The Path Is Not Linear but Circular and Continuous

Systematic depictions of spiritual stages can make it seem as if the path is simple, linear, and progressive, as if spiritual life were a step-by-step development of oneself over time. In one way, the maps are correct, and we do gradually purify, open, release, and stabilize over the years of spiritual practice. But whatever happens does not happen in a straight line. Whether in the monasteries of Burma and Tibet or in the accounts of Christian, Jewish, and Sufi mystics, we almost never see anyone whose path is simply linear.

The unfolding of the human heart is artful and mysterious. We might wish the path to enlightenment were orderly and predictable, but the ways of the heart are a landscape discoverable only in the journey. We cannot capture freedom and place it in time. For the mature spirit, freedom is the journey itself. It is like a labyrinth, a circle, a flower’s petal-by-petal opening, or a deepening spiral, a dance around the still point, the center of all things. There are always changing cycles-ups and downs, openings and closings, awakenings to love and freedom, often followed by new and subtle entanglements. In the course of this great spiral, we return to where we started again and again, but each time with a fuller, more open heart.

Jewish mystics say that the most exalted mystical states circle back to the simplicity of each day’s prayers. In the kabbalah, the most sublime meditations of timeless awareness, called “binah” and “cochma” must be connected back to a life of daily generosity and devotion. The highest states of the Divine inevitably return us to our family and our prayers, to the lighting of the weekly sabbath candles and the holy practices of service and forgiveness. “As above, so below” is the mystic’s formula.

For St. Theresa too there is a cycle. The interior life of ardor and selflessness does not find its end in union with the Divine. She insists that we return from that holy source again and again, to bring its radiance into the world, for “from this we are given a new life.” The demand of “the splendid favors of awakening granted us is that they be embodied,” so that we might live a holy life in this world. The fruit of the inner journey “is in our good works”; the mysteries open “only that we may return and have the strength to serve.” Like the Zen ox herder, we circle back to enter the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands. We return to bring the blessings of an awakened heart to everyone we meet.

This excerpt is taken from the book, “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

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