Evelyn Underhill

Practical Mysticism

Chapter 5: Self Adjustment

Evelun Underhill

SO, IN A MEASURE, you have found yourself: have retreated behind all that flowing appearance, that busy, unstable consciousness with its moods and obsessions, its feverish alternations of interest and apathy, its conflicts and irrational impulses, which even the psychologists mistake for You.

Thanks to this recollective act, you have discovered in your inmost sanctuary a being not wholly practical, who refuses to be satisfied by your busy life of correspondences with the world of normal men, and hungers for communion with a spiritual universe. And this thing so foreign to your surface consciousness, yet familiar to it and continuous with it, you recognise as the true Self whose existence you always took for granted, but whom you have only known hitherto in its scattered manifestations.

"That art thou."

This climb up the mountain of self-knowledge, said the Victorine mystics, is the necessary prelude to all illumination. Only at its summit do we discover, as Dante did, the beginning of the pathway to Reality. It is a lonely and an arduous excursion, a sufficient test of courage and sincerity: for most men prefer to dwell in comfortable ignorance upon the lower slopes, and there to make of their more obvious characteristics a drapery which shall veil the naked truth.

True and complete selfknowledge, indeed, is the privilege of the strongest alone. Few can bear to contemplate themselves face to face; for the vision is strange and terrible, and brings awe and contrition in its wake. The life of the seer is changed by it forever. He is converted, in the deepest and most drastic sense; is forced to take up a new attitude towards himself and all other things. Likely enough, if you really knew yourself - saw your own dim character, perpetually at the mercy of its environment; your true motives, stripped for inspection and measured against eternal values; your unacknowledged selfindulgences; your irrational loves and Hates - you would be compelled to remodel your whole existence, and become for the first time a practical man.

But you have done what you can in this direction; have at last discovered your own deeper being, your eternal spark, the agent of all your contacts with Reality. You have often read about it. Now you have met it; know for a fact that it is there. What next? What changes, what readjustments will this self-revelation involve for you?

You will have noticed, as with practice your familiarity with the state of Recollection has increased, that the kind of consciousness which it brings with it, the sort of attitude which it demands of you, conflict sharply with the consciousness and attitude which you have found so appropriate to your ordinary life in the past.

They make this old attitude appear childish, unworthy, at last absurd. By this first deliberate effort to attend to Reality you are at once brought face to face with that dreadful revelation of disharmony, unrealness, and interior muddle which the blunt moralists call "conviction of sin."

Never again need those moralists point out to you the inherent silliness of your earnest pursuit of impermanent things: your solemn concentration upon the game of getting on. None the less, this attitude persists. Again and again you swing back to it. Something more than realisation is needed if you are to adjust yourself to your new vision of the world. This game which you have played so long has formed and conditioned you, developing certain qualities and perceptions, leaving the rest in abeyance: so that now, suddenly asked to play another, which demands fresh movements, alertness of a different sort, your mental muscles are intractable, your attention refuses to respond.

Nothing less will serve you here than that drastic remodelling of character which the mystics call "Purgation," the second stage in the training of the human consciousness for participation in Reality. It is not merely that your intellect has assimilated, united with a superficial and unreal view of the world. Far worse: your will, your desire, the sum total of your energy, has been turned the wrong way, harnessed to the wrong machine.

You have become accustomed to the idea that you want, or ought to want, certain valueless things, certain specific positions. For years your treasure has been in the Stock Exchange, or the House of Commons, or the Salon, or the reviews that "really count" (if they still exist), or the drawing-rooms of Mayfair; and thither your heart perpetually tends to stray. Habit has you in its chains. You are not free.

The awakening, then, of your deeper self, which knows not habit and desires nothing but free correspondence with the Real, awakens you at once to the fact of a disharmony between the simple but inexorable longings and instincts of the buried spirit, now beginning to assert themselves in your hours of meditation - pushing out, as it were, towards the light - and the various changeful, but insistent longings and instincts of the surface-self.

Between these two no peace is possible: they conflict at every turn.

It becomes apparent to you that the declaration of Plotinus, accepted or repeated by all the mystics, concerning a "higher" and a "lower" life, and the cleavage that exists between them, has a certain justification even in the experience of the ordinary man. That great thinker and ecstatic said, that all human personality was thus twofold: thus capable of correspondence with two orders of existence.

