“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
– Jesus (Matthew 5:4)
We have built our semester’s exploration in “Service, Society, and the Sacred” around the concept that a common message in the Wisdom Tradition is the need to let go of a small self in order to allow a Larger Self to emerge. But this simple message begs the question: what is it really like in daily life to experience this movement from one to the other?
One of the Wisdom teachers who expresses this with great clarity is A.H. Almaas, the Kuwaiti-born founder of a psychospiritual theory called the Diamond Approach. The main spiritual practice of this approach is inquiry, which means that he dialogues with his students in group settings about their emotional issues. The strategy Almaas employs is very simple. He poses a question – what was your relationship with your father like, for example – and allows students to work through his question in small groups. Then the group reconvenes, and individuals bring their experiences to Almaas, who leads them through what might be considered a therapy session.
The pattern that emerges is strikingly similar. Students share an emotional concern, and Almaas has them explore their bodily sensations, and how they interpret the meaning of these physical reactions. Inevitably, students feel a sense of emptiness, desolation, blackness, or some kind of hole in their psyche. Almaas gently asks them to enter into the feeling or sensation. As they do, out of their disturbing state emerges, to the students’ surprise, some positive force: inner strength, light, compassion, calmness, or even images (blue light, sparkles). Rather than fleeing the emptiness, students are guided into it, and find, paradoxically, that at the center of this barren state is fullness. In the center of their darkness is light.
I’ve chosen two examples from Almaas’ book, Brilliancy: The Essence of Intelligence, to illustrate this dynamic of how students move in this process of dialogue from the small self to a Larger Self. For Almaas, the concept of Brilliancy is a profound form of intelligence, but it is not an activity of the mind. Rather, it is a tangible energetic manifestation from the world of spirit into each individual human being. When Brilliancy appears in a person’s life, it provides what is most needed: completeness, strength, support, bliss, and many other forms. When this occurs, it leads not only to healing, but to proper action, which is why Almaas considers it to be the essence of intelligence. It allows a person to live and act as the Larger Self.
In this first dialogue, a male student wants to discuss the feelings he has around his father, for whom he sacrificed a lot in his life, such as relationships with women.
S (student): In discussing Brilliancy, I noticed a lot of emptiness inside. I felt much emptiness inside.
A (Almaas): Do you still feel that?
S: Ah, it’s . . . there. I also feel sad.
A: Do you know what the sadness is about?
S: . . . It has something to do with being on my own, having my own strength, and my own Brilliancy. In the last week or so, I’ve seen something about how I have given up a lot of things for my father . . . .
A: What is it you feel now?
S: Sort of that emptiness in my head.
A: In your head. You feel emptiness in your head. How does that affect you? How does it make you feel?
S: There is some fear involved. And it seems that if I stay with the fear, I am able to see things more clearly. And it seems bring more space.
A: What’s the fear about?
S: That emptiness makes me feel like I’m . . . like there is no sense of self.
A: That’s what it feels like, that emptiness, that there is no sense of self.
S: Yes, and physically, sort of deficient, weak.
A: Do you feel actually wake, or you think that emptiness means being weak?
S: In this moment, I don’t actually feel weak.
A: I wonder what will happen if you just feel the emptiness and don’t have any ideas about it. Then see what it feels like.
S: It’s kind of still.
A: So there is a stillness to it. It doesn’t feel bad then, when you don’t have ideas about it.
S: It’s like I got stuck by trying to avoid it. It actually isn’t that unpleasant.
A: When you stay with this peaceful and still emptiness in your head, what happens?
S: It expands. When I just stay with it and don’t do anything to it – when I just relax – it seems to get bigger and bigger.
A: How big does it get?
S: Hmm . . . no size. I just feel empty and spacious all over.
A: I wonder what happens if you just remain this way without reacting to the experience of this spaciousness.
S: I start feeling something in my head.
A: What kind of something?
S: It feels bright. I feel bright in my head.
A: Bright in your head. Do you mean you see brightness in your head?
S: Well, let me see. I guess that is what I mean. But not exactly. I feel brightness in my head, and I also sort of see something shining in there.
A: What is the feeling of this brightness in the head?
S: The emptiness in the head is getting pervaded by this beautiful light. It is quite luminous. It is like my brain is exploding with Brilliancy.
A: Brilliancy. How do you feel psychologically…?
S: I feel somehow something new that I have never felt before. I feel full of brightness. I feel bright, as if my brain is exploding with light. I also do not feel deficient. In fact, I am starting to see how I am intelligent. It is not new, but I did not see these expressions of mine as intelligent. I do feel brighter than usual though. I mean . . . well, I mean I feel smart. This makes me nervous, but I like it. I feel that it is my intelligence.
