This month's contents:
Bernadette Roberts Retreat by Dan Garmat and Heidi Munn | Thinking & Receiving by Bob Fergeson | Musings by Gary Harmon | Useless Effort Well Spent by Bart Marshall | Poems by Shawn Nevins | What Is Action? by Art Ticknor | Humor
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View video clips of the TAT spring conference DVDs: "Beyond Mind, Beyond Death" and "What Is Spiritual Action?"
~ A two-part summary of participants' experiences
From the May 2006 retreat brochure: Bernadette Roberts is one of the most extraordinary contemplatives of our time. She began having contemplative experiences as a child, and by grace she has lived on this path longer than any known Christian mystic. Living in the unitive state for 30 years in the "marketplace," she came finally to the experience of "no-self," and her accounts of the infused understanding of Christian truths that followed are stunning. In Bernadette, now 74, we have a living woman, writing and speaking in the American idiom, who exemplifies in flesh and blood, not New Age sentiment, what actually lies beyond self. This is our journey too.
Born into a devout Catholic family in California, at 15, Bernadette's experiences began to fit into a Christian frame of reference. Ten years of seclusion in a Carmelite monastery followed, during which she realized an abiding state of oneness with God. According to the Christian mystical tradition, this egoless, unitive state is as far as one can progress in this life.
Upon leaving the monastic life, she returned to the "marketplace" and became a wife and mother. Describing the importance of the unitive state for the spiritual life, she illuminates with precision and detail what lies beyond the egoless state. Here lies the real significance of her work, for what so many have taken as the end of the road turns out to be more or less the midpoint of the total spiritual life.
Excerpts from Heidi's Notes and Reflections:
I received Dan's E-mail notifying me of Bernadette's retreat while I was at work. I had heard her name before but knew nothing about her. Never read her books. But something inside me said, "I must go." No idea why—just simply must go. I immediately E-mailed Rhonda, the coordinator, and asked if slots were available. "Yes," she replied, "but they are going fast." I wrote a check right there on the spot and had my sister dash to my office, pick up the check, and FedEx it to Rhonda. Done. I was in.
I won't keep you in suspense … I still have no idea why I had to be there. I probably should not have gone, because I have absolutely no formal religious background and very little interest in it. I suppose I should have believed the disclaimer on her website:
"Please look over the schedule of talks before you decide to come. While I am prepared to discuss all aspects of orthodox Christianity, I am not familiar with other religions, philosophies, or psychologies, and thus cannot discuss them. This means that unless you are sincerely interested in the mysteries of Christianity, you are not likely to benefit from the retreat—such is my finding, at least."
Given this, I wonder which ego possessed me to go? No clue. If you ever decide to go see her, be prepared for exactly what she states. Her view is very much based on Christian beliefs. I won't be talking about the religious angle at all, because it is completely out of my realm of knowledge.
My first impression of her was that she looked like a professional businesswoman. Well-groomed, elderly, but not at all "old." She was witty and spirited, and came across as a no-nonsense character with a sharp sense of humor. For example, she told us about a priest who was in her words, "... awful. He is dead now, thank God!" She also told a few of us during a side conversation that she does not believe in hell, but knows some folks that she wished would go there.
I'll state right away that I do believe she "made the trip" to no-self. This is based on my own gut reaction, not on anything specific that she said or did. In fact, I was very surprised at how much "ego" she appeared to have—my impression was that she was verbally aggressive toward those in the audience that raised challenging questions or that did not agree with her point of view. I personally did not think her style was appropriate for the audience since we were guests, not long-term students. I thought enlightened folks would be more tolerant and kind, somehow? Perhaps this was the biggest lesson for me; maybe enlightened folks are still human after all.
