Spirituality and States: Getting Beyond the Good Stuff
Spirituality is, in large part, a state-change business. Before you pray, do yoga, meditate, etc., you're thinking about mortgages and to-do lists, but during your practice, something shifts and you feel opened to something that feels "greater." Afterward, you feel refreshed and re-energized. This is what state-change is: moving your mind from one way of being to another. And spiritual seekers have developed a wonderful array of tools to enable it to happen.
For most spiritual folks, state change is what it's all about. As I'll describe in a moment, spiritual states have the power to open the mind, nourish the heart, and change the world. They are, I think, the most important force for social and environmental sustainability on the planet. And they can be lots of fun, too.
But states can also become dead-ends, or misconstrued, or actually dangerous. For every one hippie becoming one with the universe, there are five fundamentalists ossifying their experience into dogmas of hate and ethnocentrism. So, do the costs outweigh the benefits? Is there a way to get the good stuff without the bad? And what lies beyond spiritual states for those of us experienced enough in the spiritual path to have grown weary of them? Let's take a look.
1. The Benefits of (Temporary) Transformation
The first value of spiritual states is what might be called their "negative" capacity: you get to see that you are not your "box" of identity, predilections, and mind. You get a break from being you, and that is really important. This you can experience easily. Go to a drum circle. Let go totally, get into the rhythm. Forget yourself, like hopefully you do during sex. Lo and behold! Mind, ego, and all the rest of your personality finally shuts up-and look, you can experience life just fine without it! Maybe even better, and more alive! So, states are really useful, if only for that.
Spiritual states also have a "positive" capacity. There's something important about those experiences when the walls of self are lowered. Drum circle ecstasy isn't just Not-Usual-Me; there's a glimpse of an oceanic oneness beyond ego, a melting into the Goddess that is deeply profound and important. Meditation retreats bring about a dissolving into the One, a glimpse of the numinous. At least as an experience, holiness is real. All those spiritual weirdos are not nuts. I don't know what they're experiencing (more on that in a minute), but there is an experience, and that experience is really valuable. And if it gets mixed in with a notion of deities or spirits or whatever, these are useful concepts, even if they are only concepts.
Third, mystical states have a tendency to shift one's priorities, in useful ways. You experience this joy and bliss and compassion, and you get a little less obsessed with competition, career, and materialism. At least for a while. These states, transient as they are, yield a deeper, wider perspective on life's "stuff." Would we really have as many angry people, hunters, sexual predators, stressed out neurotic nuts, or conservatives if everyone underwent a real state change every Friday night or Sunday morning? I don't think so. It wouldn't save the world, but it would help if we were all a little more calm, and more infused with a joy that doesn't depend on consumption.
More specifically, genuine spiritual states invariably lead to compassion. I don't know why that is; it's kind of a miracle. And that compassion leads to all kinds of good things: less selfishness, more justice, less greed, more generosity, less hate, more love. I can hear my social-justice-obsessed editor clucking her tongue at spiritual narcissism, so let me emphatically state that, in my view, nothing would be better for the global pursuit of social justice than for more and more people to meditate and cultivate compassion on a personal level first. As I suggested in an earlier article, there is just no convincing a conservative that it's worth caring about some unfortunate marginalized person. They have to feel it themselves, and that takes changing the heart-and that takes spiritual practice. I don't see any other way if what we're after is durable, systemic change rather than fighting about the cause of the moment.
Finally, states lead to lasting insight. First, there are those regular old life-insights that spiritual practitioners know well, and which arise, particularly, in the context of enhanced spiritual states. On one recent retreat, I was healed of grief over a broken relationship which I'd been carrying around for six months. Honest -- it's much later now, and the anger and heartbreak is gone, replaced only by a reflective, wistful sadness that feels sweet and appropriate. Other times, I saw the radical impermanence of all sensations: here one moment, gone the next. I could poke through any wall of loneliness, anger, or greed. These insights do last, even though the blissful or content or equanimous states which produced them do not.
Experiencing spiritual "highs" can also provide a little more perspective on, and a little less thirst for, highs of other kinds, like sex, spirituality, drugs, love, music, food, travel, and other experiences. Again, I've had a very rich and wonderful life filled with all of those, but as anyone can tell you, chasing kicks forever is both puerile, and a little addictive. Mystical states can provide some of that joy and ecstasy without the side-effects and without all the clinging. Indeed, as the highs get even higher, they begin to usefully dead-end. On a two month "jhana" retreat devoted to intense concentration states, for example, I got "higher" than I ever thought it was possible to get. Okay. Whew, that was great. I'll do it again. Okay. Now I'll do it fifty times over a two month retreat. Okay. Now I'm even tired of it. So what's next? What lies beyond "kicks," even the most sublime ones? This is very useful: good spiritual highs lead to a better relationship to highs in general.
