Some weeks back a number of the Beams & Struts crew was at a party at Br. Juma's house. As the night grew cooler we started a fire in the backyard inside Juma's barbeque grill. Br. TJ talked about the capacity of a fire to hold a person (like himself) completely entranced, to the point where he would lose track of time and space, forgetting himself in ecstasy.
This conversation reminded me of some of these powerful fire metaphors for the spiritual life. That conversation was the genesis of this article. The fire photos that follow are all from that evening. A big shout out goes to Heather Olson and Jill Cherewyk for capturing these amazing photos and allowing me to use them for this piece.
The Relative and Absolute Paths
Before I jump into the fiery metaphors of the spiritual life and what we can learn from them, allow me to introduce two Ken Wilber quotations that will help set the metaphors in the context of the entire spiritual journey. The source for both quotations is this article by Ken published in EnlightenNext magainze.
"The great wisdom traditions generally maintain that reality consists of at least three major realms: the gross, the subtle, and the causal. The gross realm is the realm of the material body and the sensory motor world—the world you can see with your physical senses in the waking state. The subtle realm is the realm of the mind and its displays, which you can see in a vivid form in the dream state, in certain states of meditation, and in (it is said) in the afterlife realms. All of these are subtle states of consciousness. The causal realm is the realm of pure formless consciousness, unlimited and unbounded, radically free and radically full. The causal realm is experienced by everybody in deep dreamless sleep (which is pure formlessness without an object), but it yields its final secrets only when it is entered with full consciousness, which happens with certain profound meditative states, various types of initial awakening and vastly expanded states of boundless consciousness.
But the traditions also maintain that, beyond those three great realms and states, there is a fourth state (turiya), the state of the ever-present Witness or pure Self, the great mirror-mind that impartially witnesses the waking, dreaming, and deep sleep states but is not itself a separate state: it is the Witness of all those states, and itself neither comes nor goes. (Technically, there is a fifth state, turiyatita, which occurs when the Witness itself dissolves into everything that is witnessed, and there is the pure nondual realization of One Taste."
The states break up into basic camps: relative (gross, subtle, causal) and Absolute (Witness/One Taste). Since The Witness is always present it is called Absolute. The other states—gross, subtle, and casual—are called relative because they are related to one another. The gross, subtle, and causal states come and go, they are constantly changing, whereas The Witness is unchanging.
With the changing and the unchanging, we see there are two orders of reality in the spiritual world—the relative and the Absolute dimensions of existence. Therefore there are two truths (one relative, one Absolute). Though they are not ultimately two different things (i.e. a duality), it is nevertheless helpful to distinguish the two.
And as Wilber points out here, there are therefore two fundamental spiritual ways or forms of realization (one for the relative and one for the Absolute):
"The relative world includes the gross, subtle, and causal realms. All of those are dualistic, for they embody some form of the subject-object dualism. Even the causal or formless realm is dualistic because it is set apart from the world of form. So all of the extraordinary states of consciousness that can be achieved or attained or practiced—all of them really only deal with the relative, dualistic world, however otherwise wonderful they might be.
But the absolute truth is the truth of the ever-present Self, the nondual, unqualifiable, omnipresent Spirit, where my Master is my Self, and that Self is timelessly and eternally present in all that arises in this and any world. And while you can reach and attain relative states, you cannot reach the absolute, for it is ever-present."
To reiterate: There are two spiritual paths, the relative and the Absolute. The relative path consists of the three-fold journey of gross, subtle, and causal. For example, in Buddhist terms this is sila (discipline), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (union). In Christian the terms are: purification, illumination, and union. We see that both are covering roughly the same territory.
The Absolute, on the other hand, is the Nondual.
Why this distinction is important is because it is helpful to know which dimension a various spiritual practice tends to connect to. Each domain has certain strengths and weaknesses and it's helpful to have a more integrated practice that seeks to include all of them.
So circling back to the beginning: how does any of the relative and Absolute discussion relate to a fire at Juma's house? Well, interestingly in various traditions the symbol of a fire has been used to cover both the relative and the Absolute forms of spiritual awakening. By studying these metaphors I think we will gain a more emotional sense of the distinction between relative and Absolute, which so far we have simply looked at in a cognitive sense.
I will begin with the relative path and its classic fire metaphor and then I will turn to the Absolute.
The first highly developed metaphor comes from the Christian mystical tradition and covers the relative path of spiritual growth from purification (gross) through illumination (subtle), to union (causal). This metaphor of fire and wood (or fire and iron) is quite an ancient one, going back at least to the great Christian theologian Origen from the 3rd century, but it finds its most sophisticated version in the writings of the great Spanish mystic John of the Cross in the 16th century.
Imagine a damp piece of wood. The damp wood represents the deluded (pre-spiritual) human being. A person wishes to the light a fire that will kindle the wood. As the wood is very damp, it is quite difficult at first to get the wood to light. The fire of spiritual desire may light but then be snuffed out. This process of false starts may occur a few times. The flame is at first quite fragile and requires great care and constant attention.
