by Bernadette Roberts
The Critical Turning Point
The unitive state is as far as we can go with the inward journey. Once we come to the unitive state, the inward movement comes to an end; it is over, finished. We cannot go beyond the divine or innermost center of being-we cannot go deeper than the deepest. If we feel there is any deeper movement possible, or any greater depth to be realized, we have not yet come to the unitive state. The divine is that deepest point in ourselves where no movement is possible or where all movement comes to an end.
The fact that we cannot go beyond the deepest divine center indicates that this center marks the deepest vertical boundary of consciousness. Though we know the divine is infinite and without boundaries, in experience the divine center is actually a boundary, a boundary that IS consciousness. The very terms, "innermost," "deepest," "centermost" all indicate an experiential boundary beyond which consciousness cannot go-thus it cannot go beyond its divine center. We have to face the truth that consciousness can experience only so much of the divine, simply because it is not divine. It is an error to believe that the unitive or transcendental condition is limitless or that it has no boundaries. What remains to be revealed in the unitive state is how far the human limits have been expanded due to the unitive state, and how far man can actually push these new limits. Until this state is fully exercised and tested in the ordinary marketplace, its limits can never be known. In fact, until we push limits (any limit, for that matter) we can never know if limits exists, much less know what they are.
Apart from the revelation of the deepest divine center and true self, one way we know that the transforming process is over and that the butterfly is complete and ready to fly is that none of its experiences, even its ecstasies, add a jot to its new condition. Thus all the experiences and practices that were helpful in the transforming process become unnecessary, they bring about no change and take us no deeper than the deepest center. The butterfly that is truly complete knows without doubt or hesitation that he has gone as far in this life as it is possible to go at this time, hence the definite sense of ending. The question that now arises is how best to live this new life. For the completed butterfly there will arise the courage and fearlessness to put the past behind, and fly into the unknown as the servant of all in order to exercise and test its new life under the most trying circumstances. Failure to take this leap or risk indicates that the butterfly is not complete and still clings to its secure position with all its experiences and practices. Here I think of a Buddhist saying that once we have reached the other shore we have no need to carry the raft around with us. The raft, of course, are all the practices, experiences and even the life style that were a part of crossing over from the old to the new life, or from the egoic to the unitive state. These are of no use any more, they add nothing to the unitive state and if we cling to them, they may even hold us back.
We must be clear, however, about what is meant by letting go the raft of our former practices. Once we find the pearl of great price the search is over; we no longer need the tools, maps and other paraphernalia that had been helpful to the quest. (The tools and maps, for example, might be silence, solitude, meditation, inspirational reading and much more). Not all practices, of course, are means to an end-some practices are actually ends in themselves. In my own tradition, for example, the Eucharist (the true presence of Christ) is not a means to anything, but an end in itself and the truth that has been realized. Also, much that was formerly a practice has become the permanent state of affairs. Thus charity or compassion is no longer something we practice, it is the deepest center of our being that arises automatically, spontaneously. We no longer need silence and solitude to practice awareness of the divine because this is our everyday consciousness. It is not that we deliberately let go our former practices; rather, with the pearl in hand, digging automatically ceases. Now we go out to share our find with others.
The reason for bringing this up is that some people have the mistaken notion that a "realizer" is one who no longer practices his religion-or has no religion anymore. But this makes no sense if we understand that all someone has realized is the ultimate Truth of his religion. Once we realize Truth, what do we do with it-give it up? This makes no sense. Once we realize Truth we live it and share it; we cannot throw it away. Anything that can be dismissed or thrown away is obviously not ultimate Truth. The "raft" then refers to those specific aids and interior ruses by which we crossed the river. Letting go simply refers to the realization that we no longer need these helps and securities; once on the "other shore" (the divine center), we have no need for anything, because now we have everything.
Between the beginning and the end of the unitive state, then, there is a long road to traverse, a road that few people realize is there. To get on this road, the choice is to fly or not to fly-to leave the raft behind or not to leave it behind. The piece of enlightenment on which this decision is based is what I call "the critical turning point." The occurrence or non-occurrence of this turning point may give us a clue to why some butterflies remain remote and secure on their branches for the rest of their lives and why others take to the pathless path and enter the ordinary marketplace.
Once the inward journey is over and a new life begins, several enlightening experiences occur which, while they add nothing to the unitive state, nevertheless give insight into it. One of these is a glimpse beyond the unitive state to a final divine condition (beatific or heavenly, there is really no name for" it) wherein the unitive state is canceled like a candle dissolved in the sun. From our present position this final condition appears incompatible with continued earthly existence, impossible in fact. Because this experience is beyond the unitive state, the obvious conclusion is that the unitive state is transient, non-eternal and meant only for this life. At the same time we learn that in the final condition there is no sense of any self, not even unitive or God-consciousness; the final state seems to be beyond all this. Permanent entrance into such a marvelous condition, however, seems to be the ultimate death experience. But since we do not seem destined to die right away, the question arises of how best to live and exercise the present unitive condition in the here and now.
Following these experiences is a further piece of enlightenment. Seeing that the unitive state can be transcended only in death, and since death does not seem imminent, there comes the need for a deliberate, generous acceptance of the phenomenal self with all its conditional experiences and situations. There arises a great determination to live this human condition as fully as it was divinely intended to be. At the same time the choice to live the unitive state to its fullest human capacity entails an element of sacrifice, which is the deliberate forfeiture of all beatific or heavenly experiences. There are several reason why this deliberate forfeiture is required in order to get on with the unitive life.
To begin with, these advanced experiences are only transient, and thus there is the repeated return to the unitive state. From this we conclude that this heavenly condition cannot become permanent this side of the grave. Also, because the final condition cancels the unitive state, we know these two states are incompatible; the heavenly state totally overwhelms the unitive state. Such lofty experiences pull in the opposite direction from any earthly involvement. They do not invigorate the psyche; rather, they tend to dissolve it. The choice involved here is either to foster these advanced experiences or to forfeit them-walk away if possible. What matters is that we make the choice.
There is also the recognition that because these experiences add nothing to the unitive state, they serve no real purpose in our spiritual life. We do not need them, desire them or cling to them; above all, we are cautious lest they become self serving instead of God serving. We have come too far to be attached to our "experiences." To get on with life is what the unitive life is all about; it is not about transient beatific or heavenly experiences, however wonderful these may be.
But the most important reason for putting off these experiences and opting instead to enter the marketplace is the great love and generosity engendered by the unitive condition. This love is too great to be kept within or solely for one's self; rather, this love wants to move outward to embrace not only the whole of human existence, but all that exists. Thus when the inward journey is over, the whole movement of the passage turns around and begins to move outward because of the expanding divine center and its all-inclusive love and generosity. This love finds no outlet for its energies in the mere enjoyment of transient beatific experiences. In fact so great is this love, it would sacrifice heaven in order to prove and test its love for the divine in this world. There comes to mind St. Therese's dying words, "I will spend my heaven doing good on earth," meaning she would choose to do good on earth rather than enjoy the bliss of heaven. It should be remembered, however, that this choice or forfeiture is peculiar to this particular stage of the journey. We cannot forfeit any experiential state if it is not ours to surrender.
