it is Christ who lives in me. True I am living this mortal life. But my real life is in the faith I have in the Son of God, Who loved me, and gave Himself for me.”

In Transforming Union, the soul’s faculties and their affectivity are so captured and made one with God that they seem to be entirely lost to the soul, and indeed they are, for now God is their Affectivity alone. As John says of this union, (Flame, 2; 34): “Accordingly the intellect of this soul is God’s Intellect; the will is God’s Will; its memory the Memory of God; and its delight is God’s Delight; and although the substance of the soul is not God, since it cannot undergo a substantial conversion into Him, it has become God by participation in God, being united to and absorbed in Him as it is in this state.”

Jim Arraj: Is it Depression, or is it the Loss of the Affective Ego Leading to Spiritual Gain?

The affective ego means the ego and the affective energy that normally animates it and sets it in motion in a search for gratification. But in the loss of the affective ego this energy seems to disappear, or perhaps better, drains out of the ego and goes elsewhere.

Imagine the ego as a room with four doors. Each door represents a particular way of ego functioning. Let’s use the Jungian terminology and call these doors sensation, intuition, thinking and feeling. Normally the room of the ego is full of activity. People are going in and out of the doors. They are talking, laughing, singing, crying, but there is always something going on. What animates this activity is what we are calling here affective energy, so the affective ego means an ego alive with seeking out things that are pleasurable, and avoiding things that are painful, and all this activity takes place instinctively and automatically. Then one day, sometimes quite suddenly, we find that the room is empty. The affective energy that set everything in motion has disappeared. We are disoriented, and wonder what has gone wrong. What we had known as life has disappeared. Has someone locked the doors? No. The doors still open and close, but instead of throngs of people going in and out, we have to open the doors ourselves and carry on our activities by planning and will power.

Here are some of the characteristics of this process.

It leaves the functioning of the ego intact. The ego is not cognitively impaired. All the former abilities and skills of the ego remain, but the ego seems to have entered into a zone of silence in which the normal hum, or noise of the ego’s functions, searching out their usual ends, has disappeared.

It can happen rather suddenly so that it is quite noticeable, and it is disorienting to the ego which finds its normal life has disappeared, and goes about trying to regain it, but cannot. Therefore, it experiences a kind of death of the ego and can long for the old life that it had, and mourn for its loss.

In this new state the ego is set in motion, not by its old affective desires, but by the situation it finds itself in, and by the will.

A sense of gratification is lost, resulting in sometimes feeling that everything is worthless, and nothing is worth doing. The ego sometimes looks around in its pain and wants to find someone or something to blame for this situation. It can imagine that changing its outer situation would fill the affective emptiness inside so it could feel normal again.

The ego can get into the wrong relationship with this ongoing process of affective loss, and become upset as if its life has been stolen from it. It can suffer acute episodes of “depression” from which it can recover quickly with no apparent after-effects.

There is a tendency to overdo things without realizing it, as if the person acting has been put in gear, but the driver is somehow not fully present. This kind of overextraversion can lead to a depletion of energy that mimics depression.

The memory remains intact. Past events can be recalled, but the affective charge that surrounded them is diminished. It is something like viewing a film with the sound off, that is, without the usual emotional responses to it. New events can be responded to appropriately, but they often appear to have less affective impact unless they activate the unconscious. They leave smaller affective footprints in their wake and can quickly be forgotten. The normal reverberation and repercussion of events is dampened down.

There seems to be no physical disorder to account for this loss of affectivity, nor does there appear to be some particular psychological problem that has caused it.

On the positive side, the ego now tends to see the world more objectively because its own subjective shields and screens are down. It can even achieve a certain distance from its own problems which it can view, at times, without the normal emotional reactions to them. The ego can be sensitive to what is happening around it precisely because it hears things better since its own noise has been so diminished. It has a certain kind of peace because it is not being pushed around by its affective desires.

It can find it tiring, even upsetting, to be around people who are expressing lots of affective energy.

It can express the appropriate feelings for the situation that it is in, but as soon as it leaves the situation, the feelings disappear back into the silence. There seems to be no going back to the old sense of ego.

A Positive Purpose?

The big question is, why does this happen? Should we call it plain old-fashioned depression, or could it be connected to some kind of positive transformation of energy taking place in the psyche? Three possibilities suggest themselves: psychological development, enlightenment, and contemplation. Some examples of this loss of the affective ego seem to be connected to prior spiritual practice. It is almost as if the counsels to practice detachment that are found in so many religious traditions are no longer active things that we attempt to do, but we are suffering some kind of process of detachment that has a life of its own.

