Transformation, metamorphosis, identity change, and spiritual awakening: death and resurrection
A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.
When the limited, programmed mind finally opens up to the infinity of the mystery which has been repressed until then, a person often finds him or herself drowning in limitless implausibility, and this does not assist the individual to lead a responsible, capable, limited life. For when the mind is finally divorced from all its previous assumptions, ideas, and understandings, it suddenly stands upon the brink of the chilling Unknowable. It is at this point where some sink, some swim, some fall to their deaths, and some ...learn to fly.
This is the vertiginous uncertainty of life, of absolute incomprehension, when all supports and suppositions come crashing inexorably to the ground. There is nothing left to grab hold of. The slate is wiped clean, and because you yourself are also on the slate- you are gone as well. This may sound extreme, but that is because ...it is extreme. I am speaking of an inner Apocalypse, a death which goes either nowhere, or ...leads to further life. The individual who undergoes such a catastrophic and transforming undoing cannot continue living with the conceptions of life he or she had previously existed within. That is the beauty and horror of wonder.
"...the whole terrain founders, the soil underfoot is afloat,
the constellations are shaken loose from their moorings,
the whole known universe, including the imperishable self,
starts moving silently, ominously, shudderingly serene
and unconcerned, toward an unknown, unseen destination."
And it is exactly this dis-solution, which is the initial requirement for rapture.
A short synopsis of what happens is this: we are born, and grow up, and go to school, and learn to read and write, and to 'know' things, and so we proceed through our days without the slightest inclination that everything we believe to be true is merely opinion, excuse, or misinterpretation; that we have defrauded the grandiosity of being by conceptualizing within the context of limitedness; that we have persisted in the shallows of interpretation and learning, only because of a habitual fear of the height of awe. And when finally we realize that all we have come to 'know' and believe as reasonable explanations for life are but confused make-shift veneers hiding all that is truly incomprehensible, the whole show comes tumbling down.
A brief anecdote from Jouffrey will help to explain: "I shall never forget that night of September in which the veil that concealed from me my own incredulity was torn. I hear again my steps in the narrow, naked chamber where, long after the hour of sleep had come, I had the habit of walking up and down. ...Anxiously I followed my thoughts as they descended from layer to layer towards the foundation of my consciousness, scattering one by one all the illusions that until then had screened its windings from my view, making them at every moment more clearly visible. Vainly I clung to these last beliefs as a shipwrecked sailor clings to the fragments of his vessel, vainly, frightened at the unknown void into which I was about to float. I turned with them towards my childhood, my family, my country, all that was dear and sacred to me; the inflexible current of my thought was too strong- parents, family, memory, beliefs- it forced me to let go of everything. The investigation went on more obstinate and more severe as it drew near its term, and it did not stop until the end was reached. I knew then that in the depth of my mind, nothing was left that stood erect. …This moment was a frightful one, and when, towards morning, I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel my earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, somber and unpeopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought that had exiled me there, and which I was tempted to curse. The days that followed were the saddest days of my life."
From Jouffrey's confession it can be seen that despite the undeniably exhilarating effect of absolute non-understanding, there is often a negative reaction, a terror, at the collapse of all cognitive grounding.
"It seams like every body elses got ansers
only I haven't got nothing only askings."
the colloquial Riddley Walker
This 'conceptual agoraphobia', as it were, can be the undoing of the individual who is blessed with the privilege of complete wonder; the negative response often leads to the pathos of the 'outsider', driving him or her into loneliness and insanity. This type of response is a large thread woven through Colin Wilson's brilliantly written work, The Outsider, from which Jouffrey's quote was taken. In his exhaustive study of individuals on the crest of consciousness, Wilson shows how anyone who divorces themselves from the meanings imposed upon life by mankind no longer fits anywhere into a society whose truths are seen to be completely false. This leads, in his book, to a thesis on tragic individuals who, for the most part, have fallen away from the world of men, because they have seen 'too deeply'.
Colin Wilson explains the general nature of the outsider's predicament, by saying, "Without the meaning his Will would normally impose on it, his existence is absurd." Wilson then gives, as an example of that absurdity, a quote from H.G Wells, who stated: "Hitherto, events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies have been held together by gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished, and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity... A harsh queerness is coming into things... We pass into the harsh glare of incredible novelty. ...The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat."
