Everyday Mysticism

Editor's note: After 30 years managing mental health and rehabilitation programs, Carol Cober now combines her work as a researcher at Westat Inc. with her private practice as a body-centered therapist at a wellness center. Her work at AARP on wellness, widowed persons programs, and long-term care led to her current research evaluating aging in community and preventing elder abuse. She co-leads mindful watercolor painting retreats, incorporating Rosen Method bodywork, at Blueberry Gardens, a Wellness Center located on an organic blueberry farm in Ashton, Maryland.


You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.

— Franz Kafka

“When the Outside Dance Shows
What is Within,” 2010
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It inspires me to witness what can happen if we are still enough and open enough to the inward process. Connecting with what is deep within us opens up possibilities. Into the expanded awareness that Silence creates, there arises something new. Although we may not approach a time of inner exploration with any outcome in mind, this often is the result. I believe ordinary or everyday mystics learn how tending this inner process leads to outer connection, outer service.

Centuries ago the Desert Fathers urged people to learn from Silence, because it can lead us back to our true selves. My Quaker contemporary J. Brent Brill has similar advice: “Holy Silence calls us to lives of justice, kindness and humility, walking with God. Holy silence is a way towards sacramental living.”

Some find a gateway to deep knowing in childhood, perhaps from their experience of nature or from music or art. For others, the pull toward discernment arrives after times of difficulty and great struggle. For others still, it is an outgrowth of community. It seems that both inspiration and desperation will get us there.

Spiritual development is a process. We are most familiar with its personal component. But the communal component is equally important. Our longing to know, our curiosity to seek information, grows out of connection, Parker Palmer argues: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.” He urges us to look beyond knowledge inspired by pure curiosity or a desire to control. Another kind of knowledge is open to us, “one that begins in a different passion and is drawn to other ends.” This knowledge originates in compassion or love. The compassion or love that Parker alludes to includes not just the mind, but embraces the body, the heart, and the community connections in our environment.

“Flowers Emerging Within,” 2009

For those whose inner work is prompted by challenges or sufferings, community can offer profound comfort and support. I found a dear spiritual home at the Quaker Meeting; resting within Silence among others salved the raw and tender losses deep within. Community can be formal or informal. It might also include a group of individual supporters we invite to accompany us on our journey, similar to the many helpers I found along the way: a Rosen Method practitioner who introduced me to focused bodywork, a Jungian Analyst, an acupuncturist, and various teachers of yoga and tai chi.

As my meditation time increased and more mystical experiences surfaced, the process became more difficult for me to understand — a common dilemma for the everyday mystic who lacks the support of a monastic community and the daily guidance of a teacher. I turned to books and devoured advice both ancient and modern: Theresa of Avila, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Thomas Keating, and Anthony De Mello, and the words of Quakers like Thomas Kelly, Douglas Steere, Elton Trueblood, Richard Foster, and Rufus Jones.

I also ventured beyond my own faith community, seeking out writers on mysticism immersed in Buddhism and Hinduism. Reading Ramana Maharshi, Gangagi, Aurobindo, Almaas, Kornfield, and Chodron felt like having conversations with wise friends. These explorations into other traditions convinced me that the spiritual unfolding was a well-travelled and fluid process that was shared across traditions. I was not alone.

The work of American philosopher Ken Wilber also proved enormously helpful in my quest to understand intellectually the process that at times seemed almost to overwhelm me. Wilber explored the contemplative state of non-dual awareness (where subject and object are one), transrational experiences beyond words, and the “suchness” of reality. He offered a clear description and synthesis of mystical states and spiritual development from many traditions where God is a direct experience.

“Fires near Santa Fe,” 2011

But to affirm the authenticity of my intuitions, I needed more than intellectual clarity. I needed a kind of “direct experience” that my avocation as a painter, my training as a bodyworker and massage therapist, and my skill as a sign language interpreter all inclined me to prefer. I needed not just an intellectual understanding, but a body-based recognition of the truth. During this period of searching I moved more deeply into body-centered spiritual practices, such as tai chi, qi gong, yoga, and the walking meditation of Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. I joined with friends in African American-style ecumenical praise services full of singing and dancing, moved by the vibrant expressions of Praise. I could feel what I knew on some deep inner level through the body wisdom in my feet, in my hands, in my voice, in every part of me.

In my process of seeking I eventually found several “leadings” towards change. Most surprising was the vocational shift I was led to pursue through retraining in a form of somatic work. I had spent 20 years as a mental health practitioner and program administrator. The programs I had tended dealt with the losses people face. I’d worked with the parents of deaf and blind children, counseled young adults with spinal cord injury, and worked with widows and others grieving. Even though I had incorporated the body in some way by training in American Sign Language and felt comfortable with using my body as a communication tool, to add on the idea of working with clients through touch was a radical new idea for me.

Another insight that changed in me was living more fully. What I feared most after surviving all my losses was the concept of an unlived life. As I sunk more deeply in the Silence and stillness of God’s presence, I was at the same time being drawn out. What a wonderful process! As we enjoy this great Silence, we are also being led to dig up our buried talent and set it free! We carry within us all of the unwritten poems, the unpainted pictures, the unmade calls of loving friendship, the unheeded love of the nature around us — carry all this within our creative hearts. It is my hope and the affirmation of other mystical seekers that tending the inward life will help us avoid the unlived life, the unused light.

“Touching Compassion — Everything
Connects,” 2002

Through the seeking process I felt a greater ease emerge. It was like finding my voice again, or emerging with a newness in the creative expression I had carried with me for decades. This leading came with a push, a spiritual nudge, to share that inner voice with others. My first attempts to do so felt like being naked in public, but I knew deep within it was what spirit invited me to do. So I painted more, I wrote more poems — and sometimes I shared these with others, despite my natural bent toward shyness. Changes emerged and opportunities arrived. I met a watercolor teacher who was also a meditator, and we found ways to join together and lead mindful Creative Renewal retreats. We merged her teaching background with my therapist and bodyworker background; and we offered a space and resources for others to find rest, encouragement, and nourishment for their own expression.

With time I returned to being a more active member of my own community. I felt like I had new eyes, a softer heart, a different way of being with others. My capacity to listen was somehow expanded. During my explorations, I had taken a long break from the committee work that is part of a Quaker Meeting community. But with time and strengthening I felt a genuine leading to resume being more fully in my community. I found a way that my recovered gifts could be of use even within traditional committee work. By bringing my full self, my reclaimed passion for creative expression, into my work on a committee I was able to invite others in my Meeting to create a regular gathering opportunity on Creativity and Spirituality. We formed a group who find spiritual sustenance from creative practices, and we meet to explore new opportunities for our community to experience the journey of creative exploration and encouragement.

There is a natural and non-linear process of seeking within that leads to changes in how we are connected to others. Many people — ordinary everyday seekers — who long for the sense of peace and clarity and support can achieve it through a faithful practice of inner seeking. I have witnessed a greater sense of strength arise from seeking what lies within as part of a community. May we learn to trust that which we know deeply within on all levels — body, mind, spirit. May we find a way to participate in supportive community and enjoy the journey!
 

Sweet Darkness

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

 

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb
tonight.

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

— by David Whyte
from The House of Belonging

 

Photo by Carol Cober