St. Teresa of Avila
— to Hell and Back
A Second Look at the Dark Night
and the Mystics of the Church
and the Mystics of the Church
Abstract: Beginning with contemporaries St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, the Christian mystic “path” seems to follow a similar pattern: a novitiate of prayer, devotion, and visionary spiritual experiences, followed by an often tumultuous dark night period, followed in turn by a reconciliation and unitive phase. Whether it be these two greats, or St. Francis de Sales, Jean-Perre deCaussade, Jacob Boehme, and others on up to the present, this pattern is uncanny, almost to suggest a “100th monkey” phenomena or spiritual/ cultural miasm that called forth very similar experiences among such figures.
This article will explore a number of issues related to this, such as: one, whether these mystics would have been spared much pain if they were living in our contemporary culture, where new paradigms such as quantum physics, deep feeling psychotherapy, as well as access to the world’s spiritual traditions both in book form (including the highest non-dual texts such as the Ashtavakra Samhita, Mundukya Upanishad, Lankavatara Sutra, or the works of Sankara), and readily available teachers, are present as countervailing influences to the strict orthodoxy of Church doctrine, within which at least in public most of these mystics had to conform; two, whether many of the extreme experiences of many of these mystics can indeed fit into a pattern similar if not identical to experiences shared by persons who have engaged in new approaches such as Primal therapy, re-birthing, past-life hypnotherapy, or the LSD or holotropic breathwork of Stanislav Grof, and whether these new disciplines as well as the mysticism of these European saints at times touch upon a similar transpersonal dimension in their work; three, whether we are now past the stage where the guidance of these mystics is still useful, or whether in fact not that much has changed in the past 500 years in the realm of real spirituality, and we, in fact, have much we can learn from them.
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), unlike Catherine of Siena, did not have an inclination for mystic raptures as a child. She was raised in luxury, with a penchant for mischief and a fondness for fine "dress and ornaments". At the age of sixteen she was sent to an Augustinian convent for boarding school. There she learned to delight in the lifestyle of the nuns, and at twenty-two took her vows in the Carmelite Order. For the next two decades she went through a "stormy sea", a difficult ordeal of emotional-spiritual transformation, in which she vacillated between a desire to serve God and a desire to serve self. She endured many physical ailments, food cravings, and much emotional turmoil before she was firmly grounded in the life of the spirit. In 1567, while gazing upon a statue of Jesus, she had a conversion experience that changed her life forever. In her Autobiography she wrote:
"Until now the life I was describing was my own, but the life I have been living since is the life God has lived in me."
In later years Teresa manifested extraordinary spiritual phenomena, including profound mystical rapture and even episodes of bodily levitation. (1) The Autobiography communicates in detail the specific character, nature, and stages of a wide range of spiritual experiences. She wisely points out the actual source of those experiences by telling us that "such great gifts come through abandoning everything to God and dying to oneself."
Christopher Basche, in the excellent A Reappraisal of St. Teresa’s Hysteria, attempts to draw parallels with St. Teresa’s extreme experiences and those of negative NDE’s (Near-Death Experiences) as well as perinatal experiences of those who engage in deep regressive feeling therapies. His purpose was to legitimize both fields of endeavor to the psychological community, by making the point that both areas of experiences are gateways from the personal to transpersonal realms. This has perhaps little directly to do with intuiting consciousness itself, or non-duality, as is currently in vogue, but his depiction of the saint’s ordeals has much to teach us. The reader may take note, that St. Teresa initially wrote her autobiography not intending it for publication, but in order to give her superiors a detailed description of what she was going through so they could assess her condition, so there is little doubt it is an honest account. Basche writes:
Description of Teresa's symptoms
"As a young novice at the Carmelite Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, Teresa suffers serious fainting spells, fevers, and heart troubles. On a trip to Becedas for treatment, she is given a copy of Osuna's Third Spiritual Alphabet from which she learns the prayer of recollection, experiencing quickly the "prayer of quiet" and even brief "union." (2) In Becedas she is diagnosed as having "shrunken nerves," and her condition deteriorates steadily for three months. "The pain in my heart," she writes, "which I had gone there to get treated, was much worse; sometimes I felt as if sharp teeth had hold of me, and so severe was the pain they caused that it was feared I was going mad." (3) Pains rack her from head to foot unceasingly. One particular fit leaves her comatose for four days and so deathlike that a grave is prepared. Though she survived, her condition is pitiful: "My tongue was bitten to pieces.. . . All my bones seemed to be out of joint and there was a terrible confusion in my head. As a result of the torments I had suffered during these days, I was all doubled up, like a ball, and no more able to move arm, foot, hand or head than if I had been dead, unless others moved them for me." (4) Teresa eventually returns to Avila uncured. After eight months her condition begins to improve, but she does not fully recover from her paralysis for three years."
"As Teresa's experience in prayer deepens in the years following her illness, she begins to receive various "divine favors." First, entering the third and fourth degrees of prayer — the prayer of union and the prayer of divine union — is itself counted as a supernatural gift. Second, Teresa begins to experience visions and voices which instruct her in, among other things, the processes of her deepening spirituality. A third favor Teresa calls by several names: rapture, elevation, flight, or transport of the spirit. In these experiences she leaves her body in some type of spirit-form and is taken usually to "heaven," where various theological and spiritual truths are revealed to her. However problematic Teresa's narratives of out-of-body experiences are to the Western intellect, she insists that they happened just as she describes them."
"She also insists, quite to our surprise, that these out-of-body experiences are "much more beneficial" to her spiritual development than mystical union. (5)
[In Chapter XXII of her Autobiography Teresa goes into great detail in explaining the superior grace and benefits of raptures or transports to higher levels, apparently outside the bodily domain, and how much more humility they produce in the soul than the earlier stages of prayer, including what she terms the prayer of union. In this she sounds a bit like the Indian sage, Sri Autobindo, who confessed that he “had his experience of nirvana and silence in Brahman even before his knowledge of the overhead planes"; she would also find company with the teachings of a mystic path such as Sant Mat. Teresa writes of the prayer of union, the highest of these stages of prayer, in language that suggests something like savikalpa or even nirvikalpa samadhi, but still praises raptures and ecstasies above this. As she had her famous “hell” experience after all of these, to be followed by even further trials, and finally an unshakable peace, it is worth quoting some of her writings on these levels of prayer. On the fourth degree of prayer, that of union, she says:
“The way in which this that we call union comes, and the nature of it, I do not know how to explain....the soul becomes conscious that it is fainting almost completely away, in a kind of swoon, with an exceedingly great and sweet delight. It gradually ceases to breathe and all its bodily strength begins to fail it; it cannot even move its hands without great pains; its eyes involuntarily close, or they remain open, they can hardly see....It is futile for him to attempt to speak: his mind cannot manage to form a single word..for in this condition all outward strength vanishes, while the strength of the soul increases so that it may have fruition of its bliss...But this state in which they [ones faculties] are completely lost, and have no power of imagining anything — for the imagination, I believe, is also completely lost — is, as I say, of brief duration although the faulties do not recover to such an extent as not to be for some hours, as it were, in disorder, God, from time to time, gathering them once more to Himself...I was wondering what it is the soul does during that time, when the Lord said these words to me: “It dies to itself wholly, daughter, in order that it may fix itself more and more upon me; it is no longer itself that lives, but I. As it cannot comprehend what it understands, it is an understanding which understands not.”
