Savage Initiation: An Interview with Andrew Harvey

Printed in the  Spring 2020  issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Smoley, Richard"Savage Initiation: An Interview with Andrew Harvey " Quest 108:2, pg 14-20

By Richard Smoley

Theosophical Society - Savage Initiation: An Interview with Andrew Harvey. Andrew Harvey has long been a well-known figure in alternate spirituality.Andrew Harvey has long been a well-known figure in alternate spirituality. Born in India in 1952, he was educated at boarding schools and at the University of Oxford, where, at age twenty-one, he was the youngest fellow to be elected to the prestigious All Souls College. He remained at Oxford until 1977, when a spiritual search took him back to India. He encountered Mother Meera (born 1960), a guru whom devotees regard as the embodiment of the Divine Mother. Harvey extolled her in his book Hidden Journey: A Spiritual Awakening but later broke with her, a process he described in another book, The Sun at Midnight: A Memoir of the Dark Night.

            Harvey’s books—which number over thirty—include The Direct Path: Creating a Personal Journey to the Divine through the World’s Traditions; The Divine Mother; Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ; and The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism. His book Turn Me to Gold: 108 Poems of Kabir, illustrated with photographs by Brett Hurd, was published in 2018. He currently lives in Oak Park, Illinois.

            Harvey spoke at the Theosophical Society’s Olcott headquarters in October 2019, and I had the chance to interview him then. I found him to be a powerful and eloquent yet sympathetic figure, and the interview was more inspiring for me than many I have done. Rarely does one meet a man of such intelligence, passion, and depth.   

Richard Smoley: What do you think of spiritual initiation? How do you experience it?

Andrew Harvey: I’d like to start with the place where I’m most concerned: we’re going through a global initiation. We’re going through the ultimate initiation, because we’re going through a crisis which threatens the entirety of human life and the great mass of nature. We’re going through an initiation of such extremity and severity that most of us are unable to see its true meaning.

Initiations are absolutely central to the different stages of the path and to the different levels of evolutionary transformation. We’ve come to a moment in our history when the depths of life are giving us the sign that we need to transform completely in order to survive.

A new kind of humanity is being born out of the chaos of our time. This initiation corresponds exactly and in detail to the frightening but transfiguring initiation that is called the Dark Night in the great Islamic and Christian and Kabbalistic mystical systems. This Dark Night corresponds to the death process in shamanism. It corresponds to the great revelation of the mystical traditions that the ultimate initiation on the path is dying into life, into truth, into love, into enlightened consciousness.

There is always this death process on the inner journey, and now we’re living this death process, this great initiation, on the outer journey. This is potentially scary, because very people as yet understand that this is part of a great evolutionary transformation and follows the great mystical laws of the inner Dark Night.

It’s very important for the survival of the human race to know three lessons. The first is to cultivate radical humility. We’ve created a complete nightmare out of our hubris of the world. We have to confess that we know nothing about the mystery and that we must open our whole being now—heart, mind, soul, and body—to the mystery to be guided forward.

The second great lesson is that we need to die to the full self that we’ve created out of our trauma, out of the karma of our hubris—a full self that is now devastating the planet and creating a complete, horrific, sterile, disgusting, obscene prison of the entire planet, torturing the animals to death, killing the creation, organizing a system that is destructive to the inner and outer lives of billions of people.

Third, we need to turn to the essential nature of the divine, which is recreative, resurrecting joy. We need to experience, not just talk about, this great joy through prayer, practice, meditation, and compassionate service. This is going to be the fuel of our survival through this savage initiation. If you can stay surrendered in joy and to joy throughout whatever happens through the initiation, then the magic of the Dark Night can work upon you and help you embody the divine; it can birth you onto the next level of the evolutionary dance of the divine in the human.

This is how I see the initiatory structure of our time, and I’m devoting my life to helping people understand this, so that they can meet this outer initiation without fear, without paralysis, but rather in deep, concentrated joy and deep, sacred purpose and mission.

Richard: In what time frame do you think this crisis is likely to occur?

Andrew: Very much sooner than we think. I think we’re heading right into the evolutionary eye of the storm. I think it will be here within the next ten to fifteen years. I think the timescale of the United Nation report on the environment is an accurate one. We have, at the most, ten years. The Kogis give us six years.

The great proof of our lunacy is that facing this unspeakable challenge of climate change, we’re doing so pathetically little to counteract it. We’re nearing a moment of complete loss of control. The Amazon is burning. American democracy is burning. The world economic system is fragile. The trade system is fragile. The whole set of systems is collapsing. There are very few countervailing political and economic movements to give any solidity.

