What It Means To Be Spiritual
By Ken Wilber
Taken from his forward to Entering The Castle, by Caroline Myss
Mysticism in general and contemplation in particular are such staggeringly vast and often confusing topics that, especially if one is new to either of them, they can prove lethally overwhelming to the soul, right when it is looking for something, if not exactly simplistic, then at lest simple enough to ground what might be its confusion, chaos, perhaps fear, perhaps suffering. What I would like to do, then, in just a few pages, is offer the reader some simple experiential reference points that might help to ground some of the ideas of mysticism and contemplative spirituality. I will first give seven of the most central ideas of mysticism and then attempt to give the reader a very quick, direct, experiential grounding in each of them.
The central ideas, if discussed merely theoretically, can sound rather dry and abstract. Here are the seven central ideas: (1) each of us has an outer and an inner self; (2) the inner self lives in a timeless, eternal now; (3) the inner self is a great mystery, or pure emptiness and unknowingness; (4) the inner self is divine, or perfectly one with infinite spirit in a supreme identity; (5) hell is identification with the outer self; (6) heaven is the discovery and realization of the inner divine self, the supreme identity; (7) the divine self is one with the all, given in grace and sealed in glory.
Now, let’s go in search of an experience of each of those items in just a few pages. Tall order? Not really, for you are already aware of, and fully experiencing, each of those items right now, according to the mystics. So let’s see.
First, sit back and relax, take a few breaths, then let your awareness come easily to rest in this present moment and simply notice some of the things that you are aware of, right here and now.
Notice, for example, some of the many things that you can see, things that are already arising effortlessly in your awareness. There are perhaps clouds floating by in the sky, leaves blowing in the wind, raindrops on the roof, the city skyline all brightly lighted against the evening’s darkness, or the sun shining brightly on the horizon as it is about to begin its journey across the sky. These things take no effort to be aware of; they are simply arising in your awareness, spontaneously and effortlessly, right now.
Just as there are clouds floating by in the sky, there are thoughts floating by in the space of your mind. Notice that these thoughts arise, stay a bit, and pass. You don’t choose most of them; thoughts simply emerge out of what seems to be nothingness or emptiness, parade across the screen of your awareness, and fade back into nothingness. The same with feelings in your body. There might be a sensation of discomfort in my feet; a feeling of warmth in my tummy; a tingling in my fingertips; an intense burst of excitement around my heart; a warm pleasure washing over my body. All these feelings simply arise on their own, stay a bit, and pass.
As I look inward, noticing thoughts and feelings arising in the inner spaces of my own awareness, I can also notice this thing called me or my self. There are many things I might know about myself—some of which I might be pleased with, some of which I might be annoyed with, and some of which I might find positively horrifying or alarming. But whatever I might think about this thing called my self, it certainly seems that there are numerous things I can know about it.
There even seem to be several of these selves, a fact announced by a plethora of pop psychology books. There is my wounded child; my harsh superego; my cynical and even bitter skeptic; my ever-present controller, seeking to control both me and everybody else; my wise old man or wise old woman; my spiritual seeker; my fearful persona, which lets fear make too many of my life’s choices for me; the joyous persona, finding a constant current of joy and happiness in this and every moment; to name a prominent few….
But notice something fascinating about all these selves: They are all something that I can see, that I can be aware of, that I can feel and know and describe, in many ways. They can all be seen—but who or what is the seer? All those selves, which I just looked within, saw, felt, and then described—are all objects that can be seen: But what is the subject, the actual self, the actual seer of those seen things, the true knower of those known things?
Get a good sense of yourself right now—just try to be aware of what you call “yourself” right now. Try to see or feel yourself as clearly as you can. Notice that, once you get a sense of seeing or feeling or being aware of yourself right now, what you are seeing is an object, not a true subject. That is, the self that you are seeing—the self that you call yourself and that you take to be a real self—is actually an object. It’s not even a real self or real subject, but simply an object or something that can be seen. Everything that you know about yourself, everything that you are used to calling yourself, is not actually a self or a real subject but just a bunch of objects, a bunch of things that can be seen. But who or what is the seer, the real subject or real self?