So, states heal us, they re-orient us, they motivate us, and they teach us. What could be bad?
2. The Limits of Spiritual States
In fact, the limitations of spiritual states are as perhaps as important as their strengths.
First, what really matters -- God, the Unconditioned, Emptiness, Nirvana, call it what you will -- is not the state, the bliss, the light, et cetera. Let me repeat briefly from last time that there's a tendency that all of us have -- but particularly spiritual Jews have -- to deify and thus idol-ize certain states. Oh, that gorgeous warmth of lighting candles. Oh, we were so high during that drum circle / yoga session / whatever, that was really. But that's not it. It is what's always here; the Infinite, everything. If it wasn't always here, it isn't it. Totally colorless, totally omnipresent, and in fact, if you look closely, the only thing that doesn't come and go. There is no state that is it. This is it; just this. Not feeling special about this, not feeling relaxed or wise or anything in particular -- although sometimes those feelings may arise in the wake of letting go. Just is.
In fact, mistaking a state for It is idolatrous, and the gateway to fundamentalism. The reason is "fetishizing the trigger," which I wrote about in a previous column. Fetishizing the trigger happens when we find a trigger to amazing mystical states, and then mistake the trigger for the state, the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. This is the root of fundamentalism: this ritual is holy, that one is not; this religion is right, that one is not. And it's the root of the "right-wing hippie" phenomenon in Israel, in which well-meaning neo-Hasidic types get really seriously high off of the holiness of the Land of Israel, and end up hating Arabs and being incredibly ethnocentric. States are powerful, and that means they can be dangerous.
Even when they're not dangerous, states can lead to a whole huge pile of suffering when the conditioned state passes and you're left wondering what the hell went wrong. Believe me, I've spent many months in just that sense of bewilderment. The answer is actually pretty simple: I mistook something conditioned for the unconditioned. You just can't relive those peak experiences after awhile. I've tried. I've tried really hard. It just leads to suffering. The only thing you can do, over and over again, is let go. Let go of everything. Every desire, every identification, every place your ego is hiding out and saying "I'm this." Let go, let go, let go, and keep on falling -- because there ain't no place to land. Yet this falling, I am here to tell you, is the same as flight.
It is also bad, bad news to get addicted to bliss states, as many people do. It's a spiritual dead end, a kind of masturbatory spirituality that's basically not so different from being addicted to drugs. You get high, you get withdrawal, you get high, you get withdrawal. It's kind of tragic, since as I just mentioned one of the many benefits of spiritual highs is that they tend to reduce clinging to getting high. But sometimes it doesn't work that way, and one addiction is simply substituted for another. I've met a lot of "spiritual" people who really are just looking for their next fix, and it's sad. It is also irresponsible, imbalanced, and even in its less severe forms, can actually increase selfishness -- as in, "stop bothering me with your needs! I'm trying to have a bliss state!"
Now, again, some perspective. I was told on one of my first retreats that concentrated mindstates can become narcotic. I understood, but I wanted them anyway -- and I don't regret it. Those four or five years of concentration brought on all kinds of insight, compassion, and the other benefits from above. They were also freaking amazingly awesome and beautiful. So, if you're just starting out: cultivate states! Just try not to get too attached to them, or think they're something they're not. Love, learn, and let go.
But for those of us who have eaten the apple, tasted the forbidden fruit, and been transformed by it -- is there anything beyond? Are we just to go on loving and letting go? Or is there something beyond the holiest of spiritual states?
3. What's Beyond States?
There is -- but let me take a short detour first to reiterate why for the vast majority of people, states are still the way to go. Really, where the work of spiritual teaching and the work of social justice actually intersect is not in the more esoteric or refined realms, but in what you could call the "retail business" of spirituality: bringing spiritual change to more and more people, usually in somewhat gross ways. Ultimately, while I personally am interested in the further stages of the spiritual path, and try to write about them in this magazine, as someone concerned about the fate of our planet, I am actually more interested in the initial stages. I believe that spirituality can bring more and more people over to the good side of the fence -- the side with more concern about equality and justice, more respect for the environment, and more pluralism on global and local levels. And I think spirituality can make people less racist, violent, overly conservative, greedy, and materialistic. But to do that, spiritual teachers need to interact with the not-so-good side of the fence, and cheapen what they are doing in order to reach more people.
