Bernadette Roberts and the Experience of No-Self

The Case of Bernadette Roberts

There are many people who have been helped by the work of Bernadette Roberts, including any number of Forum members. 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, 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 the 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. (For details on this position see God, Zen and the Intuition of Being, and Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain, both by James Arraj.)

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 it 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.


Postscript: The above article was first published in April, 1997. Bernadette Roberts has responded to it in June, 2008 at Philip St. Romain has opened up a discussion on the topic "Bernadette Roberts responds to Jim Arraj" at