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PATH of the NOVICE MYSTIC
Maintaining a Beginner's Heart and Mind
By Paul Dunion
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2014 Paul Dunion
All rights reserved.
THE DEVOTIONAL LIFE
"They forgot about the journey" —HOMER (FROM THE ODYSSEY)
The waters of our culture wash over us again and again, shaping and reshaping our values and beliefs, smoothing our rough edges and unique contours, causing us to fit seamlessly into the surrounding landscape. The crash of the cultural waves reverberates a myriad of rumbles calling us away from authentic living and away from our own souls: Looking good is what matters, there's no need to suffer, death can be avoided, making material acquisitions is a sign of real power, fit in by adopting popular societal beliefs, aging is not acceptable, don't ask questions that disrupt your life.
Although I am intrigued by the question of how these petitions became central to American life, my passion pulls my curiosities in the direction of: How can we meaningfully and creatively find our way back to the authentic life? How can we remember the journey? So, we might begin our inquiry by asking: What is an authentic life? Or, What is the nature of the journey? We can respond by saying that the authentic life is not a thing but a journey. The word authentic can be traced to the early Greek and Latin, meaning acting on one's own authority. We can say that the authentic life has something to do with being willing to remain the author of our lives, defining ourselves by our heart's longing.
The first practice in reclaiming a beginner's heart is finding our way back to our hearts and living devotionally. I think of a devotional life as relational. On the one hand, we faithfully attend to creating our beliefs and values while deciding how we will live what we love. On the other hand, we respectfully honor the understanding that life is much larger than us by remaining close to the questions: What is life asking of me? What will it take to suitably respond to what is being asked of me?
Imagine you are a teenager and you are living communally with members of your own gender, actively learning from elders. You will remain separated from the general community for three to five years, until the completion of your initiation into adulthood.
It is about 2:00 am, and you're asleep on a straw mattress with multicolored blankets, within the confines of a wooden hut. You and your dozen comrades are abruptly intruded upon, as the door of your shelter flies open and you are greeted by two dozen adults dressed in an array of costumes, with animal heads and an assortment of local demons displayed on masks. You and your peers are driven out of the sanctuary of your hovel into the cold and dark of the night.
These nocturnal visitors proceed to enact a drama (Ritual of the Mysterium Tremendum, or Great Mystery) aimed at teaching one vital lesson: Life is much larger than you and this is the journey you are to remember. And in its largeness, you will be subjected to its mystery, its insecurity, and its unpredictability. You sit huddled with your friends, shivering more from fear and terror than from the dampness of the night. You're being ritualistically introduced to the challenges of life: death, disease, suffering, and loss. These dramas will continue several nights a week for a number of years in the hope that preoccupation with your self-aggrandizement might be aborted in favor of a commitment to serve the community. These initiations have been popular for hundreds of years amongst most indigenous peoples.
The authentic life begins with a fervent devotion to the principle: Life is much larger than me. So large, that I will ultimately be unable to penetrate its mystery, protect myself from its insecurity, or accurately plan for my future. The authentic life, for so many of us, has been thwarted by the cultural suggestion that life is not larger than we are. That's what we have been told with certainty about our education, job, bank account, spouse and neighborhood; we will be spared life's unfavorable vicissitudes, leaving us as large if not larger than life! It's a life directive destined for disaster!
A warning about the distortion of certainty comes to us from the Indian mystic Tukaram (1608–1649):
Certainty undermines one's power, and turns happiness
into a long shot. Certainty confines.
Dears, there is nothing in your life that will not
Change—especially all your ideas of God.
Look what the insanity of righteous knowledge can do:
crusade and maim thousands
in wanting to convert that which
is already gold into gold.
Certainty can become an illness
that creates hate and greed.
God once said to Tuka,
"Even I am ever changing—
I am ever beyond
what I may have once put my seal upon,
may no longer be
The cultural invitation to certainty is seductive and potentially extremely dangerous. Rather than living life on life's terms, we childishly demand to live it on our terms. And our terms are typically a series of strategies and answers crafted by our egos and intellects aimed at prioritizing our personal interests. Of course, what is naïvely missed is that ultimately our personal interests are inextricably connected to the whole. We become prone to acting adolescent, believing that we can simply attend to ourselves with no concern for others, as witnessed recently by Wall Street investors and the action taken by BP after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The central theme of the devotional life is that life is much larger than our minds will ever grasp and that life asks us if we are willing to unite with the mystery, surrendering to uncertainty. This act of surrender is the essence of what it means to be a secular mystic. Typically, mysticism has been a devotional, spiritual path affiliated with a particular religion. Secular mysticism is also a devotional path committed to deepening our unity with the mystery of life, but not necessarily reflecting some specific religious orientation. However, a person could integrate the mysticism described on these pages with a preexisting religious practice.
