By Kathleen Brownback
Note: This blog post is adapted from “Teaching Marc Gafni’s ‘Unique Self’ Enlightenment in the Classroom: Reflections from a Phillips Exeter Class in Mysticism (for the annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, November 2011, Amherst College).”
A new course introduced at Phillips Exeter Academy in the spring of 2011 began with these words on the syllabus:
What we are about to explore has many names. It has been called the mystical tradition, the perennial tradition, the direct path, the path of the heart, the journey to (and with) the beloved, the practice of yoga, and the contemplative tradition. Aldous Huxley called it “the science, not of the personal ego, but of that eternal Self in the depth of particular, individualized selves, and identical with, or at least akin to, the divine Ground.” What these traditions share is the understanding that there is the possibility of union between the self and whatever we might call Ultimate Reality or God or Spirit, and that this union is primarily realized through a path of spiritual practice.
There is no possible way to make a comprehensive study of all these traditions in one term, and no need for us to do so. The main goal here is to locate various paths within the religious traditions, and to begin to understand what is meant by “spiritual practice.”
As the first teacher of this class, my main goal was to engage the students in a deeper understanding of ego development and the way in which the contemplative or mystical dimension of religion could help them both intellectually and practically as they move into their adult lives.
Phillips Exeter is a secular independent secondary school in New Hampshire, an hour north of Boston, with a 200-year history as an academic powerhouse for boys. It became coeducational in 1972 and has retained its high academic distinction, with all students headed for college and many to the top schools in the country.
The students are bright and lively and curious. But as anywhere, they struggle at times with nonacademic life circumstances that have the capacity to affect their intellectual engagement””a superficial and highly commercialized teenage (and often adult) culture, a pervasive unease about the future of their society in an era of environmental and economic challenge, and for some, personal or family histories of addiction or depression. For this reason I sought out texts and readings that were inclined to prompt questions at the interface of psychology and religion. I had the sense that these would speak to students in both an academic and a personal way, as in fact they did.
In this paper I will first describe student background and interest, then give a brief overview of the course, then focus on the work of one scholar and teacher, Marc Gafni, whose writing in particular spoke to the students in a powerful way.
In the course of the term I had to develop and articulate to myself my own changing philosophy of teaching, which I began to explore in a 2009 article in the Exeter alumni/ae bulletin entitled “In Pursuit of Truths.”
I will describe this evolution more deeply at the end of the article, but also briefly mention it here.
Phillips Exeter has a strong tradition of student involvement in the classroom. Our classes are arranged in an oval, with solid wooden tables in the center of each classroom around which students and teacher engage. Though every classroom is different, the central philosophy is one of strong student participation and attention to text, with the teacher helping to create a path through the course material, highlighting unresolved areas of contradiction or misunderstanding, and when necessary provoking deeper questions. The weight given to student participation assures that students recognize the subjective aspect of their intellectual work, but it leaves open (or at times even seems to close) the question of ultimate truth beyond the individual perspective. The hope of most teachers is that attention to shallow interpretation, to missed nuance, to outright error and misreading helps in the manner of the via negativa to guide students toward deeper and more complex understandings, and this is often the case. For example, while we do not preach the truth, we call attention to a false assumption or point out an argument that is incomplete. We do not give the correct reading of a poem, but we call attention to the parts that have been missed, the aspects of a reading that need to be filled out.
The question that I bring to teaching generally, and to this course in particular, is about our responsibility beyond this “negative truth”””a way to point to a framework or orientation broad enough to include every student’s particularity, yet not so open-ended that it leads inevitably and almost irrevocably to a kind of vague relativism and its equally empty twin, narcissism. I have come to think that we need to recover our appreciation for some of the great words etched in the walls of most of our institutions”¦words like light, truth, love, fidelity”¦in ways that do not cause us to shift uncomfortably and wait for the inevitable sermon about how we ought to be, or that invite adherence to the one true faith of the speaker. This would require both a firm assertion of the value of the individual and his or her creative potential, as well as a path beyond the solely individual ego and its subjective limit. Some of my colleagues would say we have no such possibility and certainly no responsibility, but other colleagues do have a sense of this. They may lack an overarching language for it, but they feel keenly the need to help students build a clear sense of identity in a world that has deconstructed””often valuably so””what once passed for truth. Without such an orientation, students may (or may not) avoid the alternatives of narrow fundamentalism and utter nihilism, but they are apt to feel hollow and depleted. The sources of significant conviction are often missing, and they do not know where to look for them””passion strikes them as an unusual gift, and perhaps even the kind of quality that a balanced human would be better to do without. But in its place come substitutes: the outraged judgments of the fundamentalist, or the addicted craving for whatever it is that may provide a brief sense of fullness and value and outside approval. Many teachers are aware of these poles among our students, or the deep, often unspoken yearning of many of them for another way to live. It was to this that I found myself becoming most attentive, and particularly, in a religion classroom, to the connection between an individual’s view of God or ultimate reality or concern, and the deepest sources of their humanity and passion and creativity.
Student Background and Interest
On the first day of class the students described themselves, their history with religion, and what drew them to the class. The students’ full verbatim responses to this first written assignment are in the Appendix, but given here in short form to give a flavor of the students’ backgrounds:
- I can tell you that I have always been skeptical of that ultimate reality of god. At the moment I see God as a coping mechanism or guide that many people follow to give meaning and purpose to their lives. This term I am hoping to find out what else religion, spiritual practice, and mysticism can be. My family is Buddhist but I personally have never gotten into meditation. I am hoping that first approaching meditation from a more academic standpoint might help me ultimately embrace Buddhism and its traditions and goals more fully and purposefully.