Jim and Tyra Arraj and I have been comparing notes and discussing this topic for years now. With their publication of this web page, we’re hoping to discover if others can relate to the experience, and how they understand it.

I can share that, for myself, what they describe fits my own experience to a fraction of a degree. Even after over 15 years, however, I’m still adjusting to this phenomenon of the loss of the affective ego, and can imagine that some who’ve come upon this state would consider it a “loss of self,” even a psychopathology of some kind. I do not consider it such, but (perhaps) an example of apathaea or profound detachment that the desert fathers thought so valuable. There are many positive consequences that ensue--none the least of which is that one isn’t getting pushed around by emotions any more. Also, when I don’t over-work (especially mentally), there is a subtle flow of bliss buoying up my heart--the ananda of the Hindus, and the joy which Christ promised. Nevertheless, as I say, it takes some getting used to and can feel like psychic death, in many ways.

I would not characterize my experience of the loss of the affective ego as akin to depression in that it lacks the “down” or “blue” feeling that comes with depression. Unlike depression, which has a definite affective content, this state seems to be altogether devoid of emotion or feeling until one is engaged in an activity of some kind. Then, the appropriate feeling emerges; once that is over, however, things revert back to zero -- a state of flatness or apathaea. I’m aware that some counselors might consider this dissociation or a type of depression, but I would disagree, and so would the Arrajs -- which is why we’re hoping this experience will become better understood.

Prior to the loss of affectivity as described here, the ego is usually moved one way or another and senses from these inner movements a kind of direction being suggested for one’s life. You might even say that with the loss of the affective ego, there is a loss of intentional consciousness, which does feel like the loss of interiority and a kind of psychic death. I strongly suspect that this is, in large part, what many in the spiritual literature are referring to as a “loss of self,” or “no-self.” If this were only a passing phase/dark night between developmental levels, that would be one thing; but when one is “stuck” there for many years, as some of us have been, we might as well say it’s not simply transitional.

I wouldn’t want to go back to the “old ways” at all even if I could. For one thing, I don’t even remember what that was like! But since pretty much everyone I relate to has an affective ego, I see the difference between what they go through and my usual state. Thanks, but no thanks!

It seems to me that there is something of an “acquired taste” that one must develop to live in this new psychic world, and I think this is where the metaphor of the desert in Christian mystical literature becomes relevant. The desert appears to be arid and lifeless, but upon closer inspection, there are all kinds of living things that have found a way to survive there. One must look and listen deeply to notice them, but they’re there! I liken this to the sensitivity one develops to subtle movements in the psyche; they fall below the radar of the affective ego, but the dis-affected ego, in its thirst for a sense of life, learns to listen for them and cherish what is found. Sometimes, it is the “still small voice of the Spirit” that is detected--a tiny rivulet of life meandering along, somewhat obscure, but exuding peace.

Another delightful compensation for me is that with the diminishment of intentionality, the world of the senses has become more awakened.

The ego refers to one’s sense of being an “I” or the conscious subject of one’s life. This is not the false self; it is generally experienced in an affective milieu, howsoever subtle; memory generally retains a “record” of how the “I” experiences affectivity, and we can often access that, e.g., you hear a song that reminds you of a special date and experience some of the feelings you had then; you think back on a certain time in your life and have a feeling of what your life was then; you think back on what happened 2 hrs ago and have a feeling of what that was like corresponding to what you experienced then.

We take for granted such things. . . until it is lost, which is what we are trying to talk about. So, for example, one can interact with other people and experience a range of feelings when they visit. The next day, you can usually think over some of what went on and experience an affective connection with this past event through the affective dimension stored in memory.

With the loss of what the Arrajs are calling the affective ego, however, there is no such affective recall. You can remember who said what, that you were happy or sad or whatever, but you do not have an affective connection with the past event. It’s gone! Desiccated! There is no emotional trace in the memory.

So we’re not saying that people who experience this situation display no affectivity: they do, during the situation they’re living in the present. . . the whole range of feeling. But once the experience is over, it’s over . . . affectively, that is . . . like it never even happened . . . could have been 10 years ago just as well as 15 minutes ago. The empirical Ego/individual-subject-of-attention is still there, alive and well, with all its faculties intact, only it seems to be living in a desert of some kind, deprived of inner movements of affectivity connecting present with past and pointing the way to a future. In my own experience, this has also brought a quieting of the mind so that, unless I am working on some kind of problem or creation, there are no thoughts whatsoever. The mind is silent, which at first is quite disconcerting, but eventually becomes most enjoyable.