A: So the brightness is both visual and psychological?
S: The brightness actually is more substantial than light. It is light, but it is like liquid light that is bring. It is also not just in the head; it seems to be spreading.
A: Okay. Just stay with this experience and find out for yourself what it means to you.
Almaas concludes: “The theory of holes states that the transformation of the deficient emptiness into the inner experience of space is the step that precedes the arising of a missing aspect of Essence [the Larger Self] . . . . It also significant that the student started to see that the aspect of Brilliancy is not just a bright light but actually a presence, something more substantial than light – more like liquid light” (118).
This second dialogue is with a woman named Yvonne who as a child had a poor relationship with her father.
Y: It is all very painful, all this rejection and abandonment. I feel I always felt I had an enormous amount of responsibility – a burden was put upon me, of having a father who has absent. On top of that, he was very sick and never present. There’s a sense of having to take care of him before anything else.
A: Before you?
Y: I traded my aliveness for his state. I never really consciously felt this, but I think it happened when he died. I felt the responsibility of his death very personally. That’s why I could never deal with it.
A: What you mean, “the responsibility?”
Y: Like maybe his death was caused by me, that I did something wrong.
A: Oh, I see. So you believe it was your fault.
Y: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
A: I see. So you felt guilty about him dying.
Y: I guess so. I really felt that way.
Y: I’m bad and wrong.
A: So why do you think it was your fault? What did you do?
Y: Well, it has to do with the way it was around the house; we had to be very careful and quiet.
Y: And if anybody stood up to him, he would either get angry or strike them, usually my mother. There was a sense of it being a very dangerous place to be, a dark and heavy place. I felt I had to be that way, so quiet. So how can you be happy, nice, alive, and childlike when you have to be so quiet all the time. Then he died. I’m sure he never said that, but he may have.
A: I see. So you felt because you were alive and all of that, you caused him to die.
A: So your aliveness caused his death.
Y: Maybe I was too excited, but he was dying – kind of, anyway.
A: So how do you feel now that you think of it?
Y: Just a lot of pain. Lots of tingling too, as I feel the pain.
A: Pain and tingling, very good. Let the tingling happen – tingle, tingle. [Yvonne giggles.] What do you feel?
Y: Well, I feel warm in my head. Outside of that, I feel almost sorry for being different from heaviness. I feel like my head is getting taller and bigger.
A: Now roll your eyes. [Pause] How about now, what do you experience?
Y: Feels like boundless expansion and lightness.
A: What happened to the tingling in your head?
Y: It’s still there. Still tingling.
A: Yeah. Sense that tingling. See how it feels.
Y: At once a lot of twinkling and a lot of sparkle. A lot of sparkle.
Y: White Christmas – like twinkling.
A: White Christmas, interesting. How do they feel, these sparkles? How do they make you feel?
Y: Feels good.
A: Sparkles, huh? Does the sparkle come down to the head? Or is it just over the head?
Y: It’s around the head, like a ring, like an angel.
A: Oh, like a ring. I see, like a halo. A halo of sparkles.
Y: And also on the top of the head.
A: See what happens if that tingling flows down into the head.
Y: It sparkles.
A: Um-hmm, sparkles.
Y: Sparkles are coming out of my mouth.
A: Mh-hmm [chuckles], sparkles. A sparkling head, a sparkling mouth.
Y: My brain is all sparkles.
A: So what’s like when your brain is sparkling? [Pause]
Y: Feel a contentment, and sort of drawing a conclusion to a story. There is a feeling of newness, a fresh start.
A: Newness and freshness. That sounds wonderful. No wonder you felt you had had enough of all the stories. Something new is happening to you.
Y: Freshness and brightness, not heaviness or sickness.
A: I see. So let’s see what happens when you stay with the freshness, the newness and brightness.
A: Sparkles. Good. What happens to your perception?
Y: Everybody’s eyes start to sparkle.
A: Ah-ha. So what happens now when the sparkle goes down into your chest.
Y: A great big hole first, then the heart starts sparkling.
A: so when the heart is sparkling, what is the feeling?
Y: Exciting. Very happy, full of joy. Full of love.
A: Right. Happy, light, sparkling, loving, sweet.
Y: Just like when I was two or three years old.
A: Oh, I see. So that’s what you blamed for your father’s death: that you were alive and sparkly at that time.
A: So you had to block that part. Very good. Interesting. So you think this should be the end of the chapter?
Y: No, there is no end of the chapter. It’s the beginning of the chapter.