If Self-realization involves detachment from hard-core beliefs, it is a wonder that Bernadette made it at all. She seemed to be 100% convinced about who or what Christ is, the supremacy of Christianity over all other religions, the Truth of the Trinity, and the power of the Eucharist. Her biases made me ponder these questions more deeply:
Some of Bernadette's beliefs seemed to be 180 degrees in the opposite direction of some I have come to value. Examples include:
Perhaps all of her views are good food for thought? If no belief is true anyway, what difference does it make, what we believe? And conflict is always good fuel for the fire, right? Here are other observations:
Here I'll paraphrase some of her TAT-like musings:
Some more of her TAT-like observations were about the ego, and about the role of the self when encountering "spiritual experiences":
And finally, I thought her observations here were quite interesting:
So, that is my take on the retreat. Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go again? No.
I left large segments of her retreat out, because a lot of what she talked about had to do with formal religion and traditions. She used a lot of visual aids and hand-outs to explain the relationships in and between Christ, Logos, Trinity, the Father, monotheism, religions, Eucharist, Communion, the Sacraments, Spirit, the Unnameable, etc.
And, I personally don't believe that the Truth is that complicated. If it is, I may just prefer to stay sound asleep.
Excerpts from Dan's Notes and Reflections:
Coming back from the retreat, my notes were pretty unorganized, so I thought I'd organize them by the four questions I'd be wondering if someone else were reporting about their experience to me.
Question 1: What was Bernadette like?
Going there, my expectations of her were similar to my expectations of Shawn Nevins three years ago when going to a retreat where I would be meeting him for the first time—an ultra-egotistical, hair slicked back stereotypical New Yorker, who'll complain he's unappreciated because he didn't get Starbucks coffee. Don't know why I'd go to a spiritual retreat by someone like that ...
What I knew about her was that she had the highest rating on Shawn's site SpiritualTeachers.org (and is one of only two teachers with that rating who are still alive), was a Christian contemplative, thinks she's gone farther on the spiritual path than anyone else before, and believes Christianity is the only path there.
As for what I think of her now, I don't know for sure she's not had a superior realization. I didn't get the intuition she had, but this doesn't mean she hasn't. As for her personality, she is super confrontational, has lots of energy, and struck me as having no ego in the sense that things that would normally cause an affliction or an ego-boost didn't have this reaction on her, or at least she didn't physically manifest any reaction. She seemed all business, so to speak. Also, I wish I could remember exactly why, but I remember feeling at one point during the weekend she reminded me of Jim Burns.
I liked her but was very intimidated because she was so confrontational to people with even just slight deviations from a solely Christian path. I don't feel like I'm on a Christian path at all, so I was just imagining what was going to be in store for me. I wanted to ask her a few questions, eventually worked up the courage at lunch, and as I began talking with her, she became very un-confrontational, which was nice since I was so nervous. So she was trying to work with people, not just act like a teacher.
Question 2: What was the retreat like?
It was held in Ohio in early May, and its structure was similar to a TAT meeting—it started Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon, and consisted of six 2-hour sessions with break periods in between. The break sessions would either be a meal or an optional prayer session (or church service on Sunday). I never attended any of the breaks except the meals, so I don't really know what these prayer sessions were like.
In each 2-hour session, Bernadette would start out by handing out a sheet on the topic for discussion and then spend the rest of the time reading off the sheet without commentary, and people would interject with questions which she'd then respond to. You do get more out of her reading off the sheets than you would if you tried to read them on your own, because if you were by yourself, you might think "I don't believe she really believes this." But when she read it, she had conviction in her voice, and that also helped give signals for what she thought were the most important points.
Unfortunately, though, the questions the participants were asking were generally not helpful, and I found myself constantly hoping nobody would speak up. They were usually of an "are you sure it's that way?" nature rather than a more helpful "can you further clarify?" nature. I wrote during the retreat: "Main misunderstanding (so many questions seem off) seems to be about lack of thought in the same direction. It'd be interesting to see her with people who get her framework." I also wrote: "Reminds me of Rose lectures where people ask wrong questions." Doug White asked her at lunch what she thought of all the questions/arguing and she said it was great, as if that's what she hoped for, and she seemed sincere, though I couldn't believe it.
