Stages in the Awareness of God
From the book "How to Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries" by Deepak Chopra
Stage Three: God of Peace
Whether unleashing floods or inciting warfare, the God we've seen so far relishes struggle. Obedience to him has mattered far more than our own needs.
The balance begins to shift when we find we can meet our own needs. It takes no God "up there" to bring peace and wisdom, because the cerebral cortex already contains a mechanism for both. When a person stops focusing on outer activity, closes his eyes, and relaxes, brain activity alters. The dominance of alpha-wave rhythms signals a state of rest that is aware at the same time. Blood pressure and heart rate decrease, accompanied by lessened oxygen consumption.
These changes do not sound overly impressive, but the effect can be dramatic.
Peace replaces the mind's chaotic activity; inner turmoil ceases. The Psalms declare, "Be still and know that I am God." This is the God of stage three.
Stage three transcends the willful, demanding God that once prevailed, just as the new brain transcends the old. Only by discovering that peace lies within does the devotee find a place that divine vengeance and retribution cannot touch. This forms the basis of contemplation and meditation in every tradition.
The first solid research on the restful awareness response came with the study of mantra meditation in the 1960s and 1970s. Early experiments at the Menninger Foundation established that some yogis could lower their heart rate and breathing almost to nil. They should have been on the brink of death; instead they reported intense inner peace, bliss, and oneness with God. Nor was this phenomenon simply a curiosity from the East.
In December 1577 a Spanish monk in the town of Avila was thrown into a church prison. The monk underwent horrendous torture. His unlit cell "was actually a small cupboard, not high enough for him to stand erect. He was taken each day to the rectory, where the monks walked around him, scouring his bare back with their leather whips.”
While imprisoned in his dark cupboard, Saint John of the Cross begged for a pen and paper so he could record his ecstatic inner experiences.
On a dark, secret night,
starving for love and deep in flame,
Oh, happy, lucky flight!
unseen I slipped away,
my house at last was calm and safe.
These opening lines from "Dark Night" describe the escape of the soul from the body, which delivers the poet from pain to joy. But for this to happen, the brain has to detach inner experience from outer. In medicine we run across instances where patients seem remarkably immune to pain. In cases of advanced psychosis, someone who has become catatonic is rigid and unresponsive.
We cannot simply lump a great poet and saint, however, with the mentally ill.
All ceased. I left my being,
leaving my cares to fade
among the lilies far away.
Saint John describes with precisely chosen words the transition from the material level to the quantum level where physical pain and suffering have no bearing.
Lying beneath the spiritual beauty of the experience is the restful awareness response.
To put yourself in a comparable situation, imagine that you are a marathon runner. Marathons test the body's extremes of endurance and pain; at a certain point long-distance runners enter "the zone," a place that transcends physical discomfort.
In the zone one expands beyond the limits of the body, touching the wholeness and oneness of everything. The God of peace is meditative.
The God of stage three is a God of peace because he shows the way out of struggle. There is no peace in the outer world, which is ruled by struggle. People who attempt to control their environment -- I am thinking of perfectionists and others caught up in obsessive behavior -- have refused the invitation to find an inner solution.
One man told me he had torn his Achilles tendon in a fateful game of racquetball -- only instead of being in excruciating pain, he felt extremely calm and detached.
It is common for people to break into stage three with this kind of abruptness. In place of an active, excited mind, they find a silent witness. Some people jump immediately into religion; others register the whole thing simply as detachment.
Medically we know that the brain can cancel out awareness of pain. Yet endorphins -- the brain’s own version of morphine -- are not enough to account for Saint John's ecstasy. The brain does not give itself a simple injection of opiates when pain is present. There are many situations where pain cannot be overcome, and sometimes it takes a trick to get the brain to react. If you take people suffering from intractable pain, a certain number will get relief if you inject them with saline solution while telling them that it is a powerful narcotic.
The whole area of treatment is psychological -- it is a matter of changing someone's interpretation.
