The Great Secret

In a previous post I mentioned the Great Secret. My fictional protagonist – a man on a quest for Meaning – found a book with the title The Great Secret, only to discover that the pages were blank. I actually have a book titled The Great Secret, written in 1922. Its Flemish author (who wrote in French), Maurice Maeterlinck, won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his poems, plays and essays. Despite its having been written almost a century ago, it’s well-researched and still provides a valuable guide to the tradition of the Great Secret. What attracts me to the notion of the Great Secret is my sense that we all live at the heart of a Mystery: what is life? what is consciousness? what does it all mean?

Maeterlinck studied the Vedic (Hindu) tradition of India, Egyptian religion, Zoroastrianism, Greek mystery schools, Buddhism, Jewish Cabalists, Gnostics, Neoplatonists, and alchemists. I don’t think modern scholars can add much to what Maeterlinck learned about  these ancient wisdom traditions. He was no starry-eyed True Believer, but a  thorough and objective scholar. It’s been said that “those who know don’t tell; those who tell don’t know.” Maeterlinck doesn’t offer a definitive answer to the question, “what is the Great Secret?” but shares what he’d learned from years of study – food for thought. His succinct conclusion is mysterious, not definitive – as you will see at the end of this post.

There were many mystery religions and cults in the ancient world. They often had an outer circle of adherents who were given one set of teachings (exoteric knowledge), and an inner circle of initiates to whom the Great Secret (esoteric knowledge) had been revealed. This knowledge challenged the conventions of the outer circle, often in a shocking way. Imagine growing up believing that God is a male, only to be told by the high priest at your initiation that God is actually female. Maeterlinck suggests that what was whispered in the ear of Egyptian initiates was, “Osiris is a dark god.”

One of the core tenets of the Vedic tradition is that all things are one thing: Brahman. Maya – the veil of illusion – keeps us from knowing our identity with all  things. (The greeting/blessing “namaste” is  an acknowledgement of the divinity of the person being greeted.) This idea of the unity of all things can also be found in other ancient mystical sects, as well as in some modern mystical philosophies. A common thread in various mystical teachings/traditions is that if all things are one thing, then you don’t have to go outside of yourself to discover The Truth. The macrocosm is contained in the microcosm.

Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, “What you are looking for is what’s looking.” Rudolph Steiner, founder of Anthroposophy, wrote “It is in the soul that the meaning of the universe is revealed.” Maurice Maeterlinck put it this way: “It is in you yourself that (God) is hidden and it is in you yourself that you must find him.” This echoes the beliefs of such Christian mystics as Meister Eckhart, as well as mystical Christian, Jewish and Muslim sects.

Another common thread in mystical traditions is that the Great Secret is something to be experienced, not understood. Mystics do not seek contact with, or  knowledge from, the Divine; they seek union. A common belief in mystical traditions is that “the vessel must be prepared” to hold the wine of revelation. Sometimes the preparation involves an ordeal of some kind. Other times it means practicing a discipline, such as  meditation or asceticism. But at the very least it means emptying  your cup of your old beliefs, so that new wine can replace the old. A Sufi saying has it that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

In his novel Zorba the Greek Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “Everything has two meanings, one manifest, one hidden. The common people comprehend only what is manifest.” Maeterlinck wrote, “Humanity has need of the infinite.” His best summation of his thesis is, “The Great Secret, the only secret, is that all things are secret.” Go figure.

On Mysticism

First, a few words about what mysticism is not. Calling the Marvel Comics character Doctor Strange “Master of the Mystic Arts” is inaccurate; he should actually be called “Master of the Magical Arts.” There’s nothing magical or supernatural about mysticism, as I understand it. Since mysticism is about union with God, this may seem counter-intuitive or paradoxical. I suggested in my last post that the potential for mystical experience seems to be hard-wired in our brains, and elicited by certain identifiable stimuli. That means it’s natural, not supernatural. I’m an agnostic and, to me, the  question of whether there “is” or “is not” a God is a matter of definition. If you say that God is love, then I believe in God. If you say that God has a gender or a preferred name, I don’t. I believe that if there’s a God, it’s beyond human comprehension.