A: Oh, it’s the beginning of the chapter. Wonderful, that is even better, fresher.
Y: Ah-huh, right. The end of the chapter for what is old and dead and decaying.
A: And you are now beginning a new life.
Y: Beginning of a new life for me and a new life for him too. That old relationship is dead. And I feel like I can give him a new life, also. A different life. Because there is a side that I know of him that I didn’t see much. It’s just the circumstances that made him that way.
A: It’s the other side of him. So you understand him in a different way now.
Y: Mm-hmm. I feel more compassionate about him, instead of ordinary feeling of protecting him. I had to protect him. I had to take care of other people first before I could do things for myself. So that’s also important now: that I feel good toward him, but at the same time I can take care of myself.
A: Sounds nice.
Y: I feel happy and bright.
A: Sparkly and happy and bright. It’s a good beginning and a good end. Right? Sounds like a good time to have music.
Y: Do you think so?
A: Don’t you think so?
Y: And champagne.
A: Very good. In a minute. We’ll have to get ready. [Pause] That can be the next subject. We can talk about champagne. Why not? That sounds like a good ending for the party. No? Sparkling champagne.
Almaas comments: “The state of Essence [the Larger Self] that Yvonne ended up experiencing, that of sparkly and fresh brightness, is one of the ways that Brilliancy manifests. It is interesting to see that here she got connected to a state that is not only light and new – the way she felt as a child – but that this lightness and newness is a manifestation of Brilliancy. This indicates that she wanted her father to be light and sparkly and happy, instead of the way he was usually: serious, heavy, and sick . . . . It is when Essence manifests with such precision that we see the amazing intelligence of Being, which can fulfill us in ways that we can hardly imagine . . . . This piece of work did initiate a new chapter in her life. Soon afterward, she separated from a long and conflictual relationship with a man, and met a new man whom she ended up marrying” (295).
Almaas’ Message within the Wisdom Tradition
All of us want to lead lives of fulfillment, but we think that this is impossible because we have so many barriers in our lives to what we think will bring deep and long-lasting happiness. It would be easy to make a list:
- Personal inefficiencies: I’m not smart enough; good-looking enough; rich enough; charming enough
- Upbringing: I didn’t get the advantages that some people have
- Family: I wasn’t cared for sufficiently
- Murphy’s Law or just bad luck: if anything can go wrong for me, it will.
All of us, then, indulge in a victim mentality. If only I or my circumstances were different, then I could perhaps attain satisfaction. We feel inadequate to the demands of our souls which are ever-seeking peace.
The message of Almaas is both radical and simple. There is a universal force that can take your inadequacies and meet your deep needs! It’s built into each of us; we don’t need to look outside ourselves for support. What we need to do is go against our natural instincts, which is to avoid our fears, for this will lead us to greater despair. Rather, we need to enter into our fears fully, and when we do, we will magically find what we need.
When I think of my own Christian tradition (and this could be repeated in other traditions), Bible verses come to me that speak to the truth that entering into weakness, fear, or loss will lead to some kind of renewal that is a manifestation of God’s power. This is what Christians call “grace,” the great reversal of expectations. Consider a few examples.
- Jesus: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6).
- Paul: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).
- Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
These verses are part of the Wisdom Tradition that speaks of two planes of reality, our visible earthly experience and an invisible spiritual domain that is the source of the world in which we live. These disturbing weaknesses that we experience in our earthly lives are simply portals to access what Almaas calls Essence, Being, or Presence. Hence, he teachers that the role of spiritual practices is to help us dampen our resistance to the things that we think will hurt us, and look for that gracious larger reality, what we have called the vertical dimension, to meet our deepest needs: “The completeness can happen only by confronting the incompleteness head on . . . . The greatest lesson that the soul needs to learn is how to settle into itself, because all that it wants is there in itself. The soul is always seeking, always looking, always agitating, rejecting this, accepting that. All the traditional spiritual disciplines and practices are basically for the soul to learn the inadequacy and hopelessness of ego activity and to come to the point of saying, ‘Okay, I won’t do any of that. I give up, I’ll just sit here.’ If you really do that, you’re done – the completeness is there. The treasure is there in the simplicity of Being” (58-59).
Potential Application of this Spiritual Practice
Your homework is to write a dialogue about yourself. Take something that you perceive as a weakness, a deficiency, or a hole in your self, and explore it in a dialogue format like Almaas demonstrates in the examples above. It can be something someone did to you or a life circumstance, or it can be an insecurity within yourself. I encourage you to actually to imitate the process Almaas leads his students through, which is probing their emotions and physical sensations to in order to experience Essence. The minimum length is two pages, using the examples above as a guide.