In between the pain and the brain something must intervene that decides how much discomfort is going to be felt. It is just as normal to feel no pain as to feel a great deal. To someone who has entered stage three, the decision maker is the presence of God bringing peace, and the pain being relieved includes the pain of the soul caught in turmoil. By going inward, the devotee has found a way to stop that pain.
In many ways finding your center is the great gift of stage three, and the God of peace exists to assure his worshiper that there is a place of refuge from fear and confusion.
A warrior God didn't settle the turbulent history of the chosen people, nor did laying down countless laws. The God of peace can't simply dictate an end to strife and struggle. Either human nature has to change or else it must disclose a new aspect that transcends violence. In stage three the new aspect is centeredness. If you find your own inner quiet, the issue of violence is solved, at least for you personally. A friend of mine who has been deeply influenced by Buddhism says that if you can find the motionless point at your core, you are at the center of the whole universe.
"Haven't you noticed driving down the highway that you can pretend not to be moving? You remain still while the road and everything else is flowing past you. That still point is the silent witness."
Buddhism doesn't believe that personality is real. The fact that I am over fifty, Indian, a physician by training, married with two children, and so forth doesn't describe the real me.
These qualities have chosen to roost together and form the illusion of an identity. In this lifetime I preferred to be male rather than female, Eastern rather than Western, married rather than single -- and on and on. I am so bound up in these preferences that I actually think they are me.
But in Buddhism, my choices will dissolve in the wind once I give up this body. So who am I? I am nothing except the still point of awareness at my center. To realize this truth is to be free, so Buddhism teaches. Therefore seeing yourself as a motionless point while driving down the freeway becomes a valued experience. You are one step closer to finding out who you really are.
The Old Testament clearly states that the way to peace is through reliance on God as an outside power. Giving up trust in God and looking instead to yourself could be very dangerous. It could also be heresy.
A few clues indicate that I can risk a different approach, however. In the Bible one finds such verses as "Seek ye the kingdom of heaven within." And the means of going inward, chiefly meditation and silent contemplation, are not that far removed from prayer. A biological response lies behind restful awareness, no matter what faith we clothe it in.
In the Hindu tradition, going inward begins a spiritual quest that will eventually end in enlightenment.
The spiritual properties of mantras -- a word repeated mentally while breathing slowly in and out -- have two bases. Some orthodox Hindus would say that every mantra is a version of God's name, while others would claim -- and this is very close to quantum physics -- that the vibration of the mantra is the key -- the frequency of brain activity in the cerebral cortex. The mantra forms a feedback loop as the brain produces the sound, listens to it, and then responds with a deeper level of attention. A person could use any of the five senses to enter this feedback loop. The whole intent is to go past the senses in order to find their source.
In all cases the source is a finer state of brain activity. The theory is that mental activity contains its own mechanism for becoming more and more refined until complete silence is experienced. At that point one's awareness crosses the quantum boundary -- the material plane has been left behind; we are now in the region where spiritual activity commands its own laws.
The argument persists that a brain learning to calm down may be comforting, but it isn't spiritual. There really is no fundamental disagreement going on. The cerebral cortex produces thought by using energy in the form of photons; their interaction takes place on the quantum level, which means that every thought could be traced back to its source at a deeper level. No "spiritual" thoughts stand apart on their own. We are kept on the material level because our attention is pulled outward rather than inward.
There is no doubt that people resist the whole notion of God being an inner phenomenon. The vast majority of the world's faithful are firmly committed to stages one and two, believing in a God "up there," outside ourselves. Yet its importance is stated eloquently in the medieval document known as "The Cloud of Unknowing," written anonymously in the fourteenth century. The author tells us that God, the angels, and all the saints take greatest delight when a person begins to do inner work. However, none of this is apparent at first:
God has no presence emotionally or intellectually. The cloud of unknowing is all we have to go on. The only solution, the writer informs us, is perseverance. We are advised to go into a "cloud of forgetting" about anything other than the silence of the inner world.
