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“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation


“I Am That!”: mystical unity and psychological inflation

The mystic quest for oneness with the divine

Most mystical traditions, in one way or another, speak of being “one with the divine.”

This is the final goal of the quest.

As Joseph Campbell says, there comes a time in the practice when the seeker is no longer satisfied with beholding the beloved. At last, the beholder wants to become one with the beloved. Campbell likens it to the moth who, after many failed attempts, finally breaks through the glass of the lamp, and for one brief moment – that “eternal” moment – becomes one with the flame. The moth has finally experienced the divine without any intermediaries. This is the goal of all mystical seeking.

In Hinduism, one hears repeatedly the refrain, “Soham.” Composed of two Sanskrit words Sah and Aham, it means “I am That.” Similarly, the phrase “Shivoham” means “I am Shiva.” Or, the teaching, “Tattwamasi” means “You Are That!”

Al Halláj (858-922 AD), an Iranian Sufi master who came some three centuries before Rumi, is famous for his utterance “Ana al-haqq,” which earned him eight years of trial and then a gruesome prolonged execution in the central square of Baghdad, for blasphemy. Al-Haqq, literally meaning “the Truth,” is one of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Thus, Ana al-haqq means “I am God.”

Some three centuries later, another Sufi mystic, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, would write thus (translation by Coleman Barks):

"There’s nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight."

This is how Hallaj said, I am God,
and told the truth!
The ruby and the sunrise are one.”

Angelus Silesius, a Christian mystic from the seventeenth century, describes his encounter with the divine using these words (translation by Andrew Harvey):

“What God is, no-one knows.
God is neither light, nor spirit
God is not bliss, not unity,
Not what we call “deity.”
God is not wisdom, nor reason,
Nor love, nor will, nor goodness.
God is not a thing, nor a nothing,
Nor is God essence.
God is what neither I nor you
Nor any creature can understand
Without becoming what God is.”

Deity Yoga in Vajrayana Tantra

Tantra is one of the paths within both Hinduism and Buddhism. In the latter, this path is known as the Vajrayana, or more generally, as Tibetan Buddhism. It is this version of Tantra that is most well known in the West.

The word Tantra means a loom, and refers to the act of weaving.

Weaving what?

Of course, there can be as many interpretations as there are interpreters. It could be seen as an interweaving of various teachings, texts, rituals. It could be the interweaving of masculine and feminine energies. The Yin and the Yang. The opposites.

Also, it is the interweaving of the profane and the sacred.

Tantric practices are often held suspect by other practitioners because of its explicit use of the “forbidden” material – such as alcohol, meat, hallucinogens and sexuality.

One of the central practices within Vajrayana, the “Diamond” or “Thunderbolt” Vehicle of Buddhism, which is explicitly tantric, is what is called in the West as “Deity Yoga.” The adept here is invited to more and more deeply “embody” their chosen deity.

This concept of the “chosen deity” is very common in the East. In Tibetan, it is called the Yidam, whereas in Sanskrit, the Ishta devata. The words translate to a “preferred” or “desired” or “cherished” deity. The relationship here is personal.

The adept does not “worship” their deity, they “become” the deity. Typically, the practice progresses from the “outer” deity, with attributes that can sensed by the five senses, to the “inner” deity, who is felt more internally, and finally the “secret” deity, where the adept is filled with the essence of the deity.

It is also important to note that not all deities in Vajrayana are benign and “peaceful.” There are many who are “embodied” in their “wrathful” aspects by the practitioner.

Below is an image of the deity Yamantaka (called Vajrabhairava in his Hindu incarnation). His name literally means the “ender,” or “terminator, of Death.” His teaching is thus about conquering death. He is a wrathful expression of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva associated with prajñā (insight) in Buddhism. If Yamantaka is the yidam of a practitioner, they would then work to embody this buffalo-faced deity whose hands hold various weapons, while he sits on a water buffalo, exposing his immense manhood. This very masculine deity is shown in embrace with his feminine consort, Vajravetali (the wrathful form of the patron Goddess of learning and the arts, Sarasvati). He is adorned with a garland of severed human heads, strings of human bones, and a crown made of human skulls. He is drinking blood from a human-skull-cup offered by his consort, while wisdom-flames emanate from, and envelop them both. The entire scene rests on the trampled, naked body of “ignorance.” Interestingly, however, the entire scene, including the body of ignorance, is held within the matrix of the world-lotus, a symbol of cosmic renewal and “primordial purity,” which in turn floats on the ocean of eternal bliss!

It is this complex, magnificent, and yes, terrifying deity, that the adept is asked to embody - in order to one day himself/herself become the “Destroyer of Death” (in other words, escape from the cycle of rebirth, and achieve nirvana).

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0,

By Wonderlane from Seattle, USA - Yamāntaka riding an buffalo (Sanskrit: यमान्तक Yamāntaka; Tibetan: Shinjeshe, གཤིན་རྗེ་གཤེད་, རྡོ་རྗེ་འཇིགས་བྱེད།, gshin rje gshed; rdo rje 'jigs byed) a Mahayana Yidam, holding skeleton wand & noose, consort, flames of wisdom, wall mural, Pharping, Nepal, CC BY 2.0,

What about the risk of psychological inflation in such practices?

