Cool Koi Fish Yin Yang Tattoo Art by Rachel Martin
"The fundamental philosophical principle of yin and yang is reflected in every aspect of Chinese calligraphy. [...] The study of Chinese calligraphy is not only a study of Chinese writing. In many ways, it is also a study of Chinese philosophy and the Chinese worldview. Aesthetic principles and standards are rooted in cultural and philosophical tenets, and Confucianism and Daoism form the basis of Chinese culture. Of the two Daoism has the stronger influence on art. It is no exaggeration to say that Daoism, from its place at the core of Chinese culture, is the spirit of Chinese art. Many characteristics of Chinese calligraphy reflect Daoist principles." - Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press. 2009), p175
"You can buy the ink, the rice paper, the brush, but if you don't cultivate the art of calligraphy, you can't do calligraphy." - Vietenamese Zen teacher and mindful calligrapher, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power (2007), p81
"The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment." - Richard Baker Roshi, Introduction, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p14.
A Zen Calligraphy piece by Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki painted using a plant from outside. It reads: "Beginner's Mind”.
When practising writing Insight Calligraphy, there are so many things for the beginner to consider and bring together as one flowing whole. As when learning to coordinate one's body in order to ride a bicycle, the intended outcome can seem like an impossible endeavour - that one is attempting to achieve some supernatural feat that one's teacher cannot explain. However, with persistence those moments of balance do come, and one feels the flow of the process more and more.
This is something which appears to be at the core of Chinese artistic disciplines, and it comes from ancient philosophies which encourage practitioners to go beyond concepts and instead seek harmony with nature. The author of the book Chinese Writing and Calligraphy, Wendan Li, points to this when he says (p180):
"Without the Daoist principle of diversity in harmony, there would be no Chinese calligraphy. Chinese calligraphy is often likened to Chinese Zen in that it does not lend itself very well to words and can only be experienced and perceived through the senses.”
As with seated mindfulness meditation, Insight calligraphy has an apparent subtle yogic physical dimension to it. My calligraphy teacher here in Beijing, Paul Wang, said to me last week: "One must use one's whole body to write. If there is tension anywhere, then the expression will be limited, and so a whole-body focus needs to be maintained". Wendan Li supports this by saying (p184-5):
"Writing involves almost every part of the body, from the fingers and shoulders to the back muscles and the muscles involved in breathing. Similar to Taiji, calligraphy is based on a typical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes moderation and detachment. Through slow, moderate movements, the energy... passes through the writer’s back, shoulders, arms, wrists, palms, and fingers, onward to the brush tip and, finally, is projected onto the paper.[..]...the initiation of writing is usually accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and lowered blood pressure. When a high degree of concentration is reached, the heart rate significantly decelerates and blood pressure drops significantly. These responses are similar to those created by meditation with one major difference: Meditation seeks tranquillity in a state of rest, whereas calligraphy seeks tranquillity in motion. [...] Prolonged practice of calligraphy can play a significant role in keeping one fit and improving one’s health. This explains the well-known fact that, in traditional China, most calligraphers lived to an age well beyond the average life span.”
During my private class with Paul Wang yesterday, we discussed the role of the Daoist Classics; the DaoDeJing and JuangZi in writing Insight Calligraphy. In the DaoDeJing, LaoZi writes (Chapter 25):
"Imagine a nebulous thing here before Heaven and Earth, silent and elusive it stands alone, not wavering it travels everywhere unharmed, it could be the mother of us all,
not knowing its name, I call it the Tao, forced to name it, I name it Great,
great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning,
the Tao is great, Heaven is great, Earth is great, the king is also great, the realm contains four greats, of these the king is one,
Man imitates Earth, Earth imitates Heaven, Heaven imitates the Tao, the Tao imitates itself.”
Writing Insight Calligraphy is the Dao (or Tao in the old Wade-Giles Chinese romanization) expressing itself. To see this positively, we allow for an expression of our inherently positive being to manifest itself through skill, thus giving rise to a positive piece of art.
In the case of Insight Calligraphy, this artistic expression is in the form of characters written with black ink on paper. The apparent similarity between some Chinese cursive calligraphy strokes and the Daoist TaiJi (YinYang) symbol is not coincidental. As Wendan Li points out, there has always been a link between Daoism and calligraphy (p178):
"The way of calligraphy and the way of nature, although differ in scope, share similar principles. Calligraphy best illustrates Daoist philosophy when the brush embodies, expresses, and magnifies the power of the Dao. Thus, an adequate understanding of the concept of yin and yang and its manifestations in calligraphy, and how various techniques are implemented to create contrast and unity in writing, is essential to your grasp of the core of the art."
In China, art is often seen as an expression of the human heart - a positive creation that brings happiness to the lives of others. It is also worth noting here that the Chinese considered heart and mind to be one thing - Xīn (心).
The Chinese character for heart/mind carved into the wall of a Buddhist temple on KongTongShan, China, and into the rock at the Buddhist temple complex of PuTuoShan, China. The author visited both of these locations in 2006.