I hope this helps to clarify the relation between ego, affective ego, false self, and the experience we’re trying to describe. Maybe this is one of those kinds of experiences that’s impossible to grasp unless one undergoes it to some extent.

I would not say that what I’m describing equates with a loss of selfishness or the false self, however, as vices of all kinds (especially pride) still come into play and must be seen and resisted. That’s why I keep trying to say that I’m not talking about the loss of a false self, although there is a change in that experience with the loss of affective memory.

The loss of the affective ego does mean the end of the compulsivities originating in false self conditioning. That’s a pretty big deal, in my opinion, and a great healing indeed! It also spells the end of shame, existential anxiety, and resentment, for all these emotions are of the past and are therefore part of the affective memory. Granted, there are degrees of healing from these bitter poisons, but in my own case, I would say that I have been over 90% free of these for almost 20 years! I did not believe this was possible, and for the first few years, kept expecting their return. I also saw how much the false self derives its energies and intentions from these poisonous emotions. After they are healed, one is relatively free of the false self, but not completely.

As for marriage and the testimony of a spouse, what my wife sees is my relationship with her in the moments we share, and these do include affectivity, as I have tried to explain. She cannot possibly know my inner experience when I am not with her and uninvolved in activities. I’ve told her about all this, but see no point in making a big deal out of it with her. I don’t know what gurus’ wives would say to disprove their husbands’ claims, but my wife could certainly give witness that I am no perfect person on any level. I have no illusions about that. That’s not what I’m talking about at all.

I broached this topic 14 years ago in my kundalini book, but it never even got a nibble in comparison to the kundalini vs. Holy Spirit discussions. I don’t think it’s the same thing Bernadette Roberts is describing either, for she’s actually saying there’s no subject of attention present in her experience and I’m quite sure there is one such in mine. I don’t fully understand her experience, but it seems similar to that of Susan Segal. Others have described the no-self state in a manner similar to what we are calling the loss of affective ego, so there is a touch point there.

I think discerning “the point” of this is partly why the Arrajs opened the discussion. In my own case, I have noted some of the practical benefits in the remarks above. All in all, it’s a very positive development, I would say, especially in terms of making available to one greater freedom to exercise the will according to one’s values and decisions. There is a very definite “death” or sense of loss that comes with the shift, however, and that takes some getting used to.

What is left, then? The desert . . . profound aridity . . . emotional detachment . . . a silent mind . . . the flowering of the senses . . . and, eventually, a deepening sensitivity to subtle movements of life within and about. With this comes increased capacity to live in the present moment, including the experience of whatever affectivity such action awakens.

Once the flow of affectivity is diminished, the mind is no longer triggered by this information and one can explore its domain . . . how attention and mind interact, for example. We can also learn how the mind actually tries to generate emotions to reinstate something of the old identity. This contrivance becomes seen for what it is, however, and comes to pass. But the mind needs “something” to help it understand what’s going on and to cooperate. Here, again, the importance of a vision of the spiritual journey; also, the importance of a theological vision.


Chapter 8: Conclusion: Critical Questions

Jim Arraj: The preceding chapters have given us a taste of the kind of personal accounts, conversations and debates that make up the world of Christian contemplative practice in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. Now it is time to single out some of the critical questions that we have seen beginning to emerge. As we have noted in our Short Orientation, the very fact that such discussions are taking place is significant. If the beginning of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in the contemplative life, it often remained theoretical and theological. It is only after the Council that the long public silence in the church – in contrast to the hidden lives of contemplatives that always existed – about the possibility of contemplative practice has been broken. But since that silence had lasted some 300 years, it is hardly surprising that modern attempts to renew the practice of the contemplative life appear to have no direct connection with the issues that were the burning questions in the 17th century when people still thought that it was an appropriate topic of spiritual conversation to ask whether it was possible to become a contemplative. Nor do these modern attempts, existing as they do on the other side of the divide that separates the post-conciliar era from the neo-scholastic theology, and the spirituality that existed before the Council, have much to do with the theology of contemplation that was developed in the first half of the 20th century. These modern attempts to renew the contemplative life tell us they are rooted elsewhere, for example, in early Christian monasticism in the case of centering prayer and John Main’s Christian meditation, or even in an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which is seen as the renewal of the original Pentecost of the early church.