There were about 30 other workshop participants the first day, and 20 the second. (A lot decided not to return for day two.) The participants struck me as pretty similar to TAT members. They seemed relatively sincere about the search and were unusually honest generally. Most were not Christian-only seekers in the way Bernadette would have preferred. During the introduction and later talking with people, my impression was maybe as many as half the participants were into Buddhism or Hinduism to some degree or another. It sounded like most of them, though, didn't have a group or a primary system they were working with, and most were 40+ in age.
I thought I'd give a brief overview of the things she said during the retreat, organized according to the six sessions we had and what is on the sheets she handed out in each respective session. My impression is, if you wanted to do her system, there is enough in those six papers to get you started. Maybe even enough to meditate on for two years. Each of the six sheets has info on both sides, and since she basically just read off the sheets, you can get a good sense of what the retreat was about by just what's on these handouts.
The first sheet, the front side had the title "Define Terms"—she wanted to make sure everyone was starting out on the same page. The front's basic take home was that mysticism/revelation can't be separated from religion (i.e. both a religion without mysticism and trying to seek outside the framework of one of the established religions, are wrong), that different religions have different genuine revelations at their core, and that Christianity includes all the possible revelations because of the Trinity. The back of this sheet is titled "Characteristics of Revelation," containing an interesting list of 8 characteristics and giving more reasons you can't separate religion and mysticism. I didn't believe this message, that mysticism can't go without religion, even during the session as she read off the sheet. She never has an argument for why she believes they are inseparable, only examples of what has happened when people try to do them separately, so it seems she figures the audience will pick it up.
I wanted to highlight something she has on this sheet, not that it epitomizes it, but that I thought was an interesting perspective. Under "Religion Defined" on the first side, she writes: "Man includes everything that is lower than himself, but not what is higher than himself. Because man cannot go beyond himself, what is beyond must reveal itself to him. Because God is beyond man, man cannot touch God, he can only be touched by God."
The second sheet is called "Unique Characteristics of Christian Mysticism—How it is different than others." This sheet struck me as the core of her system. I tried to look over it to see what the most important points were, and I thought they were the unique characteristics number 4 and 5 (out of 12). Number 4 says:
LOVE OF GOD—Hallmark and SOLE technique. Defines our relationship to God. Love resides in the will, not in the emotions, sentiments or feelings. Love is the means and the end.
One thing I wrote down she said in response to a question was: "if you want to see your center of will, try to lift a piano ... anything with determination." Number 5 says:
ABSENCE OF TECHNIQUES—Love cannot be made into a technique.
She goes on further in number 5 to say you have two teachers, a personal teacher and a universal teacher. Your personal teacher is the Holy Spirit, and your universal teacher is the Church. She also says that, while Christian Mysticism is supposed to have no techniques, practice is a part of it. So practice is supposed to be different than technique, although I don't recall her ever explaining how.
Sheet three is called "Faith." It's very good, maybe even for someone working in the framework of the Albigen System. There's an abridged version of the sheet she handed out in the September 2002 TAT Forum. In this sheet, she contrasts "belief," which is subject to being broken (i.e., "unbelief or disbelief") and "faith," which is an obscure certitude, pre-conscious, deals with the unknown, comes from God, and is what is behind our "truth sensor." The two things about faith I thought were the most important were number 14 and 15. They say:
14. Faith is LIKE A MUSTARD SEED THAT MUST GROW—but how can God grow? There cannot be more or less of God, only more or less of self. Thus as self decreases (and belief decreases), God (Faith) increases. (As faith increases, belief decreases).
15. Faith is CENTRAL TO CHRISTIANITY, but not to other religions. Others have it, but it is not central.
With those first three sheets, I was able to follow along relatively well. But going over the second three sheets, I found myself in over my head. The fourth sheet I called her "Trinity concept structure." On one side, titled "The Absolute, Prior to Creation—as God is in Itself," there is a triangular diagram of the three dimensions of Godhead. The other side, titled "Relative to Creation, Us—as the Godhead is in ourselves," has a matching triangle describing the Trinity in other terms. I didn't get anything out of this session, but I have no Catholic background and maybe if you'd been raised hearing words like "Logos," "activity within the Unity" and "God as solely Emanant," the particular organization of these concepts might spark some insight for you.