The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, used the term “archetypes of the collective unconscious” to describe precisely the kind of potent primordial energies that are represented by the deities of Vajrayana. Jung warned repeatedly of the risk of what he called “psychological inflation” if one became identified with aspects of an archetype. According to Jung, precisely because these archetypes are “numinous” (i.e., magical, and with the power to impress and fascinate), if one becomes identified with them, then one loses their conscious ego function. It is often said within Jungian circles that when you are able to consciously relate to a “Complex” (an affect-laden activated archetype), you “have the complex.” If you are unconscious of it, however, then “the complex has you!”

We all know how it looks like when a complex “has” someone. We see extreme examples in psych wards where someone believes they are Jesus Christ, or Hitler, and act the part. A more day-to-day example may be someone who is so taken by the positive polarity of the Mother archetype that they will carry out the task of being available and nourishing to their children to the point of smothering them, and preventing the children’s own personalities and resiliencies to arise. Or the spiritual teacher who is taken over by the Wise Old Man aspect of the Father archetype, and does not see how his actions are making his followers dependent on him, rather than them cultivating their own relationship to the divine. Remember, the opposite polarity of the Wise Old Man is Chronos, or Saturn - the father who devours his own children to avoid his power being usurped by them!

In Jungian understanding, then, the more we consciously identify with one polarity of an archetype, the opposite polarity “constellates” in the unconscious as a “Complex.” If constellated with enough force, this complex can completely submerge the ego-consciousness and take over the functioning of the psyche.

If psychological inflation is indeed real, and we can see it being played out all around us (and if we are honest, in us), is then there something fundamentally wrong with Vajrayana, and other tantric practices? At least for the Western person, as Jung suggested? Is the Western seeker indeed better off “praying” to God, instead of “becoming” God?

The answer lies in our angle of relating to an archetype

The risks of psychological inflation, and in extreme cases, a complete loss of ego identity and with it, the ability to function in consensus reality, are indeed very real. And this risk is invariably present when a novice approaches a tantric practice such as Vajrayana.

This is precisely the reason why, within the cultures where Tantra is a known and practiced path, it is not a path entered into lightly. One can think of a tantric practice as preparing to climb Mount Everest. One doesn’t roll out of bed one morning and head over to the base camp of Everest. There is years of training – developing optimal physical and psychological fitness, learning the techniques of rock and ice craft, learning survival strategies. And then climbing smaller mountains, over and over again, before heading to Everest. Finally, when one is ready, one plans the expedition carefully, looks at the weather, the fellow climbers, the guides, the equipment, and then starts off slowly – acclimatizing as one goes – and always keeping an eye out for the odd storm or the cantankerous relationship between two expedition-mates that can derail the whole show!

Similarly, before one begins serious deity yoga, one practices different aspects of what in the West has been translated as “emptiness practices.” One of the fundamental Buddhist practices in Vajrayana – as in all other form of Buddhism – is called Prajñāpāramitā. The Sanskrit words prajñā means "wisdom," or “insight,” and pāramitā means "perfection". Prajñāpāramitā thus refers to a set of practices that leads to a perfected way of seeing the nature of reality. A central element of this practice is the so-called “Heart Sutra,” whose main contention is that “Form is Empty.” What this sutra, and its repetition daily by the adept, is designed to do is to convince the adept’s deep psyche, that ultimately all phenomena are “śūnya,” empty of any unchanging essence. This emptiness is a “characteristic” of all phenomena, and this emptiness itself is "empty" of any essence of its own.

What a practice like this does, is that it places the adept in a mental stance where they are aware – in a deeply felt way – that they themselves are empty and all experiences are empty. Becoming this empty vessel, they can now fully embody a deity – whether peaceful and wrathful – and work with its poisons and get to its medicine, without the risk of their ego becoming identified with the deity (i.e., becoming “possessed”). There are many, many tools that help the adept along the way – tools of imagery, tools of ritual, tools of meditation, tools of sacrifice. And it is all done under close supervision of an experienced guide – the Lama – who has made this journey themselves, and is familiar with the terrain, and its dangers.

Eventually, though, the reason one can practice the Deity Yoga of Vajrayana, and does not fall prey to permanent psychological inflation, is that at all times during the practice, and during their daily mundane life, they are hearing a constant refrain, "Form is emptiness (śūnyatā). Emptiness is form."

The Heart Sutra concludes with the mantra:

“Gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā”

which means, "gone, gone… everyone gone… to the other shore… awakening… and so it is!”

It is only from this place of total surrender that one can safely engage numinosity, without being devoured by it.

If nothing else, may this passage serve as a warning against approaching tantra as a “flavor of the month” weekend workshop!

Finally, like everything that is alive, deep mystic experience is a dance of opposites

I want to emphasize as we end this reflection, that the “surrender” or the “sacrifice” of the ego that we speak of here, is not static. We are not asked to be ego-less forevermore! Because we all know, from our lived experience, that what is static is dead. And what is alive is ever-changing, pulsating with the life force.