“The benefits that it receives are more numerous and sublime than any which proceed from the previous states of prayer; and its humility is also greater, for it clearly sees how by no efforts of its own it could either gain or keep so exceedingly and so great a favour...For now it sees with its own eyes that of itself it can do little or nothing, and that it hardly even gave its consent to what has happened to it, but that, against its own will, the door seemed to be closed upon all the senses so that it might have the greater fruition of the Lord.” (6)
As desirable as the latter may be, Teresa places raptures far above it:
“It is much more beneficial than union: the effects it produces are far more important and it has a great many more operations, for union gives the impression of being just the same as the beginning, in the middle and at the end, and it all happens interiorly. But the ends of rapture are of a higher degree, and the effects they produce are both interior and exterior....The Lord gathers up the soul, just (we might say) as the clouds gather up the vapours from the earth, and raises it up till it is right out of itself..and the cloud rises to Heaven and takes the soul with it, and begins to reveal to it things concerning the Kingdom that He has prepared for it. I do not know if this comparison is an exact one, but that is the way it actually happens."
“In these raptures the soul seems no longer to animate the body, and thus the natural heat of the body is felt to be very sensibly diminished, it gradually becomes colder, although conscious of the greatest sweetness and delight. No means of resistance is possible, whereas in union, where we are on our own ground, such a means exists; resistance may be painful and violent but it can almost always be effected. But with rapture, as a rule there is no such possibility; often it comes like a strong, swift impulse, before your thought can forewarn you of it or you can do anything to help yourself; you see and feel this cloud, or this powerful eagle, rising and bearing you up on its wings."
"You realize, I repeat, and indeed see, that you are being carried away, you know not wither. For, though rapture brings us delight, the weakness of our nature at first makes us afraid of it, and we need to be resolute and courageous in soul...For, happen what may, we must risk everything, and resign ourselves into the hands of God and go willingly wherever we are carried away, for we are in fact being carried away, whether we like it or no....Occasionally I have been able to make some resistance, but at the cost of great exhaustion, for I would feel as weary afterwards as though I had been fighting with a powerful giant. At other times, resistance has been impossible: my soul has been borne away, and indeed as a rule my head also, without my being able to prevent it; sometimes my whole body has been affected, to the point of being raised up from the ground.” (!)
“This has happened only rarely, but once, when we were together in choir, and I was on my knees and about to communicate, it caused me the greatest distress. It seemed to me a most extraordinary thing and I thought there would be a great deal of talk about it; so I ordered the nuns..not to speak about it. On other occasions, when I have felt that the Lord was going to enrapture me (once it happened during a sermon, on our patronal festival, when some great ladies were present), I have lain on the ground and the sisters have come and held me down, but none the less the rapture has been observed...[At times Teresa’s agonies and ecstasies were so violent that reports were that her room shook and the other nuns were frightened].
“These effects are very striking. One of them is the manifestation of the Lord’s mighty power: as we are unable to resist His majesty’s will, either in soul or in body, and are not our own masters, we realize that, however irksome this truth may be, there is One stronger than ourselves, and that these favors are bestowed by Him, and that we, of ourselves, can do absolutely nothing....The soul soars upward, far above itself and above all created things....The soul, then, it seems to be, not in itself at all, but on the house-top, or the roof, of its own house, and raised above all created things; I think it is far above even its own very highest part....I believe myself that a soul which attains to this state neither speaks nor does anything of itself, but that this sovereign King takes care of all that it has to do. Oh my God, how clear is the meaning of that verse about asking for the wings of a dove [Psalms liv, 7] and how right the author was — and how right we shall all be! — to ask for them! It is evident that he is referring to the flight taken by the spirit when it soars high above all created things, and above itself first of all; but it is a gentle and a joyful flight, and also a silent one....If I were to spend years and years imagining how to invent anything so beautiful, I could not do it, and I do not even know how I should try, for, even in its whiteness and radiance alone, it exceeds all that we can imagine." (7)
This sounds very close to an experience of ascended savikalpa or perhaps even nirvikalpa samadhi, although of the latter we can not be certain. ]
“Admirers of Teresa have tended to sidestep her testimony on this point, however, no doubt because it is incompatible with their preconceptions both about reality and about mystical union." [That's an understatement; I'll bet that no one in either primal therapy or re-birthing therapies have levitated!]
"Coming after the three preceding favors is a fourth which Teresa is told to value more than the others because it will purify her soul of its imperfections. She begins to experience various pains that come upon her without warning. While sometimes subtle, these pains at other times are so overwhelming "that the soul is unable to do either this or anything else. The entire body contracts and neither arm nor foot can be moved." (8) These convulsive spasms disjoint her bones until she genuinely thinks she is going to die, even coming to pray for the release death would bring. They are accompanied by chills-, fluctuations in pulse, and occasionally a ringing in the ears. She speaks of being wounded in the heart with an arrow dipped in a drug which causes self-hate, and on other occasions with a spear tipped with burning iron.
["Beside me on my left hand appeared an angel in bodily form....He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest ranks of angels, who seem to be all on fire....In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one can not possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul content with anything but God. This is not a physical but a spiritual pain, though the body has some share in it — even a considerable share." (9)]
"She also describes being thrown as fuel on a fire. Though the agony is overwhelming, it is also paradoxically sweet: "No words will suffice to describe the way in which God wounds the soul and the sore distress which He causes it, so that it hardly knows what it is doing. Yet so delectable is this distress that life holds no delight which can give greater satisfaction." (10) Teresa never was able to understand how such distress and bliss could coexist in the soul." (11)
"The five points of comparison developed above — physical symptoms, psychological content, ego-death, blending of pain and ecstasy, and progression of symptomology — are sufficient, I believe, to establish the interpretation proposed. They warrant the conclusion that Teresa's convulsions were not hysteria, whatever that was, but perinatal symptoms which emerged spontaneously as her consciousness opened through her practice of prayer. The perinatal stratum of consciousness is the frontier between personal and transpersonal consciousness. It is the sedimented core of the personal unconscious, the basement wherein are stored undigested fragments of a primitive sort concerning survival, bodily integrity, and by extension one's basic value and one's ultimate helplessness against life's destructive forces. The sudden presence of perinatal symptoms in Teresa's life signals the emergence of these primitive systems into consciousness. It was only after she had exhausted them that she was able to enter the seventh mansion, the abiding presence of God, from which she was never again removed.”
