The Fountain Unbroken: The Poetic Mysticism of George W. Russell
Raymond Hillis - 2005
An informal collection of thoughts for a Discussion of Jung and Mysticism
I’d like to begin with a few casual observations about language. By definition, all uses of language involve abstraction via the use of concepts. This is at once the majestic power and the insufferable weakness of words: by their very nature they lift us out of the realm of immediate experience. The power is in the potential for distilling that extremely chaotic stream of sensory information into essences we can more readily apprehend. The weakness is in the inability to do this while remaining at the level of immediate experience.
With language, we attempt to communicate experience by stepping back from that experience. We hope to find a balance point where we have stepped back just far enough to grasp something of the experience while not moving so far back that what we grasp begins to feel essentially lacking in authenticity. Put another way, we attempt to move into the "objective" realm without losing touch with the "subjective".
Having said this, we can then note that not everyone seeks the same balance point between these poles. Different language usages appear to require different balance points, and some usages lead their advocates to one extreme or the other. Hence, the stereotypic scientist gives ultimate priority to objectivity and attempts to create conditions in which experience can be rendered in entirely objective language, while the stereotypic poet gives ultimate priority to subjectivity and attempts to create expressions of experience that absolutely minimize the gap between the reader and the original experience itself.
For the stereotypic scientist writing comes far more from thinking than from feeling, while the opposite is true for the typical poet. I say "stereotypic" and "typical" to make room for the observation that there are important exceptions to these generalizations: there are scientists who attempt to include the subjective and relational realm of feeling in their writing, and there are poets who attempt to include the objective realm of what we might refer to as "impersonal truth". These individuals attempt to move from their chosen end of the spectrum toward a balance point in the center between the objective and the subjective. I’m inclined to step out on the limb and suggest that when this kind of scientist and this kind of poet does it particularly well we begin to attribute greatness.
Jung himself is a particularly shining example of one who chooses to attempt to write from the objective end of the spectrum while blending in a balance of the subjective dimension for his readers to experience. Hence, in reading Jung one very often can "feel" deep relationship both with the author himself and with what he is communicating. His conceptual writing often takes the reader back toward his or her own world of immediate experience. Moving in the counter-direction, the visionary poet George Russell, better known as "ae" as we shall see, is an example of one who chooses to begin with the subjective realm, while bringing in enough of the objective dimension so that his readers can find transpersonal truths within the realm of immediate experience that is so well captured in his poetry.
Mysticism includes an appreciation for the unknown and ultimately unknowable levels of what we think of as reality. Central to this philosophy is the desire to experience the mysteries without unmasking them; in other words, the desire to approach them with just the right blend of objective and subjective intention. Jung and Russell, beginning from opposite ends of the spectrum, have both honed the ability to find this blend in their deeply passionate interest in - and communication about - experiencing the ultimate mysteries of the universe and beyond. In this paper I shall focus primarily on George Russell and the subjective end of the dimension, knowing that others will be sharing with us Jung’s work with mysticism. My emphasis will be upon the language of poetry and the ways Russell uses it to communicate his own explorations into the world of the mystic.
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George Russell (1867 - 1935) and Carl Jung (1875-1961) shared many years on this planet. They lived their entire lives in respective homes in Ireland and Switzerland that were some eight hundred miles apart. Both took the early day transatlantic journey by sea to speak in North America in order to broaden public awareness of their work. Both placed the highest value on aspects of human experience beyond the ordinary visible world and shared a keen interest in the occult as an honorable - even essential - field of study, and were subject to criticism from peers and friends on that account from time to time. In some circles today, both are independently shunned as "mystics". Both were intimately close associates of the leaders of the day of their respective professions (W.B.Yeats and Sigmund Freud respectively), both had fallings out with those companions, and in some ways both managed to push the frontiers of their fields beyond what those leaders were able to do.
Russell and Jung both found the creative arts to be a vital means to expression of their inner experiences and developed high-level skills in these arts, Russell in painting and poetry (both now highly collectable worldwide), and Jung in writing, drawing, and stone carving. Both were prolific in this regard. Both published many written volumes which have since been pulled into "collected works", and more than 400 of Russell’s frequently "mystical" paintings exist today in museum and private collections.
Both spoke fluent English. By all reasonable expectation they should have known each other, known of each other, or at least have been spoken of in relation to each other from time to time, both then and thereafter. By all accounts, none of this happened. Jung did know of Yeats, and Russell did know of Freud. How could they have missed each other? And yet a somewhat persistent search of the internet discloses not a single instance in which both are referred to (except for laundry lists of published books). There appears to be no mention in Jung’s writings of George Russell, and the reverse appears also to be true. And yet, as we see, their expressive paths were continually intersecting beyond their own awareness.
One intriguing place where their paths intersected was with the concept of the aeon. Jung published, in 1951, what some consider to be his seminal work under this title (using the Greek spelling, aion.) George Russell received his lifelong literary name from this concept in 1888, thanks to a typesetter’s error when he was 23 years old, from
which time forward he was known, and published, simply as "AE".
In the end, these two intellectual giants selected differing - but perfectly compatible - directions in which to explore and relate to "the mystery" that unceasingly surrounds and permeates us all: Jung chose to identify more with the principles of science as investigative tools, while Russell went down a primarily philosophical path. Both placed the experiential realms of the present moment in the center of their explorations.
AE stated his position succinctly, near the end of his life, in a letter to his friend, Kingsley Porter:
I believe the only news of any interest does not come from the great cities or from the councils of state, but from some lonely watcher on the hills who has a momentary glimpse of infinitude and feels the universe rushing at him.