It is the same with psychological inflation.

The risk, really, is not of being inflated, but of being stuck in the inflated place forever. Indeed, the repetition of inflation and deflation – of expansion and contraction – is what is essential for any birthing, and for the elimination of bodily (and psychic) waste. In medical language, this movement is called peristalsis. It is this movement that propels forward the fetus along the birth canal – from the maternal womb of darkness and unity-consciousness, and into the outside world of light and duality and ego-identity.

Similarly, to be a tantric practitioner, or a spiritual practitioner of any kind for that matter, psychological inflation is unavoidable. Too much fear about any possible inflation can leave us dead on our tracks - never risking to deepen our spiritual practice to the place where a real encounter with the divine is possible.

It is no wonder that the encounter with a divinity is described as “numinous.” This word was popularized by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential 1917 book Das Heilige (which appeared in English as The Idea of the Holy in 1923). Translating from Latin, Otto describes the experience of the numinous as a mystery (Latin: mysterium) that is at once terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans).

Translating this into Jungian psychological parlance, we can say that a true encounter with the divine (including our own divine essence, the Self) is not all roses and holy choir – that it involves both positive and negative inflation. We may think of the negative inflation as the surrendering or “sacrificing,” (i.e., “making sacred”) of our ego. It is about emptying the cup. It is about becoming the hollowed out reed flute. It is about embracing the Buddhist notion of Emptiness. And the opposite polarity of this stance will be the positive inflation - where I am Shiva. I am the deity of my worship. It is the movement of identifying with, and fully embodying, the divine.

Neither of these positions are dangerous in themselves. Indeed, both are necessary for a true “numinous” experience. What matters is that we do not get stuck on either polarity. If that happens, then we are no longer having a numinous experience. Then, we are “possessed” and “devoured” by the deity.

The invitation, then, is to a dance. A dance along this infinity symbol where inflation and deflation flow into and intermingle with each other. We dance - over and over again in this graceful spiral movement – until we are brought to that numinous experience of a mystic birth!

And then, when this particular movement of the dance is concluded, we come back to “chop wood, carry water.” Or, as the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield says, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry!”

May it be so.

May it be so for you. May it be so for me. May it be so for all beings everywhere.


The Dance of Ego and Shadow


The Dance of Ego and Shadow

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature and behavior of psychological Shadow. The word “shadow” has now entered mainstream consciousness – and is certainly a much-discussed topic in the New Age circles. Shadow, as we know, includes all aspects of our personality that we do not actively identify with, or own as “ours.”

When I read many of these New Age texts, though, I am often left with the feeling that a lot of the so-called “shadow-work” is really done from the perspective of, and in service to, the Ego. It is about “conquering,” “vanquishing,” “depotentiating” the Shadow. It is about becoming “pure” and “enlightened.”

While it is indeed possible to integrate aspects of our Shadow into our conscious personality, we need to tread carefully in this domain; lest our “shadow-work” become another ego-project in its relentless perusal of perfection! And as we will see later in the essay, the cost of such a project could be prohibitive for our soul!

Tree of Life and Death: from a fifteenth century illuminated manuscript

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

Tree of Life and Death with Mary on one side and Eve on the other. Salzburger Missale - Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Clm 15708-15712; fifteenth century, Germany; Vellum (parchment), paint, gold leaf

The relationship of Ego and Shadow is magnificently depicted in a medieval illuminated manuscript (see image caption). In this image, we see Adam reclining, as if exhausted, in the center of the field. From his navel rises the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. On the side of the “good,” we see Mary – wearing the blue robes of purity and virginity – offering the “fruits of salvation” to a long line of penitents. On the “evil” side, we see Eve – naked and sensual – offering the “fruits of damnation” to her line of… shall we call them celebrants (as opposed to penitents)? Mary, in her pious act, is watched over by an angel; Eve is assisted in hers by Death!

If we take a moment to connect with the image more deeply, we see that Mary serves as the conscious “right hand” of Adam. Thus, she represents his conscious stance – his Ego. Eve, represents his unconscious “left hand” Shadow.

What this manuscript illustration tells us, in no uncertain terms, is that as we are busy picking the socially acceptable, even laudable, fruits – of service, good work and piety with one hand, the other hand, unbeknownst to ourselves, is picking other fruits (of whatever we see as our personal Shadow, e.g., greed, lust, neediness…).

It cannot be any other way.

Birth of shadow

In the Jungian worldview, Shadow is seen as the most superficial, the most reachable part of our Personal Unconscious. Thus, many aspects of the shadow are, theoretically, possible to be brought into consciousness, and thus “integrated.” Integration of Shadow here does not mean that they are necessarily acted out, but that we are aware of, say our inner thief, or our inner jealous lover. In fact, the more we are aware of these parts – the less likely are we to act them out, and the more likely we will be not to judge harshly when we see another person acting them out! True empathy is born out of knowing our own Shadow.

