Originally printed in the March - April 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bruteau, Beatrice. "Mysticism, Self-Discovery, and Social Transformation." Quest 91.2 (MARCH - APRIL 2003):56-59, 66.
By Beatrice Bruteau
The Kingdom of God is "within you"? or "among you"? Why not both? Why not necessarily both? We tend to think that the inner life is one thing and worldly, or active, life is something else entirely. But they imply one another. To make meaningful efforts to improve the world, we must first correct ourselves, and if we have succeeded in reaching some degree of spiritual insight, we will see that we must take care of the rest of the world.
So, is mysticism the cure for social ills? If the chain of reasoning I am going to present here iscorrect, that is what it comes down to. We behave the way we do because we value the way we do, and we value the way we do because we take reality for granted the way we do. When we come to realize that we have made a fateful mistake in the way we have taken our reality for granted, then this entire structure has to shift. And indeed it cannot make any notable shift in what even now we consider a desirable direction until this fundamental reorientation has taken place.
We preach "Love your neighbor as yourself," and many of us manage to do that to some degree, and a few people do it to a large degree, but our cultures, our "civilizations," are not characterized by it because our overall perception of one another is not "there is another like myself," let alone "there is 'myself' in another guise." We don't see the neighbor as "self" but as another outsider, stranger, foreigner, potential or actual enemy. This is the origin of social ill.
What social ills do we suffer from? War, tyranny, oppression, deprivation of social, civil, personal, or human rights. Even poverty, disease, and pollution are related to the way our social relations are structured and functioning. The over-all pattern can be generalized as powerful people dominating less powerful or powerless people.
Why do we have this structure? The sociologists tell us that the basic value is social status. Allother values are in service to this one. Strength isn't valuable unless it is admired and obeyed. Beauty is worthless if it doesn't give you preferment. Wealth has limited value in itself; mostly it buys social standing and respect. Some forms of social respect cannot be obtained by any means under our control but depend on the accidents of birth, which determine sex and race. Whole populations suffer from the deprivations, material and emotional, deriving from such categorizations. But even here human beings have made the choice to give advantage to one category or another.
Again we ask why? Why do human beings want high social standing? Why does the value have to lie in the contrast? Why do we have to be "better than" someone else? There are biological, evolutionary, and economic points to be made here; humans aren't the only social animals to organize and value themselves this way. Breeding rights have a lot to do with it, quick response through recognized authority in case of crisis and danger, covering all the needed tasks by established castes, and so on. But the human situation is amenable to human understanding and freedom and so requires discussion in a more extensive context.
Briefly, then, and here we come to the nub, people want social standing because of our sense ofselfhood and self-worth. Those biological, economic, and other social dimensions go a long way toward defining who we think we are and what value we have. In particular, the dominant class and the dominant persons in our society and our personal life determine—or try to determine—this definition and this value for us. If they don't let us hold influential positions in our society, or vote, or take certain kinds of jobs, or obtain education or health care, or own property or travel freely, or be named respectfully—or any number of other instances of injury, deprivation, slights, or contempt you can easily cite from around the world—then the self-image and the self-respect of the despised group is severely diminished. Only by such means can the dominant individuals and classes maintain their positions of advantage and their sense of their own value. You know you're good when you're better than the others. And you know you're worthless when you can't fulfill yourself freely and creatively.
So back this social struggle is the real culprit: the assumption that our selfhood actually is defined by our social standing, the belief that the contrast value of the different ranks of social respectability is the only way to find value. If we were to change the way we deeply experience and thus conceive our selfhood, all this superstructure could — would have to — change.
That's what mysticism does. It liberates us from this way of defining and valuing ourselves. It enables us to experience that we are not merely finite beings with a very insecure hold on Being. It convinces us, and repositions us, with respect to Ultimate Reality. We discover, in a way we cannot doubt, that we are related to Infinite Being. There are various ways of saying this in different theological settings, but the crucial point for our self-discovery and its consequent social transformation power is that we are secure in being. We do not have to grasp at aids to our existence, do not have to make ourselves bigger and better than others, do not have to try to acquire value, because we already possess absolutely secure existence and immeasurable value.
How can we come to such a convincing, liberating, repositioning experience? We can't command it, but we can believe in it, and we can practice to put ourselves well in the way of being open to it. There is a negative way, then a positive way, and again another negative way.
The first negative way, removing false beliefs. Many, if not most, of us were brought up to believethat our worth and any approval we might receive were highly conditional. Our value depended on our natural endowment and our accomplishment. These constitute our "descriptions." The kind of thing you tell (or hide from) people who ask you about yourself. A useful exercise is to make a list of these descriptions and then imagine yourself with alternatives to them, or simply without them. If you try this, you will discover that the "real you" is quite independent of all these descriptions. You are still you whether they are present or not. Along with this, you will become able to release yourself from other people's evaluations of you. Their beliefs about you will no longer "stick to" you.
A popular form of meditation is useful here. You simply relax deeply and gather yourself into your central being, beyond the descriptions, and savor the freedom, peace, security, and sense of reality that you find there. To help you stay focused you use a word or short phrase that brings you back to this peaceful, confident, happy center. Say it as you breathe, or say it only when you need to refocus.
The positive way opens at this point. In your central being, being the real you, free of the descriptions, you notice that you transcend those finite characteristics. There is something about you that is unmodified, ineffable. This is where you are embedded in the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Unconditioned. Consider that the Absolute Being must be Unconditional Love—that is, communication of life to all without stint and without favoritism and without the possibility of withdrawal from this commitment. If this is so, then you yourself must be so loved. Your existence, your consciousness, and your capacity for joy testify to it. So give yourself permission to believe this, and open yourself to the gift of experiencing it. Especially if you think that your soul may have been culturally conditioned to feel insecure, make an intention to let yourself feel secure in the warm embrace of this Unconditional Love.
