Sometimes someone will say to us: “Don’t take it personally.” That is very good advice whenever something happens that throws a monkey wrench into our agenda. Actually, when you think about it we are inclined to take many things personally even when what happens does not have another human at the other end. When a tree falls on someone, it is not personal. When someone experiences an animal or insect bite, it is not personal. When we are physically hurt, especially by another human we easily take it as personal, but it is not personal. You may even have been sought out, you may even have given cause by your own behavior. The bottom line truth is that this interchange is not personal, simply ego enmeshment. Our reactions are fundamentally unconscious. We “feel” hurt and “fight back.” …and it “feels” very personal…but it is not. When there is another human involved we “perceive” it as personal. With egos and their self-preoccupation, given the “provocation,” the object of retaliation could be anybody…but we incorrectly judge it to be personal. Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth) suggests that one ought never take the arrows of ego personally. In fact, if we do not take ego assault personally the arrows never land. Our “true Self” cannot be harmed by insults, by “name-calling.” Of course, we easily fall out of who we really are into various personas and we take things very personally.
This does not mean that when we are physically struck it does not really hurt. Nor does it imply that if we can prevent an attack we should not. Tolle is very clear in his directive to speak a clear, firm NO! in the face of abusive behavior. It is up to us to determine what the clear, firm No is going to look like.
Unconscious ego enmeshment is a significantly harmful way to live and the pattern manifests in entire cultures. That is why we engage in war, from interpersonal spats to domestic violence, to street violence, to civil war, to international conflicts.
The challenge is to grow in mindfulness of what is going on in my mind, my feelings, my reactions; when my ego is engaged, there is trouble if my ego is running the show rather than giving outward direction in service to my heart. So, mindfulness practice helps deepen our awareness of what is going on so we don’t get hooked. -1-
Many of us find ourselves confused and dismayed at the fractures in our nation and our world. Yet change happens only one person at a time. As Gandhi said” “Be the change you want to see in the world.” The words of the song are: “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” It is work! ... “gradual, conscious and sober!” We grow up in families, neighborhoods, churches and schools which in varying degrees model and foster behaviors that breed entitlement, a sense of superiority, and separateness. Mindfulness opens the door to change! The practice of conscious breathing suggested by Tolle is helpful: three deep, even, conscious breaths. Do it whenever you think of it. I find it challenging to complete three deep, even, conscious breaths without being interrupted by monkey mind. Tolle claims that doing this practice for one year brings transformation. About that I do not know. What I do know is that practice makes change possible. As we become more aware of the suffering caused by ego we can choose to try something different. Getting ego in hand is the ground of spiritual growth. This is not new. It is as old as true wisdom. It was part of the picture in the ancient Middle East embedded in the mythology of the whole region.
As mentioned in a previous article about Jesus traditions, Pagan Mystery Religions initiated people to progressive states of awareness. The key here, however is to learn to live in each progressive level, not simply experiencing a passing state of awareness, returning quickly to a previous level. There were four levels:
1 – People completely dead to spiritual things, identifying with their body, like unconscious matter…the lowest level of human consciousness---referred to as hylics (or to use St. Paul’s term sarkics, from the Greek word, sarx or flesh).
2 – People who identified with their personality, or ego---referred to as psychics, from the Greek word psuche or mind.
3 – People who identified with their spirit---referred to as pneumatics, from the Greek word pneuma or spirit or breath.
4 – People who realized that ALL IS ONE--referred to as gnostics, from the Greek word gnosis, or knowledge. -2-
There were initiation rituals called “baptisms” conducted by an initiator (eg. Plato, Pythagorus). These states and rituals found their way easily and quite naturally into early Christianity. It surely appears that St. Paul was an initiator into the Jesus Mysteries.
Baptism with water was and normally is administered at the end of an education course during which candidates are tested in what were once called inquiries or scrutinies. Baptism with water moved the person from level 1, sarkic/hylic, to level two, psychic. When we are in our egos or personalities, or personas, we see things and interpret things literally--we take things personally.
Baptism with breath/spirit moved people from the psychic or ego level to the level of spirit, pneumatic. Baptism with fire moved people from the pneumatic level to the level of gnosis, knowledge, unitive/universal consciousness, “Christ Consciousness.
The Gospel of Matthew speaks of these three baptisms: “He it is who will baptize you in the Holy Spirit (breath) and Fire.” (Matthew 3:11) I don’t know of any follow up with these latter two baptisms in the documents of the early Roman Church.