It may not be wrong to assume that we are born shadowless. Shadow, in all likelihood, begins to form as we develop an Ego – which is very much colored by our family and culture – that tells us what is acceptable and what is not. The child soon learns that if he smiles and follows orders, he is loved and fed and played with. If she throws a tantrum, she gets a time-out, or is sent to bed without supper. The child thus learns, quite early on, that obedience is good, and anger is bad. The child needs its parents for its very survival. So, the murderous rage of the infant moves into the child’s unconscious, and a piece of the Shadow is born.

My Jungian analyst often likes to remind me, “every object casts a shadow!” True indeed. But only in the presence of light. As long as we are in complete darkness, like a fetus in the womb, we are in participation mystique with the Mother, who represents for us the whole of the Universe. In this mystical-magical sense of oneness of the fetus/newborn with the mother, there is no separation of Subject and Object. All is one. Thus, there is no Shadow. But as soon as there is a dawning of Consciousness, of identification of Objects – inner and outer – as “mine,” these Objects begin to cast their Shadow. It is simple physics, really. Whenever there is light, and there are objects on its path, there is also shadow.

As we grow older, we consolidate our identity (“this is me, and that is not-me”) and find our place in the world. The more we progress along this path of “Ego Consolidation”, the more our shadow deepens. One can almost say that for us to become conscious, we have to cast a shadow.

Jungian analyst and author, Robert Johnson, in his book “Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche,” uses the metaphor of a seesaw, or a teeter-totter, to describe the relationship of Ego and Shadow. As we go through the first half of life, where we are consolidating our Ego, we begin to accumulate things on one end of the seesaw that are “me” (Ego aspects), and on the other end accumulate the “not me” (the Shadow aspects).

Unfortunately, culture is only comfortable with a narrow range of attributes, and what goes into Shadow is not just what is negative, but also the things that are great about us. This so-called “Golden Shadow” will be the subject of another essay soon.

In any case, around midlife, when the Ego has been sufficiently consolidated and functions well in the world, there comes a time when we tend to get bored with our narrowly-defined, culturally-sanctioned and often-bloodless life. This is typically a time when the seesaw can flip, bringing on the famous “midlife crisis.” Thus, the perfectly mellow gentleman begins to collect fancy guns and go on hunting parties with buddies, taking savage pleasure in butchering innocent animals; and the stay-at-home mother-of-four begins a secret affair. This sudden shadow explosion can also be easily somatized as physical or mental illness. But that again is a subject for another day.

Shadow always first appears as projection

It is very difficult, some Jungians will say impossible, for us to meet our Shadow unmediated. We first “encounter” our Shadow (both positive and negative Shadow) as a projection on an outer “Other” – which could be a person, an institution, or even an idea or a philosophy.

So, one of the best ways for us to identify our Shadows is to see who or what triggers us. Any time we feel angry, upset or judgmental toward someone, or are overly in awe of someone, there are probably Shadow elements at play!

An interesting phenomenon often noticed is that our Shadow is most often projected on someone or something that offers a “hook.” So, it is easy for us to hold on to our righteous indignation and put the blame on the Other. They are the one who is bigoted, nasty or greedy! And indeed, a large part of the blame may correctly reside in the Outer Other. But, most often, not all of it belongs to this Outer Other. Thus, if we can find enough space inside us to separate our feelings from the Outer Other, we find that these feelings are our best “mirrors,” in which we first glimpse our “Inner Other.”

How do we “integrate” a shadow element?

Now, the most important question in this investigation. Now that we are aware of a Shadow element, what do we do with it? What exactly do we mean by Integrating the Shadow?

In Jungian terms, Integration of Shadow means integrating Shadow elements into Consciousness. We are now conscious of possessing that Shadow aspect and accept it as our own.

Of course, integration is different from willy-nilly enactment. Culture cannot exist if we all enact all our Shadows.

How do we then “integrate” our inner thief or our inner murderer?

The power of ritual in making the shadow conscious within a safe container

Ritual is a time-honored way to “enact” aspects of our personality that cannot be safely enacted in daily life. Ancient cultures had rituals to “sanctify” lust, for example, through various Dionysian rituals and temple prostitution.

Robert Johnson, the Jungian author mentioned above, draws our attention to the gruesome shadow imagery of the contemporary Catholic Mass:

“The Catholic Mass is a masterpiece of balancing our cultural life. If one has the courage to see, the Mass is full of the darkest things: there is incest, betrayal, rejection, torture, death—and worse. All this leads to revelation but not until the dark side has been portrayed as vividly as possible. If one went to Mass in high consciousness one would tremble at the awfulness of it—and be redeemed by its balancing effect. The Mass lost much of its effectiveness when it was modernized and made to serve the cultural process. One ought to be pale with terror at the Mass.”

It is interesting how the use of the world “awful” itself has been profaned in modern times. Our contemporary words, awful and awesome, originally meant "worthy of respect or fear, striking with awe; causing dread." How different that is from this slice of pizza being awful, or awesome!