This discontinuity, while understandable, is not a healthy state of affairs, and raises important questions: Are centering prayer and the Christian meditation movement, for example, really representative of the Christian mystical tradition as it was understood in the West up until the time of the Second Vatican Council? Or are they simplified versions of that tradition which gloss over historical and theological problems and seem to propose that Christian contemplation is something that can be taught, and taught to just about anyone at any stage of their spiritual development? As for Catholic Pentecostalism, it would avoid such challenges if it could be demonstrated that what we see there is the direct working of the Holy Spirit, and thus transcends any historical and theological hesitations we may have. But this is precisely one of the most fundamental questions that we must ask about that movement.

So critical questions abound. Is Christian contemplation something that we can do, and therefore despite our admission that it is a grace given by the Holy Spirit, can it still in the practical order of things be seen as a result of a particular way of praying? Can we set before us the goal of becoming contemplatives by means of these various new methods without succumbing to the feeling that somehow right technique in the form of the control of the impulses of our minds and hearts will somehow in some way finally deliver us to that promised land?

Here we cannot avoid the fact that both centering prayer and John Main’s form of meditation have undergone the influence of Eastern forms of meditation, and that only makes more acute the question of just what the nature of Christian contemplation is. This question was carefully answered at the cost of considerable effort and debate in the first half of the 20th century by people like Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange and Jacques Maritain. We cannot lightly ignore what they had to say, nor can we ignore the historical lessons of the great contemplative experiments of the 17th century in which women and men tried to make themselves contemplatives, and only succeeded in bringing the whole contemplative enterprise into disrepute. While I admire the fact that these new attempts are introducing people to the Christian life of prayer, I cannot avoid the impression they are neglecting these kinds of underlying issues to which we may add others. Do people, for example, who practice centering prayer actually arrive at contemplation in the way it was understood previously in the church, and for those that do, does it have any direct connection to the practice of centering prayer itself? Can a deliberate attempt to limit the discursive activity of the mind fail to bring about various upheavals of energy in the unconscious?

Here is to be found the weakness of PART I. It is more focused on these kinds of questions than on actual accounts of people coming to and living out the life of prayer and contemplation by means of these new attempts. A broader experiential base is needed in order to examine how on the practical level these movements function. It is entirely possible that in many cases a certain Christian instinct born of faith prevents practitioners of these methods from suffering from the negative consequences of an insufficiently articulated understanding of the nature of contemplation. Critically examined detailed accounts of people pursuing these paths would shed light on many of these questions.

We have encountered in PART II a collection of stories of experiences of prayer and contemplation that seem akin to those of the past, and appear to have little to do with these men and women practicing any sort of particular “contemplative” way of praying. They are much more like what was called infused contemplation, that is, an experience that is both in its nature and in its mode a gift of God. Undoubtedly these experiences would make an excellent starting point for a new attempt to understand the nature of contemplation, its development, interior psychology, and so forth, but they stand even now seem to stand in considerable contrast to the practice and results of the new attempts at contemplative prayer, and to try to bridge the gap between the two with a kind of lights on/lights off view of contemplation proposed by Ruth Burrows and Thomas Keating appears to denature contemplation, itself, by asserting that to the degree that it is an experiences, to that degree it is inferior to the darkness of faith, and armor these new experiments against the very questions they ought to be addressing.

While PART II is more experiential, and the people in it sometimes express themselves in more classical terminology drawn from the Carmelite mystics, it is only the beginning of what should be a long and detailed examination of the stories of people living out the life of prayer and contemplation today. Then actual experience would come into direct contact with critical questions like the frequency of infused contemplation, how it unfolds, and whether it agrees or not with the classical descriptions of it.

PART III, in its turn, illustrates how difficult it is to carry out any discussion about Christian contemplation without running into questions about Eastern forms of meditation. Not only are these Eastern forms now omnipresent in the West, with many of their practitioners having Christian roots, and many Christians drawn to the life of prayer practicing them in one form or another, but they have influenced, as we saw before, both John Main’s Christian meditation through his Hindu guru, and centering prayer through its early relationship with transcendental meditation and Zen practice. Here once again critical questions abound. In what way, for example, can these practices drawn from Eastern forms of meditation be baptized by having a Christian intention? Can we really say that it is obvious that Eastern forms of meditation and Christian contemplation lead to the same goal, and if we can’t, then isn’t it possible that an Eastern form of meditation, no matter how well intentioned our Christian use of it is, can lead us elsewhere than to Christian contemplative union with God? These sorts of questions, however, cannot lead us to imagine that we can erect some wall between East and West and carry out our quest for a renewed Christian mystical tradition without considering the impact that the East is having. What would we do, then, with the typical Eastern forms of experience like kundalini and enlightenment that are happening, sometimes even spontaneously, to Western Christians?