[She wrote in Chapter XXXII about her transport to hell, which occurred after all of the previous favors had been granted her. Indeed, she commented that such experiences purified her more, and were more important to her spiritual life, than all of the previous ones. It is worth noting that these experiences occurred when she was well advanced along the spiritual road. For those making psychological parallels, it is true that in that discipline as well, especially in the deep feeling therapies, that the deepest, darkest secrets lying buried in the psyche usually remain inaccessible until well into the therapeutic process:
"The entrance, I thought, resembled a very long, narrow passage, like a furnace, very low, dark and closely confined; the ground seemed to be full of water which looked like filthy, evil-smelling mud, and in it were many wicked-looking reptiles. At the end there was a hollow place scooped out of a wall, like a cupboard, and it was here that I found myself in close confinement. But the sight of all this was pleasant by comparison with what I felt there....My feelings, I think, could not possibly be exaggerated, nor can anyone understand them. I felt a fire within my soul the nature of which I am utterly incapable of describing. My bodily sufferings were so intolerable that, though in my life I have endured the severest sufferings of this kind....none of them is of the smallest account by comparison with what I felt then, to say nothing of the knowledge that they would be endless and never ceasing. And even these are nothing by comparison with the agony of my soul, an oppression, a suffocation and an affliction so deeply felt, and accompanied by such hopeless and distressing misery, that I cannot too forcibly describe it. To say that it is as if the soul were continually being torn from the body is very little, for that would mean that one's life was being taken by another; whereas in this case it is the soul itself that is tearing itself to pieces. The fact is that I cannot find words to describe that interior fire and that despair which is greater than the most grievous tortures and pains. I could not see who was the cause of them, but I felt, I think, as if I were being both burned and dismembered; and I repeat that the interior fire and despair are the worst things of all. In that pestilential spot, where I was quite powerless to hope for comfort, it was impossible to sit or lie, for there was no room to do so. I had been put in this place which looked like a hole in the wall, and those very walls so terrible to the sight, bore down upon me and completely stifled me. There was no light and everything was in the blackest darkness.” (12)
Teresa was not the first nor the last to experience a visionary transport trip to a hell realm. A Sant Mat initiate wrote the following, which is a brief excerpt from a much longer letter:
“Then Master [within] told me dozens and dozens of times that masters have equal love for all souls no matter what the soul’s current state because each soul contains the Godhead and Master could do nothing but love it. He then showed me one of the Lords of the Planes and told me of Master’s great love for this soul who was due for a human birth and the good fortune of initiation in his next life. He continued that although his love for this soul was great, it was no greater than when the soul was mired in sin and showed me truly horrifying past lives of the soul that was now the Lord of a Plane. I saw him as a man wallowing in the torture and degradation of his fellow man. In one life he even tore apart other men and ate them raw. Then I saw him in a hell where he existed as a bacteria-like creature around the edges of a pool that emitted a steamy atmosphere of vomit and ammonia. Yet even there, Master showed me how the Master’s love was unflagging as he sustained the soul in its punishment.”
In the concluding chapters of her book St. Teresa talks about further great revelations and visions she received from the Lord and the great profit they were to her soul.]
Basche continues, writing as it were for the professional psychological community:
“Teresa's seizures, therefore, represent not regressive pathology but rather progressive symptomology accompanying the emergence of higher states of consciousness. They are the growing pains of expanded consciousness, the psycho-physical system's throwing off its poisons as it moves to more wholistic stages of consciousness. I suspect that much of the ill health reported by many mystics may be perinatal in origin. Should subsequent studies confirm this hypothesis, much of the so-called "pathology" associated with mysticism would turn out to be not degenerative at all but progressive. This cannot but have an uplifting effect on our assessment of mysticism in general.”
In a related topic in a second article, A Perinatal Interpretation of Frightening Near-Death Experiences (an interview with Kenneth Ring by Christopher Basch) — which has a link to third article, about perinatal experiential phenomena and its significance as a gateway to spiritual dimensions, the author writes:
“A frightening NDE is not an alternative NDE but an incomplete NDE. It is not necessarily a reflection of the individual's moral character but represents instead an encounter with some of the deepest structures of the psyche, structures that are universally distributed among persons. Why one person is carried through these structures while another is not has more to do with the strength and intensity of the NDE itself than with the person undergoing the experience, and these are influenced by many factors, most of which probably have yet to be identified.
NDErs who have had similar experiences might be interested to know that Teresa considered this and her many other frightening experiences in the out-of-body state to be especially beneficial and helpful to her spiritual development! She did so not because she harbored masochistic tendencies but because she had come to understand that these ordeals were a kind of purification process. Through them something negative was being lifted from her soul. By submitting to them and following them wherever they took her, she found that her experiences of mystical union deepened.
Teresa was not alone in experiencing such ordeals, nor in recognizing their purifying function. In fact, the descent into hell is simply an extreme instance of a large set of arduous experiences that are a rather common feature of the mystic's journey. In the Christian tradition, these difficult experiences are called the "dark night of the soul," and Teresa's close friend, St. John of the Cross, is perhaps their most well- known chronicler. The Vissudhimagga a Buddhist manual of meditation practice, calls them the "Higher Realizations." Collectively these experiences represent a series of particularly harsh purifications aspirants must undergo as they slowly uncover the transcendent core of their being.”
In a fourth article, An Interview with Christopher Basch, he concludes with the statement that there may be “countless permutations” on these transformative themes and episodes, for spiritual seekers and mystics, those in deep therapies, as well as NDErs.
