A metaphor I often use to describe consciousness is that of a country, a city or a terrain. The condition of any of these lands may be luminous, a pleasure to behold, warm, comfortable and inviting. They might also be grey, wild, stormy and unpredictable. These places can be inhabited by friendly people, beautiful wildlife, lakes, rivers and oceans, luscious vegetation, trees and flowers. The country, city or terrain may also be inhabited by unfriendly, sinister and untrustworthy people and wild dangerous creatures. These habitations often reflect our state of consciousness at a given time seen in our waking and sleeping dreams.
Our mind often uses symbolic representations to describe our internal experience. Carl Jung spoke of a plane of consciousness called the mytho-poetic realm. This is a place we often enter as children to escape a hostile environment in order to feel safe, free and truly alive. It becomes a safe space to meet friends who are supportive, welcoming and trustworthy. This world is often an alternative to the unpalatable world in which we may dwell. We can experience connection, adventure, compassion and unconditional welcome in this terrain.
Mystics from the many world traditions use locations or terrains to describe the stages of a person’s development of consciousness. The mystic Teresa of Avila a 15th century Spanish nun described the journey of transformational development through the metaphor of an interior castle. The castle she described had seven dwellings within it. Each dwelling was presented in rich descriptive symbolic language. Each dwelling described something of the inner development of the individuals consciousness and spiritual growth.
Entering the rooms of the interior castle is quite a risky business. Teresa warned that there were poisonous reptiles in the courtyard trying to prevent us from taking the journey of wholeness (e.g., our predispositions to selfishness, our over familiarity with suffering, our resistances to change) all of which can only be bypassed by our commitment to transformation. Sometimes we need to become so sick and tired of our narrative of suffering that we willingly embrace change. These seven rooms are said to take us through three ancient stages of conscious development. These stages are called purgative, illuminative and unitive stages. Purgative refers to our gradual detachments from egocentric and limited thought forms that minimise our hearts capacity for love, and which hold us in mental suffering. In Buddhism egocentric illusory thought forms and attachments are called Dukkha which means suffering. The four Noble truths of Buddhism teaches that suffering exists, has causation, can come to an end and that there is a path to ending suffering.
The illuminative state is where the mind has started to detach from egoic illusions and has embraced the path of love, spiritual consciousness and benevolence of heart. The illuminative stage is preparation for the heart to embrace a state of unitive consciousness with the divine. Within this unitive state there is the dissolving of ego, and the experience of non-separation with creation. The individual I is subsumed into unitive love.
It’s important to say that such metaphorical language which seems to lay out a linear conception of conscious evolution is not to be taken literally. Progress is not undertaken through linear sequences. Language has its limitations in describing the experience of the psyche. A more accurate understanding would be to see our experience of the three stages of purgation, illumination and union as a circular experience. We move in and out of these stages as we step in and out of the seven dwellings of Teresa’s interior castle. What happen is that over time, practice and commitment to psychological and spiritual growth we come to identify more with the latter two stages of illumination and union and so spend less time in the first three dwelling of Teresa’s castle (where we are detaching from ego identification). Instead we much more time, in and out of the latter four dwellings. This progress will reflect itself in our inner experience of consciousness and our external relationships with others and with life events. As our hearts grow more deeply in the second stage of illumination this will be reflected in our being less reactive to life, more patient with ourselves and other and having deeper compassion, empathy and connection. We notice a decrease in our need for control and are better able to tolerate uncertainty. We do not feel so perturbed dwelling in the cloud of unknowing.
Over the next few months I will be sharing insights and understandings based upon my own journey of the heart with the hope that it might offer you some nuggets of support with your own journey. It will be related to how my own heart moves into the new world with and after, Covid. Please keep an eye out for more posts.