Taking Down Fences

Joy Cowley

This paper was presented at the New Zealand Sea of Faith Conference August 25, 1996.

I begin this session with three explanations that are almost apologies.The first concerns the subjective nature of the talk. All I can do is share experience with you. But that's okay because it is all any of us can do. The infinite spark of life is seeded into a finite existence. I am a prisoner to this body with its limited senses. I can't say this is how things are. I can only say this is how I perceive things to be, according to information picked up by my senses and interpreted by a complex blob of brain. To a creature operating with a different sensory/nervous system, the universe is another reality. Human differences too, place us in different areas of experience and perception. I offer one individual's experience of journey. At the same time, I reognise the commonality of this experience. People have talked and written about it for thousands of years, which reinforces for me my personal conviction that we are not human beings on a spiritual journey but spiritual beings on a human journey.

The second apology is for a certain narrowness of expression. I readily embrace the truth of all religions. All paths are valid and I do not believe that any one path has more merit than another. However, I do believe that we must follow a path in order to make spiritual progress. As a wise Vedanta friend once said, we can be like hens scratching in the dust, scratching here, scratching there. That is no way to dig a well. The path that seems right and familiar for me, is that of the Roman Catholic mystical tradition, and thus many of the symbols I use in this talk, are Christian. But in using these symbols I am expressing the same truths that make themselves visible through the symbols of Buddhism, the Hindu religions, the Middle Eastern religions of Islam and Judaism, Bahai, and so on. The further we journey in our own tradition., the closer we come to the traditions of other faiths.

For me, a satisfying metaphor for spiritual journey is the circle. When we start out on the way to the centre, we seem at a distance from other paths. Indeed, some seem opposite to us, but as we progress the paths begin to converge until they all merge at that one point of light in the centre. The writingof mystics of all religious traditions, are virtually interchangeable. These writers are at that point where there are no divisions, symbol disappear in light and words can go no further.

The third thing I should explain, is that I shall use the word God a lot. There was a time when I wouldn't. For several years I abandoned the word God because it held for me images that did not match my experience of the sacred. This was precipitated by a near death experience in 1968 which completely blew away my conservative Christian background. I came back laughing at the simplicity of the truth I'd experienced and I groped for other words for God - prime mover, source, the energy of creation, the ground of being, the Tao, the Light of light, Self with a capital S, the Life Process. In the end it was much easier to come back to a simple three letter word and invest it with new meaning relevent to my experience. God. The question for me is not "Does God exist?" It was "Does anything else exist?" The answer in my experience, is no. Nothing else exists. Everything is a manifestation of the sacred. Everything is a drop of water in the divine sea.

What is the starting point of any religious creed or doctrine?

Let us imagine that we here can take a medication that will induce selective amnesia. At this moment, we forget everything we have learned about religion. Scripture, all the ideas about God, the teachings of Jesus and the great masters of history, have vanished.Where indocrination was, there is now nothing.

What is left? What do we all have within us that is going to go right out and invent another religion or spiritual path?

I can think of four conditions, all of which are related.

The first is a knowledge of perfection. There is something in all of us that knows perfection and aspires to it. Imperfection is a condition of nature, and we are a part of that, so where does this knowledge of perfection come from? Some have suggested that it is the experience of the womb; but we now know that a baby's inter-uterine experience is far from perfect and far from comfortable The baby can be upset by external light, noise, physical pressure and by the mother's moods, digestion, blood pressure. So, where does our knowledge of perfection come from? Is it the knowledge of the eternal soul which comes and goes between its true reality and this little dream we call life?

Secondly, with the knowledge of perfection there is a hunger, a restlessness. Sometimes the hunger is recognized as belonging to the spirit. Sometimes we attach it to ego, the instinct for survival, and we try to gratify it in material and physical ways. But it is there and with it, a desire for goodness that goes beyond social comfort and the subjective values of good and evil. People want to better themselves. At a youthful stage we are like the young Queen Victoria, we want to be good. More mature, we are driven by a desire for personal growth. Why? Why are we all here this weekend?

Thirdly, somewhere, a part of us, are the noble mysteries of existence - appreciation of beauty and love. How do we explain these things that take us out of ourselves into new awareness? In the 1960s, when pop-psychology books sold like hamburgers, I read two serious definitions of love. I can't remember who wrote them but some of you may recognise them. The first definition of love was: "meaningful interpersonal relationship" The second was. "a feeling for someone or something outside of oneself under the condition of retaining ones own separateness and integrity." Beauty is described as "that which is pleasing to the eye or ear."

We might think these funny but can any of us come up with better definitions? Perhaps there are some things which are best explained by silence. But we all know the experiences of love and beauty. They are like little doors which suddenly swing open to something beyond themselves. We know too, those rare moments when some great giving energy of the universe is poured out on us. And although we are unable to describe the experience we know its name as love, and its description as beauty.