There is a deep fountain to explore in AE’s poetry and painting, as well as in his philosophical writings. This paper will delve into what these sources can tell us about mysticism as he experienced it - for it is true that mysticism is experienced differently by each one who approaches it, which at once is a conundrum and an eternal blessing.
Some Simple Principles of Mysticism
The profound degree to which mysticism is indeed different for each person who enters therein can be seen in the range of definitions offered for the term by the American Heritage Dictinary:
1a. Immediate consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God. b. The experience of such communion as described by mystics. 2. A belief in the existence of realities beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension that are central to being and directly accessible by subjective experience. 3. Vague, groundless speculation.
It is the second of these that best describes the philosophy revealed in AE’s work and forms a framework for our discussion, though we must tease it apart a bit. What does it mean to say something is "beyond perceptual or intellectual apprehension" and at the same time "directly accessible by subjective experience?" The distinction, it seems to me, lies in the words "apprehension" and "directly…experience".
To apprehend is to grasp, or seize, or hold something. An essential dimension of this verb is the ability to immobilize something over time, to preserve it beyond the present moment. To tie it to its roots in the past and its continuity in the future, and "catch" its underlying principles. When we find our truths in "perceptual or intellectual apprehension" we are finding them as they stretch "beyond" the present moment. Or, we are seeing the present moment as a reflection of these enduring principles.
On the other hand, when we "directly experience" something we are focused very precisely and exactly - and only - on the present moment itself. In this mode, any kind of "apprehension" is not only absent, it would be entirely distracting and, therefore, undesirable. It is not overreaching to say that the experience of mysticism is, at heart, an absolute "being in the moment." In the moment, apprehending is replaced by relating, or, logos is replaced by eros. Concepts, in particular, are absent. (More on this later.)
From the history of English-language mysticism, one of our earliest and most enduring manuscripts is the work, unsigned, titled "The Cloud of Unknowing." An early assertion in this marvelous meditation is the notion that there are two "powers" by which we can comprehend our experiences in life: one is the "power of knowing", and the other is the "power of loving". The author contends that, when it comes to comprehending the great mystery (which he assumes is God - we will look closely at this assumption later), the power of knowing is useless, while the power of loving enables each individual to "comprehend fully…but by each in a different way."
Here we see two principles of mysticism emerging: First the two powers, knowing and loving; and then the realization that the experience of mysticism is necessarily unique with each individual. And here we can take our first drink from AE’s poetic verses as he writes about that power of Eros while teasingly calling it "Logos":
Wake drowsy spirit in the ear,
The voices in that murmuring shell
Echo the Zodiac. You shall hear
The planets ringing like a bell.
Your sister spirit in the eyes
Pierced them with its own light, to see
The high-hung lanterns in the skies
Echoing its own infinity.
Within that quivering shell, the ear,
Far borne, a myriad voices throng.
Be still and listen. You shall hear
The universe revealed in song.
By turning from the ‘power of knowing’ to the ‘power of loving’, we can "fully" comprehend the mystical in an "unknowing" manner. Thomas Aquinas, within a Christian perspective, went further to say that only in this way can we relate to it: "Ultimately, we know God as unknown" (a proposition that is absolutely rejected by the resurging fundamentalism of today in which security in dangerous times is obtained precisely by the illusion of knowing every detail of the nature of "God".)
Turning to the second principle, the essential uniqueness of mystical experience, in this next poem AE describes the extraordinary mystic moment seen by one, and one only:
A Mountain Tarn
The pool glowed to a magic cauldron
O’er which I bent alone.
The sun burned fiercely on the waters,
The setting sun:
A madness of fire: around it
A dark glory of stone.
O mystic fire!
Stillness of earth and air!
That burning silence I
For an instant share.
In the crystal of quiet I gaze
And the god is there.
Within that loneliness
In the silence what ancient promise
Then the wonder goes from the stones,
The lake and the shadowy wood.
Writing about this poem shortly after its birth, he said:
It is difficult to get into words a mood that inhabits you for a moment so that you seem to have gone into eternity and come out in a second of time.
There is a third principle presented early on in The Cloud of Unknowing: in the work of approaching the mystery "there is at the start but a darkness; there is, as it were, a cloud of unknowing." The author goes on to say that this darkness initially precludes both the powers of knowing and loving. "Be prepared, therefore, to remain in this darkness as long as must be…For if you are ever to feel Him or to see Him, it will necessarily be within this cloud and within this darkness."
It is a fundamental theme in mysticism that the light and dark are equal partners in all aspects of life. AE presents images of this principle in this poem:
Those moon gilded dancers
Prankt like butterflies,
Theirs was such lovely folly
It stayed my rapt eyes:
But my heart that was pondering
Was sadly wise.
To be so lightened
What pain was left behind;
What fetters fallen gave them
Unto this airy mind:
What dark sins were pardoned;
What God was kind!
I with long anguish bought
Joy that was soon in flight;
And wondered what these paid
For years of young delight;
Ere they were born what tears
Through what long night.
All these gay cheeks, light feet,
Were telling over again,
But in a heavenly accent
A tale of ancient pain
That, the joy spent, must pass
To sorrow again.
I went into the wilderness
Of night to be alone,
Holding sorrow and joy
Hugged to my heart as one,
Lest they fly on those wild ways
And life be undone.
