Communion and Communication in the Religious Life
By Sylvia Swain
All the world is in communion… The flower is in communion with the stalk from which it hangs; the falling leaf with the wind which makes it dance; the maiden with her lover and the mother with her babe… But just as there is the communion which is beauty and joy, there is also the communion of terror and pain and death: the lion’s jaw with the antelope’s neck… The executioner’s sword with the soft, full-blooded throat. And the redemptive communion of Socrates with his cup: and Jesus with his cross.
The Heart of Religion, p. 51
Such is communion in the full sense which is the religious sense, fully engaged with all aspects of the human psyche, its joy, its suffering and its redemptive quality, spanning conscious and unconscious and involving us all, believers or not. Each one’s life is involved in communion and all our communications with the world, whether by word, deed or mere presence, contribute to its collective well- or ill-being.
Mankind is daily threatened with the possibility of an Armageddon of its own making. Politics and religion have become confused, there is no single external authority for man to turn to. To paraphrase W. B. Yeats in his poem The Second Coming ‘…Things fall apart, can the centre hold?’
There is no overcoming of our suffering through the simple chopping and changing of our out-worn political or theological laws and customs, it shifts only the blame one to another, but cannot awaken the mind to a greater awareness of its own share of responsibility for the world’s anguish. Only a transformation of consciousness can regenerate the mind of man.
In what may be an archetypal developmental process, the great innovative teachers have arisen at times of need. Having matured beyond the limitations of the traditions of their day, they are able to offer their new and wider visions of the truth in keeping with the needs of their time. Our present-day needs are legion, but if we can tear our attention away from the constant fray which so fascinates, preoccupies and divides our world, there is always the new presentation for our modern age, taking its transcending direction and form of insight into the disoriented psyche of 2002. The next task for the next stage of the religious life.
The very word religion implies a return when we have gone off course; the religious life is not a ‘one way suits all’ direction or directive, not something set in stone in the ancient world, but a way of life live in the moment of mindful communion that will restore us, should we let it, to what we essentially are in heart and essence, a fundamental way of self discovery without which we can never develop beyond that immature I-centredness.
The problems of the world today are a reflection of the psyche of man distracted by deep conflict and with very little self-knowledge. C. G. Jung’s valedictory message was when he urged the need for much greater investigation into the psyche, which he had said was the last great adventure for man whom he saw as being too unconscious for his own good. It is true that until we can penetrate with honesty and humility those deep dark thickets of the unconscious we will continue to live at the mercy of our projected hopes, fears, deities and devils. The world case is getting ever more serious as we contemplate the epidemic proportions of violence alcoholism and drug taking.
It is remarkable that against its backdrop of perennial war, crime and inhumanity, the human race has produced its proudest creations, its arts, philosophies, sciences, technology and its religions. We are now at the peak of our scientific achievements and at the nadir of the destructiveness and terrorism which live in their wake. It is sad to have to refer to the religions as if they were simply products of the mind of man instead of inspirations from the heart of religion itself, but it is man’s predilection for projection, which, necessary in the primitive stages of religious development, has now become a dangerous hindrance and the source of animosity between the religions. It is the prime factor in any kind of warfare and the key to paranoid delusion. With his self/other psychological split man projects his craving and hatred, hopes and fears into his gods and demons, those elements over which he has developed no control, and from this unmindful helplessness in the face of fear and terror man has historically produced his pantheons of the gods and devils, evidence of his attempts to come to terms with the overwhelming archetypal forces which threaten his fragile ego consciousness. Even the greater religious concept of monotheism which was intended to heal could only be interpreted according to the shortcomings of split psychology, which tragically has resulted in many variations of crusades and jihads being called ‘holy’ — overlooking the fact that holy means holistic, that state in which no two opposing sides can exist.
Inevitably, primal man had to begin with looking upwards in projection but as Jung explained:
Great innovations never come from above — they come invariably from below, just as trees never grow from the sky downward but upward from the earth. The upheaval of our world and the upheaval of our consciousness are one and the same… And it is just the people from the obscurer levels who follow the unconscious drive of the psyche. It is the much derided silent folk of the land who are less infected with academic prejudices than the shining celebrities are wont to be. Looked at from above, they often present a dreary or laughable spectacle yet they are as impressively simple as those Galileans who were once called blessed.
CW vol. 10 par. 177
Religious communion, dispassionate honesty is not really new, only rare, it is we, in the midst of the turmoil of our age who are new to it and so it will not come easily. Of it, Phiroz Mehta wrote:
Initially there will be tribulation, for you may at first not see beauty in the mirror of truth; but persevere living by your light and looking with that dispassionate love which the Buddhists call upekkha, equanimity.”
Holistic Consciousness, p. 143
The practice of it can be understood as the alpha and omega of religious living, from the the cradle to the grave. All are equal to start with as all have to start their lives as helpless infants. A baby cannot speak, it can only cry. It communes wordlessly with its hunger or pain and a primal sound comes out. This is not yet conscious communication but a response to need. It lies in the cot experiencing the overwhelming impact of the senses, they are all it knows, all it has. There are no words, none of the consolations of reason, such as the concept that ‘Mummy will have to be along soon’ to console it. The experience is one of communion, as is the pleasant one when Mummy does come along; both are direct sense experiences, long before words or concepts have conditioned our expectations, long even before expectations. It is relationship with the world at the level of the unknown, before ego development. Later, the baby is taught to speak, to communicate at the level of the known and in this new-found world of knowledge and intellectual communication, the primal state of communion, with the senses, is overlaid.