Now, this 'harsh queerness' and 'harsh glare' will necessarily lead to the 'mental defeat' of a scientist, such as Wells (or anyone else so dependent on the reasoning mind), who finally must come begrudgingly to terms with his or her own incorrigible ignorance.
"All will be desperately lost in this sudden bedazzlement."
H.G. Wells aptly titled his last book- from which the quote noted above arises- Mind at the End of Its Tether. I say 'aptly' because for one who has struggled his whole life to understand and explain life, and then, at the eleventh-hour, to realize he understands nothing, it is logical that this non-understanding would appear as a bitter defeat, rather than as an ultimate success.
Any individual such as Wells, caught rapt in the grip of immanent exasperation, often becomes effectively incapacitated from this conceptual breakdown; and it is existence itself which is the debilitating enigma- because 'what is' is, and ...because one cannot understand it.
Sam Keen notes: "The primal source of wonder is not an object but the fact the mind is sometimes jarred into the realization that there is no necessary reason for the existence of the world or anything in it. …In speaking of [this]…Tillich said that, viewed from the standpoint of the possibility of nonbeing, being is a mystery. However odd it may be linguistically or logically, there are states of mind in which the very existence of the world seems strange and miraculous…"
It is as if a person is immobilized by awareness itself, by the transfixed vision of magnificence and confusion. And this is an event of either horror, or elation; when the mind is entirely freed the individual is either emancipated, or condemned by the terror of that freedom.
"This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us."
Rainer Maria Rilke
It is a fine line, a razor's edge, between mysticism and madness. Yet whether the experience of suddenly awakening to the all-pervasive mystery of life- and to our own astoundingly comprehensive ignorance- leads the individual to the rapture of a god-intoxicated saint, to the tortured bottom of a whisky bottle, or to a life of lonely isolation- it is more or less the same experience, and is altered simply by the way in which it is dealt with: whether a person falls down in fright and nausea, or instead finds their 'sea legs' and learns to move with the rhythm of infinity.
It is my contention that this experience of incomprehension (which Wilson's outsiders found to be grounds for melancholy, madness, escapism, or suicide) is not an inherently tragic experience, but is, in fact, essential to the development of the higher self; we escape the confines of the limited life through the porthole of absurdity, and there we find not an event which misleads us out of life, but one that returns us truly and finally to life, and therefore is not worthy of despair but ...of exaltation.
"The world is not only stranger than we suppose,
it is stranger than we can suppose."
In Dostoyevsky's book The Idiot, Prince Myshkin details the evolution of his undoing- from confusion, to suffering, to ecstasy: "...I'd experienced a series of bad and agonizing attacks...and...it grew worse...the fits came on several times in succession, I fell into a state of utter stupefaction, with complete loss of memory. Though my reason wasn't effected, the course of my logical thinking was interrupted, as it were, I couldn't connect more than two or three consecutive ideas. That's the impression I have retained. When the fits abated...I was in a state of unbearable melancholy, I remember; I was actually on the verge of tears all the time, in constant dismay and anxiety, and I was terribly effected by it all being so alien to me- that much I realized. The foreignness of it was crushing. [But] I emerged from my depression... I began to recover rapidly. Then each day grew more precious to me, and the passage of each new day made it all the more precious, so that I couldn't help noticing the fact. I would go to bed very pleased with the day, and awake the next morning feeling even happier. It would be very hard to say why that was so. ...At such moments I felt something calling me into the distance, and it would seem that if I were to walk straight ahead for a long, long time, and cross that distant line where the earth and sky met, I would find the key to everything and at once behold a new life a thousand times more thrilling and vibrant than ours."
Myshkin is speaking, unknowingly perhaps, of a sublime process- the alchemical transmutation of the gross ore of consciousness into the pure gold. This shift, according to the terminology of alchemy, is the movement from the nigredo to albedo to rubedo.
This immanent Art of alchemy is also adroitly written into the crucible of Rainer Maria Rilke's unique poetry and life. Excerpted sections from his Duino Elegies, which subtly document stages of the process, run along the same theme as the last quote:
"Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
to give up customs one barely had time to learn,
not to see roses and other promising Things
in terms of a human future; no longer to be
what one was in infinitely anxious hands; to leave
even one's own first name behind, forgetting it
as easily as a child abandons a broken toy.
