The last post in this series explored practices for the soul and how to discover the deeper meaning and purpose of your life. But soul-based practices are only half the story. In this post, we’ll explore practices to awaken to your true nature as spirit and how to balance that truth with the reality of your soul.
Spirit and soul are two aspects of one being looked at from different perspectives. Soul is immanent and changeable, while spirit is transcendent and eternal, and you are both. Spirit is the ground of your being, but it’s not personal, so my spirit is the same as yours.
In reality, there’s only one spirit: the Great Spirit – or God, the Divine, Brahman, Buddha nature, whatever you want to call it. Your soul is how Spirit manifests in the physical world so it can experience itself, for some mysterious reason – possibly for fun! Your job is to wake up and realise this fact and play along. And that’s the goal of spiritual practice: to remember who you are and reconnect with Spirit.
It sounds simple, but we come into this world with massive amnesia. We forget that we’re eternal beings having a temporary experience in a physical body, and that’s what causes all the bother. However, if you remembered who you were from birth, you wouldn’t grow in wisdom and understanding, and the Great Spirit, or God, wouldn’t achieve whatever mysterious task He/She/It is trying to achieve.
To nudge you towards awakening, practices for Spirit includes things like:
- Religion and/or spiritual practices – your chosen tradition
- Meditation – zazen, vipassana, dzogchen, etc.
- Contemplation and Prayer
- Dark Night of the Spirit
The ancient Greeks called spirit pneuma, which means breath or spirit, but it was also known as nous, meaning mind or intellect, as well as logos, meaning word or thought. The meaning of both logos and nous changed over time and eventually came to stand for the transcendent order of the cosmos, governed by the balance of opposites contained within unity.
The nous was also the source of the ideal Forms, or archetypes – the blueprints for everything that exists. These Forms aren’t abstract but are packed with information and more real than the physical world. This is hard to understand because we tend to see matter as more real than the spiritual world, but it’s actually the other way around.
The archetypes held within spirit contain every possible reality. So when you have a vision of this level, it can take a long time to unpack what you’re shown. It’s like a download of infinite truth held within the symbols and images – literally mind-blowing, as any mystic will tell you.
Christianity borrowed the idea of the logos and it came to represent the Divine Intellect and creator of the world: “In the beginning was the Logos…”, or the Word.
The metaphysics of this process is essentially the same as that in Neoplatonism where the transcendent Godhead, or One, creates the nous, or divine Reason, and the World Soul. In Christianity this became a transcendent God, the Father, who brings forth his son, the Logos, or Christ, and the Holy Spirit – which was originally conceived as Sophia, or Wisdom.
The divine Intellect is the eternal component of your soul, otherwise known as spirit. It transcends duality and the polarity of subject and object, and stands for the Absolute Subject, or God. It’s through the Intellect, or spirit, that you can know God by achieving gnosis. But in the same moment, it’s also God achieving Self-knowledge through you.
Eriugena, the 9th century scholar we met before, says that nothing comes between the intellect and the Divine. There’s something in you that’s essentially the same as God. This is what Meister Eckhart called the divine spark:
“There is a power in the mind that touches neither time nor flesh; it emanates from the spirit, and remains in the spirit, and is totally spiritual. In this power God is fully verdant and flowering, in all the joy and honour that he is in himself.”
The translator of Eriugena’s book The Voice of the Eagle, explains:
“Intellect and God are like two sides of the same coin. … The difference is that in the intellect, knowledge or gnosis is created, whereas in God it is uncreated.”
Your spirit, or divine spark, is what makes gnosis possible because it’s a microcosm of the Divine Intellect. But whatever you manage to perceive has to be filtered through your human intellect – through a glass darkly.
The use of the word ‘intellect’ for both logos and the ordinary human mind creates a lot of confusion. However, the Divine Intellect is clearly not the same thing as your puny intellect which functions through logic and rationality. You need the intellect to discern between right and wrong, but the dualistic mind often gets polarised in endless arguments back and forth.
The word nous also translates as intellect, but it represents your ability to be aware. Plotinus described it as “a knowing principle”, so the nous is that which knows – or consciousness.
The Intellect, then, is pure awareness beyond duality so it doesn’t have an opposite. To see with the Intellect is a direct perception of Truth, or the Absolute nature of Reality. When mystics have a transcendent vision of God, or spirit, they’re not experiencing the normal mind or the psyche. A true mystical vision goes beyond both.
The problems begin when you bring your vision down to earth, via the psyche into the ordinary mind, because you can’t help but interpret what you’ve seen. Your vision becomes distorted by assumptions, emotional blind spots, and even the language you use to describe it.
This is why a large part of spiritual practice involves a process of purification and purging so you can see more clearly. You need to learn how to discern the difference between your own personal ideas and feelings about God and reality, and Reality as it is. This is also why you need to anchor your practice in the reality of spirit, rather than in either the soul or human intellect.
As long as you’re focused on the subjective level of reality, your perception will be prone to confusion and self-deception. You’ll never find peace or freedom from suffering at the level of the body, mind or soul because they constantly change. But that doesn’t mean you should reject those realities in order to focus on spirit.
Spirit is transcendent and immanent and is the ground of your being, including your body, mind and soul. It’s eternal and infinite and can’t be limited in any way, so it’s always present – at every level of being. It’s Spirit that anchors you in reality because Spirit is Reality. Spirit is the centre, and that centre is everywhere.
To manifest that truth in your life, you need to align all the levels of your being with Spirit. From the Christian perspective, the soul submits to the intellect, and the intellect aligns with Christ, and through him, to God. From the Buddhist perspective, this is reflected in the idea of bodhicitta, the awakened heart and mind, rooted in the reality of Buddha nature beyond opposites.
