Ancient Myths, Modern Mystics, Unchanging Truths
This is the story of Tiresias, a famous seer of antiquity.
As he was hunting in the mountain forests, he became thirsty, so he looked for a spring to quench his thirst. He found a fountainhead, but there he saw the goddess Athena, bathing naked in its cool waters. Angered, the goddess blinded him immediately, but then took pity on him and granted him two boons: She cleaned his ears so he could understand the language of birds (thus gaining the capacity to interpret omens) and gave him a staff to help him move about.
What do we have here? A spicy interlude that would make tabloid headlines today, or a spiritual truth disguised by a story?
A saying often attributed to Sir Francis Bacon is: “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.” In other words, truth sometimes needs to be made palatable by weaving it into stories or parables. That is what mystics do – they clothe the truth to suit the times in which they live and the audience they want to address. As societies change over time, so do people’s tastes. That is why mystics highlight different aspects of their teachings in different eras: to help people relate to them and benefit from them. The teachings themselves never change.
It is actually these coverings that people relate to, that ferry a mystic’s message across the mental ocean of mankind, so that, like a message in a bottle, it eventually reaches those who will understand its real meaning.
How can we understand these stories today? They seem so strange, yet they resonate within us in ways we cannot define.
About 50 years ago, a 2,500-year-old wooden shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Cyprus. Normally it would have disintegrated completely, but this one was fairly well preserved. Naturally many of its parts were missing, while others were half rotted and deformed.
Now, would someone wanting to become a shipbuilder today go and learn shipbuilding by studying this shipwreck? Obviously not. It’s the other way around. Only someone who is already a shipbuilder could make sense of the various bits and pieces lying scattered on the seabed, because he already knows the science of shipbuilding; he could easily recognize how each part relates to the whole structure.
It’s strange, then, that mankind generally tries to understand the science of the soul and to relate to the divine by studying various religions. Once, mystic teachings ferried souls across the ocean of existence, but now only the remains of these teachings lay scattered on the metaphorical ocean floor. As a result, when trying to study mysticism, one can make sense of its obscure allegories and fragmented traditions only with the help of a contemporary spiritual scientist – a living master.
We had this experience with Hazur Maharaj Charan Singh. He worked his whole life to make Sant Mat available to the West, which he partly did by explaining it from the Christian point of view, with which so many Westerners are familiar. Gradually the underlying truth of Christianity became clear to us, both its hidden meanings and their misinterpretations, which explained both our attraction and the aversion some of us felt to the Christianity we were born into. At last we could put this religion into its correct mystical context.
Somebody asked Hazur:
Q: Can initiates of a perfect Master learn anything from the Bible? Should we be reading it?
A: I think there's more reason to read the Bible now, because now you can understand its real meaning. Initiation is a key, and through that key we can open the Bible, unlock its treasures, its mysteries, and find the real jewel there, the real mysticism.1
Back to Tiresias. The myth presents a physical analogy of a spiritual state. Tiresias – a seeker aspiring to spiritual heights – is hunting in the mountains, and his thirst brings him to the source, where he inadvertently is captured by a goddess.
Who is this goddess? According to myth, Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, the Supreme Power. She is a direct emanation from the Godhead – God’s wisdom – so she is the Logos, the Shabd, the Truth. And no one is able to stand face to face with the naked Truth of the pure, unveiled Shabd without being radically transformed for good.
From the moment that Tiresias is blinded, he loses interest in this world of dreams, which we perceive as reality. He becomes blind to the physical world as he wakes up spiritually. Now his inner eye has opened to the beauty and Truth of the higher worlds, and he is enraptured by them. Now he can hear the Shabd, the voice of God, and he understands the birds, divine messengers – like the dove, the Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit. As the inner meaning of events and circumstances are revealed to him, he becomes a seer who can help and guide other people.
The blinding of Tiresias was essentially a gift, the granting of a plea we often hear being sung in shabds: “Reveal your own real form to me, Master.”2 Blinded to the physical world, he was granted inner sight. And, like all disciples of a mystic, he also received support and protection, in the form of a staff, as he had to continue living on the physical plane without stumbling at every step and losing his balance.
Christ speaks about the same spiritual truth, in a veiled way: “For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not, might see; and that they which see might be made blind.”3
This is a very strong and apparently inexplicable statement. To restore sight to the blind –that’s obviously praiseworthy. But to blind those who can see? Why would somebody want to do that? Many Christian books simply avoid explaining this passage, while others give explanations that are misleading at best.
But for an expert on spirituality, the meaning is clear. Hazur explained:
As Christ said, I have come to make people blind, and give eyes to those who do not see. That is the miracle mystics come to perform. Those who see only the world, see only the creation, are attached only to the creation – I have come to make them blind, meaning I have come to detach them from this creation. And I want to give them those eyes which see only the Father. I have not come to give eyes just to see the creation – but to those who are blind to the Father, who don't see the Father – I've come to give them eyes. So these are not worldly miracles, they are spiritual miracles. We are awakened from deep slumber by the mystics.4
Mystics come and connect the dots for us, so that a meaning starts to emerge. More important, they teach us the method by which we can connect the dots ourselves. That method is meditation, the only way to expand our consciousness and develop spiritually, if we actually practise it.