The beauty of this innate positive heart/mind is considered to be reflected in the natural world around us, and the calligrapher's practice is to render that beauty visible in a symbolic format. Li states (p179):
"The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, like the coordinated movements of a skillfully composed dance: impulse, momentum, momentary poise, and the interplay of active forces combine to form a balanced whole. The effect of rhythmic vitality rests on the writer’s artistic mind as well as training in basic techniques and composition skills [...] Generally speaking, Running and Cursive styles have stronger rhythm than the more traditional scripts. This is why many artists favor these two styles. When a piece is created with the vital forces of life and rhythm, the result is fresh in spirit and pleasing to the eye."
An Insight Calligraphy piece by the author's teacher Paul Wang. It reads: "Kong You Bu Er" (Form is not other than Emptiness).
The inherently positive human heart/mind is something the Chinese have generally considered true since ancient times. In Junior schools all over the country, Chinese children are once again learning to recite the Three Character Classic (三字經) - a philosophical teaching attributed to the disciples of KongZi (Confucius). For many children, as was the case over the past two thousand years, this is the first book learnt upon beginning formal education. The book begins:
" 人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).”
The practice of honing skill in order to render works of art is considered, by the Daoists, a Sagely path in itself. In order to truly and repetitively render the positive mind's perception, one must manifest a seamless connection between heart and hand. This is apparently the highest level of skill - no matter the practice, whether painting, dancing, sculpting, doing KungFu, or even cutting meat from an animal. In the JuangZi, LaoZi's Daoist disciples relate the skill of a Butcher who practices Daoism thus (Chapter 3):
"whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly [...] At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. "Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!". Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. [...] I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, ... and follow things as they are"
JuangZi - A student of Daoist Master LaoZi.
Bringing all this together - the desire to calmly express a positive heart/mind, and the pursuit of higher skill - the epitome of which is an appreciation of the Dao, or True Nature, it can be seen that Insight Calligraphy is a traditional and well-established kind of mindful practice. Even authors, such as Wendan Li, who do not primarily present and encourage calligraphy as a meditation practice, highlights the positive psychological benefits in the same way a mindfulness teacher would (p184):
"During writing, the writer refrains from talking and concentrates on the task at hand. By so doing, he or she is able to project the characters in his or her mind accurately onto the paper through precise muscle and brush control. At the same time, the writing process also exerts a stabilizing influence on the writer’s mind, resulting in an even more transcendent sense of peace and clarity of thought. Thus calligraphy is commonly recognized as an effective way to remove anxiety and discover calmness and emotional grace."
A calligraphy piece by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh
featuring a photograph of him.
As I practice Insight Calligraphy I can feel an unfolding - judgements, attachments, and intense emotions arising - all to be accepted and let go of in exactly the same way as during seated meditation. Here is a video of myself writing the character for 'Dao':
Getting the feeling for the character itself takes a long time, never mind the brush skill and mindful focus. This is the character I wrote in the above video placed next to the calligraphy teacher Paul Wang's (mine is on the left). There are plenty of places I made 'mistakes':
I think mine lacks the confident dynamism and general structural integrity that Pauls has, not to mention some of the more detailed technical aspects of the strokes. Paul says that in order to capture the essence of the character as one looks at it, one must 'listen' to it before copying. He says it is the same kind of listening as the famous zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping" - it brings one to a state of awareness that is beyond conceptual understanding - a 'don't know' mind that is receptive to wholeness; to the Dao.
Another mindful calligraphy piece
by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
"To many modern Christians, words like "meditation," "mystic," and "mysticism" bring to mind Eastern religions, not Christianity. Certainly Eastern religions are known for their mysticism; however, mysticism is not only a vital part of the Christian heritage as well, but it is actually the core of Christian spirituality. Mysticism simply means the spirituality of the direct experience of God. It is the adventure of "the wild things of God."
The direct experience of God is a kind of knowing, which goes beyond intellectual understanding. It is not a matter of "belief." It is marked by love and joy, but it is not "emotional experience." In many ways, it is better described by what it is not. To describe what it is, we must use metaphors,—the marriage of the soul to Christ, the death of the "old man" and birth of the "new man," being the "body of Christ."
Jesus proclaimed "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) showing the world what the union of God and man can be. Christian mysticism is about nothing else but this transforming union.
Christ is the sole end of Christian mysticism. Whereas all Christians have Christ, call on Christ, and can (or should) know Christ, the goal for the Christian mystic is to become like Christ, to become as fully permeated with God as Christ is, thus becoming like him, fully human, and by the grace of God, also fully divine. In Christian teaching this doctrine is known by various names—theosis, divination, deification, and transforming union.
A common misconception about mysticism is that it's about "mystical experiences," and there are many volumes on such experiences in religious literature. But true mysticism is not focussed on "experiences" (which come and go) but with the lasting experience of God, leading to the transformation of the believer into union with God.
a very, very, very short mystical apologetic.
