Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue


Chapter 8: The Metaphysics of St. Thomas
and Enlightenment


We have been seeing a core experience of nonduality that has been subjected to various kinds of deep philosophical reflection. Here the question is whether it is possible to have a Christian metaphysical explanation of enlightenment. In my earlier God, Zen and the Intuition of Being, following the path blazed by Jacques Maritain, I arrived at such an explanation from a different direction. There I started with the metaphysics of St. Thomas, and Maritain's intuition of being. Later, in Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain, I situated this explanation of enlightenment between philosophical contemplation on one hand, and mystical contemplation on the other. Since God, Zen and the Intuition of Being is included in this volume, and so can supply this kind of Thomist metaphysical background, I will simply summarize here this metaphysical view of enlightenment, and spend the rest of the chapter applying it to the difficult question of the existence of a self.

The heart of the metaphysics of St. Thomas is his revolutionary insight into the relationship between essence and existence, an insight which one of his great 20th century followers, Jacques Maritain, called the intuition of being. Thomas’ path to this insight in the 13th century took a similar trajectory to the one we saw Mulla Sadra taking in the 17th century. Thomas had before him both Greek and Islamic metaphysical writers, and he pondered them within the context of Biblical monotheism, in this case, in the light of Christian theology and mysticism. He saw that, while for Aristotle essence had been in the foreground and existence in the background, existence was, in fact, primary, and ultimately essence could only be understood in relationship to existence. This was no abstract or theoretical conclusion on his part, but was born out of a fiery touch of the mystery of being.

The intuition of being is rooted in the most basic and undeniable facts. Things exist. We are surrounded by actually existing things. The oak tree stands in the garden. The sun is warming us. The child is laughing. Different things exist. My cat is not the same as the bird that he is chasing. But we take these experiences for granted and rarely ponder them. But if we did, we would be on the road to metaphysics. Things exist, yet different kinds of things exist. There are, therefore, two fundamental and distinct reports that our minds give us. They tell us that things are and what things are. The ultimate challenge of metaphysics is to reconcile these two reports. We need to see just how the what and the that relate to each other.

Thomas expressed it by saying that essences are certain capacities for existence. We are surrounded by different kinds of existence: tree- existence, if you will, cat-existence, stone-existence. What exists are actually existing things, not essences. Essences are not pre-existing containers waiting to be filled with existence. In our minds they are simply ideas abstracted from the different kinds of existences, or existing things, that we encounter.

But if different things exist, then existence cannot be limited to being a tree, or a bird. It overflows this or that kind of existence. It transcends the very order of the whats, or essences. Essences are certain capacities for existence. They limit and contract it so that it is this or that thing. They are intrinsic limitations of existence, as we heard Izutsu say, echoing William Carlo.

But existence as received and contracted demands existence as unreceived. This or that existence points to existence without essential limitation. If different things exist, then Existence, itself, must exist, and Existence, itself, is like the sun which gives birth to a whole rainbow of different colors.

St. Thomas’ intuition of being is just one kind of the intuition of being in the larger sense of the term. It anchors one end of the spectrum of the intuition of being, the more properly philosophical and speculative end. At the other end of the spectrum we see things like Zen where nondual experience is primary, and philosophical reflection quite secondary. At various places in the middle of this spectrum we could place Tibetan Buddhism with its scholastic tradition, or Mulla Sadra’s wisdom philosophy which develops a true existential philosophy, but one that is also illuminated by nondual experience.

Once we realize that there is a metaphysical continuity underlying all these positions, we are in a position to have an East-West dialogue on a deep metaphysical level. Many of the foundations for such a dialogue are already in place. We just saw how Izutsu and Loy arrived at very powerful philosophical understandings of the common core experience of enlightenment that underlies much of Eastern religions.

Maritain developed a Thomist metaphysical view of enlightenment which could provide us with another of the necessary foundations for an East-West metaphysical dialogue, which can be summed up as follows: If someone were to descend into the depths of his or her spirit, driven by the desire to embrace the deepest and richest and most ultimate reality he or she could find there, and was willing to abandon all concepts and the normal workings of ego-consciousness to attain that goal, what would that person discover? They could experience in those depths a living contact, although by night, with the mystery of existence. They could touch Existence, itself, in and through the experience of the very existence of the soul, itself, as it comes forth, moment by moment, from this very source of existence. It would be an experience of existence without essence, as it were, because all concepts had been left behind. But because it takes place in this night of concepts, it would be very difficult in post-experience reflection to distinguish the existence of the soul, the existence of all things, and Existence, itself. In order to make this more concrete, let’s imagine a discussion between a Christian metaphysician and a Zen master.

Zen Enlightenment and the Intuition of Being

In the Christian metaphysical experience of a flower, it stands before us in all its beauty and radiance. It is! It floats on a pure and serene field of the emptiness of all essences, a field of pure existence. The flower is coming forth afresh in each instant from this field, and in itself is totally transparent to the ocean of existence from which it flows. The very existence of the flower is experienced and evokes with its whole being the source of existence, Existence, itself.

What would the Zen master say to his or her student who had experienced the mystery of being in this way? He or she would probably say: "Go back to your cushion. Become one with the flower. Don’t let a hair’s breadth of distance remain between you and the flower." And the master might think: "The experience of the flower is beautiful, but it does not go far enough. There is still the flower and the one who experiences it. The division into subject and object has not been overcome. This person must become one with the flower." And there is a certain view of the nature of things that underlies the master’s thoughts. It is not that the flower and the student are one in the way the Western mind might understand that assertion. There is no flower in the flower, as the Dalai Lama once said. Nor is there any ego, or self, in the student, and therefore the unity of the student and the flower cannot exist on that level. The flower is an expression of the ground, or field of emptiness, or mind, or essential nature, and so is the student, and it is this that makes them one, and it is this the master wants the student to experience directly.

