Morality is a prominent feature at the base of the mountain of mysticism, like mesquite trees before moving up in elevation to manzanita and oak here in the desert. Every mystical path begins in the mesquite morality forest. Getting our ethical existence in order is primary, before practice, before higher states, before experiencing the great indiscriminate Absolute.
The eight limbs of Yoga put the yama and niyama (the moral restraints and observances) squarely first. And the noble eightfold path of the Buddha puts right speech, right action, and right livelihood before mindfulness and concentration.
These Eastern schools tell us there is a practical reason for this. We have to get our moral lives tidied up before we can make real progress toward liberation. Otherwise, when we sit to meditate, the inner landscape is cluttered with emotion and thoughts about things left undone.
What I want to explore here is the same idea in Christianity, especially through the perspective of the anonymous writer of The Cloud of Unknowing. This little text is a window onto the Christian monastic mysticism of the Middle Ages. Reading this book for the first time, I was surprised at the familiarity of his message. Contemplative prayer has a lot in common with the meditative practices of Yoga, with the goal being to settle the mind on one focal point in order to pierce the Cloud of Unknowing and, eventually, experience Ultimate Reality.
A little background: I was raised in the Catholic Church. It felt very unmystical to me. To my child mind, it appeared to be rule-based and cold—a land of authoritarian priests and nuns; pompous, empty rituals; and an outdated morality shot through with gender inequality. I quit the church in my early teens, rejecting the beliefs of my parents, as we do, in order to become an autonomous young adult with ideas of my own.
In college I studied the Tanakh / Old Testament and the New Testament. I learned the history of Christianity and even some theology. I read the medieval women mystics. But I was always wary. Christianity never attracted me the way Hinduism and Buddhism did.
But that was all a long time ago now, and I was hopeful that I could approach The Cloud in the same way I would any other mystical text—with respect for its parent tradition and seeking what benefit it holds.
All was going well, even delightfully, until our anonymous author started to talk about sin. And not just sinful acts but our “sinful nature.” Call it a stumbling block, a button pusher, a trigger—I had a visceral reaction, my gut and shoulders tightened up, one eye brow raised, and mentally I kept trying to check out, reading without really processing.
Instead of letting myself of the hook, I decided to ask, Where does this come from? What does it mean to the writer and does it mean something different to me? And of course, that’s exactly what was going on.
Sin as Avidya / Ignorance
As adults we can understand that “sin” is anything that moves us away from the Truth, away from the experience of union with God.
(I gotta say, I still don’t have the same experience of the word God that I do with Brahman, the Tao, or the Sacred, though I understand intellectually that they are all referring to the same Ultimate, the Absolute.)
In Yoga, sin is the equivalent of ignorance, avidya. Because we misunderstand the Truth about the sacredness of the world, we act according to our own selfish desires, seeking to affirm our attachment and avoidance preferences. To make progress toward spiritual liberation, we have to learn how to let go of our self-centered and self-constructed desires. Therefore “bad” thoughts, words, and deeds are those that are unwise, that move us away from Truth, and “good” thoughts, words, and deeds are those that are wise and move us closer to it.
In The Cloud of Unknowing, our unknown author tells us that sin is the result of “weakness and lack of understanding.” Lack of understanding causes misperception, and this faulty perception in turn creates errors in thought and false judgments. The misperception, he says, is cleared up through humility, through selflessness.
He advocates using the word “sin” as the focus of contemplation, not as a reminder of individual acts, the memory of which he says will only distract from contemplation, but as a reminder of the evil that is to be overcome, the ignorance that creates distance from God.
“Sin,” he says, “is an indefinable lump that is nothing other than yourself.” This might seem startling to some, but is this idea so different from the yogic principle that the ego personality, your self, is not your real Self? I proposed it could make sense to think of it in such terms.
"You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake"
We are good. We are worthy. We “deserve the best.” We have been sold the idea that everything ought to make us feel good about ourselves, especially spirituality.
There comes a time when we have to learn that we are nothing; we are less than the shit in a fly on the windshield of the Universe. Compared to the vastness of the Absolute; to the eternal nature of the Sacred; and to the inevitability of death, we are terrifyingly meaningless. Our existence is a flash in the pan; we are tiny, fragile, limited, and finite. In fact, a central theme of mysticism is that “you” aren’t even real. You have to let go entirely of any sense of “you” to meet what is Really Real.
This experience of our utter insignificance, trembling before the Ultimate, brought low by the realization of Truth—this is the dark night of the soul. This is the “perfect humility” The Cloud talks about. And out the other side of it is the way to knowledge, understanding, and the experience of union.
To tie this with the topic of morality, the author tells us, "Strive for perfect humility. When you have it, you will not commit sin. Once you have experienced a moment of perfect humility, you will remain less susceptible to temptation."
It is these instances of selflessness that change us at the core.
Moving up the Mountain
Just like with the yama and niyama or any seemingly proscriptive list of rules, at first they are external, then with their internalization and with progress on the path, the principles on which those rules are based emerge as part of our perspective, the lens through which we see the word and act within it. With these principles in place, actions in accord with the “rules” spontaneously flow from the movement closer to the Sacred.
Then, with the inner landscape tranquil, we can head up the mystic mountain in earnest.
Now, with this more tolerant and perhaps more mature understanding of sin, God, and humility, I turn back to read The Cloud of Unknowing again, to find what waits on this new plateau.