The fifth sheet is titled "The Mystery of Christ." The idea is, I think, since the Trinity is the key to the Christian system, and she had mentioned in the previous session Christ is the key to the Trinity, the big mystery is therefore Christ. I wrote: "She really believes Christ was God incarnate in a way no enlightened person has been. This seems to be the essential reason Christianity allows the only ultimate realization, apparently." There is a section on the back of this sheet titled "How Christ was Different From Other Sagas, Seers, Prophets." It reads:
1. Christ IS the revelation, He is not the "medium" of revelation.
2. He gave no indication of searching for anything—of looking or suddenly discovering something new or old. (Wasn't seeking enlightenment or Oneness with God).
3. He offered no techniques, laws or paths; rather, He said, "I am the Way". (Love of God being the sole path).
4. Never proclaimed Himself God (no self or "I" in the Trinity). He said His identity could only be revealed by the Father.
5. His closest associates never chose to follow Him, rather He chose them (us)—a particular Christian phenomena.
The last sheet is titled "Christ Still With Us." She says there are three ways Christ is still with us: 1) In the Trinity; 2) In "the Cosmic Body of Christ," which the phrase "God is everywhere" refers to; and—the thing which irritated me almost as much as the questions people were asking—3) in "his Eucharistic Body." It felt like all retreat she kept bringing up the Eucharist and how important and amazing it is, but it seemed so inconsistent: she challenges so much the church says and does but seems to believe blindly not only Christ was God incarnate, but also that the Eucharist is real, that "appearance is not reality." It crossed my mind maybe she doesn't really believe these things, but believes that for a seeker, believing them would be helpful to arrive at realization. She did say at one point, "Christ is as real as you are, no more, no less" (and the title of her second book is "The Experience of No Self") so maybe this was hinting at this suspicion, but it could also have meant something else in the context. I wrote at the end of the first night: "I can't relate to a lot, a lot of things she takes for granted like Mystery of Christ, Eucharist, Trinity—she talks like these are self-evident huge mysteries."
Question 3: Should I go on a Bernadette Roberts retreat?
The way I'd answer that is: Having now gone, am I glad I went?
I think definitely. What better way to spend a weekend than to check out an enlightened person. Also, I'll probably get a lot more out of her books now because I know her framework much better so will know what she's trying to say better. But, with the exception of the "Faith" handout, my impression was her system is almost totally incompatible with the Albigen System. But even if I'm right, I still come away with something that worked for someone to contrast the Albigen System against.
There were a lot of things she said that sounded similar, but I didn't know if they only sounded similar on the surface: She talked about a necessary burning out; she said once, "We're always looking at God but we don't see him"; she talked about a truth sensor and as faith increases, it improves; she said something that sounded like you have to puff up the head before you chop it off; and "Christ is too close, closer to you than you are to yourself."
Another strike against it is it's expensive: $300 after the lodging costs at the retreat center. But I figured I wanted to see her in the near future and didn't want to fly out to California and get a hotel. So this is a little cheaper since I could drive five hours from Pittsburgh.
But mainly, I went because I wanted to get a sense of another enlightened person, especially one outside the Albigen System and one who'd get Shawn's "most helpful" rating—and I definitely got that. That, in turn, helps me understand what Rose would have been like, having done it without a teacher (seeing Douglas Harding briefly also gave me this a little, as do hearing and watching recordings of Rose, and hearing stories) and this is helpful for understanding the Albigen System. But even if you knew Mr. Rose, there might still be some value just in meeting another enlightened person.
Question 4: What else might the person want to say about the retreat?
Just three comments on her system:
I tried to define her system, and this is what it seemed to me to be, in a nutshell: I think she'd say Jesus comes to you somehow (e.g. a vision) and makes you a Catholic. You can't separate the search from religion, and since Christianity is the only one with the Trinity, it's the only religion with a valid core. The essential work is all done by God, and the individual's main job is just to love God, and love for God comes from the will, not emotions. High moral standards are also necessary individual work and require self discipline. Also, take the Eucharist, go to church, read about saints and do what they did. You are taught by the Holy Spirit and the Church, and you become transformed by suffering. As belief decreases and faith increases, God may one day reveal himself in one of the four types of revelations, hopefully for you the Trinity, but if not, keep going.