To know God directly shows that mysticism is different from any passive or legalistic kind of Christianity. It means:
• That while we honor the Scriptures, we want to know God directly, not just through Scripture.
• While we respect our heritage of teachings about God, we want to know God directly, not through doctrines and teachings.
• While we gather in communal worship, we want to know God directly, not just through the Church.
Some readers may find this unsettling. Maybe you believe it doesn't apply to you, because you "know" that your church is purer and more correct than others. Even if that were true, is it a substitute for knowing God directly? Or, you might also feel that trusting the Bible alone gives you knowledge of God directly from the Source. But it was written by mystics, listening to God speaking his Word in their hearts. Is it possible for you to read it directly, without the conceptions of your language, time, culture, and personal history? Are you sure you wouldn't understand it very differently if you were reading it, say, in third-century Damascus?
The religion we call "Christianity" changes, but God is eternal. Mystical faith wants to know this unchanging God to whom Christianity leads us, the One behind the beliefs and the words, the One whom beliefs and words cannot describe. We want to follow Jesus' example more closely, and go beyond the religion about Jesus, and take the religion of Jesus: the knowledge of the Father and unconditional love he had, and urged us to have.
WHAT IS A MYSTIC?
I believe that everyone who wants to love unconditionally is a mystic. All children are born mystics, and if you were once a child, you were once a mystic. Christian mysticism is following the example of Christ as he followed the Father. And mysticism is not by any means restricted to Christianity: the Bible says, “everyone who loves is begotten of God, and knows God.” (1 Jn. 4.7) God speaks in various ways, in every time and every place to "whosoever will." Other pages on this site treat non-Christian mysticism.
Mystics range the gamut of walks of life, from intellectual priests such as Frs. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox, to laywomen like Bernadette Roberts and Katherine Nelson. The mystic way is old, but timeless—it is alive, and ever-new for each one who chooses it. It may be inviting you to begin this adventure of divine transformation and discovery."
A VERY, VERY, VERY SHORT HISTORY OF MYSTICISM
The term mysticism derives from The Mystical Theology, a tiny treatise written by the greatest Christian writer of the sixth century, Dionysius the Areopagite, a.k.a. Pseudo-Dionysius or St. Denys [the Areopagite]. But Dionysius is in no way the "founder" of Christian mysticism. That honor belongs to none but Jesus the Christ himself. But there was mysticism long before Jesus was born. God "strolled in the Garden" with man (Heb.'adam). Jacob saw heaven opened. God spoke to Joseph through dreams. Moses communed with God on Sinai. David lost himself in dancing for the Lord.
But when Jesus declared "I and the Father are one," (Jn. 10.30) he proclaimed in himself the union of God and humankind, and he offers it to all who follow him (he gave the power to become sons of God to all who believe. (Jn. 1.12).
From there, the mystic heart is seen in the letters of the apostles: Paul reached the divinized state of losing his "self": I no longer live, but Christ lives in me! (Gal. 2.20) James wrote that every good and perfect gift comes from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no variation nor shadow of turning. (Jas. 1.17) Peter proclaimed that Christ even descended to hell to liberate imprisoned souls, (1 Pet. 3.19) and John understood the most sublime truth of God's essence: God is Love! (1 Jn. 4.8,16). This is only the beginning. Every century has been influenced by Christian mystics—from apostles and martyrs, Church Fathers and Desert Mothers, to monks and nuns of religious orders, to the lay mystics—men and women and boys and girls in every century, in every denomination, in every walk of life.
STARTING ON THE WAY
Few people seem to choose mysticism deliberately. It often takes a jolt of some kind from God to wake us up to the fact that there is something there, full of love, wanting to be known. It might come from a beautiful sunset, a shocking dream, a joyous birth, a shattering loss, or a brush with death. But from there, an awareness of an entirely new level of love, truth and goodness begins. But it is indeed possible to begin the mystic journey deliberately, determining to find the One who is the fountain of all being. The starting point of mysticism is encountering the Goodness of God. Not a conditional "goodness," but pure Goodness itself, with a capital G. This is Goodness without opposite or contrast, not the good in "good and evil." Goodness filling the Universe just as God himself does, so overwhelming in Good, that there is nothing possibly non-good there, no matter what appears to be otherwise. Unless we believe that God is Good, why would we even want to directly experience him? Although we may say we believe in his true Goodness, in the core of our beings, most of us do not.
We receive a thousand invitations to swim in this sea of wonder every day, with every sunrise and sunset, every laugh, every breath, every eyeblink. Yet few of us are able to see infinite Goodness surrounding us except in occasional glimpses. What happened?
We were all born natural mystics, eager to see pure Goodness in everything. Jesus said, unless you come as a child, you can not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt. 18.3) But early on, we are taught that receiving God's Goodness is dependent on our beliefs and actions, so a certain fear enters our hearts. Soon after that, we may try to accept contradictions, for instance, that God is infinite Love, but sends unbelievers to eternal torture in hell, (which is the most destructive and erroneous teaching in the typical Christian world-view.)