[End of Basche material]
Other experiences of the dark night
The depictions of a “dark night” period in the European mystical tradition follow such very similar lines that one would not be totally amiss in suggesting there was some form of mass suggestion going on among the mystics of the Church. Personally, I feel that would be an exaggeration of the truth, but it is not impossible. An in depth reading of their works, however, would, I believe, lay that notion to rest. Personally, I feel these souls were in many respects ahead of their times. In my own article The Dark Night of the Soul, I quoted a select group of these mystics, as well as contemporary writer Paul Brunton, for their views on this ordeal. St. John of the Cross wrote:
“The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death.” (13)
"The soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensible part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions, and the spirit is purified in thick darkness.....All of this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in air so that he could not breath), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoing and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual...Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that he may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if he ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be fulfilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened." (14)
"It is well for the soul to perform no operation touching spiritual things at this time and to have no pleasure in such things, because its faculties and desires are base, impure, and wholly natural; and thus, although these faculties be given the desire and interest in things supernatural and Divine, they could not receive them save after a base and natural manner, exactly in their own fashion...All these faculties and desires of the soul..come to be prepared and tempered in such a way as to be able to receive, feel and taste that which is Divine and supernatural after a sublime and lofty manner, which is impossible if the old man not die first of all." (15)
"And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine Light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away...the soul now sees its impurities clearly (although darkly), and knows it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it the most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries, for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else...When this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away..for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death." (16)
"It is clear that God grants the soul in this state the favor of purging it and healing it with this strong lye of bitter purgation, according to its spiritual and sensual part, of all the imperfect habits and affections which it had within itself with respect to temporal things and to natural, sensual and spiritual things, its inward faculties being darkened, and voided of all these, its spiritual and sensual affections being constrained and dried up, and its natural energies being attenuated and weakened with respect to all this (a condition which it could never attain of itself, as we shall shortly say). In this way God makes it to die to all that is not naturally God, so that, once it is stripped and denuded of its former self, he may clothe it anew. And thus its youth is renewed like the eagle's and it is clothed with the new man, which, as the Apostle says, is created according to God." (17)
And just when the soul thinks its trials are over it is once again filled with
"spiritual pain and anguish in all its deep affections and energies, to an extant surpassing all possibility of exaggeration...The spirit experiences pain and sighing so deep that they cause it vehement spiritual groans and cries, to which at times it gives vocal expression; when it has the necessary strength and power it dissolves into tears, although this relief comes but seldom." (18)
Paul Brunton wrote:
"The Dark Night is not the result of any physical suffering or personal misfortune: it comes from a subtler cause. It induces a depression of enormous weight...The sombre loneliness experienced during the Dark Night of the Soul is unique. No other kind of loneliness duplicates it either in nature or acuteness... It creates the feeling of absolute rejection, of being an outcast...A terrible inner numbness, an unbearable emptiness, is a prominent feature of the spiritual dark night...The situation is really paradoxical and beyond correct appraisal by the conscious mind, certainly by the suffering ego. He is being made to learn, by the severest experience, that the divine reality must not be confused with his conscious reactions to it, nor with his mental reactions to it, nor even with his emotional reactions to it, that it belongs to an unknown and unknowable realm that transcends human faculties and defies human perceptions" (19)
"Beware what you pray for. Do not ask for the truth unless you know what it means and all that it implies and nevertheless are still willing to accept it. For if it is granted to you, it will not only purge the evil out of you but later purify the egoism from your mind. Will you be able to endure this loss, which is unlikely to be a painless one?" (20)
"Whoever invokes the Overself's Grace ought to be informed that he is also invoking a long period of self-improving toil and self-purifying affliction necessary to fit him to receive that Grace....If he offers himself to the divine, the divine will take him at his word, provided the word is sincerely meant. The response to this offer when it comes is what is called Grace...Many who ask for Grace would be shocked to hear that the troubles which may have followed their request were actually the very form in which the higher power granted the Grace to them." (21)
Jean-Pierre deCaussade, in a letter to one under his spiritual direction, wrote:
"I know how much suffering this operation entails. The poor soul feels as if it would become utterly annihilated, but for all that, it is only nearer the true life. In fact the more we realise our nothingness the nearer we are to truth, since we were made from nothing, and drawn out of it by the pure goodness of our Lord. We ought therefore to remember this continually, in order to render by our voluntary annihilation a continual homage to the greatness and infinity of our Creator. Nothing is more pleasing to God than this homage, nothing could make us more certain of His friendship, while at the same time nothing so much wounds our self-love. It is a holocaust in which it is completely consumed by the fire of divine love. You must not then be surprised at the violent resistance it offers, especially when the soul experiences mortal anguish in receiving the death-blow to this self-love. The suffering one feels then is like that of a person in agony, and it is only through this painful agony and by the spiritual death which follows it that one can arrive at the fullness of divine life and an intimate union with God." (Book Seven, Letter IX).
Teutonic mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), who wrote much extolling the glory of communing with the Eternal Word or Music and Spirit of God through inner meditation, practicing "holy abstraction and ceasing from self-thinking and self-willing" [see "Jacob Boehme and His Teachings," excepted from an article by Michael Raysson in Sat Sandesh magazine, July, 1976], nevertheless, in The Way to Christ, Treatise Eight, in a way guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of ones neck, wrote of pain, fear and desolation on this path:
"The soul's will groaned for God but the outgoing senses that were to press into God were scattered and were not able to reach the power of God. This frightened the poor soul still more in that it could not bring its desire to God, so it began to pray more strongly. But the devil in his desire...awakened the evil characteristics so that false inclinations rose up and went in where they had earlier found happiness.
The poor soul wished to go to God with its will, and was in much anguish, but its thoughts all fled from God to earthly things, and did not want to go to God. The soul groaned and cried to God, but it appeared to it that it had been completely cast out from before God's face, as if it could not gain one glance of grace, and stood in vain anguish as well as great fear and dread.
The soul, yearned only for the first fatherland from which it originally came, yet it found itself far away from it, in great rejection and misery, and it did not know what to do. It thought it would enter into itself to pray more fervently, but the devil came into it and held it so that it might not enter greater inclination and repentance.
The devil awoke earthly lust in its heart so that these inclinations upheld their false natural rights and defended themselves against the soul's will and desires because they did not wish to die to their own will and lust but to keep their temporal pleasure and they held the poor soul captive in their false desire so that it could not awaken itself no matter how much it groaned and sighed for God's grace.
'Your ability is completely gone, even as a dry twig cannot gain sap and sprout by its own ability so that it might enjoy itself again among the trees, likewise you cannot reach God by your own abilities; you cannot change yourself into your first angelic form, for you are dry and dead to God as a twig without life or sap. You are only an anxious and dry hunger.'
And as it stood in such groans and tears it was drawn to the abyss of horror as if it stood before hell's gate and was to perish immediately...in such concern it began to sigh inwardly and to cry to the mercy of God. And then it began to sink itself into the purest mercy of God...
[But] the divine light..grew faint and only glimmered in the internal ground as a mould-fire so that reason saw itself as foolish and abandoned. It did not know how this happened, or if it was really true that it had tasted of the divine light of grace; yet it could not stop from thinking this...
The reason of its will was broken and the evil inherited inclinations were more and more killed and this caused much pain to the nature of the body making it weak and sick, yet this was not a natural illness but a melancholy of the earthly nature of the body. Thus the false lusts were broken."
My article attempted to give reasons for this phenomenon that transcend the limitations of tradition and culture. It argued that the dark night (even today, in whatever form it may take — and the permutations are endless) serves several purposes: to advance one from a noviate of self-effort and visionary phenomena to a realization of that which transcends visions and other such spiritual phenomena to a transcendental realization deep in the heart; that it serves to bridge what Paul Brunton called the efforts of the “Long Path” and the more easeful surrender of the “Short Path,” or, in other contexts, between prayer/concentration/meditation and infused contemplation, or effortful yoga and knowledge (gnan). It also serves as a forceful learning process between "hiding out" in the transcendent witness position after an initial awakening, "drunk on emptiness," and growth into a fully abiding realization. It was argued that in some form a dark night period may be inevitable for almost all due to the factor of egoic, spiritual blindness, that is, a naive conceit not only that one is a doer who can achieve his own enlightenment, but a basic ignorance that one, even after a first awakening, is yet bound by invisible hoops of egoic conditioning that bind consciousness to the dream state. In Christian terms, these would be the "roots of the Old Man, which must be fully eradicated for a living, enlightened peace to be fully realized. As Guru Nanak sayeth, "truth is above all, but higher still is true living."