Number four. While we have inbuilt knowledge of perfection and aspiration to growth, while we respond to the mysteries of beauty and love, we also have a knowledge of imperfection which becomes refined with spiritual journey. That knowledge of imperfection seems more personal than the dictates of social conditioning in our lives. Socially, good and evil are seen as separate condtions. In our lives, we know that they are the two sides of one coin and interdependent. In Biblical mythology they are represented as paradox. The knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil were not contained in two trees, nor yet in two fruits, but in the one fruit. The archangel of evil has the name Lucifer, meaning light-bearer. In the King James version of Isaiah 45 there is the magnificent cry of wholeness: "I am the God of good and the God of evil. I create darkness and I make the light. I alone and no other do all these things."

Jung recognizes the archetype and talks of the shadow. Fundamentalist Christians see the world as being pysically populated by demons ready to invade the saved who have been made new by Christ.. I suppose the external demon theory does relieve the fundamentalist of some of the burden of dualistic thinking. It is easier to blame someone or something else when we fail to live up to our own or other people's expectations. The Roman Catholic Church, more conservatively, talks of the mystery of evil. But is it a mystery? Today, with micro-chip technology, we chart the limbic system of the brain, the source of primitive emotions that can act and react without the reasoning power of the neo-cortex. We understand more about the dark voices in us.

I believe that the shadow is nothing else than our primary instinct for survival. What we call evil is something we share with all life on this planet. We don't have the copyright. It is an extensions of our struggle for existence. What we conceive to be the worst of crimes, murder, torture, infanticide, we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Evil is the name we might give to a distorted or extreme expression of the instinct for survival. It is not separate from it. And here is the paradox. Without our instinct for survival, we do not exist. The sperm may not reach the ovum. The baby may not be born. It may not cry to express its needs. It may not be able to protect itself from danger.

We need a healthy instinct for survival and it's manifestation, a strong ego, as prerequisite for spiritual journey. That is a natural stage of growth. The next stage of growth involves a movement against the current of the "I want" survival instinct, a dismantling of the "me first" structure of the ego.

This progression is simply put in the words of an anonymous 15thC monk. "Find thyself - tis half the path to God. Then lose thyself and the rest of the way is trod."

How do I relate all this to spiritual jouney on my particular Christian path?

I gather wisdom from many sources, including the sayings attributed to Jesus. but if I were to choose one saying to carry as a banner, it would be Jesus' words "The Truth will set you free,"

I think we all respond to that. The soul in this bodily cage, stretches its wings and sings an echo. The truth will set you free. And we long for freedom from this little prison of preoccupation with self. We identify with theSufic poet Rumi who wrote: "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase "each other" doesn't make any sense."

That is the truth and the freedom which fills me with longing. But the rational part of my being steps back muttering, that waffly poetic imagery is all very well but actually,what is truth? What is freedom?

I have this strong feeling that way to freedom lies through personal discomfort. My inclination is to retreat to the comfort of known structure, to lay a neat grid over my life, defining who I can safely be, where I can safely go, what I can safely think. The concept of spiritual freedom might attract me at a distance but as a living reality it is rather frightening.

What about the fences that have been erected by my instinct? What of the sheilds that protect my ego? How could I exist in a landscape without fences? No demarcation? No barrier between me and other? Us and them? No walls between belief systems? I begin to feel uncomfortable with my own concept of the universality of God, the universality of God's love. I would like that unconditional love for myself but I am unhappy about its wider applciation. I don't want to know that this love works as well for Hitler as for Hitler's victims.

It is many years since I believed that Christian prayer was somehow more effective than Hindu prayer or Islamic prayer but I still have the strong desire to elevate my journey above that of some of my fellow Christians. In other words, I want to hold on to the fences in my life, even if they do make me a prisoner of my self-protective beliefs.

So, in my life I have these two movements, one that is directed towards myself, a protective movement, and one that moves away from myself towards a greater awareness, to the field that lies beyond my ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. Almost always, one movement is in conflict with the other, and yet both are necessary.

My survival instinct is strong. It tells me that when I am confronted by anything that might challenge my safety I should run away, or fight or, failing those, play dead. My survival instinct keeps building walls with the mortar of fear. In areas where if feel particularly threatened, the walls will be high and thick and seemingly unmoveable, and the mortar of fear will have the extra ingredient of hatred. On the other side of my walls exist the "other" the "enemy."

We recognise such a siege mentality as a sickness or neurosis but unless we are a Christ or a Bhudda with a special awareness of our divinity, we will go on building fences in our lives. I am by nature, by instinct. a fence builder. I won't be able to change that this side of the doorway we call death. The important thing is to know that I am doing it and to accept the fact that I proceed through paradox. I build fences, take them down. Build them, take them down. That is the synthesis of my dual nature.

How do I define fences? As separation. That which sets me apart from other. What kind of fences? Self-protective ideas about behaviour, belief systems, judgements of all kinds, fear. And how do I go beyond fences? Through the longing of the soul to see the Beloved in all things, to be united with the Beloved in all things.

In Bhuddism there is stressed the need to ascend beyond attachment and revulsion. My fences, with their various labels, fit into these categories. On the attachment side, there are set ideas, cherished beliefs on any subject. I tend to close a mental fist on an idea that appeals to me, instead of letting it lie on an open palm. The closed fist does two things. It makes the idea a prisoner, restricting its movement and growth, and it prevents other ideas from landing in my hand.