- In the past couple of years I have become comfortable with labeling myself as an atheist. However, I am interested in how the practices of meditation, yoga, etc. can help you achieve a higher state of relaxation, emotional stability, or decisiveness. ”
- I was raised Roman Catholic, very traditional, went to church every Sunday. When I turned 16, much to my family’s dismay, I chose not to be confirmed” I think individuals should reach their own place of faith when they are ready to commit themselves to it, I hope to reach that place someday.
- I grew up in Bangkok, where the majority of people are Buddhist. However, I was raised as a Roman Catholic. In Thailand a lot of the culture and traditions revolve around Buddhist beliefs, and some festivals are mainly for worshipping spirits” I believe they do exist but I consider them at a wholly different level from the beliefs I have about God” even though both are about belief in something beyond our material world.
- I grew up in a deeply faithful Roman Catholic home, and consider myself a strong Christian. However, being from Sao Paulo Brazil my Catholicism takes a different form. My father himself is a practicing Candomble. ”
- I suppose I could say I grew up in a strong religious background but have been taught never to follow my religion blindly but to question and explore”.
- I grew up with a strong religious background (my mother is a Greek Orthodox Christian, my father from a very Catholic background) and I’m certainly religious but in very uncertainly defined terms. Academically I’m trying to explore as much religious thought as I can and this sounded really cool ”
- During my time at Exeter I started to wonder about consciousness, and thought about it as the layers of an onion”
- I didn’t grow up with any religion or religious beliefs” I really hate being told what to believe in, and if I do find some type of faith I want it to come from within me.
- I have studied/remember almost nothing about religion and spirituality but I am interested in a further exploration. My parents are atheists”.
- I grew up as a Christian. I went with my mom to church every Saturday and tried to follow the faith in my everyday life. It wasn’t until I got to Exeter that I began to ask myself why I believe what I do ”. I still believe in a higher power of sorts, something that created me”.
- I grew up in a conservative Jewish household attending Jewish day school and have always been really interested in religion. I used to be somewhat traditional””my family kept the Sabbath, kept kosher etc. but have moved away from that component of my religion” I have always been interested in mysticism and the unique approach with which it approaches religion. ”¦But I am very rational and this makes believing in God difficult.
- I grew up with a background in Byzantine Catholicism ” the masses I attended when I was younger were spoken or sung in Ukrainian, with scattered fragmented English and since my mother had not taught me Ukrainian very extensively I had trouble understanding the mass. ”
- Recently I realized that the idea of “enlightenment” holds particular interest for me. I have for awhile been fascinated with the study of Comparative Religion””specifically, where the myriad religious traditions of the human race meet and where they diverge. ”
- I have grown up with a strong Catholic background. I am a dedicated confirmed Catholic not because I really believe in any of it (I disagree with almost all the church’s rules, don’t really believe in Jesus, and feel uncomfortable with the church’s vision of God) but because my family does. I have a big, southern Catholic family whom I love –I love church because I love them. It’s a bit complicated but it works for me. ”
- Just last term I took a religion class, Existentialism, that really opened up a new way of looking at life” that course influenced me to sign up for this class.
- I have not formally studied religion before and I do not come from a religious background. I have dabbled a little in meditation and I am interested in its potential power (if it has any at all). I am a science lover and I am more used to dealing with the concrete”
- I’m bipolar and I’ve found that that is interesting to use myself as a guinea pig when figuring out/thinking of existence and absolutes and the role of perception on reality. ” I’ve wondered about having at least a constant “self” or “personality”, which to me doesn’t make sense because I lack a constant there. ”
- I grew up in a family that did not associate with any specific religion but I’ve never really thought that being spiritual had to have anything to do with being religious. It’s more than possible to appreciate the beauty of our world without believing in any sort of greater power.”
There were two sections of the class, with 11 students in each, and each section developed a distinct personality. The course began with Tibetan teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel’s Power of an Open Question. Namgyel’s book introduced the idea of a “life koan,” a source of contradiction in their lives in which two apparently true perceptions do not seem to logically cohere. Namgyel herself met with the students directly via Skype for an engaging session that for most students was their first encounter with a spiritual teacher. The students wrestled with her ideas and with Buddhist responses to life questions in ways that are familiar to those who have studied and taught eastern wisdom traditions in the classroom. They also read various studies in current brain science including Buddha’s Brain by Hanson and Mendius, and two neuroscientists visited the class after leading a faculty workshop””Willoughby Britton from Brown and Judd Brewer from Yale. The students read sections of Hume and Kant on the limits of the rational mind, and several chapters from Huston Smith’s Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions. For some students Hume and Kant supplemented previous reading in an introductory philosophy class at Exeter, for others it was new territory. Carl Jung provided an introduction to the archetype of the self, in addition to which the students read emerging studies in the theory of enlightenment and ego development in the work of Ken Wilber, Marc Gafni, and Cynthia Bourgeault.