The turning point then is the choice between our heavenly experiences and the generous, full acceptance of our human condition. While I cannot speak for others in this matter, as a Christian I saw this turning point in the light of Christ's own choice. At one point Christ deliberately "put off his divinity in order to "take on" our humanity, take on this impermanent conditional self or consciousness in order to be with us in the marketplace. This was a choice for humanity over heaven itself. By doing this, however, he could show us the way and lead us back with him to the heavenly state from which he came. Thus in light of Christ's forfeiture of the ultimate divine condition and his acceptance of the human condition, the Christian follows in the footsteps of Christ when he moves into the marketplace and a life of selfless giving. He knows without question that when his earthly mission is complete the divine will take all, but in the meantime he will give all.
Though I am not a Buddhist and cannot speak for their experiential path, I think this same turning point may be found in their own tradition-at least in that of the Mahayanas. My understanding is that until the practitioner becomes an enlightened Bodhisattva he is only aspiring to become one. He becomes a true Bodhisattva when he definitively sees or realizes the impermanence of self-not merely the egoic self, but the impermanence of even the enlightened Bodhisattva condition. It is only at this point (the turning point) the Buddhist can "put off" his nirvanic experiences and with his wealth of compassion go forth to "save all sentient beings." Certainly this is a movement outward to all life and to a life of selfless giving. This is not, of course, a forfeiture of the unitive state which cannot be forfeited any more than the butterfly can return to its larva stage. Rather, this going forth means putting behind the delightful and lofty nirvanic experiences which add nothing to the immediate enlightened condition. As long as we continue to exist in this world the expression of love and compassion is a million times greater than our transient experiences of another existence wherein this world is neither seen nor known.
The turning point, then, is when the whole movement of the journey turns around. In the beginning the movement was inward, but having come to the infinite divine center there is no further inward to go, and the movement turns around and begins to go outward. This outward expansion is virtually an expansion of divine love and our love for the divine. Few people realize or recognize that the inward journey has a definitive end, and that at one point man's psychological-spiritual journey becomes an outward movement. We have to be cautious, however, that there is no premature going outward or an untimely return to the marketplace. When this happens we have a case of the blind leading the blind. But the turning point is well marked; when we come to it we shall know it and there will be no doubts. As a milestone it is so critical that if it does not occur we go no further with the journey, which means we can never come to the end of the unitive state this side of the grave. Unless the true self (or egoless self) has lived to the fullest extent of its unitive potential, there can be no ending of self or consciousness while still in this world. The whole purpose of this state is to bring us to yet a further end, which end is the death of self and the divine-in Christian terms, Christ's own death. Perhaps the difference between those who move on and those who do not lies in the particular experiences we have been discussing. In simple terms, the turning point is the realization that even the unitive state is impermanent and that, until it permanently falls away in death, it must be fearlessly exercised in the here and now.
But before we can discuss the eventual falling away of the unitive self or consciousness, we must return to the butterfly that has irrevocably left behind all the securities of the cocoon and embarked on the pathless journey that lies ahead. Although the ego-self is now known in retrospect as what was, the "true self is yet unknown. All we know at this point is that self is one with the divine and that its deepest true nature (the essence of self or "what" it is) is as mysterious and unknown as the divine itself. The unitive state is virtually the union of two unknowns. We are well acquainted with the everyday phenomenal or impermanent self, but the unknown aspect of consciousness that is one with the divine, we do not know. It is only by living out the unitive condition in the marketplace that the final true nature of self or consciousness is gradually, and then finally, disclosed. Thus beyond the turning point there begins the further disclosure of the unknown true self.
Beyond the Turning Point: Unmasking the True Self
As already noted, in the unitive state the phenomenal or impermanent self still remains. This particular self-experience, however, is very different than it was in the egoic state. To get some idea of what makes the difference, let us again imagine self or consciousness as a circular piece of paper. The edges of the paper respond to incoming data and this response heads inward for the self-center where, in the egoic state, it becomes stuck because there is no place else to go. In the unitive state, however, the ego center is gone; the empty hole in the center of the paper is the divine. Thus when a response comes to the empty center it stops because it can go no further. At this point or threshold of consciousness all responses meet up with the divine empty center where they dissolve or come to naught. In this way our feeling responses to events and circumstances never go beyond a certain threshold-the threshold of consciousness or self-at which point self or consciousness meets up with the divine empty center.
Due to the empty center, consciousness is well balanced; for without the ego-center consciousness is incapable of extremes. The empty center is as far as any feeling response can travel inward. When it reaches that point, it goes down the hole and disappears. It is important to point out, however, that ordinarily few of our responses go deep enough to experience this threshold of consciousness-in this case, threshold of the feeling self. In the egoic state we defend ourselves against the experience of extremes because it is the cause of psychological pain and suffering. In the unitive state, however, because of the empty center we have no fear of extremes;
in fact, we welcome any challenge that enables us to experience the dissolution of our deepest feelings into the divine center. When there is insufficient challenge to allow for this experience we may even go out and seek it. There is no emotional protectionism in the unitive state; we have learned that a suffering self flows into the divine and dissolves in it. To experience this dissolution is a joy in itself; sometimes it strikes us as miraculous.
Because the superficial phenomenal self is everything we know and experience of self in the unitive state, we might define the phenomenal self as everything BUT the divine or empty center. What we call the "true self," on the other hand, is the unknown link between the divine and the phenomenal self. The phenomenal self-experience does not arise from the divine, but from the true self or that unknown aspect of consciousness that touches upon the divine and stands midway between the divine and the phenomenal self. While the true self is known to exist and be one with the divine, its true nature, essence, or "what" it is, is unknown. Merely to label this aspect of consciousness as the "unconscious self or the "true self does not tell us "what" it is; all it tells us is "that" it is. In terms of the paper with the empty center, the true self would be the inner threshold where the unconsciousness touches upon the divine, or where divine air (as it were) blows through consciousness. In experience this unitive center is experienced as a steady flame, a consuming flame of love. But whatever the essence of the unknown true self, we know that it gives rise to the known phenomenal self. The nature of this unknown self is the true mystery of the unitive state. The divine is not a mystery, nor is the phenomenal self a mystery; both are clear cut in experience: the divine is immovable and does not arise, while the phenomenal self constantly arises from the unknown true self.
It is important to emphasize the difference between the divine and true self because one of the major challenges or hurdles to be overcome in the unitive state is the temptation to regard various experiential energies as the divine instead of the self, which is all they really are. We have to keep in mind that consciousness is the experience of energy, and that in the unitive state there is still the experience of various energies and feelings. The energies experienced in this state, however, are different from those experienced in the egoic state, different because they arise from the unconscious self and not from the ego self. Because these energies are new to us they seem to be quite extraordinary; we may even think they are from the divine, or are the divine. But they only arise from the unconscious self. In purely Jungian terms we might call these particular energies of the unitive state the archetypes of the collective unconscious. Where in the egoic state and in the transforming process we had to come to terms with the archetypes of the personal unconscious-our past, relationships, false images, the conscious self, our own person, in other words-here in the unitive state we must now confront and unmask the more subtle but powerful archetypes or energies of the unconscious self. These are energies or powers that could not be consciously confronted prior to the unitive state, because they are powers specific to the unitive state. Until we come to this state we are not aware of their existence. So one task of the unitive state is that we do not mistake these energies (or any experience of energy, for that matter) for the divine, but instead, see them as belonging solely to the unconscious self. This task may not be as easy as it sounds; to regard certain energies as supernatural can be a powerful temptation.