How would the Christian metaphysician reply? He or she could say that Zen does, indeed, come into living contact with the very ground of the flower, or the self, in and through a night of all concepts. And this ground is the very existence of the flower, or the mountain, or the river, or the student’s self, and in and through them a contact with the ocean of existence from which they emerge moment by moment. This ocean is without essence in the sense that it transcends all essences, or specific natures. It can thus be called No-Thing, or empty, but it is an emptiness that is a plenitude beyond whatever concepts can grasp. The flower has no self-nature in the sense of independent existence. It is totally dependent on the ocean of existence for its own being. In this sense it is empty, and there is no flower in the flower, but it does have dependent and relational existence, an existence that is a limited and contracted reflection of Existence, itself, but which, nevertheless, is.

The experience of enlightenment and the philosophical intuition of being are both deeply metaphysical experiences of the same reality, but by different paths, and so they express themselves in different ways. Enlightenment touches the very ground of things, their very existence, and through them the source of that existence. The intuition of being does not. Rather, it uses concepts and explores them to their ultimate limit where it discovers that the very meaning of essence, or

nature, is this or that capacity to exist. Essences cannot exist outside of their relationship to existence. The knowledge the intuition of being attains is certain but indirect. The very indubitable existence of the flower demands the existence of Existence, itself, but this ground is not touched. This working through concepts leads to an eidetic intuition of being, an insight into existence that remains in continuity with concepts as it peers beyond them, and asserts what it doesn’t know by experience. The danger such an existential metaphysics perpetually faces is to lose its intuitive fire and settle for the concepts that were meant to ignite and lead to the insight, yet still believe itself alive when it has died and become a sterile conceptualism or essentialism, when it has ceased to see, and its concepts have become opaque.

Enlightenment avoids this danger for the most part by resolutely breaking with concepts and seeking the mystery of existence in a night of all concepts. But it is this very night which is the vital means by which the existence of things and through them the existence of the ground, itself, is touched, that poses its own danger for enlightenment. What is experienced is the existence of the flower, and in and through it the ocean of existence, but since this experience takes place in a night of all concepts, it becomes extremely difficult when the experience is over to articulate the relationship between the existence of a flower, the existence of the self, and the existence of the Self, or Existence, itself. Sometimes post-experience reflection tends to leave the impression that the flower in some way does not exist at all, or the flower is identical with the ocean of existence, and the ocean of existence is identical with the flower. The Zen master might object: "These things are not our concern. What we are trying to do is to lead the student to the experience because it will begin to transform and liberate him or her. All the words we use, or the gestures, are meant to point to the experience, itself, and help someone attain it. They are skillful means, and should not be given an ontological meaning."

But we might still wonder if there is a certain ontological thirst, or tendency, in all of us that leads to a double problem. On the one hand, Western ontological ears can be constantly trying to reshape Eastern words to give them an ontological meaning when they are not meant that way. But on the other, Eastern religions, after all is said and done, may sometimes be uttering statements that have strong ontological resonances no matter what the conscious intentions of their speakers

are. There is a vital difference between speculative and practical language. The first tries to know things in themselves, and let itself be measured by them. The second shapes language to serve the goal to be achieved. Christian metaphysics uses a speculative language, and thus can misunderstand the Eastern practical, or liberative languages, and give them ontological meanings they did not intend. Did the Buddha, for example, really want to talk about the existence and nature of God or the soul? But Eastern liberative languages can act as if all languages must be formed as they are, and therefore, a metaphysics in continuity with concepts is impossible. Then, under the impact of the marvelous experience of existence, post-experience reflections using liberative languages can make ontological statements about the very ability of a philosophical metaphysics to exist. They can take the genuine devotion to the primacy of the experience of enlightenment, and use it to create a barrier that rules out other kinds of experiences of the same absolute. Any distinction between the flower and the ground of existence from which it comes is ruled out as the arising of the old conceptual dualism, and the question of the existence of God is decreed to be unaskable as well as unanswerable.

Despite these dangers from both sides, however, the core experience in both Christian metaphysics and Eastern enlightenment appears to be the same. The vastly different means they use to attain the experience accounts for the central differences in expressions that we have been seeing. They are like brothers who have been brought up far away from each other and have only begun to find each other. It seems possible, though extremely difficult, that they could learn to really talk to each other, and even find a common language they could both agree upon as a fitting expression of the wonderful mystery of existence they are both devoted to.

It would also be possible to extend this kind of Christian explanation of enlightenment to include kundalini yoga, as well. To do this we would have to see the deep relationship that exists between the human soul and the body, and the whole of creation, and to ponder the saying of St. Thomas that the body does not contain the soul, but the soul contains the body. The human soul is a spiritual being in potency that needs to be united with the body in order to activate itself. It contains within itself, as it were, the whole of the universe. Then kundalini appears as a fundamental energy of the soul that activates all its levels from the lowest to the highest, fitting it for enlightenment. Kundalini is that fundamental energy, or instinct of the soul, that is inscribed in its very being, which urges it to become fully alive and activated so that it can be and see its own existence and that of all things, and experience in them the radiant mystery of Existence, itself.

A Christian View of Enlightenment

Just what then is the mysticism of the Self seen from the Christian metaphysical point of view? It is a natural mystical experience of God in and through the existence of the soul, in a non-conceptual manner that makes it difficult to distinguish the human self from the divine Self. We can find a common mysticism of the Self in things as apparently diverse as the advaitan Vedanta, and those traditions that deny the existence of any self.

