Awakenment and Phenomena

Sarah B. Van Mater

Intimations of a spiritual reality come to most of us at times, glimpses of a grandeur and peace greater than those found in the world of our personal concerns. Few have the intensity of desire, the strength of will, and the depth of love necessary to make these fleeting moments the norm of their existence -- to consciously go beyond their first spiritual awakenings to the life divine. Such is the self-imposed task of the mystic, who seeks to become one with Reality, God, the Universal. In search of this union, he must not only transcend the "sleeping" state which is "life" to the majority, but also many other more subtle levels of awareness. If successful, the higher portions of his being act with relative fullness through his everyday self, illuminating his treatment of the practical affairs of life.

Many of those, however, who become aware of something "more" behind the universe attempt in a less one-pointed way to transcend their present condition. In these efforts, they frequently turn to meditation and concentration practices, or to any of a variety of psychophysical techniques available today. But while these often do bring about certain desired mental and psychological changes, they also may precipitate paranormal experiences such as out-of-body excursions, visions, voices, automatic writing, and altered states of consciousness generally. Because this type of sensation goes beyond everyday perceptions, people are inclined to feel that it has in itself an intrinsic value in personal development. As these matters attain increasing recognition and acceptance in our culture, we need to ask ourselves what is the relationship of these phenomena to the inner growth of a human being.

We can find an answer to this question in the observations and discoveries of the mystics, many of whom have analyzed the very experiences that are currently so widespread, evaluating them in the light of their total spiritual activity. Interestingly, on the major issues mystics of all times and places seem to be in basic agreement, even though the images and theology in which their statements are couched differ dramatically. One group which treats of these matters in a very practical and illuminating way is the Christian mystics, whose writings often give sound advice as well as a description of their individual religious explorations. By examining several of their ideas about human growth and extranormal perceptions we may gain a much-needed perspective on our present-day practices and problems.

Like their counterparts of other faiths, Christian mystics make a sharp distinction between spiritual development and the phenomena, "gifts," or powers that often accompany it. These phenomena receive a balanced and correct interpretation only when seen within the context of the whole awakenment process. The most essential element of this inner regeneration is love of God, and its first steps lie in an awareness within the soul, however faint, of a divine reality. Here motive becomes a crucial factor because only the truly humble and selfless person can pass safely through the various stages that await beyond his present personal, physical existence. Selfless love and longing for union with the immortal source of our being is the driving force behind the mystic search, a yearning for divinity in itself rather than for the good things that can come to the individual through it. Certainly this selfless side of self-development is one of the keys frequently ignored in our scramble for personal success and progress.

The actual path of inner growth is described as a purification and strengthening of the soul until it becomes a fit companion for the divine, with which it ultimately attains union. Paradoxically, it is described at the same time as a self-naughting or a stripping down of the self to nothing. This metaphor suggests a weaning away of the soul from desire for all forms and images, material and spiritual, so that eventually it is able to commune directly with God, instead of indirectly through senses or intellect, however lofty. The soul must be "pure and simple, neither bounded by, nor attached to, any particular kind of intelligence, nor modified by any limitation of form, species and image" if it would come to God (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk. 2, ch. 16, sec. 7).

The chief means used to achieve this end are various types of concentration and meditation centered on the divine, combined with a reformation of character. These concentration practices vary in intensity with the advancement of the student, beginning with the concrete and corporeal and moving to more immaterial avenues of awareness. Finally the soul arrives at a point where it can abandon all lesser forms of meditation and enter the state of "contemplation," a formless contact with the absolute which cannot be expressed in terms of human senses or understanding. The effectiveness of all these practices, however, rests on the spirit in which they are done, and without love of God and his creatures they amount to little regardless of perceptible achievements.

Several side effects usually result from such efforts to transcend everyday consciousness. Many mystical seekers, for example, have experienced serious bodily or mental disorders brought on by physical and psychological strain and by the play of powerful, unfamiliar forces in their being while they still are not strong enough to control them. Psychic phenomena also occur ordinarily, but not in all cases, and are viewed as one means used by God to contact the soul and lead it to increased spirituality. The benefits of the communication are said to be imparted by God to the soul automatically and that no act of will on the part of the soul can either prevent or enhance the beneficial results. The soul can, on the other hand, harm itself by misusing these gifts or allowing itself to be misled by them.

Each searcher encounters different types and intensities of phenomena according to his temperament and individual peculiarities. These cover a very wide range, the most universal, such as visions, voices, odors, tastes, or feelings, paralleling the ordinary human senses. They may appear to come through the outer senses, or may be presented internally under the guise of the physical senses in the way memories and imaginings are. The highest type has no sensual form of any kind, but conveys its content the most clearly and directly. Other typical occurrences met with on the mystic path include automatic writing, ecstasies, and raptures.

As natural by-products of penetration beyond the physical, such phenomena are not positive or negative in themselves. Yet most mystics place little reliance on any such manifestations, pointing to the hindrances they generally put in the way of aspirants for spiritual enlightenment. Why should this be? One reason lies in the difficulty of determining their validity, as they have several possible origins. Some come from the supernal, others from the lower, material levels of being, while still a third type are merely the product of human imagination. In Christian terms they are said to come from God, or from the Devil who is able to counterfeit divine "gifts" with near-perfection. Words or visions from the Devil may contain truth and be pleasing but, as was said of the three witches in Macbeth,

. . . oftentimes to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths;
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence . . .

Their material, destructive nature, eventually leads the seeker who heeds them away from God and back to the world of the senses, and also often plays upon his spiritual vanity. These results may prove disastrous to any attempt to approach reality more closely.

A related drawback is the great opening such phenomena give for delusion if sought for or relied upon. It is all too common for searchers to deceive themselves with interior signs and so become misled by their own desires. Locutions, or interior voices, are a case in point. Referring to the many reports of supernatural voices current in the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross says:

. . . I am appalled at what happens in these days -- namely, when some soul with the very smallest experience of meditation, if it be conscious of certain locutions of this kind in some state of recollection, at once christens them all as coming from God, and assumes that this is the case, saying: "God said to me . . ."; "God answered me . . ."; whereas it is not so at all, but, as we have said, it is for the most part they who are saying these things to themselves.
And, over and above this, the desire which people have for locutions, and the pleasure which comes to their spirits from them, lead them to make answer to themselves and then to think that it is God Who is answering them and speaking to them. -- Ascent of Mount Carmel, ch. 29, sec. 4-5.

Our inclination to believe what we wish to believe may also cause us to accept nondivine impressions as spiritually valid because they conform to our own notions and opinions. Further, our ignorance may lead us to misinterpret even those that are genuine, as the French mystic, Madame Guyon, points out regarding voices:

Distinct interior words are very subject to illusion. . . . when they come from our good angel (for God Himself never speaks in this manner) they do not always mean what they say, and one seldom finds that what is thus predicted comes to pass. For when God causes words of this kind to be brought to us by His angels, He understands them in His way, and we take them in ours, and this it is which deceives us. -- Autobiography of Madame Guyon, bk. I, ch. 9.

Because we are apt to take whatever signs we perceive in literal and temporal terms, when they are meant in a more spiritual and broad way, we often mistake the meaning and jump to incorrect conclusions. For these reasons the validity, content, and meaning of phenomena must always be scrutinized most carefully and objectively if we are to avoid self-delusion.

But in the eyes of the mystics delusion is not the greatest drawback that phenomena present. Far more destructive to inner progress is the tendency for those developing such gifts to become enamored of them and consequently lose desire for the spiritual in the search for the phenomenal. While often exhilarating and encouraging, such signs and automatisms are in themselves no road to further development. Madame Guyon observes in her autobiography that many people never advance beyond the phenomenal stage because of their absorption in it. In the same vein, St. John of the Cross remarks that those "spiritual gluttons" who overindulge in and become engrossed by manifestations perceived by the soul's senses are sidetracked as surely as are those who are absorbed in the impressions which the body's senses present to the consciousness. Because of this, many mystics warn against all phenomena, regardless of origin, telling seekers to develop an attitude of nonattachment and indifference, and not to be pleased or embarrassed by them. As with the material world, it is not the absence of any object or practice which is important, but the absence of desire for it, which may be very much alive even when the object in question is not present.

As with phenomena, meditation must be approached with detachment. The very forms of mental discipline used along the way of self-development can easily become hindrances to further progress. These practices have been compared to the steps of a stair -- each in turn must be abandoned if we are to reach the goal which prompted us to climb in the first place. To hold on to a particular method or subject of meditation after it has achieved the desired internal results is like becoming so attached to a particular step that we are unwilling to move from it. St. John of the Cross likens spiritual awakening to a series of battles with our attachment to the familiar, personified as a beast with seven heads. Each victory allows us to transcend our present state, yet at every turn we may fail to move forward or we may even retrogress:

. . . it is therefore greatly to be lamented that many who engage in this spiritual battle against the beast do not even destroy its first head by denying themselves the sensual things of the world. And, though some destroy and cut off this head, they destroy not the second head, which is that of the visions of sense whereof we are speaking. But what is most to be lamented is that some, having destroyed not only the first and the second but even the third, which is that of the interior senses, pass out of the state of meditation, and travel still farther onward, and are overcome by this spiritual beast at the moment of their entering into purity of spirit, for he rises up against them once more, and even his first head comes to life again, and the last state of those souls is worse than the first, since, when they fall back, the beast brings with him seven other spirits worse than himself. -- Ascent of Mount Carmel, bk. 2, ch. II, sec. 10.

On the road of spiritual rebirth, then, the chief hazards of encouraging nonphysical phenomena lie in our own imperfections and self-centeredness. The deliberate exercise of such abilities tends to engender spiritual pride, a desire for ever more of such experiences, and personal attachments and complacency. Such tendencies are in direct opposition to the nonattachment, humility, universality, and dissolution of personal weaknesses which have always been the hallmark of an ongoing inner awakening. The collection of limitations and passions which so often forms our everyday self is, if anything, strengthened by this absorption in powers, rather than transmuted to mirror the divine forces present within and without. The message of the mystics seems to be not to lose sight of the real goal of our journey as children of God in the tempting fields of physical, psychic, and spiritual sensation. St. John of the Cross sums up the Christian attitude in his advice to spiritual teachers wishing to help their disciples: "do not despise or elevate supernatural phenomena," but give students "to understand how much more precious in God's sight is one work or act of the will performed in charity than are all the visions and communications that they may receive from Heaven" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, ch. 22, sec. 19).

(Reprinted from Sunrise magazine, November 1978; copyright by Theosophical University Press)

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