Yet the reader may still be left with the question that we posed at the outset, “what if these mystics had lived today?,” and which will be further addressed in the concluding segment of this article.
Teresa's life (continued)
When St. Teresa died her body was reported to emit an undeniable fragrance like fresh flowers, and on one occasion some priests dug up her body to steal relics, and the fragrance permeated the convent floors alerting the nuns that her grave had been opened! (This phenomenon of the subtle magnification of the aura of a saint has parallels in many traditions. When Kirpal Singh was alive, whether I was meditating some distance away or sitting in his presence, I would catch the sweet scent of roses; after his death I no longer found this to be the case. Perhaps this was because his body had been cremated). The body of St. Teresa, according to hagiographers, did not decompose for many years after her death. (22)
Teresa became dismayed at the worldly influences impinging on cloistered life, and so she started her own order, the Reformed or 'Discalced' Carmelites, which engaged a stricter rule, including fasting and abstinence from meat. Over the next thirty years she founded seventeen convents and many monasteries. She was an advisor to the King of Spain and a close friend of St. John of the Cross and St. Ignatius Loyola. Thus, she was an active nun who, after her experience of union, did not succumb to “quietism” or “the lure of the cave.” Perhaps she was in sahaj, but we can only guess. Nevertheless, what an example she set, and in what a time and place.
In the midst of her life in God, Teresa sometimes transcended the bounds she set down for others. Once some of her nuns noticed an unusual aroma coming from the kitchen. Upon investigation they found her enjoying a feast of roast duck. Their sensibilities offended, they asked the saint how she could do such a thing, to which she replied, "When I pray, I pray, and when I eat duck, I eat duck!”
An unconfirmed story I have come across also suggests that late in life Teresa: fell in love with a young man. A simple human thing like this would surely have been kept a secret from the Church, suppressive as it has been of life and sexuality. The Christian tradition in general has been at war with bodily life, and St. Teresa felt compelled to suppress her more obvious spiritual ecstasies, making her nuns swear not to reveal them to anyone. To be open about such things during the time of the Inquisition was to risk severe persecution. Whoever threatened to take power away from the Church by advocating that common people take a "deeper walk with the Lord" did so at their peril. St. John of the Cross, Fenelon, and Michael de Molinos all faced prison terms, not so much for questioning the sacraments of the Church, but for promoting the practice of quiet meditation, which was certainly what the Master Jesus taught when he said that one should "pray to the Lord in secret, not as the pharisees and scribes." It has certainly been true, as the philosopher Will Durant once wrote, that "The Church has persecuted only two groups of people. Those who did not follow the teachings of Jesus and those who did!"
As the title of her book, The Interior Castle, suggests, St. Teresa taught a path of devotional interiorization of attention, with true ascent to cosmic consciousness (but not likely Nirvikalpa samadhi) generally and at best being considered a real possibility only after death, even while suggesting mystic union with God as the goal. That definitely would have to be kept a secret from the Church, as it would blaspheme the holy Trinity. So would a non-dual realization of Sahaj. Nevertheless, her ecstatic signs showed a profound submission to the spirit, and she, along with St. John of the Cross, was an excellent psychologist of the soul. She also insisted that her followers be intelligent, exclaiming, "May God preserve us from stupid nuns!"
For St. Teresa to have made the transition to something like jnana, jnana-nirvikalpa, or sahaj samadhi would have required that she give up the position of the independent Soul desiring to unite with a God conceived as an objective other. This would have been unacceptable to the Christian tradition she was a part of, and to realize that there is only a non-dual God would, as mentioned, have been nothing short of heresy. Further, for her to recognize that the visionary phenomena that she considered Divine were in fact merely subtle manifestations of her own brain and mind would have been virtually impossible, given the scientific and religious world view of the time, as well as her personal circumstances and character. She did, however, (like St. John of the Cross) speak of a state higher than that of ecstasies and raptures, but it is not clear exactly what that is in terms of the stages given in yoga, or if her sense of union had any of the characteristic signs of a non-dual realization. It appears, likely, at first glance, that she did not, as the following confession regarding of one of her ecstasies suggests:
"Oh, what it is for a soul which finds itself in this state to have to return to intercourse with all, to look at this farce of a life and see how ill-organized it is, to spend its time in meeting the needs of the body, in sleeping and in eating. It is wearied by everything; it cannot run away; it sees itself chained and captive; and it is then that it feels most keenly the imprisonment of life into which we are led by our bodies and the misery of this life....Oh, were we but completely detached and were our happiness not fixed on things of earth, how the distress caused us by living all the time without God would temper our fear of death with the desire to enjoy true life!" (23)
On the other hand, even a non-dual sage like Sri Nisargadatta spoke in a similar manner, seemingly disparaging life in the body:
“My world is just like yours. I see, I hear, I feel, I think, I speak and act in a world I perceive, just like you. But with you it is all, with me it is almost nothing. Knowing the world to be a part of myself, I pay it no more attention than you pay to the food you have eaten...Self-forgetting is inherent in self-knowing. Consciousness and unconsciousness are two aspects of one life. They co-exist. To know the world you forget the self — to know the self you forget the world. What is the world after all? A collection of memories. Cling to the one thing, that matters, hold on to the ‘I am’ and let go all else. This is sadhana. In realization there is nothing to hold on to and nothing to forget. Everything is known, nothing is remembered.” "As he gets older he [the gnani] grows more and more happy and peaceful. After all, he is going home...The reel of destiny is coming to an end — the mind is happy. The mist of bodily existence is lifting — the burden of the body is growing less from day to day....I would be very happy to have you back home. Really glad to see you out of this foolishness...of thinking that you were born and will die, that you are a body displaying a mind and all such nonsense. In my world nobody is born and nobody dies...Only the waking up is important. it is enough to know the 'I am' as reality and also love." (24)
Teresa wrote of many favors she received from her Lord after her attaining proficiency at the various states of prayer, etc., which led her to lead an active life of service in the world, thus leaving her “cave” in order to help others. She told the sisters,
"You may think, my daughters, that the soul in this state should be so absorbed that she can occupy herself with nothing. You deceive yourselves. She turns with greater ease and ardour than before to all that which belongs to the service of God." (25)
And just as she wrote that there were states higher than the ‘prayer of union’, especially that of 'contemplation of the humanity of Christ,' — which might be taken to mean passing from the state of the transcendent witness to that of full participatory enlightenment (in which the world is not excluded from ones realization), the great sage Sri Nisargadatta also said:
“In pure consciousness there is light. For warmth, contact is needed. Above the unity of being is the union of love. Love is the meaning and purpose of duality.” (26)
[He might even have been accused of being a Christian when he said:
"To me you are your own God. But if you think otherwise, think to the end. If there be God, then all is God's and all is for the best. Welcome all that comes with a glad and thankful heart. And love all creatures. This too will take you to your Self." (27)]
Fellow traveller Madame Guyon wrote a capsule summary of the Christian path in a way that suggests a realization beyond mysticism itself:
"The life of the believer is like a torrent making its way out of the high mountains down into the canyons and chasms of life, passing through many experiences until finally coming to the spiritual experience of death. From there, the torrent experiences resurrection and a life lived in concert with the will of God while still going through many stages of refinement. At last the torrent finds its way into the vast, unlimited sea. Even here the torrent does not totally come to be one with the vast ocean until it has once more passed through final dealings by the Lord." (28)
"Final dealings by the Lord — after coming to a spiritual experience of death, and reaching the vast, unlimited sea." That sounds quite profound. Like Madame Guyon, we cannot truly know St. Teresa’s final condition, of course, and if it had non-dual characteristics, she nevertheless kept it a secret, as did St. John, evoking her realzation more in poetry than strict metaphysics and philosophy. Her surrender to, love for, and absorption in the radiant power of God, and perhaps even more tacit realizations in consciousness beyond that, were, however, an example of the qualities that are awakened in a mature spiritual practitioner.
