"God cannot be thought but God can well be loved." - The Cloud of Unknowing
The gambler's addiction consists of unconscious thoughts such as: "I'm due!"; "I feel it coming!"; "When it finally hits I will be able to live the life I imagine - life as it should be!" In sum, the gambler's addiction rests on some sense of being on the verge... near completion, fulfillment of some sort. It is a feeling of perpetually living on the precipice of living. Hence the gambler says, over and over again, "Let it ride!"
There is a similar phenomenon for many on the spiritual path. Like the gambler, many spiritual sojourners feel as though they are perpetually living on the precipice of living. They, too, have some sense of being on the verge... near completion, fulfillment of some sort. So they keep searching... for that one last bit of esoteric knowledge that will finally deliver the goods. Then life will be as they imagine - as it should be! They, too, say over and over again, "Let it ride!"
The people to which I refer are those - and there are MANY - who "think the path." That is, they are those who believe, consciously or not, that they can think their way on the spiritual journey. The truth is, however, that the spiritual journey is not a thing that can be thought, as the opening citation from The Cloud of Unknowing advises us. That is, spiritual experience is not a mental experience nor, for that matter, is it an emotional experience. Rather, it is an experience that is had when the mind, emotions, and the body are at rest. In other words, spiritual experience is a received experience, which suggests such notions as devotion, surrender, and grace (more on the role of these notions in spiritual experience at a later date).
None of this is to say that the mind does not have a place in the spiritual life. It certainly does. For instance, the mind is needed to acquire information about the path. Nevertheless, spiritual experience is paradoxically dependent upon the ability to relinquish the mind, to resist the temptation to confuse information about the path with the path itself.
To receive spiritual experience is to have direct experience of spiritual reality. Such direct experience is not only not dependent upon the mind, it has the prerequisite of "no mind." Returning to our opening metaphor, direct experience requires that one stop rolling the dice! Then and only then will one know that one knows that one knows what it is that one seeks to know - which truly cannot be "known!" Sit (don't think) with that for a while.
Give up that bad gambling habit, friends, and sit instead. You've already hit "black 17" and just don't know it yet.
From time to time I am asked to explain “mysticism” to people, usually in response to the focus of my work, Return to the Mystic. In modern times the term has come to have a rather poor connotation, suggesting anti-intellectualism, magical or wishful thinking, or all round “woo-woo,” to name just a few of the term’s negative meanings. Too often, this rather poor connotation of the term actually does describe, with relative accuracy, what the term has come to mean in our modern age - in no small part due to the casual use of it by so many arm chair psychologists and New Age pundits. At the same time, the term maintains a different meaning, one more consistent with its more traditional meaning, which is what I intend when I use the term.
When I use the term mysticism I am referring to four things: the soul; the ego (our mental, emotional, and sensate (physical) structure); God; and the dynamic relationship that holds between these three. That is, mysticism is about the relationship of the soul with God, which requires negotiation with the ego. Indeed, mysticism actually begins with an understanding that the ego is the singular impediment to the soul’s relationship with God. Thus, the mystical journey must begin with this negotiation, for which spiritual practice is indispensable (on which more in a future reflection).
This meaning of mysticism is evident in the teachings of the mystics, from the ancient yogis of India to modern day Sufis. To wit, in the Upanishads we have clear, though admittedly less pronounce intimations of the ego as the impediment to one’s relationship with God, while in modern day Sufism we have an incredibly well developed understanding of the problem of the nefs, the tendencies of one’s lower animal nature to impede the spiritual journey. (The understanding that the ego is the singular impediment to the soul’s relationship with God is equally evident in Christianity and Buddhism.)
My work in Return to the Mystic is to help people understand the traditional meaning of the term “mysticism” by encouraging them to return to the mystic, i.e., to read the mystical texts where the meaning of mysticism and the mystical life are clearly demonstrated, as well as teaching spiritual practices that the mystics advise. Always, the two go hand in hand, as one without the other – study without practice and vice versa – is like trying to start a fire with a single fire stick.
Fire, though present in the fire sticks, is not perceived until one stick is rubbed against another.
The Self is like that fire: it is realized in the body by meditation on the sacred syllable AUM.
- Swetashwatara Upanishad