For me, a mystic is a supremely realistic person. A mystic has been graced with the clarity of the real, by the real. The mystic knows that he or she is deathless and that divine reality has never been born and will never die. The mystic is in touch with that divine reality and so has the clarity to see exactly what’s happening. The mystic doesn’t need false hope, because the mystic has divine hope. The mystic doesn’t need to mask the reality of what’s going on, because the mystic knows that what’s going on has a mystery of divine meaning behind it.

Being a radical mystic does not mean having fake hope for humanity. It means being able to meet whatever’s happening with joy and with resolution, to give what you can, to serve in whatever way is most useful, and to turn up with a noble bravado of love in whatever situation arises.

For me, being a real mystic means being a real rebel and living your life in a rebellion of joy and compassion and harmony and passion for God, whatever happens—living a noble life in the fullest sense. The ultimately nobility of soul is now possible to us because we’re living in the ultimate crisis.

So instead of allowing this crisis to paralyze one, it is an invitation to those who love God to burn away the false self in the fire of divine love, to come into a wholly new level of evolution, to gamble our lives away for God, and to cause a hell of a lot of mischief. It’s an invitation to turn up with all the passions of the heart blazing and all the passions of the will ordered and all the passions of the vocation of one’s mission lucid and focused. This is not a time for despair. It’s a time for gambling your life nobly away for God, in God, for the future, for the potential birth of a new humanity.

Richard: Even so, a lot of people are understandably at the edge of despair.

Andrew: I think it’s essential to be touched by that despair. You have to allow that despair to do its divine work, which is to purify you of illusion. We need to despair of our false solutions, we need to despair of any political or economic or fake technological solutions to this extreme crisis, because we need to understand that this crisis is, in its heart, a spiritual crisis. It’s a crisis of the soul, and we must address the roots of the crisis.

Despair bitch-slaps you awake to any fake solution and drives you into the arms of the one real solution—awakening: enlightened, embodied, divine consciousness. This is the only place a new world can be created from. This is the only place in which we can sustain this savage storm of annihilation that is coming our way, thrive within it, and keep serving and loving within it.

Despair is an absolutely necessary rite of passage for any serious soul in this situation. Despair purifies you of your illusions, but the last illusion that you have to be purified of is despair itself, because despair is the last illusion. You need to learn how to despair of despair and how to burn your despair in the acid of despair, so you can come to the great clarity of the real that sees and knows that reality is saturated with divine presence, that knows your own deathlessness and lives the deathless, awake, enlightened, loving, humble, ruggedly serving life, come what may.

That’s the great gift of despair: to get you going deep so that you discover what only despair can lead you to: the great hope that lies at the other end of the greatest despair, the hope that rises from your own realization of your essential divine identity.

Richard: I’m sixty-three—four years younger than you—so we’re of the same generation. I sense that our generation is the field of Kurukshetra on which this struggle is taking place, because there appear to be two sides, and many people are ranged on each one. I feel some hope for the millennials or Generation Z. They seem somewhat more awakened to me.

Andrew: I have great hope for the young. I’ve been meeting some astounding young seekers: people who have had it with religious and economic and political conventions, who realize that we’ve created a potentially terminal world for them. They are not buying the Kool-Aid of the New Age; they want serious spiritual practice along with radical political transformation and sexual liberation. They’re pursuing a new humanity with a great deal of courage and passion, and I salute them. I long to be able to reach them more deeply and share with them what I’ve learned on my journey.

Most of my work now is designed to reach the millennials so as to give them what I’ve learned and what the elders have learned, because they’re going to have to face the potential end of the planet. They’re going to have to rise to it, and I believe they will.

The Dalai Lama has just written an astonishing book called A Call for Revolution, and he addresses the millennials directly. He says, “I believe in you. I’ve met you all over the world. I’ve seen your pain. I’ve felt your pain. I’ve felt your outrage. I’ve felt your lacerating understanding of the bankruptcy of the baby boom generation. I’ve felt your lacerating understanding of the failures of people like myself and others who’ve tried as hard we can to break up the world. I know that you know that we’re in a terminal situation. I know that you are motivated to do great things, and I would like to offer you some suggestions.”

That’s what makes the book so extraordinary. His Holiness is really speaking for the first time about the desolation of our situation, but also about the great hope that he finds in the millennials. That corresponds with the great hope that I’m finding in these astonishing young people. They are throwing themselves into transformation in order to turn this terrifying situation around.