One of the great advantages of a ritual, participated in with full awareness, is that it allows a transpersonal container – a temenos – for the shadow aspects that will be too much for cultural cohesiveness, if enacted in daily life.

Our deep shadow elements have archetypal cores

There is an important fact that is often lost in the facile reading of what I have come to call “Jung lite.” Many of our deepest shadow identities – e.g., the Murderer, the Prostitute, the Dark Devouring Mother – are in fact archetypal images. Archetypes, if we remember, live in the Collective Unconscious, much deeper in our psyche than the Personal Unconscious. They belong not to us personally, but to the entire humankind.

Archetypes represent powerful, primordial instincts or “prototypes” of ways of being, that are then translated into archetypal images. It is important to remember that archetypes are not images - images stem from an underlying, eventually undefinable prototype of experience. An archetypal image may change with time and culture, but the underlying archetype stays rooted in the very depths of our psyche.

Another essential feature of an archetype is that it is always bipolar. If the smothering, devouring Mother is one pole, then the all-nurturing, all-absorbing Mother is the other. And if we really work deeply with any archetype, we eventually experience both its polarities. And therein lies its potential to balance (and thus “heal”) the psyche.

But this brings us to an important fact - one that we can ignore only at our peril. I will reiterate here. Archetypes are extremely powerful, potent, archaic instincts that we can never “integrate,” or assimilate into our conscious self-identity. These “instincts” of the psyche are so potent, that if we try to “integrate” or “embody” them in our day-to-day life, we risk what has been called “inflation.” In other words, our conscious Ego personality is then so completely overwhelmed by these powerful, “awful” images, that we dissociate and fragment. We go mad! Robert Johnson describes this situation as trying to run 10,000 Volts on circuits designed to carry 110 Volts!

To encounter these deep archetypal images, then, we need a “transpersonal container.” This is what makes rituals so powerful. A ritual provides an outer (physical) as well as an inner (psychological) space that is clearly demarcated from our daily life. Within this container, this temenos, we can “encounter,” and even briefly embody, the archetypal affects and images.

For a ritual to effectively allow us to become conscious of our Shadow without being overwhelmed by it, it is absolutely necessary for the participant to have a felt access to the transpersonal realm.

In olden days, this transpersonal realm belonged to God, or the gods.

The ancient Hebrew ritual of the scapegoat

We often talk about “scapegoating” someone, or someone being the family’s scapegoat, but few of us know that the word comes from an ancient ritual of the Hebraic people.

The original ritual of the scapegoat happened once a year on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. Two goats were selected for the ritual. One was sacrificed (“made sacred”) to Yahweh. Its blood was then used to ritually purify certain powerful ceremonial objects. The other goat (the one “not chosen”) was then ritually designated as the carrier of the community’s sins for the entire year. After being laden with the community’s sins, it was cast out – scapegoated – into the desert (outside the communal boundaries). By carrying the sins of the community outside its boundaries, this goat ritually cleansed the community of its sins... until the next year.

It was understood that the goat would perish shortly afterwards – either due to exposure to the elements, lack of water in the desert, or to predators lurking outside the communal boundaries.

What was interesting, though, was that the realm outside the communal boundaries was also seen and experienced as a transpersonal realm – the realm of Azazel. According to the Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish text, Azazel was a fallen angel — one of the leaders of the rebellious Watchers in the time preceding the Flood. He taught men the art of warfare, of making swords, knives, shields, and coats of mail; and taught women the art of ornamenting their bodies, dyeing hair, and painting their faces and their eyebrows. He is also said to have revealed to the people the secrets of witchcraft.

Thus, the scapegoat carried the sins of the people – the Cultural Shadow – into a transpersonal realm – the realm of the deity Azazel. Etymologically, the name Azazel is composed of azaz (meaning “rugged”) and el (meaning “of God”). In other words, Azazel was the keeper or the manifestation of the Shadow of Yahweh, and thus, the appropriate recipient of the excluded “Other” – the Scapegoat.

How, then, do we sanctify our scapegoat – our shadow – in our time and place?

Unfortunately, most of us are not lucky enough to viscerally believe in an Azazel who will receive our offering of the scapegoat. How then do we relate to our Shadow elements that are just too potent to integrate in our all-so-human personality?

In the absence of communal gods with whom we have a viscerally felt connection, we now have the task to define, for ourselves, a sense of the Sacred that lives beyond our conscious personality (out in the desert, beyond our conscious boundaries). We do not need to be religious, but we do need a container, an image – for that which is bigger than our individual selves. Once again, this sense of the Sacred cannot be just theoretical, but it has to be felt - in our guts! In other words, it has to have numinosity. Numinous is a word derived from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. For an image to be numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (a sense of mystery that has the power to cause fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

What is this numinous transpersonal image for us – the “modern” human?

For some, it is still God. For others, it could be the psychological Self – the center and the totality of our psyche that encompasses a much larger range of experience that just our Ego identity. For others, it could be the Earth or the Cosmos. It could also be a particular piece of music, art or philosophy. It could be a “therapeutic temenos” held by a therapist, a mentor, or a counselor. It could be a modern image - such as Yoda or Galadriel, or Professor Dumbledore. As the psychologist Matt Licata says in a recent blog post, it could even be “a reindeer who has come from the moon!”