So, from the moment of birth, we commune with and learn from our environment; these early experiences are the foundation of the mind on the sensation and feeling levels. And so our psychological life unfolds in unquestioned conditioning from generation to generation.
There are, as we have remarked, so many areas of difficulty and restriction, both physical and psychological, of privation, illness, fear and neurosis, that it is inevitable that many parents will be so preoccupied with their own immediate problems that they will be unable to provide fully the ideally secure and loving environment their children need for happy development, and so for many children life begins and continues with little joy, and their communion is with sorrow.
If unreconciled in consciousness, this form of suffering can be passed from generation to generation in an endless chain reaction of the deprivation of understanding. Unmindfulness is the real darkness, and it is with the pain of children of this kind of benighted family that concern is growing all over the world. They start with minds overshadowed by fear and with emotions stunted or overstretched by lack of understanding and good example. How, then, can they be taught to communicate adequately by those who themselves are unable to do so?
Thus, it is inevitable that some limitation is placed on the later development of the ego, on self-confidence, and on the capacity to trust and to form relationships. As a consequence, that energy which would normally flow outwards into the world of daylight and external affairs can be retained and concentrated in the inner sphere in conflict. This may result in an underdeveloped persona, often self-denigrating and unable either to cope with the demands of the world or to elicit much help from it. There is often depression too, which in itself is regarded by many as an indication of inadequacy and often, for this reason alone, no help is sought or offered.
We now confront the problem of justice in the lives of those who have choice and the lives of those who seemingly have none. How can religion reconcile seemingly irreconcilable things, the franchised, the disenfranchised, the light and the dark? We know that the religious message is the message of transformation and healing and so, however difficult the problem, we are unwise to assume that there is no solution. Worldly conundrums are created by dualistic thought but are not solved by it. As Phiroz Mehta once said in a talk on Buddhism, ‘To the worldly question, the Buddha always gave the transcendental answer’, an ‘answer’ which transcends light and dark, pleasure and pain and all other dualities.
If we are to relate that transcendental message to this problem, we need first to accept one universally held religious tenet, that of life’s mysteriously holy origin as a wholeness which preceded the later duality from which choice and conflict emerged.
With this as our basis, we can understand that psychological injury inflicted by the environment need not, as many people fear, inflict irreversible damage since nothing can touch that unitary primal essence, that still centre and origin of our being. By its nature, it is the pure, untouchable, indestructible, sacrosanct core of our being, be we children of the day or children of the shadows. The hope of Man lies not in any superior form of conditioning, but solely in that which is the unconditioned and not in any way subject to a conditioning process.
As we have seen, with a poor start in the conditioned stage of life, health and self-confidence can be inhibited, and those affected are often quite literally children of the ‘night’ in that they experience their most poignant moments lying wakeful in the dark, denied even the blessing of sufficient sleep, which is our unconscious communion with the source of healing, usually taken for granted so blithely by their happier brothers and sisters of the ‘daylight’ life.
Healing so often comes in sleep, but those who suffer and are denied this unconscious healing need to seek in a more conscious way their restoration by the spirit, and thus we discover the positive side of suffering when it can be a strong spur to seek conscious communion with the still inner centre of being.
So seeking healing in the only way open to them, in the inward direction whilst awake, rather than by escapism which is the real darkness of the spirit, they can learn deep communion with the inner world. Conscious communion with psychological and even physical pain through the religious methods of meditation and contemplation are recognition and acceptance of it in a positive way. It is a method of lightening up the darkness with understanding, meaning and compassion for others in like situations, and so those who seem so negative outwardly can be very positive underneath.
On the other hand, the maturity of the daylight person can often be retarded by the fact of their not having dipped deeply enough into the bitter-sweet well of inner experience. Such conscious seeking for the spirit may come only in later life, when the worldly orange has been sucked dry, and for them it may be the deepening and humbling discipline of silent communion when suffering; their own or another’s comes as an awakening and a challenge to be met by some form of sacrifice or service in a world in which they have been accustomed to being served. This is because, taking personal adequacy and capacity for communication in the external world for granted, he or she has not yet had occasion to learn what it is to forge lines of communication inwardly with the mysterious, unconscious, intuitive side of being. This chance may come at their ‘stroke of noon when the sun begins its descent’, as Jung described it.
The ‘shadow’ person has had much such experience, but the lack of open relationship contains their communion in a closed circuit until they are unable to partake in the totality of life. So we begin to realise that, until we experience psychological wholeness, we all remain immature, whatever our category or our age in years, each on a closed circuit, the one type gyrating in the external world and the other in their inner world.