To call this a natural mysticism is an attempt to distinguish it from a relational love mysticism that comes about through grace in which the presence of God who is Existence, itself, is revealed as a loving Thou. This does not imply that those who pursue the mysticism of the Self are not in the context of this loving union that comes about by grace. They are. Further, their efforts to reach the goal of natural mystical experience can be means of growing in this loving union. But that, in turn, does not mean that these two kinds of mysticism aim at the same goal in the same way, and use the same means to arrive there.

The intuition of being in the wide sense of the term embraces both the philosophical intuition of being and the experience of nonduality, and it represents a foretaste of our ultimate natural human destiny which is a union with God by knowledge and love through our very existence. This is why people who experience it often characterize it as an ultimate experience, and then want to see relational love mysticism as a preliminary stage on the way to it. But relational love mysticism is not something that takes place outside the mysticism of the Self, but rather it is this Self, or Emptiness, making itself known to us in a loving and intimate way.

The deep metaphysical insights of the East are devoted to the pursuit of enlightenment. In the West, it has gone into metaphysics. So the first great conversation in East-West dialogue ought to be a metaphysical one. The obstacles to such a conversation are daunting. If Eastern religions insist that there can be no continuity between these metaphysical depths and conceptual expression, the conversation will fail. If Christianity does not rediscover a living contact with the best of its metaphysical traditions, this conversation will never happen. But I am optimistic. The core experience of nonduality that Izutsu and Loy have both so eloquently given philosophical testimony to could enter into dialogue with the metaphysics of St. Thomas once they both realize that they are talking about the same mysterious reality from very different perspectives. The other great conversation would be one between the Christian interpersonal mystical tradition, and similar traditions in the East.

The Loss of the Affective Ego

One of the greatest differences between Buddhism and Christianity concerns the question of the self, or soul. Christians believe that each person has an immortal soul, and God, in an analogous way, can be called a person, or self. Buddhists, on the other hand, at least some Buddhists, deny the existence of any self, whether divine or human. But we cannot accept this enormous apparent distance without careful examination.

From the Buddhist side, the denial of the self seems aimed at a self-subsisting self, that is, a self that is somehow independent and complete in itself so that its very selfness distinguishes it from other things and walls them out. This is a self that would somehow have complete existence in itself. Or if these kinds of comments have too many metaphysical overtones, we can say that the self that they deny is an ego-self that is always jealously defending itself and constantly striving to reinforce itself, and in place of this ego-self they put a dynamic network of relationships and insist that nothing can truly be understood or exist outside of this network.

Certainly it is true that Western thought has often been guilty of a reification of the self, of conceiving the self as an entity that is complete in itself and separate from other selves and things. But this is simply bad philosophy that is neither intrinsic to Christianity nor to the Christian philosophy of St. Thomas. It would be possible to show without a great deal of trouble that a Christian view of the soul is highly relational not only in regard to God, but to other people and even the entire universe. This human soul, or self, is not to be identified with the ego and it cannot be closed in upon itself, for it receives its very existence moment by moment from God and its inner growth depends on its relationship to other people and the whole of nature. But even if we show that a relational view of the self exists in both Buddhism and Christianity, the distance between the two positions has only partially diminished.

Philosophical Language vs. Liberative Language

It would be a mistake to take the Buddhist view of the self as a philosophical position in the classical Western sense of the term, which is a point we have considered before. It is not philosophy. Buddhists are aiming at liberation and enlightenment, and this overall direction shapes the very words they use. Another way of putting it is that they are engaged in a very concrete existential enterprise of attaining the goal of enlightenment and not in a philosophical analysis meant to describe the nature or essence of things. If this distinction were kept clear on both sides, then much confusion could be avoided, and I believe we would see that the Buddhist and Christian doctrines on the soul are much closer than we initially imagine.

This distinction between a philosophical mode of language and a liberative or salvific one is important in Christianity, itself. John of the Cross, for example, will say that all creatures in the sight of God are nothing. Does he mean that they don’t exist? Not at all. He is not making a metaphysical statement, or contradicting the basic Christian doctrine that all things are good and have been created by God. He wants to lead us to union with God, and it is this intent that shapes his words. What he is saying is that all creatures, inasmuch as we cling to them inordinately, hinder our union with God and when they do this, they are like nothing, or worse than nothing.

The Buddha was not making ontological statements about God and creatures. He was teaching a way of liberation from suffering. And while he did this he was not inclined to philosophize, that is, to look at the nature of things in a speculative way, but such urges to speculative philosophy are an innate part of human nature. We therefore should not be surprised that these ontological tendencies would appear over and over again in Buddhism. But we really need to ask whether the result has been a Buddhist philosophy in the classical Western sense of metaphysics. I don’t think that it has been. These Buddhist philosophical instincts are, for the most part, still exercised in the context of the quest for liberation, and in regard to experiences that have been generated in the course of that quest. It is a philosophy about the experience and practice of enlightenment. If this is true, then Buddhist statements about the non-existence of the self should not be read in a purely ontological register by either Christians or Buddhists. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have deep metaphysical resonances, but their translation into philosophical language in the Western sense of the term is more complex than we might first imagine. With this distinction in mind, let’s look at spontaneous Western experiences of the loss of self to see if they can help us bring East and West closer together and situate enlightenment in a wider context.

Western No-Self Experiences

Modern Western accounts of the loss of self, or what I would rather call the loss of the affective ego, while infrequent and scattered, are not completely unknown. Michael Washburn in his The Ego and the Dynamic Ground talks of black holes in psychic space brought about by the eruption of the unconscious into the sphere of the ego, an eruption that interrupts the ego’s internal dialogue. He quotes Wilson van Dusen who worked with psychotic patients: "In the hole one feels one has momentarily lost one’s will. What one intended is forgotten. What would have been said is unremembered. One feels caught, drifting, out of control, weak… It is extremely important to know what people do when faced with encroaching blankness. Many talk to fill up space. Many must act to fill the empty space within themselves. In all cases it must be filled up or sealed off… The feared empty space is a fertile void. Exploring it is a turning point toward therapeutic change."1

This is not to suggest that the loss of the affective ego is necessarily pathological. It can be, of course, but even more fascinating are the more or less spontaneous modern experiences in the West of the loss of self that cannot be written off as pathological.

