Epilogue – Journeys into Emptiness

From Journeys Into Emptiness

EPILOGUE : Practicing the Edge

In the lives of the three men treated in this book, we have seen repeatedly that their experiences of emptiness as loss led them to emptiness as a way of living. By letting go of inner and outer attachments they were led to the emptiness of all things, a rich source of unity with all being. However different their cultures, eras, and disciplines, their stories exemplify the life-giving value of entering such experiences rather than ignoring or denying them. Paying attention to and entering deeply into our experiences of emptiness is nothing less than a way of increasing and deepening consciousness, being awake in order to penetrate the meaning of reality on its deepest level.

Following the path of our experiences of emptiness turns out, therefore, to be identical with the path urged upon us in Joseph Campbell’s famous instruction, “Follow your bliss.” The experience of bliss, as Campbell gleaned from his vast cross-cultural studies of myth, religion, symbol and ritual, has the same source as the experience of emptiness we have been exploring in the lvies of Dōgen, Merton and Jung. Though the experience of emptiness in its initial stage feels different from the experience of bliss, when one sets out to follow where either experience leads, one is led deeper and deeper into the multi-layered, multi-textured interconnectedness of life itself, which ultimately results in an experience of mystical union with all. One has thus learned how to tap into the great infinite wellspring of life itself, which includes death and what is beyond both life and death.

This fact—that it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we begin with one’s experience of emptiness or with one’s bliss- is a reflection of the Buddhist declaration that “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form.” It exemplifies further Shakyamuni’s claim that dukkha, suffering, consists in pleasure as well as pain, because the pleasure doesn’t last.

To follow one’s experience of emptiness and to follow one’s bliss have as their common ground, Jung discovered, the experience of the numinous as the source of all, within all, beyond all, yet never apart from the here and now.

Our experiences of emptiness and our experiences of bliss are numinous because they take us to the exact edge of life and death, to that very place where the rich, delicious feast of life meets the inevitability of death and where we are then placed in that existential forced choice about how to live: whether to follow vitality with its attendant risks, struggles and promise, or whether to succumb to the death within life of unconsciousness and refuse to receive and take responsibility for the particular form of life that has been revealed and given to us.

The task is to see all of our experiences in their depth dimension and to forge our lives accordingly. The message of each of our three men is that taking our pain and our bliss seriously is an imperative with a promise, exactly as expressed by Moses’ instructions to the recently liberated people of Yahweh as they were about to enter the promised land: “See I set before you life and death, blessing and curse….therefore choose life that you and your descendants may live long…” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Poignantly, Moses reminds us, our own choices influence others down through history, for better or for worse Thus there is an added burden to our freedom: the entire world is impacted by our decisions. How we live—our own decisions to enter more deeply into our lives, including death, or to retreat into unconsciousness and irresponsibility—may continue a decision not only to die, but to be dead before we die.

To practice life at the edge is to dedicate ourselves to being alive and awake, paying attention to the implications and consequences of our choices. To practice life at the edge is simply to be willing to see what is at stake in everything we do, and to take responsibility for our choices with an overarching commitment to the life within life, the particular instance and form that life’s vitality is presenting to us in this very moment.

Wake up!

Choose life!

Befriend your unconscious!

Be yourself!

And yet, it is not always easy to know when we’re choosing life and when we’re choosing death, when we’re honoring our false self or true. Nor is it always easy to act according to what we do know.

The nature of personal transformation is complex and difficult, and our egos resist change with subtlety and power. This is true of personal journeys in any time and place. There is additionally, and very poignantly, a further complexity to the psychospiritual journey of our time: through the communications media, rapid transportation and the great intermixing of people of all races, cultures and nations, people of today have an unprecedented awareness of cultures other than their own, so much so that we might even say that pluralistic culture is the dominant experience of many people around the world. This leaves us acutely aware of the relativity of any inherited psychospiritual tradition, making the pursuit of any single path seem not only arbitrary, but inadequate.

Yetk far from relegating all psychospiritual paths to death by relativity, the multicultural experience of all people today, based on the readings of the lives and work of Dōgen, Merton and Jung, would seem to require that everyone begin with where they are and move into the depths of the personal self, seeing where that leads. It might well lead someone to a different path than their inherited one, or it might lead one to add to and adapt what they know by immersion in an auxiliary tradition.

We are required, in effect, to take responsibility for our own journeys, paying attention to our own unique, personal needs and looking for what is helpful. We are even more acutely in the situation Merton described in his last public talk over thirty years ago: “From now on, everybody stands on his own feet.” And yet, be benefit of all that has gone on in the world since Merton’s time, we can say, “we are alone…and yet not alone.” The vast plenitude of riches of so many traditions assures us that we are part of an infinitely stretching line of people both behind and in front of us fellow travelers of journeys into emptiness. How one navigates one’s personal journey among so many rich options is very much a task of individuation, tuning into the deepest places of resonance for healing and growth.