We are now touching on that phenomenon the midlife crisis, which is a spiritual turning point like, for example, the crisis in a physical illness when the high fever begins to abate. The passing of the crisis heralds the turning point from which the healing process takes over. But the open sesame to the human psychological closed circuit is love, that love which by accepting ourselves and others as we are, with understanding but no blame, points the way from what we are to what we can become.
Love in its many forms is a constant need from cradle to deathbed and, if in the course of their lives the gyrating ones of the day or night meet with the teaching and example of those rare teachers who have the wisdom and the compassion to establish with them lines of communication at the deepest level, inspiring them to brave the new dimension of Transcendence, they then find the inspiration and the confidence to face up to that inner or that outer life, whichever they lack, and then they truly begin to grow. They are like seeds in the desert, seemingly static, and then the rains come and the desert blossoms like the rose.
The secret is that the closed circuit breaks and there is no longer any gyrating around the self centre; the will to communicate for the sake of others brings about a change in our orientation and we are weaned from our self preoccupation. It is in this way, by unselfish and loving communication, that miracles of development and healing, big and small, slow and sudden, can and do come about.
Throughout the recorded history of the human race, in myth and legend and in religious parable, the mysterious process of divine redemptive healing has been described in many ways and they are all variations on the archetypal myth of the wounded healer.
We do not need to go into too many complexities, the important point to establish is the fact that the divine healer was initially himself wounded in some way, and carries with him constant knowledge of the wound. The whole mystery of the healing process turns on this fact; it is the wounded one who heals, it is the eternal paradox at work again and again, because it is an archetypal situation.
One is reminded of Chiron who, wounded by a snake bite, developed powers of healing and went on to become the teacher of Asclepius who, in his turn, became a great healer. His symbol was a staff with a single snake entwined about it, representing transcendence and rebirth. Another outstanding example is, of course, Jesus, whose transformative redeeming communion on the cross is a clear archetypal illustration of wounded healing.
In Buddhism, the equivalent example is the Bodhisattva ideal, in which, as most of us have heard, the Bodhisattva or archetypal healing-teacher, often depicted in both male and female form, has arrived at the threshold to Nirvana, but, stopped short by the cries of the suffering world, makes a vow not to enter therein until the last suffering being is liberated. This vow is inevitable because, although enlightenment can be realised only by and through the individual by personal effort, it is no resting place for the individual, who is transformed by the very nature of the awakened state to taking upon him or herself the healing or the teaching role. Such is the religious life to all who open their hearts and minds to compassion.
Today this eternal myth of sacrifice signifies the value of the acceptance and mindfulness of our own suffering stemming from our own conditioning, no longer merely an unjust burden to be carried on one’s back. In the light of awareness, all experience, pleasant or painful, becomes that knowledge which is the raw material of compassion and healing. But without the example of the wounded healer, we would not see this.
Communion with the wound has shown him both sides of the coin and so he discovers the transformation of pain into knowledge and compassion. This is a healing which transcends the dualism of the wound and therefore bestows the power to heal both self and others.
Of course, improved efforts of a political and scientific nature will go on and take us who knows how many millennia to achieve maturity. However, any individual of sincere intent can take up the religious life at any time and by doing so come full circle from the original primal state, through all the suffering of the conditioning processes to holistic consciousness, of which P. D. Mehta wrote:
Holistic consciousness is not “attained” or “achieved” by a holy one. It supervenes when the organism, purified and well prepared to sustain the action of transcendent energies, is in a properly receptive state; that is, when it offers the right conditions for ordinary everyday consciousness to change into holistic consciousness. A bud does not “attain” or “achieve” anything when it flowers. It undergoes a natural transformation out of the bud-state into the flower state. So too holistic consciousness represents the full flowering of a human being. And just as the flowering of a bud happens, so too flowering of the person into fully fledged human-ness happens. To strive to attain, to try to storm the ramparts of heaven, would be quixotic. Simply be good, naturally and happily, and the best will make you its place of rest (Sabbath). In holistic consciousness you are at-oned within Transcendence. And since Transcendence is always blissfully creative — not merely pro-creative — you the fully-fledged human are a blissful creator.
Holistic Consciousness, p. 80
So our quest for justice has brought us full circle to the mystery of that Transcendent from which we will get no dualistic answers but only its own transformative responses. All religious answers end in paradoxical union because the secret of the divine wholeness is in its ambivalence. Our dualistic self-centredness limits us either to jumping from one pole to its opposite, or to trying to compromise with a reality which does not accept compromise. The divine wholeness, which alone can reconcile the duals, can be experienced by the individual only when he or she is willing and able to endure and to contain for a proper period of time the strain of those tearing energies in their personal lives, Phiroz Mehta would say, by ‘practising continence’, both in the inner life of the psyche and in the field of relationship.
Communion, then, is direct experience, where conditioning does not interpret and so divide us, and from this silent blending of essence comes wisdom.
Our lives need to be rounded out and those things we never thought to do can be revelation when we do them and prove to be the key to the ancient city of our wholeness. As we grow in self-knowledge and our conditioning loses its grip, fears and aversions abate and, increasingly, we each become the whole person we were originally born to be and in this we each attain to our true beauty and human dignity.
Being in communion — this is the heart of religion.
Phiroz Mehta, The Heart of Religion, p. 52