The second thing about her system is that I liked how there is a sense of higher purpose to it: that you're not doing work for the self, but in Christianity, you are working out of Love of God.
And finally, I would not suggest this system due to the fact she's not easily accessible (no e-mail address or web-site, and she requests you don't correspond by mail because she is "not a teacher" and wants to focus on her family) and there doesn't seem to be a group (if there is, no one mentioned it, and there's no website, and no one made the trip out from CA with her). If those two things were there, however, and there wasn't TAT, I'd probably consider it, despite the poor success ratio of Love of God leading to a final realization, since it could work, maybe.
~ See Bernadette's Friends Blog for information on the next retreat or for information on ordering Bernadette's published books.
Part 2 of the participants' reflections and experiences is available in the October 2006 TAT Forum.
"Businessmen and merchants will not enter the places of my father." —Jesus, Gospel of Thomas
When we come upon a system such as the I Ching, our western oriented minds may have a hard time understanding it. We are used to making our decisions with a form of thinking commonly called deduction, where we logically form our opinions and beliefs through a chain of experienced events and thoughts. One thing leads to another. We may be relatively unconscious of this, but it predominates none the less. We may even take the opposite tack, and upon seeing an intuitive system like the Book of Changes, put it into use solely because it works in a different way than what we have been taught, thus believing in it through an unconscious form of rebellion. Neither of these reactions is other than mechanical. But if we have done enough deductive thinking, and a bit of thinking about this thinking, we may know its limits. If our intuition has grown enough for us to trust it, and we can see its value when coupled with reasoning, then when we are faced with systems such as the I Ching or dream study, we can appraise them without prejudice or infatuation.
After much deductive thinking, we come to a dead end. This running head first into our mind's mechanical nature is usually necessary before we will come to trust intuition and information coming directly to us from any other source than logic. Here, the realization that direct reception is possible, and that this direct reception of information comes from within, may be our last hope in finding a true direction back to our source. We are usually so tied up in survival thinking in order to get through our busy day that we do not leave room for our attention to focus within. Even if we are "spiritual" and have a practice, it may have turned into just another habit, and only serve to bolster our daily life with some relaxation and rest to compensate for our otherwise sensual lifestyle.
Now, if we do find that intuition and direct reception have a value, then how do we use them, and how do we know what's what? Intuition can be unreliable and interfered with just as our reasoning. Desire and fear have an open door to most of our minds, so a little common sense is a good thing. What we like to call thinking can often be seen to be little more than rationalization. Through a system of using reason to check intuition, and vice versa, we avoid opening the door for desire and fear, through either rationalizing their plots and plans, or through a blind believe in hunches and naive spontaneity. With experience gained through honest self-observation, we can see how our mind works and where the weak spots are.
We are told the kingdom of heaven is within, but do we know where this "within" lies? Can we hear it? Is there a possible connection with it, through which we can receive direct knowledge, such as clues as to our true nature? The above quote from the Gospel of Thomas illustrates how practical thinking only cannot lead us within. For this, we need a working understanding of direct reception and intuition. While dream study and the I Ching offer indirect paths to connect with our inner self, their main use may lie in showing us that such a place exists, and to give us an inkling of its direction.
A topic that often comes up among seekers is the question of effort versus non-effort on the spiritual path (or no-path). Great teachers are divided on this. Some prescribe maximum effort in spiritual matters. Others say there is nothing to be done, that you are already That which you seek. Those who advocate effort admit their own realizations did not come as a result of their efforts. Those who say there is nothing to be done have usually realized this truth after diligent inquiry and meditation. What's a seeker to do (or not-do)?
In thinking about this we might first inquire if effort and action are the same. Experience tells us no. Enjoyable activity often feels effortless, and doing nothing is sometimes difficult. Effort appears to be more a state of mind, a description of the way we do or not-do, not the what—more to do with thoughts about an action than the thing itself. Experience also tells us that when these thoughts of effort are absent—whether from activities or meditation—things generally go better.
