What is self? A journey with the Christian mystic Bernadette Roberts

With extracts from an article written by Alan Mann

‘Eternity comes clad in the guise of the present moment.’

I was introduced to the work of Bernadette Roberts by Alan Mann, who I met at a Douglas Harding gathering in the UK this summer. Alan’s thoughts on Bernadette Roberts follow a little background information and my own thoughts which are based on reading extracts of her work online. Roberts is a remarkable Christian contemplative, her work has similarities to Thomas Merton although her own personal experience of ‘God’ is perhaps considerably more profound. Some of what she describes also has a personal meaning for me, and although I would not consider myself Christian as such the writings of the Christian mystics have a deep resonance with me at this moment. Bernadette appears to suggest that the final duality is the I-We-ness of being (living?,) where our union with the divine is in synergy with our sense of personal selfhood. This, according to Roberts can be transcended so that both self and God/ the Supreme Being fall away. Union with this Supreme Being or God gives way to something beyond this union. In other words the self’s union with God transcends itself to live entirely in the now, which I believe to be a union with a self-sustaining state, one which is illuminated only by divinity, the illuminator of pure consciousness. This simultaneous ‘being’ and ‘not being’ is one where the ‘match’ or eternal flame gives life to all our seen and unseen illusions in this life. It is divine consciousness. This to me is pure white light although I am not sure how such a state can be sustained outside of some kind of super form of the single point consciousness state, which some can achieve through deep meditation, not that I have experienced anything so profound personally. In an up and coming post I will attempt to explain 6th dimensional consciousness, a modern way of expressing a stage before this. Ken Wilber is also understanding this thinking in his Divine Pride Ideoligy. Below Alan questions if what Bernadette describes, is not in fact death…although I believe the book of Genesis has something to say on this. More thoughts although not so profound can be found here in Let there be light

As a young child Bernadette had personal experiences which she believed to be revelations of God. Roberts felt the divine present within her, and as entirely transcendent. After entering the Carmelite order as a young teenager she experienced the spiritual deepening of the “dark nights” described by Saint John of the Cross. She recounts that when she was 18, a new novice mistress asked her about her prayer life, “so I told her: I do nothing; there is just silence.” Her superior believed Bernadette to be deceived, and falling into the heresy of Quietism. Roberts believed she should trust in the journey so carefully described by the Saint John of the Cross. In her work Roberts considers herself a common contemplative although she is most often described as a Christian mystic.

After spending 10 years as a cloistered nun, Bernadette left the order, married, raised four children, and walked an ordinary life with God

Her first book The Experience of No-Self was the most popular, she subsequently wrote The Path to No-Self and What is Self? Her latest book which is the book discussed here. Unlike Thomas Merton Bernadette does not seem to relate to other spiritual traditions. Like many mystics Roberts finds that language alone is insufficient for describing the profound feeling of enlightenment that arises from the silence of the no self, she is unable to describe the indescribable feeling that arises within the heart as it finds or glimpses true nature.  What is most profound is that Bernadette is able to describe from personal experience, a stage beyond what she calls the unitive stage, that is ‘being at one with God.’ As the unitive stage is transcended the experience of being at one with God dissolves into a new way of knowing. As the author writes “We think of ourselves as originally emerging from the unknown, from darkness, nothingness or non-existence into the light of consciousness. But as consciousness develops we discover the increasing ability to see in the dark, see into the nothingness or mystery within ourselves and eventually realize that this darkness and nothingness is the divine from which we emerged and with which we are one. Thus we discover that our original darkness IS true light. Midway in this passage, divine light (darkness or unknowing) and the light of consciousness are in balance, with neither outshining the other. But as we move beyond this mid-point, divine light begins to outshine the light of consciousness until, in the end, the light of consciousness goes out and only divine light remains. From this vantage point we look back on the passage and see that although consciousness was the veil that dimmed the light, this dimming was necessary in order to make the human dimension possible. But if consciousness makes human existence possible, it is also not separate from the divine, nor does it completely hide it; on the contrary, consciousness or self is man’s faculty or medium for experiencing the divine”

Here are some thoughts from Alan Mann who has studied Roberts work and discussed these at the spiritual meetings he attends. More on Alan’s writings can be found here: traherne.org