History and Mystery: the Eternal Dance
One can see the opposite of mystery as history, for while mystery is timeless and consequently in the moment, history is fundamentally a timeline extending in both directions just outside the present moment. In a universe whose ultimate reality is likely always to be a complete mystery to human consciousness, humankind has found itself feeling very small indeed against the deep night sky. In early times the realm of the "known", i.e. "history", was a small realm indeed. A simple thunderstorm was a mystery, with no awareness of where it came from, why it came, or even, indeed, what it was. It was a natural process for humankind to try to convert mystery into history by formulating an account of the nature of such a storm. Early accounts attributed the lightning to Zeus. And this had practical benefits because one could at least believe one had some influence to hold the lightning at bay by avoiding angering the deity. Later formulations have led to our current meteorological understanding of such storms in terms of troughs and ridges of pressure, streams of high altitude moisture, updrafts, downdrafts, dew points and so on, such that, generally, we don’t take them as having personal meaning, as being retribution for our actions. We are freed instead to focus our energies on minimizing damage from them. We are inclined to think we have, in this way, made "progress" over those earlier ancestors of ours, but have we? We think we know what the thunderstorm is, but do we?
In fact, one can become quite comfortable defining progress as the taking of mystery and converting it to history, or, deriving the known from the unknown. And western culture has assumed this definition for several centuries. Within this assumption there is an implicit notion that "progress" is linear in nature, always moving toward greater and greater knowledge and ever diminishing mystery. Most people would consider it completely nonsensical to suggest that the alternate process of converting knowledge, or history, back to mystery is also progress, but mysticism does indeed make this suggestion. AE too implies it when he says:
I myself think economics, politics, and all the externalities depend on the spiritual state of humanity. The universe is moved from within just as we are ourselves. And it is the sum total of our being - its balance between light and darkness - which begets our varying fortunes on the outside.
The "externalities" are all of the wide body of facts that make up the state of "knowledge" at any given point in time. If all of these depend, for their nature, on the "spiritual state of humanity", then indeed one must be ready to move the balance from knowledge back to mystery from time to time if one hopes ever to understand how the universe is "moved from within."
Within this frame of reference history and mystery, the known and the unknown, are engaged in an eternal dance. And "progress" results from the ebb and flow between them as we come to be more aware of the nature of the dance. Thus, we move through phases of converting the unknown into known, and then the known into unknown. Both parts of this cycle represent progress. Progress from this perspective is circular rather than linear, and is advanced fully as much by letting go of the previously "known" as it is in finding new "knowledge". In the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is the "power of loving", or Eros, that guides this ebb and flow in the "power of knowing", or Logos. It is the ongoing, circular experience of relatedness and logos that fuels progress, rather than a linear increase in knowing.
AE puts it this way, in a poem I kept on the hearth in my consulting room during my years as an analyst:
The hero first thought it
To him ‘twas a deed:
To those who retaught it,
A chain on their speed.
The fire that we kindled,
A beacon by night,
When darkness has dwindled
Grows pale in the light.
For life has no glory
Stays long in one dwelling,
And time has no story
That’s true twice in telling.
And only the teaching
That never was spoken
Is worthy thy reaching,
The fountain unbroken.
AE tells us that no teaching, or concept, or belief system (and this would include any particular form of the "belief" called mysticism,) that has been spoken retains ongoing value, but is rather "a chain" on our speed as we seek to reach the unbroken fountain of immediate experience within the moment. Not long after a set of concepts arises it is time for a process of deconstruction so that immediate experience is again accessible. That is the ongoing dance between history and mystery that keeps open the pathway to the unbroken fountain. "Knowledge" provides security in an unknown world, illusory - even deceptive - as that security may be. Openness to immediate experience requires relinquishing the security so that a greater understanding may be approached.
A Play on Words
Truth is illusory. Words come in families that sometimes shed remarkable revelation and light on the human psyche. Take the word "concept" we used a while back. The family includes concept, conception, conceive, deceive and deception, as well as accept, intercept, except, precept - among others. The Indo-European root carries the meaning of "to take, seize or carry" as found in the Latin "capere". We have implied thus far that concepts are the foot soldiers of the "power of knowing" army. In this etymological content we find the word concept has the same sense of holding onto something over time that we found earlier in "apprehend". The concept too takes us out of the moment.
It is intriguing that the words for the "undoing" of conceptual knowledge don’t directly exist. Or, where they do exist, we attribute an ethical falseness to them. Thus, the undoing of "conception" is "deception", the undoing of "conceive" is "deceive". And, for whatever it is worth, the undoing of "concept" (presumably "decept") doesn’t exist (though perhaps we can take some utility in the empathic cousins "except" and "intercept".) It seems our language itself reflects our bias toward always increasing knowing linearly; so much so that efforts to divest ourselves of concepts in order to return to mystery are viewed as deceptive - with its fully negative sense.
AE grasps this, and demands that "truth" be detached from the "tried and true" conceptual world. His poem is audacious in the suggestion that there is no story that is true told more than once. And yet, this assertion is essential if we are to take mysticism seriously. As the author of The Cloud of Unknowing told us, the power of eros can indeed enable us to relate to the mystery, but each of us will have a unique experience of it. Our own "fountain unbroken." And the truth we find will not match anyone else’s.
Ironically, if we hold on to the conceptual realm of logos we end up mired in deception through the illusion that these concepts have enduring truth. But, if we do not "retell" what others consider to be the "truth", we are accused of deceit. Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. To travel the mystic path, we need to release logos altogether, and redeem deception, that is, the undoing of concepts.
Finding the Fountain
The "unbroken fountain" of immediate experience is with us all the time, every second of our lives, but it is not easy to establish an "aware" connection to it. Contemporary life is far too complex and demanding to be lived "in the present moment" in any continual way. Our nervous systems are entirely inadequate for such a process. It would be like holding hundreds of telephone receivers to our ears simultaneously…and trying to converse attentively with each one. Each other person in our lives, each task (past, present and future), each concern, each desire would be ringing in a coterminous cacophony, during every waking moment. In effect, "concepts" are the way we deal with this dilemma. We use them to group the various lines into a far smaller number of bundles of lines, and we then prioritize the bundles, holding some off, while picking the line up for others, one at a time. Instead of being "in the flow", we step back to a position of observing the flow, analyzing it, making decisions about what to touch and interact with, and what to let slip on by - second by second.