The course also included a strong component introducing spiritual practice across world traditions””understanding its goals, asking how practices vary among faiths and according to preference, and beginning to learn different forms of meditation. Some of the forms we engaged were watching the breath, counting the breath, repeating a mantra (such as “breathe in connection, breathe out compassion”), and breathing with attention at the heart center. Both sections began every day with one of these practices, later including chant and movement meditation, as well as yoga, for about 5 minutes, with writing afterward in a meditation journal. Every few weeks the students wrote a meditation response paper on their experience with meditation in and out of class. Twice the class met for a fuller experience and spent most of the period in seated and walking meditation in an exquisite wood-beamed room dedicated for this purpose at the school church. Student experience with meditation varied widely””all reported significant engagement although the favored practices varied considerably. Most resonated with the Gayatri mantra or other chants, while others preferred silence, with a mantra or the practice of centering prayer.
A Brief Side Note: An interest on the part of many Exeter faculty members over the last 7 or 8 years in “Mind-Body” questions has led to inclusion of brief periods of meditation in the classrooms of some other disciplines. Interest in the club sport of yoga has spiraled up every year since it began, and a Friday night student sangha led by the co-founder and lead teacher at the Newburyport Insight Meditation Center (co-founded by Matthew Daniell and Larry Rosenberg) has dramatically increased in popularity. A number of faculty members have taken up a formal yoga or meditation practice, and the school health center is strongly interested in the mental and physical health benefits of these practices for students. Nevertheless, it is unusual for a class to spend as much time engaging spiritual practice as we did, and this is perhaps even more true of the religion department, which holds itself fairly strongly to the idea that we teach “about religion” but we do not “teach religion.” Yet we have begun to recognize something along the lines of what Wilber and others describe as the “three faces of God”””the internal, subjective experience (first person), the relationship between the individual and whatever he or she may understand as God (second person, which often includes a community focus), and the descriptive understanding of spiritual practice in a comparative mode (third person, the more objective study of traditions) and to include, to one degree or another, all three faces or dimensions of the divine or of ultimate reality in classroom teaching of every tradition. To teach “about religion” often includes a direct connection with the practices that provide its life and energy, but there are questions we have not yet resolved. How, for example, does an observant Jew or Christian approach the chant “Om Namah Shivaya,” with its explicit homage to another God? It is here that we need the utmost sophistication in working with traditions and with students at various developmental levels, and here that teaching becomes challenging, creative, and potentially life-changing.
Work of Marc Gafni
A full review of the mysticism course is beyond the scope of this paper, but one set of ideas in particular struck the students as especially exciting and clarifying as they sought to understand the possibility of a life experience not completely defined by the ego or separate self. These are explored by Marc Gafni most recently in “The Evolutionary Emergent of Unique Self” and “The Unique Self and Nondual Humanism: A Study in the Enlightened Teaching of Mordechai Lainer of Izbica” in The Journal of Integral Theory and Practice, March 2011, SUNY Press, and in more popular forms in his earlier book The Mystery of Love (Simon and Schuster, 2003), and in a forthcoming Your Unique Self . Gafni is a lifelong student and teacher of the Kabbalah, with a PhD from Oxford, who grew up in the United States and has lived and taught in the U.S. and Israel. The resonance of his work with students immediately became clear.
Gafni contrasts the prevailing teaching of enlightenment in the Eastern tradition (the transcendence of the individual ego that occurs with the temporary or stable awareness of a state often described as True or Original Self, or No Self) with the most common understanding of enlightenment in the West (the individual capacity of the rational mind to seek freedom from authoritarian or other external control). Gafni highlights the strengths of both but observes in each a key area of incompletion as well. In the Eastern case, he notes a tendency to devalue the significance of the individual, in favor of an impersonal understanding of human nature that downplays or at times negates individual uniqueness. In the Western tradition, he focuses on a tendency to highlight individual qualities and especially rational capacities to the point that an awareness of human transcendence beyond the individual becomes nearly impossible, except through “romantic” or “transcendentalist” strands of thought that are often at odds with Western philosophy. In religious terms, this often finds expression in the idea that humanity is fundamentally sinful and separate from God, who can be reached by supplication but does not communicate transcendence, and with whom it is heresy to speak of union. Or God is understood in purely rational terms, and nothing transcends it.
Gafni’s “unique self” path of ego development integrates these two disparate streams and takes them on a further trajectory. The path begins with immersion in one’s separate identity, the separate self of the personal ego, then moves to a beginning awareness of the “false self.” The false self is a template of the various ways the ego protects itself from the painful realization of its separateness and felt inadequacy in the universe of billions of other egos all competing for space, attention, and superiority. At best the false self is attracted to superficiality and novelty as a way to distract itself from its pervasive sense of emptiness and inadequacy. At worst the false self can lead the individual into addiction””to work, drugs, depersonalized sex, power, a resigned sense of powerlessness”” in an effort to dull the pain of separation. The false self also manifests various aspects of an individual’s “shadow,” which Gafni describes as indicators of an unlived life that are present in a distorted form. Gafni calls these attractions “pseudo- eros,” in that they seek to mimic a sense of fullness or adequacy but do not begin to address the suffering of the false self at its root.