To begin with, don’t try to see your true self, because anything that you can see is just another object, just another thing that can be seen, and not the seer itself. As the mystics are fond of saying, the true self is not this, not that. Rather, as you attempt to get in touch with this real self or subject, just begin by letting go of all the objects that you have previously identified with. Anything that you can see or know about yourself is not your true self anyway, but just another object, so let it go, just let it go, and begin instead to disidentify with whatever you thought was yourself. Try this exercise, saying to yourself:
“I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. I have desires, but I am not my desires. I have wishes, but I am not those wishes. I have intense pleasure and excruciating pain, but I am neither of those. I have a body, but I am not my body. I have a mind, but I am not my mind. All those can be seen, but I am the seer; all those can be known, but I am the knower; all those are merely objects, but I am the real subject or true self, not any passing parts and pieces and objects and things. I am not thoughts, not feelings, not desires, not body, not mind, not this, not that.
So who or what am I?
Before proceeding, let’s say that, according to the evidence of our experience right now, we at least two selves, or two sorts of selves—there is the self that can be seen and know, and the self that cannot be seen or known. There is the unknown seer, and there are all the little selves seen. Philosophers have some fancy words for this: the transcendental self (or pure I AM-ness, which can never be an object, seen or known) and the empirical self (or the empirical ego, which can be seen, known, experienced, and objectified).
Even though the transcendental seer cannot itself be seen—that would be just another object—it nevertheless sees the entire majesty in front of its eyes: Unseen, it sees all; unknown, it knows all; unfelt, it feels all.
For this reason, the true self is often called the witness: It witnesses all that is occurring but cannot itself be turned into an object—as a true subject, it cannot be objectified. It is also called the mirror mind—it effortlessly and spontaneously reflects everything that arises, but does not grasp or keep. The true self is, in some sense, a deep mystery, something that can never be seen, and yet it sees the entire universe in front of it. It is a vast emptiness, and yet out of it the entire world seems to spring.
For the moment, please keep asking yourself, “What is this self of mine?” Keep trying to feel into that question, keep trying to think the thinker, feel the feeler, and see the seer. As you proceed in that fashion, asking yourself, “Who am I?” and gently letting go of all the objects that you thought you were, and as you keep trying to see the seer, you actually won’t see anything specific—you won’t see any particular things or processes or events or objects (or, if you do, they’re just more objects—exactly what you are not trying to find). Rather, as you keep relaxing into the seer, all you will find is a sense of release from objects, release from the small and narrow identities with objects that you used to call you. All you will find, in other words, is not another object but an atmosphere of freedom, liberation and release—release from the pain and torment of identifying with a bunch of little objects that come, stay a bit, and pass, lacerating you in the process. According to the mystics, the closer you get to your true self, the greater the sense of infinite freedom.
As I rest in the unknown knower, in this pure self or witness, I might notice something else about this self: It doesn’t move—it isn’t touched by time or motion, date or duration. This transparent witness is aware of time, hence itself is timeless, or existing in the timeless now. The witness is aware of past thoughts, but past thoughts occur now; and the witness is aware of future thoughts, but future thoughts occur now—and when the real past occurred, it was a now moment, and when the real future occurs, it will be a now moment. The only thing the witness is aware of, the only thing that is real, is an endless present, a single now moment through which time passes, but is not itself touched by time at all, yet rather lives in eternity. And eternity does not mean everlasting time but a moment without time. Wittenstein saw it clearly: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, eternal life belongs to those who live in the present moment.”
So there’s another hint: The closer you get to your true self, the more you live in eternity; the more you live in the timeless present, which includes thoughts of the past, the present, and the future, all occurring in the timeless now. So think about the past and future all you want: Just watch them arise in the present.
At this point, the contemplative mystics make one of their most controversial claims, so controversial as to seem almost psychotic, and yet they do so in one thundering voice the world over; they make this identical claim from every known culture, at every known period of recorded history, and in every known human language, and they do this so consistently and so unanimously that this claim is very likely the single most universal spiritual claim that humanity has ever made: The closer you get to your true self, the closer you get to God. And when you totally realize the true self, it is seen to be fully one with, even identical with, God or the Godhead or spirit itself, in what the Sufis call the supreme identity.
Now, this clearly does not mean that your empirical self is God, or that John Doe is God or Jane Smith is the Goddess; it means that your transcendental self—your infinite and eternal self—is God or spirit. Or, put a little more accurately, spirit is not in any fashion separate or separated from the transcendental self or all sentient beings. The transcendental self in every sentient being is spirit in that being, and spirit is the true self of all beings. And that means that 100 percent of spirit is present in your true self, in your deeply inward, radiant sense of I AMness.