On the nature of visions
Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), born Caterina Benincasa, living much earlier than St. Teresa, was an example of a much younger soul who, while perhaps more imbalanced that Teresa (not eating and sleeping, making her more prone to visions and other phenomena), nevertheless went on from her solitude to lead an active life of service. She was the twenty-third child of her parents. At the age of five she had a vision on a hillside of Jesus sitting on a throne, surrounded by Peter, Paul, and John. When she was seven she left home to find a hermitage in the wilderness but, overcome with fear and loneliness, claims that she was "carried in a swoon by her Lord back within the city walls."
After this Catherine dedicated her life to Christ, swearing off meat to subsist on bread and herbs. She refused offers of marriage when she was twelve, and even cut off her hair when challenged to prove the sincerity of her desire for spiritual life. She practiced self-imposed austerities, as indicated, from a young age, often sleeping no more than two hours out of forty-eight ("the most difficult of all ways of overcoming self," she once wrote — as well as a quick and easy way to produce psychosis, one might add, and hallucinations or visions (29). This passion for discipline at such an early age is reminiscent of the great Swami Vivekananda. At sixteen she entered the Order of Mantellates (female Dominicans) and in the solitude of her prayer cell frequently went into ecstatic raptures. In Divine Dialogues she confessed that she was often "listening to choirs of heavenly music and smelling the flowers of paradise." Raymond of Capua, her biographer and confessor, said that in her ecstasies "her limbs became stiff, her eyes closed, and her body, raised in the air, often diffused a perflune of exquisite sweetness.”
After a mystical marriage to Christ, which took place in her cell in 1366, Catherine left the solitary life of prayer to become a servant of the sick and needy, spiritual advisor to kings and popes, as well as spiritual guide to a group of devoted followers who gathered around her. During the Black Death, which decimated the population of Europe, she led a band of men and women to attend the sick and dying, often burying the infected corpses with her own hands. For many years she tried to unify the discordant factions of Christendom, and,while she was successful in getting the Pope to return from Avignon to Rome, she could not prevent the great schism.
Catherine died in 1380 after many months of intense austerities, during which time she did not eat. She was only thirty-three years old.
Divine Dialogues consists of spontaneous outpourings of ecstatic speech transcribed by Catherine's attendants whenever she would go into such states.
"How glorious," says the Voice of the Eternal, "is that soul which has indeed been able to pass from the stormy ocean to Me, the Sea Pacific, and in that Sea, which is myself, to fill the pitcher of her heart."
Saint Catherine is a good example of an emotionally sensitive contemplative character overcoming herself to the point of engaging self-transcending service. Her liabilities were obvious, but many of them were a product of the religious tradition she was a part of. For example, a chief error of the conventional Christian perspective is the valuing of visionary phenomena. Yet the greatest of Christian mystics have held that such "sweets" are only a "lure" for beginners, and must be passed beyond for genuine growth of the spirit. Saint John of the Cross plainly stated:
"Many souls to whom visions have never come are incomparably more advanced in the way of perfection than others to whom many have been given."
Saint Bernard confessed that God had very often entered his soul during contemplation, even though he had never seen any vision, never heard any inner voices, and never received any supernatural revelation. Many visions are not really received by the individual, in fact, but are actually concretizations of his own mind. As the Indian yogi, Swami Rama Tirtha stated of his own visions of Krishna which appeared to him with his eyes open as if outside his own body:
"This marked a particular stage of the mind-concentration and it was really the materialization of my own imagination, the precipitation of my own mind." (30)
The mystical inspiration behind the vision is real, but the form it takes is limited and it can be a mistake to worship or value it for its own sake. It may also a mistake to conceive of it as a direct visitation or communication from God Almighty, instead of, at its best, as an emanation from the Higher Self, called forth in response to a devotional gesture, and a foretaste of a realization which one is as yet unable to comprehend. Paul Brunton wrote:
"A part of the source of these visions is to be traced back to the suggestive power of the thought-form already implanted in the mind, but the other part, the sudden and dramatic and total change of heart and shift of outlook, has still to be accounted for. What is the secret? It is contact with the Overself, Grace." (31)
“When it is said that the mystic's own mental construction is responsible for the visions he sees, whether these be of a living guru distant in space or a dead one distant in time or a scriptural God, it is not meant that such construction is a voluntary activity. On the contrary, it is both involuntary and subconscious. This is the psychological explanation of such phenomena, but what is the metaphysical one? This is that the mystic, not having evolved to an understanding of the formless, timeless, matterless character of true being, nor to the capacity to concentrate on it, is given a spaced-timed- shaped image on which to concentrate. What gives him this image? It is his own Overself.” (32)
“Whether the mystical experience represents a revival of ideas previously acquired or a genuine penetration into a spiritual world is not to be answered by a brief yes or no, for it does in fact involve both these elements. This is of course why so many mystics' reports frequently contradict each other. The visions they see and the intuitions they acquire contain forms or thoughts which have previously been put into their minds by teachers, traditions, environment, or reading. The intellect contributes a personal element whereas the deeper level of mind contributes that which is common to all these experiences. If it were possible for a mystic to free himself of all pre-possessions, both conscious and subconscious, he might gain the pure experience of this deeper level wherein neither intellect nor emotion would interfere. The philosophic discipline seeks to achieve this.” “If the different revelations made by mystics do not agree on several points, here is a warning that first, although a mystic may honestly describe what is revealed to him, this is no guarantee of its perfect truth, no safeguard against its being partly mistaken or even wholly biased, and second, the spiritual authority of no man should be so exaggerated as to deify his statements.” (33)
According to Brunton, it is one's own soul that provides the experience of both the image and the ecstasy in mystic visions. It is essentially a subjective creation, although not necessarily that of the personal ego. A Master or sage can also trigger or activate one's soul, so to speak, but the content of ones experience is ultimately derived from the intelligence of the soul or higher self, which is rooted in the divine. In some cases, however, a Master can impress one with his own image-making faculty, and in that case the image one receives is more directly related to his influence. In the Sant Mat tradition it is said that the master at the time of initiation plants a copy of his astral body in the disciple, which remains to look after and guide him, both here and hereafter. They even appear to those who have never seen or heard of them before. This cannot be attributed to one's culturally preconditioned mental tendencies. Sant Rajinder Singh said:
“A Master can appear and guide anyone, much before they even hear about him or they have seen him.” (34)
Such a Master, imbedded in the realm of truth, the Soul or Overself, beyond that of even the Universal Mind, can project his visionary form or gurudev. In either case, however, the experience arises on the same metaphysical plane and must be understood and eventually passed beyond, although certainly not suppressed: “Visions are better than no visions,” said Ramana Maharshi, and the Master's radiant form is so beautiful that "even the Saints take delight in it," said one of the Sikh gurus.
