When we think of the great religious traditions of the world, we tend to think in terms of symbols, a history of regional conflicts, of doctrinal distinctives. We think of surface differences.
The common bumper sticker challenging us to “Coexist” spells this out graphically. A crescent moon, a star of David, a cross. To some, common sense, to others, a hopeless compromise.
I was certainly taught both in church, Christian college, and seminary to cling to the distinctives of my faith without diluting them in the postmodern religious marketplace.
As I grew up the line seemed to move from argumentation and conversion to respectful dialogue, but still maintaining the distinctives of Christian doctrine so as to not lose our identity. The tone moved from antagonistic to conversational. For some, even that was capitulating to a culture of relativism.
But the mystical path even goes a step further. A quote attributed to 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart reads: ”Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.”
And in fact as one delves deeper into the mystic teachings, thee are surprising similarities in the experiences and perspectives they describe.
One aspect of this seems to be that, however nuanced our understanding and articulation of doctrine, a genuine experience of God transcends the mind, transcends our categories, transcends any ability to capture it in language.
This is in part why the mystics of every tradition – Zen in Buddhism, Sufis in Islam and the Christian mystics – are often looked on with suspicion within their own religions.
Like ruach – the divine wind – they can’t be pinned down. They can’t be brought in line by giving them a position.
Like the Old Testament prophets, their unmediated connection to God means they’ll speak truth without self-interest. They’re more interested in direct expression of truth than preserving or expanding an institution.
So it’s interesting to read from the writings of so many different traditions refer to the necessity for the spiritual life of cultivating the inner witness.
This is beginning to cast an eye internally, becoming aware of the patterns we live by, how we tend to think, feel, act, and respond internally. Instead of judging or beating ourselves up, we simply observe. We are simply present with our inner state, sitting in simple observation.
In a sense, it’s shifting awareness from the “me” to the “I,” with the happy accident that in English, the word “I” sounds exactly like “eye” – an image of the inner witness.
What we find out is usually surprising. We gain insight into our own unskillful tendencies and patterns. We begin to see our addictions and whatever pain they come from. We begin to feel what emotions we’re trying to smooth over or escape from. And we bring a loving awareness to the whole process.
In the Christian tradition, this is called grace. The more we do this internally, without trying to resist or force a particular outcome, the more we simply grow the capacity for grace-filled awareness, for presence with our addicted self, with our suffering self, with our angry self.
With a little bit of observational distance, we open up a space for choice, for change. A subtle joy enters this little space.
We begin to naturally turn that attention outward and extend that same loving awareness to our perception of others. Attuned to the divine, we gradually learn to listen for the divine will to suggest the right thing to do in every situation, not distorted through our own egoic lens and unconscious desires.
And even when we do this, the patterns are persistent and swing back around. As my first meditation teacher said, “just keep going.” Every time the anger or depression or resentment come back, it’s another opportunity to observe where it comes from, to intentionally bring some illumination into that space.
As we move through this process we recognize the degree to which expressions of faith are the outer husk, and what matters is less a person’s particular conditioning, but the degree to which they’ve opened themselves to this divine awakening, this divine transformation, this divine movement toward wholeness.
In fact, in the Christian tradition, this whole process is symbolized by the cross and the invitation to die to ourselves. The ego wants to politicize it and turn it into a symbol of conquest, of superiority. The process of awakening says look at your brokenness, then see that brokenness in others, regardless of surface appearance. Now let go, and move toward healing.
Sufi Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee on the Witness as Step One
Ram Dass on Cultivating the Witness