In the end, the specifics of the container does not matter. What matters is that it be able to serve as an alchemical vessel, a vas, during our encounter with the Shadow. It needs to be strong enough – in a felt sense - such that it will not shatter when the 10,000 Volts of archetypal energy flows through it!

Finally, a word of caution

As we discussed above, it is imperative that before we do any serious shadow-work, we must first find, and build a trusting relationship with, this ritual container – this “divine container” – in whatever way we understand (“feel”) the Divine to be.

In alchemy, there is a saying, “festina lente,” which means "hasten slowly." This is sage advice for anyone seeking to do deep shadow-work. One needs to ensure that one has a safe container to do the work, and then to proceed slowly, increasing the temperature in the vas only a bit at a time - so we can “cook” our soul instead of burning it to a crisp! In fact, this work is best done within a relational field - where another soul can watch over ours, while we are being fragmented and put back together.

So, here is the message once again. In any serious inner work, our first order of business is to be gentle with our soul. We cannot beat it over the head to “integrate” its shadow in a weekend workshop! The psyche has its own timeline, and it is wise to respect that. In fact, any attempt by the Ego to fast-forward Soul Time is a hubris that could literally kill us - at least psychologically and spiritually, if not physically.


A scientist’s dance with the divine

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A scientist’s dance with the divine

Fractals: a prayer in images

This post is personal, where I trace my journey with the divine, vis-à-vis my identity as a scientist. As a teaser, I first offer you this delicious visual meditation of the many faces of the divine. These are images from various parts of the famous Madelbrot set, taken at different levels of zoom, and using very similar color schemes. We will speak in detail about fractals another time. Here, I just offer you the beauty and the mystery that is invoked by these infinitely self-similar images. The reason I love the Mandelbrot set in particular is that no matter how close you get to a structure, or how far you move from it, the patterns are very similar. Mind you, they are similar - not exactly the same. This, to me, is important. These are not just mechanical repetitions like a marching army - each image is unique, while also being intimately related to all others.

A Confession

Unlike many of my other posts, this one starts with a personal confession. Although I am an ordained minister, I still have a HUGE problem with the word God. When I really take the time to ask myself – what makes my belly tighten when I hear the word God, I realize that my critique is not really so much about the idea of God. Rather, it is about all the social, cultural and political meanings that have accrued onto the word, and all the horror and divisiveness that has been wreaked in its name. First, the word God, for me, conjures up a patriarchal hierarchy – “our Father who art in heaven.” It also conjures up a cultural supremacy – the dominant culture’s God thrust upon colonized and enslaved people the world over –without any consideration of their inherent beliefs.

I have much less problem with “the gods” (small “g”) of people from various cultures and various times. I love those stories and the powerful symbols they embody!

For a very significant part of my life, I lived the identity of “the scientist,” who by definition, had to be an atheist or at least, an agnostic. Science and the divine could not have a place at the same table – I was told. And I bought it - for the most part; although I must say I was always a reluctant atheist! As an adolescent, I was fascinated by Vivekananda, and his erudition on Advaita Vedanta (the Hindu philosophical school that is based on non-duality of Self and God). Around this time, I also fortuitously laid my hands on physicist Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Thus, Vivekananda and Capra were my earliest influences, but it took me a long and often angry detour, to finally get to the place where I am now. I credit the poets - Rumi, John O’Donohue, Tagore - and the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell - in facilitating my return. Each of them, in their own way, gave me the permission to pursue the divine through beauty and wonder and awe, and leave aside the dogma.

Encountering the numinous

The honest answer to the question of why I went into seminary is that even though I resisted the call for a very long time, it is the very part of me that drew me to science in the first place, that has now drawn me to ministry. There’s a part of me that just cannot stop being in wonder – in awe of the world we are gifted to live in. I truly feel that we live in a magical world. I am reminded of it every time I think about the baby galaxies being born in the galactic nurseries, of the massive stars going supernova, of the idea that our “Universe” came out of nothing in a fiery Big Bang, and that we are still riding that initial wave of expansion! …Just sit with that for a moment…

Nearer home, I think about the hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolic pathways that have to work, and coordinate and feed back into each other, just right, for me to take my next breath!

I am right now thinking about a Planet Earth video showing a lion, resting after a prolonged chase and kill, satiated and yawning. The amazing camera work allows me to see right up close; I can see those fluttering whiskers, those twitching muscles in the face, and those huge teeth still with bits of meat stuck between them! I get chills looking at that face!

Is this not what has been called “numinous” by the philosophers? Numinous is a word derived by Rudolf Otto, a German theologian and philosopher, from Latin “numen,” meaning an image or a symbol that has the power, presence, and/or realization of the divine. Otto posited that for an experience to be counted as numinous, it has to provoke a “mysterium tremendum” (i.e., a sense of mystery that has the power to invoke fear and trembling), and a quality of “fascinans” (i.e., the ability to attract, fascinate and compel).