And yet, even when we are in this observer space, as we are virtually all the time, there is still a point where we are always "in the moment", but almost always without awareness. This is the point of instantaneous consciousness, and it is known to be an extremely tiny point. It is estimated by neurologists that the human mind is only able to hold about 7 bits of information in awareness at any split second in time. Seven bits is barely one word. In fact, it depends on the length of the word, even, as to whether a single full word can be held in this instantaneous awareness. It is as if we have a gigantic reservoir full of information stored from prior experience, and a far larger flow of current information all around us, and another large reservoir of stored information related to the anticipated future, and there is this tiny transparent tube through which a needle-sized stream can be diverted to flow through awareness in any split second.
My puppy just barked in the other room. When I heard the bark my attention focused on it, and I stood up. Walking in to see what was happening, the thermostat on the wall caught my eye. I was aware that it is cold outside, cloudy now, I see, as my attention turns to the window. And now I am in the room with the puppy and my older dog. The three of us are standing there. I don’t know why I’m there, nor do they. We are all looking at each other as if saying, "so?" I see they’re just fine, I’m near the kitchen and realize I haven’t had breakfast. I grab a bagel, refill my coffee, and am returning to my desk when I sense that the puppy is no longer here. And, for the first time in this sequence, I feel "pulled out" of my experience. I don’t have a fenced yard, and he’s been venturing farther out each time…there are roadways…I "need" to go find him. A whole array of conceptual thoughts turn to the immediate future as I begin the search.
What determines what tiny bit of information "gets our attention" at any moment? No one really knows, except to say that the nervous system has extremely complex mechanisms related to this task. The puppy barks frequently, this particular time that sound was directed into the tiny tube of attention. Why this time? It is impossible to say.
My return to my desk is delayed only a short time. The puppy comes in from the woods with me. I close his pet door so I won’t have to think about it for a while, as the same time noting that now I’ll have to anticipate his ‘need’ to go outside in half an hour or so. And I’m back in the flow.
But, imagine that those two were people. And my moving into that room brought all of us into "relationship". I could not have as easily let them be. And this is one of the problems with reaching the fountain very often: other people’s anticipations, desires, joys, fears, and needs press upon one - and one’s own press upon them - in a fully natural process. Or, more simply, each other person in my awareness is in her/his moment - which is different from mine, always - and some sort of bridging or sharing or "checking in" is needed by convention. Relationship demands it. (My puppy is now growling preciously at the closed pet door. I decide to let him outside on a leash.)
So it is not surprising that throughout the history of human development seekers of the moment have felt the need to be alone in order to "romance" it. Mysticism is a solitary endeavor, simply by virtue of the need to reduce the amount of competition for one’s attention from the outside world for a time.
Finding the Fountain in the Desert
Solitude is more than the absence of other human beings. It is also the absence of the everyday world of tasks, responsibilities, and distractions of all sorts. In today’s world a particularly aggressive distraction comes from the degree to which we are continually being made aware, through the "news", of events happening all over the globe. But throughout history, even before the advent of mass media, seekers of relationship with the mystery have found it necessary to isolate themselves from the daily world for a time, simply to reduce substantially the flow of information demanding attention and response.
And so, the day before Christmas, a year ago, I found myself heading for a 12 day mid-winter sojourn in Death Valley over the New Year holiday. Twelve of us - eight from across the United States, a woman from Great Britain and another from Switzerland, and two men from Germany - and ranging in age from 20’s to 70’s - would join two guides, and with sleeping bags (and one-man tents in the unlikely case it should rain) and warm clothing, we all would spend these days from beginning to end "in ceremony." For approaching the mystery requires the same sacred respect all spiritual activity requires, and ceremony provides the form in which the encounter can take place.
This particular form involves four initial days of being assisted, one by one, to formulate our "intent" for our time alone. Sitting in ceremonial circle each of us enters a dialogue, one at a time, with the guides, to explore why we are here and what new sense of self we are "claiming" as we prepare for our individual journeys into the desert - journeys that will involve four days on the land and four nights sleeping under the stars, all in complete solitude, with the central focus on manifesting and incarnating our intent; a focus amplified by the commitment to fast throughout the period, taking in only water. Each person has brought with them whatever spiritual orientation they have, and for the most part it remains known only to themselves.
In my case I have brought the hope that this ceremony will open the path for me toward a face-to-face relatedness with the mystery, without attempting to unmask it. And my intent, what I wish to claim in this experience, as it evolves slowly over the first four days, emerges as: "I am an elder man named Raymond who, from a masculine heart, sets his course into the mystery with bold, creative vision." This single sentence has taken hours and days to form and it carries a great deal of meaning for me as I prepare my pack on the night before our departure into solitude. It is a claim I am making about myself, and it will be my purpose, during the fast, to make it manifest - and to let this "new me" enter into dialogue with all that I find out there. Part of the "subtext" of this intent for me is the claiming of a relationship with mystery that is not mediated by a beloved female partner, as most numinous experiences have been in my life, but reaches out directly from my "masculine heart", for I have become aware that this is a vital step in my own soul’s journey. And I am marking this transition by changing my name from the "Ray" I have used since birth to my full given name, a change of identity that feels like very powerful medicine inside me.
On the morning of the fifth day, each of us passes through a "threshold circle" - to ritualize the transition from ordinary space to transcendent spirit space. And as I step out of the circle I know I am invisible to the others and will be until I step back through the circle four days hence. The sacred smudge smoke rises in the air as I step out, and I lift my pack to begin my solo walk to the site I picked the day before in the hills at the edge of the deepest part of Death Valley.