In the unitive state the unconscious or unknown true self lies so close to the divine that in a state of great silence it is often indistinguishable from the divine. But outside this silence there is the temptation to mistake the experiential powers of consciousness or self for the powers of the divine. The truth that must eventually be learned or disclosed is that the divine is not an energy or power, and that none of our experiences of energy or power is divine. Instead, these are powers of the unconscious self which, in its oneness with the divine, we are tempted to regard as the divine itself. The claim to possess supernatural powers in the unitive state is well-known and documented. People have regarded themselves as prophets, healers, saviors, and God knows what else. As Carl Jung noted, the possible masks the unconscious self can take (the archetypes of the collective unconscious, that is) are almost unlimited. They represent the various cultural views man has of a superior being, even though what is regarded as superior in one culture may not be seen as superior in another. Although an archetype is a self-image of some sort, more importantly it is an experiential energy, virtually the energy of consciousness or self. In the unitive state this energy can take on a particular self-image and play out a particular role, usually the role of someone with a special mission, message, or powers. None of this, of course, is the divine; rather, it is the unconscious self which is often mistaken for the divine.
Throughout this stage or state there will be many temptations to put on one of these divine or supernatural masks and play out the role. If we fall for one of these masks or believe self is something it is not, or if we forget how utterly conditional and impermanent it is, we forfeit going any further with the journey. It is imperative to stay with the true divine center which is a "stillpoint" and not an "energy-point," and to dismiss these arising energies or powers if we think they belong to the divine in any way. Of our own accord we cannot get rid of these energies. After all, consciousness cannot put an end to itself. Our task is simply to see that they are self and nothing but the self. If we cannot eventually make this distinction, we march off to our own dead-end, and the passage may well end in total delusion.
In this matter it is interesting to note that prior to his final enlightenment Buddha resisted all such powers and energies by remaining in the silent, energy-less, seemingly powerless stillpoint. This divine stillpoint is actually more powerful than all man calls power and energy, a simple stillpoint that does not move at all, but wins out over every movement, force and power that we know of. At one time Christ also put aside temptations to seize power and presume on the divine or declare himself divine. No one comes to the ending of the passage who has not had these particular temptations and unmasked them completely. When one mask fails, another appears which means we must eventually make our way through all the collective archetypes until there is none left, or until they become like variations on a single theme, which theme is self- the true self and a very real experiential energy.
In certain cases it may be difficult to distinguish the behaviors of someone in the unitive state who has fallen prey to one of the archetypes from someone who is still ego-bound and believes himself to be God's gift to mankind. They can both be unconsciously noxious when trying to impress their divine powers on others. There is a great difference between the two, however. For one, the ego-bound are not dealing with the energies of the collective unconscious. Instead they are simply overrun by them and are made their helpless puppets so to speak. The egoless (unitive) condition, on the other hand, is irreversible. Once the ego center is gone, it is gone forever; thus there can be no return to the egoic state whatever the temptations that follow. In this case, since there is no ego to be overrun or ego energies involved, these people have a handle on the energies of the collective unconscious and are not helpless puppets. Always they have the conscious choice either of keeping a distance between the unconscious and the divine or of letting go this distance and proclaiming these energies divine. The difference, then, is between the totally helpless medium (the ego-bound) and the deliberate medium who always has the choice to back out. A number of important factors are involved in discerning the difference between the two, but we cannot go into them here. Our purpose is only to point out the possible dangers of the unitive state and the major hurdles to be overcome at this stage of the journey.
Something else to remember is that in the unitive state the reflexive mechanism is still intact-the mind bending on itself is not free of an object-self or self-image. To be free of an object-self there would also have to be no subject-self. One is only relative to the other and neither is absolute. If freed of the subject-object self we would not be tempted to regard ourselves as divine because there would be no self to BE divine. Also, we must remember that the self-image in the unitive state is quite different from the self-image in the egoic state. Because (in the unitive state) the mind unconsciously bends on a divine center and not an ego center, the unconscious self-image is not separate from the divine. This fact can play into an archetypal role. Our task is to stay clear of these unconscious images or archetypes and adhere to the unknown instead. We have to see that all experiential energies, feelings or archetypes are admixed with self, and that the divine can never be an image, energy, concept, feeling or whatever. The nature of all such archetypes IS self and nothing but self; certainly they are not divine. In this matter the true contemplative is an agnostic adhering to the unknown, in contrast to the gnostic who falls for the known-the archetypes, that is.
Where our journey through transformation was the unmasking of the conscious self and the personal unconsciousness, the journey through the unitive state is the gradual unmasking of the unconscious self and the collective unconscious with its far more subtle energies, intuitive way of knowing, self-image, and so on. Though self or consciousness is always one with the divine, it must be continuously and clearly distinguished from it. Even if our religious belief-system affirms that self is not divine, it would make no difference. In some form or other these archetypes or temptations are common to every human being who comes to the unitive state. Self-knowledge on the conscious egoic level is not the same as self-knowledge on the unconscious unitive level, and it is the latter that is being disclosed in the living out of the unitive condition. The moment the nature of the true self is finally and ultimately revealed is the same moment of its permanent dissolution. Obviously there is far, far more to self or consciousness than the ego, and much further to go in the journey than merely the ego's transcendence or dissolution.
In terms of structure and function it is difficult to trace the gradual dissolution of consciousness beyond the no-ego experience. This is because it takes place on a level of consciousness beyond our conscious awareness-reminiscent of Christ's definition of perfect giving, "Your left hand must not know what your right hand is doing." in the unitive state selfless giving is so automatic there is Wtually no other way of living, and in this living, self continually decreases. Returning to the hole in the center of the paper, let us imagine the divine empty center expanding outward-the hole becoming larger-so that the void of self increases as the divine void increases. The paper diminishes from the center outward (not in its circumference) because the divine flame is consuming self from within. In a life of egoless giving and living the self is becoming increasingly selfless (it is already egoless), which means the paper diminishes (falls away) with each act of egoless giving; A true act of egoless giving is when we give and there is no return to self whatsoever. We get nothing back, not even the joy of giving- we may even be kicked for our efforts to be helpful. This requires selfless giving to be carried to heroic proportions; the hallmark of such an act is the falling away of some deep sense of self.
Although we may experience or intuit a further dying to self, we do not understand it because it is taking place on an unconscious or unknown level of ourselves. Then too the knowing-feeling self is so much in the service of others it increasingly has no life to call its own, nothing reserved for self, nothing left but the divine. In large measure the self is worn away or worn down by a life of continuous selfless giving-giving to the divine, to others and to all life without fear, stint or measure. There is nothing easy about this, yet there is ever present an undauntable spirit and a deep joy that is never diminished. Imperceptibly the unitive state is coming to an end. But it can only come to an end when there is no more self to give and no potential left untapped, which means consciousness or self has been fulfilled and can go no further. When the hole in the paper has expanded so that only the barest rim or circumference remains, we are on the fine line between self and no-self, consciousness and no-consciousness. One more expanse from the center and the boundaries of self or consciousness give way forever.