If the general outline of a false self begins to become clear to the individual (and students had no trouble seeing this aspect of themselves and of their culture), he or she may choose to begin to find a way to authentic and deeply grounded action. Usually this comes through some awareness of spiritual practice, leading to the capacity to see the ego as a function of a larger self. In many traditions this is the end goal, in which the individual self is increasingly understood to be composed of preferences and attachments that can be set aside in favor of the awareness of True Self, and “enlightenment” is understood to represent increasing clarity in this discernment””most often leading toward destruction or abandonment of the individual ego. Gafni values this goal as essential, but moves beyond it toward the development of another kind of self, the Unique Self, which gradually begins to return the individual to an awareness of his or her unique nature in the universe, along with an abiding sense of the unique value of every other embodied self. He calls this the “personal face of essence.”
In order to reach this awareness a deep experience of the all-pervasive nature of True Self is first required, linking one inextricably to the true self of every other sentient being. Because of this realization, the Unique Self differs profoundly from the earlier stage of the individual separate self, and through practice leads to an awareness of a richly individualized self that creates and enjoys expression and community in the service of highest development for all. The driver of the entire process is understood by Gafni to be the force of eros or love within and beyond the individual, which he defines as God, the animating force of evolution toward higher levels of complexity and consciousness. Love is not a passing or fleeting emotion but a perception of self and other””of all others””that creates an obligation to seek the unique self in all beings, and which carries an intuition of greatness in oneself and in the other.
Spiritual practice has varied dimensions in Gafni’s work. His understanding of God shares with Ken Wilber the idea of three dimensions or “faces,” as briefly described above””a first person experience of God or spirit within, a second person relationship to God in prayer or direct encounter, and a third person sense of God as a force in the universe. The spiritual practices associated with Gafni’s work are at first the same as those leading to awareness of the True Self””meditation, chant, prayer, yoga, study of sacred text and poetry. Once the student has begun in some measure to stabilize this awareness, the practice becomes one of discernment with the help of a teacher and fellow students””beginning to name the characteristics of the unique self of each individual and identifying deeper aspects of the false self. As part of this process, Gafni’s long Kabbalistic study leads him to distinguish between the feminine and masculine qualities of energy within the individual and to note the shadow qualities of each””for example, the way in which forcefulness and rigor can sometimes become harsh and despotic, or the way care and concern for others can devolve into an overly solicitous protection from risk and challenge. The union of the clarified forms of these masculine and feminine energies within and between individuals is the spark of true eros, which for Kabbalists participates directly in the original and ongoing dynamic of creation. All spiritual practice for Gafni is directed toward reawakening the erotic, not solely in the sexual arena (although there as well) but in the whole of life, as it moves toward higher evolution.
Student Response to Gafni’s Work
Exeter students resonated strongly with Gafni’s work, while raising questions that remained open at the end of the course in promising ways””the sign of an ongoing intellectual and personal engagement. They recognized the value of the unique self as a way to integrate self confidence with humility in ways some have already been able to see as necessary, and they found in it an understanding of God or spirit that was both challenging and inspiring. At the age of 17 or 18 they are familiar with the emotional payload of the separate ego””jealousy, anger, depression, grandiosity, and a pervasive sense of insufficiency despite an often impressive record of intellectual, athletic, and artistic accomplishment. Many have also begun to experience the deep friendship and love that leads them to believe that there is a possibility of connecting with others, at least briefly, outside the walls of the separate ego. Most of the students who chose this class had experienced the separating quality of many religious groups, and were actively seeking an understanding of God or spirit that would extend beyond those barriers while not necessarily rejecting the traditions in their entirety. For those with a concern for human rights and social justice, the idea of the unique self as a birthright gave them a framework for commitment to the value of every human life. They found the idea of love not driven exclusively by ego a high but not always impossible bar.
Students were assigned a paper in which they were asked to respond to Gafni’s ideas with critical comment and ideas they found of particular significance. A few excepts follow:
- The general idea of the Ego, True, and Unique selves resonated with me this term. From the first time we went over it in class, the distinction between the selves made a lot of sense to me”¦in some experiences which I am more sensitive or insecure about I tend to act more from my ego self, in other situations having to do with my dorm for instance I act with better understanding of my true self, and in the things I am most passionate about, like dancing, I feel more like my unique self. I can still recognize traces of every self in every situation I’m in, but I seem to lean more towards one or the other in different situations. ”¦To me, the only way to move from one stage to another is to work on the small occurrences that constitute the ego self and slowly work through each facet of my weaker self until I can one day reach the true form of who I am or the better me, in my Unique self.
- [What I like is that for Gafni] to live erotically is to live in prayer. I think by this definition of God, to pray is to experience love in any way, shape, or form. This God doesn’t need to be addressed as “Our Father who art in heaven” or anything. We call God by our acts of love and compassion and pray by living with, tapping into, or experiencing the force of eros (God) running though us and everyone around us. Connection through eros to another person is prayer as well, because it all relates back to utilizing, experiencing, and being a part of the divine force of eros, which is God”.I think the idea of God knowing our name relates to the personal nature of this God. Eros is a universal thing, but also a very personal thing. It calls to every person in an individual way.
- Seeing myself as part of God allows me to feel more connected with other beings and reveals the possibility of “divinity” within me. It opens doors to deepening my understanding of myself as a unique part of a greater whole. Prayer as a means of entering into a direct relationship with God can then be used to look deeper and find God within ourselves. Prayer can almost be a sort of meditation, calling God to reveal himself within us. The unique self or God part within us is what can be understood as “God knowing our name.”