Eckhart Tolle, after the huge success of The Power of Now, took a year of silent retreat to discern what should be his next step -- not as a matter of a career, but as one of mission. What he did next was not unveil the next stage of the path, what lies beyond "now," but rather adjust the way he was teaching, simplify it, and, in a way, translate it into more coarse terms. The result was A New Earth, worldwide success, and, through Oprah, the largest audience a spiritual teacher has received since perhaps Deepak Chopra. (Chopra himself is an educated, enlightened nondualist. His teaching is often quite coarse in presentation -- live forever, never age, etc. -- but I think he's really trying to reach the most people with the most light.)
So, for most people, states are still what is necessary. We still need to promise that you'll feel good, and deliver the goods. For most people, the first step is still to be taken.
But if you've read this far, I'm guessing you're not one of those people. I'm guessing that you've had powerful spiritual experiences, and that, like me, you've struggled with what to do next: how to integrate them, or have more of them, or perhaps move from "state to stage," in Ken Wilber's terms. This is the real goal, right? Not to go off on retreat and feel close to God but to have the Divine before you always. So for you, what's the next step? I'm still very much on this path myself, but here's what I've learned so far.
First, states must be refined and made increasingly subtle, so much so that they approach omnipresence. The jhanas, which I wrote about previously, are instructive in this regard. The first jhana is pretty over-the-top, filled with intense rapture. Then that gets too coarse, and the second jhana takes over, with pleasure and delight and amazing, shimmering light, but without some of the intense concentrated effort. Eventually even that gets coarse, and the mind moves to the third jhana, with pleasure and bliss, but not rapture and amazement. And eventually, even the love and bliss of the third jhana gets a bit coarse, and the mind moves into the fourth jhana, which is equanimous, transparent, and so subtle it's barely there.
The first jhana's coarseness is its strength: without that brute force, it's very hard to get "in." Likewise with all spiritual states. At first, we need to get our socks knocked off: some amazing, wild ecstatic prayer service, or an upwelling of love so beautiful it makes us cry. As we progress, however, what I've found is that the states become more subtle -- and thus approach ordinary life more and more. The title of Jack Kornfield's book After the Ecstasy the Laundry is apt, and the book deals frankly with some of the painful hangover-periods that inevitably come after ecstatic highs. But the ultimate point is for the laundry itself to be holy, to be good.
That does not mean that the laundry provides ecstasy. Rather, it means that by refining spiritual states, you don't need ecstasy to feel connected anymore. I remember after my first few retreats, I would try to re-experience the joy or devekut I felt on retreat. For a while, it would work, but eventually, I'd get too distracted, and eventually even bored with trying. Now, however, I'm looking less for a spiritual state than just to let go into "what is." It's tricky, because "let go into 'what is'" sounds like "relax, feel connected, be holy" -- but my point is the opposite: that it's really just letting go into what is, and being deeply, profoundly okay with that.
If you've not experienced any of these states and progressions, that must sound rather banal. But imagine having the sense of okay-ness that you have when you're snuggling with your lover -- just now, snuggling in with the "present moment." Not the love, necessarily (though that too may arise), but just the... yes. This is it. This really is it. This is God, this is the point, this emptiness that underlies all of my transitory states of mind... yep, this is it.
The result need not be an aching sense of holiness, or the belief that you can fly. (Though those too...) It is mostly a negative capacity rather than a positive one: it's mostly in the letting go, the relaxing, the un-distracting, the remembering. Poke your head up out of the huge flock of self-absorbed sheep that all of us collectively are -- oh yeah, you're awake. Consciousness. Emptiness. Even "God," if you like, though that term is inevitably freighted with associations and expectations. My God is named "is." So, for me, it's sometimes easiest to just say "is it is?" Which... it usually is.
This is the process of making states so transparent that they slowly turn into stages. What we're looking for, "it," the goal, enlightenment, whatever, grows increasingly thin. The "trigger" is always available. What you're looking for is always available -- indeed, it's just your ordinary awareness, if you can believe that. Remember: if it hasn't always been here, it isn't the unconditioned. And it is, in my experience, slow, gradual, and filled with fits and starts. But it does seem to be working. "To see the light in everyone and every thing," Surya Das told me. Yes -- and not radiant, shining, first-jhana light -- but just the ordinary light that is, all the time. Nothing special -- and yet, with enough practice, just as special as that which is most special. Sorry if that seems paradoxical. Walk the walk, you'll see what I mean.
So, at first we have mundane consciousness, the space of I-me-mine and work and the rest. Then, we have spiritual states, where those boundaries and demands are relaxed. And then, we have some notion that the real goal is not any state, but what Wilber calls "the simple freedom of being." This is rather like negative theology in our own experience: not this, not that, not this thought, not that idea, not this ego, not that possession. Ayin is everywhere, but it has taken me, at least, a lot of work to be able to refine consciousness so much that I'm not mistaking it for a pleasant state of mind.
