From where inside are you reading these words right now? If you are reading from your thinking mind alone, then what you see will be run through the sieve of your mind’s reflective categories and conditioning. What you see will also be affected by the mind’s “ego coating,” its often unconscious way of skewing the words’ meanings to fit its protective desire for the familiar and the securing.
If we want to be in touch with the reality behind the word mystical, this dimension of our minds is not sufficient. We can’t “think” the mystical; its deep reality is “misty,” “mysterious” to the mind. By the thinking mind’s very nature of stepping outside experience in order to “think” about it, the mind is an outsider to the experience. It can point to what we experience, interpret experience in its own conceptual terms, relate it to other interpretations in the historical and contemporary spiritual community, and connect the experience with our personal faith. That is a wonderfully gifted capacity in us. But it is not the same as direct knowing within the experience itself, free of the mind’s translations and ego skewing.
There was a time in my life when I believed differently. I assumed that my mind’s interpretations of spiritual experience in scripture, tradition, and my own life revealed what was “really real.” My thoughts carried the reality of the experience itself. I didn’t think the experience was accessible in any other way. Thus, I put a great deal of weight on trying to capture the experience with my mind’s way of thinking, and valuing the outcome of my thinking as the sole carrier of the experience’s reality and value.
Over time, both from my own experience and through my mentors in the contemplative tradition, I came to see that we have the capacity for “knowing” an experience more directly and fully than is possible through the thinking mind. This knowing is a kind of intuitive awareness that emerges from within the experience itself. That awareness is a different dimension of my mind, a different way of knowing reality, a more immediate, participative way of knowing. To the thinking dimension of our minds, that is a way of unknowing (as in the classic mystical text, The Cloud of UnknowingThe Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the fourteenth century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages.). One way of understanding what authentic mysticism is about is to point to what comes to us in intuitive spiritual awareness, which is our open presence to reality in the larger gracious Presence.
01. A Way into the Heart’s Awareness
What comes to us in that awareness? I want to invite you to discover at least a hint of an answer by sharing a particular contemplative practice with me, a practice that will allow us to listen with not just our thinking mind, but “with our mind in our heart,” as advocated by the desert mothers and fathers and some of their mystical, contemplative successors ever since.I will be using the terms “contemplative” and “mystical” synonymously here, but their connotations could be seen to differ. For example, “contemplative” could refer more to the whole way of life that is oriented to immediate presence in God, while “mystical” could refer more to the kinds of awareness and experience that occur within that direct presence.
As I’m using the word here, the heart is more than just the seat of our feelings and will. It is also the seat of our intuitive spiritual awareness. This awareness comes through our spiritual heart’s direct participation in reality as it is—just as it is, before our thinking mind begins to interpret it, and before any sense of possessive “self” arises. It appears in the spaciousness before and between our thoughts, spaces we are not usually conditioned to value.
My faith brings innocent trust to this vulnerable heart-presence: trust that I am opening to the radiant Love hidden in reality as it is. That Love brings my open awareness inside itself, sharing whatever it will at a given time. This may involve intimate communion,I am using the term “communion” throughout this article to stand for both “communion with” and “union in” God. In a sense they can never be separated. “Communion” with God emphasizes a subject-subject intimate relationship. “Union” connotes a sense of being more one than two in God. Both carry the same paradox as the Christian triune sense of God’s nature, where we affirm an awareness of God’s oneness, and yet within that oneness there is diversity, a mutually self-emptying love of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Mystical tradition on the whole, I think, gives special emphasis to the intimate unity. In doing so, it compensates for what I think is an overly dualistic emphasis in non-mystical Christian tradition: too great a distancing of the divine and human, too little a sense of the divine image in us. The dualistic emphasis, I believe, often has retarded the deepening spiritual journey of many people, which involves a much more intimate sense of identity in God. wisdom, purging dryness, or any number of other impressions. My heart’s awareness is “inside” whatever is given. It’s part of what is happening. For example, it’s part of the love that shows itself, it reflects that love, and it “knows” that love from the inside.
Perhaps a toddler’s way of purely looking at something is a helpful analogy here. The toddler looks without a sense of self and without a label for what is seen. There is then nothing between the child and what is seen. The toddler is free to be “inside” what is seen, “knowing” it from the inside. I’m reminded of Meister Eckhart’s line: “Between us and God there is no between.” In the heart’s open awareness, this is true of whatever is seen in creation as well. We are innocently brought inside what is, just as it is, unskewed by ego self-image and undistanced by the thinking mind’s labeling of things.
Contemplative practices are meant to draw us to this quality of direct, open presence. Whatever I would hold on to separately from the Gracious One is relinquished in trust, insofar as possible. In my desire to share the self-emptying of Christ, I want nothing left standing between reality—as it is in God—and me, not even an image of myself. Who I really am, after all, is not found in my conditioned self-images. Who I really am is an image of God, a unique reflection of that radiant divine Love. Such a personal identity is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), leaving me as open a mystery as God is.
With such a sense of identity and intent, let me ask you to join me in the following little way to mind-in-heart presence:
- Take a few deep, slow breaths to help clear away any clinging tightness or anxiety in your body and mind.
- Open the desire in you for your deep soul in God, your true Christ nature, the divine image in you, to be further awakened.
- Let your thinking mind rest, and lean back into your open spiritual heart.
- Now, for at least five minutes, as any thought, image (including self-image), or sensation appears, gently let it go. Remain steadily at home through and behind them, at home in your spacious, awake spiritual heart, simply given to God.
- See what it’s like now to read the rest of this article with some vestige of that stance of open presence right through the words. Read not only with your outside, “figuring out” mind, but also with the “inside” awareness given you in your open spiritual heart.
We don’t have to possess just what comes to us with our thinking mind. Sometimes, we’re called to let what we know obscurely in our spiritual heart be sufficient, trusting that God’s ongoing transformative awakening can be carried forward in secret. What is happening in us and what we realize in the spiritual heart are always more than the mind can ever fully grasp. Often, though, our spiritual heart’s awareness can be beneficially translated into the mind’s at least partial understanding.