What do we fear the most? Losing our identity, a firm sense of who we are. And how does every deep mystic tradition describe the highest reality? As an entity with no characteristics that can be described, existing as it does outside of all limitations and boundaries.
This is one of the many enlightening observations that I’ve come across in Luther Askeland’s essay, “When the Word-Animal Discovers Signlessness: A Reflection on the Possibility of the Mystical,” which is available on Luther’s website.
I’ve been reading a few pages of this lengthy essay every morning before I meditate. The first two chapters hooked me, for it was here that Luther introduced the idea that the common feeling (for me at least) of “I’m clueless!” is a state of consciousness to be embraced, not feared. It’s called the Other Paradox.
The Other Paradox is the fact that the image we have of the best possible condition and the image we have of the worst possible condition are the same image. It is the fact that our perceptions of destiny’s contrary extremes—the most exalted perfection even a god might achieve, and the most wretched fate which might befall any being—are the same perception.
…It is the fact that we picture absolute perfection in the same way as we picture ruination and utter shipwreck. It is the fact—ironic in the “rational animal”—that we reverently, adoringly, longingly, contemplate in God or Brahman a condition which, regarded as a possibility for us, is the most dismal fate we can imagine, an appalling nothingness and oblivion from whose very prospect we spontaneously flee.
Great stuff. As I’ve observed before in other posts about Luther Askeland’s writings, he has a wonderful ability to delve another layer deeper in the world’s spiritual/mystical literature than I’m able to dig myself. I’ve read most of the material Luther references in this essay but haven’t been able to tie my insights together in such a fresh, creative fashion.
He’s absolutely right. God, or ultimate reality, never is considered to be something you can set on a pedestal, look at from every angle, lay bare all of its secrets, and describe down to a “T”.
It’s mystery. Unlimited. Unfathomable. Immeasurable. Inconceivable. It’s the endless spiritual ocean that stretches infinitely beyond the shores of the physical universe. It’s the impossibly vast sky that rises above the small hills and valleys of Earth.
And, says Askeland, as manifested within us it’s the fringes of our awareness—the barely sensed intuition of something more that hovers in the shadows just outside the clear light of the shared common reality where we live our everyday worldly existence. The paradox, then, is that what we’re trying to push away—doubt, mystery, uncertainty, wordlessness, incomprehension—is what leads us closer to the ultimate truth of the cosmos.
We long to be able to say who we are, but his very inability to say who he is is God’s omniscience…Each day we long for something new…but a god’s first response, each morning upon awakening, is infinite and joyful relief that nothing has changed, that it still is and knows “nothing.”
We struggle to escape the dark waters and formless mysteries of our origins; the infinite Brahman rests, marveling and content, in the dark waters and formless mysteries of its origins. We dress ourselves up in words so as to conceal from others and from ourselves the shame of our nothingness, but Shiva exults in his nudity, his non-containment by any name, his breakout from all limiting awareness of being “Shiva” or “God."
…The nothingness which devours us is, for God, the felicitous absence of anything which might retard or attenuate joy’s flow. The appalling abyss into which we fall is the unfathomable source and springhead of that delight’s eternal upwelling. The fringes, those wastes formed of desolation, despair, and madness, lie spread out before the Perfection of Wisdom as a holy and edgeless desert.
There she roams, free of all division and limit, and has happily lost track of all things, even herself.
I like Luther’s message: don’t worry if you feel like you’re the only one who doesn’t have it all figured out. Be assured that “it” isn’t so amenable to figuring. “It” can’t be contained in thoughts, images, theologies, or philosophies. Nor can “It” be encompassed in a holy book or person.
What Luther likes to call This is much more akin to unknowing, doubt, and chaos than to knowledge, faith, and order. When you have no idea about what it is, where it is, why it is, or how it is, this state of emptiness brings you face to face with it.
Don’t fear being a heretical, faithless, unchurched, confused blob of nothing. The mystics of every tradition say with one reassuring voice: “Now you’re getting somewhere! Nothingness is the straight road to everything.”