One reason people do not see the need for any further death of self or consciousness beyond the unitive state is that in this state self is not a problem-it is egoless, one with the divine, loving, good in every respect-so why lose it? To begin with, no one in this state sets out to lose self; until we come to the fine line no one even suspects such a possibility. Even if we did, by our own effort we can never go beyond self or consciousness; self cannot do away with itself anymore than it created itself in the first place. Also, because the problematic self was the ego, and the true self is one with the divine, the very idea of losing the true self is little different from the idea of losing the divine-it is unthinkable in other words. Until it actually happens it IS unthinkable; self cannot imagine or conceive its own non-existence or any life without itself. This is impossible because that which thinks about no-self IS self. Due to the unconscious reflexive mechanism of the mind ever-bending on itself, consciousness virtually goes around and round; of its own accord it can never get out of itself. In the end, however, by a single stroke of the divine, self and the divine go down together, fall away in one piece-but then they were one anyway. This experience is not only the experience of no-self, but equally the experience of no-divine. The eventual falling away of self is not because it is bad, sinful, a problem, or anything of the kind; rather, it falls away because it is not eternal and because it has lived to the fullest extent of its human potential and can go no further.
Self also falls away because its existence and whole dimension of knowing and experiencing (even in the unitive state) is less than perfect, less than final. Once it falls away it is clearly seen that self or consciousness had been a veil over the divine, a medium of knowing and experiencing which, unknown to us, had been responsible for the illusion we spoke of earlier. This illusion is the belief that experience of the divine IS the divine. Although the deepest experience of which self is capable IS experience of the divine, this experience is not the divine. By contrast, self or consciousness' most authentic experience of the divine is no experience, a non-experience, we might say. This means that in the end our experience of the divine turns out to have been the experience of our own deepest self. So the final unknown illusion to fall away is the revelation that all human experiences of the divine are only the unconscious self. And if we take away all consciousness or self, all its divine experiences go with it. The divine as it exists beyond the unconscious true self can never be experienced by any self or consciousness because, quite simply, self or consciousness is not equal to it, not up to it. The ultimate illusion, then, is mistaking self for the divine or believing our experiences of the divine to BE the divine.
Ecstasy: The Vehicle of Crossing Over
One way to explain the change that takes place between the beginning and the end of the unitive state involves a discussion of the true nature of ecstasy, defined as the suspension of all consciousness from the unconscious to God-consciousness. Suspension means the temporary cessation of the reflexive mechanism and the fuel (specific energy) that propels it, along with all the experiences to which consciousness or self gives rise. Because ecstasy can be experienced at any stage of the journey it is not indicative of any particular stage along the way; yet if we are familiar with this experience we notice a change in the ecstatic state as the journey progresses. What changes is not the nature of ecstasy or the suspension of consciousness; rather, what changes is the consciousness that is suspended. When only the barest rim of our circular paper (consciousness) remains, we can see that there is very little consciousness left to be suspended. In the egoic state (the solid paper without an empty center) the cessation of consciousness is an overwhelmingly extraordinary experience, whereas when only a fine line or the barest rim of consciousness remains, ecstasy is not too different from our present state. Thus ecstasy is not such an extraordinary experience. The further along we are in the journey, the less unusual and more prolonged the experience becomes because we are better prepared to sustain it.
If there is any problem with ecstasy it arises from the fact that consciousness is so integrated with the senses that the suspension of consciousness also seems to be a suspension of the senses-which it is not, of course. It is because of the integration of consciousness and the senses, however, that sustained or permanent ecstasy appears incompatible with continued earthly existence. After all, if both consciousness and the senses go down and stay down, we would verge on a condition of physical death or lapse into a purely vegetative state. We read accounts of ecstatic mystics and contemplatives who have blacked out for periods of time and have no awareness of the world at all. What would become of them if they remained in this condition? Obviously they would die because the senses have closed down along with consciousness. But if the senses could remain perfectly functional or awake during ecstasy, the world of ordinary life could go on as usual, only without self or consciousness. So perfect ecstasy is the ability of the senses to remain awake and perfectly functional in the absence of consciousness. If this can be done-or if some event makes it possible-life can go on without self or consciousness.
Thus one of the imperceptible changes that takes place between the beginning and end of the unitive state is the increasing ability of the senses to stand alone and not be affected by any change in consciousness or any change in the self-experience. Learning to ignore all the various movements of self or consciousness-which means not going along with them, getting caught up in them, and seeing them for what they are-is one of the automatic lessons we learn in the unitive state.
Authentic ecstasy is not something we can bring about by our own efforts. The unconscious reflexive mechanism is not under conscious control; rather, it is beyond all the efforts and movements of the phenomenal self. While the energies, feelings, thoughts and reflexions of the phenomenal self may not be problematic in the unitive state, they are nevertheless movements of self or consciousness. Ecstasy is a more perfect condition than the unilive state because there is no self or consciousness in it, hence no possibility of any movement or self-awareness.
Once we see that all movement of self arises from the true unconscious self and not from the divine Ground, we have come a ways in the unitive stage. With this realization "pure sensory perception" becomes increasingly important and trustworthy; also, ecstasy or the suspension of consciousness becomes increasing more perfect, more natural and everyday-though not permanent. So the path that lies ahead once we come to the unitive state will ultimately bring about the separation of these two different systems- namely, consciousness and the senses. The purpose of this separation is to enable the senses to remain awake and functional once the system of consciousness has fallen away.
Whether it is recognized or not, ecstasy is the immediate vehicle or condition that ultimately moves over the line or goes beyond the boundaries of consciousness. Obviously, self or consciousness does not move over the line or go beyond the boundaries of self or consciousness. Until the senses have become fairly independent of consciousness, there can be no permanent suspension of consciousness or crossing over-beyond all self or consciousness, that is. Until the preparation is right, ecstasy keeps returning to self or consciousness. We might add that for some people, ecstasy has never suspended the senses or made them totally inoperable; for others, however, it seems the senses are greatly affected and made inoperable by the suspension of consciousness. I do not know why this is so, but from the literature it seems that for the visionaries, the senses are more greatly affected by ecstasy. But whatever the case, ecstasy might be used as a gauge of our journey from beginning to end. This gauge is the increasing ability to "bear the vision" as it were, without the senses going down or without everyday life and its normal behaviors coming to a standstill. The goal, then, is to keep the senses awake and able to respond even though consciousness or self has been suspended, or once it has ceased to function.
As already said, when we come to the point of perfect ecstasy there will no longer be a significant gap between the ecstatic state and our ordinary, everyday unitive consciousness. This means that the final dissolution of the fine line between the two (the unitive state and ecstasy) falls away without notice. This dissolution becomes noticeable when the usual return to unitive consciousness does not occur. Because we have no way of knowing ahead of time what lies beyond this line or what the permanency of such a state of existence (ecstasy) would be like, there may be an initial movement of fear at the idea of crossing over and never again returning. But what eventually casts out all fear is a lifetime spent with the divine, a lifetime of being finely attuned to its ways and doings, and years of testing self's absolute immovable trust in the divine. An entire life's journey of love and trust is now brought to bear on the single unknown moment of permanently crossing the line. The enormous preparation and variety of experiences needed to come to this moment can never be sufficiently stressed.
