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Sharing the insights I discover as I explore and experience the mystery that is our reality. Join me in my journey and share yours.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Perennial Philosophy: Learning from the World's Mystics

I am currently reading Grace and Grit. It is a deeply moving narrative that includes the thoughts and reflections of both Ken Wilber and his late wife Treya Wilber as they journeyed through her trial with cancer. A trial that ultimately claimed her life. It is an inspiring read despite its already known ending. It not only touches on Treya's struggle with cancer but throughout the whole book philosophy permeates from both Ken and Treya's reflections and conversations with one another. In one part of the book Treya is helping Ken prepare for a lecture on the Perennial Philosophy and she helps him by conducting a practice interview.

I first learned about the Perennial Philosophy in a book by Huston Smith, The World's Religions. This philosophy gives shape and form to a concept that has been slowly developing in my own mind and heart as I've come to see threads of similarity woven throughout many of the religions. These similarities have been mainly expressed through the voices of the mystics ascribed to each religion.

The parallels that can be drawn from the encounters  people from all different cultures and religions have had with God strike me as an amazing testament to God's infinite nature. It also points to me to the truth that God can indeed be experienced and manifest Himself outside the realm of any particular organized religion. Our God is a creative God. No matter how we might try, we just can't stuff God into any one box, for He undoubtedly encompasses that box and goes far beyond it. I believe one can take this view while holding fast to the genuine sacredness and meaning of their given religion. If anything, to realize how God shatters boundaries and permeates all of reality, gives much credence to our conceptions of His omnicience, omnipotence and the mercy and love that we have used to define His grace-filled character.

I don't want to write too much for I have a generous sized excerpt I'd like to share. This is why I am titling this post as Part 1. In his interview Wilber relates what he feels are the seven most important points of the Perennial Philosophy and then goes into detail on each point. In this post I will share the first three and relate the others in a post that will follow.  This is only an excerpt and I'm using snippets of what actually exists in his dialogue to illustrate each point. So if you really are intrigued by this philosophy I'd definitely suggest reading the actual book. I hope you enjoy the following excerpt and would value and appreciate your thoughts!

"The perennial philosophy is the worldview that has been embraced by the vast majority of the world's greatest spiritual teachers, philosophers, thinkers, and even scientists. It's called "perennial" or "universal" because it shows up in virtually all cultures across the globe and ages...

... I will give you seven of what I think are the most important [points].

Point 1: Spirit exists

Treya Wilber: But how do you know Spirit exists? The mystics say it does, but on what do they base their claims?

Ken Wilber: On Direct experience...Their claims are based, not on mere beliefs or ideas, theories or dogma, but rather on direct experience, actual spiritual experience. This is what sets the mystics apart from merely dogmatic religious beliefs...

TW: But the mystical experience, which seems so certain to the mystic, could in fact simply be mistaken. The mystics might think they are becoming one with God, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's actually happening. No knowledge can absolutely be certain.

KW: How do we find out? We check it against more experience-which is also exactly what the mystics have historically done, checking and refining their experiences over the decades, centuries, and even millennia...

Point 2: Spirit is Found Within

KW: The stunning message of the mystics is that in the very core of your being, you are God. Strictly speaking, God is neither within nor without-Spirit transcends all duality. But one discovers this by consistently looking within, until "within" becomes "beyond"....The individual self or ego is precisely what blocks the realization of the Supreme Identity in the first place....Rather , the "you" in question is the deepest part of you...the subtle essence, as the Upanishad put it, that transcends your mortal ego and directly partakes of the Divine.

In Judaism it is called the ruach, the divine and supraindividual spirit in each and every person, and not the nefesh, or individual ego. In Christianity, it is the indwelling pneuma or spirit that is of one essence with God, and not the individual psyche or soul, which at best can worship God. As Coomaraswamy said, the distinction between a person's immortal-eternal spirit and a person's individual-mortal soul (meaning ego) is a fundamental tenet of the perennial philosophy I think is the only way to understand, for example, Christ's otherwise strange remarks that a person could not be a true Christian "unless he hateth his own soul." It is only by "hating" or "throwing out" or "transcending" your mortal soul that you discover your immortal spirit, one with All.

TKW: St. Paul said, "I live, yet not I, but Christ in me." You're saying that St. Paul discovered his true Self, which is one with Christ, and this replaced his old or lower self, his individual soul or psyche.

KW: Yes. Your ruach, or ground is the Supreme Reality, not your nefesh, or ego.

Third Point: A World of sin, separation , and duality block us from realizing the Spirit Within

KW: The various traditions...all essentially come down to this: I cannot perceive my own true identity, or my union with Spirit, because my awareness is clouded and obstructed by a certain activity that I am now engaged in. And that activity, although known by many different names, is simply the activity of contracting and focusing awareness on my individual self or personal ego. My awareness is not open, relaxed, and God-centered, it is closed, contracted and self-centered. And precisely because I am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of everything else, I can't find or discover my prior identity, my true identity, with the All.

...According to the perennial philosophy, awareness dominated by the self-contraction, by the subject/object dualism, cannot perceive reality as it is, reality in its wholeness, reality as the Supreme Identity. Sin, in other words, is the self-contraction, the separate-self sense, the ego. Sin is not something the self does, it is something the self is.

Furthermore, the self-contraction, the isolated subject "in here", precisely because it does not recognize its true identity with the All, feels an acute sense of lack, of deprivation, of fragmentation. The separate-self sense, in other words, is born in suffering-it is born "fallen". Suffering is not something that happens to the separate self, it is something that is inherent in the separate self. "Sin", "suffering", and "self" are so many names for the same process, the same contraction or fragmentation of awareness. You cannot rescue the self from suffering. As Gautama Buddha put it, to end suffering you must end the self-they rise and fall together.