Richard: Well, of course, they’ll be left and we’ll be gone, so sooner rather than later they’re going to have to do that. Just according to the actuarial tables, many of the most obnoxious baby boom leaders are going to be gone in ten years.

Andrew: Right. As my great friend Maurice Bowra used to say at Oxford, “While there’s death, there’s hope.” Yes, there is a clearing coming, but it’s very important for me as a sacred elder to share the essence of what I’ve been able to learn. What the millennials are achieving is astonishing, but they may need a certain essential rigor, an essential focus on inner practice, and an understanding the laws of sacred action. We’ve come to a crisis that’s so extreme that it demands a level of divine wisdom, both in inner searching and in outer action.

Without that level being offered and modeled, the young might very well believe that they would be able to turn this situation around just by goodwill and nobility and certain kinds of action. That’s not going to be enough. It has to come from a truly transformed consciousness, and I think they are half aware of that, but they need their elders to tenderly and compassionately, and with great respect, offer them the practices, the vision, and the evolutionary perspective that they’re going to need to weather the decisive storm of human history.

Richard: You wanted to talk a little about Kabir.

Andrew: I didn’t spend five years of my life on Kabir because I thought what a lovely, sweet poet Kabir is. I spent five years of my life with Kabir because I know who Kabir is through the grace of God. I know that Kabir is one of the two great universal mystical poetic voices that humanity has been given, the other one being Rumi. I know from my own innermost experience that Kabir’s vision of a universal mystical oneness in the whole of humanity and the whole of created life, beyond dogma, beyond religion, is one of the most important visions that humanity has ever been given.

Kabir, unique amongst all the great teachers of humanity, did not want to create a new religion, because he believed that all religions failed to lead to the direct connection of the One. Kabir, unique amongst all mystical poets, did not want to be revered as a mystical poet. He wanted to inspire each person to become the poet of their own sacred existence.

When I plunged into Kabir about eight years ago, I realized that I was meeting the most scalding, the most searing, the most passionate, the most lucid, the most fierce, the most naked, the most honest, human, divine voice I could possibly meet. Something else became clear to me: Kabir, in the streets of Banaras in the fifteenth century, lived through the death and rebirth process that we’re now going through on a global scale.

He was born into this next evolutionary truth. He was born into the complete, embodied, divine human. He was turned to gold. He was engoldened. He was transfigured, and his poetry is the extraordinary witness to that transfiguration process, which, I believe, is now happening on a global scale.

Rumi has returned to intoxicate and illuminate the heart mind of the planet. Rumi expands and explodes the heart truth of God, the glorious, tenderness of the life of God.  Kabir brings in the lacerating and noble truth of the divine experience. The two of them together can give us a convincing and empowering vision of how to put divine love into radical, transfiguring action at a time when we need that vision like oxygen.

For me, Kabir is far more than a poet. Kabir is an initiatory field as expansive as Rumi, and as radical and revolutionary as Jesus. To come through grace into the initiatory field of Kabir is to be exploded from within, free of dogma, free of religion, free of constriction, free of trauma, free of karmic shadow, so as to be able to taste the splendor of divine identity and to be invited to live it in the extraordinary depths of ordinary life.

This is Kabir’s great cry of revolution. It’s freedom from all systems, except the system that is taught directly to the soul in adoration of the One. How amazing! Finally—a liberation from all the patriarchal dominations.

Richard: You’re speaking of something very explosive and energetic on the one hand and very disciplined and focused on the other. How have you integrated these two dynamics in your own life?

Andrew: For me, they’re two sides of the same mystery. For me, the divine is both absolute peace and absolute compassion in a marriage of opposites. The absolute peace is what I would call the father aspect of the divine. Shakti is the great passion of the divine.

I’ve discovered that like, I think, all seekers who are trying to both embody and experience the divine, I need two central kinds of practice. I’ve needed cool practices that can give me direct access to the great peace. I’ve also needed what I would call hot practices that enable me to keep the heart in a state of fiery longing and adoration and passion, so that the golden fire of divine passion can circulate throughout the entire being and start transfiguring the being.

So you’re working on keeping yourself steady and stable in divine peace so that you can open up ever more intensely to divine passion and to the energy that that passion gives you to fulfill your soul’s deep mission.

Richard: That’s very powerful. What you say has to do with purpose, and many people are becoming more interested in purpose, even in the business world.

Andrew: Well, they can greenwash anything, can’t they?

Richard: Yes. That’s the whole point. I read articles asking people, what is your purpose in life? What moves you? In the business world, you’re supposed to say it’s fitting into some incredibly trivial job. That’s the answer you’re supposed to give, and that’s all well and good. It’s worse if you actually believe it.