The "higher life" was always tending towards union with Reality; towards the gathering of itself up into One. The "lower life," framed for correspondence with the outward world of multiplicity, was always tending to fall downwards, and fritter the powers of the self among external things.

This is but a restatement, in terms of practical existence, of the fact which Recollection brought home to us: that the human self is transitional, neither angel nor animal, capable of living towards either Eternity or Time. But it is one thing to frame beautiful theories on these subjects: another when the unresolved dualism of your own personality (though you may not give it this highsounding name) becomes the main fact of consciousness, perpetually reasserts itself as a vital problem, and refuses to take academic rank.

This state of things means the acute discomfort which ensues on being pulled two ways at once. The uneasy swaying of attention between two incompatible ideals, the alternating conviction that there is something wrong, perverse, poisonous, about life as you have always lived it, and something hopelessly ethereal about the life which your innermost inhabitant wants to live - these disagreeable sensations grow stronger and stronger.

First one and then the other asserts itself. You fluctuate miserably between their attractions and their claims; and will have no peace until these claims have been met, and the apparent opposition between them resolved. You are sure now that there is another, more durable and more "reasonable," life possible to the human consciousness than that on which it usually spends itself. But it is also clear to you that you must yourself be something more, or other, than you are now, if you are to achieve this life, dwell in it, and breathe its air.

You have had in your brief spells of recollection a first quick vision of that plane of being which Augustine called "the land of peace," the "beauty old and new." You know for evermore that it exists: that the real thing within yourself belongs to it, might live in it, is being all the time invited and enticed to it. You begin, in fact, to feel and know in every fibre of your being the mystical need of "union with Reality"; and to realise that the natural scene which you have accepted so trustfully cannot provide the correspondences toward which you are stretching out.

Nevertheless, it is to correspondences with this natural order that you have given for many years your full attention, your desire, your will. The surface-self, left for so long in undisputed possession of the conscious field, has grown strong, and cemented itself like a limpet to the rock of the obvious; gladly exchanging freedom for apparent security, and building up, from a selection amongst the more concrete elements offered it by the rich stream of life, a defensive shell of "fixed ideas."

It is useless to speak kindly to the limpet. You must detach it by main force.

That old comfortable clinging life, protected by its hard shell from the living waters of the sea, must now come to an end. A conflict of some kind - a severance of old habits, old notions, old prejudices - is here inevitable for you; and a decision as to the form which the new adjustments must take.

Now although in a general way we may regard the practical man's attitude to existence as a limpetlike adherence to the unreal; yet, from another point of view, fixity of purpose and desire is the last thing we can attribute to him. His mind is full of little whirlpools, twists and currents, conflicting systems, incompatible desires. One after another, he centres himself on ambition, love, duty, friendship, social convention, politics, religion, self-interest in one of its myriad forms; making of each a core round which whole sections of his life are arranged.

One after another, these things either fail him or enslave him. Sometimes they become obsessions, distorting his judgment, narrowing his outlook, colouring his whole existence. Sometimes they develop inconsistent characters which involve him in public difficulties, private compromises and self deceptions of every kind. They split his attention, fritter his powers.

This state of affairs, which usually passes for an "active life," begins to take on a different complexion when looked at with the simple eye of meditation. Then we observe that the plain man's world is in a muddle, just because he has tried to arrange its major interests round himself as round a centre; and he is neither strong enough nor clever enough for the job. He has made a wretched little whirlpool in the mighty River of Becoming, interrupting - as he imagines, in his own interest - its even flow: and within that whirlpool are numerous petty complexes and countercurrents, amongst which his will and attention fly to and fro in a continual state of unrest.

The man who makes a success of his life, in any department, is he who has chosen one from amongst these claims and interests, and devoted to it his energetic powers of heart and will; "unifying" himself about it, and from within it resisting all counter claims. He has one objective, one centre; has killed out the lesser ones, and simplified himself. Now the artist, the discoverer, the philosopher, the lover, the patriot - the true enthusiast for any form of life - can only achieve the full reality to which his special art or passion gives access by innumerable renunciations. He must kill out the smaller centres of interest, in order that his whole will, love, and attention may pour itself out towards, seize upon, unite with, that special manifestation of the beauty and significance of the universe to which he is drawn.

