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Mystics and Prophets

Robinson: “So let us begin by looking again at the two perspectives on truth represented on the one hand by the Hebraic and on the other by the Vedantic [Hindu], contrasted as the prophetic and the mystical.”

We live and die in the round of time. Circles define life, in the rhythms that turn, pulse and spiral in our cells, in our bodies, in the earth’s seasons, in the coming-to-be and passing-away of generations, in the “Big Turn” of the universe itself.

For most of history, human beings have struggled to reconcile ourselves to the many wheels of time that move inside and around us. The so-called “nature religions” represent the early effort at putting our special concerns as a species into accord with the larger fate that holds us captive. The individual life-cycle (infancy, youth, maturity) had to be carefully nested inside the turns of a tribal career (student, householder, elder), which needed to fall into sync with the planetary rhythms of harvest and the hunt. Out and beyond all this foreground revolution were the predictable (auspicious and ominous) travel-paths of the planets and stars.

Somehow, from the tiny oscillations of nerve impulses in our brains to the circuits of stars through the sky, life is borne along inside a complex web of time intervals – nanoseconds to days to months to years to decades to generations to light-years of cosmic time. Health and prosperity were believed to be a function of how obediently and reverently we did our part. Ritual ceremony coordinated tribal life with these smaller and larger cycles. Human destiny was worked out inside the closed circles of time.

And then a revolution happened.

Almost simultaneously in India and in Israel, escape from the circle was accomplished. The Hindu and Hebraic revolutions don’t appear to have influenced each other, so it almost seems as if these two breakthroughs were separate uprisings of a common quest for liberation. Their different paths out of the closed circle became the energizing principles in two ways of engaging reality and constructing meaning.Circles_ArrowsIf you look just underneath the surface of sea waves, the rolling action is really a progression of kinetic energy moving along as each circular current spins open and passes momentum into a new circle. As it spins open to release its energy forward as the next wave, an inner spiral is pulling around the circle’s center, where it will be released to the deeper support of the ocean itself.

Try to imagine each circle as an individual “package” of energy, called consciousness. As it becomes more conscious of itself as an individual, this enclosure of self-identity reaches a point where its mortality – the fact of its very temporal existence – becomes nearly unbearable. Under the stress of this realization, the circle stands a real chance of breaking down.

But then, unexpectedly (from the circle’s vantage-point) the enclosure of its self-concern opens out to an expansive awareness. Along one axis it becomes aware of the momentum that is surging through its own limited form. What feels like a giving-up is really a giving-over to this higher purpose, to a will and direction greater than its own.

Along another axis, the inward clutch around its own center dissolves into a quiet sense of being. In letting go, a deeper essence to its own life as a wave-of-the-ocean is manifested to awareness. The “release” in each case amounts to a liberation of energy as the circle opens up to a larger reality – a higher purpose (up ahead) and a deeper essence (underneath).

This is one way of understanding the Hindu and Hebraic revolutions, and how they were related liberation movements on the advancing threshold of human spiritual evolution. The critical achievement on each front was the breakthrough of a new awareness, which would become the organizing principle in the construction of a new world(view).

Transcendental monism, where all is one beyond the apparent separateness, offers up a model of reality that sees each individual circle as a time-bound expression of a timeless mystery. To each circle it can be said, “Thou art That”; not that you are god, because even the gods are circles in their own way. They are, you are, and everything you see is a surface manifestation of the unfathomable depth of being-itself. You and they and everything around you is essentially one.

Ethical monotheism is how the revolution played out in Israel. As the circle opened up to the forward momentum of which it was but a temporary vehicle, a powerfully new interest in the future emerged. Now in addition to the conventional ties to tradition, the way of the elders, and the archetypes of the past, the question of direction and purpose provided leverage for challenging the status quo. “Thus says the Lord” became a kind of pretext for resistance and upheaval, for the sake of a new reality.

Two spiritual types were born out of the labor pains of this revolution, one springing up in India and the other in Israel. The mystic is one who feels drawn into the depths, breaking through the enclosure of self and personality, to the unqualified mystery of being-itself. A danger along the way has been a tendency to hold on too long to “me,” and thus to twist the whole contemplative path of communion into some kind of exceptional talent, a rigorous discipline and esoteric knowledge reserved for an elite few.

Playing out the other axis, the prophet is one who feels drawn to the future, inspired and compelled by a vision not only of what might be, but of what will be. The danger here is that the prophet will be reduced to a fortune-teller, a mere predictor of future events. Because we cannot control the future, there will always be business and celebrity for those who claim to know what is going to happen. The endless postponements and recalculations may help to expose the “false prophets,” but utopias and end-times are an inexhaustible market, and more will always be ready to step into the vacancy.

Mystics and prophets are really our “two eyes,” one looking into the essential reality beneath, and the other to the emergent reality beyond the fears, fixations and concerns of our ego and tribe. There is, then, in each of us a “mystical intention” and a “prophetic intention” – still susceptible to the corruptions mentioned above, but present at least as potential tracts of revolution.