If you have your own private way of thinking, of imagining, affectively relating to this Ground of Being, whether styled "God" or not, whether personalized or not, enter into this consciousness with full confidence and even fervor. The power of love is your real being, just as it is that of the Ground, so you can express yourself ardently. You can yearn mightily for a full experience of your union with this, your Source and your Meaning. Give yourself the opportunity to develop your meditation practice in this way.
As you do this, you will find that the second negative way is also a positive way into the Heart ofReality. You have no description; the Absolute has no description. As you rest your centered consciousness in the embrace of the Unconditioned, your mind will grow empty of contents and your sense of your reality as personal consciousness will become intense. It is not what we are conscious of that matters but that we are conscious at all. We are conscious of consciousness itself, consciousness that continues to exist even when it is not conscious of anything in particular. This is a revelation of our true personhood and a first intimation of our immortality and incomparable value. This consciousness is the Absolute Consciousness alive in us.
Two important conclusions follow this experience. First, your value is a value in itself, not by being compared with anyone or anything. You are good, not because you are "not-evil" or because you are"better than." You are good because you are you, the expression of the Absolute Good. Nothing can change this or destroy it. Put it this way if you like: God loves you; you don't have to do/be anything to deserve/win it, and there's nothing you can do to lose it — or avoid it! It is the bottom truth about your situation in existence. When you realize this, you have been repositioned. You look out on the world of descriptions from a totally new point of view.
And second, whatever is true of you is true of everyone else without exception. (It may well be true beyond the human race.) This means that you now experience the others as somehow "your self." We don't have a proper language for it. You feel that their "insides" must be even as yours, at the deepest level beyond the descriptions. So you are in a position to practice compassion and forgiveness and to offer unconditional love in your turn as the expression of the Absolute to another expression of the Absolute. You are no longer deceived by appearances, by descriptions. You are no longer tempted to judge. You find making comparisons and taking them seriously laughable. Each one is a person, a being that exists in the heart of the Ultimate Reality and is endowed with immeasurable value in just being that person — just as you are.
And now your social behavior will be accordingly different from what it was when you believed you were your descriptions. You can't hurt anyone, for you value them too much and you can feel their hurts. You can't even neglect anyone. You are eager to share, to be helpful, to enjoy others, to let them be themselves safely with you. You wouldn't dream of trying to dominate them.
Is this the "Kingdom of God"? both "within us" and "among us"? Yes, and just as fast as we relate to one another this way, the Kingdom will be present. It consists of our interrelations so it can't be here until we do this, but when we do it, it is here. It isn't an intervention from outside, it's our own being, our own loving, our own behavior. It's all of us together.
How does it show? The first thing that is clear is that as persons we are all equal, so our social relations will reflect that. Every person will be respected as a most precious and honorable being. Social status is one of the descriptions lost on the way into the Heart of God. People still have various talents, though, and we appreciate all of them and arrange to let people develop them and share them. There is sufficient variety — and intelligence — that we can get all the really necessary tasks done. We won't have to devote energy to deceiving others into doing things to make us rich, so we will all be able to relax and enjoy one another's gifts in peace.
Politically, we won't need wars, hot or cold, military or economic, so we will save a bundle to spend on making life better for a multitude of folks who have been short-changed for ages. Creative skills will be liberated all over, so there will be a great deal of happy activity, invention, discovery, knowledge, art, playfulness. As people realize that they are securely loved, have enormous value in themselves, they can stop putting so much energy into self-protection, compensation, self-augmentation, competition, and release it into creative exploration—doing what we naturally like to do.
Culturally, we will share and appreciate the diversity in goodness. Others don't have to be wrong in order for us to be right. The world is large and wonderful, and God is beyond anybody's set of doctrines. But we can find benefit in learning how one another think and feel.
Economically, we will work together to preserve the planet and distribute the good of life to all. It can be done. We're intelligent. We can find ways to make abundance and share it. As long as some of us don't have to have a whole lot more than the others.
Sounds great. Can we get there from here? What can we say? It's not impossible. Only we can do it. Nobody's going to come down from heaven and force it upon us. We can talk about it, explain how it could work, set up models on small scales, work out scenarios for larger scales. We just have to remember to start at the bottom, with people discovering that they are valuable in themselves right now. Until we are convinced of that we will not be free enough to get very far with such an enticing program. Trying to force programs of sharing a little, by redistributive taxation and voluntary charity and responsible development and so on. But to really turn the system around we will have to do the necessary transformation at the deep level.
To the extent that any of us do go through that transformation of self-discovery we will find that we can't avoid expressing that discovery in our thoughtful behavior. We will work at trying to spread such a repositioned consciousness in a liberating way. Even this can't be done by imposing on others and trying to "convert" them. The way to the change has itself to be consonant with the change. Good example that encourages others to copy it is the best, together with explanations such as I've tried to give here in very condensed form.
There is, in spite of the terrible state the world is in, a lot of effort in this direction, a great deal of wisdom-practice going on and being taught. Anyone can get into it, make such discoveries in their own way, share with their neighbors in their own way. We need to be in touch with each other, not in competition with one another in this effort as we are in other organizational, ideational, economic enterprises. Let's not claim that our insight, our practice, our tradition is the only right one, or even the best or most.
Beatrice Bruteau has degrees in mathematics and philosophy. Among the most recent of her ten books are What We Can Learn from the East, The Easter Mysteries, The Grand Option: Personal Transformation and a New Creation, and Radical Optimism. This article's theme is further developed in "The Holy Thursday Revolution" (in progress).