It’s a half hour walk to my "spot", which is a sandy circle at the base of a curve of steep rock cliffs over which a waterfall comes in rainy times. The water has created this sandy circle over eons. It feels like a little one-person amphitheater. I set up my ground cloth, sleeping bag and four gallons of water. The sand will be wonderfully comfortable for sleeping. When I stand I can see down the canyon and across the entire floor of the valley to the opposite mountains, and I see not a single sign of human civilization. Anywhere. I also set up, on a flat boulder, an altar with my personal sacred objects - some rattles, some ceremonial gifts from well wishers, some poems from a dear friend for meditation. A candle. And two small statuettes of ancient deities with whom I have felt related lately. And a block of clay to work with if the spirit moves in that direction.
Fully as meaningful is what I have not brought. I have left my beloved camera at home. I have not brought any books, they would too easily fill the empty hours I have worked so hard to make real.
There is not that much settling in to do, and in only a few minutes I am suddenly aware of 96 continuous hours of absolutely nothing "to do". The quietness is overwhelming. I find myself feeling uncertain, and then laughing aloud at the joy of being alone with the beauty of the colorful stones all around me. The emptiness stretches out around me in all directions.
My first awareness is of the dreams I have had in the past three nights while preparing for this. Psyche has taken my efforts seriously. The first night I dreamed a volcano was erupting in my home, causing the plaster to evaporate from the walls, and revealing very primitive shamanic images/inscriptions that have been hidden from view. The second night a violent man was spraying a bus with bullets. In the third night’s dream I meet a man with a gimpy leg, and even in the dream I think of Hephaistos, the Greek Olympian god who is the Olympian blacksmith, working a forge deep at the base of an undersea volcano, creating precious jewelry and all kinds of implements requested by the other deities. This god has been turbulently married to Aphrodite, and has generally had his troubles with goddesses, a fact not lost on me. I have identified with Hephaistos for many years, and have come, even, to have a substantial loss of sensation in one leg over time…which puzzles the neurologist I have seen. As I stand alone in the desert I am sobered by the intensity and numenosity of the dreams that have prefaced my solitude.
And solitude it is. There is no one to talk to, there are no meals to fix, there is no phone, no television, no laptop, no email. No appointments to keep. No expectations, other than the promise we have all shared that we will not do anything to endanger ourselves or others and will reconvene on the morning of the ninth day. No tasks to complete, save those that may arise from the moment, in the moment, as the sacred tasks of Psyche.
In late December most desert life forms are hibernating. There is no food growing, and I become aware that, over three days I have only seen one lizard and one remarkable yellow butterfly. The days are short at this time of year, and I spend them with very little form. I wander around the hills in the bright sunshine, I sit on rocks for unknown lengths of time with my mind sometimes generating an internal verbal stream, but more often simply registering what is around and within me without words. I shake my rattles in trance inducing rhythms. I ponder who I am. Where I am. And I begin experiencing what it is to be "an elder man named Raymond who, from a masculine heart, sets his course into the mystery with bold, creative vision." I have plenty of time for this. There is absolutely nothing else that needs to be done. The value of having so much of this truly formless time is incalculable. It feels priceless and extremely precious. I have never experienced it before, and I already cannot imagine living without it. For I gradually become aware that my relationship with everything around me is different than I have known in the past. Phenomenally different. I am no longer experiencing my surroundings solely as physical objects. The very stones themselves feel sacred. And alive. And I begin to perceive pattern in everything. Not pattern "for" anything, pattern "just so."
The nights take the extra time from the short days, and they are long. We are graced by a new moon and the stars are brilliant all night long. Fourteen hours long. The weather is chilly, but skies are clear most of the time. The firmament is blazing in absolute silence and stillness, hour after hour. I sleep intermittently, watch the stars in the interims of wakefulness. I find myself beginning to "tell time" by the stars themselves. Sometimes the slightest cold air movement drifts down-canyon from the snowfields on the mountains above toward the desert floor, and I find myself bundling myself deeper into my sleeping bag. I am startled by the fact that, after powerful dreams each night before crossing the threshold, these long nights are dreamless. And then I begin sensing that I am in the realm of dreams around the clock - living in that realm. There is no need for night dreams. One night I spend in conversation with my various ancestors. And they are there. I have also, at night, discovered a profoundly empty, dark place within myself. A place frightening to turn toward, but not menacing. There is nothing I need to do about this other than to be aware of it. And to be sure to bring that awareness back with me.
I begin feeling absolutely related - intricately interconnected - with every plant, stone, grain of sand. And yes, with every inhabitant, every species, across the face of the earth beyond the mountains across the desert floor. My daily life becomes a dance within the fabric of this tapestry as I let go, further and further, into a different state of consciousness, a truly ‘altered’ state. This is probably being amplified by fasting, though I don’t have much awareness of hunger. It is most certainly amplified by the astonishing reality of seemingly endless timelessness I have drifted into. I absolutely sense AE’s image of seeing on a lonely hill "the universe rushing at one."
And then it is the last day alone. Each day I have been visited by the butterfly. It has fluttered round about me. In my feeling of relatedness to everything I have been sure it will land on my outstretched hand. Join me. But it does not. After a time, each time it visits me, it departs. Now, sitting on a boulder on the final afternoon, I have picked up my rattle and begun to chant to myself and everything around me, seeing in my mind’s eye the fire-revealed shamanic images on the walls of my dream house. And, in the blink of an eye, the butterfly appears and flies directly to my heart and lights there. The sense of blessing is boundless. Timeless. Spaceless. Ultimately and absolutely mysterious. And I know it will be with me for the rest of my life.
