Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

Getting to the bottom of pride in practice

I’m trying to get to the bottom of pride in practice.

At this stage, I think pride involves a mistaken belief that feeling good about ourselves constitutes real happiness.

Pride motivates me to pursue certain objects and avoid others on the basis of how these things make me feel about myself. It can be subtle, and sometimes it’s hard to separate how we feel about the object, from how the object makes us feel about ourselves.

For example, you enjoy someone’s care and affection, but you also enjoy how their care and affection make you feel about yourself.

The problem is that pride – how we feel about ourselves – is empty. It consists of the most transitory, fleeting thoughts and impressions that temporarily binds together our experience of reality with our self-image, conflating the two for one intoxicating moment.

This passing alignment of subject, self-image, and object is impossible to maintain, and chasing it becomes an exhausting pursuit.

Look at it this way: to be with someone you care about, you only have to be with them. But to hold onto the good feeling about yourself that comes from that person’s care and affection, you need to keep actively thinking about it – and about yourself.

But the more you think about it, the more accustomed to it your mind becomes. It stops feeling special. You need to enhance the stimulus. Worse still, the very nature of the original special event is that it took your mind away from thoughts of yourself. You cannot self-consciously lose yourself.

It’s like experiencing a wonderful surprise, and then trying to relive the moment of surprise again and again, because you self-consciously like how “being surprised” felt.

When it comes to pride, we’re dealing with a set of beliefs or cognitions that induce an emotional response in us, which we then seek to reproduce again and again. It’s as if we’ve short-circuited a cognitive function that was designed to help us survive and thrive in the real world.

Pride entails a positive emotional response to beliefs that imply in some way “I am great”. As various spiritual traditions have taught, the cognitive component rests on a subject “I”, and an object “greatness”. The emotional component is a natural response to the object “greatness” albeit mistakenly attributed to the subject “I”.

As we have discussed in previous posts, pride is all about seeking to be in control of our own happiness, and to take credit for our own greatness, or to try to own greatness in ourselves. Spiritual traditions invariably decry this as a delusion or a sin, and seek to strip us of a false and ultimately destructive sense of being in control, or being responsible for our own existence, happiness, and so on.

In other words, they seek both to devalue the subject “I” and correctly attribute the object “greatness” to God, or the void, or whatever you would like to call it.

The end result is that the human being releases their obsession with the subject “I”, and experiences the corresponding emotion of awe as a natural response to the greatness of existence according to the divine order of which they themselves are an expression.

The nature of our deluded state is that the preoccupation with “I” inhibits our experience of awe at creation. Our momentary experiences of awe break through the limitations of the “I”, but we immediately seek to take control of them once more. We end up trying to make ourselves, through the lens of “I”, the object of awe.

In everyday life this quickly degenerates from the pursuit of awe to the pursuit of relative happiness.