"All my thoughts, hopes and fears about the future have changed radically since I fell asleep one night in October 1985 and woke next morning without a self," writes Ann Faraday, an English psychologist. "I don’t know what happened to it, but it never returned... I experience this Emptyness as a boundless arena in which life continually manifests and plays, rising and falling, constantly changing, always transient and therefore ever-new."2

John Wren-Lewis had a similar experience when he was deliberately poisoned by a thief on a bus in Thailand in 1983, and went into a coma. "What I knew was that I’d emerged from something quite unlike any previous experience of sleep or dreaming. It was a kind of blackness, yet the absolute opposite of blankness, for it was the most alive state I’ve ever known – intensely happy, yet also absolutely peaceful, since it seemed to be utterly complete in itself, leaving nothing to be desired... For that dazzling darkness behind me did indeed transform my perception of the outside world, and here, too, I’m driven to religious or mystical language in trying to do the experience justice. The peeling paint on the hospital walls, the ancient sheets on the bed, the smell from the nearby toilet, the other patients chattering or coughing, the nurses and the indifferent curry they brought me for supper, my own somewhat traumatized middle-aged body, even my racing, bewildered mind – all were imbued with that sense of utter nothing-to-be-desired completeness, because "not I, but the Shining Darkness within me," was perceiving them."3

"The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head...," is how D.E. Harding describes a similar experience. "It was when I was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I?... What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories."4

One of the most fascinating accounts of this kind of loss of self was given by Suzanne Segal who was waiting for a bus in Paris when her self disappeared. "The personal self was gone, yet here was a body and a mind that still existed empty of anyone who occupied them. The experience of living without a personal identity, without an experience of being somebody, an "I" or a "me," is exceedingly difficult to describe, but it is absolutely unmistakable. It can’t be confused with having a bad day or coming down with the flu or feeling upset or angry or spaced out... The mind, body, and emotions no longer referred to anyone – there was no one who thought, no one who felt, no one who perceived. Yet the mind, body, and emotions continued to function unimpaired; apparently they did not need an "I" to keep doing what they always did. Thinking, feeling, perceiving, speaking, all continued as before, functioning with a smoothness that gave no indication of the emptiness behind them."5

Unfortunately, this loss of self appeared to her when seen from the perspective of the ego as a terrible destruction, and she suffered enormously for many years. The suffering was all the more difficult to bear because she was without any way to place this experience in a positive context until she discovered Buddhism.

"One aspect of my experience that Buddhism was particularly helpful in explaining was that although individual identity had dropped away, all the personality functions remained completely intact. Now, however, those functions floated in a vastness that referred to no one. All the same experiences still happened, there just wasn’t a "me" to whom they were happening. And the appropriate responses just happened as well, arising out of and then subsiding into themselves. Everything appeared and disappeared on the broad screen of the infinite – interactions, emotions, talk, actions of all kinds."6

Eventually she met Jean Klein who taught in the advaitan tradition of Ramana Maharshi, who told her, "You must stop the part of the mind that constantly keeps trying to look back at the experience."7 She comments: "There was a part of the mind – perhaps what we call the self-reflective or introspective function – that kept turning to look and, finding emptiness, kept sending the message that something was wrong."8

Gradually she began to see "how the emptiness of a "me" was full of exquisite infinity."9 Later she realized that "the infinite emptiness I knew myself to be was now apparent as the infinite substance of everything I saw."10

She began to meditate intensively, "just sitting in the vastness, as blossoms began appearing on the tree of emptiness."11 This meditating culminated in an experience that sounds much like enlightenment. "The mountains, trees, rocks, birds, sky were all losing their differences. As I gazed about, what I saw first was how they were one; then, as a second wave of perception, I saw the distinctions."12

The Loss of the Affective Ego and Individuation

It is not surprising that Westerners like Suzanne Segal who experienced a loss of self would turn to the East for guidance, for the East knows more about it than the West, but this does not mean that any loss of the affective ego should be presumed to lead to an experience like enlightenment. Put in another way, we have to ask ourselves what are the positive purposes that the loss of the affective ego could serve. One possibility is that such a loss takes place in the psychological process of individuation.

Marie-Louise von Franz, a noted Jungian analyst, tried to describe a high level of individuation which she called the middle ground: "There is a complete standstill in a kind of inner centre, and the functions do not act automatically any more. You can bring them out at will, as for instance an airplane can let down the wheels in order to land and then draw them in again when it has to fly. At this stage the problem of the functions is no longer relevant; the functions have become instruments of a consciousness which is no longer rooted in them or driven by them... What does someone look like when he has detached his ego awareness, or his ego consciousness, from identification with certain functions? I think the nearest and most convincing example would be in some descriptions of the behaviour of Zen Buddhist Masters. It is said that the door of the inner house is closed, but the Master meets everybody and every situation and everything in the usual manner."13 As far as I know, however, this interesting idea has not been developed within Jungian psychology.

The Loss of the Affective Ego and Christian Mystical Experience

What would happen if a Catholic deeply interested in the Christian mystical tradition experienced a loss of self? Then that person could be inclined to make this very real no-self experience a part of the Christian contemplative path. In doing so, he or she would run the same risk as the Catholic participants in East-West dialogue who at one point or another carried out this integration by reinterpreting Christianity in Buddhist or Hindu terms. Yet, there is nothing in the intrinsic nature of that no-self experience that demands that kind of outcome.