This initial state of the wood speaks to the truth that when a person attempts to enter the spiritual life (in a radically transformative sense), they bring with them the accumulations and habits of their life. It's at first very hard to gain traction for the spiritual quest (represented by the lit fire) as the momentum of one's previous life (the dampness) is preventing the fire from lighting.
A person has to establish a new set of virtues and discipline (e.g. a daily meditation practice), will have to asses his/her relationships, career, psychological processes, emotional life, physical health and work to heal/integrate anything that is broken or disconnected. This is the path of purification (the discipline side).
At some point however the fire will get a base level established--i.e. the person will get some basic level of discipline required. As the established fire seeks to expand it will first have to burn off the layer of moisture before the wood will really start to crackle. The damp layer of moisture burns in a smoky fashion.
John of the Cross calls this initial smoky and rather unpleasant form of the fire The Dark Night of the Sense. The Dark Night of the Sense represents the transition from the gross to the subtle realms of experience or from purification to illumination. A person in the Dark Night of Sense is having their attachment to their gross physical reality waking-identity (i.e. personality) being burned away so that they can move into the deeper, subtler aspects of oneself, God, and the cosmos.
Once however the moisture evaporates completely, the wood will burn much hotter and cleaner. For John of the Cross this is the phase of illumination. Illumination is the subtle phase of human spiritual development, wherein one becomes sensitive to much subtler movements: e.g. the quiet inner voice, mystical visions, stunning dreams, inner heat or fire, etc. One is illuminated by this new kind of experiencing--represented by the increase blaze and incandescence of the fire.
The wood is now burning much closer to its core--i.e. the spiritual life is really driving deep towards the central reality of the individual soul.
Imagine however that deep within the recesses of this wood there lie putrid elements. As the fire burns down towards the core it will strike these diseased elements and it will burn them. As this burning occurs dark, ugly, foul-smelling billows of black smoke emerge from the fire. This for John of the Cross is The Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night of the Soul refers to the painful transition between the subtle illuminative phase and the causal-unitive phase.
The transition is so painful because one has to trust that this new phase of purgation, the dark billowing smoke, is actually the right course, rather than a wrong turn. Also ther may be a strong pull within the soul to hold onto to its pleasant spiritual experiences. Here the soul must face the penetrating question of whether it truly desires God alone and will therefore go through the smoke or wants the spiritual highs, i.e. the burning fire of the illuminative phase.
If the soul does however leap into the Dark Night (or is pulled inexorably into it), God becomes so close to the soul, it's as if God is behind the soul, coming into the soul's eyes so the soul may look out at the world from God's vantage point (with God's eyes as it were). God is no longer however out "in front of" the soul. The soul no longer "sees" God anywhere and this precipitates The Soul's Dark Night.*
If however the final putrid elements are burned away, then the fire once again burns most brightly--there are now coals, deep burning mature embers that alight whenever touched. This is the phase of causal-union. It is a transition into a permanent state of union with the Divine.
As John of the Cross says at this point the fire and the wood are indistinguishable to the touch. What he means by that is that the fire has so penetrated the wood that one cannot touch the wood without feeling the fire. In this view the wood and the fire do not merge in essentials but rather in expression. The wood is still wood as a substance and the fire is still fire--they are two different things. But they are now one in their common heat. By which John means the soul forever remains the soul while God is God (and the two are as different as wood and flame), yet when one encounters such a mystic saint in real life (e.g. Mother Theresa), one only "feels" the love of God (the fire). And while the wood may be wood and the fire fire, the wood only "feels" the fire. That is to say, the mystic in such a state only feels God as John of the Cross says—though he is careful to say that the soul and God are substantively two different things (though he admits from personal experience that distinction is not felt).
Since (according to this view) the soul remains the soul and God God, John's metaphor covers the relative path--wherein a self develops from a position of disconnection and alienation from God through purification and illumination to union with God (as a distinct entity). For the relative path it is important to never confuse the two realities, claiming that the wood somehow becomes the fire.
The wood may not ever become the fire, but it may be that the wood can become totally immolated in the fire.
And that leads us towards the Absolute spiritual reality. The Absolute spiritual truth (interestingly) has its own fire metaphor. The source of this next metaphor comes from (extremely controversial) spiritual teacher Adi Da.**
Da's fiery spiritual metaphor is the following.
Picture a bright-burning fire. A sacred fire. A person stands on the outside of the fire. All day long this person is throwing the elements of daily existence into the sacred fire.
For Da this is the essence, in fact the entire practice of the spiritual life--to constantly put the elements of life into the fire. To contemplate the fire and to place everything that arises into the fire.
To understand exactly what he means, a little background in Da's teaching is necessary. In Da's teaching attention represents the movement of a human being's mind, emotions, and will out into the world (or within to some inner experience). Once attention "goes out" for Da, it has left the space of Awareness, Consciousness, God, or whatever name we prefer. Once attention wanders then we fall into all sorts of patterns, contracting away in the Face of the Infinite Mystery within which we arise. In this movement of attention outward from its Source life arises (in part) as a reflection of where exactly we have contracted.