- I very much identify with the section where he speaks of how one must pursue love, how it does not happen to us (love-struck, falling in love, etc.) but comes as a result of opening our eyes to Wordworth’s “trailing clouds of glory” in all of us.
- While Buddhism seeks to distance practitioners from suffering and loss, Gafni seems to do the opposite. Nothing is permanent. However, although living passionately and loving fully will inevitably result in sadness, living any other way is hollow. Press yourself closely to life. It is the only way to taste life fully.
- Gafni’s conception of prayer becomes doubly interesting when coupled with his idea of the unique self. “Unique self,” Gafni states, “is our personal response to the call of the transpersonal, a call that can only be answered for a place of one’s personal essence. “ He seems to suggest a primordial God-Goddess pair that generated the original Eros””the first “call” of the transpersonal deity. This call was answered by the first human beings who became aware of it (Adam and Eve, in the Hebrew tradition), who reached out to the deity with their own, unique imaginations, thereby changing and transforming it””and the cycle begins again”. Every human being has a sliver of the divine within them; through their own unique contact with eros and their own active imagination, they continually shape this sliver, combining the primordial spirit of the transpersonal deity with the best, most integral elements of their own personality. Thus the unique self is created: a dynamic balance of the human and the divine.
- He articulates the way that society (and its manifestation as the ego) may exhibit a will to diminish or even do away with the eros, but the erotic still exists in our consciousness”¦I completely agree that we cannot get rid of eros in any action we take to further a project, desire, or lifetime aspiration”¦eros is not solely relegated to the field of sexual impulses, but rather applied to every facet of our interactions.
- The idea that has had the most impact on me is definitely the concept of emptiness. On the whole, I have been surprised by how much mysticism has helped me understand what was going on in my life. This has been a pretty rough term for me, especially since I have gone off medication for depression that I have been on since the 8th grade. Because of this I’ve been feeling a lot of new emotions and, actually, a lack thereof. When I read about the concept of emptiness in Gafni’s book, I immediately realized that that was part of what I have been feeling lately. The numbness and loneliness that I have been pushing to the back of my mind suddenly made sense. I realize that often I did try to falsely fill that emptiness with media or food.
- The unique self fits in because in our unique selves, we maintain a lack of total merging with the infinite, and therefore there is an encounter, yet we are not separate (and “sinful”) from God. Instead we are connected to God while maintaining our uniqueness, and therefore we are able to experience and partake in the great divine gift of the encounter that affirms our (and everyone’s) human dignity.
- This class introduced me to a totally new approach in understanding religion and spirituality. The God we explored was not an entity to be worshipped and feared but a philosophy to live by. We practiced being inside of God through meditation and by learning to be more present and aware. My favorite definition of God is Jewish mystic theologian Marc Gafni’s. He describes God as Eros, a source of creative passion and vitality that courses through life, fills emptiness with warmth, and binds all beings together” This emphasis on aliveness resonates with Buddhist meditation teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel’s advice on embracing the dynamisms of the world and living life to its fullest in The Power of an Open Question. Mattis-Namgyel also encourages us not to fear questions that do not have tangible answers or resolutions, and teaches us that the ultimate meaning in life lies in pursuing open questions.
And they questioned some aspects of Gafni’s vision. Comments like these, at times amusing, made for exceptionally rich discussion in class:
- I have a hard time reconciling his glorious, vibrant version of eros with my own experience of the divine. His version seems so fast and colorful whereas mine is much stiller and quieter (though just as joyful).
- The fourth face of “intense yearning”” Perhaps I do not understand him but I can think of nothing that would persuade me to live my whole life in yearning. My highest goal is to be content.
- Gafni’s ideas speak to me more than most of the religious experiences, what few of these there have been, have in my life. He puts God in terms I want to believe in, but seem unable to actually do so. If each of us is a part of God, shouldn’t the world be a more enjoyable place to live? ”¦the world can be a pretty awful place sometimes-war, famine, genocide, abuse. Shouldn’t people who are a part of God be able to live above this kind of behavior?
- Non-egoic love means you have to love a person for themselves, not what they give to you, not if they’re with you, not if you think someday they’ll be with you. It’s like an unrequited love, but not necessarily unrequited. This is hard.
- There is much that Gafni says in his understanding of God, sin, and the unique self that speaks to me””I love the idea that God exists as the force of love that runs through and connects every human; that God exists between the spaces of human connection. And I think this perception of God is true on many levels, and very accessible to people who are more agnostic or struggle greatly with a personified God as that man in the sky or that sort of thing. I think God is more than that, though, or maybe it’s that I choose to personify God more””I still see an entity that is not only a force such as eros but something more and hard to define. Just seeing God as a force seems like too much physics for me””maybe true on a fundamental level, but I don’t see God as just a pile of energy and love. I see something more human while entirely transcendental of humans there.
- My one issue with Gafni was the inclusion of God. However, upon reflection, this did not seem so problematic.Although Gafni’s approach does include a God (it is difficult for me to believe in God), it is more of an idea or ideal than an actual being who is responsible for the universe. If Gafni calls this ideal of love for everything that we should strive for God, that is fine with me. With this interpretation, prayer transforms from the more passive act of requesting to a very active move that will, in theory, allow one to live more passionately and/or engender compassion.
- I had a question about methodology”¦the question of how one should best live a life of eros remains. It may be that this varies widely from person to person, but it is difficult for me not to imagine there being a core set of principles to best achieve the ideal of eros in our lives. Additionally, it is easy for me to imagine a situation in which eros can engender hate. Is this the case? Is hate preferable to indifference? I really do not know.