And then, finally, there is the re-embrace of the ordinary itself -- but, please, don't do this too fast. First, have the states. Then, refine them away. And then see that in every ordinary moment, lonely ones and lovely ones, there is the unity of form and emptiness, nirvana and samsara, yesh and ayin. Don't rush. But do move forward.
Now, in order to enable this negative capacity, of seeing God without "God," there are at least four necessary ongoing factors. First is a regular spiritual practice: meditation, yoga, prayer, reflection, that sort of thing. You've just got to take out the garbage, every day. You have to interrupt the torrents of thought, to-do lists, plans, senses of self, and so on, because otherwise "letting go" just won't take. A lot of times, when I ask "is it is?" I get a response of "yes, but so what?" This is a good sign that I'm identifying with factors in my mind, such as restlessness or unhappiness. It's a good sign to take a nice, deep breath and try to remember that "I" am not restless; restlessness has just arisen. There is no "I." Okay, whew. Regular spiritual practice maintains the base level of presence of mind necessary to do that.
Second, you've got to extend the spiritual practice beyond the mat, beyond the mind, and into action. If it's all about you, you're going to get too wrapped up in your feelings, your journey, your states, your shit. Take some time out of your head and go work in a soup kitchen. Counsel somebody who needs help. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Whatever it is, there has to be some measure of spiritual practice in the world -- not just to heal the world, but to ensure that spirituality doesn't dead-end in you.
Third, I think -- and some would disagree here -- that in addition to awakening, there needs to be some kind of "purification of mind," to use the Buddhist term. Theoretically, one can be a fully awakened, enlightened human being and still be a total schmuck. Enlightenment does not have to do with being a nice person; it's about seeing through the veil of illusion, knowing all things to be totally conditioned and transitory and thus unclingable. What's left depends on how you see the world -- it could be God, or emptiness, or liberation, could be All Mind, or No Mind; doesn't really matter, the point is what it isn't, which is any thing. Now, if that's true, it doesn't much matter whether what's in the mind is peace and love, or sexual desire, or simple obnoxiousness. It's all God, right? This is how many clearly enlightened people still have psychological baggage and other hangups. For me -- and again, not everyone would agree -- I think there's still a lot of delusion that needs to be cleared up in order for it not to eventually block clear seeing. I still get very, very tied up in the illusion of "I," in large part because of the way neuroses from my childhood still continue to operate. They are very hard to see through sometimes. So, for me at least, the ongoing process of cultivating patience, equanimity, lovingkindness, and other illusory, transitory qualities remains part and parcel of the overall spiritual project, if only so I don't get jammed.
Finally, I think you've got to take a good look at your life, and see if it is really conducive to taking the "next step." Maybe it just isn't. Maybe you're at a stage in your life where you're working really hard and building something, and so you need to stay with cultivating really juicy states once a week. No harm in that. Or maybe you're raising a family, and the stress is just too much for subtlety. This is why monks are monks, and not householders. In my own life, I've shed three entire careers in the last two years, and am working much less -- for me, anyway. I've chosen to take large chunks of time out and focus on contemplative work. I've stopped fighting with Jews about how their religion should be, and I've cut back on my political writing and work. And I've stopped living in New York City. These steps have often been painful; I'm a greed type, and I want it all. But I want one thing more, and that thing requires quiet of mind and body.
So, that's what I've learned. It is possible and necessary to move beyond spiritual states, but it takes work, the right conditions, and ongoing maintenance. And to repeat, I am not claiming to have completed this work, or attained anything. As a final aside, if I were really beyond identifying with my "ego," I probably wouldn't be writing at all; the more awake I become, the less I am interested in teaching or writing, and even less in impressing anyone by doing so. Compassion still motivates me somewhat, but humility counters it: do I really think I am so wise, or that I am saying something that can't be found elsewhere? I can imagine many realized beings who see no possible purpose in doing anything or going anywhere except Being itself, except perhaps in direct, compassion-motivated helping of others. So, if you are reading any book or essay, including this one, you must be getting something less than the totally genuine article. Beware of anyone who writes or teaches.
At this point, I often try to conclude with a poetic image, or a recollection of a spiritual moment at which all the veils dropped away and the nakedness of the Divine was so radiant and cleansing. I have a big satchel of such moments. But the point of Zen poetry and ritual, as I understand it, is to get beyond all that. Whatever it is you're looking at now -- that's the scenery for your enlightenment. So I'd rather not write any conclusion at all.
Image by Todd Ryburn, courtesy of Creative Commons license.