We cannot resolve the impossibility of the contradiction, so we back away slightly, believing God's goodness is merely conditional:... if I pray, if I believe, if I'm good, if whatever, then God will be good to me. The development of our belief system often stops there. Our teachers and preachers often say the same things to 40-year-olds as to 14-year-olds, so we carry these conditionings throughout life, and we lose the childlike heart. Many (very many!) adult Christians simply put their spiritual lives on hold out of frustration or a vague sense that something is amiss with the teachings they've received as "Christianity."
And even mystical Christians may find that although they are experiencing the wonder of God in their hearts, intellectually, the beliefs with which they grew up seem insufficient, creating a dichotomy between heart and head. How can we keep a child's faith in absolute Goodness, and integrate it with adult awareness, intelligence, and competence?
Learning and unlearning is necessary. There is a great heritage which mystics have passed on to us which can help the mind grasp what the heart is trying to tell it. For instance, mystics have believed from the beginning that God is in all things. Mystics believe that the nature of spiritual reality is even more real than that of this created world. Many Christian mystics have believed in universal salvation, and that "hell" is not endless. Most mystics have practiced some form of meditation to enter into awareness of God's divine Presence. And from Jesus, Paul, and John to the present, mystics know that the end goal of the Path is theosis, union with God.
stages on the journeyAnyone who undertakes this adventure of striving to know God directly, soon learns that it doesn't happen instantly; there are stages to the process. Eastern Orthodox Christians often envision it as Jacob's ladder, leading to upward to God. Western saints, such as Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross use other analogies, such as going deeper within the "Interior Castle." Evelyn Underhill describes the stages as awakening, purification, illumination, surrender or the "Dark Night of the soul," and divine union. Matthew Fox describes it as a four-fold path.
The usefulness of these analogies is limited. Any attempt to describe the process of awakening to the indescribable is essentially drawing a map on water. One thing is certain, however. There will be letting go—of fears, desires, and even your self. And as more is released, more is received. (Or so it appears—really we just get rid of what is blocking us from seeing God's perfect goodness that was already there all along. The wonder of God's own Self.
Mystics over the centuries have advised spiritual practice for the releasing and receiving that is the essential rhythm of this life. In more familiar terms, meditation. If you're surprised because you've never heard your minsters urge you to meditate, you're not alone. Most Christian denominations, particularly the newer ones, have little history. But thestillness of meditation, or contemplation [from con (with) + temp(time) literally, "time with" God] has been the foundation of spiritual practice from the beginning centuries to the present. It's concentrated practice in releasing.
Let go. Let God. Let go. Let God. These are the two endless rhythms of the soul in the mystical life.
You may have heard that mysticism is dangerous. It's occultic, it's not Christian, it "begins in mist and ends in schism," and so forth. All of those allegations are false, at least concerning an authentic mysticism as seeking the direct knowledge of God. Nevertheless, just as with everything else that can be experienced in this lifetime, there are some things to be aware of.
The greatest real danger is of attitude. Pride can lead to spiritual deception, mistaking intellectual change for spiritual progress. Fear can cause us to give up, and rationalize away the need for transformation.Holding on to experiences is probably the most subtle pitfall. On this adventure, you may encounter God in thrilling ways, with experiences of spiritual ecstasy. (Or you might not.) You might have experiences of miracles, of supernatural insight, of visions, of having healing power, and so forth. (Or you might not.) The experiences, when they come, if they come, are for you to be encouraged, to keep on letting go. Seeking to repeat a feeling or experience is a very, very, common distraction.
Another thing you might want to be aware of is loneliness. Since most Christian bodies have no teaching of mysticism past perhaps a few approved experiences (speaking in tongues, for example), it is going to be hard to find company for this journey, which is one of the reasons I created this website. Jesus called this way of living in the Kingdom of heaven "the narrow path," and said few find it. Furthermore, few even care!
He also said "foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." This is also true. No church—no institution of any kind, really, is designed to be a home to those who want to truly want to follow the Son of Man this way, which means going beyond institutional experience. You will feel tired from time to time. You will haveperiods of dryness, and may want to throw in the towel for a little while. Or even a long while. The work itself is your rest, your meeting-place with God, the Restorer of your being."
Borrowed from the blog of Jon Zuck:
What is Christian Mysticism?
By Jon Zuck
The mystical life is not a “belief system”
BELIEFS ARE NOT REALITY
It's essential to remember that all of these ideas are metaphors. Doctrines, words, concepts, thoughts and pictures all translate, emphasize, reflect, and otherwise point to reality. But no description of reality is the reality it describes. Words and pictures, ideas and doctrines, are not the things they point to. They are distorted indicators, utterly different in kind from what they point to. You can describe a tree in your backyard to me all day long, but until I touch it with my own hands, I can't feel its bark. If description can't communicate the tree-ness of a tree, how much less can words communicate God!
