The Three-Legged Stool
The Virtues of Engagement, Truthfulness, and Courage In Mystical Experience
From Radical Grace Vol. 22, No. 4, October-December 2009, the quarterly publication of The Center for Action and Contemplation.
Just about all of us have probably had at least one moment which we could call a “mystical experience.” It may have happened long ago and had an influence on the whole of our life, or it could have happened more recently and showed us that what we normally take to be “reality” is not all there is. Moreover, perhaps mystical experiences have happened to us throughout our life, reminding us of the Big Secret that all mysticism ultimately points to: God is everywhere, and God is all that is.
On the other hand, there are probably many people who have never had a mystical experience, and for them, this talk about the ultimate spiritual nature of reality is fairly meaningless. Their lack of experience of mysticism may not be their fault since mystical experience and the perspective on reality that it brings is a free, unearned, and unpredictable gift. Further, although the gift is free, not everyone’s consciousness is sensitive enough to have mystical experiences. Moreover, many people, for psychological, emotional, philosophical, or religious reasons, are closed to the possibility of experiencing the mystical substrate of life. They have few of the essential prerequisites for mystical awareness—openness, patience, inner silence, humility, reverence for mystery, the ability to “not know”—as well as a deep hunger in the heart that can only be filled by the divine.
Further, there are probably many people who have actually had mystical experiences but have not recognized them as such. Many ordinary events in life can touch us so deeply in a moment of spontaneous awakeness that they are, in effect, mystical experiences. Walking on a beach with awareness may bring a feeling of oceanic oneness with reality; contemplating the stars at night may give us a sense of our own individual smallness as well as of our intrinsic connection with the cosmos and the paradoxical vastness of consciousness. The birth of a child or the death of someone we may not even know not only may awaken a sense of the transience of life, but may also bring us to a mystical awareness of the life-force that is in and behind everything.
Indeed, many people may have had many more mystical experiences than they realize because they do not recognize them when they are actually happening. Mystical experience is not simply one thing, but a whole range of shifts of awareness as we open to the larger—really, the largest—perspective on reality. Mysticism has a very broad spectrum: from a deeply felt awareness of the beauty that surrounds us and is part of every moment, to intimations of a not-quite-so- hidden universal unity beneath the surface of manifestations, to an awareness of the infinite consciousness that is at the heart of everything, to a paradoxical perception of personal and non-personal oneness with the universe, to contact with a palpable sense of divinity that benignly supports everything in the world and lovingly encourages its unfolding, to the most brilliant and overwhelming lightning bolts of radiance breaking through all barriers and obscurations to stun us with beauty and truth and to show us where our home really is.
When all is said and done, the mystical perception of reality is nothing other than a perception of “the Really Real”—a glimpse, or perhaps a sustained vision, of God in the world as both immanent and transcendent, as both other and not- other than ourselves. Experiencing the truth of mystical reality is a blessed reminder of what we are ultimately made for: to see God everywhere and to live a life that constantly brings us back to a remembrance of this truth.
With the mystic’s vision comes an unshakable knowing of the objective reality of what he or she has experienced. (When you are in a mystical experience, you know it is real and is, in fact, much more real and objective than what we usually take to be reality.) As a result, the mystic’s heart and mind are clarified and made joyous—and, paradoxically, her commitment to benefit this world becomes deeper. Mystics do, of course, turn their hearts and minds away from the world in order to turn the whole of their souls toward God so that they can taste their secret pleasure: to be the eyes and ears and tongue of the divine in this world. But no real mystic turns his back on the world forever.
So what does mystical experience have to do with the three Virtues of Engagement, Truthfulness, and Courage? As those who know the Enneagram will have already recognized, these three Virtues are associated with points Nine (Engagement, or originally “Action”), Three (Truthfulness), and Six (Courage). These are the three Virtues of the types on the equilateral triangle at the center of the Enneagram. This triangle symbolizes the personal stability we must have if we are to be on a spiritual path, especially if we are to experience mystical moments which will shake our consciousness and ego to their very core.
The circle of the Enneagram symbolizes wholeness. There is only one reality: everything is one and is deeply connected. The hexad (One, Four, Two, Eight, Five, Seven and back to One) symbolizes the dynamic multiplicity which is also an aspect of the One. What keeps these two aspects of reality together (Oneness and multiplicity) is the equilateral triangle of the three primary types (Nine, Three, and Six) which grounds everything in a dynamic stability. These three types form a “three-legged-stool,” an unshakable support as we encounter the mysteries we are considering.
The three primary Virtues enable us not so much to have mystical experiences as to allow them into our inmost self where they can transform us. A normal human tendency when confronted (or surprised!) by a mystical experience is to deny it really happened, or to fall into confusion or fear and terror, or to claim it as a proof of personal virtue or of special ranking with the Higher Forces—as well as a dozen other distortions the ego will cook up. Without these three Virtues, having mystical experiences will do us little or no good. In fact, they may even spoil us and make us spiritual snobs, fake and pompous “saints.”
Engagement (Nine) helps us to not blink when we see God or to explain away the experience in some (possibly “spiritual”) rationalization. Engagement is more than the traditional Virtue of Action (given for Nine by Ichazo) because it impels us to throw ourselves into the fire of grace, seize the experience, and definitively take it into our hearts. Engagement allows me to not blink, and to make the mystical experience “my own”—without the ego claiming it for itself. This Virtue enables me to fully embrace the experience, to be permanently changed by it, and to put it into action in the world.
Truthfulness (Three) enables us to be honest with ourselves in at least two ways. First, the mystical experience was real and actually did happen! (So often, we have an overwhelming moment of grace and convince ourselves that it was just a figment of our imagination, or the result of staying up too late the night before.) Second, Truthfulness entails being humble about our experience. The truth is that we did absolutely nothing to “earn” what we just experienced, and we may not even understand what has just happened to us. Truthfulness affirms that “the finger of God has touched me”—and I don’t understand it or know what to do about it. Truthfulness admits that we are speechless and clueless in the face of mystery.
Finally, Courage (Six) is related to the other two Virtues. We need courage to admit that we have had a mystical experience, and also that we are called to live in a different way. After a mystical experience, it is so tempting to sneak out the back door, as it were, as if no one would notice, and to pretend that what we know in our bones did not happen. Courage emboldens us to realize that mystical awareness involves responsibility—the responsibility to bring my experience of the divine reality into the world. It takes enormous courage to realize that the future will have to be different from the past, now that I have seen something of ultimate reality. In view of what I have just experienced, I need to re-evaluate all of my actions and habits.
When Moses encountered God in the Burning Bush, he first tried to deny the experience and weasel out of it. But, he came around. He threw himself into the experience, he told himself and others the truth of what he had seen and he had the courage to change not only his life but the course of human history and our quest for God.
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