BERNADETTE ROBERTS AND THE LOSS OF SELF
 Bill Carey
Joseph Chilton Pearce says that Bernadette Robertsí book, "What is Self," profoundly influenced the latter chapters of his Evolutionís End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence, whose final paragraphs begin with the following assertion: "Truth is function, not a thing, idea, event, or semantic slogan. Truth is how creation works. Understand function and you are home free." (1)


Bernadette Roberts is a post-Christian mystic, but only in the sense the word, "Christian" is commonly used.   Her book, The Experience of No-Self" -- the first book of three (The Path to No-Self and What is Self? are the others) -- is an intensely personal account of precisely what her title implies: the experience of the loss of selfhood.
(The Experience of No-Self and The Path to No-Self were originally published by Shambala in 1984 and 1985 respectively, but these editions are no longer in print.  Both books were reprinted by the State University of New York (SUNY) Press in 1993 and 1991 respectively; however, The Experience of No-Self underwent significant and inexplicable revision, including dropping a Foreward written for the first edition by Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O.  In each of the citations that follow, I've indicated the edition in which the quotation occurs.  What is Self? was privately published in 1989, and it, as well as the revised edition of The Experience of No-Self  currently can be ordered from:
http://www.feist.com/~philisa/books/auth/roberts.html.)
Roberts, who began what she characterises as a three-part journey through transformative experience as an adolescent in a devout Catholic family and continued it through ten years as a member of a contemplative order before leaving the convent, consequently tends to use the language of Christian contemplative theology to describe what happened to her. She realises the hazards of using a Christian vocabulary when addressing a wider audience, however, and offers this caveat: "All that man knows of God, or what Is, is either theoretical - and therefore speculative - or is no more than one man's attempt to describe his experience of 'that' which is all that Is." (2) This, then, is her attempt to describe her "experience of 'that' which is all that Is", for which she uses the shorthand referent, "God."

Lest her references to "God" put her readers off, she says, "I'm always reluctant to use the word, God, because everybody seems to carry around his own stagnant images and definitions that totally cloud the ability to step outside a narrow, individual frame of reference. If we have any conception of what God is, certainly it should be changing and expanding as we ourselves grow and change. This is the very nature of our life's movement: to expand, to open up and blossom.... Whatever we care to call the ultimate reality, we cannot define or qualify it because the brain is incapable of processing this kind of data; thus we must every look upon words as mere descriptions of a man's experience -- the nature of which we do not really know." (3)

As a self-described contemplative (Roberts writes her book, in fact, as a kind of contemplative handbook) she finds the descriptions of the contemplative state in the standard literature to be incomplete. Although she considers St. John of the Cross a particularly useful guide, in her view he shares this shortcoming.  Her explanation of this seems to be that St. John knew more, but he wasn't telling:  "To journey beyond the self means leaving behind our relative notions, expectations, and theories concerning what lies beyond the known. It means going beyond our usual frames of reference and encountering areas of theological sensitivity which, alone, would necessitate such accounts remaining unrecorded. I have always been of the opinion that John of the Cross, with the Spanish Inquisition breathing down his neck, failed to give us the full story. We know that his writings were left incomplete." (4)

She outlines this journey beyond the self as a three-stage trip, and maintains that the standard Christian contemplative literature only describes the first stage, known in the mystic trade as the unitive state, (which in her case lasted some 20 years). In this state, one apprehends God as residing in the centre of being, even during those periods of spiritual sterility, usually called "the Dark Night of the Spirit."  Roberts contends, from her own experience, that there are two more stages after this unitive state. The first of these other stages is a period she describes as "the Passageway", which is characterised by "the falling away of the self and a coming upon of 'that' which remains when it is gone." (5)

It was a time of utter terror for her as the self fell away: "Now I cannot convey what it is like to stare at some invisible horror when you don't know what it is. Just knowing what it is may be all the defense you need; but when you've gone through your list of name-calling and it does no good, you just have to resign yourself to not knowing and face it anyway. This thing I had to stare down was simply a composite of every connotation we have of 'terror,' 'dread,' 'fear,' 'insanity,' and things of this order." (6)  She gradually realised that "it was now obvious that fear - the mother of all inventions - was the core around which the self was built and upon which its life so depended that self and fear were here, all but indistinguishable." (7) The Passageway, then, was a time after this encounter during which she just coped with the loss of self.