This is important! Challenging ideas are often vital for breaking up entrenched thought patterns and opening the mind. Yet no concept, no matter how inspirational, is that divine reality we seek, anymore than Magritte's pipe is something you can pick up and smoke.
We need to remember that God is the name we use for the Unspeakable. Simply put, the Source of everything is beyond all names. The “Trinity” is a conception of how the Infinite One relates to the phenomenal world of beings, matter, and time, which we call Creation. “The Fall from grace” is another. Other religions have their concepts as well—lila, nirvana, maya. But to latch on to any one of these as “the Truth ” instead of a helpful pointer to truth, is to miss the point entirely! It's like several people pointing to that tree in the backyard and arguing whether the tree has three parts or fifteen parts—or arguing if the leaves are dark green, forest green, or olive.
God cannot be divided. God simply is. The Universe simply is. What is simply is. All our thoughts and concepts divide Is-ness in our minds, and divide our minds from Is-ness.
Awakening is the transition from "religion" with its firm answers, perspectives, and experiences, to realization, the awareness of what IS. Even more important is “Real-ization,” the embodiment of that awareness. The important things in mysticism are not concepts, thoughts, feelings, or even experiences, but the questions and questing for nothing else but this One we call God. Beliefs—in the sense of concepts which must be protected, are not part of Christian mystical life. In this sense, you must not “believe” in God. Instead, just rest in Being. And in being, and being with Being, you rest with God, the Ground of Being. Don't “believe” in the Trinity. Trust the holy and wholly indescribable Reality in whom you “live, move, and have your being”.
The Greek word pisteo is almost always translated “belief” or “faith” in the New Testament. However, it also means trust and is better translated as such. Dare to move from belief to trust.
Slowly, joyfully, lovingly, destroy your concepts and mental images into the burning furnace of just being with the One. Just love what is, seen and unseen. Don't name it. Don't label it. Don't even think about it. Just do what Jesus said: Come as a child.
“Whoever will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter into it.”
—Jesus, Mark 10:16
Drawing by TheLob
It is wrong - and dangerous - to believe literal truth can be found in religious texts
Human beings, in nearly all cultures, have long engaged in a rather strange activity. They have taken a literary text, given it special status and attempted to live according to its precepts. These texts are usually of considerable antiquity yet they are expected to throw light on situations that their authors could not have imagined. In times of crisis, people turn to their scriptures with renewed zest and, with much creative ingenuity, compel them to speak to their current predicament. We are seeing a great deal of scriptural activity at the moment.
This is ironic, because the concept of scripture has become problematic in the modern period. The Scopes trial of 1925, when Christian fundamentalists in the United States tried to ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and the more recent affair of The Satanic Verses, both reveal deep-rooted anxiety about the nature of revelation and the integrity of sacred texts. People talk confidently about scripture, but it is not clear that even the most ardent religious practitioners really know what it is.
Protestant fundamentalists, for example, claim that they read the Bible in the same way as the early Christians, but their belief that it is literally true in every detail is a recent innovation, formulated for the first time in the late 19th century. Before the modern period, Jews, Christians and Muslims all relished highly allegorical interpretations of scripture. The word of God was infinite and could not be tied down to a single interpretation. Preoccupation with literal truth is a product of the scientific revolution, when reason achieved such spectacular results that mythology was no longer regarded as a valid path to knowledge.
We tend now to read our scriptures for accurate information, so that the Bible, for example, becomes a holy encyclopaedia, in which the faithful look up facts about God. Many assume that if the scriptures are not historically and scientifically correct, they cannot be true at all. But this was not how scripture was originally conceived. All the verses of the Qur'an, for example, are called "parables" (ayat); its images of paradise, hell and the last judgment are also ayat, pointers to transcendent realities that we can only glimpse through signs and symbols.
We distort our scriptures if we read them in an exclusively literal sense. There has recently been much discussion about the way Muslim terrorists interpret the Qur'an. Does the Qur'an really instruct Muslims to slay unbelievers wherever they find them? Does it promise the suicide bomber instant paradise and 70 virgins? If so, Islam is clearly chronically prone to terrorism. These debates have often been confused by an inadequate understanding of the way scripture works.
People do not robotically obey every single edict of their sacred texts. If they did, the world would be full of Christians who love their enemies and turn the other cheek when attacked. There are political reasons why a tiny minority of Muslims are turning to terrorism, which have nothing to do with Islam. But because of the way people read their scriptures these days, once a terrorist has decided to blow up a London bus, he can probably find scriptural texts that seem to endorse his action.
Part of the problem is that we are now reading our scriptures instead of listening to them. When, for example, Christian fundamentalists argue about the Bible, they hurl texts back and forth competitively, citing chapter and verse in a kind of spiritual tennis match. But this detailed familiarity with the Bible was impossible before the modern invention of printing made it feasible for everybody to own a copy and before widespread literacy - an essentially modern phenomenon - enabled them to read it for themselves.