Mystics are people who seek, or experience, union with the Divine. Some religious people who have a mystical experience might call it a religious experience and, for them, it is. (I don’t have the philosophical authority to label or judge other peoples’ anomalous experiences.) But I’ve read accounts of atheists who remained atheists after having an experience of Divine union. The existence of mystical experience isn’t proof of the existence of any given deity. Not everyone is going to have a mystical  experience in their lifetime. Many people – even atheists – have reported having an experience of the Divine while under the influence of psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. Back in my hippie days, a common question asked of people who had just  come down from a psychedelic trip was, “Did you see God?” It was a popular jest.

Accounts of mystical experiences have been recorded in cultures all around the world,  throughout history. Triggers include physical agony or ecstasy, asceticism/sensory deprivation, continuous prayer and fasting, deep meditation, and the ingestion of high doses of psychedelic substances. Indeed, mystical experiences are so common on psychedelic drugs that some people refer to them as entheogens – “God-inducing” substances. I’ve had mystical experiences, and don’t think of them as proof that there “is” a God that has a name. Like psychedelic consciousness, mystical experiences are ineffable: words can’t do justice to them. My experiences haven’t involved identifiable deities from any religion, but rather a profound feeling of one-ness with the universe, or being in the presence of something holy, that’s impossible to put into words.

One of the great Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, a fourteenth-century Dominican friar, taught that we can – if we do the requisite preparation – experience God directly, within ourselves. The Roman Catholic establishment of the day considered the teaching heretical. However, Saint Francis of Assisi had written something similar: “What you are looking for is what is looking.” Centuries later, philosopher and atheist Friedrich Nietzsche had a darker metaphor for this idea, writing “When you gaze into the Abyss, the Abyss gazes back at you.”

The key to union with the Divine, according to Meister Eckhart, was letting go of all worldly things, all desires and preconceptions – even one’s conception of God. Paradoxically, in order to know God directly, one must first un-know everything one thinks about God. The Divine is unknowable in the usual sense of knowledge. He wrote, “We should learn not to give God any name, for God is above names and ineffable,” warning that “if you think of anything he might be, he is not that.” He also  wrote, “Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” and “the eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” Among the things a seeker must abandon is his or her conception of self. Meister Eckhart taught that from this emptiness, this silence, one’s soul could be re-born in the direct experience of the Divine.

This message is echoed in the mystical teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, Vedanta Hinduism, Jewish Cabalism, Sufism, and other spiritual traditions. Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki called Meister Eckhart “the one Zen thinker of the West.” In modern terms, the direct experience of the Divine requires the annihilation of the ego. One seeker wrote, “At my worst, I see myself being at the center of the universe; at my best, I see myself as one cell in the body of the Divine.”

The poetry of Sufi mystics such as Rumi and Hafiz reflects this point of view over and over in its metaphors.  Rumi likens himself to a hollow reed made into a flute by the breath of God. He wrote, “We are like lutes once held by the Beloved. Being away from his divine body fully explains all yearning.” Hafiz wrote, “I have learned so much from God/that I can no longer call myself/ a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew. . . .Love has befriended Hafiz so completely/it has turned to ash and freed me/of every concept and image/my mind has ever known.”

In my last post I wrote about the Vedanta Hindu concept of Brahman: there is nothing that is not God. It is expressed in the Sanskrit affirmation tat twam asi – “thou art That.” (i.e. You are one with the Divine.) I’ll close on a light note, with a short verse I’ve attributed to my alter ego writer and philosopher, Philbo T. Woldercan:

You want the key to the Mystery?                                                                                                       The Holy Grail?                                                                                                                                      The essence of the Buddha?                                                                                                                 You’ve known it all along, Bozo!                                                                                                         (tag) You’re IT.