More on that here: The Difference between Soul and Spirit
One way to do this is to practice seeing God in all things and from multiple perspectives. You may naturally gravitate to one particular perspective or type of experience, but it’s a good idea to seek out the others too. For example, God or spirit can be experienced:
- from the inside, as in mystical union with God, or satori in Buddhism;
- in relationship or a shared experience, such as with a partner, or spiritual teacher, as well as Christ or a personal relationship with God;
- an outer experience, as in mystical union with Nature, as well as transcendent experiences through music and art.
Meditation and mindfulness can also help to bring the reality of spirit into your daily life. Different techniques have different aims so choose the right one for the purpose you need. To focus on spirit, you want something simple that can take you to the heart of experience, such as watching the breath, chanting mantras, or centring prayer.
Avoid anything that includes guided visualisations or a lot of complicated mental acrobatics. These are fine for other purposes, but not for attaining insight into the nature of reality. And be careful putting yourself into a trance and zoning out – it feels great, but getting hooked on bliss isn’t what this process is about.
Trance practices can be used to help calm your mind and body, but at some point, you’re going to have to come back down to earth and practice staying present. Meditation is about waking up to Reality, not running away from it by escaping into your own mental playground.
Important warning: Serious meditation isn’t for everyone and it can cause problems for some people. It can lead to a dark night of the soul, which is fine (although, not fun), but not if you weren’t expecting it.
These days, many spiritual practices are used outside of their original purpose, but there are consequences to following this path and you might not like the results. These practices are designed to break you open and strip away anything that isn’t your true Self. It’s a hardcore mystical path and not for the faint-hearted.
It’s also important to discern the difference between genuine spiritual reality and delusional states. In psychological terms, the spirit is transpersonal because it goes beyond the personal self through transcendence. But this isn’t the same as the pre-personal level, which is regressive. Regression is the loss of self through dissolution into pure instinct; while transcendence is the dissolution of self into spirit.
One goes down into the unconsciousness of nature, while the other rises into conscious union with everything. This is why Dionysus was seen as the god of both murderers and mystics – it can go either way. To follow the spiritual path and transcend beyond ego, you need a strong sense of self – one of life’s little paradoxes.
So don’t do the kind of meditation that dissolves the ego before you’re ready to let go of it because it can really mess you up. More here: The Hidden Dangers of Mindfulness
You need to be honest with yourself about what you’re trying to achieve with your spiritual practice before you get to the point where God starts to take over. In Dialogues with a Modern Mystic, Andrew Harvey says that most people don’t actually want enlightenment, they want ordinary happiness because they’re afraid of what that level of freedom will cost them. He quotes Nisargadatta Maharaj, who says:
“People just do not care to let go of everything. They do not know that the finite is the price of the infinite, as death is the price of immortality. Spiritual maturity lies in the readiness to let go of everything. The giving up is the first step, but the real giving up is in realising that there is nothing to give up, for nothing is your own. It is like deep sleep. You do not give up your bed when you fall asleep. You just forget it.”
All you’re really letting go of is the illusion of being in control, but it’s surprisingly hard to do. As R.D. Laing says in The Politics of Experience:
“We are afraid to approach the fathomless and bottomless groundlessness of everything. ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ The ultimate reassurance, and the ultimate terror.”
If you’re sincere in your practice, you’ll reach a point when you have no choice but to surrender. There really is no way back, and once you’ve started down this path it’s best to continue. So if you find yourself in a dark night of the soul, the only way through is to keep going. This is a natural stage of the path which usually begins with the Night of Sense, as we saw in the Soul post.
The Night of Sense is a process of purgation on the level of soul and its purpose is to turn your soul towards the spirit. This is followed by what St John of the Cross called the Night of Spirit, a purgation that cripples your intellect and will leaving you desolate and alone.
The Night of Spirit is a profoundly humbling and humiliating experience where everything is stripped away and you’re totally emptied out of all attachments and desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It’s a crucifixion of your soul in which you learn to love God without consolation of any kind. You feel totally abandoned and may find it impossible to meditate or pray.
The point of this dark night is to deepen your faith in the absence of the felt presence of God. It’s about recognising that you need God because nothing else will ever bring you peace. But since God is the foundation of everything, it means learning to see God everywhere, even in your darkness and pain.
In the end, the dark night of the soul is about accepting reality on its own terms and saying Yes to life no matter what it brings. The path of the mystic is the path to union with God, and that means it’s about love – for everything. More here: Love’s Ordeal: The Dark Night of the Soul
Mysticism at the level of spirit involves any experience that dissolves your sense of separation completely. This is an inner illumination, a direct perception of the true nature of reality as one, and it’s impossible to put into words – although I tried in Addled: Adventures of a Reluctant Mystic! These kinds of visions are received as act of grace and vary in intensity. You can’t make them happen, but you can prepare through spiritual practice.
Mystics generally don’t walk around in a state of bliss all day and you may only have an experience like this once – which can be more than enough. It takes a long time to understand what you’ve seen and integrate it into your life as a lived reality. However, it’s not necessary to have mystical visions in order to progress on the path, so don’t feel bad if you’ve never had one.
The final word goes to Julian of Norwich, a mystic who understood that the world is held in God’s embrace, despite living through the dark ages of the Black Death:
“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
- Evolution of Consciousness: True Nature
- The Mystic Way: Phases of the Mystical Life
- What is Enlightenment?
Next time we go into the darkness to explore practices for the Shadow…