The visions of some mystics, and phenomena like the stigmata of Theresa Neumann, appear only in that particular (Roman Catholic) tradition. Eastern orthodox monks do not report the stigmata. This shows the power of the subconscious workings of the personal mind, but it does not covers the entire spiritual spectrum of such experiences.
Visions, as stated, are often projections of one's own mind, but not all visions are merely brain phenomena. Visions in the brain, experienced at the ajna chakra, are more vivid than those in dream, which are projected from the throat center, according to various yoga traditions such as Sant Mat. Some visions come from beyond the gross personality and the brain and may be projections of a deeper personal mind. The visions that are a direct reflection of a spiritual Master’s influence (his conscious attention or intentional regard), might be considered to be true visions. In any case, however, on an ultimate level, all visions are forms of mind itself, although not necessarily the personal mind, and no visions are themselves the Absolute. The best of the early mystics, however, were well aware of this. St. John wrote, thus making a distinction between beginners and proficients on the Way:
"Those who have the less clear vision do not perceive so distinctly as the others how greatly He transcends their vision."
Is the dark night of the soul still necessary, or was it a passing phase in mankind's long trek upwards? It is true, the European mystics had some limitations to overcome: one, their cultural worldview; two, the influence of the Church; three, the unavailability of easy access to all of the world’s spiritual traditions, including the most advanced non-dual texts; and four, lack of practical access also to genuine spiritual adepts, Masters, or Satguru’s, with both knowledge and transmission power. The scientific milieu of the day was confining, and nuclear physics with quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, etc., were unknown, so science offered no clues at a higher way of looking at the universe of mysticism. Heaven was still somewhere far away, and not recognized as part of the human body-mind, or as within the Soul. Rather, it was considered generally as a place for the soul to go to after death only, in the “next life.” Great mystics who felt otherwise had to be very circumspect in their choice of words or they faced harsh punishment for heresy. Therefore much of what they said was couched in poetic language or left out of their papers, only to be gleaned indirectly from their writings. These great saints had no access to the Avastatreya (analysis of the three states) of vedantists like V.S. Iyer, or the doctrine of mentalism of Paul Brunton. They likely never heard that “All is Consciousness or in Consciousness,” as a sage like Sri Nisargadatta would say.That they attained the heights they did, therefore, was remarkable, and as part of our collective spiritual heritage and subconscious their lives are worth studying. St. Teresa was getting an idea of consciousness, as evidenced by a remark she made in her Autobiography as to whether her experiences were of the mind, the soul, or the spirit — or if they all meant the same thing (reference misplaced).
Hints are given here and there of access to a higher viewpoint. Jacob Boehme, thousands of miles form India, spoke of the five gnostic keys, very similar to the five names corresponding to the presiding deities of the major planes of creation such as is given to the initiate in Sant Mat. Meister Eckhart spoke of a “primordial ground where distinction never gazed,” while the following by St. John of the Cross reads more like a satori or pre-satori description given by a Zen Buddhist, where one stands outside of the ego, than the report of an ordinary yogi or mystic, who, still identified with his ego, stands outside of the body:
"For this night is gradually drawing the spirit away from its ordinary and common experience of things and bringing it nearer the Divine sense, which is a stranger and an alien to all human ways. It seems now to the soul that it is going forth from its very self, with much affliction. At other times it wonders if it is under a charm or spell, and it goes about marvelling at the things it sees and hears, which seem to it very strange and rare, though they are the same that it was accustomed to experience aforetime. The reason of this is that the soul is now becoming alien and remote from common sense and knowledge of things, in order that, being annihilated in this respect, it may be informed with the Divine." (35)
Evelyn Underhill gives her opinion of their highest realization in her classic work, Mysticism:
"The self which comes forth from the night is no separated self, conscious of the illumination of the Uncreated Light, but the New Man, the transmuted humanity, whose life is one with the Absolute Life of God." (36)
Essentially, we can only guess if any of these mystics had a radical realization of consciousness itself, like Nisargadatta or Ramana Maharshi. How they would have been able to even recognize it is a very real question.
Further, as writer and philosopher Laurens van der Post, in his memoir of his friendship with Carl Jung, said, "We live not only our own lives but, whether we know it or not, also the life of our time." No doubt this to a significant extent was true of these great figures.The question also arises for us, would they have been able to bypass their extreme ordeals if they had lived today, and known all that we know? It seems a reasonable assumption, but again we cannot determine that with any certainty. They surely seemed to have achieved the opening of the heart and transformation of the will. Whether they also had enlightenment of the mind we may never be able to determine, but inasmuch as the former are perhaps even more difficult to achieve than the latter, it is not out of the question.
But that their sufferings could have been greatly shortened or altered if the above hypothetical situations had been present in their times, there may be little doubt. St. John was brilliant, as anyone who has read his Dark Night of the Soul can ascertain. It was even more remarkable in that he himself confessed to have read only four or five books in his entire life, one of which one was Contra Haereses, and confined his writing by his proclaimed intention "not to depart from the sound sense and doctrine of our Holy Mother the Catholic Church.” (37) No doubt he needed to cover his bases to avoid even more harsh treatment than the prison term he served, and where he produced some of his best work, but he hardly undertook a broad philosophical study. Considering how great were the writings he and the other mystics did make, however, it seems convincingly the case that the divine Overself, working through the Christ, was a real and not imaginary Master for them. I venture this was true for St. Teresa as well.
An excellent psychologist of the soul, Teresa counselled that "It is a great grace of God to practice self-examination, but too much is as bad as too little, as they say: believe me, by God's help, we shall accomplish more by contemplating the Divinity than by keeping our eyes fixed on ourselves."