Philip St. Romain

The story of Philip St. Romain’s spontaneous kundalini awakening that we saw in Chapter 2, had a dimension of the loss of the affective ego, as well. Early in this process he wrote, "I’m changing – much less ponderous and egotistical, much more self-assured, less passionately devoted to getting things my way, and less feeling, too, which is the strangest part… By May 1, however, I was beginning to experience a sense of emotionally fading in and out. "Sometimes I feel as though I do not know myself at all," I noted."14

As this kundalini experience deepened, he would become absorbed in its manifestations like shimmering mandalas of light. "Initially, I would be aware of myself as an "I" gazing into the mandala; then there would be no "I," only gazing; then there would be no gazing and no breathing – only the mandala. After a few seconds, however, I would return to myself, wondering where "I" had gone."15 Later this process began to effect his life of prayer, making discursive meditation unproductive. He describes it as a spiritual black hole sucking him into itself, and drawing him into depths he did not know he possessed. In those depths there were "fewer lights, fewer thoughts, and no feelings at all."16

He began to experience spontaneous movements, or mudras, in the form of grimaces and gestures, and doubts surfaced about where all this was leading him:

"I lost my affective memory during this period; I no longer had a sense of emotional continuity about my life. For example, I would hear a song which, in the past, generally brought memories and feelings, but now the song brought only the memories and no feelings. There were plenty of feelings about life here and now, but these no longer resonated with my past. Without an emotional memory, I lost all sense of identity and spent a great deal of time in my journal "looking for myself." But who was looking for whom? Which one was me: the one looking, or the one I was looking for?"17

It was then that he discovered the writings of Bernadette Roberts on her experience of no-self, and her attempts to relate it to Christian mysticism. And he felt confirmed by the fact that what he was experiencing was not completely unchartered territory.

As the process continued he realized, "Once the body was freed from all emotional pain, it seemed that my Ego evaporated completely. There was an "I" of sorts, and I had all my memories – but no feelings attached to those memories. Furthermore, it seemed that my self awareness had become split from my self-concept."18 And yet he could take care of his daily affairs without the ego that he had lost. He questioned himself, "Who was I? I realized that I was not my thoughts, not my feelings, not my memory, not my body, not even all of them together! What, then, was an "I"? While pondering this question one day while driving to New Orleans, I sensed a response coming from my intuitive higher self. "Philip St. Romain is dead!" came the word. "Quit trying to find him." Somehow I knew that this was true. Except for my body and my disaffected memory, there was nothing left to the person once called Philip St. Romain."19

This loss of the affective ego appears as a direct consequence of his kundalini awakening, which in turn seems to have the purpose of leading to an enlightenment that is no different in substance than what is found in the East. Once the process had done its work, he could say, "I am able, now, to use my senses without thinking. It is a wonderfully mysterious thing to just-look and to see with the eyes without thinking about what one sees."20

We have noted before the struggle that Philip St. Romain underwent to integrate this kundalini awakening harmoniously into his Christian life. But what would happen if a Christian were to receive some kind of powerful experience of the loss of the affective ego and come to the conclusion that it represented a higher stage of the Christian contemplative path, itself?

Bernadette Roberts

Bernadette Roberts’ The Experience of No-Self is an account of an inner journey she went on in the midst of trying to live out a Catholic contemplative life, a journey that ended in what she called the experience of no-self. But this very word no-self and an attentive reading of her description of her experiences reveal an inner structure and language that is much closer to Buddhist enlightenment than Christian mystical union, a fact made all the more interesting because the author was not trying to explain herself in Buddhist terminology.

She will say, for example, "Where there is no personal self, there is no personal God,"21 or God "is all that exists... God is all that is."22 The individuality of the object observed is overshadowed by "that into which it blends and ultimately disappears."23 What is that which can neither be subject or object.24 God is not self-conscious25 and we must come to "terms with the nothingness and emptiness of existence," 26 which seems equivalent to "living out my life without God." "I had to discover it was only when every single, subtle, experience and idea – conscious and unconscious – had come to an end, a complete end, that it is possible for the truth to reveal itself."27

But if there is no self, "What is this that walks, thinks and talks?"28 The end of the journey is "absolute nothingness,"29 but "out of nothingness arises the greatest of great realities." 30 It is the "one existent that is Pure Subjectivity" and "there is no multiplicity of existences; only what Is has existence that can expand itself into an infinite variety of forms..."31 Our sense of self rests on our self-reflection and "when we can no longer verify or check back (reflect) on the subject of awareness, we lose consciousness of there being any subject of awareness at all."32 This leads to the "silence of no-self."33

Bernadette Roberts as a Catholic and someone relatively unfamiliar with Buddhism has rendered an important testimony to the universality of this kind of mystical experience. But inevitably, she has had to face the question of its relationship to her own Christian contemplative heritage, and it is here that her conclusions need a careful examination. Since she had a life of prayer in the Christian contemplative tradition before she went on this journey that ended in the experience of no-self, it is understandable that she will see this experience as the next stage in the Christian contemplative journey, and a stage that the Christian mystics like John of the Cross know very little about. The one exception is, not surprisingly, Meister Eckhart, a predilection which is shared by many people in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as we have seen. Thus she is forced to put the no-self experience at a level higher than the highest form of Christian mystical experience, the spiritual marriage described by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and therefore place her own experience above that of the Church’s mystical doctors.