Strange to no longer desire one's desires. Strange
To see meanings that clung together once floating away
In every direction. (first elegy)
...[But then] suddenly in this laborious nowhere, suddenly
the unsayable spot where the pure Too-little is transformed
incomprehensibly, leaps around and changes
into that empty Too-much;
where the difficult calculation
becomes numberless and resolved. (fifth elegy)
...Wasn't all this a miracle? Be astonished, Angel, for we
are this, O Great One; proclaim that we could achieve this,
my breath is too short for such praise. (seventh elegy)
...Look, I am living ...Superabundant being wells up in my heart. (ninth elegy)"
The end of this lengthy verse by Rilke is certainly a description of the brighter side of the dark and unknown; he has come through unmiracle and reclaimed the miracle.
"A disorienting passage through 'the cloud of unknowing'
may well be the initial test of our adequacy as individuals."
From this point on we see that the individual who has, through initiation into mystery, been turned into an 'outsider', may enter into a reversal and re-turn to become an 'insider', for now he or she is not painfully outside of the mystery of life, but is instead within it, and integral to it- a living part of the enigmatic whole.
The 'immanence' of mystery, and the 'Great Art' of alchemy, as documented by Rilke and others, will be further discussed in the final chapter, when all the ingredients have been mixed into the cauldron, so to speak.
Leo Tolstoy's candid statements continue our theme: "Five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do. ...Then these moments of perplexity recurred oftener and oftener. ...I felt that what I had been standing on had broken down, and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and I had nothing left to live on."
Yet Tolstoy would go on to become one of the greatest novelists of history, and would also write a book on his political and psychological thought called, interestingly enough, The Kingdom of God is Within You, which would be read by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, and would end up influencing the whole subcontinent of India's non-violent revolution and emancipation.
Therefore, the experience of having 'nothing under our feet'- of all that we thought we knew suddenly revealing itself as unknowable- can lead towards two possible outcomes: crisis, or completion.
"Having to believe that the world is mysterious and unfathomable was the expression of a warrior's innermost predilection.Without it, he had nothing."
As with all great hero and heroine journeys, there must be inner trial if there is to be inner reward.
Chuck Spezzano, in his commentary on The Enlightenment Cards, describes this stage of the epic as such: "The meaninglessness and the anguish this engenders- because everything has turned grey and to ashes- can be a great opportunity for you. While many people die in the realms of meaninglessness, it could be one of the places where you make some of your greatest strides in consciousness. ...[For] when meaninglessness is seen from a high spiritual perspective, it is the realization that the world actually does not have any meaning. [Yet] the ego attempts to lure us off and show us that the world does have meaning: 'Come right this way! Step right up! The greatest show on earth is about to begin! Come to the sideshow! You will find something interesting that will keep you entertained here!' Of course, because this is not true, you are eventually brought back to the experience of meaninglessness once again, but this time it is through disappointment in the world. However, meaninglessness is actually a place which is very close to realization, awakening and enlightenment."
For those people who are tightly wrapped in a comfortable life, with many desires or responsibilities, such an experience of meaninglessness can lead to their downfall- for it destroys their false life completely; they are the ones who, finding themselves fallen into quicksand, thrash wildly about in an attempt to extricate themselves, only to sink deeper and deeper into the mire.
Yet for those who are inherently more elastic, more capable of 'turning on a dime', so to speak, of recognizing the virtue of a 'real' experience, and thus who are also capable of 'letting go', of enjoying the wild ride of inexplicable awe, and then of finding the wherewithal to go forth in life with this new experience as their living corner-stone while rejecting all past structures, these are the ones who will not only survive intact, but will fly instead of drowning, and will flourish from the very same event which caused others to crumble.
Aleister Crowley notes: "...the best of men, the free men, do not consider the matter in such terms at all. Whatever horrors may afflict the soul, whatever abominations may excite the loathing of the heart, whatever terrors may assail the mind, the answer is the same at every stage: 'How splendid is the Adventure!'"
There it is. Life is a bewildering event, of that there is no argument. It is simply then a matter of whether we choose to see life as a miraculous adventure, or a tragic misadventure.
"I had to grow foul with knowledge, realize the futility of everything, smash everything, grow desperate, then humble, then sponge myself off the slate, as it were, in order to recover my authenticity. I had to arrive at the brink and then take a leap in the dark."
Jose Ortega Y Gasset explains this outlook, albeit from a different angle; he writes: "The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from those 'fantastic' ideas and looks life in the face, realizes that everything is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth- that to live is to feel oneself lost... He who does not really feel himself lost, is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality."
