St. Teresa of Avila….
To strive or not to strive…?
One of the things I’ve noticed during 20 years of studying both Eastern and Western mysticism is that the great teachers are always seeming to contradict themselves. They’ll say one thing on one day, to a particular audience or person, then tell someone else the exact opposite thing. One common rationale for this behavior is that a true teacher will modify his or her teaching depending on the student’s level of spiritual maturity. Another will seem to contradict his or her message because he or she is speaking from the perennial well of wisdom, which is beyond duality, beyond doctrine, beyond what we normally think of as rational thinking; everything there is spontaneous, intuitive and non-linear, yet somehow so “right on” that questioning it is beyond the point. Zen koans are somewhat based on this principle.
This contradictoriness lends itself to a basic riddle that somtimes confronts me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. That is, in thinking about the contemplative’s life, a part of me questions the appropriateness of striving for the mystical states that arise through ever-deepening states of meditative absorption.
Who strives? For whose benefit are the attainments that may or may not unfold along the path? Is striving just a diversion from That which purports to await the seeker?
These are not simple questions, nor are there simple answers to them. Whether or not a seeker stays on the path often depends on how successfully he or she deals with them.
My way of dealing is to recognize that truth is not black and white. It is not an either/or proposition. Guidance in one direction serves me in some instances while not in others. The great teachers understand this, and they expect students to roll with the contradictions to the best of their ability. All the guidance leads to the same place, eventually.
That said, I wanted to share a passage from Mirabai Starr’s translation of The Interior Castle of Teresa of Avila (pp. 100-101), where — in a book in which she describes the many splendors of attainment through successive levels of meditative absorption — she gives first one side of truth around the question of striving, and then the other. Thus, she finds a way to offer clarity through contradiction:
You will want to attain this depth of prayer yourselves, my friends, and you will be right to want this. The soul can never understand the blessings the Beloved is granting her here or the love with which he is drawing her nearer and nearer to himself. It would be a good thing to know how to obtain this mercy. I’ll tell you what I have found out about it.
There are, of course, times when the Beloved grants his blessings for no other reason than simply because he wants to. He knows why, and we shouldn’t meddle in this. After you’ve done what you need to do in the dwellings you’ve passed through, remember: humility! Humility! This is how the Beloved allows himself to be conquered and will do anything you want. The way you will know if you are humble is that you will not believe that you have earned these mercies and blessings from the Beloved nor that you will ever have them in your life.
You will ask me how you will ever attain them if you do not seek them out. My answer is that there is no better way than by not striving. Here are some reasons why:
First, we must love God above all, unmotivated by self-interest.
Second, thinking that in exchange for our insignificant services we are entitlted to such a great reward indicates a slight lack of humility.
Third, true preparation for these blessings consists not in the desire for consolations but in the desire to suffer as the Beloved suffered.
Fourth, while His Highness is bound to grant us glory if we keep his commandments, he is not obliged to do us any favors we may crave. Without having our whims satisfied, we can still be liberated. He knows better than we do what is right for us. He knows that we love him. I’m absolutely sure of this. I know people who walk the path of love soley to serve their crucified Christ. Not only do they refuse spiritual delights, but they do not even desire them. In fact, they actually beseech him not to distract them with such pleasures in this lifetime.
The fifth reason we should not strive for spiritual sweetness is that it would be a complete waste of time. This is not the kind of water that is carried through conduits. We accomplish nothing by tiring ourselves out when we cannot draw water from the source. What I mean is that no matter how much we practice meditation, however hard we squeeze ourselves or how many tears we weep, this kind of water doesn’t come to us like that. God gives it only to those to whom it is his will to give it, and often when the soul least expects it.
My take on this is that it is right and good to “attain this depth of prayer yourselves” — to live a contemplative life with prayer/meditation at the center, allowing what happens there to unfold as God wills. What sometimes happens, however, is that the contemplative becomes enamored of the bells and whistles — the “characteristic manifestations of absorption,” which are often blissful and enticing in-and-of themselves — and when these things don’t happen as readily as they may (or may not) have at a certain point, the let-down can be debilitating. The lesson is, one must learn to “attain this depth of prayer” through skillful meditation… and then allow whatever happens to happen, even if nothing seems to happen.
The term I use for this is “availing.”
We go into skillful meditation (which we’ll discuss by and by), and in that place we avail ourselves to “God” or whatever we want to call the transcendent aspect of existence. We surrender. We drop our resistance. We wait in exquisite expectation of nothing more than what is, right here, right now, in the depths of silence. We present ourselves as willing receptacles, but our presence in meditation is not dependent on any particular outcome.
Oddly enough, only when we’ve emptied ourselves of demands for attainment, will attainment be likely to manifest.
So yes, there’s a contradiction here. We would be crazy not to want the experience of bliss, joy and happiness (samadhi/jhana) — but we don’t want to strive exclusively after it, because we really can’t get there from here. It has to come to us. All we can do is allow our skillful meditation to prepare us for its coming…. if that is God’s will.
[Hint: If you’re thinking that dedicating your life to endless hours of meditation without a guarantee of “success” is nuts… take heart. Just getting to the place of such dedication is a sign that attainment is not far away.]