There are many more lessons that we may gather from her life and writings, among which are: one, be content with whatever God gives you, never presuming to be worthy of more, or to seek to elevate ones spirit when it is not so elevated by God, or to seek for spiritual experiences when they are not the will of the God or grace, or to deny or resist them when they are, maintaining a sense of humility above all (Chapters XII, XX, and XXII). This is the insight of a wise person. Speaking similarly of the attitude of the sage who has already had apperception (a glimpse of the soul or Self), Ramesh Balsekar writes:
"When the mind is quiet and falls into meditation, any attempt at resisting it is an act of volition, an act of violence [i.e., Teresa spoke of her painful, failed attempts at resisting rapture]. If meditation happens, welcome it, enjoy it. If meditation does not happen, do not hanker after it." (38)
And two, be not hesitant in seeking out wise counsel, even if it be other than your primary director (teacher, guru), among learned and even so-called non-religious persons (Chapter XIII). Teresa writes:
“Let us not make the mistake of saying that learned men who do not practice prayer are not suitable directors for those who do. I have consulted many such; and for the years past, feeling a greater need for them, I have sought them out more, I have always got on well with them; for, though some of them have no experience, they are not averse from spirituality, nor are they ignorant of its nature, for they study Holy Scripture, where the truth about it can always be found....I have said this because some people think that learned men, if they are not spiritual, are unsuitable for those who practice prayer. I have already said that a spiritual director is necessary, but if he has no learning it is a great inconvenience. It will help very much to consult learned men, provided they are virtuous; even if they are not spiritual they will do us good and God will show them what they should teach and may even make them spiritual so that they may be of service to us... “Anyone, I repeat, who surrenders his soul to a single director, and is subject to him alone, will be making a great mistake, if he is a religious, and has to be subject to his own superior, in not obtaining a director of this kind...I am often amazed that learned men, and religious in particular, will give the benefit of what they have gained with so much labour, and at no cost to myself save the labour of asking for it. And to think that there may be people who have no desire to reap such benefits! God forbid it be so!” (39)
The time has come when such guidance has now become available, through books, through the internet, and through the help of a multitude of teachers. Even so, one such teacher, Eckhart Tolle, while proclaiming a new, less dark path of becoming more conscious, wrote in The New Earth that the “way of the cross” (i.e., suffering) is still the way of evolution for ninety percent of spiritual seekers, just as it was in centuries past:
"Why is the suffering body of Christ, his face distorted in agony and his body bleeding from countless wounds, such a significant image in the collective consciousness of humanity? Millions of people, particularly in medieval times, would not have related to it as deeply as they did if something within themselves had not resonated with it, if they had not unconsciously recognized it as an outer representation of their own inner reality — the pain-body. They were not yet conscious enough to recognize it directly within themselves, but it was the beginning of their becoming aware of it. Christ can be seen as the archetypal human, embodying both the pain and the possibility of transcendence." (40)
But he also wrote:
“People with heavy pain-bodies usually have a better chance to awaken spiritually than those with a relatively light one. Whereas some of them do remain trapped in their heavy pain bodies, many others reach a point where they cannot live with their unhappiness any longer, and so their motivation to awaken becomes strong,” (41)
And for the other ten percent of seekers, Eckhart states, a more direct way of seeing, 'the power of now', presence, or consciousness is becoming more readily available and accessible. This is a huge measure of cultural progress. In the ancient texts, it is often said that only one in a million is so qualified. So it appears there is hope on the horizon for humanity after all.
1. Phenomena like this are well-documented in the yoga tradition of India; for a detailed description of their origin and nature see the yoga sutras of Patanjali.
2. Teresa of Avila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1565). Trans. and ad. by E. Allison Peers. New York, Image Books, 1960, pp. p.80.
3. Ibid., p.87.
4. Ibid., p.90.
5. Ibid., pp.189-192.
6. Ibid., p. 174-181
7. Ibid., p. 189-200
8. Ibid., p.274.
9. Ibid.,p. 274-275
10. Ibid., p.273.
11. Ibid., Chapters 20, 29.
12. Ibid., pp.301-302)
13. E. Allison Peers, The Dark Night of the Soul (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1959), p. 104
14. Ibid., p. 106-107
15. Ibid., p. 152
16. Ibid., p. 102-103
17. Ibid., p. 145-146
18. Ibid., p. 135
19. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 15, 3.22-24, 3.58
20. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit.,Vol. 13, Part 2, 4.191
21. Ibid., 5.189, 5.33, 5.262
22. This is one of the.signs of super-regeneration that sometimes occurs in advanced stages of spiritual practice. Teresa shared this sign with other individuals, such as Catherine of Siena, John of the Cross, and Paramhansa Yogananda.
23. E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 205-206
24. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I AM THAT (Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 2008), p. 24, 93, 180, 182
25. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 11, 2.139
26. Ibid., p. 100
27. Sri Nisargadatta, op. cit., p. 178
28. cited in Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: New American Library, 1974), p.
29. V.S. Iyer, Commentaries (edited by Mark Scorelle, 1999), p. 38
“There is a complete resemblance between the interior voices and clairvoyant visions of mystics and the auditory and visual hallucinations of lunatics, hysterical women patients and other mentally deranged persons. The yogis who hear the Aum sounds internally or smell unaccountable perfumes are suffering from sense-hallucinations as much as the insane. The man of brains however rejects the truth of both these types of subjective experience although he accepts the fact that they were really experienced.” “Mystics see visions of gods and goddesses and adepts according to their own vasanas (impressions remaining unconsciously in the mind from past karma).”
[These quotes imply Iyer would not deny that a practitioner of surat shabd yoga, for instance, actually sees and hears internal phenomena, only that they are not reality. It is hard to dismiss such a path outright, however, by saying its followers are “suffering” from sense-hallucinations.” To label all of the inner realms as “sense hallucinations” seems unwarranted, to put it mildly. Even Ramana said that “having visions is better than no visions”, inasmuch as it indicates deepening concentration. Iyer, it seems, almost always speaks from an absolutist point of view. Elsewhere, however, he advocated repeated experience of (gnan, or even yogic) nirvikalpa samadhi for westerners, to give them the concentration power to engage the higher inquiry into truth. Sri Nisargadatta, Ramana and PB (himself heavily indebted to Iyer) seem more balanced in their advaita, in that they would not deny at least the relative reality of the inner realms, nor call them merely “hallucinations”. PB stated: "Those who consider the mystical experience as being a private hallucination or a piece of wishful thinking, are themselves in error." (Notebooks, Vol. 11, 1.54) Perhaps if Iyer had the full experience of such he would have felt differently and tempered his punditry somewhat.]
30. Paul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself (York Beach, Maine: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1984), see pp. 417-425
31. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, ), Vol. 14, 5.96
32. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 11, 15.104
33. Ibid., 9, 3, 5
34. Sat Sandesh, April, 1990.
35. E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 123
36. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, op. cit., p.
37. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit.,Vol. 12, 3.114
38. Ramesh Balsekar, A Duet of One: The Ashtavakra Gita Dialogue (Los Angeles, CA: Advaita Press, 1989), p. 162
39. E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 146-147
40. Eckhart Tolle, The New Earth (New York: Dutton, 2005), p. 144
41. Ibid., p. 143-144
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