The message from the Wisdom Tradition is incredible, if it is true! For it claims that your greatest weaknesses are opportunities to discover an inner power that most of us, I expect, know little about. No book is likely to persuade you that there is an inner resource that you can trust. The only way to decide is to try it and see if works for you. I look forward to hearing what you learn.
To hear a fascinating, passionate sharing by Almaas’ close friend and colleague on how she came to receive the power of which Almaas speaks of directly from him, listen to this interview with Karen Johnson. Start at 15:00.
Relevant quotes from Almaas’s website about this topic:
The core of ego is a feeling of deficiency, of poverty, of emptiness, of saying: “I am no good, I am worthless, I am empty. Give me, give me, more, more, more, more.” In this state of deficiency I don’t love myself, I don’t accept myself. I reject myself. I want to run away, distract myself; maybe go to a movie, see a friend, have sex, eat, fill myself with knowledge, or pretend I am O.K. I am always wanting to fill this emptiness, always rejecting it, always afraid of it. In fact, we are all terrified by it. Most of the time people don’t know that this emptiness, this deficiency is what is driving most of their actions. It’s such a desperation, such a race to fill this bottomless pit.
But how sweet it is to say “yes” to this emptiness. How courageous it is to say: “I feel empty, I feel deficient, and I won’t attempt to fill it. I want to see the truth. I want to experience the reality of me. I refuse to manipulate. I want to wake up regardless of how painful it is.” Only the hero will take this attitude, for it is a heroic act to see your deficiency, your neediness, your emptiness, and yet not try to manipulate your life to fill it. We are so compulsive, so driven to manipulate, to avoid feeling this basic deficiency of our personal ego. But believe me, my friend, there’s no other way towards fullness. God will not pour His grace if you don’t accept your deficiency and stop manipulating. Manipulation, striving to fill this emptiness, is only the devil doing its efficient work. It is constantly working to hide its weakness.
Man is upside down. We experience reality in an upside-down fashion. We are rich but we feel ourselves poor. We are full, but we feel ourselves empty. We are abundant, but we feel ourselves deficient. Since we don’t know our true nature, our intrinsic fullness, we want to get more: more possessions, more money, more sex, more prestige, more praise, more self-congratulations, more experiences, more excitement, more, more…. And this takes us even further away from the Truth. It estranges us even more. God becomes angry and wrathful and punishes us for going astray, for turning away from Him. But God is not Jehovah; God is not vengeful. It is of the nature of things that when you turn away from the source of life you feel impoverished. And it feels like being punished. In fact, we are being punished, but we are our own punishers. We punish ourselves by our own
ignorance, our own heedlessness.
All it takes is to stop the striving, the manipulation of reality. This is not a moral injunction, but a practical statement. Simply stated it is this: when we manipulate reality, wanting it to be different, we are being the devil and forgetting God, our true reality. We need to let go, rest and just be. We need to accept what is, not just mentally, but with the whole of our being. If we feel frustrated and deficient we need to accept those feelings as they are, without thought of reward. We cannot go after openness, love and joy. This would be our usual pattern: seeking, striving, wanting fulfillment. And this kind of energy will never give the peace we need so much, because this energy is an expression of a state of deficiency.
Yes, it is a paradox. You must, and you have to want to see your original face before you were born more than anything else, more than life itself. At the same time you must relax, let go, just be in the present, as if there is no future at all, as if there is nothing to attain. In fact, it is a fact, not an “as if.”
Acceptance of my experience of myself means being here now without manipulation. The more that I accept, the more I am in the present, and the more I will let go of attainment. It’s letting go of what I want most, but the more I let go and just be, the more I am now here, accepting what is. The more I am in the future, or wanting to achieve, even wanting acceptance, the less I am accepting myself. There is no difference between total acceptance and the state of fullness. We always want this state of fullness, but we go about it in the wrong way, in fact, the opposite way.
Acceptance feels like taking a risk. It’s like jumping off a cliff. I accept more the more I trust in reality, in God. At some point I must jump, leap, totally forget, totally abandon the search, the future, the past, attainment or failure, reward or punishment. I just leap into nothingness, with the trust of the Fool who has the yellow bright sun of the Father behind him. It is a quantum leap, for there are no securities, no guarantees. When this state of abandon is realized I find that I am alive as if for the first time. It is the first time. It is the first time I am alive, awake—Bodhi, as the Buddhists say. Before, I was living a pseudo life, a half-death, a pretense of life, which is the condition of most of humanity.