Otherwise we go through life like those two friends in a car. The one driving wants to overtake the car in front, so he activates the blinker to change lanes, but then hears someone honking angrily behind them. He pulls over, stops by the roadside and says to his friend: I’m sure I used the blinker. Can you have a look to see if it’s working? His friend walks behind the car and shouts: It’s working. It’s not working. It’s working. It’s not working. It’s working. It’s not working.
That is exactly our situation regarding many aspects of our spiritual life. His grace is working, not working, working, not working. Master and meditation are working, not working, working, not working. My faith is working, not working. Like the friend who did not understand that the function of a blinker includes the light going on and off, our consciousness in its present state sees only disconnected fragments of reality, without being able to comprehend how they form a functional whole.
Who is a mature person? Master used to ask. One who has seen both the ups and downs of life. He also says that success is measured not by how much money you make but by how well you solve your problems – meaning, how you deal with both ups and downs, because each presents a different set of problems.
Maybe this is also why we sometimes think that saints contradict themselves, as the following story illustrates.
Rock climbing is in fashion now. Like our spiritual rock climbing, it requires utmost concentration, careful practice and strict adherence to the coach’s instructions. Imagine someone hanging onto a rock face, asking the coach: Now what? The coach says: Lift your right hand. We return to our countries and tell our friends: Coach said we must lift our right hand. At another training session, another climber, who’s in a different position on the rock face, gets the instruction to lift his left foot. Those who attend that rock-climbing session go back and say: He said we must lift the left foot. The others object: No, you got it wrong, it is the right hand. The left-footers say: No, no, no, I heard it with my own ears, it’s the left foot. Someone else comes up with the idea that the mauj has changed, so the coach is changing the teachings. Yet another loses faith and leaves because the coach seems to have contradicted himself. Dissension starts, arguments and fights break out. Without the Master’s guiding hand, we would soon have the right-hand wing fighting against the left-foot wing in a power struggle about the correct interpretation of the teachings.
It is much easier to speculate about what the Master means – because that entails no effort on our part – than to do what we have been asked: put effort into our meditation, where all the answers will reveal themselves. The problem is that in order to develop the discipline and patience needed for meditation, we need discipline and patience, which is why this is necessarily a long process for most of us. The danger is that out of impatience we give up too soon and stop watering the seed of Nam, because we do not see anything coming out of the ground. That would be very unfortunate because all the while the seed is invisibly growing and will appear at the right time.
Fortunately, we do receive help and prompts to keep us on track. We might not be able to see the flower that grows from the seed of Nam that has been planted within us, but sometimes we can smell its fragrance, as Hazur used to say.
Is that flower love? Is it the presence of God? What is God anyway? God is love, the mystics say, and we parrot their words, but how do we know? We can say an apple is a fruit because we know what apples and fruit are. But we do not know what God is or what love is.
We can only take the notion that God is love as a working hypothesis; enter the laboratory of our body, which is our personal copy of the universe; test the hypothesis; and attempt to prove it through our own experience.
Still, we keep asking, what is love? For us, love belongs to the world of duality, so it has a direction. We can say it is a stream from one heart to another – from mother to child, from lover to the beloved: it connects and binds two beings.
But what is God in his essence, at the level where we have merged in him and only he exists? We don’t know, but mystics give us hints here and there, maybe just to whet our appetites.
God’s essence seems to be joy, bliss, happiness of the highest degree, though it is beyond words’ capacity to describe it. But there is a Greek word that tried to describe it, in the ancient language from which it is derived. We all know it and have felt it to a greater or lesser degree.
Enthusiasm. It comes from the Greek enthousiasmos, from enthous, meaning “possessed by a god, inspired.” -En means in, or inner; theos means God; ousia means essence; and the ending -sm denotes the state of something. The literal meaning of the word is “the state of the essence of God within.”
Even stepped down to its mundane meaning, the word retains traces of its mystical heritage: the flood of joy that nothing can overshadow, the inspiration, the sense of inner confidence that anything is possible, the desire to share it with others. When this inner bliss overflows to another being, then it is felt as a stream of love, duplicating itself, as it were, in the other being. That is why happiness and love are so interconnected. Love is to please another person, Hazur used to say – to make him happy. For example, seva is done out of love for the Master, to please him.
That is why we feel enthusiasm when we are in his presence. Whether he smiles or not, whether he is joking or being stern, around him we feel joy, happiness and gratitude – because he has touched our soul, the essence of God within us. He awakens us to the reality of who we are.
“Islands in the stream / That is what we are.”5 We are islands in the stream of his love, soaking in bliss and slowly dissolving in it, until there is no more island left – only the stream.
Love is to become another being, Hazur used to say – until there is only one being, only bliss, enthusiasm, only the essence of God within.
As Rumi says:
Everyone and everything perishes,
but celebration in your state of oneness
is forever, forever, forever.6
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. I, #383
- Soami Ji, Sar Bachan Poetry, p. 329
- Bible, John 9:39
- Spiritual Perspectives, Vol. III, #536
- “Islands in the Stream,” song by the Bee Gees
- Jalal al-Din Rumi, ghazal 356