What is meant by the "fine line" between two different dimensions of existence is the difference between a temporary suspension of consciousness (ecstasy) and an irreversible permanent suspension, which is the end of all ecstasy and the beginning of the no-self dimension. In other words, as long as ecstasy is a transient experience, there is always a return to the unitive state, but the moment there is permanent suspension of self or consciousness, there can be no return. Instead, there begins the adjustment to a totally new dimension of existence, and one that could not have been imagined ahead of time. Ecstasy does not define the new dimension of existence or the no-self condition; rather, ecstasy is only the vehicle or the condition of crossing over to a new dimension of existence. Prior to this moment, ecstasy, as it was experienced during the passage, was only the gauge of readiness for eventually passing over a hitherto unknown line, a line we are not aware of until we are on top of it.
The moment consciousness is permanently, irreversibly suspended-with no possibility of return-is a moment unknown to consciousness; thus the moment of passing over is totally unknown. It is not an "experience." Once on the other side we can no longer speak of ecstasy; there is no ecstasy anymore because there is no consciousness to be suspended. Here begins a totally new dimension of existence, one that bears no comparison to the ecstatic experience. We should also add that no one-no entity or being, no self or consciousness-passes over the line. Passing over simply means that all experiences of self or consciousness have permanently ceased. On the other side nothing remains that could possibly be called "self or "consciousness."
One final point. As noted earlier, when we first came to the unitive state we had glimpses or experiences of yet a further, more final state: beatific, heavenly, or whatever we might designate as the ultimate divine condition. At that time, however, we regarded this final condition as incompatible with continued earthly life. But once beyond the fine line, the former divine condition becomes possible this side of the grave or without death. The reason for this is that over a long period of time the dependency of consciousness on the senses decreases, until finally (when we come to the fine line), the senses are not appreciably affected when consciousness is suspended. This means there comes a point in the journey when the senses can remain perfectly functional and can go right on without consciousness or self. Thus the distance traversed between the beginning and the end of the unitive state entails an increasing separation between the senses and consciousness; all of which, of course, is a preparation for eventually living in a state wherein there is no self or no consciousness.
The falling away of self or consciousness is composed of two different experiences or events. The first is the permanent suspension of consciousness-the cessation of the reflexive mechanism or knowing-self. The second experience is the falling away of the center of consciousness, which is not merely the feeling self, but the divine center, which is our entire experience of life and being. This latter event is the true and definitive no-self experience. What the second event insures is the permanency of the first event. The center of consciousness was the fuel or energy of the reflexive mechanism, and without this fuel or energy there can be no return of the reflexive mechanism. No return of the knowing-feeling self, that is. No return to any self.
In order to convey an understanding of this event we refer once again to the circular piece of paper (consciousness). By the time we come to the end of the unitive state there is only the barest rim or circumference remaining-which we have called the "fine line." Within this slender boundary is the divine center. Though no small center, the divine is still within the boundaries of consciousness; this is the divine within self and immanent in all that exists. But the moment this rim, fine line or circumference, disappears, not only is there no paper remaining (no self or no consciousness) there is also no divine center remaining. When the paper disappears so does its empty center. Without the paper (or some type of vessel) there is no within or without, no center or circumference. Thus we can no longer speak of the divine as immanent and/or transcendent, nor can we speak of oneness or union, or of any unitive or transcendental condition. Nor is there any experience remaining of life, being, energy, will, emotion, form, and much more. These experiences ARE (or were) self or consciousness, and now they are no more. And since consciousness or self WAS the experience of the divine, without this mediumship all divine experiences are gone.
So the definitive no-self experience is not the suspension of consciousness or a permanent state of ecstasy; rather, the definitive no-self experience is the sudden falling away (or "drop") of the divine center of consciousness along with its profound mysterious experience of life and being. This event is the sole indicator that the boundaries of consciousness-the whole knowing-feeling self and one entire dimension of existence-have irreversibly fallen away or dissolved. No other experiential event articulates the total dissolution of self or consciousness. The no-self experience, then, is, first, the cessation or permanent suspension of the knowing-self and, second, the sudden falling away of the divine center along with the entire feeling-self and all its experiences.
The extraordinary and unsuspected aspect of the no-self experience is not the falling away of the phenomenal self-experience, which was inconsequential anyway; rather, it is the falling away of the divine and the experience of "life." It is as if the Ground of Being had been pulled out from under the entire self-experience. For many long years the unitive experience had been our deepest self-experience, thus its dissolution is not merely the falling away of a superficial, conditional little self-experience; rather, it is the falling away of the experience of divine life and being which, in the unitive state, IS self's deepest experience of existence. Though this event might have been called the "experience of no-divine," this would not be wholly true to the experience and definitely not true to its reality. In the unitive state the divine IS the deepest experience of self and the singular experience of being; thus to dissolve the experience of the divine is to dissolve the deepest experience of self. Calling this the "experience of no-self is not a name or title given after the experience, it is not a mental deduction or an approximation; rather, "no-self IS the experience. This is its exact nature and an exact statement of its truth. No other experience in the journey lends itself to such an accurate statement of truth.
Intellectually we know, of course, that the divine cannot fall away or disappear. But in experience the divine can indeed fall away or disappear-this experience is well documented, particularly in the Christian no-ego experience. What disappears, however, is the experience of the divine, not the divine. The experience falls away because it is not divine. As it turns out, the experience of the divine is only self or consciousness. Thus the deepest unconscious true self IS the experience of the divine, or the divine in experience. This experience, however, is NOT the divine. What falls away, then, in the no-self experience is not the divine, but the unconscious true self that all along we thought was the divine!
The shocking revelation of the no-self experience is just this: that all our experiences of the divine are only experiences of ourself, and that all along the divine as it existed beyond self or consciousness had been non-experiential. While the divine had been the cause of our experiences, the experiences themselves (the effects, that is) were not the divine. This means that consciousness or self is the medium by which man experiences the divine. By medium we do not mean that consciousness is a veil through which we see and experience the divine-as if self were on one side and the divine on the other. Rather, consciousness is the experience we ARE: man himself. In essence man is consciousness and consciousness is man; thus consciousness or self is the whole human experience, including experiences of the divine.
What man does not know is that consciousness is the boundary that defines the entire human dimension of knowing and experiencing and that self's deepest experience is the experience of the divine. The divine, however, is beyond the boundaries of human existence, having existed before man or consciousness came into being. Consciousness comes from the divine and returns to the divine, and in between is our human passage. In making this journey our experience of the divine is according to consciousness or on human grounds; thus everything we know of the divine is according to consciousness or self. The fact that all experiences of the divine are self and not the divine should be good news to those who make the journey in the darkness of naked faith-without divine experiences, that is. In the long run nothing is really gained by these experiences. They are unnecessary and may even be deceiving. In truth, as imperceptible grace, the divine works beyond our awareness or experience of it. A great secret revealed beyond self is that so long as self or consciousness remains, its most authentic, true and continuous experience of the divine is simple faith. Few people think of faith as an experience because it is so mysterious. And yet faith IS the divine, simple and clear.