Andrew: You can’t really have a truly transformative purpose within the current business structure. How could you possibly, since they’re all worshiping a fundamentalism of the bottom line?

They’re trying to apply Band-Aids to gaping, ghastly, gushing wounds, which won’t be staunched by these semihypocritical fantasies. We all know this. Let’s stop pretending. There’s no way we can go forward without a radical restructuring of the structures of human society—political, economic, and otherwise.

We’re facing an apocalyptic climate collapse. We’re facing an apocalyptic economic collapse. We’re facing the apocalyptic collapse of all known systems. That’s the dreadful news, and the good news, because only through that collapse can any kind of authentic divine humanity can be created.

It’s by no means certain that it will be created. But we must gamble everything on it being born out of the ashes of this destruction, because the mystics know that is possible. That’s what I’m going for, and that’s what those who are awake to the evolutionary thrust of mystical reality are going for. What else is there to go for at this moment but the potential birth of the new kind of humanity out of this madness?

Richard: The rhetoric of 100 years ago focused on revolution. Today people are much more skittish about revolution, because the revolutions of the twentieth century made things worse.

Andrew: No external revolution is going to work. We’ve exhausted all of those. The socialist revolution was supposed to save us. The capitalist revolution was supposed to save us. None of those external revolutions could ever have been able to save us.

 We’ve come to a threshold when there will have to be revolutionary, evolutionary change leading to a radical restructuring of all institutions on the planet; otherwise we’ll die out. If you look at the history of evolution in the natural world, you see that it always proceeds not in an orderly way, but by apocalyptic crises. We’ve come to one of those absolutely insane, irrationally disastrous crises, which, from an unattached point of view, is also supreme opportunity.

Those who know this have to go deep into their spiritual lives to discover their deathless awareness. They have to start acting with canny compassion in the world and start witnessing the divine human life as far as they can to inspire others to do all they can, inwardly and outwardly, to dance with the great evolutionary dance of death and rebirth that’s potentially reshaping everything.

That’s what the great ones are summoning us to. Why not embrace that? Be grateful you’ve come to a time where all your illusions and fantasies are not going to work, that you’re faced with this scalding and terrifying truth. You can either be miserable about it or rush into its flames, burn away, become one with the One, and live as a divine human being, giving everything in joy for the sheer sake of giving everything.

That’s liberation, that’s freedom, and that’s what a great horrific crisis like ours can give to those who are sincere and authentic.

Richard: Yes. Ram Dass once said that no matter what’s going to happen, I still have to do my inner work.

Andrew: Even more so. The worse it gets, the more the challenge to the lovers is to stay turned to the divine. In an amazing poem, Rumi says, “The whole world could be choked with thorns, but a lover’s heart will stay a rose garden. The wheel of heaven could wind to a halt, but the world of lovers will go on turning. Even if every being grew sad, a lover’s heart will still stay fresh, vibrant, light.”

That’s the real voice of the beloved speaking to us in this crisis. You say you’re interested in mystical transformation. You’ve been born in the most terrifying transformative period of human history. How lucky you are, because you won’t be able to hide in stupidity. You won’t be able to hide in greed. You won’t be able to hide in lust. You won’t be able to hide in paralysis. Wherever you hide, you’ll be beaten out of your hiding place by the storms of annihilation, so get out and dance in the wild rain. Give yourself over to abandoned love. Give your life for love, and gamble your life away with heroic passion and humble adoration and humor for justice and compassion. Let things fall where they may, because that’s the only way in which you’ll ever taste the freedom of enlightenment.

Richard: What would you suggest that someone do in practical terms?

Andrew: Get one simple practice and do it incessantly in the core of their lives. All of the great mystics in all of the traditions have said there’s one practice that truly helps, and that’s saying the name of God as you truly love God. It doesn’t matter what name you use, whether it’s Hindu or Buddhist or Christian.

Use it in the core of your being, turn to it, return to it, and remember it. Say it incessantly in the core of the core of your being, and saturate your mind and your heart and your body with it. It will give you power. It will give you patience. It will give you strength. It will give you energy. It will give you passion. It will give you nobility. It will give you a pillar of fire in the core of you that you can rely on.

This is not poetry. This is what Kabir knows, Rumi knows. I know this. This is how I practice. I don’t practice the fancy practices. I get down to the remembrance of the name of God. I recite the name of God in the core of myself. I return to that; it fills me with everything I need, and puts me in the way of the grace that teaches me what I need to be and do.

