“Anything is only what you make of it.”
This is an adage which makes for a useful maxim. It reminds us to make the best of our situation. In fact, it places the onus squarely on the individual to take responsibility for one’s situation. It also offers a fundamental recognition of our predicament: our reality is the product of our mental state, in that we perceive the world through the lens of our mental state.
However, the flip side is that it seems to suggest that everything must be the product of subjective human fabrication. This has interesting implications for those walking the spiritual path as seekers of truth. Is truth nothing more than what we make of it; merely subjective human fabrication?
Spiritual paths are certainly many and varied. The diversity apparent in the mainstream traditions of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, would seem to lend credence to the idea that truth is merely subjective. Hinduism seems to be characterized by diversity, with its pantheon of gods, goddesses, scriptures and doctrines. Buddhism and Christianity on the other hand, are not necessarily synonymous with variety. They are based on the life and teaching of a particular individual and have a particular orthodox canon of scripture. Yet there are actually quite a variety of Buddhisms and quite a variety of Christianities, and not all are reconcilable! The one commonality in this diversity is the claim on truth.
A number of traditions with diverse ideologies, interpretations and representations claiming the foundation of truth would seem to suggest truth is relative, conditional, and subjective: dependent on us, on what we make of it. However, it is not insignificant that the universal religions are often referred to as interpretive traditions. Claims of divine inspiration are as they are, nevertheless, the inspiration has been mediated and interpreted in the process of being rendered into expression. The various representations are human constructions and consequently, it is not unusual for these traditions to be reduced to ideologies, or even superstitions; the superstitions of personal projection, catering to our particular idiosyncrasies.
Is it possible that truth could be unconditional, existing independently of human beings? If we entertain the possibility of objective truth and the possibility the universal religions might actually stand on the foundation of objective truth, we would have to wonder how the common foundation of truth is to be understood? Such wondering presents us with the spiritual life.
Fortunately, spiritual streams devoted to objective truth flow quietly beneath the surface of these ancient traditions, sharing the common assertion that truth is unconditional and quite beyond the reach of the mind and senses. Immersion in this stream is immersion in a condition, specifically the condition-less or unconditioned . Consequently, this stream flows through the generations by direct transmission from master to aspirant: the aspirant sharing in the condition of the master. Such an encounter serves to set the aspirant on the path with a clear view of the destination. The path then involves bridging the gap between the habitual human condition and the condition-less.
These traditions understand any representation will be more unlike than like objective truth. Truth is beyond the reach of the mind and senses and cannot be given expression. Instead, these traditions are occupied with giving expression to the way to objective truth. In fact it might be reasonable to suggest that it is just this effort of giving expression to the way that has resulted in the universal religions.
The Christian tradition displays this effort through the works of a number of people, not least of which are an anonymous 14th century Englishman and a 16th century Spaniard: the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Cross, respectively. For these two masters of the spiritual life God is objective truth. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing calls on us to “Let God be as He is, I pray. Do not make anything else of Him”. St John of the Cross follows him two centuries later, giving us more detailed encouragement to “let Him be as He is”, and not make anything else of Him.
Objective truth, as a concept, has been a perennial favourite of philosophy students, no doubt since the advent of philosophy. However, the concept is of no interest here. The Christianity of St John and the author of The Cloud is essentially relational, and their only interest is with encounter: engaging the actuality.
They propose self abandonment as the precondition for encounter with objective truth. Why? Knowledge will be subjective ever so long as the interpretive factor intervenes – the interpretive factor being the self: the experience of a self that we create. That is, the self that is a construction of reference points in the mind and senses. If truth is to be objective, then the mediating / interpretive factor that renders it subjective will need to be removed. Consequently, the precondition for engaging the actuality of objective truth, self abandonment, amounts to the abandonment of all familiar reference points in the mind and senses.
‘The Ascent of Mt Carmel’ and ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ by St John of The Cross may be regarded as deconstruction manuals! Deconstructing the obstruction of self and all its constructions. “For, however impressive may be one’s knowledge or feeling of God, that knowledge or feeling will have no resemblance to God and amount to very little.” St John’s goal is to encourage us toward objective truth. “This is a venture in which God alone is sought and gained” and “few there are with the knowledge and desire for entering upon this supreme nakedness and emptiness of spirit”.
This Christianity is a practice tradition. There is work to do, a path to tread. After all, Christianity was once known as “the way”. As St John points out : “Our Lord, for our instruction and guidance along this road, imparted that wonderful teaching – I think it is possible to affirm that the more necessary the doctrine the less it is practiced – which I will quote fully: “If anyone wishes to follow my way, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For he who would save his soul shall lose it, but he who loses it for me shall gain it”.” (Mk. 8: 34-35)
“Oh, who can make this counsel understandable, and practicable, and attractive that spiritual persons might become aware of the difference between the method many of them think is good and that which ought to be used in traveling this road!”
“I should like to persuade spiritual persons that the road leading to God does not entail a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners and experiences – though in their own way these may be a requirement for beginners – but demands only the one thing necessary: true self-denial. In the exercise of this self-denial everything else, and even more, is discovered and accomplished. If one fails in this exercise, the root and sum total of all the virtues, the other methods would amount to no more than going about in circles without any progress, even if they result in considerations and communications as lofty as those of the angels.”
The way: “death to one’s natural self through nakedness and detachment from all things”. We are to desist from clutching and grasping at familiar reference points in the mind and senses with which we construct the experience of a self. Instead we are to allow awareness to subside in its Source. “For in union with God there is no one left to know anything”. No one separate from God to know God. There is only God. Knowing is being. Ground of being … primordial being.