The next morning I pack up my things. Through the period I have been "buddied" with another participant whose spot is not too far from mine, and each of us, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, has tended a sacred stone circle we created halfway between our sites before our solitude began. This is a safety measure, each of us checking to be sure our "buddy" has been to the "buddy pile" since we were last there. But it has also become a blessed ritual for the two of us. Without any preplan, each of us has, each day, created some symbolic expression of our experience using whatever we find on the ground around the circle. This circle itself has been a kind of altar where we could glimpse each other’s soul journey without intrusion. Now, on the final morning, it must be taken apart, until it is as if it were never there. Each of us, at different times, comes and removes our own section of it, and then turns toward returning to the threshold circle.
The return is difficult. I am, for one thing, now carrying several stones I simply could not leave behind. These more than replace the weight of the water I am not now carrying. And I am physically spent - as a result of fasting, yes, but more as a result of such an extended period of time in an altered state of mind. I hate to be returning to ordinary time and space. My feet drag. But I am drawn forward partly by the remembrance that, in the coming four days when we are all back in circle together, we will be sharing, one at a time, the story we have brought back. And I am eager to hear the stories, because I know how transcendent my experience has been. I’m also eager to share my story, to make visible the fruit of my intent.
Back across the threshold we are all again visible to each other. And there is deep, soulful joy in the reconnection. And then come the final four days of storytelling, one at a time. Each story "mirrored" back by each of the guides in turn. It is like a sacred dialogue at the highest level. Central to my own story is the determination to learn to "speak with an unforked tongue" henceforth - to learn to recognize my own truths and speak them daringly.
And then, midway through the twelfth day, it is over. The guides announce it, "This ceremony has now ended. And the next ceremony has just begun." And we are packing our things and scattering to our respective homes. We have celebrated the New Year in the most remarkable way imaginable. And the intents we have manifest will serve as guides for the months ahead.
On the Desert
One can hardly have this experience without developing an enduring love for the desert. And I have done so. Not unlike that expressed in the following poem from the California poet of the first half of the twentieth century, Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry embraces the combination of life and death, light and dark, despair and hope, found in the harsh, majestic, rocky shoreline he called home for most of his adult life. This poem, though, written at the tender age of 18, carries that embrace of dark and light inland to the desert itself:
Oh dead it looks, and desolate
To stranger’s eye beneath the glare,
Seared with the sun, ugly and bare,
A dreary country cursed of fate
That nothing green shall flourish there
Unshrivelled by the drought and heat.
But to the man who knows it well,
He who has slept beneath its sky,
And heard at night its winds go by,
And seen its great stars glow and pale,
And felt its silent mystery,
Its magic lure and secret spell.
To him, tho’ far afield he roam
Thro’ lands of blossom, lovelier lands,
The desert beckons and commands.
Ever to his remembrance come
Spices, mesquite smell and dim wide sands.
He knows the desert is his home.
Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
It is part of the mythology of this ceremony that what appears during the fast serves as a container for the coming year’s life experience, and offers resources for coping with what comes. This turned out to be profoundly true for me.
"The next ceremony", the one that had "just begun" as we prepared to leave Death Valley, turned out to be quite dark for me. That dark empty place inside me, and the erupting volcano in my dream, became very familiar as, in the immediate months that followed, first my mother and then my father died, a colleague was brutally murdered and decapitated by her ex-lover, a dear friend endured the death by decapitation of her godson in a traffic accident (and the death of his mother by cancer a few months beyond that.) Within a year my horse died from a broken shoulder, I retired, finally, from my 40-year career in academia, and lost an important friend through carelessness and a not yet well enough realized ability to stay with that "unforked tongue." My spouse reached a limit within herself and informed me she would need to move on if I could not find a different place to relate to her from. I lost and lost and lost parts of my old life until I was unsure there was anything left.
And I came into close contact with that dark, empty inner place I had discovered in the desert, with a sense that creative light could and would only reappear through that darkness. AE catches the fundamental role of darkness for creative light in this poem:
How could she know, that child who thought
So lovely pure the tale I told,
Within what obscene pits were wrought
The ores to make her fairy gold?
How could she know through what dire strife,
From what dark martyrdoms, there spring
The resurrection and the life,
The glow within the psyche’s wing?
The desert had been ultimately kind to me. It had prepared me in ways I didn’t even notice for what was to come. And, through the dark days, I felt its embrace many many times. And saw the butterfly more than once. The butterfly is, of course, an ancient symbol for psyche, for the soul itself, and for the process of emerging from the dark cocoon with new wings - again and again.
The Dark Night of the Soul
In The Dark Night of the Soul, written in 1571, the Spanish mystic San Juan de la Cruz had a creative explosion not unlike that of Jung’s experience in writing - in an altered state of consciousness precipitated by illness - The Seven Sermons to the Dead over a brief two month period. San Juan was coming out of nearly a year of torture for his support of Santa Teresa de Avila when, at the age of 29, he wrote the Dark Night from beginning to end in a very short period of time. It can be argued that his is the first account of mysticism to present a fully integrated involvement of both darkness and light. In making this argument, Geoffrey Mondello sums up as follows:
Where each previous mystic, through the indomitable prompting of Unspeakable Love, had succeeded merely in hurling a star into the darkness, St. John, peering into that same night, grasped the divine dialectic of darkness and light.
In her introduction to her translation of this work, Mirabai Starr says:
The dark night is about being fully present in the tender wounded emptiness of our own souls. It's not about turning away from the pain but learning to rest in it. Rather than distracting ourselves from the simple darkness at our core, we sit with it, paying close attention. And opening our hearts to all that is left, which is love.
The road to the divine encounter is not for the weekend adventurer. ... The dark night of the soul is for the seeker so on fire with love for God that she will get to Him by any means necessary…This includes being willing to plunge into the abyss of the Unknown, the Unknowable. It is a path for the spiritually desperate.