So, too, a deliberate self-simplification, a "purgation" of the heart and will, is demanded of those who would develop the form of consciousness called "mystical." All your power, all your resolution, is needed if you are to succeed in this adventure: there must be no frittering of energy, no mixture of motives.

We hear much of the mystical temperament, the mystical vision. The mystical character is far more important: and its chief ingredients are courage, singleness of heart, and self control.

It is towards the perfecting of these military virtues, not to the production of a pious softness, that the discipline of asceticism is largely directed; and the ascetic foundation, in one form or another, is the only enduring foundation of a sane contemplative life. You cannot, until you have steadied yourself, found a poise, and begun to resist some amongst the innumerable claims which the world of appearance perpetually makes upon your attention and your desire, make much use of the new power which Recollection has disclosed to you; and this Recollection itself, so long as it remains merely a matter of attention and does not involve the heart, is no better than a psychic trick.

You are committed therefore, as the fruit of your first attempts at self-knowledge, to a deliberate - probably a difficult - rearrangement of your character; to the stern course of selfdiscipline, the voluntary acts of choice on the one hand and of rejection on the other, which ascetic writers describe under the formidable names of Detachment and Mortification.

By Detachment they mean the eviction of the limpet from its crevice; the refusal to anchor yourself to material things, to regard existence from the personal standpoint, or confuse custom with necessity.

By Mortification, they mean the resolving of the turbulent whirlpools and currents of your own conflicting passions, interests, desires; the killing out of all those tendencies which the peaceful vision of Recollection would condemn, and which create the fundamental opposition between your interior and exterior life.

What then, in the last resort, is the source of this opposition; the true reason of your uneasiness, your unrest? The reason lies, not in any real incompatibility between the interests of the temporal and the eternal order; which are but two aspects of one Fact, two expressions of one Love.

It lies solely in yourself; in your attitude towards the world of things. You are enslaved by the verb "to have": all your reactions to life consist in corporate or individual demands, appetites, wants. That "love of life" of which we sometimes speak is mostly cupboard-love. We are quick to snap at her ankles when she locks the larder door: a proceeding which we dignify by the name of pessimism.

The mystic knows not this attitude of demand. He tells us again and again, that "he is rid of all his asking"; that "henceforth the heat of having shall never scorch him more." Compare this with your normal attitude to the world, practical man: your quiet certitude that you are well within your rights in pushing the claims of "the I, the Me, the Mine"; your habit, if you be religious, of asking for the weather and the government that you want, of persuading the Supernal Powers to take a special interest in your national or personal health and prosperity.

How often in each day do you deliberately revert to an attitude of disinterested adoration? Yet this is the only attitude in which true communion with the universe is possible.

The very mainspring of your activity is a demand, either for a continued possession of that which you have, or for something which as yet you have not: wealth, honour, success, social position, love, friendship, comfort, amusement. You feel that you have a right to some of these things: to a certain recognition of your powers, a certain immunity from failure or humiliation. You resent anything which opposes you in these matters.

You become restless when you see other selves more skillful in the game of acquisition than yourself. You hold tight against all comers your own share of the spoils. You are rather inclined to shirk boring responsibilities and unattractive, unremunerative toil; are greedy of pleasure and excitement, devoted to the art of having a good time.

If you possess a social sense, you demand these things not only for yourself but for your tribe - the domestic or racial group to which you belong.

These dispositions, so ordinary that they almost pass unnoticed, were named by our blunt forefathers the Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Anger, Envy, Avarice, Sloth, Gluttony, and Lust. Perhaps you would rather call them - as indeed they are - the seven common forms of egotism. They represent the natural reactions to life of the self-centered human consciousness, enslaved by the "world of multiplicity"; and constitute absolute barriers to its attainment of Reality.

So long as these dispositions govern character we can never see or feel things as they are; but only as they affect ourselves, our family, our party, our business, our church, our empire - the I, the Me, the Mine, in its narrower or wider manifestations. Only the detached and purified heart can view all things - the irrational cruelty of circumstance, the tortures of war, the apparent injustice of life, the acts and beliefs of enemy and friend - in true proportion; and reckon with calm mind the sum of evil and good.