Hitherto the scriptures had always been transmitted orally, in a ritual context that, like a great theatrical production, put them in a special frame of mind. Christians heard extracts of the Bible chanted during the mass; they could not pick and choose their favourite texts. In India, young Hindu men studied the Veda for years with their guru, adopting a self-effacing and non-violent lifestyle that was meant to influence their understanding of the texts. In Judaism, the process of studying Torah and Talmud with a rabbi was itself a transformative experience that was just as important as the content.
The last thing anyone should attempt is to read the Qur'an straight through from cover to cover, because it was designed to be recited aloud. Indeed, the word qur'an means "recitation". Much of the meaning is derived from sound patterns that link one passage with another, so that Muslims who hear extracts chanted aloud thousands of times in the course of a lifetime acquire a tacit understanding that one teaching is always qualified and supplemented by other texts, and cannot be seen in isolation. The words that they hear again and again are not "holy war", but "kindness", "courtesy", "peace", "justice", and “compassion".
Historians have noted that the shift from oral to written scripture often results in strident, misplaced certainty. Reading gives people the impression that they have an immediate grasp of their scripture; they are not compelled by a teacher to appreciate its complexity. Without the aesthetic and ethical disciplines of ritual, they can approach a text in a purely cerebral fashion, missing the emotive and therapeutic aspects of its stories and instructions.
Solitary reading also enables people to read their scriptures too selectively, focusing on isolated texts that they read out of context, and ignoring others that do not chime with their own predilections. Religious militants who read their scriptures in this way often distort the tradition they are trying to defend. Christian fundamentalists concentrate on the aggressive Book of Revelation and pay no attention to the Sermon on the Mount, while Muslim extremists rely on the more belligerent passages of the Qur'an and overlook its oft-repeated instructions to leave vengeance to God and make peace with the enemy.
We cannot turn the clock back. Most of us are accustomed to acquiring information instantly at the click of a mouse, and have neither the talent nor the patience for the disciplines that characterised pre-modern interpretation. But we can counter the dangerous tendency to selective reading of sacred texts. The Qur'an insists that its teaching must be understood "in full" (20:114), an important principle that religious teachers must impart to the disaffected young.
Muslim extremists have given the jihad (which they interpret reductively as "holy war") a centrality that it never had before and have thus redefined the meaning of Islam for many non-Muslims. But in this they are often unwittingly aided by the media, who also concentrate obsessively on the more aggressive verses of the Qur'an, without fully appreciating how these are qualified by the text as a whole. We must all - the religious and the sceptics alike - become aware that there is more to scripture than meets the cursory eye.
· Karen Armstrong is the author of The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism
The Road Less Traveled may well have been a life-changing work and one of the best-selling books of all time.
By Robert Epstein Ph.D., published on November 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Scott Peck had a station-wagon with plates that read "THLOST" in his driveway. They speak of his lifelong journey as a self-described mystic. His last book is a memoir titled Glimpses of the Devil. He said it was his last effort because of his affliction with Parkinson's disease. In 2002, Robert Epstein visited him at his home on Lake Waramaug, in Connecticut.
Most people struggle with issues of spirituality in one form or another. Sometimes they arrive at a place of peace, and sometimes they don't. Must we go through this struggle, or can you point us to a shortcut?
I do not think that everybody has to struggle. But to probably at least half of the people, it never seems to enter their minds that they might be engaged in a struggle or that there might be something to struggle with.
One of my shticks is about why we need to do hard scientific research on religion. A study shows that if you ask people whether they believe in God, probably 95 percent of Americans will say they do. And there is nothing particularly great about their mental health. But if you ask them whether they have ever had any personal experience with God, only about 15 to 20 percent will say "yes." Those few have also been judged as more mentally healthy than the others. And the experience is not necessarily one we choose. Everyone is different, so your spirituality is not going to be my spirituality; your wrestling match is not my wrestling match. But right off the bat, the wrestling match has been a gift of God to you.
In the 1970s, when you wrote The Road Less Traveled, where were you at spiritually?
Although I was raised in a profoundly secular home, I had a belief, an awareness of God, from as far back as I can remember. In poetic form, there is a footnote in The Road Less Traveled about my earliest memory: "In the autumn, when I was three, my mother woke me from dark sleep to see the northern lights dancing in the cold. In her warm night arms, I danced all the way to China before she carried me in. I still dance, and I do not know if I can ever forgive her for such love." That is quite a first memory. I credit my mother with that, rather than credit God.
In my senior year at Friends Seminary, a little Quaker school on the edge of Greenwich Village in New York City, I took an elective course in world religions. The book we used was very objective, and it contained quotes from the Upanishads and Zen Buddhism. It wasn't that these religions taught me mysticism, for I was already a mystic. But for the first time, I had a religious identity. I had come home. And so I called myself a Zen Buddhist at the age of 18.