The true no-self experience can never be grasped unless we first know the unitive experience. In the unitive state the experience of the divine is our deepest spiritual experience of life and being. If someone told us that this experience could fall away, most probably we would only think of death. Although this is indeed the only true death experience man will ever have, yet those in the unitive state expect this mysterious experience of life and being to go right on. That it does not do so is the shock of the whole event-we should probably say "aftershock" because the event is over before we know it. The shock consists in the sudden realization that everything (every experience, awareness and knowledge) we thought was the divine, turns out to have been only our self. It is the shock of realizing we had spent our whole life living the error of thinking we were NOT that which we experienced, or not that which we had been aware of. The truth of self, however, is that the experiencer is the experience and the experienced. This means we are not only our own experience, but equally everything that we experience. Such a disclosure might well be followed by a sense of having been cheated or hoodwinked all our life. Where we had truly believed that the divine experienced within ourselves had been the divine, now suddenly it is clearly known to have been only ourself-our deepest true self. While recognition of this error is not a happy realization, it is also not unhappy, for now, at least, there is no deception remaining; the unknown self, the great deceiver, is gone. The paradox of the no-self event is that the falling away of self or consciousness is also its revelation, the revelation of its true nature. This revelation consists in nothing other than the absence of the entire self experience-that is, the whole dimension of knowing, feeling, experiencing. This is no small event or revelation when we consider that what has fallen away is as mysterious and deeply rooted as the divine itself. Beyond this event, however, there begins the gradual revelation of the true nature of the divine as it exists beyond all self or consciousness.
The first question that arises following this event is "What remains when there is no self and no divine?" Discovering the true nature of "what remains" is virtually the journey from death to resurrection, or the journey from God to Godhead in Christian terms. Right off, it is obvious that the body and senses remain- which seems easy enough to account for-yet knowing the true nature of the body and senses is another matter entirely. The revelation of the true nature of the body is the revelation of the resurrection and the true nature of Christ's mystical body. This revelation (true nature of the physical body), however, can never be accounted for in any terms available to consciousness (and the intellect), because its true nature is beyond consciousness. Thus neither our intuitive nor scientific minds can grasp or articulate its true nature or, for that matter, the particular knowing available to the senses without consciousness. While the ultimate truth of the body is beyond all our usual notions and experiences of it, the resurrection reveals that the eternal body outlasts all the experiences we call "soul" or "spirit." Consciousness had been responsible for these experiences, and without consciousness there is no experience of "within-ness," or of any soul or spirit dwelling "within" the body. The notion of a soul or spirit independent of the body, which leaves the body at death, is not true. As for the specific energy of life and being-the inner flame-that suddenly drops away in the no-self event; it vanishes like a bubble into divine air. When there is no fuel (self) left to consume, the divine flame goes out.
Beyond consciousness, the ultimate Truth of the divine is that it is neither immanent (within anything) nor transcendent (beyond anything), but IS everything that eternally exists. What the divine is NOT, however, is the structure, function or energy of anything. The energy that is consciousness or self is but one of many functions of matter, which function is not divine. As said before, what lies beyond the death of self or consciousness is the resurrection with its revelation of the true nature of the body or true nature of matter. To understand this revelation, however, it is important to distinguish between the scientific notion of matter and the true nature of matter. What I call the true nature of matter is "eternal form," eternal form that cannot be grasped by the senses, intellect or consciousness. Another way to articulate eternal form is to say that what consciousness regarded as matter turns out to be spirit; and what consciousness regarded as spirit turns out to be matter. Solely in terms of consciousness this means that the mystery of matter IS spirit, and the mystery of spirit IS matter. Consciousness was responsible for this dichotomy or distinction, but beyond consciousness no such distinction exists.
The question often asked regarding no-self is, "Who, beyond self or consciousness, knows the divine"? But if there is no self or "who," the question cannot be answered because it cannot be asked in the first place. The question presupposes an answer in the same terms or in the same dimension in which the question is asked-the dimension of self or consciousness, that is. Beyond the dimension of self, however, the question cannot and does not arise. Such a question can only arise within the dimension of consciousness, where consciousness or self is its own answer, of course. The type of "knowing" that lies beyond self or consciousness cannot be known, defined, articulated or identified in any terms of consciousness and its intellect. Whatever can be grasped by consciousness can find some form of articulation, but what cannot be grasped by consciousness cannot be articulated. For this reason the "knowing" that exists beyond consciousness and which most characterizes the no-self condition, cannot be accounted for at all. About the only thing that can be said is that it has no resemblance to either the knowing or unknowing of consciousness. I call this mysterious knowing the "cloud of knowing" to distinguish it from the "cloud of unknowing" or the type of unknown-knowing peculiar to the unitive state. The "cloud of knowing" is different because there is no "unknowing" about it.
Tb help understand the falling away of self it is helpful to make a distinction between God and Godhead, where God is the Absolute known to and experienced by consciousness, and Godhead is the Absolute as it lies beyond all self or consciousness and can never be experienced by it. The difference between God and Godhead is very great, and consciousness cannot bridge this difference; in truth, the span between the two is a great void. What it takes to bridge this void and come to the dimension of Godhead necessitates the death of God-the death of consciousness or self and all its divine experiences. We do well to remember that the whole message of Christ was that we must go through God to get to the Godhead, which means we must go with our subjective experiences of the divine and live this human dimension to its fullest potential. Thus going with God is our passage to the Godhead or Absolute. Going through God and with God is "the way" to the Godhead that Christ revealed.
Distinguishing Between No-Ego and No-Self
By this time it should be evident that self or consciousness is not an entity or a being; it is not an individual person, a soul or a spirit temporarily dwelling in the body; nor is it divine, eternal or immortal. Self or consciousness is, however, the experience of all of the above-entity, being, soul, spirit and so on. Self or consciousness is a specific, unique experience or set of experiences. Take away self, and all its experiences go with it.
So the first thing to understand regarding the nature of self or consciousness is that it is not an entity, being, soul or spirit; rather, it is an experience that we mistake for these things. Between experience and reality or between experience and Truth, there lies a great difference. Tb discover this difference means traversing the great void between self and the divine-virtually the void between man and the divine. As long as we continue to regard self as an entity, being, soul or spirit, there is no hope of ever understanding what is meant by no-self. This is why interpreting self (and no-self) in terms of any other paradigm, path, or definition than the one presented in these pages, will not only be the cause of much confusion and distortion, but it will be the cause of the true no-self event becoming lost altogether. As it is, this event has already been lost from the literature because there has been no understanding of what self or consciousness really is. Thus some people think self is the divine, the unconscious, the ego, the immortal soul and so on, but none of these is self.