I believe there are at least four elements required for the long term psychospiritual journey.

First, we need a container, in Winnicott’s sense of a holding environment. It is a physical space, with boundaries that hold us like a wise, loving parent, so that we feel safe and receive what we need in terms of nurture and care for our bodies, our minds and our hearts. A container protects us from the outside world so that there is not too much threat, impingement, expectation or demand.

For Dōgen and Merton, the container was a monastery. For Merton, it was only Gethsemani, however much he doubted its sufficiency, and in the last years, his hermitage. For Dōgen, it was one monastery after another until he built his last one at Eihei-ji. The container can change, but having one is necessary. For Jung, it consisted, first of all, in a stable marriage, without which he would not have been able to be creative at all. Without the reliability of his wife, he would have been caught in a repetition of his earliest experience of his abandoning mother. Had Emilie demanded more of his time and attention, required that he be monogamous or engaged him in endless bouts of fury, he would never have been able to take the risks of psyche, profession and intellect to do the work. With his marriage as a primary container, Jung then built his own container, the Tower, where he could retreat at will.

A container provides a place of “good enough” mothering and fathering to hold one in as well as keep others out. The nature of mind and spirit tends toward unfettered freedom and resists boundaries. The ego would be god omnipotent. Boundaries are imperative to force us to face ourselves, to turn our energy and attention inward, so that even our projections can be seen and worked with.

The second two things we need are interrelated, a teacher and a practice. Sometimes we become inspired by a teacher and adopt the teacher’s practice. Sometimes we have a practice that works, but need mentoring by a more knowing one to help us go further.

Dōgen scoured Japan and was never satisfied with any of his teachers, so he went to China. Even there, after three years, he was about to give up and return to Japan. Only then did he meet the teacher, Rujing, who was able to facilitate Dōgen’s full realization.

To a large degree, one might say Merton hardly found a peer, much less a mentor. The abbots of Gethsemani certainly helped, but more as reinforcers of the container than as actual teachers. Even the mentor/psychiatrist Jim Wygal was quickly shifted to being a peer for Merton. Unfortunately, one of the things we most need is someone smart enough in every sense of the word to see through the games we play with ourselves as well as with others, someone who is not  dazzled by our wit, intellect, beauty or social standing. Merton rarely found such a person in the Gethsemani environs. He certainly looked to outsiders for help: all the writers, theologians, poets and radical activists from all over the world with whom he corresponded. He also clearly drew from the great classical spiritual guides of the church. But the sum of it all was that Merton’s mentors were always mediated by the written world, and never, until his time with “S,” was a direct, personal relationship the basis of his learning. And even then, it was with someone who was not even a peer, much less a mentor.

Jung had his mentors at Burghölzli and then, of course, the most important mentor, Freud. But after their break, Jung was on his own and the consequences of what Winnicott pointed to as Jung’s continuing split psyche are a continuing subject of debate.

Ultimately, the function of a teacher is to so shape the student that the practice itself becomes one’s ongoing mode of learning and growth; then the teacher becomes dispensable. The goal is for both the container and the teacher to become so well internalized that the practice is a way of life and provides the basis for unlimited psychospirutal growth and awareness.

However filled we might be with inspiration on occasion, our egos are by definition devoted to controlling things. Our egos are in general adverse to any form of discomfort or destabilization and are intent on maximizing security, pleasure and anything that looks to us like happiness. We need a teacher who sees that underneath our evasions and manipulations is a true self desperately seeking emergence, a self who is terrified and mistrustful of the real and clueless about how to be simple. A teacher is needed not only to help us through the brambles of our own minds, but also to help us learn the language of wisdom, the play of Hagia Sophia, the compassion of Guan Yin.

It is at this point that the question of the relationship between a psychotherapist and a strictly spiritual teacher arises. Their functions are not the same, though there is much overlapping and ultimately each has an essential role to play in the growth of the individual. From a practical point of view, even though it is possible to train one person in both areas, the responsibilities for the common good and the unique needs of the individual can sometimes conflict. What is important is to have both psychological and spiritual mentors available, each of whom is informed and sensitive to the issues of the other field: spiritual leaders who are psychologically trained and psychotherapists who are spiritually attuned and dedicated.

A practice consists of all the things we do to cultivate awareness, manage our lives in accordance with our priorities, deepen our connection to our true self (which is none other than the larger Self of the universe), and eliminate as many of the inessentials as possible. Practice, therefore includes prayer, meditation, study, ritual, liturgy, art, body care and ethics. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are also forms of practice that are sometimes akin to meditation, as well as study, the study of the self and of relationships. Nondirected thinking and meditative writing are also forms of practice. Practice includes everything that we do intentionally to take care of our lives, our degree of consciousness and the life of the world. Most essentially, practice is our method of orienting our lives in that larger ground of being of which we are a part, from which we gain not only a more cohesive sense of self, but a clearer sense of direction.