I don’t think this interpretation is correct. This mysticism of the no-self, as well as Zen enlightenment, is not a supernatural mysticism that comes from grace and leads to an experience of God’s presence and of sharing in God’s life. It is a very different kind of experience that attains to the absolute, to God, but through emptiness, as we saw. Just what Bernadette Roberts’ experience of Christian mysticism was like is not a large part of this book, but it is striking that her no-self experiences began very young, and it is possible they colored her practice of the Christian contemplative life. While she recognizes the differences between these two journeys, she regards "the second movement as a continuation and completion of the first."34 And she sees a possible progress of spiritual development starting "with the Christian experience of self’s union with God... But when the self disappears forever into this Great Silence, we come upon the Buddhist discovery of no-self..."35 "Then finally, we come upon the peak of Hindu discovery, namely: "that" which remains when there is no self is identical with "that" which Is, the one Existent that is all that Is."36

Once the no-self experience is seen as the same sort of experience as the Christian experience, or even a higher version of this same experience, then there is an almost irresistible movement towards reinterpreting Christian dogma in the light of this experience. This seems to be what is happening when Roberts says, "and when I finally saw ‘that’ which remains when there is no self, I thought of Christ and how he too had seen ‘that’ which remained – a seeing which is the resurrection itself."37 Or "...even the seeing of the Trinitarian aspect of God is not the final step. The final step is where there is no Trinity at all, or when the aspects of God are seen as One and all that Is."38

Such an approach immediately runs into immense theological difficulty, and founders on the same misunderstanding that we saw before, which is the tendency to treat the Christian contemplative tradition as another path leading to enlightenment. But a real question that confronts us is whether the loss of the affective ego exists in the Christian mystical tradition, itself. Or put in another way, is there a loss of the affective ego that leads to contemplation?

St. John of the Cross and the Loss of the Affective Ego

The reading of St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), the great Carmelite mystic and poet, has always been a challenge for a variety of reasons: his profundity, the language he uses drawn from scholastic philosophy and theology, the misreadings of his writings that have accumulated over the centuries, and the many ways it is possible to read him, that is, as a poet or philosopher or a theologian, and so forth. But perhaps there is a new way in which we can read John of the Cross, and that is to see in him an example of how the loss of the affective ego plays a role in the beginning of Christian mystical experience.

Let’s look at his book, Dark Night of the Soul. In the general schema of St. John’s thought we must lose our normal way of functioning in order to go forward to deeper union with God. Thus, he describes a dark night of the senses, and an even more terrible dark night of the soul. But St. John meant these descriptions to serve an eminently positive purpose. The loss of self that he describes in great detail is meant to lead to a transformation of the soul by its union with God. But it is possible to read St. John’s comments from our distinctive perspective of the loss of the affective ego. He is not talking about an ontological loss of the human soul. Such an idea never occurred to him. Nor, I believe, is he talking about a physical withdrawal from the world. What he is talking about is a loss of inordinate desires, and even perhaps a loss of the affective ego.

The soul, in order to go forth towards union with God, has to undergo a certain dying, St. John tells us, but it goes forth not from its physical life, but from its "affection,"39 "its passions and desires with respect to their mischievous desires and motions."40 We are confronted with an affective death, not a metaphysical one. In the time of our initial conversion the grace of God was like a loving mother. God makes the soul "find spiritual milk, sweet and delectable, in all the

things of God, without any labor of its own and also great pleasure in spiritual exercises…"41 The soul therefore is drawn to spiritual things by the consolation and pleasure it finds in them. And St. John, under the heading of the seven deadly sins, describes the great harm that this seeking after pleasure does.

But is there another way of looking at this? When John talks about the soul seeking pleasure and consolation, let’s understand the soul as the affective ego. The death to all things and to itself that it must undergo is not in which things cease to exist, or even one in which the ego disappears. It is an affective death of the desires and attachments of the heart. The affective ego which formerly had been filling the mouth of its desires with the things of the world now, after conversion, fills it with spiritual things, but it does so driven by the pleasure and consolation it receives. It is drawn more by spiritual sweetness than by spiritual substance, more by consolation in the things of God than God, Himself. The soul weighs the things of the God in the scales of its own pleasure.

But the mouth of the affective ego is too small to truly swallow the things of God in themselves. The whole apparatus of the affective ego is destined to fail if spiritual progress is to be made. It must be weaned "from the breast of these sweetnesses and pleasures." This takes place by the advent of purgative contemplation, a dark fire which brings about the night of sense. Here there is a loss of the affective ego, and this is no trivial matter. It is the affect that glues the ego together and is intimately connected with a sense of self. This affective energy is the natural force of the faculties and sets them in motion more or less spontaneously in the hope of a reward of sweetness, consolation and gratification. It is this affective energy which drives the senses and imagination, and through them, the intellect and will. It is this affective energy that keeps the memory alive.

The night of sense, St. John tells us, is "the quenching of desire and affections with respect to all things."42 "God has restrained its concupiscence and curbed its desires" so "it loses the strength of its passions and concupiscence and it becomes sterile."43 "This aridity, too, quenches natural energy and concupiscence."44 The natural affective energy of the ego leaves it, but in a very deep way, resulting from original sin, this natural affective energy is riddled with inordinate impulses, and so St. John writes: "natural energy and concupiscence."

The affective ego works through the faculties. It drives the faculties, and when the affective energy fails, the faculties are befuddled. They remain intact like the very things of the earth around us remain intact, and like the ego in the sense of a personal self remains intact. But they take on another character. They fail. They are no longer driven in their accustomed way. In relation to the life of prayer, the faculties were formerly employed by what John called meditation, by which he meant any exercise of the faculties in relationship to the things of God. When the faculties fail, meditation is no longer possible, but we have to understand this failure as an affective failure. Meditation has become dis-affected. It loses its flavor. We no longer have a taste for it. The affective energy has gone elsewhere. The sense impressions, images, thoughts and feelings, memories out of which we constructed our meditation are now flat. But the root of the faculties’ failure is not the faculties, themselves. They work. Rather, it is the loss of the natural energy of the soul, the loss of the affective energy of the ego, that is at stake here.