By this definition, my encounter with the galaxies, with my own metabolic pathways and with the yawning lion, are all numinous (i.e., divine).

And then there’s so much we can’t make sense of! So much that seems horrible, unconscionable. I think of the lion in whose image I just encountered the divine, as he pounces on the baby antelope, drags it, plays with it, and eventually devours it. I think of the mother of the baby antelope, who runs away to save her own life, leaving behind her fragile offspring. I think of the school shooters, of people blowing themselves up in public places in the name of God, I think of violence and rape and torture that is so much a story of our species. I think of my own daily uncertainties and yes, fear, as I parent a teen.

Are these experiences also not numinous – invoking mysterium tremendum et fascinans?

There is just so much poetry in this world of ours! So much beauty and so much pain that it makes your heart ache!

How do we be with it all?

“Living prayerfully” as a choice in the face of unknowing

Could all of this beauty and all this heartbreak be fully explained by a merely random roll of dice? Could it all be nothing but the logical turning of gears by a blind watchmaker?

I cannot bring myself to believe so. Because to believe so will be lose that wonder, that awe… that sense of adventuring into the unknown.

I remember a story told to me by a teacher. I don’t know whether the story is true. But it is a powerful teaching story irrespective of its factual veracity. According to the story, a student asked Socrates whether he believed in life after death. Socrates said he did. The student then asked him whether he had any proof to support his belief. Socrates said he didn’t. But then, Socrates said this: he said that he chose to live his life “as if” life-after-death were true – because it gave meaning to his life. It oriented his life and his choices in a certain way. And if when he died, he found out that it weren’t true… well then… it would be too late then, wouldn’t it? First, he wouldn’t really care one way or another at that point. And second, he would have lived a good life. And if it were indeed true, then he would have been off to a good start!

I think my going to the seminary, and living a prayerful life (although I have no traditional “God” that I pray to), is about a similar philosophy. For me, a prayerful life is a life oriented by awe and wonder and mystery… of always being willing to be surprised. I do not want to live my life cowering under the knowledge of the immensity of this creation, the immensity of my own unknowing and my lack of power in the greater scheme of things. I want to look up to this immensity and unknowing with awe, and with reverence, and say with Rumi:

“Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

When I really think about it, I do not think that the battle is truly between a worldview imbued with divinity and a world governed by science, but rather, about what we mean by “science.” Whose science is it that we are talking about? If we limit our “science” to the Galilean/Newtonian rationalist/positivist ideas, then yes, there’s a conflict. But if we now extend our science to Quantum theory, Systems theory and cutting edge Astrophysics and Cosmology, then the world of spirituality and science could happily coexist. Indeed, they magnify and enliven each other.

I think what is common between all these pursuits is the sense of mystery, of wonder, of beauty, of not being sure… Each of them requires us to be comfortable with not knowing, with not having the final answer. It is about, in Rilke’s words, “living the question.”

Encountering “the Universe” anew

Below I offer you just two quotes from Brian Green’s latest book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Greene, a contemporary physicist and popular science writer, highlights in these quotes the degree of our unknowing about things we have always taken for granted. Here, he is talking about the possibility of us living in a Multiverse. It is an understanding of cosmology where the idea of “The Universe” somehow feels parochial!

“There was a time when “universe” meant “all there is.” Everything. The whole shebang. The notion of more than one universe, more than one everything, would seemingly be a contradiction in terms. Yet a range of theoretical developments has gradually qualified the interpretation of “universe.” The word’s meaning now depends on context.”

While warning us that physicists are far from proving – in any rigorous way – that we indeed live in a multiverse, he suggests that the idea of multiple – even an infinite number – of Universes – seems quite probable. And indeed, the concept of multiverse itself is not unitary, since different cutting edge theories in physics predict different types of multiverse!

“Each (theory) envisions our universe as part of an unexpectedly larger whole, but the complexion of that whole and the nature of the member universes differ sharply among them. In some, the parallel universes are separated from us by enormous stretches of space or time; in others, they’re hovering millimeters away; in others still, the very notion of their location proves parochial, devoid of meaning. A similar range of possibility is manifest in the laws governing the parallel universes. In some, the laws are the same as in ours; in others, they appear different but have a shared heritage; in others still, the laws are of a form and structure unlike anything we’ve ever encountered. It’s at once humbling and stirring to imagine just how expansive reality may be.”

Given this science, how can I conceive of a God that still makes sense?

This is a question that has been on my mind and heart for a long time. Given my deep ambivalence about formal religions and the harm they have caused to humanity by pitching one’s God against the other’s, the only seminary I could go to was “One Spirit” Learning Alliance.