Roberts remarks that "This journey [through the Passageway], then, is nothing more, yet nothing less than a period of acclimating to a new way of seeing, a time of transition and revelation as it gradually comes upon 'that' which remains when there is no self.  This is not a journey for those who expect love and bliss, rather, it is for the hardy who have been tried in fire and have come to rest in a tough, immovable trust in 'that' which lies beyond the known, beyond the self, beyond union, and even beyond love and trust itself." (8)

The final stage in Roberts' journey began when she finally came to terms "with the nothingness and emptiness of existence which, for me, seemed to be the equivalent of living out my life without God - or any such substitute. Only when this came about, only when the acclimation to a life without an ultimate reality was complete; when there was no hope, no trust remaining; only when I had finally to accept what is, did I suddenly realise that what is, is truth itself, and all that Is. I had to discover it was only when every single, subtle, experience and idea - conscious and unconscious - has come to an end, a complete end, that it is possible for the Truth to reveal itself." (9)

She discusses current notions of reality: "I had already learned how empirical reality stands in the way as a barrier, not only limiting our vision, but limiting any discussion ...as well. Seemingly this barrier is the failure to realize that the reality we see, hear, feel, and think is so perishable, we can grind it down to a few elementary particles that even then, continue to baffle the mind. Nevertheless, I do not regard empirical reality as a true barrier to vision; on the contrary, it is the gateway through which we must pass in order to see what, if anything, lies on the other side. But the irony of this passage is that empirical reality is not seen as a barrier until the other side is reached, at which time it is seen as no barrier at all. Therefore, it is only in retrospect we see this as a barrier to others, while knowing it is also the gate through which all must pass. . . .

"Those in a less advantageous position would be those who have skirted or surmounted empirical reality by some intellectual endeavor, without passing through it experientially. This could lead to a denial of empirical reality and, by making the ground we walk on a mere illusion, pull the rug out from under any meaningful discussion. When we cannot discuss what lies two feet ahead because it would be too un-understandable or too ineffable to do so, the subjects that matter most in life become so esoteric and privileged, they end up belonging to a few superior men; as someone once said to me, "when you see the world as illusion, you will have become a superman." Even if this incentive had not come too late, I would have preferred to pass through the gate of the known and remain as is, which means to discuss what is when the chance arises....

"After making this journey, I have no choice but to believe this transition can not only be made, but that it is inherent in everyone to do so whether they realize it or not. Though I do not understand how it can be made on a purely intellectual or technical level, I am nevertheless familiar with the experiential aspects of such a crossing; so if the following explanation appears clumsy, it is because the particular level or view from which I speak does not always allow for logical fulfilment....

"Before this event...I had never noticed how automatically and unconsciously the mind was aware of itself, or how continually conscious I had been of my own awareness in all mental processes, or in all my thoughts, words, and deeds. But when this...came to an end, I suddenly realised the profound roots of self-consciousness, roots that unknowingly had infiltrated every aspect of my existence. To have this entire system uprooted, made for so many amazing discoveries as I moved through the ordinary affairs of life that I could never hope to recount them all....

"By the time the journey is over, the only possible way of living is in the now-moment, wherein the mind moves neither backward nor forward but remains fixed and fully concentrated in the present. Because of this, the mind is so open and clear than no preconceived notions can get a foothold; no idea can be carried over from one moment to another; much less, could any notion demand conformity from others. There are no more head-trips -- no clinging to a frame of reference, even if it is only the reference of tomorrow's expectations. In a word, what is to be done or thought is always underfoot, with no need to step aside in order to find out what is to be thought, believed, or enacted...."

"As I hope I have shown, empirical reality is not itself an obstacle to seeing; rather, it is what we think about this reality that creates an obstacle to a transition that otherwise might not have been necessary in the first place. As it stands now, I still have a number of problems due to the continual need to compromise. I am surrounded by people with whom I need to relate; I live amid values, ideas, and opinions on which I must express myself; and because of this environment, I am continually impressed with the difficulty of sharing a journey with others who do not see as I now see. Yet this very inability, this abiding difficulty, only brings home to me the more how incomplete life is and ever will be until everyone can see." (10)

