The Inner Quest

In ancient myths and legends the inner journey is symbolized as a journey into a wilderness of some description. Any serious process of Self discovery and spiritual transformation requires you to remove yourself one way or another from the safe and familiar surroundings of community life. In Joseph Campbell’s words, you go in search of the ‘jewelled centre’ of your psyche:

The goal of the hero trip down to the jewel point is to find those levels in the psyche that open, open, open, and finally open to the mystery of your Self being, Buddha consciousness or the Christ. That’s the journey.

Very importantly, the goal of the hero’s journey is to return to the world and gift it with the jewel that is your own precious individuality for ‘in loving the spiritual you cannot despise the earthly” In other words we connect with the Divine in solitude and then the challenge is to hold that connection while being in the world.

The transformimg power of solitude is honoured in all spiritual traditions. Withdrawal from the world for long periods of time continues to be commonplace amongst Eastern sages. And of course in Christianity we have the precedent of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness.

It is simply not possible to be a mystic without also being something of a hermit. I believe that periods of solitude are fundamental to the human condition. In other words there is a hermit as well as a mystic in all of us. We see this in the way that young children delight in having some secret hide away or cubby house where they can be alone with their imagination.

One of the saddest and most worrying things about our Western civilization is the ever increasing intensity with which it pulls us out of ourselves and into a relentless barrage of external stimulation, a cornucopia of noise, action and information- most of it signifying nothing. Life has become like a nonstop party. I have nothing against parties but a party from which one can never escape is surely a nightmare.. In the endless party we become caught up in artificiality and superficiality without even realizing it because we have no external reference point from which to observe ourselves. We don’t have the space and time with which to reflect on what the party is all about and our place in it.

Times for silence, stillness and solitude, generally speaking, are simply not on our Western agenda. Even amongst those who pride themselves on being health conscious, time out is more likely to be equated with a work out at the gym than with any desire to stop and smell the roses for a while. The idea of going into silent retreat for several weeks let alone several years, as spiritual aspirants regularly do in the Buddhist tradition, is seen as being at best misguidedly eccentric and at worst a self indulgent waste of time.

I like to use the symbol of the lotus flower to convey the beauty and challenge of the spiritual quest.

The lotus plant is a cross cultural symbol of spiritual awakening:

As a symbol the lotus is very significant. Man must pass through three different stages in spiritual life, which represent his existence on three different levels; ignorance, aspiration and endeavour, and illumination. The lotus also exists on three different levels- mud, water and air. It sprouts in the mud ( ignorance) grows up in the water in an effort to reach the surface ( aspiration) and eventually reaches the air and the direct light of the sun ( illumination) . The culmination of the growth of the lotus is a beautiful flower. In the same way the culmination of man’s spiritual quest is the awakening and blossoming of human potential.

The lotus flower also reminds us of our interconnectedness. The flower appears to be floating alone in all its perfection but in the muddy terrain beneath the water its roots are shared with those of many other flowers. It is a powerful image.

Let us be clear on this: withdrawing into a spiritual retreat is not an escape strategy . In the early stages it can be extremely challenging. You are bringing yourself out of the mud. Your emotional problems and deep seated anxieties are no longer cunningly concealed in distractions. A few of them will be obliged to emerge from their hiding place and confront you. Dedication to your spiritual practices however will sooner or later be rewarded with a significant deepening of silence and stillness and an awakening of blissful states of consciousness. ( illumination) . Retreats then become precious opportunities to enjoy the riches of your inner life and to strengthen your communion with the Divine. Moreover, you begin to tap into an ocean of psychic energy.

The Iroquois Indians use the term “Entering into the Silence’ to describe their vision quest experience:

I listen and hear the silence
I listen and see the silence
I listen and taste the silence
I listen and smell the silence
I listen and embrace the silence

The ‘silence’ is the silence of the chattering mind. With your attention internalised and your thoughts calmed you begin to tune into the subtle energies of the universe and your own body. You no longer feel alone. Above all, when you embrace the silence with an attitude of humility and receptivity you become a receptacle for Divine Grace.

Finding the right balance between participation in the world and opportunities for solitary contemplation, even among the well intentioned, is difficult in our culture- we are so busy with our work and family and household duties. One of the great blessings of growing old I find is the ease with which you can chose to withdraw from the party any time you like.

Silence, stillness and solitude do not have to involve a period of withdrawal from the world however. They can be honoured on a daily basis with a practice of meditation. Without any doubt, meditation is the crown jewel of spiritual practices. It is the most powerful tool for the blossoming of consciousness.

Close your eyes and you will see clearly
Cease to listen and you will hear truth
Be silent and your heart will sing
Seek no contacts and you will find union
Be still and you will move forward on the tide of the spirit
Be gentle and you will need no strength
Be patient and you will achieve all things
Be humble and you will remain entire
A Taoist Poem