These are the kind of questions and comments that generated intense discussion in class, as the students grappled with Gafni’s ideas and sought to understand their implications. But the material has enough depth to lead them into active and searching modes of insight””the kind of discussion that teachers would describe as erotic in the fullest sense of the word. What exactly it means to yearn””and what exactly one is yearning for””is an unusual conversation in a classroom, but it flows directly from an engagement with the text. How one might understand eros as both an impersonal force and an entirely personal one is exactly the kind of question that the class was designed to prompt.
A Personal Note on Teaching Unique Self in the Classroom
As I reflect back on the term, it is clear that teaching unique self made a major difference in how I approach the teaching of mysticism, and spoke to a concern I have long held. Although this is the first course we have had at Exeter called “Mysticism”, our Hinduism and Buddhism courses teach the ideas of the True Self awareness””meditation, yoga, and sacred text. Students always find the ideas fascinating and often try to put them into practice. But I have often had the disquieting sense of leaving the students psychologically stranded. At the exact moment in their lives when they are putting together a sense of identity, I am teaching them to consider that identity is empty and attachment is a function of the ego that should be left behind. As they begin to put together their sense of what they want to do with their lives, I am teaching them about the wheel of samsara. In a world where it is difficult for them to feel that they truly matter in the greater cosmos, I am teaching them that their personal qualities are apt to be inflations of the mind, and there is nothing special about their individual lives. There is always value in presenting them with ideas that bring them up short and make them think, but there is also the potential to undercut their fundamental sense that they matter and their actions matter. Some notion of what Gafni calls the Unique Self is implicit in Buddhist teaching””the notion of the self is a complex one in Buddhism and most Buddhists I know are hardly without a fundamental quality of uniqueness and are fully engaged with life. But there is a tendency for students to see a kind of depressed detachment as the teaching legacy of the Buddha, or they simply view it as an impossible project.
The unique self teaching has enabled me to value the keen insights of Buddhism, but to be able to teach the clarification of the ego as a stage, not an end goal—it becomes an essential step for students on the path to discovering more deeply who they are. Since the unique self cannot be realized without an awareness of the true self in which all are connected, that awareness becomes a platform for greater realization and for the true valuing of others. It leads to a sense of evolution of consciousness that is not pre-ordained or fixed in its design, or limited to a particular faith, but nevertheless gives each life meaning, purpose, and value. Finally, it allows room for””it actually requires””an engagement with one’s deepest creativity and sense of aliveness, which is the state of erotic engagement.
As a teacher it is not my goal to leave students with an answer or a new dogma that constricts their ongoing intellectual and personal inquiry, but it definitely is my goal to open up new horizons for their consideration as they grapple with questions of identity and worldview– to confirm their often unspoken hope that their lives matter deeply to the world, and that they bring a unique presence to each moment that would not be there without them. They know at some level that this is not of transient importance. They have a sense of the significance of such ideas for their future””partly, I think, because they have recognized what happens when identity and worldview are missing. They know the sense of meaningless, and they have seen it in others.
One of Exeter’s strongest students (or at least, as measured by cumulative GPA) delayed taking a religion class until the spring of her senior year. She is quoted above and dove deeply into the subject matter of the class. She often spoke of her surprise at material we covered, and closed her comments about the class with this note:
“The ideas and insights that I gained in our class liberated me from the restricted and close-minded understanding of religion that I had held previously””one that viewed religion as an escape mechanism and a complete surrender to the absence of logic. I can now see that religion occupies an important place in our lives because it allows for deep inner reflection and appreciation of living. Conversations we had helped me realize that religion and spirituality are more about the worthiness of life than the fear of death.”
Like many other students, she also expressed gratitude and relief that a subject so long obscured had finally begun to make sense, and had the potential to change her life in ways that she had long wanted but not known how to pursue. For students like these, this material was not only valuable but in some way reflects part of our responsibility as teachers—- to help students engage in serious academic discussion that also gives them a powerful sense of their future, in a world that will desperately need their full and most creative and enlivened engagement.
It is hard to see why we, as teachers, would want to do anything less.
Appendix: Student Background
On the first day of class the students described themselves, their history with religion, and what drew them to the class. The writing prompt was as follows:
Please write a paragraph or two on where you are as we start this exploration. You might use one or more of the following statements to get started, or write your own. Be as specific as you’d like about any aspect of faith that you may have, or be considering, or have rejected. You may summarize this as you wish in the discussion.
- I grew up with a strong religious background and am interested in exploring my tradition’s mystical/contemplative dimension
- more fully”¦.
- I grew up with a strong religious background but I am interested in moving in another direction instead of or in addition to my own”¦..
- I have studied/remember almost nothing in religion/spirituality, but I am interested in further exploration”¦..
- I don’t associate religion with spirituality, and I think it’s possible to be spiritual without being religious”¦..
- I am an agnostic””I think ultimate questions are fundamentally unknowable, at least by me”¦..
- I don’t have or especially want to develop any beliefs in God or ultimate reality, but I am totally stressed out and I hope this
- course can help ”¦”¦
- I am a committed atheist and do not believe in anything outside the material world, but signed up for this class anyway”¦..