Alan Man: I was introduced to Bernadette’s latest book What Is Self , in which the author  continues her exploration into the nature of self and what lies beyond it. She says that there is a level beyond the unitive self—beyond consciousness, human awareness and experience—and which we miss because we tend to take unitive consciousness to be the ultimate goal.  My immediate response was that this seemed like a definition of death and, if beyond experience, how could one possibly have any idea that such a condition existed? I was also intrigued by the apparent contradiction between this claim and the title of her earlier book which carried the title The Experience of No-self.  I pulled these extracts from What Is Self to summarise her view:

P.16.  We cannot come upon mature existence or right living until we first come to the egoless unitive condition. Only the true unitive Self is able to live fully and fearlessly in the world—or in the ordinary marketplace. It is only after the true Self has been lived to the fullest extent of its potential that it ultimately falls away. Self or consciousness falls away because its purpose and potential for full human existence has been completed—finished. With its completion man moves to his final divine destiny.

 …Once again, the prevalent mistaken notion to dispel is that the egoless state is the end of the journey or the ultimate goal to be attained. There is far more to self or consciousness than the ego-self. What is urgently needed in order to understand the completed journey is a clear distinction between ego and self, and a clear distinction between the falling away of the ego and the much later falling away of self in its egoless unitive condition.

Alan Mann: The aspect which I found most interesting was Bernadette’s claim that whatever she was pointing to as the ultimate level was inaccessible. Combining the inaccessibility with the necessity for whatever it might be seemed to be an unsupportable contradiction.  My first reaction, that she was pointing to death, reminded me of a Robert Powell quote I’ve been carrying around for a many years, … Continuity can never be broken on its own level: it can only cease when submerged in another dimension—and that dimension is the timeless, manifesting itself on the level of continuity as death. But what sort of death?

Over the days following I finished reading Bernadette’s book. I found a great deal to agree with, and her presentation of the Christian story is far more meaningful in my opinion than the way it is usually offered.  At the same time I am not comfortable with her determination to fit her undoubted revelations into a strictly Christian context she doesn’t allow equivalent value to other traditions.

The British Philosopher Douglas Harding has some interesting things to say, he quotes D.T. Suzuki in his book Head off stress which I found it helpful in resolving the apparent paradox of accessing the inaccessible.

Extract from the chapter entitled The Beyond as the Great Unconscious

D. T. Suzuki, the scholar and master who brought Zen to the West in the earlier part of this century, called this Beyond – which is the medicine for all our stress – the Great Unconscious or the Cosmic Unconscious. In this he followed the lead of the founding fathers of Zen in China more than a millennium ago. He writes:

The relative field of consciousness vanishes away somewhere into the unknown, and this unknown, once recognized, enters into ordinary consciousness, and puts in good order all the complexities there which have been tormenting us to greater or lesser degrees … Our limited consciousness, inasmuch as we know its limitation, leads us to all sorts of worry, fear, unsteadi­ness. But as soon as it is realized that our consciousness comes out of something which, though not known in the way relative things, are known, is intimately related to us, we are relieved of every form of tension and are thoroughly at rest and at peace with ourselves and with the world generally.

Alan Mann: Douglas continues: Later on Suzuki warns that, when this Great Unknown cannot assert itself naturally, it will break out violently or pathologically, and we shall then be ‘hopelessly ruined’. I would add that the way to avoid sickness and ruin is to cease overlooking the Boundary where the known and the Unknown meet, where the patient is in direct contact with the real Healer, and where the beyondness of the Beyond is absolute. When taken seriously and not just read about, this prescription is no mere form of words or bloodless abstraction, no lofty senti­ment incapable of testing and putting into daily practice. Quite the contrary, it springs to life directly it is anchored to this body and its needs. Nothing could be more homely.

So, where does that leave me as far as my difficulty with Bernadette’s opinion that unitive consciousness is not the end of the journey. That it’s a stage which must be transcended, as the ego-centred consciousness has been transcended, to arrive at the unitive state. For her, self and consciousness are synonymous.  This further stage cannot be the subject of consciousness as it is arrived at only when the self and consciousness comes to an end.

To read Alans thoughts on Bernadette Roberts, Douglas Harding and other spiritual teachings: http://www.traherne.org/NOWletter164.htm#_Bernadette_Roberts_and