Tag Archives: mysticism

The Surface Tension between the Esoteric and the Exoteric

The esoteric is opaque by definition; yet the depths rarely mind it when the surfaces discount them.


I subscribe to the notion that there are various levels to spiritual knowledge. As the alchemists put it: “as above, so below”— meaning, in a sense, that obvious facts correspond to inner truths.

For example: the leaves of a tree will brown with age and fall out. The same happens to the teeth of a man. These are, at a glance, entirely mundane facts. But on consideration (and with a pinch of poetic license) one could say that this speaks of how a person develops from a state of hunger and purity, and then moves to a state of decay and barrenness (the leaves being thought of as hungry for the sun, as teeth are for food). And in later life, a person returns to needing softer morsels, and all her showiness is stripped away, revealing the skeletal branches of her life’s choices.

In religion, too, there are levels of interpretation: the lowest being a blanket acceptance of the inherited laws. At a certain stage, the question arises: why? And what-for? There is a resistance to this leap from those who are content with the answer “because X said.” And here lies much of the “surface tension” between non-believers and believers—because experience of a self demands personal proof. Gurus and mystics arise to satisfy this demand, and due to the ambiguity of spiritual knowledge, many of the so-called wise are either willful charlatans, imbued with attractive charisma, or people who have received something personal, who try to communicate this to others. Some knowledge can be communicated in such a way that it is useful for others, and some knowledge can only be understood by personal revelation.

Esoteric knowledge (eso = inner), I believe, exists, but the exoteric (exo = outer) obscures it, and often corrupts, misinterprets, or outright discounts it.

Deconstructing the Greatest Commandment

From Matthew 22:36-40

36“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Considering this over breakfast, my thoughts kept gravitating to the first part of the commandment: “Love the Lord your God with your heart and soul and mind.”

Well, what does that mean, to Love God? Paul famously writes (in I Corinthians, ch. 13):

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

But every single action on this list can only be applied to terrestrial matters. How do you be kind to God? How do you protect God? Christians tend to personify God in Jesus, in order, perhaps, to get a better handle on the concept, but practically, if there is a God, then there is no possible way a mere organism on a rock spinning listless at the edge of a galaxy can comprehend the frightful magnitude of such a—I can’t even call him a “being” without somehow reducing him.

We say God is Love, yet feel our skin crawl when we see one insect devour another. And others will rage at God for the great injustices of history—yet each night they find peace and obliteration—even if only for an hour of sleep.

As humans I believe we are incredibly limited. Furthermore, we seek to limit everything we come into contact with in order to comprehend it. The walls, tables and chairs around me right now are composed of organized energy—but were I to comprehend everything as knots and loops of atoms, I would be of very little use to other people.

God needs context—not for his sake, but for ours. God the word is thought to come from “Khoda”, meaning the one invoked. Allah and YHVH are both conjectured to be echoics of the act of breathing.

To get down to it: To love God a man has to love everything around him, everything he comes into contact with, he must show no prejudice at all, but be all-accepting, perfectly beneficent, entirely sympathetic, and free of any judgment. And the heart works against this, and the mind works against this too, by design they limit man’s perception of reality into a “me” and a “you”, into a “this” and a “that”, into “want” and “diswant”—

So I guess J.C. was using hyperbole again, shattering the constructs of the religious by saying: “Perhaps you have learned to love yourself by following the rules you inherited—but have you learned to love you wife—have you learned to love your neighbor—have you learned to love your country—have you learned to love the world? Tell me, you who banter about laws, and speak of the Creator as if you can know his will—how big is your heart—is it large enough to step from your containing commandments and meet reality uninhibited? How open can you be?

Religious Spirituality: a sliding scale

This is from a mini-essay I wrote to an atheist community, in the hopes of eliciting some discussion on the shallowness and depth of believers. It borrows heavily from the talks of Pak Subuh.