Around age 30 I found myself thirsting for a less abstract religion. I'd always been into Jewish mystical stories, Hasidic stories. Then I discovered Sufism. All Sufi stories are about psychotherapy and teaching and learning. So I started being nurtured by the Muslim mystics; they were a little more down-to-earth.
I'd turned down a lucrative Harvard fellowship and stayed in the Army as a psychiatrist. Together with a senator's aide, we toured the new drug-abuse programs to get a feeling for how they were doing. One of the places we went was Fort Jackson in South Carolina. When we got there, everyone wanted to see this controversial new show coming to town called Jesus Christ Superstar. That show was a real eye-opener. It was the first thing that put me in touch with Jesus' humanity and realness.
The other major thing was reading the Gospels at the age of 40. I lay in bed at night reading the New Testament. And just as I had felt with Jesus Christ Superstar, I was blown away. Now I think a small part of the Gospels is made up. But I found this incredibly real person. Jesus was lonely and sorrowful and scared—an unbelievably real person. And it was at that point that I began to take becoming a Christian seriously. Some people who arrive at Christianity start with Jesus' divinity, and some with his humanity. With me, it was his humanity. And only later did I begin to get in touch with his divinity, which was initially difficult for me to swallow.
This whole time, you were a practicing psychiatrist. You were in a community of confident mainstream mental health and medical professionals, many of whom had research backgrounds. How were you reconciling your spirituality with what you did for a living, namely practicing psychiatry, where there is little or no religious orientation?
Well, when I began to practice psychiatry it was 1964, so I was 28. My spirituality had not developed, so I could not talk about it fluently the way I do today. But I already saw no great difference between the psyche and spirituality. To amass knowledge without becoming wise is not my idea of progress in therapy. As soon as I became comfortable doing so, therapy became for me a quasi-spiritual endeavor. And, often with trepidation, I would carefully use certain religious concepts in therapy when appropriate.
For example, take people with phobias. Two things characterize them. One is that they see this world as a very dangerous place. The other is that they see themselves as isolated in this dangerous world. So it is up to them, by their wits alone, to keep themselves alive. You usually treat them by converting them to adopt a more benign view of the world as a less dangerous place, or by persuading them that there is something called grace protecting them so they don't have to worry about everything all the time.
You must have had some serious doubts.
Are you familiar with James Fowler? He's the expert on the stages of faith development. I simplify them a bit. Jim's theory has six stages; mine has four. The fundamental stage, one I call "chaotic antisocial," is a stage of absent spirituality. The second stage is "formal institutional," in which the fundamentalists fall. Stage three I call "skeptic individual," where religion is either thrown out or seriously doubted. And then there is stage four, which I call "mystical communal." To get from stage two to stage four—if you can in a lifetime—you must go through stage three. You have to go through a phase of doubting. One of the great sins of the Christian church is the discouragement of doubting. There's a limit to doubting. If you become really good at stage-three doubting, you begin to doubt your own doubts. And that's when you begin to move to stage four.
Most people achieve this without being in therapy.
Right. But therapy can—although not very well without the use of religious concepts—sometimes facilitate this transition.
People who are trained in psychology and psychiatry keep religion at arm's length. In The Road Less Traveled you wrote, "My plea would be that psychotherapists of all kinds should push themselves to become no less involved but rather more sophisticated in religious matters than they currently are." That philosophy contradicts the training that's provided in the field. Even mental health professionals with strong religious beliefs don't bring them into the therapeutic exchange. You're saying this is wrong?
Yes. I said it was wrong many years ago, and I say it's wrong today. In 1992, the American Psychiatric Association, for political reasons, decided it needed to give me recognition because people were getting pissed off at [the APA] for not giving me any. So [the APA] gave me a plaque that read, "For his work as a teacher and clinician." I also gave a lecture. As did William Styron, the author of Sophie's Choice, who wrote a book about his own depression. The best-attended APA lectures were his and mine. [At my lecture] they started off with a room that seated 500. Then they removed a wall [to expand the room] and got 1,000 people in. Then 200 or 300 more came in, and then there were about 200 or 300 outside. At the end, there was a standing ovation.
I wrote to the president of the APA and said, "We've got to do more, and I am here to consult with you in any way you might like." And he said, "Yes, we have to do more." I never heard back from him. There are lots of reasons for this state of affairs historically, going back to Galileo, with the fight between science and religion. And psychiatry really does begin with Freud, who was extremely secular and scientific-minded. He was terribly conflicted about religion, as many people are. Of course, most people are familiar with stage-two religion. And by God, we're going to keep psychiatry scientific. And then, for often crass motives, the APA has run with the medical model for insurance purposes. Thank God I've been out of practice for 15 years now. There are a lot of reasons for this split. But that doesn't mean it's right, or it's real.
There's some irony here. They flock to you because of your spirituality, and then spurn you for the same reasons. Another irony is that your books sell well in the Bible Belt. And yet, you are down on fundamentalism, and the fundamentalist Christians are very down on you.