The spiritual life today must continually seek deeper ground as it reaches for higher purpose. As fellow inhabitants of this planet, we are one in ways we still need to understand; and we are moving into a shared future that needs us working together for the good of all.

 

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The Two Eyes

Robinson: “By drawing the insights of another center into as it were the gravitational field of one’s own, so that they come to form part of that ‘universe’ revolving round its single center, one is deliberately seeking escape from the tension of living with both poles at once. But truth may come from refusing this either-or and accepting that the best working model of reality may be elliptical or bi-polar, or indeed multi-polar.”

Let’s start with something straightforward and uncontroversial: An individual is an identity organized around a center and contained by a boundary.

The boundary of an individual not only separates and protects it from external reality, but also provides a threshold for engaging with that reality. If the individual is a “self,” then everything in external reality is “other.” This self-other (S-O) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Western view of reality. It is about “going out” and making relationships with others, which makes it extroverted, active, and social in orientation.

The center of an individual is inside, even deep inside. Centers are not about separation but integration, integrity and internal balance. If the identity of a self is organized around its center, then deeper into the center gets closer to what can be called its “ground.” This self-ground (S-G) axis is the key to understanding the so-called Eastern view of reality. It is about “going in” and experiencing union with the ground, which makes it introverted, contemplative, and mystical in orientation.

I qualified these different views of reality by designating them “so-called” Western and Eastern, but this supposed geographical distance can cause us to overlook the fact that they are both represented in each individual person. You are a self that relates outwardly to others and inwardly to your own ground. Instead of analyzing you into opposing parts – as in the familiar body-and-soul dualism – it is more helpful to regard you as a duality of orientations, outward (S-O) and inward (S-G).

Interestingly enough, just as entire cultures can be dominant in one orientation or the other, the same is true of individuals – wherever and whenever they live. Some are more extroverted, active and social, while others are more introverted, contemplative and mystical in the way they are oriented in reality.

We need to say “more” one way or the other, because every individual has both orientations, although one is likely to be preferred over the other. Your individual preference is almost certainly encouraged and reinforced by the cultural preference of your tribe. In this way, the West shapes an Occidental orientation and the East shapes an Oriental one. Of course, there are introverts in the West and extroverts in the East, but they probably feel a little bit like left-handers in a right-handed society. They can get along, but it does require continual adjustment.

Robinson is exploring the potential for dialogue between these two different orientations. It’s not just about getting, say, a Buddhist from Bangkok together with a Christian from Cleveland. That level of dialogue might be educational and constructive – but only eventually. If either the Buddhist or the Christian hasn’t been engaged in a dialogue between his or her own “Western” and “Eastern” eyes, dialogue at the table will be more like a debate, where somebody’s got to be right.

If you and I don’t appreciate as well as strengthen our two eyes, we can become monocular – rigidly attached to our preferred orientation and intolerant of its counterpart in ourselves or each other.

We need to have “one eye” on reality outside ourselves, on the Other. This is the reality we connect to with our bodies. It’s “out there” and separate from us, confronting us with difference, with otherness. Obviously, the religious system of theism is based on this idea of encountering the Other. But whereas popular theism is carried on the belief in an objective and separate being dressed up in the garb of mythology, its more respectable roots are likely in this primary experience of reality as Other.

We also need to have “one eye” on reality inside ourselves, on the Ground. This is the reality we connect to with our souls. It’s “in here” and essential to us, inviting us into the depths of our inner being. The varieties of mystical religion are based on this idea of union with the Ground. But whereas some popular forms of gnosticism can spin off into bizarre metaphysics, a genuine mystical approach disregards all this monkey-chatter and simply revels in the ineffable experience of oneness.

I’ve mentioned the conventional terms of “body” and “soul,” but if the spiritual adventure of our species is to move forward to the next phase of its evolution, we will need to let go of them as names for parts of ourselves. You don’t “have” a body and soul; rather you are these. And for sure, it’s time to drop the notion that you are a soul inside a body. That a time will come when your soul is released from the mortal coil of your body and live forever somewhere else.

This “dualism of parts” has been hampering our spiritual development for a long time, endorsing a neglect of the body, an abuse of the earth, a suspicion of others, and a persistent ignorance of our own wholeness – even our holiness – as complete yet paradoxical beings.

Perhaps a postmodern spirituality can retool the definitions of body and soul, away from the language of parts-in-opposition, toward a language of complementary orientations. In that case, body is your orientation in reality that connects you to others, to the otherness of things, to reality-as-Other. It is not a part of you, not something you have. It is YOU as situated in a community of others, confronted with difference, and finding your way through it all.

Soul is your orientation in reality that connects you to your inner ground, to the oneness of your being, to the ground of being-itself. It is not a part of you, or the “real you” temporarily housed inside a body. It is YOU as rooted in mystery, below the quirks and contradictions of personality, inwardly aware and wordlessly present.

Our challenge as individuals is to acknowledge this dual orientation in ourselves. Certainly acknowledge our preference for one orientation over the other, but then engage a disciplined dialogue between our “two eyes” – outward and inward, active and contemplative, social and mystical.

Reality gets that much larger and deeper when we open both eyes.

 

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