- At Exeter I took a course in _________ (any department including religion) that may be relevant because I started wondering
- I needed to take a religion course and this one seemed to cover the most bases in the least amount of time”¦.
- I am interested in other states of consciousness, induced by whatever means, and this course seems to be about that”¦.
Or choose your own place to start. There are no right/wrong answers””please feel free to be honest. We’ll take about 10-15 minutes to write here but you’ll have a chance to write more on this in the course of the next few weeks.
- I don’t really associate religion with spirituality. I grew up in Bangkok, where the majority of people are Buddhist. However, I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I wouldn’t consider myself extremely religious but I do try to attend mass every Sunday and say my prayers every night”¦I also believe in spirits, like those of my ancestors etc. I think this is mainly due to my upbringing and the stories I was told as a child. In Thailand a lot of the culture and traditions revolve around Buddhist beliefs, and some festivals are mainly for worshipping spirits”¦I believe they do exist but I consider them at a wholly different level from the beliefs I have about God”¦even though both are about belief in something beyond our material world.
- I grew up in a deeply faithful Roman Catholic home, and consider myself a strong Christian. However, being from Sao Paulo Brazil my Catholicism takes a different form. In Brazil, because of the religion of the African slaves who came over, we have Candomble. The Africans took their Gods and gave them the name of the Portuguese Catholic figures, and Kemanja, the goddess of the sea became Saint Mary, etc. My father himself is a practicing Candomble. ”¦
- I suppose I could say I grew up in a strong religious background but have been taught never to follow my religion blindly but to question and explore”¦because of that I have never felt extremely Christian. When reading the course description this course seemed to focus more on questions and the path of those questions than on facts or answers””that description is what brought me in. I am more concerned with the forces of kindness, love, creativity (a force I associate with God) than the traditions spoken of in the bible. I suppose I am taking this class because every single person/religion has a concern with a greater being, a God. Where does that come from?
- During my time at Exeter I started to wonder about consciousness, and thought about it as the layers of an onion. I used to think consciousness was all the layers of the onion: the doer, the seer, and all the people and experiences that have created us. However I now think that consciousness is an innate part of our being. Maybe it is something underneath all the layers of the onion, something that transcends the influence of the world outside ourselves, something unique to every individual. That consciousness is a spirit. My consciousness is my spirit.
- I didn’t grow up with any religion or religious beliefs. I don’t think I could associate with something like Christianity or Islam. I really hate being told what to believe in, and if I do find some type of faith I want it to come from within me. I’m just hoping to learn more about my own consciousness and ideas about god, and see if that helps me find faith. ..
- I have studied/remember almost nothing about religion and spirituality but I am interested in a further exploration. My parents are atheists, but my grandmother’s sister, who raised me, is a devout Catholic—she took me to church frequently when I was 5-7, but I don’t remember much from that time period. I love meditating and I also like yoga. Meditating helps me feel at peace. In this course I would like to study the meaning that meditation has in mysticism and in other religions and I would also like to learn about “other states of consciousness.”
- In the past couple of years I have become comfortable with labeling myself as an atheist. However, I am interested in how the practices of meditation, yoga, etc. can help you achieve a higher state of relaxation, emotional stability, or decisiveness. I took yoga as meditation during fall term for my sport and saw the effects for myself, so that’s what inspired me.
- I was raised Roman Catholic, very traditional, went to church every Sunday. When I turned 16, much to my family’s dismay, I chose not to be confirmed. I definitely lost touch with my faith and the church. Maybe that happened because I came to Exeter, maybe it didn’t. I chose not to continue my involvement with the Catholic church and confirmation because I do not think at 16 I had the maturity or the ability to make a lifelong commitment an choice to be Catholic. I believe having a faith takes nourishment and focus. I also feel that fostering a faith requires more than I was ready or willing to give at 16. I believe every person needs something to pray to and rely on. I think religion is very important. But I also think individuals should reach their own place of faith when they are ready to commit themselves to it, I hope to reach that place someday. SIDENOTE: My favorite story of all time is Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. I have always been very drawn to her character. I believe Franny would have taken this course if she had gone to Exeter.
- I can tell you that I have always been skeptical of that ultimate reality of god. At the moment I see God as a coping mechanism or guide that many people follow to give meaning and purpose to their lives. This term I am hoping to find out what else religion, spiritual practice, and mysticism can be. My family is Buddhist but I personally have never gotten into meditation. I am hoping that first approaching meditation from a more academic standpoint might help me ultimately embrace Buddhism and its traditions and goals more fully and purposefully.
- I grew up as a Christian. I went with my mom to church every Saturday and tried to follow the faith in my everyday life. It wasn’t until I got to Exeter that I began to ask myself why I believe what I do because I had never made a firm decision about it, but rather followed what my mom believed without putting any thought into it. In a conversation with a senior my prep year I expressed aspects of the Christian faith that I didn’t like or understand and he asked me the simple, but groundbreaking question, “Why do you believe it, then?” from that point I decided not to affiliate myself with any particular religion. I still believe in a higher power of sorts, something that created me. I decide to take this course to learn more about the commonalities throughout different religious beliefs, in hopes of better understanding religion and furthering my spiritual growth whether through a specific religion or not.