On level two, when we identify with our ego/persona/personality we need the law to show us the way, to protect us from self-absorption which is dangerous to ourselves and other people. Christians on this level interpret the Jesus Story literally. This is why St. Paul is disappointed with those to whom he wrote in I Cor. and Hebrews. He was expecting more of them than they were ready for. “And I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as pneumatics, but as to sarkics, as to those uninitiated in Christ (those who had, perhaps, not yet been baptized with water). I fed you milk, not meat, for you were not yet able to take it. Nor are you now—you are still sarkic. For where there is strife and envy among you, are you not sarkic?” 1 Cor., 2:14 (page 169 The Jesus Mysteries). And in Hebrews: “Therefore let us leave behind the elementary doctrine of Christ and progress to another level of initiation, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God with teachings of baptism, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgement.” Hebrews 6:1-2 (op. cit.) Paul is referring to the -3-literal meaning of these teachings and or doctrines. Clearly, he knew there was more than the literal interpretation of these doctrines.
St. Paul is telling his hearers that there is much more beyond the literal story. He is pointing to the pneumatic and gnostic levels of awareness.
It is clear from Matthew’s saying about baptism with breath and fire, that initiatory rituals were known, and, from other sources practiced, in the earliest Christian communities. It is, however, instructive to listen to Cynthia Bourgeault (The Meaning of Mary Magdalene) where she notes: “Initiatic rituals can briefly change people’s states, transporting them into ecstatic visions and cosmic consciousness. But gnosis is about stages; it is integral knowledge brought about by the slow unification of one’s being. It the wonderful words of the contemporary Jewish teacher Rami Shapiro, it is ‘not only an altered state of mind (moving from narrow to spacious), but an altered trait of behavior, moving from selfishness, fear, and narcissism to justice, compassion, and humility.’ Jesus taught gnosis and was a master of gnosis, …but he did not change anyone’s states, either by secret rituals or esoteric information. Rather, he set his disciples upon the only known path to integral transformation: the slow and persistent overcoming of the ego through a lifelong practice of surrender and nonattachment. His gnosis is gradual, conscious, and sober.” p. 39. So, the bottom line is about the long haul of commitment to a process which is gradual, conscious and sober, on this progressive journey to deepest consciousness or gnosis.
The third level of “spirit” or pneuma,moves the person from ego absorption to seeking, awaiting the leading of the Single, Spacious, Breath to reveal the way to proceed. The Holy Spirit is still perceived as “other.” But at this level, the ego is no longer running the show. The ego is serving the heart, following the movement of the Spirit.
In the final level, gnosis, there is no “other,” there is only unity, universal consciousness, Christ-Consciousness. The earliest criterion in Islam for orthodoxy was: “La illaha il Allah,” there is nothing but the One, nothing but God.
Our common experience is that we do not simply arrive at a new level or stage of consciousness and stay there. That is the point of the commitment to the process. We may find ourselves, at times, being buoyed by the felt movement -4-
of the Spirit. At other times we slip back into the ego experience where it is all about little, separate me. St. Paul’s disappointment with the Hebrews and Corinthians is pertinent here. We find ourselves blaming, complaining, judging, perhaps punishing. Sometimes it suddenly comes upon us, and we find ourselves wrapped up in our own little, private world. Let me provide one example of what our minds do, using a judging scenario: I am driving down the highway observing the speed limit, and another car is exceeding the speed limit, weaving in and out of moving but significant traffic. Right away I am judging the “weaver” as dangerous, careless, self-absorbed just to get ahead. Later I learn that the “weaver” is a highly efficient and trained racecar driver who is responding to a real emergency with no time to enlist the aid of a police escort. The fact is, we never know what the situation is when we start judging, blaming, criticizing. We make up stories which make us feel justified, superior, or whatever. That is what ego looks like. Spiritual practice helps us gradually to become more present, observing and letting go of the ceaseless stories fabricated by the mind. Nothing wrong with the mind until, as often, it takes off with a life of its own.
When we are hurt we need to pay close attention to what happens. We may be clumsy, slip and fall. What happens? Do we blame someone else, do we blame ourselves, do we blame the furniture? …or do we simply stay, drop the stories, and do what needs to be done next…like take care of a cut, call 911, ask for help? Do we breathe three deep even breaths and calm down or do we create drama? What do we do with natural disasters or accidents with or without someone being at fault? Some of us grew up assigning the results of natural disasters to God. It was God’s will. God does not give us more than we can handle. This is simply another way of taking things personally. One of the wisdom sayings in the gospels is when Jesus tells us, your heavenly Father’s, “sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust.” (Mtt. 5:45). In other words, it is not personal. On the psychic or ego level, discussed earlier, we take things personally. We need a personal Savior to make it through this life to the “next life.” To keep us in line we need a God who is going to punish us or reward us personally.