The fourth essential is our need for community. In all of the traditions we have been engaging here, there is a call away from the collective, the thoughtless, undifferentiated, reactive, unconscious mass and a call to consciousness and personal responsibility in the manifestation and emergence of the true self. But the call to one’s true self is never for one’s individual benefit alone. It is always on behalf of the larger concerns for compassion, wisdom and responsibility in the larger cosmos. Those who are called to the fullness of life are called to bring back what they have learned for the benefit of all beings, including the air, mountains and waters.

Community is not only where we give back; it is also where we learn to receive, learn to trust, learn to allow ourselves to be loved and cared for. No one grows up alone. No one is healed in isolation. In community, we learn that though we are personally responsible both for what we do and what happens to us, we need others. Community helps us to break through egoism, stoicism and supermania propensities, because in community we are known with our bumps and warts as well as for our loving ingenuity.

Community serves further to remind us of our primary commitments, and to give support to the absolute value of our psychospiritual journey amid competing demands for allegiance to lesser values. A community of people committed to consciousness, personal growth and the general welfare of all beings is needed to validate choices we make that, by the collective, ordinary world’s standards, seem crazy.

With these empowering elements, practicing the edge means constantly paying attention to our hopes, fears and dreams and pushing ourselves to whatever is “next.” Practicing the edge requires constantly leaving behind the known secure and familiar for the unknown that seems, somehow, to beckon.


bob_daughterI am reminded of climbing Mt. Katahdin, the end of the Appalachian Trail in Baxter Park, Maine. My daughter Allison and I have driven to Chimney Pond for a day hike to the top. It is the summer before she goes away to college.

The trail begins to have more climbing places where hands are needed for lifts and curves and ledges. At a point up ahead is all granite rock and boulders, and looking back we can see the vertical ascent we’ve made from the tree line. At this point I become aware of an alertness to my senses, my body waking up to the need not to take our safety for granted. Increasingly, steps need to be placed deliberately, so that the step after that can be made.

We are soon able to see, up and over to the right, what is called the Knife Edge, a thin line of broken rocks leading from Pamola, the peak we’re now ascending (“home of the gods” in Penobscot), to Baxter Peak, the summit, at 5,267 feet, of Mt. Katahdin.

More climbing of hand over hand, of huge granite faces, some too big to see around. Every once in awhile I look back and see Allison’s small, thin hands grabbing big gray rocks. We get to what looks like the top, only to see more above.

So much of the path is hidden from view; all I know is the next boulder, ledge or wall. I reach one rock too big to see over, impossible to see around. I see no handhold, nor can I yet see the other wide. All I see is one place for my next step, room only for one boot. I lift myself up. I see over the top of the rock. It is a sheer drop down the other side and I see only one place for a toehold, after which is a huge boulder, seemingly nowhere to go from there.

Why am I here? I suddenly ask myself. If I manage this shift, will Allison? There is no place where I can be secure enough to reach for her. She sees my hesitation.

“Is everything okay?” she asks.

I take a deep breath. “Yeah, sure. How’re you doing?” I return the concern.

I am suddenly aware of needing all my energy and acumen for the climb, and acutely aware that my daughter will have to make her next few steps without my help, without my being able to catch her if she falls. As I pull myself over the rock and reach with my toe for the only place left to step, I look down five thousand feet and see myself as vulnerable, as much at risk as I am accustomed to imagining her to be. I describe the step up and the step over to her, in as even a tone as I can muster, trying still to be the guide, the more knowing one.

Ha! I say to myself. There are two edges being approached here: this sheer rock beyond which I cannot see, and the end of my illusion that I could protect her from danger.

I make my move to the last place I can see to go. I shift all my weight to that one ledge at the corner of the rock. Suddenly the beginning of the Knife Edge is clear and I sigh and say, with only too obvious relief, “I can see the rest of the way!”

I look back to watch her leg come over the wall, her toe feeling its way to the ledge. She does well, moves with ease. I am grateful and proud.

We reach the beginning of the Knife Edge. It is not nearly as narrow, looking across it, as it seemed from below. Although it is a drop of a couple of thousand feet of broken rock on either side, the Knife Edge itself is several feet wide, not half as risky as the last few steps we took.

Ironic, I think to myself. The danger they tell you about is not the greatest one: by the time you reach the supposedly scary one, you’ve already passed the hardest part.

It is a walk, not a climb, along Knife Edge. Sometimes we actually leap from rock to rock with confidence.

We reach the peak. We sit and survey the land and lakes and forests for miles in all directions. We taste the water. We take pictures and head home.

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