When attention is returned to the Source (The Fire) by placing it in the fire, there is a relaxation of our knotted inner self and we become entranced in contemplation of the fire. The elements of life are whatever arises in our experience. For Da, Absolute Realization is to stay fixed upon the contemplation of the fire and to sacrifice whatever arises into the fire—this is what throwing the elements of life into the fire means. By throwing the elements of life into the sacred fire, they become a sacrificial offering. They key for Da is that the fire is so beautiful and blissful, there is no great heroic effort on the part of the one throwing the elements of life into the fire. There's a desire to give them away, a desire to participate in a kind of magic, by throwing life into the fire—imagine black powder being thrown into the fire.
So while certain elements of life may make the fire spark up at various points, the fire clearly precedes the elements. The fire alone IS.
The fire is a sacrificial fire, a sacramental fire. Da admonished his students to "Keep Attention in the Sacrifice."
The sacrifice is a sacrifice by and of God. God is the Sacrifice and the Sacrificer. Creation, for Da, arises as this sacrificial act of God. Creation is a fire. Intriguingly this idea of the Universe as a fire is an image in the ancient Vedic religion of India and in the Christian religion, where Jesus in the New Testament describes how he came to set the world on fire.
There's a deep liberation in this way of sensing the spiritual life. There is no longer any momentum to "gain" something by meditation or spiritual practice. It undercuts the tendency towards "spiritual materialism" (in Trungpa Rinpoche's terms). There is no longer any need to accumulate so-called spiritual experiences. There is no fundamental lack or inadequacy when it comes to this domain on the part of anyone. The Absolute way is to be undone in God, to become a sacrifice. All the elements of life are going into the fire—even the so-called spiritual ones.
What this metaphor reveals is that God does the meditation (the fire is already going). Our job is not to learn individually how to become meditators so much as to simply be in God's meditation (i.e. keep putting our attention on the fire and throwing everything that arises into the fire).
The inquiry is very simple: "Where is my attention?" "Where do I feel the fire?"
When attention wanders (as it inevitably does), simply bring it back to the sacrificial fire that burns in one's heart. And then rest transfixed in contemplation of that glowing flame. When something arises, feel it sacrificed in the heat of the fire.
The Fire beautifully represents the nondual union of Form and Formlessness. The Fire is one fire, arising as if out of nowhere (with no stable foundation, as if "out of thin air"). But yet every moment the fire is a different fire--it takes different shapes and form moment to moment. The Fire in one way can be said to exist separate from the ever-changing forms and yet there is still One Fire in and through the moment to moment changing forms of the flame.
By continuing to place the elements of life into this Fire, the wood of our being burns faster and faster, until all that is left is the Fire itself. There is only Consciousness (God). From the nondual perspective, there is only The Fire. There is only the Sacrifice of the Heart.
A sacrifice is that which makes holy. In the Absolute state there is a realization we might term All Holiness. Everything that arises in the Absolute, including but not limited to us as individuals, arises as The Absolute.
And then one falls into the Ecstasy, the silence of contemplating The Fire, for there are no words.
The Mystery alone IS.
Postlude: A Third Truth? A Third Spiritual Way?
By putting the relative and the absolute paths into one framework we get a fuller, more inclusive (or integral) way of understanding the spiritual life. In other words, we can combine the metaphors. The relative path tends to primarily come from the point of view of the wood while the Absolute metaphor puts more focus on the Fire—though we see in the end these are simply different perspectives on the one communion.
What's most helpful about this framework is to figure out which types of spiritual practices tend to work more in the relative realm and which work more in the Absolute realm. Both have their strengths and their limitations.
The Absolute tradition helps us awaken to that which brings final and complete freedom. On the other hand, The Absolute does not make any real distinctions. It may not help us navigate the in the world of our choices. For in the Absolute, everything is already perfectly well.
The relative on the other hand has clear better and worse—more and less developed. But it never ultimately satisfies us, it never ultimately frees us.
By knowing this basic layout, we can find ways to incorporate both relative and Absolute modes in our spiritual practice. Relative practices do not need to be burdened with the need to Save or Free us ultimately (which they cannot). And the Absolute realm is not burdened with the task of making our lives better (it doesn't). Trust me, knowing that basic difference will save a person much heartache on the spiritual journey.
*The other analogy John of the Cross uses to distinguish the Dark Nights of Sense and Soul is of weeds in a garden. The Dark Night of Sense is pulling out the weeds from ground level. The Dark Night of the Soul is pulling/burning them out at the roots.
** This is not the place to get into an Adi Da fight/debate. All I'll say here is I think the metaphor he deploys is quite profound and has deeply shaped by my own spiritual practice and understanding. For that I'm deeply grateful. This doesn't mean I support everything he did (I don't). All I'm talking about here is the metaphor (as a brilliant guide to understanding the way). I truly believe all of us can gain powerful insights from flawed people. Their flawed realities (and I think Da was very flawed in some key respects) does not change such a beautiful expression of truth.