This view of the affective ego allows us to approach John’s description of the transition from meditation to mystical experience, or infused contemplation in a new way. If it is the natural affective energy that animates the ego and creates the concrete ego that we are so accustomed to, then the loss of this energy and that ego is deeply disorienting. We no longer have our normal way to judge our relationship with God, for our judgments were based, in large part, on the sweetness and consolation we experienced.

St. John’s first sign of this transition from meditation to contemplation is that the lack of pleasure effects both the things of God and created things. The affective energy is lost in regard to everything. But since this loss might stem from "some disposition or melancholy humor," or we might say from depression that keeps us from any enjoyment, the second sign is important, which "is that the memory is ordinarily centered on God with painful care and solicitude…"45

This sign is equivalent to the third sign in St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel. It is the actual dawning of the contemplative experience. The critical point is that while the faculties are suffering aridity, a deeper dimension of the soul is receiving contemplation. This contemplation is not always immediately conscious, in part because the affective ego, accustomed to the working of the faculties, is still searching and hoping that gratification will come through them, and a deeper dimension of the spirit is not yet "made ready or purged for such subtle pleasure" as comes from the contemplative experience, itself.

So at the beginning, this contemplation "is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it." How could this be? How could there be an experience we don’t experience? This paradox should not be resolved by imagining that contemplation is somehow not an experience – a matter of pure faith which should not be experienced. It is very definitely an experience, but not for the affective ego and the faculties. It is a new kind of experience that takes place in the depths of the spiritual unconscious. Contemplation is dark and secret from the perspective of the affective ego, but gives the soul an "inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so."46 In short, the experience of contemplation radiates from the depths of the soul and urges the ego to silence, and if the ego knows how to be quiet and not anxious about the exercise of its faculties in its old quest for gratification, it would "delicately experience this inward refreshment."

The soul can no longer meditate, "for God now begins to communicate Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit, into which consecutive reflections enter not; but He communicates Himself to it by an act of simple contemplation, to which neither the exterior nor the interior senses of the lower part of the soul can attain. From this time forward, therefore, imagination and fancy can find no support in any meditation, and can gain no foothold by means thereof."47 Reflection which joined and sundered its knowledge describes the working of the discursive intellect with its apprehensions and judgments, but the simple act of contemplation cannot be grasped by this discursive activity. It takes place in a higher or deeper part of the soul and is another kind of knowledge. The pain and care described in the second sign arrived from the beginning of contemplation which darkens the faculties, and yet in a hidden way, preoccupies the soul with God whose presence is radiated from the spiritual unconscious and slowly rises to the point where it will, on occasion, enter the faculties from their roots and give them a conscious, yet not non-conceptual knowledge of the presence of God.

In the dark night of sense there is an inability to reflect, or work, or reason with the faculties. But this is an affective disability, not a general one, that is, one in which the faculties simply don’t work. It is a disability in which the soul is unable to concentrate its "faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation."48 In this state "any operation and affection or attention wherein it may then seek to indulge will distract it and make it conscious of aridity and emptiness of self."49 This is because, in trying to operate the faculties in their old mode, the soul becomes aware of their emptiness. If it leaves them alone, they function more or less, as circumstances demand, and it can rest in the new experience that is trying to make itself felt.

How, then, should the soul act at the time of contemplation? St. John gives us an explicit program. "What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered and at rest from all knowledge and thought; troubling not themselves, in that state, about what they shall think or meditate upon, but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him. For all these yearnings disquiet and distract the soul from the peaceful quiet and sweet ease of contemplation which is here granted to it."50 The doing nothing is, of course, said in relationship to the faculties, and it would make no sense to say this if something else were not happening. The failure of the faculties is directly connected to the beginning of contemplation. Peaceful and loving attentiveness is not an activity of the faculties. It is not a way in which we actively do contemplation. The faculties can’t do contemplation. They must "do nothing" and not be anxious about their ability to accomplish something. But I still think we need to read this in the affective order. They cannot feel or taste God in any way. Their limited and particular kinds of knowledge are ineffective. But this does not mean that the faculties fail in an absolute sense in their activities. If they did, a person would become completely non-functional. Peaceful and loving attentiveness is the loving receptivity of the contemplative experience welling up from the center of the soul. Therefore, John concludes: All these attempts to use the faculties in the old way of seeking pleasure and gratification distracts the soul "from the peaceful quiet and sweet ease of contemplation which is here granted to it." Further, any operation, affection or attention with the faculties will distract the soul and "disquiet it and make it conscious of aridity and emptiness of self." The faculties will operate by themselves, as it were, and if we try to interrogate them as to the pleasure they are receiving, we see that the affective energy that once animated them is gone, and then we can be plunged into depression.

On the Nature of the Loss of the Affective Ego

Perhaps the most obvious feature to be found in the positive kinds of the loss of the affective ego is the way the functions behave. In their ordinary state, our functions of thinking and feeling, of sensation and intuition, the very working of the mind and imagination and senses, spontaneously and continually seek their goals, the objects which give them satisfaction. In doing so they generate a blanket of noise that tends to insulate us in our own cocoons of desires. We tend to see everything from the point of view of our ego desires.

But when the loss of the affective ego takes hold, the affective psychic energy that drove the functions begins to disappear. Now the functions stop acting spontaneously, and the level of the noise that they were generating falls off. This can be disconcerting, for we have spent our whole lives with their incessant activity and buffered by their humming. The ego begins to look around and try to figure out what has gone wrong. It looks to the loss of affective energy and tries to dream up ways to recapture it. As these attempts fail, the ego suffers from a general state of loss and depression.