Which leaves the question of action versus non-action in spiritual matters. Should I practice meditation, read books, attend meetings, find teachers... or not? To do, or not to do?
Something to consider here is, "What will I be doing instead?" Unless I propose to cease all pursuits, I'm not choosing between spiritual action and non-action, but between spiritual action and other action.
Looking out on the world, it appears that success, if it is to be, arrives in the area of one's greatest interest and activity—and usually in proportion to the time spent pursuing it. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall…?) Life teaches us to practice what we want to become. Are the rules different for spiritual aspirants? Can I become Self-realized by practicing law, say, instead of self-inquiry? The evidence does not seem to support that strategy.
But observation also reveals that practice alone won't do it. Most well-practiced musicians never play Carnegie Hall. Vague factors of talent and predilection, of earnestness and motivation, of physical, mental and psychological capacity for a given pursuit appear to count. Then there's the question of free will versus determinism. Do I really have a choice whether to do or not-do? Do my actions cause my success or failure—in anything—or is life merely unfolding with rigid inevitability?
Some may say that everything they have in life is the result of their own hard work and determination, but this has not been my experience. My little activities are pitifully inadequate to cause the great gifts and disappointments of this life. All of it, the bitter and the sweet, miraculous. I may tend my garden a bit, but I am not the cause of flowers. On the micro level, I do appear to have control, for instance, over whether I mow the grass today or tomorrow, but I wonder about even that. Do I decide to mow, or do I see my body starting the mower and claim I decided?
So it may be that in the end Self-realization is all a matter of destiny, yet it does appear that yearning and intent might play a role. Again, observation teaches us that it's in the area of one's greatest interest and activity that providence is most visible—that opportunities materialize, coincidences occur, revelation happens. Einstein had no epiphanies about cubism. Picasso none about math.
Which brings us back to the koan: "To do, or not to do?" The answer, I suppose, is "Yes." Act tirelessly without effort. Do nothing without being idle. Live life on the pinpoint of paradox and leave the rest to God. Advaita is right. You are already That which you seek, and there is nothing you can do to cause Self-realization. Hold this truth close as you effortlessly seek Self-realization with everything you've got, and Grace may befall you.
~ See Bart's web site Richard Rose: Zen Master - Poet - Philosopher - Friend.
A tired warrior may find a friend
"Every Moment Shines"
A crow glides in silently:
Is your next step waiting
She thinks I'm a ghost,
She may be right.
~ "Every Moment Shines" was originally published in Sacred Journey.
Richard Rose gave a talk in the 1980s titled "Zen is Action," and the question of what constitutes action became a koan for me over the years of my search.
It's frustrating not knowing the answer to a simple question like that—and valuable. It brings us back, over and over, to the don't-know point. We admit to ourselves that we don't know the answer, but we want to know because we intuit that it's important.
Action is what propels us along the horizontal plane of the mind until we arrive at the vertical wall or abyss that separates us from our true identity. Action propels us backwards, squid-like, away from our faulty identification with objects. Action is using the mind to understand the mind, living a life aimed at understanding what that life is all about. Action is latching onto what's important to us and making ourselves a determined arrow toward that objective regardless of the cost. Action is finding like-minded people to work with in our assault on the battlements of ignorance.
Action is facing our fears rather than running away from them. Action is what keeps us struggling to find an answer after we've forgotten why we were looking—in other words, when the ego no longer sees anything in it for its own inflation. Action is what leads to a radical transformation in self-definition, a severing of identification with that-which-seems, and a perspective from which right action is possible.
Inaction leads to regret. Action leads to fulfillment.
Two-frame cartoon from "In the Bleachers" by Steve Moore:
1st frame - overweight baseball outfielder's thought-bubble: "Who am I? Where did I come from? What is the meaning of life? How did..."
Interrupted by neighboring outfielder: "Salinas! Get your head in the game!"
2nd frame - Salinas's thought-bubble: "Who will hit the ball to me? Where should I throw it? What is the official paid attendance?..."
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