But what is it, exactly, that mystic seekers hope to find in the abyss of the Unknown? The traditional answer has been, God. But what this means gets cloudy rapidly. The Cloud of Unknowing advises,
And understand by God the God who made you and formed you…and do not accept in your mind any other conception of God. And, not even all of this is necessary, but only if you are so inclined; for a naked intent direct to God is sufficient without anything else.
The author then implies that, at least from one perspective, even this is mostly a literary device for focusing consciousness:
And if you desire to have this aim concentrated and expressed in one word in order that you may be better able to grasp it, take but one short word of a single syllable…such a word is the word GOD or the word LOVE. Choose whichever one you prefer, or, if you like, choose another that suits your taste…with this word you shall beat upon the cloud and the darkness, which are above you. With this word you shall strike down thoughts of every kind and drive them beneath the cloud of forgetting.
This is a truly remarkable statement. To say one is seeking God in mysticism is not different than to say one is seeking one knows not what. One is, then, seeking the mystery itself. The word "religion" comes from the same root as "ligament"…and has as its central meaning the study of ties or bondage. Religion is the study of what ties us to the universe, and what ties the universe itself to whatever is the larger reality. "How are we connected to the universe and beyond?" is the question of religion. And ultimately it is this question that is at the center of the pursuit of mysticism. AE addresses this in his poem:
Even as a bird sprays many-coloured fires,
The plumes of paradise, the dying light
Rays through the fevered air in misty spires
That vanish in the height.
These myriad eyes that look on me are mine;
Wandering beneath them I have found again
The ancient ample moment, the divine,
The god-root within men.
For this, for this the lights innumerable
As symbols shine that we the true light win:
For every star and every deep they fill
Are stars and deeps within.
We can hear the alchemists saying, "As above so below, As without so within." Everything outside us mirrors an inner world. The interconnection - the "tie" - is far more than a simple line cast to the shore. It is an interlaced pattern of infinite intricacy. Religion is the study of the nature of this intricacy. And, with AE, we can again and again find, under the brilliant stars of a dark night sky, "the ancient ample moment, the divine."
And we can be stunned by the contrast between this moment and what we experience daily in time and space.
Where then, is the "dark night" of the soul? Has it to do with this contrast? In one of his truly masterpiece and somewhat narrative poems, AE picks up the very depths of this contemplation:
Did the unknowing body weep a defeat
Of the proud and plumed will that had gone forth
Into the dark magnificence of sleep,
That mystery of the world; imagining there
A Star that would make all things luminous,
Or a lamp like that magic Arabian lamp,
Was it all fabulous, the lamp to which
The genii and the elements were slave;
Or, groping with blind fingers to a sceptre,
An ancient seat from which it was exiled
By those wars in heaven, when the winged glories,
A third of the starry hosts, as the myths say,
Were made wingless? Or did the will in dream
Make war on a usurping majesty,
And did it find a firmament ablaze
With high, angered, burning, immortal faces?
Was it cast down, pent in its dungeon the body?
Was it the desolation of defeat,
Wet cheek and pillow? But what could body know
Of the star legionaries, or of the wars
In heaven? Why must body be made to mourn
The sorrows of spirit? Oh, unjust! unjust!
How fierce must be the anguish of the spirit
When even its enemy the body grieves!
Within that vasty hemisphere of sleep
Are sorrows greater than waking has ever known,
Than Deirdre dead, Andromache a slave,
Than fallen cities, or even the crucifixion
Of the saviours. Their death was victory.
The Vedic seers had a more grandiose tale
Of what lay in the secrecy of sleep,
The soul gone into itself, its gates
Barred upon earth, earth’s magic stilled within
The sleepy mind, the candles of dream all blown.
When sleep is dreamless the gold-gleaming Genius
Awakens, immortal, laughing, so they say,
Making beauty, chariots, dance and song,
Cities and palaces and lamps in heaven,
And meadows for the dancing feet, or lakes
Gaudy with light, or flaring forest glades
Where wind bewildered the mad sun-fire reels,
And rainbow-tinted the lovely dryads whirl
In carnival, a lustrous mirage, for ever
Glowing and changing at the heart’s desire
As if the Arabian genii were its slaves.
And after that glorying in beauty and power
The Genius becomes inexpressibly old,
Returning into the Ancient of Days. It must,
As the diver under deep water must,
Rise to the air for life, so every night
The soul must rise and go unto its Father,
For a myriad instant breathing eternity,
And then returning by the way it came,
It wakes here to renew its cyclic labours.
But would it, knowing all, ever return
From a banquet of gods to live this life,
Where it forgets itself, yet is afraid
To melt into the blackness of this world,
To know naught else and yet to hate it still,
Having not earth’s natural happiness,
Where it grows sick, being pushed down and down,
Haunted by heavens forgotten, and nameless lights
That are invisible, and by farewells
For ever, uttered by those who hurry hence,
All eager for their own high ecstasy
And in the rapture of the innermost
To burn out memory of us? No, it would never
Of its own will to such a fate descend,
Save it might be some heroical adventure
Like that for which Prometheus carried his fire,
That would transfigure earth, and win from it
An empire for the light. Ah, what might then
Have wrought that dark anguish of weeping in sleep?
Did the soul see half-way between two spheres
That it would fall into forgetfulness
At its next breathing; the Hero would be slave,
The Genius blind; that its own beauty and power
Would be a fable; its sacrifice a dream!
That it might waken one of the foemen of light,
An obscene hunter of beauty that would hoot
At any tale of its own nobility.