As we've seen, indigenous peoples such as the aborigines of New Guinea, Bushmen of Central Africa, and many tribes of South America have been willing to accept life's rightful size. We might say that anyone willing to unite with the prodigious and mysterious nature of life is a mystic.
When we are devoted to creating a relationship to the mystery of life, we are essentially mystics. The mystic is willing to craft a unique and personal relationship with life's uncertainty, no longer strongly depending upon societal influences telling us what kind of relationship we should have with life. It will mean being willing to remain curious about what actually lives in us versus what was poured in by our culture. Wonder and curiosity, not answers, keep us in relationship to life's mystery. Some questions that help guide us in personalizing our relationship with life include: What is my heart's desire? What are my defeats? What are these defeats asking of me? What losses are asking for my attention? How can I live my love more fully? What do I truly value? What is life asking of me?
I find myself intrigued by the awe and wonder expressed by my six- and three-year-old grandchildren. They appear to be having a spontaneous relationship with life marked by an endless curiosity, which seems to renew their connection to the flow of experience surrounding them. In Keats's words, "they don't appear to be irritably reaching for fact and reason." Rather, their behavior reflects a quote from Einstein, "The problem is not that we have wrong answers, it's that our questions aren't big enough." The size of my grandchildren's questions is certainly big enough, but what strikes me more is the delight radiating from their questions.
I find myself saddened by the thought of a day coming when, like me, they will feel ridiculed for their unknowing, ashamed of their doubt and curiosity, and finally "irritably reaching for fact and reason." At that point their delight will likely wither from the drought caused by fear of having an inadequate reserve of answers. My hope is that they can sustain a novice mind or what Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki called "Beginner's Mind." As Suzuki points out, "In the Beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few." And so it is with the novice mystic, there are many possibilities to delight in.
One origin of the word delight comes from the French meaning to please greatly, with some reference to light. My grandchildren will learn that their paths will not be paved with immediate acts of gratification. The idea that we are here to be immediately gratified will have to die. The mystic deepens a capacity to relate to life's mystery by allowing for such a death and moving away from the expectation that it is the job of life to greatly please us. If that belief dies well, then it will give birth to a higher mandate, which is "How can I best serve life?" Unless this death-birth cycle takes place, we run a high risk of maintaining an adolescent posture of protesting the challenges of life that lead us out of delight and away from the light.
Is there a more realistic way to return to delight? Yes, by stepping out of denial and by stopping the war with life by being willing to live on life's terms rather than those created by an ambitious ego. We move away from denial by beginning to accept life as much larger than ourselves and by stopping our attempts to win some adolescent battle with life. The task is to accurately identify what lies in our control and what does not, and then find the grace to surrender to what lies beyond our best efforts. The denial of life's rightful size and this battling are inextricably connected.
When we believe we are larger than life, we are caught in a struggle to prove our largeness by attempting to conquer life, penetrate its mysteries, remove insecurity, and comfortably predict what will come. All of which lead to an inauthentic life, stripping us of meaning, peace, and joy. The illusion of our size can be seen when we attempt to be responsible for the happiness of others, deny our mortality, convince ourselves that we can make someone love us, believe we can save others from acting self-destructively, prevent injury and illness, and escape the hazards involved with a broken heart.
Before a truce is declared with life, we will need to face the illusions that served as our weapons and, one by one, put them down; as we do so, we will feel the vulnerability of our nakedness. These weapons include money, social status, education, religion, our intellects, and even morality, as we convince ourselves that bad things don't happen to good people. As our armistice with life takes place, we gradually begin to accept the journey we have embarked upon since our emergence from the womb, one deeply mysterious and insecure, with death always having the final say.
Once we put down our swords and sign a peace treaty with life, we can begin to live authentically and fully. Two predominant attitudes begin to unfold: The inevitable separation from life begins to transform into an interest in unity with life and a wondering about how life can serve us turns to a curiosity about how we might serve it. These shifts in being allow us to wrap ourselves in what might be called adult delight. That is, we learn to become greatly pleased about the unity we create with life and how we serve life. What courage it takes to choose to unite with that which is mysterious and insecure!
Mystics are devoted to making peace with mystery through acts of unity—unity denoting a sense of deepening oneness. The mystic is not naïve to the perils of life, but remains willing to let go of protesting what life presents, accepting the nature of the journey, rather than longing for a more enchanting trip. So many of us are like disappointed children on Christmas morning, disgruntled by the gifts found under the tree, as we complain about life's offerings. The mystic responds to life's arduous undertakings by having typical, emotional responses, including hurt, anger, sadness, and fear, and remaining devoted to the work necessary to strengthen the roots of unity.