Therefore the mystics tell us perpetually that "selfhood must be killed" before Reality can be attained. "Feel sin a lump, thou wottest never what, but none other thing than thyself," says The Cloud of Unknowing. "When the I, the Me, and the Mine are dead; the work of the Lord is done," says Kabir. The substance of that wrongness of act and relation which constitutes "sin" is the separation of the individual spirit from the whole; the ridiculous megalomania which makes each man the centre of his universe.

[Sin is separation from God. It has nothing to do with good or evil. This I have been maintaining for years in the face of blank incomprehension from those around me. DCW]

Hence comes the turning inwards and condensation of his energies and desires, till they do indeed form a "lump"; a hard, tight core about which all the currents of his existence swirl. This heavy weight within the heart resists every outgoing impulse of the spirit; and tends to draw all things inward and downward to itself, never to pour itself forth in love, enthusiasm, sacrifice.

"So long," say the Theologia Germanica, "as a man seeketh his own will and his own highest good, because it is his, and for his own sake, he will never find it: for so long as he doeth this, he is not seeking his own highest good, and how then should he find it? For so long as he doeth this, he seeketh himself, and dreameth that he is himself the highest good.... But whosoever seeketh, loveth, and pursueth goodness, as goodness and for the sake of goodness, and maketh that his end - for nothing but the love of goodness, not for love of the I, Me, Mine, Self, and the like - he will find the highest good, for he seeketh it aright, and they who seek it otherwise do err."

[Here I would differ strongly in the process of agreeing absolutely. Just because good is so often defined in personal and social terms, to seek it eventually becomes just another power game in which personally or socially determined evil becomes the target. We must seek God, not Good. DCW]

So it is disinterestedness, the saint's and poet's love of things for their own sakes, the vision of the charitable heart, which is the secret of union with Reality and the condition of all real knowledge. This brings with it the precious quality of suppleness, the power of responding with ease and simplicity to the great rhythms of life; and this will only come when the ungainly "lump" of sin is broken, and the verb "to have," which expresses its reaction to existence, is ejected from the centre of your consciousness.

Then your attitude to life will cease to be commercial, and become artistic. Then the guardian at the gate, scrutinising and sorting the incoming impressions, will no longer ask, "What use is this to me?" before admitting the angel of beauty or significance who demands your hospitality.

Then things will cease to have power over you. You will become free. "Son," says a Kempis, "thou oughtest diligently to attend to this; that in every place, every action or outward occupation, thou be inwardly free and mighty in thyself, and all things be under thee, and thou not under them; that thou be lord and governor of thy deeds, not servant."

It is therefore by the withdrawal of your will from its feverish attachment to things, till "they are under thee and thou not under them," that you will gradually resolve the opposition between the recollective and the active sides of your personality. By diligent selfdiscipline, that mental attitude which the mystics sometimes call poverty and sometimes perfect freedom - for these are two aspects of one thing - will become possible to you.

[Freedom's just another word for nothin left to lose...(Kristofferson) DCW]

Ascending the mountain of self-knowledge and throwing aside your superfluous luggage as you go, you shall at last arrive at the point which they call the summit of the spirit; where the various forces of your character - brute energy, keen intellect, desirous heart - long dissipated amongst a thousand little wants and preferences, are gathered into one, and become a strong and disciplined instrument wherewith your true self can force a path deeper and deeper into the heart of Reality.


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1906 - The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary

1911 - Mysticism

1912 - Introduction to The Cloud of Unknowing

1913 - The Mystic Way

1914 - Introduction: Richard Rolle - The Fire of Love

1915 - Practical Mysticism

1915 - Introduction: Songs of Kabir

1916 - Introduction: John of Ruysbroeck

1920 - The Essentials of Mysticism, and other Essays

1922 - The Spiral Way

1922 - The Life of the Spirit and the Life of Today (Upton Lectures)

1926 - Concerning the Inner Life

1928 - Man and the Supernatural

1929 - The House of the Soul

1933 - The Golden Sequence

1933 - Mixed Pasture: Twelve Essays

1936 - The Spiritual Life

1943 - Introduction to the Letters of Evelyn Underhill
by Charles Williams


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