...It's true that the equation of Hell or samsara with the separate self is strongly emphasized in the East, particularly in Hinduism and Buddhism. But you find an essentially similar theme in the writings of the Catholic, Gnostic, Quaker, Kabbalistic and Islamic mystics. My favorite is from the remarkable William Law, an eighteenth-century Christian mystic from England; I'll read it to you: "See here the whole truth in short. All sin, death, damnation, and hell is nothing else but this kingdom of self, or the various operations of self-love, self-esteem, and self-seeking which separate the soul from God and end in eternal death and hell." Or remember the great Islamic mystic Jalaluddin Rumi's famous saying, "If you have not seen the devil, look at your own self." Or the Sufi Abi 'l-Khayr: "There is no Hell but selfhood, no Paradise but selflessness." This is also behind the Christian mystics' assertion that, as the Theologia Germanica put it, nothing burns in Hell but self-will.

Thoughts? I'd love to hear them! Please write them in the Comments Section. Thank you!


  1. Hi Jessica. I had a quick browse on what you've written and am raring to hear more. I'll reflect on this after you've finished all seven. Each point is so rich. I have to stop and reflect on each. I haven't completely grasped the philosophy as yet...

  2. Wow. I was having a conversation with a young man who is my fitness trainer. He adheres mostly to Kabbalah and I have been reading some about it. It does kind of blow your brain a little. For the mystics, according to Toby, my trainer, do not believe in the devil. They believe self is the devil. Could it be that Jesus was "dumbing it down" for us? Maybe the mystics are on to something? It is a little difficult for me to get my brain around.

    But if there is no devil, then no hell, then no need for salvation, then no need for Christ. Herein lies the fundamental difficulty of the mystic.

    They essentially believe God is energy and man is made like God so he is energy therefore he is god. Therefore, again, no need for salvation.

    I see a trend here of sidestepping the redemptive power of Jesus.

  3. Melissa...I definitey understand. There is so much to it! I think you'll enjoy and appreciate it, even if you might not agree to everything expressed. Looking forward to your thoughts once all seven points are explained. Thanks for stopping by :)

  4. Thank you so much Tparker, for reading and leaving your thoughts. I also see the potential conflict that the mystic view might have in being harmonious with the traditional orthodox Christian view of heaven/hell as it is most commonly perceived.

    But what if...what if salvation is much more than a physical heaven/hell thing? What if Jesus indeed came to save us but in another way entirely than maybe we have perceived. Not from hell, but from ourselves? For when we get past our egos, and our self, and become united with God, transcending the illusions and attachments that the world uses us to snare us within it, we encounter the Divine in the most intimate way possible.

    I believe God sent Jesus down to save us and that Jesus was, indeed, God incarnate. But what Jesus saved us from is something I think that needs to be explored. I believe Jesus provided us a pathway to God, to encountering God and transcending the petty ways of the world to be united and one with our infinite and loving Creator. I'm not saying I am 100% right, these ideas of mine are fairly new, but ones that seem to make sense and that are echoed by many that I have read and respected.

    I'd love for you to return and consider the remaining points to the Perennial Philosophy :) Thanks for stopping by.

  5. "My awareness is not open, relaxed, and God-centered, it is closed, contracted and self-centered. And precisely because I am identified with the self-contraction to the exclusion of everything else, I can't find or discover my prior identity, my true identity, with the All."

    Oh, Jessica, mine was so like this! True identity can only be realized through the Lord. For some, it is as easy as arriving at the altar; for others, it is a life-long search for meaning in a world where most forget where to find the divine. You and I are blessed as we know where and how to find Him.

    Yes, God sent His only Son to save and redeem us. He saves us from the horrible things we can and could become without His guidance and our trust in Him. I shudder to think of this world without Christ's presence. It is not a place I would prefer my children and grandchild to enter.

    If we are called, through writing, our work, our interactions with strangers, to spread the gospel, then that is exactly what we should do, without question.

    Keep praying, keep journeying, keep trusting!

    Love and blessings~

  6. Hi Jessica:
    LOVE LOVE LOVE that you're exploring new paths to God, new ways to find him. I think it's an amazing thing when ANYONE pushes past an existing wall and breaks down a barrier to see a brand new light shining where there was only a blockade before.

    Keep stretching!
    Keep seeking!
    Keep learning!

  7. Hi, Jessica! --

    You are a brave and dedicated seeker -- BRAVO!

    I enjoyed reading your post and I particularly agree with your answer to TParker's comment above.

    Thank you for all you do to spread LOVE & LIGHT in the world!!!

  8. Thanks for stopping by Martha and for your comments and reflections. May we never cease to shine the light and love of Christ to those both near and far. ~blessings :)

  9. Thank you Chris! God is definitely expanding my boundaries, they are nearly transparent ;) But always defined by His love and grace. I believe the journey is the greatest part of the life of the Christian, it has been for me. And I look forward to seeing what God will reveal to me as I pursue the truth with an open heart. May we all do that and share with eachother while we travel on during our spiritual paths towards God.

  10. Thank you Linda! I was a bit nervous about this post, but I really am searching a lot lately and want to be honest with my readers and welcome their thoughts/comments.
    ~blessings :)

  11. I agree with you that "[t]here is no Hell but selfhood, no Paradise but selflessness" and that "nothing burns in Hell but self-will." I don't rule out literal flames, but I think the main point of hellfire in the New Testament is a description of psychological torment and despair that comes from a life of bitter rebellion against God. I think the flames allude to the burn of unfulfilled passions.

    Are you aware the words "ruach" and "pneuma" in the Bible are feminine? I was delighted when I heard one of my priests allude to the Holy Spirit as "She!"