This makes perfect sense once we realize that the restful awareness response, which contains no thoughts, is being advocated. The step the writer took was a brave one under the weight of priests, cathedrals, and church laws, but it would be a brave step today as well, because people want a God they can see and touch and talk to.
Consider how radical the argument really is: In this work it profits little or nothing to think upon the ... worthiness of God ... or upon the saints and angels in heaven.... It is far better to think upon the naked being of God.
This "naked being" is awareness without content, pure spirit. As with any stage, this is one you enter, then explore. It can be a bleak place at first, marked by loss of all the rituals and comforts of organized faith. Our anonymous writer emphasizes over and over that delight and love will eventually arise out of silence. The inner work is done for only one purpose -- to feel the love of God – an there is no other way to achieve it.
Every stage of inner growth is hard-won. A clash of values confronts everyone on the threshold of stage three. Good is measured by remaining centered in the self, which brings clarity and calm. Evil is measured by disturbance to that clarity; it brings confusion, chaos, and inability to see the truth.
Fifty years ago the sociologist David Riesman noted that the vast majority are "outer directed" and the small minority "inner directed." Outer direction comes from what others think of you; you crave approval and bend to the needs of conformity. Inner direction is rooted in a stable self that can't be shaken. An inner-directed person is free of the need for approval, making it much easier for him to question prevailing opinions. Being inner directed doesn't make you religious, but the religion of the inner directed is stage three.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be "in the world but not of it." He wanted them to be both detached and engaged -- detached in the sense that no one could grab their souls, engaged in the sense that they remained motivated to lead a worthy life. This is the balancing act of stage three, and many people find it hard to manage.
Here is how the writer of “The Cloud of Unknowing” describes spiritual work:
Who is it that calls it nothing? Surely it is our outer man and not our inner. Our inner man calls it All; for it teaches him to understand all things bodily or spiritual, without any special knowledge of one thing in itself.
This is a remarkable description of how silence works. Those who achieve inner silence are also thinking in the ordinary way. But the thought takes place against a background of nonthought. The mind is full of a kind of knowing that could speak to us about everything, yet it has no words; therefore we seek this knowingness in the background. If you keep to your plan, rejecting outward answers over and over, eventually your seeking bears fruit.
During this whole time, your work inside is private, but outer existence has to go on. Thus the balancing act Jesus referred to as being in the world but not of it. Or as we are stating it, being detached and engaged at the same time.
In stage three a person finds that he is autonomous. By breaking free of social pressures, he can be himself. Yet there is the risk of fatalism, a feeling that being free is just a form of isolation with no hope of influencing others. How can another person, someone not at this stage, understand what it means?
Gandhi, because he had renounced the outer trappings, couldn't be grabbed in the usual places. Those in power couldn't threaten him with losing his job, house, family, or even with imprisonment and death (they tried all of these means anyway). Detachment renders the use of power impotent. You validate yourself from within, and this equates with God's blessing.
The pull toward spirit is real. For all the outer sacrifices, something seems to have been gained. At this moment there is a period of adjustment as the person accommodates to a new world so different from that of every day.
Stage three is not about becoming an introvert. That is the great temptation, especially for those who misinterpret the words going inward and inner silence. Someone who wants to shrink from the world can use as his excuse that spirituality should be inward. Someone who feels pessimistic can find comfort in rejecting the whole material world.
Introversion is not a spiritual state, however. I know one man whose basic attitude is disgust with the world. It can be very draining to be around this man, but he sees himself as a good Buddhist. His path of renunciation really amounts to rejection.
To be involved in the world is a muddy, sometimes dispiriting business. God enfolds the whole creation, not just the nice parts. If you start out by rejecting this or that, how will you end up accepting it?
True renunciation is quite different. It consists of realizing that there is reality behind the mask of the material world. The richest man in the world could be a renunciate, if he has the proper insights, while a greedy, selfish monk could fall very short of renunciation. Stage three has to do with allegiance. Do you give your allegiance to the inner world or the outer? It will be in the fire of experience that real answers come.