Let’s pause and look at our list of the mystics’ claims, because we have already touched on most of them:
1. We each have an outer self and an inner self. We saw that the outer self (or the empirical ego) is the self that can be seen, while the inner self (or transcendental self) can never be made an object or thing of any sort, but rather is, among other items, a sense of freedom and a great liberation from the known, from the finite, and from the empirical ego.
2. The inner self lives in a timeless, eternal now. Eternity does not mean everlasting time, but a moment without time, which happens to be exactly this moment, when seen correctly as an endless present encompassing all time. The true self is aware of this ever-present, never-ending, eternal moment, through which all time passes—and, while never entering the stream of time itself, remains as its unmoved witness.
3. The inner self is a great mystery, or pure emptiness and unknowingness. Precisely because it can never be known or made an object, the true self is no-thing-ness, pure mysterium, an ongoing unknown knowingness, or cognizing emptiness, or simply, the great mystery of your own being.
4. The inner self is divine, or perfectly one with infinite spirit in a supreme identity. As St. Thomas put it, if the eyeball were colored red, it couldn’t see red; but because it is clear or redless or colorless, it can see colors. Just so, because the inner self sees space, it is itself spaceless, or infinite; and because it sees time, it is itself timeless, or eternal. And this infinite and eternal self is the home of spirit in you and in each and every sentient being. The overall number of inner selves is but one. Every person feels exactly the way you do when he feels into his own witness or I AMness: Since the true self has no objects or qualities, it can’t be different in anybody; it is the same radiant divine shining in you and me and all of spirit’s creations.
5. Hell is identification with the outer self. Hell is not a place; hell is not somewhere that we go when we are dead; hell is not punishment handed out to us by something or someone else—it is rather our contracting, sinning, separating activity of choosing the wrong self to identify with. We identify with that which we are not, we identify merely and only with the empirical ego, the self that can be seen; and that puny, finite, temporal, limited, and lacerating identity is nothing other than hell. Hell is a horrendous case of mistaken identity. We have forgotten who and what we are, a transcendental self plugged straight into spirit, speaking with the words of God and shining with the radiance of the Goddess. But we identify only with the finite self, the objective self, the self that can be seen, and not the self that is the seer, divine and infinite and eternal.
6. Heaven is the discovery and realization of the inner divine self, the supreme identity. The mystics East and West have long proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven is within—because the simple fact is that I AMness is Christ Consciousness, spirit itself, the Godhead in me and as me. The true self in each and every one of us is the true self that Jesus of Nazareth realized—“I and the Father are one”—and that realization, quite simply, transformed him from a temporal Jesus into an eternal Christ, a transformation that he asks us to remember and repeat ourselves.
Of course, this does not mean that my empirical ego is Christ, or that my personal self is Christ. To believe that is, indeed, a schizophrenic delusion. Nobody is saying that my personal self is spirit, but rather that the transcendental witness of that personal self is one with spirit in all beings. Your transcendental self is Christ; your personal self is you.
7. The divine self is one with the all, given in grace and sealed in glory. At some point, as one rests in the inward witness, feeling the atmosphere of freedom, the very sense of an inner self versus an outer self will often vanish, seen for the illusion it is, leaving only the sense of what the mystics call “One Taste.” My transcendental self gives way to nondual suchness, or what Meister Eckhart called “Is-ness.” For spirit is not only the self of all beings, but the such-ness or is-ness or thus-ness of all things. To freedom from any object is thus added the fullness of being one with all objects. I no longer witness the mountains, I am the mountains; I no longer feel the Earth, I am the Earth; I no longer see the ocean, I am the ocean; I no longer pray to spirit, I am spirit. So seamlessly does the world, sacred and profane, arise in one piece that I can find no boundary—not a single fundamentally real boundary—anywhere in the entire universe. There is only the radiant, all-pervading, deeply divine I AMness, within which all the worlds arise and fall, are born and die, explode into being and fade in oblivion, carried along by the one and only thing that is always ever present, even unto the ends of the world: this ultimate mystery in emptiness and release, freedom and fullness, ground and goal, grace and glory, this self of mine that I can no longer find, as the raindrops in their insistent is-ness beat gently on the roof, a beautiful sound of heartbeat thunder, thump, thump, thump, thump, just…like…that…