In regard to the Eastern atmosphere that is influencing Christian contemplative practice today, we cannot ignore a whole “theological” atmosphere that is developing, as well. What I have in mind here is not the practices of the adherents to Eastern religions, but the pronouncements of Western Christians, often without a great deal of philosophical and theological reflection, who take it as a given that Christian and Eastern practices are all paths leading to the same goal, and even that all forms of contemplative prayer ultimately lead to nondual experience. Those who disagree with this conclusion which appears obvious to them and hardly in need of demonstration are seen as dogmatists and fundamentalists who cannot abandon the old Christian imperialism of the past. The effect that all this has on the Christian contemplative life is considerable. The whole trajectory of the mystical life as described by someone like John of the Cross can then be taken up and inserted in a larger schema in which there is now a new and higher summit beyond union with God, a summit of nonduality. The effect of this transposition is to denature not only the Christian contemplative life, but Christianity, itself, even to the end of seeing Jesus as the preacher of a nondual Gospel which was understood crudely and materially by his followers through the centuries, but is now to be revealed to us by these new Christian prophets of nonduality.

We are, in fact, at the beginning, even the very beginning, of an attempt to renew the Christian contemplative life, and we can tentatively list some of the challenges that such a renewal faces:

1. We need detailed modern accounts of contemplative journeys, whether in terms of the new attempts to renew the life of prayer (Chapters 1-3), and in terms of the classical model (Chapter 4).

2. We also need detailed accounts of Christians receiving enlightenment experiences. A good example is Philip St. Romain’s Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality.

3. Such accounts should go hand in hand with a renewed theological examination of the nature of contemplation that does not neglect the important work done in the beginning of the 20th century. (My Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain, especially Chapter 2, gives an overview of Jacques Maritain’s work in this area.)

4. A historical look at what could be called the history of contemplative practice is important, as well. While we possess good histories of Christian spirituality, we have much less of that history written from the perspective of contemplative practice. Is Cassian, in fact, saying the same thing as the author of The Cloud, and how do they compare to the 16th century Carmelites? What gems could we discover in the early accounts of the Eastern Christian fathers about the actual practice of prayer and the phenomena that sometimes accompanies it? I have looked at the modern Western history of contemplation from John of the Cross and the enthusiasms and contemplative crises of the 17th century in my From St. John of the Cross to Us.

5. The deep interrelationship between Christian contemplation and depth psychology ought to be explored. See, for example, my St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung.

6. Christians ought to attempt a new explanation of enlightenment in its various forms like Zen and kundalini that would start from their traditional Eastern sources, but embrace on the one hand science and psychology, and on the other hand, philosophy and theology. (For some reflections on kundalini and its relationship to science and psychology, see Philip St. Romain’s Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality, and for philosophical and theological reflections on enlightenment, see my God, Zen and the Intuition of Being, and for the contemporary problem of a Christian nonduality, reinterpreting Christianity in Buddhist and Hindu categories, see my Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue.)

7. We ought to consider the development of a program for the pursuit and practice of enlightenment in a Christian context. This would be quite different than the usual practice of inviting Christians to practice Zen and other forms of Eastern meditation under Eastern masters, or even Christian Western masters.


A Note on Sources

The unedited versions of these discussions can be found in the following places:

Chapter 1. John Main’s Christian Meditation at

Chapter 2. Catholic Charismatics at

Chapter 3. Centering Prayer at

Centering Prayer Discussion at;f=1;t=000182

Chapter 4. A Visit with a Contemplative at

A Wayfarer’s Spiritual Journey as a Contemplative in the World  at

A Journeyer at

Stories of People Today Trying to Live the Christian Contemplative Life at

 A Journey into God at

Chapter 5. An Interview with Philip St. Romain at

Kundalini: The Hindu Perspective at

Some Psychological and Philosophical Reflections on Kundalini Energy at

Chapter 6. Philip St. Romain on Bernadette Roberts at

The Question of Christian Enlightenment from

Bernadette Roberts and the Experience of No-Self from

Shalomplace Discussion at;f=1;t=000132;p=1#000000

Christian Enlightenment?by Philip St. Romain from

Chapter 7. Dark Nights, Depressions... from

Is it Depression? from

Shalomplace Discussion on the Loss of the Affective Ego at;f=1;t=000123




Part I

Part II

Part III

Let us know what you think of this book

How to Order

A Complete List of Books, DVDs and CDs