Of all these errors, however, none is more erroneous and misleading than equating self with ego. As used in modern psychology the terms ego and self are not synonymous or interchangeable; on the contrary, a distinction has been made quite clear in contemporary literature. Where Western philosophy and theology made no distinction between these terms or their meaning, in the Christian contemplative tradition, at least, there has always been a distinction between a lower and higher self-the lower being the ego, the higher being the true self. But now that the specific terms "ego" and "self are in common usage, it is important to articulate the contemplative journey in the prevailing language. This means we can no longer use the terms ego and self interchangeably or fail to make an experiential distinction between them. By the same token we cannot equate no-self with no-ego or fail to distinguish between these two different events.
As said before, what happens when we fail to make this distinction, or mistake the falling away of the ego for the falling away of self, is that the true no-self event becomes lost. It is lost because no-self has been understood as something it is not-it is not the no-ego event. Instead of two events separated by an entire stage, the traditional path speaks of only a single event, invariably the no-ego experience, but often referred to as "no-self." The no-ego event, however, is a half-way mark immediately PRIOR to the revelation of the unitive state, whereas the no-self event comes AFTER the unitive state has been thoroughly lived in the marketplace, after which it comes to its ultimate ending. Until this error is understood we cannot have a complete account of the human passage; instead, we will continue to believe that realization of the true self or egoless unitive state is as far as man can go this side of the grave-which is not true. But this is how the true end of the journey has become lost-by mistaking no-ego for no-self. We must not confuse these different endings: first the ending of the egoic condition and, later, the ending of the unitive condition.
But this is why, when hearing of the no-self experience or falling away of the unitive state, a great deal of confusion has been generated. Faced with an event we have never heard of before or an experience with which we have no acquaintance, we conclude that no-self must mean no-ego; we think it is a matter of semantics or we believe the author is ignorant of the contemplative path or has made a mistake in interpretation. Since anyone can use the phrase "no-self we have to be very clear about what is meant by "self or "consciousness" and continually check on its experiential usage throughout the journey. If self or consciousness is not experiential and not an immediate identity, then it is nothing. If self or consciousness is just another name for the divine, one or the other is dispensable. But this is why, without a clear definition of self in terms of immediate experience, the true meaning of no-self has been mistaken for no-ego and thereby eliminated from the journey. For one reason or another it seems this elimination has been going on for centuries. Our contemplative or mystical literature only hints at a no-self event, whereas the no-ego experience has been well documented in every religious tradition.
It is unfortunate that most of our older religious texts do not make a clear experiential distinction between ego and self. Although the distinction between the egoic and unitive states (lower and higher self) is taken for granted, these texts use the term "self to define both the egoic and unitive condition. Thus, for example, we hear a great deal about the evils of self, the falling away of self, the realization of self, and the deified self, which does not lend much clarity to the subject of self or consciousness. Then too if we have not had the experiences of which these texts speak, we have no way of discerning their different uses of "self." It follows that if we have not realized the experiential difference between the falling away of the ego-center and the later falling away of-the true-self (the divine-center along with the phenomenal self), we do not have the tools for discerning the difference or know what to look for in the literature. From the position of the egoic state we are bound to interpret the no-self experience as the no-ego experience; it cannot be otherwise. Also, to tell someone newly arrived in the unitive state that down the road the divine-center, his whole experience of life and being, will ultimately dissolve, would strike him as unnecessary, unimaginable, erroneous in fact. So even these advanced individuals tend to regard no-self as no-ego. But to dismiss the difference as a "semantic distinction" is unconscionable. It is nothing more than a refusal to examine the experiences and define the terms.
An example of questionable semantic usage might be the following. The Hindu regards the realization of his true self or Atman (Brahman in human experience) as his ultimate enlightenment, while the Buddhist regards the realization of no-self or w-Atman as his ultimate enlightenment. The question, of course, is what the Hindu and Buddhist mean by "self or "Atman" If by no-self or no-atman the Buddhist only means "ego" in the sense of a false self, then there is little difference between these two religions; the difference would be only semantic. But if by no-self the Buddhist means no-Atman in the Hindu sense of "Atman," then the difference between these religions is explosive-and enlightening. As it stands, however, while Hinduism makes a rather clear distinction between the ego (jiva, ahankara) and self (Atman), Buddhism tends to eliminate the self entirely-be it the ego-self, true-self, divine or absolute self. In some ways the Buddhists throw out the baby (the true-self or Atman) with the bath water (its ultimate impermanence). We cannot speak of any cessation or falling away of self or Atman unless it has first been realized. Perhaps this is why, with one exception, I did not find the no-self experience articulated in the Buddhist's texts. If from the beginning we assume there is no self or Atman, we could not expect to hear of its cessation or falling away. Needless to say I do not hold that self or Atman-or ego for that matter-is an illusion; on the contrary, without self, human beings would not exist.
The point is that if we could define the entire self-experience (ego, self, true-self, consciousness and so on) in experiential instead of philosophical or theological terms, we could eliminate a great deal of erroneous conjecture, misinterpretation, confusion and bickering. This means paying more attention to the experiences behind the terms we use rather than accepting them at face value or as a matter of blind belief. We could then be straightforward with one another and accept our differences without further ecumenical mincing. Although no one is expected to define Absolute Truth, we should be able to define everything short of it because this includes everything we know and experience.
One hope of eventually straightening the path or recognizing two different endings instead of only one may lie with the coming-of-age of Western psychology. Modern psychology has become increasingly aware of the transformation process and hence increasingly aware of the distinction between ego and self. We can no longer brush aside the terms "ego" and "self as a "semantic difference." On the contrary-and many thanks to Carl Jung in this matter-these terms are becoming increasing differentiated and defined in the light of experience and spiritual development. Because of this we may now be in a position to understand not only the falling away of ego consciousness but ultimately the falling away of the unconscious or true self as well. Although we are just now getting used to the notion of transformation or no-ego, and though it seems unfair and premature to talk about the ultimate dissolution of the true-self and the divine, we may be more ready for understanding this experience than ever before. It seems that the history of man's experiences moves on whether we are ready for it or not; that is, when enough people arrive at one frontier, another frontier immediately opens up-In summary, these few pages have tried to say something about the difference between ego and self and their ultimate falling away. We define self as the totality of consciousness, the entire human dimension of knowing, feeling and experiencing from the conscious and unconscious to unitive, transcendental or God-consciousness. The ego we define as the immature self or consciousness prior to the falling away of its self-center and the revelation of a divine-center. In the long run, however, it would make no difference how we defined self or ego when all the experiences on which these definitions were based are ultimately wiped out. I am not aware of a single experience we could define as self or consciousness that is not ultimately dissolved. Though we may arbitrarily wish to name the divine "consciousness" or "self," these names bring about more confusion than if we called the divine "air" or "bird." At least these terms do not confuse the divine with the human experience we experience and express as self or consciousness. For this reason when we speak of self we must speak in terms of experience and not in terms of any theory, speculation, philosophy or belief system. If self is not an experience, it is nothing.