The Islamic tradition details four levels of religious experience: the lowermost is “shari’at”, where one accepts the revealed truth of a religion and its rules and regulations. This is the faith that most people hold: it is based wholly on acceptance of inherited truths. In this faith, it is enough to say the words and do the motions and then go on with your day. When people of this level speak about faith or reality, their language sounds like a ‘code’ to the outsider, they tend to bend all arguments to their narrowing viewpoint, and they come off as either pompous, batty or ambiguous— this is because they have not yet made the accepted truths their own, and so are unable to translate their faith into the present moment, be it in a dialogue or argument or some lackadaisical pedestrian philosophizing. Again: these are the most common type of believers. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing bluegrass because country radio sucks.

The second level is called “tarekat”—this is where a believer begins to think: “Okay, I say what I should say, and do what I should do—but why? What is the meaning behind these words and morals?” This type of believer is not necessarily more ‘open minded’ than the preceding, but they are more deep minded about their beliefs. Most pastors and ministers fit into this tier. When speaking of matters of faith they will often have anecdotes to share, and will be able to communicate the subtleties of their creedo more or less smartly and with varying degrees of panache. However, communication will break down once the topic of direct experience is broached. They are still restrained to the traditional belief system, and won’t be able to comfortably walk into atheistic territory with you because they must stay close to their central tenants to make sense of things. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing Apple based solely on their closed iOS platform—that is, most of their beliefs are based on a “design philosophy” that allows this and disallows that—and if they don’t jive with you, it’s more or less a matter of personal taste, not essential reality.

Now here is where things get interesting. The third level of religious devotion is called, in Islam, the “hakekat”. This means reality. You will find these persons rarely, but you will find them even among atheists. These are the ones for whom beliefs and statements are tertiary, where actual reality is central. They shine with an ‘inner light’—because they live by example: they know that teaching is the biggest lie, that everyone needs to come to terms with the terms of life on their own.

There is a fourth level, but that doesn’t really apply to normal people. We could say this fourth level is there—“ma’rifat” by name—as the sort of Ideal to be attained. It means an at-one-ment (to pilfer a shimmering jewel from Dan Brown) with the spiritual process. These are the prophets: they are a statistical improbability.

Why I am Not Not a Christian

My first spiritual experience was most likely my conception, or “benception” as my mom calls it (I am kidding, my mother is not too hot on puns) — but as that moment of happenstance-laden and conjugal-sanctioned becoming is about as far removed from my conscious recollection as the goings-on in our Sun, I will move past that, and also past the childhood experiences which are neither completely accidental nor intentional in their selectivity — moving forward to my tenth year, where at a week-long Bible Camp hosted at the college where my parents met I was taken up — all 95(approx.) pounds of me — in a charismatic flowering of my heart.

The chapel in which I found myself on that warm Monterey evening was dark and filled with praise music. I’m not sure what triggered the sudden flood of emotion that came over me. It was something about God’s love for us. How amazing and awesome it is. But as the tears came, followed by strange movements of my tongue, I knew with certainty that God is real. This had nothing to do with belief or anything I had been told. It was a pure and powerful experience of a vibration that was beneficent and all-encompassing. When my parents swung by to pick me up the next day, I told dad that I spoke in tongues. He (jokingly) asked for a demonstration. That was one of those rare instances where I failed to find something funny. I shook my head. You can’t tell the Spirit when to come or where to go…

There was a couple more incidences that year or the next where I was able to know things that were marginally unknowable. Our church had lost its pastor, and after waiting several months for the right fit, a man with the correct qualifications came through, and the congregation voted on him, and I started bawling and bawling because he wasn’t right. Over the next couple of years that man dismantled the fellowship. Things like that—that can only be verified by retrospect—that have no true ‘gain’ to them, in the material sense… what is call Insight, is what I think I had a line on for a year or two, back then.

But then came the coarse hair and the itching drives of puberty. The hormonal crush of anxiety, self-consciousness and icky, icky change. That swallowed up my insight, obscured it with a dorky sense of humor and the need to cuss when out of earshot of my parents and pastors. Over my high school years I was very involved in my church’s youth group. I loved being in church—not the services necessarily, but the building itself felt like home to me. It’s odd that I keep finding myself working in them, though I haven’t been a congregant for a teenager’s lifespan, now.

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