Institutional religion is generally stuck at this “personal” level, the ego level where most everything is personal, even the obviously impersonal happenings like natural disasters. A blatant example of this stuck-ness, is the creation of doctrine/dogma, setting in stone many elements of a tradition’s story laying -5-groundwork for fundamentalism, whether scriptural, doctrinal, or ritual. Fundamentalist extremism, however, does not exhaust the challenges of literalism, dogmatism, and separatism. These issues pervade institutional religious systems. Patriarchy infests all institutional religious systems making some people important and other largely dispensable…first and second-class citizens.
No doubt there is change afoot as consciousness arises, but in some ways the push toward transformation appears to be at the beginning stages. It seems to me that religious institutional leadership is still rearranging the chairs on the Titanic when what is needed is spiritual, not religious renewal. If the mass of religious leaders is unwilling to change, to whom do we turn? Transformation happens one person at a time. Resources are available and not hidden away. The resources just need to be used regardless of which religious tradition or particular sect of a given tradition. One obstacle to be overcome is the fear of exploring outside the familiar walls that seem safe but are not really safe. The familiar walls keep us stuck and doctrinal rigidity is a separator not a unifier. Authority can and does discourage exploring and doing something different or unfamiliar. Regular attendance at church, synagogue, temple or mosque does not bring about deeper consciousness. Rote recitation of prayers and engagement in rituals does not do it either. On the other hand, while being aware of the pitfalls of institutional religion, it is critical not to be judgmental of people for whom the status quo makes sense. But as St. Paul saw that there is more than the literal story, it is helpful to imitate his example and invite hearers to go deeper, to discover that there is more! They may accept the invitation or not.
Transformation happens when we engage in practices that wake us up to individual and collective ego. Daily, gradual, conscious, sober practice leads us to recognize that when things happen to us—positive or negative—it is not personal. When several years ago I heard a known and respected teacher say of “God” “it’s not personal,” I was shocked. However, “impersonal” does not deny the reality of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, life, energy and the other hundreds of qualities we have ascribed to a “Personal God.” These qualities are the very essence or ground of the deepest reality. Ramakrishna said it well. “God can be reached through many paths; each of these sectarian religions points out a path which ultimately leads to divinity. Yes, all religions are paths, but the paths are not God. I have seen all sects and all paths. I do not care for them anymore. -6- People belonging to these sects quarrel so much! After trying all religions, I have realized that God is the whole and I am God’s part; that God is the sovereign and I am a servant; again, I realize God is I; I am God...God is not only personal and with form but can take the form of Krishna, Christ or any other incarnation. It is true that God manifests God’s Self in infinite forms to fulfill the desires of devotees. It is also true that God is formless, indivisible Existence—Intelligence—Bliss Absolute.”
When Ramakrishna speaks of God as personal, he is clearly speaking of ourperception, “ego, persona” level or the level of spirit, pneumatic. In either case God is perceived as “other,” just as we perceive people and other beings as “other.” The mystery is that at the bottom line, All IS ONE! So, in our day-to-day lives we need to pay attention, holding lightly our perceptions, growing in awareness through practice, noting what our minds are doing, noting whether the running story is all about me, “ego, persona” or the level of Spirit.
Not all practitioners of various religions are stuck at the ego level. There are gifted teachers in the various spiritual traditions. They invite us to go deeper. For Catholics there is Richard Rohr and his Wisdom school. There are others as well.
Through the centuries the mystics of the various traditions have known that there is more, something further…that it is really all about love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness…and that all is ONE. But mystics too, are human and like the rest of us, move back and forth between stages of awareness. So, back to the process of growing, one day at a time, learning to stay longer and longer at the level of attending to the Spirit with less and less lapsing back to the ego level…and eventually getting longer and longer glimpses of unitive consciousness, Christ-Consciousness, Buddha Consciousness. The goal is to bring that unitive consciousness into our daily lives, where the rubber hits the road! Yes, as Meister Eckhart said centuries ago, “The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree. The seed of a hazel tree grows into a hazel tree. A seed of God grows into God.” What a wonder! It is our sublime call!
Toward the ONE, the perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,the Only Being, united with all the illuminated souls, who form the embodiment of the Mystery, the Spirit of Guidance! --HIK
Hazrat Inayat Khanbrought Sufism to the West in 1910. He was a mentor to Samuel Lewis who originated the Dances of Universal Peace.