They picketed me twice some years ago as me being the Antichrist. Not an antichrist, but the Antichrist. That's power.
Can you tell me more about the roots of your spirituality—about the intellectual and experiential side?
All my work can be traced back to my Harvard college thesis, "Anxiety, Modern Science and the Epistemological Problem." I outlined three basic ways to try and look at things. They can be looked at as if they were caused by something external, or they were caused by something internal, or they were caused by relationships between things. Unfortunately, none of these three ways can answer all the questions we have. That is, our questions about the cause for intellectual anxiety. Increasingly, modern science is about our realization that we just don't know. Much of my life since has consisted of working out that thesis. The answer to understanding things is not one of those three, but all of them simultaneously. It's more than a paradox—it's a “triadox."
I am really an empiricist, a believer in the importance of experience. I've had all kinds of experiences with God in terms of revelation through a still, small voice or dreams or coincidences. Hundreds of them. Once, a secular Jewish woman wrote a negative review of me in The New York Times, ending it with the comment that unfortunately, most of us don't have a direct phone line to God. I wrote her back and said, "You know, please don't think that my phone works very well. A lot of times I can't get ahold of God, and sometimes the phone rings and I forget to answer. So I suspect there are a lot of people who deliberately leave the phone off the hook because they have these same experiences and they just don't recognize them as the miracles that they are."
I can remember years ago sitting on my bed and suddenly thinking, "I am God." And my next thought was that I better not go down to New Milford, Connecticut, and start talking to people about this. On further contemplation, I realized that, to a significant degree, it was my responsibility to decide who God was. And that, in some ways, made me God's creator. It was at that point that I began to feel sorry for God. I mean, think of the burdens that God shoulders with unfailing gaiety. That was the real beginning of my personal relationship with Him or Her. When I realized that we are "co-creators," for better or worse.
In The Road Less Traveled, you present us with an outrageous challenge: "God wants us to become himself or herself or itself. We are growing toward Godhood. God is the goal of evolution."
That idea has been recognized for ages. Unification with God is the goal of contemplatives. St. Paul clearly expressed it when he said, "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
You've influenced tens of millions of people. Are you satisfied with your impact?
Oh, I'm more than satisfied. I was really lucky. Had I written my books much earlier, they wouldn't have sold at all.
But I am not talking about book sales.
That is just a measurement of the impact. One of the things I regret is that some of my books other than The Road Less Traveled have not been more successful. I think my best books are not my most popular, although they were the best reviewed. They are the more complicated and multileveled, and many people don't like complicated things.
How would you like to be remembered?
I've spent little energy thinking about it, and I guess I don't care much. I would like to be recognized. It amuses me that I've gotten all kinds of honors but never an honorary degree. But I think there are reasons for that. I'm a popularist. I have made a fair amount of money, and most academicians don't make a fair amount of money. They sneer at my scholarship—as well they might, because I am a poor scholar. My wife and I have long been involved with community building and set up a foundation [the Foundation for Community Encouragement], which spawned similar work around the world. Maybe I will be remembered for that.
I've said a lot of things that I think are new and true ideas that may someday be incorporated into psychiatry. In The Road Less Traveled, I said most psychological disorders were considered to have their root in the unconscious, under all these little demons of anger and sex and lust, etc. But the reason they are in the unconscious is because the conscious mind puts them there, because it will not tolerate the pain of dealing with them. But then they become ghosts that haunt us and ultimately cause more pain. As far as I am concerned, virtually all psychological diseases have their origin in our conscious minds. And that is not what we are taught.
Do you have any significant regrets?
A significant regret is that I was not as good a father as I would have ideally liked to be. I was not, I think, a bad father. I did fine until my children were two, two and a half. But from two and a half to eleven or so, they bored me. You need to flow with children, and it is hard to flow when your mind is filled with working on an article about religious ecstasy. I also regret very much, every day now, the lack of sympathy that I had for my parents in their old age. There was a lot I could have given them if I had only been empathetic. Of course, I had not been through their aches and pains.
You had, many years ago, a problem with infidelity that you later overcame.
I didn't overcome it, I lost my libido.
You still smoke and drink. There's the occasional cynic who says, "This man is a hypocrite because he is saying this, but he is doing that." How would you reply?
Cynicism is a terrible disease. I don't think I ever suggested that it's good to smoke, or that people should drink or have affairs. I am not going to justify it. I've never said anywhere that they are supposed to imitate me. I've gone to great lengths not to be a guru. I think the notion of guruhood is utterly pathological, and I couldn't live that way. I am just a person. It isn't my choosing, but my fault. In a number of ways, I don't understand who I am. I have an unpublished first draft of a novel about somebody very special who was born that way—born the son of a sultan, and consequently, he ruled the region. And he, the sultan's son, kept asking throughout the book, "Why me? Who am I?"
You can tell [the cynics] that if by some chance I am a saint, I'm one who smokes and drinks. I'm somebody who often, like so many people, preaches what he needs to learn.