Surely one source of the ‘dark night of the soul’ does indeed arise from this perplexing dance between the immortal timeless realm and the very mortal world of time and space. How do we make sense of our ability to feel both realms, and our inability to ‘know’ anything about the timeless? What does it mean to rest in "the tender wounded emptiness of our own souls?"
In his commentary on The Cloud of Unknowing, Ira Progoff suggests that the experience of mysticism begins with what Pierre Janet referred to as "abaissement du niveau mental", that is:
a lowering of the mental level, with a corresponding intensification of psychic activity at the subliminal depths of the personality. C.G.Jung has referred to this in terms of his conception of the ‘Collective Unconscious’…A temporary condition of mental unbalance is thus created in which the individual experiences a great intensity of psychic affect. He becomes subject, then, to a generalized mental instability that results from the disordering and disturbance of psychic factors at deep mental levels.
This "disordering and disturbance" within the psyche arising during the approach to the unknown was a well known phenomenon for the original author of the Cloud. He faced it without psychological theory or language. And when he faced it, he saw the distress as arising from overwhelming awareness of alienation from the divine. He tells us that for those who are "continually engaged" in seeking the mystery, "their meditations come as though they were spontaneous thoughts and unguided feelings concerning their own wretchedness or the goodness of God." He proposes that such a seeker meditate on the word "SIN" or the word "GOD":
not analyzing or interpreting them with refinements of learning, but simply considering the qualities of the words with the earnest intention of increasing your devotion…I believe that one should never analyze intellectually in this work. Rather, consider these words as wholes. Think of sin as a lump, a thing you know not what, that is, nonetheless, nothing else but yourself…you will no doubt appear to be as distracted as any mad person who was ever bound."
Thus, the approach to the mysteries confronts one with a dark sense of oneself. So much so that he concludes:
"If it were not that the soul receives a certain amount of comfort from properly doing the work, he would not be able to bear the pain that comes from being aware of and feeling his being."
Earlier I spoke of the "dark empty place" I found within myself while fasting in Death Valley. And then we noted the need to "be fully present in the tender wounded emptiness of our own souls." As our final exploration in this paper, we now turn our attention directly to this emptiness.
Janet’s "abaissement du niveau mental" produces a dissolving of one’s conceptual structures, a loosening of one’s usual associations, a falling apart of identity and one’s view of the nature of reality. And, when all of these have dropped away, one is confronted with an intense experience of inner emptiness. These conceptual structures are what fills our usual sense of inner space…they tell us who we are. But, in filling that space, they also interfere with the development of the new within one. Acting just like an intrauterine device for birth control, their very presence blocks the potential for new conception. Just as the womb must be absolutely empty for implantation of the embryo to take place, so we must be willing to experience a full inner emptiness before we can conceive new life.
It would be hard to find a more intense mystery than the formation of new life within. No expectant mother knows the nature of the child she carries. The mothers of Adolph Hitler, Mother Teresa, Terry McVeigh and Georgia O’Keefe all faced this same mystery. As Jung said:
…we are like the mothers who bear in their wombs untold happiness and suffering. At first we do not know what deeds or misdeeds, what destiny, what good and evil we have in us, and only the autumn can show what the spring has engendered, only in the evening will it be seen what the morning began.
One of the terrifying things about emptiness is the not knowing what will fill it. Or, for that matter, not knowing if anything will fill it. Consider, for example, the bird sitting on her eggs, incubating them. She does this with absolute devotion over a period of many, many days and nights, through many close encounters with dangerous intruders. And, she does this without knowing whether the eggs are - or are not - fertile.
We have a word for this aviary behavior, we call it "brooding". And, as with so many words, this word has two distinct and richly interconnected meanings: not only does it refer to a bird sitting on her eggs, it also has the meaning of "fretting, moping, or worrying". We can associate it with the experience, thereby, of being depressed. Depressed people tend to brood. We can, then, suggest that depression involves sitting on our new "eggs", not knowing yet what they hold, or even if they are fertile. With Ernest Rossi, we can associate depression with the general process of incubation. By slight extension we can associate both of these with the soul’s dark night.
Mysticism offers appreciation for the vital importance of the experience of emptiness within. When we have turned loose all of our usual ways of thinking about and seeing things, when - that is - we have made the progress of returning our sense of "history" back to "mystery," then we are indeed faced with a deep, troubling, and exceedingly unpredictable emptiness inside, where also resides then the full potential of conception. The soul finds and inhabits her dark night. If we let her. And, if we are willing to brood for as long as it takes, and if we are given the grace of our eggs being fertile, and if we have the vigilance to fend off intruders in the process, then - and only then - will we have a possibility of glimpsing the new life forms arising within, for better and for worse.
That is the promise of mysticism. Nothing more, but nothing less. It does not give us the guarantees that contemporary Christian fundamentalism gives: the assurance that we will like what we see, that we will be kept safe, and that a fully known and understood deity is in control. It gives, instead, simply the possibilities that we will glimpse what is, that we will have the opportunity to learn to give expression to it, and that we will be able to make peace with a fully conscious not knowing as the highest state of awareness. Where fundamentalism gives one a God who is a personal, well known friend (or, as a recent motion picture put it, "an imaginary playmate for adults"), mysticism gives not a protective sheltering relationship, but a solitary emptiness that invites into oneself the ultimately mysterious transcendent.
To engage with a mystical experience from within requires solitude, but a special kind of solitude: one that is as emptied out as possible of the expectations, responsibilities, obligations and schedules of the ordinary world of time and space. I found the door to such experience through fasting in Death Valley. Each of us must find our own doorway into such realms. And, each of us must solve for ourselves the riddle to which Pascal gave voice: ""the greatest cause of evil in the world is the inability of a man to sit quietly alone in his own room."
For that is where mysticism begins.