- I grew up with a background in Byzantine Catholicism ”¦the masses I attended when I was younger were spoken or sung in Ukrainian, with scattered fragmented English and since my mother had not taught me Ukrainian very extensively I had trouble understanding the mass. This led to a developing sense of detachment from my own religion, and I soon became interested in other teachings like those of the Buddha”¦through taking this course I want to open my mind to the different perspectives people of the world take when it comes to spirituality and morality, or transcend religion altogether”¦I want to figure out a bit about myself by putting my experiences and values in the context of what we discuss in this class. At Exeter I took a course in philosophy”¦it got me thinking about the spiritual pursuits men go through in their lives, and civilization’s attempt to demystify them.
- I grew up with a strong religious background (my mother is a Greek Orthodox Christian, my father from a very Catholic background) and I’m certainly religious but in very uncertainly defined terms. I identify myself as Christian when asked, but I find I believe more in God and God’s relation to the self/everyone’s selves than in a single tradition”¦there’s just a lot that I believe in, centering around God. That’s the personal half”¦on a more academic note, I’ve loved taking religion courses at Exeter and I think I might like to study it in college. I think religions are really beautiful and so far I have a good/decent capacity for understanding and learning about them. Academically I’m trying to explore as much religious thought as I can and this sounded really cool and like something I might like to study and/or think about”¦thus here I am. I could also use some life direction/balancing/fixing-my-life-up-edness. Maybe this will help”¦.
- Recently I realized that the idea of “enlightenment” holds particular interest for me. I have for awhile been fascinated with the study of Comparative Religion””specifically, where the myriad religious traditions of the human race meet and where they diverge. After some thought, I found that the many faiths of man converged really on the fundamentals””they all preached some sort of basic morality in interpersonal interaction; they did not, however, always agree on the details of this morality. They then diverged widely in their conceptualizations of religious practice””these are the obvious difference we see in worship, culture, and even politics. Finally, all the religions I considered converged seamlessly in their highest form: mysticism. I think that by studying the perennial tradition I may begin to find an answer to my original question””where does religion come from, and what is the enlightenment that it seeks?
- I have grown up with a strong Catholic background. I am a dedicated confirmed Catholic not because I really believe in any of it (I disagree with almost all the church’s rules, don’t really believe in Jesus, and feel uncomfortable with the church’s vision of God) but because my family does. I have a big, southern Catholic family whom I love –I love church because I love them. It’s a bit complicated but it works for me. Though I don’t really believe I can still get a lot out of it. But my real religious heart lies in stars, in the silky silence in the belly of my Atlantic waves, in the faces of friends. I guess would describe myself as being intensely spiritual (I have a lot of faith, a lot of joy and love). I would honestly like to participate in as many religions as I can.
- Just last term I took a religion class, Existentialism, that really opened up a new way of looking at life”¦that course influenced me to sign up for this class. I began to wonder about myself in the context of the universe, not just in the context of our world. I began to wonder about myself and the ultimate, endless universe and our role in it ”¦just from that and from the handout I see some similarities: “a union between the self and Ultimate Reality or God.” Mysticism would allow me to further explore the questions of our role through a different lens.
- I have not formally studied religion before and I do not come from a religious background. I have dabbled a little in meditation and I am interested in its potential power (if it has any at all). I am a science lover and I am more used to dealing with the concrete. Right now the course description sounds very vague to me, but I want to learn more about the topic so I can start to sift through the abstract. My only background in religion is that I was somewhat exposed to Christian stories. When I was young I rejected the existence of a God but I have grown to dislike the excluding nature of atheism. I would like to believe that there can be faith within science””maybe nature governs the world like a god. Right now I don’t have any definable religious beliefs.
- I grew up in a conservative Jewish household attending Jewish day school and have always been really interested in religion. I used to be somewhat traditional””my family kept the Sabbath, kept kosher etc. but have moved away from that component of my religion. I am still very culturally Jewish and even though I am not religious I still belief in some of the merits of Judaism and religion. Moreover I have always been interested in mysticism and the unique approach with which it approaches religion. I hope that this course will add to my knowledge while at the same time enriching my religious experience. In terms of what I believe, I think it is fair to say that I do not know. I have not given a great deal of thought to what I do and don’t believe in. But I am very rational and this makes believing in God difficult.
- I’m bipolar and I’ve found that that is interesting to use myself as a guinea pig when figuring out/thinking of existence and absolutes and the role of perception on reality. The main path this had led me down is one of trying to determine a fixed meaning of what qualifies as human, other than in a purely biological sense. We can take our physical bodies and say that “this is us,” but if we are maimed etc. the constant being is not fully reduced, or having all our limbs is not a “constant” part of our being. Then for me I’ve wondered about having at least a constant “self” or “personality”, which to me doesn’t make sense because I lack a constant there. And then this leads me to wonder what a “self” really is since we are pummeled in politically correct high schools to embrace our “true” feelings so I’ve come to think of that as nonsense, for I believe it is through struggle that we form our identities , not plain “being.” I’ve sort of made a crude analogy between a “self” ‘and quantum physics, in that our personalities are not real until you act, and by acting you create a measure of yourself at the same time.
- I grew up in a family that did not associate with any specific religion but I’ve never really thought that being spiritual had to have anything to do with being religious. It’s more than possible to appreciate the beauty of our world without believing in any sort of greater power. And it’s more than possible to want to better yourself and follow specific morals than if they aren’t set out in sacred writings. I’ve never believed that being spiritual and being religion were one and the same and I want to be able to explore that further.