Among all the religious traditions we studied at seminary, the ones that speak to me the most deeply are the indigenous traditions. No matter whether we are studying Native American spirituality, or Yoruba tradition, or the spiritual beliefs of Australian Aborigines, one thing we find in common. And it is the belief that the entire creation is alive, and ensouled. Everything, in this scheme of understanding, is alive – and has a right to exist on its own terms. We have the two-leggeds, the four-leggeds, the creepy-crawlies, the Flying Nation, the Green Nation. We have the Stone People. We have Mother Earth, and Brother Wind; we have Father Sun and Grandmother Moon. We revere the Stone People as our ancestors, because they were on this earth a long time before we got here! We look up at the stars lighting up the night sky, and we hear the story told by the elders that each of those twinkling lights is a campfire of an ancestor! What a magical way to live! In this way of approaching life, every act of living – eating, sleeping, bathing, hunting, mating –becomes a prayer. More than any religious dogma, this is what I understand as prayerful living – a life that is in direct engagement with divinity at all times. If you truly believe that everything is alive, and everything is related to you, you still take what you need from the earth. But, you give thanks for what you take. You thank the animal who gave its life so you could eat. And you never take so much that the bush, the grove, the herd, will not be able to replenish what you took. If this is not prayerful living, I don’t know what is! And how different this is from our “scientific” and rational lives – which routinely denude rainforests, cause and sustain oil spills, support fracking, and cause extinction of species by the thousands, whose effects on the ecosystem we cannot even begin to fathom…

Indra’s jeweled net: an image of God that (for now) works for me

When I see where science is going – away from reductionist silos of knowledge to Integral and Systems understanding – to interconnected webs that constantly feedback on each other – I find that my understanding of God has to keep up with this movement. My sense of the divine has to be vast enough to encompass my science. For me, that is the only way that the symbol of the divine will remain alive and vital in my life.

Lately, I have been sitting with the idea of “indrajaal” (Indra’s net), as a possible symbol of the divine that I can relax into. Indrajaal is a beautiful symbol that comes out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. It perceives divinity as a net, or a web, spread over the entire creation. At each junction where two threads of the net meet, there is a jewel. Each of these shining jewels – of which there are an infinite number – reflect every other jewel in the net… Take a moment to sit with this image… A gossamer net with an infinite number of jewels – one jewel at every contact point – each reflecting all of the other jewels!

I love this image for several reasons.

First, this image is able to hold the tension of the polarity of one God/many gods. The net is one. But each point of the net is manifested by a specific jewel – which is both unique, and at the same time, reflects all other jewels. Each jewel could be a divinity, a religion, a planet, a galaxy, an Universe… Or a point in my fractals above…

Plus, a net is inherently flexible. It has no rigid shape. It turns, folds, twists and adapts, and still stays whole. The Irish poet, John O’Donohue, invokes an image of the webs spun by the Wolf Spiders. These spiders spin their webs not between two solid objects such as stones or wall corners, but between two blades of grass. So, as the wind comes and lifts the blades of grass, the web sways, only to relax back, intact, when the wind has passed! What a beautiful image of tenacity and resilience that is not harsh and rigid! What a beautiful image of the divine!

To me, this image of Indra’s jeweled net is very close to Carl Jung’s idea of the archetypes of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious can be thought of as the ocean, in which we are all immersed (he did say, repeatedly, that we live in the psyche, rather than the psyche living in us). Throughout this ocean of the collective unconscious are scattered the archetypes – condensations of instinct and psychic potentialities – that may manifest in our lives at times, in response to inner or outer stimuli – only to relax back into the unconscious when the stimulus recedes. Although this particular post is not the place to discuss archetypes in detail, I want to point out that unlike the “Jung lite” that pervades New Age thinking, an archetype is a potentiality that can NEVER be integrated into a person’s psyche, and thus depotentiated. We can integrate parts of their manifestation in our lives in the form of understanding and owning parts of our complexes, but the underlying archetype never loses – yes – its numinosity. Archetypes are our common inheritance, like the jewels of Indra’s net, and no one person can own them or vanquish them.

Many people from many cultures over time have tried to put into words this dialectic between the general and the specific nature of the divine. However, the concept is so ineffable, that what they have provided us with are more images. So, here are a couple of other images.

One of these images comes from the Indian saint, Ramakrishna, when he tried to explain the nature of God to his disciples. His image was that of a body of water – say an ocean. The water is everywhere, and you can’t distinguish one part of it from another. It is all the same water. But now, imagine that in certain places, the water freezes. Now, there are chunks of ice which have solidified. They have now become manifest, embodied. However, they are still the same water.

Another image comes from Black Elk, the Oglala Sioux medicine man from South Dakota, USA. In a conversation with ethnologist John Neihardt, he says that the center of the world – the axis mundi – is the Harney Peak in South Dakota. In the very next statement, he says, “but, the central mountain of the world is everywhere!”

These statements are very reminiscent of the quote below from the medieval theological text, Liber XXIV Philosophorum (The Book of the Twenty Four Philosophers):

“God is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere.”

This is the paradox we are called to live with. Divinity is not just transcendent or just immanent; it is neither spirit nor soul. It is both. And much, much more – that we cannot put into words.

Thus, in my worldview at this moment, I believe that we live in a world permeated with divinity, and that this divinity “crystallizes” wherever we pay attention to it. In other words, God is present at any place, at any time, and in any activity - as long as we inhabit it in awe and in prayerful wonder!

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