In the midst of this loss of the affective ego, the functions still work normally when called upon. We think when we need to think, we feel when we need to feel. The problem is not the functions, themselves, but the failure of the energy that spontaneously activated them. Now the functions spring up when circumstances or the will demands, but they immediately withdraw when the job is done.

The loss of affective energy not only effects the functions, but our very sense of self, itself. The memory, for example, which in a certain way glues the ego together by joining the past with the present, also operates by affective energy. Our memories spontaneously remember because of the affective energy our memories contain. As the affective energy disappears, the memory remains functionally intact, but its spontaneous activity lessens dramatically. We can remember on command, but the past falls into a certain oblivion. New events do not reverberate in the memory in the same way. They happen. They even disturb the psyche, and then they fall away.

Ego consciousness, itself, which is at the very heart of our sense of ourselves, is effected, as well, because it is built on the activity of the functions. The spontaneous activity of the functions played a large role in the spontaneous generation of ego consciousness. Now with the loss of the affective energy ego-consciousness diminishes. This process leaves another kind of ego in its place. It is an ego that is not constantly driven by its desires. It is a quieter ego without the incessant worrying of the functions. In some ways, it might even be said to be a more vulnerable ego, for it is without its habitual protective wall of noise that kept out the noise of others. More positively, it seems to see more clearly the way things actually are. The old screens that surrounded the ego have become more transparent. Perhaps it suffers more from the impact of the world around it, and from the affects that still arise out of the unconscious. The ego is not fired up by its desires, but has to intend to go forward. From a psychological point of view there has been a decentering of the ego.

But underlying this general phenomenological description of what we are calling the loss of the affective ego is a deeper question. Even if we conclude that the loss of the affective ego can be a positive reality, we still have to ask ourselves just what it is in service of. It seems that there are three chief possibilities, or interior goals. The first is what Jung called wholeness, or psychological individuation. The second is enlightenment, and the third is Christian mystical experience.

The Spiritual Unconscious

On the negative side, the loss of the affective ego leads to various kinds of depression or affective disorders. On the positive side, it is an indication of the decentering of the ego that serves the goals we have just seen. The whole notion of such a loss of the affective ego implies, at least within the framework of Jungian psychology, that the energy has gone somewhere. If the ego is being decentered, it is because a new center is developing, and the dimension where these new centers are to be found could be called the spiritual unconscious. If there are three major positive goals that the loss of the affective ego can serve, then this unconscious could be said to contain three dimensions. There will be a psychological unconscious, which is the realm explored by depth psychology, but there is also a metaphysical unconscious, and a mystical one.

It is in the realm of the metaphysical unconscious that we find the philosophical intuition of being, and the various forms of enlightenment, or nondual experience. They dwell side by side, and then can, and ought to, enter into deep conversation with each other. But it is wrong to imagine that one can swallow the other. It is even more mistaken to believe that the psychological unconscious, or the mystical unconscious, can be identified with the metaphysical unconscious. It is entirely possible to have metaphysical insights, or openings to enlightenment, without having arrived at the psychological maturity that comes with individuation, and neither are these insights equivalent to mystical experience. And the reverse is true, as well. We have to avoid collapsing these interior universes that make up the spiritual unconscious into each other. There is no doubt that these centers strongly interact, for they are all parts of the one psyche, but if we identify them, our interior world will become impoverished.

Enlightenment and the Experience of No-Self

When we looked at enlightenment from a metaphysical point of view, the central question was whether what was experience was, in reality, or in itself, nondual, or whether the nonduality resulted from the very means to attain this experience. We have reached a similar point in looking at the question of the existence of the self. There is no doubt that there are situations in which we dramatically experience the loss of our old selves. But does this mean that metaphyiscally there was no human self, or divine self, to begin with, or simply that we experience a loss of the affective ego? If we understand the experience of no-self as the loss of the affective ego, then I believe that the essential point of the East is safeguarded. The journey towards liberation demands a certain death of the ego, but this death should not be read in a univocal ontological register and put into opposition with a Christian view of God and the soul.



  1. Washburn, Michael. The Ego and the Dynamic Ground, p. 171.
  2. Ann Faraday in "Towards a No-Self Psychology." p. xx.
  3. Wren-Lewis, John. "Aftereffects of Near-Death Experiences," p. 109.
  4. Harding, D.E. in On Having No Head.
  5. Segal, Suzanne. Collision with the Infinite, p. 54-55.
  6. Ibid., p. 109.
  7. Ibid., p. 114.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid., p. 123.
  10. Ibid., p. 130.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Von Franz, Marie-Louise. The Inferior Function, p. 63-64.
  14. St. Romain, Philip. Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality, p. 19-20
  15. Ibid., p. 21.
  16. Ibid., p. 25.
  17. Ibid., p. 26.
  18. Ibid., p. 29.
  19. Ibid., p. 30.
  20. Ibid., p. 44.
  21. Roberts, Bernadette. The Experience of No-Self, p. 24.
  22. Ibid., p. 31.
  23. Ibid., p. 34.
  24. Ibid., p. 67.
  25. Ibid., p. 75.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid., p. 78.
  29. Ibid., p. 81.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Ibid., p. 83.
  32. Ibid., p. 86.
  33. Ibid., p. 87.
  34. Ibid., p. 106.
  35. Ibid., p. 109.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid., p. 131.
  38. Ibid., p. 132.
  39. John of the Cross. The Dark Night of the Soul, p. 36.
  40. Ibid., p. 37.
  41. Ibid., p. 38.
  42. Ibid., p. 75.
  43. Ibid., p. 83.
  44. Ibid., p. 86.
  45. Ibid., p. 64.
  46. Ibid., p. 66.
  47. Ibid., p. 67-68.
  48. Ibid., p. 69.
  49. Ibid., p. 71-72.
  50. Ibid., p. 71.