The devotion to unity is renewed by living questions that are aimed at diminishing separation: What is life asking of me? What needs to be awakened in me? Who in me is asking for forgiveness? Who can best serve as an ally as I face this challenge? What do I need to ask for from this ally? Is there a belief or value I carry, asking to be released? Is the current challenge asking me to remember something about where I come from? Is there some sacrifice being asked of me? These questions reflect the mystic's reluctance to experience life as simply unfortunate and divisive. It can be extremely helpful to write about these questions and talk about them with friends.
We see this devotion to unity in all of the mystical traditions:
Taoism: Unity of the principles of the Masculine (Yang) with the Feminine (Yin).
Hinduism: Unity of the individual soul (Atman) with the universal soul (Brahma).
Judaism: Unity of humanity with God's vision of the sacred life.
Islam: Unity of humanity with the presence of Allah in joy and in service to all beings.
Christianity: Unity of humanity with the Christ manifested by love in action.
Indigenous Shamanism: Unity of humanity with nature and our deep wounding in support of healing.
Buddhism: Unity with our own souls leading to enlightenment and a life of compassion.
There is a quality of engagement that unity or oneness requires, which necessitates a deepening, a movement that can hold more than our intellectual capacities. An ancient Hebrew word for knowing suggests an emotional, sensual, and even sexual connection to whatever we seek to understand. This kind of knowing far exceeds any cognitive comprehension that comes to us through detached observation. Unlike most of us, Einstein and my six-year-old grandson do not experience curiosity as a cognitive reflex seeking satisfaction, but rather as a channel of relatedness, opening to ever-deepening expressions of inquiry.
I watch my grandson's eagerness in response to the waters of a brook we encounter on our walk. He asks: Where does it come from? Where is it going? What lives in it? He wants to touch it, drink it, splash it, throw a rock in it, and sit in it; the latter calling upon my best discretion as his caregiver. He appears to be wired for unity, seeking it, surrendering to it, and delighting in it. I actually feel duly instructed by my grandson as I notice the late afternoon light shimmering on the flowing water as if reflecting a treasure of diamonds resting just below the surface. As we get ready to leave, Corey offers the brook a verbal farewell and I shed a layer of pretense that had me believing I was the one who truly understood brooks.
FOUR CALLS TO ONENESS
Dismantling Unnecessary Boundaries
First, oneness calls for a disruption of boundaries, or those things aimed at separating. The ancient alchemists suggested that when two elements are completely separated from the compound they compose, then the bonding that occurs when they are reconnected is stronger than the original connection. Unlike children who have not created significant boundaries in support of their core values and beliefs, adults have borders that need to be disrupted to allow for oneness.
Oneness calls for a letting go of intellectual and emotional structures we have called home. Our beliefs tend to offer a sense of stability and security. Opening to unity means generating a willingness to notice that we have given up wondering and settled into a world view that helps subdue the tension accompanying ambiguity and confusion. We begin to allow ourselves to be provoked, moved, and touched by new and sundry energies and novel perspectives and considerations.
I recently participated in a physical training session called cross-training. The trainer got me to stand and lie on a number of obstacles guaranteeing instability. I immediately felt disoriented, no longer able to support my body in old, familiar ways. I stumbled and fumbled until I just burst out laughing at my clumsy gyrations. The trainer continued to point out the numerous benefits of exercising with instability. I was reminded of how much we can gain from many possibilities when we move away from the stability of old beliefs.
Willingness to Be Penetrated
The second call to oneness is a willingness to be penetrated, denoting the act of being pierced or infiltrated by something new, either from outside of ourselves or emerging from within. This can be especially difficult for heterosexual men to grasp, since the idea of penetration is typically associated with the sexuality of women and gay men. With a willingness to push beyond the confinement of cultural expressions of sexism and homophobia, men can begin to open to the power of penetration.
Excerpted from PATH of the NOVICE MYSTIC by Paul Dunion. Copyright © 2014 Paul Dunion. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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Table of Contents
To My Reader.................... 1
1 The Devotional Life.................... 5
2 Living in Larger Love Stories.................... 29
3 A Soul Practice.................... 57
4 Welcoming Sophia.................... 85
5 Living in Larger Stories.................... 119
6 Life after Ego.................... 147
7 The Ground of Good and Evil.................... 177
8 Resurrection, Forgiveness, and Redemption.................... 217
Interview With the Author.................... 245