Reality is a crazy mystery, and we ourselves are the crazy mystery, but instead of seeking erroneously for reason and sanity to it all, we simply need to shift about, grant ourselves the license to be absurd, implausible, indefinable, and rare. It is then that we can look upon ourselves as the inexplicable, privileged miracles that we truly are. It is then that the adventure begins.
This acceptance of such inextricable 'lostness' would lead Carlos Castaneda to confess: "I was not afraid but baffled. …The loopholes in my reason were so gigantic that either I had to repair them or I had to dispose of my reason altogether. …What I experienced at the moment of that realization was such an intense astonishment that all I could do was stare, stupefied."
"Good, good" retorted don Juan to Castaneda, "I've told you that the true art of a warrior is to balance terror and wonder."
There is a point in life when all theories, ideas, proofs, and arguments fall irrevocably impotent, and the individual, determinedly bent hard upon comprehending his or her life in the implausible cosmos, will suddenly sense that none of what has been told to them about life is true; that Life, in fact, is not about understanding, but about living, and that the more we try to understand ...the less we live. For there is no wisdom in trying to understand what is not understandable. And there is less wisdom in imagining that one understands what one does not understand. And there is less wisdom still in retreating from the realization that we absolutely 'do not know', and shrinking back into a secure, limited lie, instead of accepting the confounding Enigma, and thus embracing life's majesty completely, because of the very fact that it is well beyond our limited comprehension. This is Life. Ours is the choice whether to obscure it with words, or worship it with wonder.
"O gnashing teeth of earth, where would it all lead but some sweet golden eternity, to prove that we've all been wrong, to prove that proving was nil… I realized, 'there is no answer'. I didn't know anything any more, I didn't care, and it didn't matter, and suddenly I felt really free."
As the phoenix rises from its own ashes, and the snake sheds its worn out old skin, so must we molt mentally if we are to live, and die, and live again.
Excerpts from Sam Keen's Apology for Wonder eloquently document this process of death and resurrection: "When something explodes into awareness and shatters our ordinary categories of understanding, it quite naturally creates mental and emotional dis-ease and puzzlement. What is this novel star that has suddenly appeared on my horizon? Who is this stranger who speaks so unexpectedly out of the mouth of my wife? Why is it that the rose I observed yesterday and the day before today confronts me with a miracle of redness? …When we are wonderstruck our certainties dissolve, and we are precipitated suddenly into contingency. We are alike a man waking in the middle of the night in a strange hotel room and not being able, for the moment, to remember where he is. …Wonder…insofar as it disrupts our proven ways of coping with the world…is menacing; insofar as it offers the promise of renewing novelty, it is desirable and fascinating. If we attend to the strict meanings of the words, we may describe the heart of the experience of wonder as an awful-promising surprise. …The iM.y of apocalypse and resurrection is integral to the experience of wonder. Every wonder-event involves a cognitive crucifixion; it disrupts the system of meanings that secures the identity of the ego. To wonder is to die to the self, to cease imposing categories, and to surrender the self… Refreshment or resurrection leaves us reborn but unable to articulate an adequate testimony. There is nothing new to say about the world…only a new ability to celebrate it…"
This 'disorientation and reorientation' is the psychological equivalent of the alchemical formula solve et coagula (dis-solve and re-combine); everything is taken apart and re-made. This, as has been said, can be destabilizing, to say the least. And yet it is essential, and unavoidable, and requires only our acceptance of the process in order to see it through to completion. In a state of wonder, no piece of the paradigm can endure.
Once we have made it through the 'dark night of the soul', then we are healed from the tortures of the mind's misconceptions. This is when we are "...opened to the ecstasy of Creation", as Ida Mingle described it.
It is here that we find some respite, for we no longer care what society cares for, and no longer understand what others understand. Here we are finished with the confines of the limited mind. Here is where, if we a strong enough to be nothing, ...here is where we are free.
"From that day onward every moment brought me its freshness
as an ineffable gift, so that I lived in an almost perpetual state of passionate wonder. I became intoxicated with extreme rapidity, and went about in a sort of daze."
Judith Handelsman wrote of her rapturous experience, exclaiming: "'Victory for the forces of good! Here, here!' I cried, jumping up and down, dancing in place, cheering...for the wonders of the invisible world I had just entered. ...I allowed magic into my life and had opened the way for more to come."
Thus the lucky, brave, or innocent individual who receives this intoxication of absolute wonder- of the complete non-understanding of all that 'is', including their own self- no longer needs a reasonable explanation of life, because they are wholly free from the mind's interventions; for them there is nothing gained by trying to apprehend an explanation ...of the unexplainable. Ideas no longer matter, knowledge is gone for good, and the whole of life swells and returns to its original, pristine spectacularness.