That practice is available to the whole of humanity. Ramakrishna, the great Bengali saint of the nineteenth century, was asked what was the appropriate practice for the Kali Yuga, for this terrible period that we’re in. He said it’s japa. It’s saying the name of God. Just say the name of God. The grace is pouring down on this terrible time to give infinite strength and infinite inspiration to sincere seekers saying the name of God. But don’t believe me, and don’t believe Ramakrishna. Try it; you’ll find out.

The very simple practices are the most important ones. Choose one great mystical practice to practice. Remembrance of the name of God would be the best.

Choose one prayer that challenges you at the deepest level. Choose a really dangerous prayer like the Prayer of St. Francis, which asks you to become an instrument of peace. Think deeply about what it means to become an instrument of peace. It means to be dead to yourself, to your full self. It means being utterly powerless in the hand of God, like a pen that God uses to writes whatever God wants.

Choose a really dangerous prayer and pray that. Choose a sacred, physical practice like sacred dance or sacred yoga so your body can be filled with the energy of divine love, and you’re going to be OK. You’re going to be able to connect heart, mind, soul, and body to the One, and that’s what essential. Beyond religion, beyond dogma, beyond the rest of it, that’s what’s essential.

I hope I’m being of some use to you.

Richard: Yes, this is very eloquent.

Andrew: I’m doing the best I can.

Richard: Over thirty years ago, you first became known to the public in relation to Mother Meera. How do you look back on that situation today? What did it teach you?

Andrew: I look back on it as if I’ve lived through both the illusions and the desires of a whole generation, because I think my whole generation began with perhaps an exaggerated enthusiasm for Eastern religion. That was compounded in my own case because I was born in India, so I inherited the great religious freedom of India but also the great religious addiction of India to the guru system. I had to live that out until it exploded in my face and nearly destroyed my life.

Looking back on that whole terrible, amazing period, I’m extremely grateful for three reasons. First, my experience of the collapse of the guru system pushed me into the most savage and painful and lacerating Dark Night, which lasted ten years. It gave me a comprehensive understanding of the Dark Night process, which I can now share with other people, since I’ve come out the other side.

The second thing I’m grateful for is that if you have truly experienced the horror and the shadow of power, you are given a permanent bitch-slap and a permanent teaching in how not to exercise power falsely. As a teacher who can collect many projections, I have made it my absolute purpose to remain a seeker, not to claim enlightenment, not to be a guru, but to be a friend, encouraging others on an evolutionary journey that goes far beyond any of our capacities to understand.

That experience liberated me from a whole false vision of enlightenment. I’m come to understand and experience enlightenment not as a stable omniscience, but as an entry into an ever-expanding field of divine love and divine knowledge. This happens to be far more accurate than the traditional picture. It’s the true vision that the greatest mystics I’ve discovered have come to.

The third reason that I’m extremely grateful is that having suffered both the stupidity of religion and the shadow of the guru system, I find myself where Kabir says we must be—out in the open, naked in direct communion with the real. Being rooted into this naked communion with the real is the most thrilling experience that one can ever have, because it compels you to become authentic about your experience, claim responsibility for your experience, and live each moment with as much divine intensity and truth as you can.

I could never have done that if I’d continued to project my golden shadow onto a fake guru. I had to reclaim that golden shadow, take responsibility for its gold. So that enabled an engoldening process to begin. It enabled me to come into my true divine awareness and to start doing my own authentic, divine work and inspire others to come into their divine awareness, do their authentic divine work, and become part of a new birth, a new religious mysticism, a universal mysticism that is hierarchical in its understanding of the stages but nonhierarchical in its sharing of the wisdom.

Richard: You say you went through this Dark Night of the Soul for ten years. How did you live through it on a day-by-day basis?

Andrew: The Dark Night can drive you mad and can so lacerate your heart that you can hardly breathe for hours. The real Dark Night is an extremely terrifying and extreme process, as we can see in the world around us.

What I discovered through the grace of Rumi and the divine is that the way to survive in the Dark Night is to have a map of what it means. You have to know that what’s happening to you is actually recusing you from you. You have to know that and to cling to that like a life raft.

I discovered that if you could keep up a constant, incessant stream of devotional prayer in the core of your heart, you could just about stay sane. You would be given the guidance, the dreams, the grace that you need if you just plunged into incessant prayer.

I realized that I wouldn’t remain sane if I didn’t pray all the time. That led to a succession of liberating, ecstatic awakenings, because through your desperation, your whole consciousness becomes saturated with divine presence. In the end that rescues you from a false vision of yourself and baptizes you in divine awareness.


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