Of course, the more I take down the fences of set ideas, the more subtlely they will re-erect themselves. The notion of being liberal will in itself become a barrier. Much good humour is needed in this exercise of self-awareness.

I don't have the same attachment to material things but I will very quickly set an opinion in concrete.

For most of us, an area of attachment or revulsion lies in language associated with religion. A pleasant or unpleasant experience with some religious group will have caused us to erect a wall to either enshrine or reject, certain words or doctrines. Instead of evaluating the way that individuals have used language, we have a siege reaction similar to the reaction I had to the word God. We reject all the symbols of language used on that partifular spiritual path and often reject the path itself. To leave a path when one is being called elsewhere is fine, but to leave because we have not been able to share someone's use of language, is to become prisoner to our own fences of prejudice.

For those with Christian background, how do you feel about the word "salvation"? Does it make you withdraw like an assaulted sea anemone? Remember that it comes from the Latin salve, to heal. Salvation means healing. The word atonement means literally at-one-ment. And the word self-discipline? Discipline comes from discipulare =disciple. Self-discipline means being a disciple to oneself. Isn't that better than whips and hair shirts?

Our enshrinement of language and our reaction to that, affects our understanding of what scripture is. Holy or sacred writing. That to me, origainally, meant the Bible. I was given my first Bible when I was 9 and was expected to read it right through every year - which I could almost do if I skipped some of the laws and the begat bits. Then there were Bible commentaries, books on prayer. You know, it's true that the seeker will always find, and what she find will increase her desire to seek. But for me, this was a slow business. When I was 19, a friend gave me a pendant, a beautiful little Buddha carved out of some kind of seed or nut. If you think this started an interest in buddhism, I'm sorry to have misled you. To me at that stage, the buddha was a heathen idol. I burned it. But eventually, some ten years later, I was reading Buddhist texts, writings of the Tao, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu'ran, Hassidic writings, early Christian mystics, Sufic poetry, Patanjali's yoga sutras, Meister Eckhart, the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and you know what? The language symbols were different but it was all about the same experience. The lovers quest for the beloved and the need to grow through the overcoming of self-made obstacles to recognise the oneness that already existed. The drop of water making the discovery that while it was only a drop of water, it was a part of the ocean and had all the properties of the ocean.

I talk of taking down fences as a metaphor for growth. We can use the image of the growth of a tree which needs careful pruning and staking when it is young but which needs to grow beyond its stake as it develops. Or we can use the metaphor of journey along a path that has a lot of signposts, and there will be times when we sit down in the road, worshipping the signposts, confusing them with the journey. Again, we can use the image of the open hand. Everything we need will be given to us at the right time. Of all the information and experience that comes our way, what we need spiritually will be the biggest thing. The rest will slip through our open fingers. But as we have recognized, to close our hand on our latest discovery is to halt the process.

A different and very beautiful image of growth is found in the Hindu symbol of the lotus plant. The lotus has its beginning in the dark mud in the pond. It grows through muddy water towards the light and finally produces an exquisite bloom in full sunshine. But even as it blooms, its roots still draw sustenance from the dark mud.

It is difficult to accept this synthesis, the two sides of the coin, if we have frail or hungry egos. We need healthy self-esteem in order to laugh at ourselves, for laughter is to spiritual journey as flight is to a bird. It lifts us above all those serious self-concerns. And while we go on building fences in our lives, every time we step out to demolish a barriers, we glimpse the truth that sets us free. The truth is not something supernatural. Rather it is the nature of our wider existence. It is the all, the eternal, the now and we are not separate from it. Our sense of separateness is illusion. We call the truth God.We call it Love. We call it Light. It is no-thing. It is manifest as everything. It is the Truth of our existence , that which we came from and to which we return.

The trappings of my journey are probably the same as yours, but I shall share them with you, anyway.

In practical terms, journey means a time of meditation each day.In that time, nothing happens and everything happens. From it flows a peace and energy that gives a wholeness to the day and insights that go beyond my experience. In meditation, the little well is filled up from the great underground river to which it is attached..

Journey means a regular ritual of worship with others. A cluster of souls leaning towards the Beloved, are empowered and nourished by the act. Worship, like poetry, is metaphor. It is the metaphor for a loving that cannot be defined in another way.

It means regular reading of a wide variety of material which is going to increase my awareness and diminish my prejudice relating to the jouney of others.

It means ongoing attempts at seeing everyone else as divine drops in the Sacred ocean. This knowledge is an effective way of dealing with the fences built by the voice of my survival instinct, that voice of my ego. When I realise that the differences between another person and myself are illusory, that in essence we are the same, my perception of that person changes dramatically.

It means recognition of the ego, laughing at it when it needs laughter and stopping to love it when it starts bellowing like a neglected child.

It also means living life as a small love song that is in harmony with the love song of every single manifestation of God in this universe.It is the love song of Being claiming its Divinity.