"...I start to float away,
and the whole world seems very strange,
in a pleasant kind of way."
Though our journey into the realm of mystery may begin as a frightening cataclysm, eventually the loss of understanding- if we are accepting enough of the process- may take over and we may begin to find our 'footing', our balance, so to speak, and what originally seemed a chaotic, turbulent, nauseating, ride, becomes a fluid, invigorating, familiar euphoria.
It is now a joy to positively accept our non-understanding, to embrace it, and in doing so we begin to acknowledge its validity more readily even than our day-to-day realities. We begin to believe that the world of men has been horribly untruthful to us, and that we have finally returned to our senses. We ease back into ourselves. Everything becomes new and spectacular. Nothing exists that is not implausible. A benign, peaceful reverie may begin to grow within our lives.
This is the gentler side of rapture, easing into the comforting unknowableness of all and everything, and willfully succumbing to the blessed sublime intoxication of the thoughtless presence of being.
"The Seer is lost in wonder, which is Peace"
And the Indian mystic, Sri Ramakrishna, so often found alone, caught rapt in rapture- or samadhi, as it is referred to in the East- described the experience as such: "In ecstasy a man remains dumb with wonder...[he] forgets the external world with all its charms and attractions; even one's own body which is so dear to one, is easily forgotten."
Rapture, therefore, is not necessarily an event of surging, emotional exuberance, but is often the more placid experience of being 'rapt' in wonder; it is then more similar to the stillness of awe, than the volatility of ecstasy. And though rapture may begin as a 'mind-blowing' sensation, it may also evolve into a passively enjoyable continuum.
"The wonderment of pristine cognitions is the path of no-more-learning when one has come to the end of one's labors..."
As such, Richard Bach exultantly admitted: "For a moment I tasted my new ignorance, shifted it on my tongue. What am I to do? Whatever will become of me? ...a surprise new pleasure broke and surged over me like a cool breaker from far deeps. I didn't know what I'd do!"
That is, if we are ready to let all thought and knowledge slip carelessly away from our minds and lives we shall neither find ourselves sitting in a corner of a room, cringing against the staggering reality before us, nor, through weakness or discomfort will we ever again need to return to the horrid mind-frame of words, conceptions, presumptions and all that separates us from our true selves. We shall instead bask comfortably in the dynamic, wordless, eternal warm glow of the voiceless song of our beings.
Russell Hoban's unique character, Riddley Walker, comes forth with his own bewildered and yet accepting appreciation of this new essence; in the full, apocalyptic colloquialisms of his voice, he gargles out, "My head begun to feal like it wer widening like circles on water I dint know if it wud ever stop I dint know where the end of it wud be. The stranger it took me the mor I fealt at hoam with it. The mor I fealt Iwd be long where ever it wer widening me to."
And Clarice Lispector describes this acquiescence about one of her characters, writing: "[He] no longer asked for the name of things. It was enough for him to recognize them in the dark- And rejoice, clumsily."
So when we are strong in the foothold of ignorance, all of existence will blend into the fabulous harmony of its infinite, singular mystery; we shall worship life in the act of living it, and with that we shall return to wholeness in the union of our awe.
"...it came to me that to love the mystery surrounding us is
the final and only sanction of human existence."
It is a pathless way back to rapture, and it is available to all of us; and so it is now merely a choice for each of us to rise up and follow, to walk or to wallow; it is up to each of us to find the beauty and miracle again in life, and in ourselves, and to deliver our gospel, however impossibly we may, to our unrapturous fellows still trapped in an unwonderful day.
As Arthur Machen contends: "Some have declared that it lies within our choice to gaze continually upon a world of equal or even greater wonder and beauty. It is said by these that the experiments of the alchemists in the Dark Ages...are, in fact, related not to the transmutation of metals, but to the transmutation of the entire Universe. ...This method, or art, or science, or whatever we choose to call it...is simply concerned to restore the delights of the primal Paradise; to enable men, if they will, to inhabit a world of joy and splendor. It is perhaps possible that there is such an experiment, and that there are some who have made it."
And so, finding his own philosopher's stone, Jack Kerouac announced: "...I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was "Wow!"
(excerpted from THE WAY OF WONDER: a return to the mystery of ourselves, by Jack Haas)