She sums up her realisation under the heading, "How it Works:" "There is no multiplicity of existences; only what Is has existence, an existence that can expand itself into an infinite variety of forms that constitute the movement and manifested aspect of itself. Though what Is, is the act, movement, and changing of all forms - and is form itself - it is, at the same time, the unchanging, unknowable aspect of all form. Thus, that which Is, continually observes the coming and going - the changing and movement - of its own form or acts, without participating in any essential change itself. Since the nature or essence of Itself is act, there can be no separation between its knowing, acting, existing, or between any aspect of itself, because that which acts, that which it acts upon, and the act itself are one without division. It never goes outside itself to know itself because the unmanifested, the manifesting, and the manifested are One." (11)

The third, and most difficult, of her three books, is the privately printed What is Self?, subtitled "A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness". In her Introduction to this book, she makes it clear that her assertion of the existence of this third stage - the no-self experience - has met a fair degree of resistance, not only from within the usual Christian contemplative community but also from those New Age eclectic metaphysicians who are drawing from Eastern traditions. She explains this resistance as follows:

"The whole problem is that until we come upon this final event we do not know it is missing from the literature; thus we have no way of knowing what, specifically, to look for. In other words, until we know first hand or by experience exactly what to look for, we are not in a position to judge whether or not this event is in the literature.

"This does not mean that millions of people have not come upon the no-self event; indeed, sooner or later everyone will do so. All it means is that an accurate, distinguishable or clarifying account is not in the literature. The challenge of providing such an account is what my writing is all about. Attesting to the difficulty of this challenge is the fact that my first two books failed in this matter, so here, now, is a third attempt. I might add, the fact this book was not acceptable to a trade publisher further demonstrates the difficulty of putting the no-self event into the literature. It may be that for centuries our various censors have eliminated any event they did not understand or which they thought too upsetting to their clientele. I can only speculate about this....

"As matters stand now, however, it seems that the very idea that the unitive state eventually falls away strikes the mind as incomprehensible, unbelievable - impossible in fact. For this reason the no-self event has been variously misinterpreted as: (1) the 'no-ego' event, (2) a mistaken interpretation of the experience, (3) a misunderstanding of the traditional path, (4) a semantic error or improper use and definition of terms, (5) a kind of mulish pride and prejudice on the part of the author. This list of mis-interpretations goes on. At bottom, however, the whole problem is that, by its very nature, self or consciousness is incapable of conceiving its own non-existence. It cannot possibly imagine any kind of life without itself because that which could imagine such a life IS self. So the true difficulty of understanding the no-self event is not one of semantics; rather, it is consciousness' (psyche or self's) own inability to go beyond itself; it is impossible.....We cannot believe experiences we have not had, or unable to conceive or imagine; much less can we believe any experience we cannot find verified and described in our traditional literature....

"If the content and purpose of this writing seems to be in total contradiction to the reader's beliefs and expectations regarding self and the journey, then he or she is advised to read no further. Those who do read further are advised to keep in mind that the Christian path is the only one I ever lived; thus what I know of other religious traditions and psychological paradigms is solely by way of reading and discussion with others. So, although I speak of Hinduism, Buddhism and the psychology of Carl Jung, I have never had their particular experiences or shared their perspectives. I trust readers will allow for this just as they allow for those who, never having lived the Christian contemplative path, nevertheless continue to give us their views on it." (12)

Perhaps this small sampling can serve as an introduction to Bernadette Robertsí thought, which seems remarkably congruent with other opinions expressed on this site. Just as others have described their own experiences, she has described hers - from a different perspective, to be sure, but I think she is delineating the same terrain.

[You may find more information regarding Bernadette Roberts at  http://www.bernadettesfriends.blogspot.com ]

NOTES:

(1)  Joseph Chilton Pearce: Evolution's End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence; Harper SanFrancisco, 1992, p. 226

(2)  Bernadette Roberts: The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey; Shambala, Boston, 1984, p. 84

(3)  Bernadette Roberts: The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey (revised edition); State University of New York Press, Albany, 1993; p. 37

(4)  ibid, p. 119

(5)  ibid, p. 13

(6)  ibid, pp. 53-54

(7)  ibid, p. 47

(8)  ibid, pp. 13-14

(9)  ibid, p. 84

(10)  Roberts,  op. cit., 1984, pp. 144-166

(11)  ibid, p. 83

(12)  Bernadette Roberts: What is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness, Mary Botsford Goens, Austin Texas, 1989; pp. x-xiii


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