The following analogy is helpful as we approach the first three spheres in the Paradiso.  Here especially, in my view, Dante the Pilgrim is being weaned of moralistic thinking. For further reflections on this see the Reflections on the Paradiso -- Fall 2001 -- on the Enrichment Page. The point is that the mystical way is not pre-moral but trans-moral.  Ethical thinking is needed if we are to become wise and just adults, if we are to become "free, upright and whole."  But the moral perspective is not the mystical one.  I offer this analogy here in service of glimpsing the difference.

The Analogy of the Lake

       Imagine a lake with three levels -- surface, mid-level and the deepest level. Let these three levels symbolize three ways of understanding and responding: a surface way; a deeper, more observing way; and the deepest level of seeing and being.(i)   Let us imagine a process of deepening and think of this process as a story in three stages.

   1) At the Surface of the Lake -- a Conventional Way of Grasping What is Meaningful and Valuable

         Imagine that you are a center of awareness coming from the great unknown.  As in a dream, you float down from great heights until you hover above a lake in the midst of a primal forest.  The day is bright, the sun warm, the surface sparkles in the sunlight.  In an instant, the center-of-consciousness- that-you-are becomes a ripple on the lake’s surface.

         Forgetful of all that went before, you identify yourself as a ripple, thinking ripple thoughts, feeling ripple emotions, engaging in ripple conversations with yourself and with others.  Your ripple conversations, in large part, focus on you -- on what you want now, on what you fear, here and now. Your ripple conversations, in large part, focus on how you compare with others.  As a ripple, you think: “How am I doing compared to others -- to her and to him and to them?”  You find yourself thinking how much better off you are than these other ripples over on your left.  Or you find yourself thinking how inadequate you feel compared to those other ripples over on your right.  Your ripple world is filled with desire for what you like and fear of what you dislike.  Furthermore, you identify with the ripple conversations; you dwell within these conversations of comparison, of likes and dislikes.  So identified, you do not notice what you are thinking and saying; you do not realize how your fears and desires shape you and your world. You are asleep in your life, on automatic pilot.  You have no space for choice between stimulus and response.

         This surface way of understanding and responding to life is a literal mode of comprehension.  (Material things seem most real, and life is about gaining such things, thereby winning esteem and power.) It is a very me-centered way of relating. (How will I be affected? Will I be rewarded or punished, praised or blamed?)  It is highly moralistic. (Certain things are good and to be done.  Certain things are bad and not to be done. People who do as we try to do are good people and people who act otherwise are bad.) It tends to dualistic and oppositional thinking. (Either-Or, Black vs. White, Us vs. Them, Right vs. Wrong, Justified vs. Blamed).

        When we dwell in surface thinking we are doubly ignorant: ignorant of what is deeply true and good and beautiful, and ignorant of being ignorant.  We think that we are awake and realistic and in control of our world, yet we are mistaken.  Recognizing what is happening on the surface, the great traditions tell us, is where we begin.

   2) Halfway down into the Lake -- the Awakening of our Observing Self

         Imagine that even while we continue our "labeling and valuing" at the surface, another part of us descends further into the waters of the lake.  Very safely and easily, without fear, this part of us moves about halfway down, under the surface. We are under water and yet, as if by magic, we can breathe easily and comfortably.  We can turn in the water like astronauts in weightlessness, and look up through the clear blue waters at the surface illuminated by the sun.  As we do, we can observe that other, suffering part of ourselves -- our ripple selves on the surface, speaking in ripple ways, reacting in ripple ways, desiring ripple success and fearing ripple failure.  We hear our chatter clearly, yet with a compassionate heart.  We love the little us that twists and turns on the ripple stage, performing for self and others according to the ripple rules.  Poor ripple, there we go again, telling that story, worrying about how others see us, trying so hard to be liked.

         Who is this part of us which watches without judgment, which observes from a compassionate heart?  We have called it the large-minded person-in-us.(ii)     We have called it the Observing or Witness Self.  The awakening of this large mind and compassionate heart is the first step in any spiritual path. From this mode of consciousness, we can see that we are partial, asleep, enslaved and reactive.  With this awareness, we can become more whole, more wakeful, freer, and more able to choose our responses.

   3) At the Depth of the Lake -- a Glimpse of Oneness

         At the mid-point we begin to feel an attraction to the depth, the All.  Let us suppose that a part of us descends further down, into the deepest regions of the lake.

         Initially it is dark.  We are guided not by our sight, but by hearing and bodily senses.  We hear and sense a deeper dimension -- as if the lake is connected to the great ocean, as if the longer rhythms of the tides provide a sense of timeless time.  As we grow acclimated to this new way of seeing and being, we realize that all of the water is one  -- ripples and depth -- and we are that.   We are the surface conversations; we are the observing, listening compassionate heart; and we are everything else.  In fact, the “all that we are” and “the All that Is” are resonating together.  “Not one, not two,” as the Buddhists say.  At this moment, at the deepest level of understanding, all is loving kindness and joy and gratitude and immense compassion.  Here we experience what mystics call unitive consciousness.

         As the Sufis might say, when we polish the mirror of the heart, we begin to feel an attraction to the depth, to the All.  Here, at the depth of life, lover and beloved and love are as one.  We experience the grace of Oneness Itself arising in and through and around us.  Yet, paradoxically, we are never more ourselves than in the Oneness, unique mirroring all that is from our unique place in the whole.

   4) The Way Down and the Way Up

         In all the great traditions, the issue is not mystical experience for its own sake.  The aim is to live a life of increasing gratefulness, increasing "presence" wherein love can blossom into service.  No matter how deeply we descend, we must return to the community, to the partnerships of our lives, with more wisdom and compassion.

         In this story we descend to contact the oneness and then we return with a fuller observer to the level of the everyday.  In the Zen tradition, we return to the marketplace with a different awareness.  We bestow blessings simply by remembering the oneness in all beings and in all we do. The tenth of the famous Zen Oxherding pictures describes how such persons look and act after realizing the oneness.  "Even the wise cannot find [such persons] . . . They go their own way, making no attempt to follow the steps of earlier sages.  Carrying a gourd, they stroll into the market; leaning on a staff, they return home. They lead innkeepers and fishmongers in the Way.  .  .  ."(iii)

(i)     Elsewhere I expand the notion of  "How we RELATE to [situations]" so as to speak of our WAY of UNDERSTANDING and RESPONDING TO [situations -- thaings we do or are done to us].  I then abbreviate this to W-U-R-T or WURT.
        Those who like the “WURT formulation” might think of the three levels as: WURT Y (a surface way), WURT Z (a deeper more observing way) and  WURT Omega (the deepest level of seeing and being -- a oneness with the all).

 (ii)   Those who prefer the “WURT formulation” may think of the letter “Y” in WURT Y as itself a symbol of the “horns of a dilemma” (either-or, oppositional) thinking. Call the Observing Self “WURT-Z.”  (In drawing the letter “Z” itself, we can see a movement from the surface -- the horizontal line at the top, down the diagonal to another level -- the horizontal line at the bottom of the “Z”.)  To “go to Z “ is to awaken the observer in us -- to see and be from this larger sense of self.  Only from WURT-Z do we begin to understand more adequately what I called the Four Beginnings above.

(iii)   Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 311. Modified for inclusive language.

                                                                                    Copyright 2000 for a work in progress by John G. Sullivan

Return to Dante Enrichment Page

Return to Dante Menu Page

Return to John G. Sullivan Homepage