For some reason, our mental ego takes control by splitting from reality in at least four basic ways. Only through some experience of loss, death, and suffering are these four splits ordinarily overcome. (Deep journeys of prayer can also accomplish the same.) I will take this week to describe these splits, and hopefully you will see how the true mystic overcomes and undoes all four of them.
The first split is between myself and other selves. In the first half of life (and for many in the second half also) we spend most of our time accentuating and accessorizing that separate self. I’m better than you, I’m smarter than you, I’m better looking than you, I’m healthier than you, I’m whatever. It’s all about you after this unfortunate split. We choose to over-identify with our separate self and most of our thoughts and actions are self-referential. The modern word we use for this is ego.
The second split is the separation of life from death. In his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker believes that the denial of death largely creates human culture. We all pretend that we are going to live forever, and that we can avoid all forms of dying. To overcome this illusion, you must come to understand that life and death are not two, but one. They cannot be separated except by blindness and denial—but your mental ego tries to have one without the other. It splits from all necessary dying, losing, and suffering in a thousand ways. This keeps you very superficial.
Once you know that life and death are one, you’re not afraid of death anymore. The only people who are afraid of death are the people who haven’t walked through it ahead of time. St. Francis said “Face the first death and the second death can do you no harm.” So what he called poverty, humility, suffering, diving right into death by identifying with the lepers and the poor, was identification with the first death. Once you walk through it and come out on the other side even more alive, you’re not afraid of death anymore.
In the third split we separate our body from our minds. The mind is given pre-eminence in almost all people. The mind starts steering, judging, analyzing, fixing, controlling, and trying to dominate body and soul. Most people think they are their thinking! That’s what contemplation can help you resolve. It allows you to find the deeper self—prior to thinking about it, prior to the judgments you make and the preferences you have, and your endless mental commentary on everything.
It really doesn’t matter what you think about things, believe it or not. This is a revolutionary and humiliating breakthrough for most people. What matters is WHAT IS.
People with mental illness or Alzheimer’s are clearly people who deserve reverence because they are made in the image of God and yet their mind is gone. That should be telling us that you are not your mind. Your mind doesn’t make you human. You are something bigger than your thinking.
In the third split, where the mind gets preeminence, the body becomes the lower entity. Many of the problems we have with addiction, obesity, anorexia, and sex are all to do with this feeling that the body is not good, worthy, or holy. Sexual addiction is just a body trying to compensate, as are drugs, alcohol, overeating, overbuying, and overdressing.
Jesus, however, has patient sympathy for what we later called the sins of the flesh. He is never harsh or judgmental here. Jesus is only hard on what we call sins of the spirit—arrogance, pride, hypocrisy, ambition, and deceit. These are the sins that really destroy the soul and separate us from God and other people.
The fourth split is the split of the acceptable self from the unacceptable self. We use the terms “persona” for our presented and preferred self-image, and “shadow” is our denied and rejected self-image. What humans usually do is identify with an idealized image of ourselves. “What’s going to work in my group? What’s going to sell in America and in my culture?” We identify with whatever our group says is admirable.
What St. Francis, and all enlightened ones do, is overcome the four splits usually in reverse order. Normally we have to face our shadow self first, then our split into our mind, thirdly our denial of death, and lastly our very autonomy as a separate human being.
Overcoming the split of the mind from the body was probably easier for St. Francis because he wasn’t an intellectual. He was almost anti-intellectual because he saw what it did to so many clergy. They couldn’t touch reality anymore. They confused words with reality. Don’t fall in love with words. To this day, most of our arguments are over “your” words in agreement with “my” words. We have burned people at the stake for not having the right words. So, the alternative orthodoxy that is emerging is orthopraxy instead of verbal orthodoxy—lifestyle instead of just saying the right words.
In Francis, his body, soul, and mind seemed to operate as one, which, I think, is the meaning of his stigmatized body during the last two years of his life. It shows that the split between life and death had been overcome in him, while he was alive.
Once you overcome the first three splits, the fourth spilt—overcoming the separation of self from non-self—becomes much easier, although the autonomous self is usually the last to die. When Jesus commands us to love our enemy and to love our neighbor, he’s training us to overcome this split. What you do to another, you do to yourself, and you do to God, Jesus says. He speaks as if there is a real moral equivalence between the self, the other, and the God-self. Really quite amazing, you must admit.
The point of Christianity is to be able to experience this radical unity with our self, with creation, with neighbor, with the enemy, and always with God. It is done step by step. Little by little you have to overcome each of these splits. And then you are ready to die! The final splitting called death is almost the natural next step.
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From an unpublished talk in Assisi, Italy, May 2012
Prayer: Help me walk the journey close to the bottom.
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