Barring the event itself, the obstacles to a true understanding and acceptance of the ultimate falling away of all self or consciousness are formidable. This is a hard reality to face, as hard perhaps as the ability to grasp the true nature of Christ's death (God's death) if it were to be truly understood. Christians have never questioned the nature of Christ's death experience; they think of it as just his physical death-similar to the physical death of every human being -and thus their concern does not go beyond its redemptive purpose. As I see it, however, this totally misses the point, message and revelation of Christ's death. At the same time r have not found a consensus in the Buddhists' literature regarding the exact nature of Buddha's enlightenment. Was it a no-ego or a no-Atman-Bra-hman event? (As a Hindu, Buddha may well have experienced a divine Atman prior to his enlightenment.) By contrast, Buddha's enlightenment seems easier to accept than Christ's death on the cross: the former image being one of serenity and peace, the latter being one of cruel suffering. But what we must not forget is the picture of Buddha before his enlightenment, the picture of a dying, starving man, beset by every conceivable temptation, or the picture of Christ after his death, in the glory of resurrection and ascension. We might call the picture of Christ on the cross "before" and the traditional picture of sitting Buddha "after," while not forgetting their reverse pictures-dying Buddha and the resurrected Christ. These two pictures are as interchangeable as their experiences. Where Christ dramatically and physically manifested the no-self experience for all ages to see and ponder, Buddha described the experience, spoke of it to others, and lived out its condition for many years afterward. In both instances, however, the message is the same: self is not eternal, the Absolute lies beyond all we know and experience of the Absolute, self or consciousness. If we believe Christ is God or the one Absolute, the wordless statement of the cross is made all the more dramatic, shocking and powerful.
Unfortunately, consciousness is reluctant to admit that everything it experiences and knows is only as much as its own dimension and capacity permits. Indeed, for the most part consciousness does not even realize its own limitations. Nor will it ever realize its limitations until the human experience has been stretched to its furthest potential, a potential no man knows ahead of time. What this means is that there can be no falling away of self or consciousness until self or consciousness has been lived to the limits of its human capacity, which capacity is obviously its total fulfillment. To expect a kind of mystical demise of something we never really knew, or had never fully experienced or lived, is simply wishful thinking.
The true nature of self is elusive because it is such a continuous, autonomous experience we cannot remember a time we were without it, and try as we like we can never catch it in the act. But the main reason self is so elusive is that it originates at a "point" where the entire system of consciousness borders on no-consciousness, or where self verges on no-self. Whether we think of this as the point where the divine begins or where consciousness emerges from nothingness, or where consciousness merges with the whole body organism, this point is nevertheless responsible for the sense of mystery and unknowableness of the self-experience. Any paradigm of consciousness that does not take this "point" of origin into consideration becomes a closed system. If we assume consciousness or self has no origin, we assume it has no end, and thus as either an eternal phenomenon or one that is unaccountable and purposeless, the entire subject becomes a pointless investigation. The ideal, of course, is to begin our investigation with no prior assumptions, paradigms or belief systems regarding self and to allow the experiencing self to ultimately reveal its own eternal or non-eternal status, reveal its own origin and end. This way we avoid a premature closure which only keeps the subject moving in an endless, pointless, self-perpetuating circle.
But no matter where we begin the investigation of the true nature of self or consciousness, the inherent problem is that we can know only as much of it as we have lived, actually experienced. This fact alone is an inevitable barrier to a full understanding of the completed passage. If we have not lived it all, we can not know it all. Another problem is that consciousness or self cannot possibly imagine or grasp its own eventual ending or non-existence.
The mind is incapable of understanding how this would go; self cannot experience no-self; consciousness cannot experience no-consciousness. Thus because the mind cannot lay hold of any such condition it generally denies such a possibility. As soon as the mind thinks of its own non-existence, when self is suddenly confronted with the imminent possibility of its own extinction, the automatic response is fear, withdrawal and denial. In such an experience (which is quite common) consciousness is confronted with its own annihilation, extinction or non-existence, and at the same time sees nothing beyond. Indeed, consciousness cannot see anything beyond; without itself or without a seer, nothing can be seen.
We must remember that consciousness is not a medium for knowing itself; consciousness is only a medium for knowing what is NOT itself. Consciousness or self does not mediate self-knowledge, but is ITSELF the essence of self-knowledge or self-awareness. This means that at one and the same time consciousness is the totality of subjective experience as well as the medium for experiencing everything that lies outside its own dimension of existence. If we take away self or consciousness, not only is there no self or subject, but there is no medium for experiencing anything else (or other) that exists. This is why. confronted with the possibility of its own extinction, consciousness sees nothing beyond, and why, without consciousness, there could be no experiences of the divine or experience of self AS the divine. The falling away of consciousness opens upon a totally new and unsuspected dimension of existence, one that can never be experienced by consciousness because its dimension is beyond the boundaries and potential of consciousness or the psyche. This is why the falling away of self or consciousness is the only true death experience man will ever know. Short of this, every notion we have of death is not it. (See Appendix II.)
One Way to View the Passage
One possible way of envisioning the human passage is the following. We think of ourselves as originally emerging from the unknown, from darkness, nothingness or non-existence into the light of consciousness. But as consciousness develops we discover the increasing ability to see in the dark, see into the nothingness or mystery within ourselves and eventually realize that this darkness and nothingness is the divine from which we emerged and with which we are one. Thus we discover that our original darkness IS true light. Midway in this passage, divine light (darkness or unknowing) and the light of consciousness are in balance, with neither outshining the other. But as we move beyond this midpoint, divine light begins to outshine the light of consciousness until, in the end, the light of consciousness goes out and only divine light remains. From this vantage point we look back on the passage and see that although consciousness was the veil that dimmed the light, this dimming was necessary in order to make the human dimension possible. But if consciousness makes human existence possible, it is also not separate from the divine, nor does it completely hide it; on the contrary, consciousness or self is man's faculty or medium for experiencing the divine-so long as it remains, that is. Our passage through consciousness is the gradual return to the divine; we leave the divine unknowingly and in darkness, but we return knowingly and in light.
The divine, of course, is not light; we only use this term metaphorically. The essence of the Absolute cannot be known or experienced by the mind or consciousness, for which reason all our names, labels, definitions and descriptions are incapable of grasping it.
2 In the Christian context the term "unitive state" can have several meanings. First of all, it cannot apply to any transient experience of oneness with the divine because this does not constitute a permanent state. The term "transforming union" is the cocoon stage that immediately follows the falling away of the ego-self; obviously it is a stage of transformation. Once the butterfly emerges it is in a permanent state of "mystical union." In these pages "unitive state" is used in this sense of "mystical union." It applies to the butterfly's entire state of existence from its emergence from the cocoon to its death. While the caterpillar lives in the state of egoic consciousness, the butterfly lives in the state of unitive consciousness. This latter state is also what I call the "marketplace" stage of the journey. The caterpillar left the marketplace in search of oneness with the divine and thereafter entered the cocoon. Once it emerges from the cocoon, however, it returns to the marketplace-but as a butterfly. "Unitive state" then refers to the state following transformation; it is the ordinary life of the mature butterfly. What are known as "Espousals" and "Mystical Marriage" are basically transient experiences.
3 Needless to say I have no understanding of those religious paths that imply that the falling away of the ego is just a matter of dispelling a piece of mental ignorance or a false idea of ourselves. Looking East, I do not find there any experience comparable to the Dark Night of the Spirit: no account of a bottoming out of a self-center (ego), or of an acclimating (or transforming) ordeal, or of dire interior emptiness and void that ultimately turns out to be the divine-not the self.