Introductory Chapter to This Above All
a spiritual biography by Tess Hughes.
A few years ago a man wrote asking me if I would consider writing my biography focusing on my spiritual journey. At the time I said no and couldn’t imagine ever doing such a thing, but here I am having done it. It happened spontaneously and effortlessly.
One day I came across a booklet I had in my house and didn’t remember ever having seen it. It was Bernadette Roberts’ Christian commentary on the famous Ox-Herding pictures.
What are the Ox-Herding Pictures? Here’s how John Daido Loori, Abbot of The Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, describes them in his book: Riding the Ox Home: (Stages on the Path of Enlightenment). Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston.
In my days of Zen study, I and all the other students really wanted to have a sense of what we had accomplished and the challenges to come. For these reasons we have created at Zen Mountain Monastery a somewhat arbitrary but helpful map of training, based on a series of paintings from Chinese antiquity known as The Ox-Herding Pictures. They illustrate the spiritual development of a student, from the moment they begin their spiritual quest until the completion of their training, when they become a teacher in their own right.
The following quote taken from the back cover of the same book gives a further description of the value of The Ox-Herding Pictures.
Maps and guideposts are helpful when we undertake a journey. The ten Ox-Herding Pictures, the accompanying ancient poems, and a modern commentary by John Daido Loori, sketch the spiritual path encountered in Zen training, a path of exhaustive study of the self and the realization of the ultimate nature of Reality. The Ox-Herding Pictures can be our companion on the Way of self-discovery, our compass and perspective when we need one. They are a bottomless source of mysterious wisdom to which we can return again and again for inspiration, and they translate easily into the gritty reality of spiritual practice that emerges out of and grounds us in the inescapable relevance of our daily lives. (Loori)
I knew them–The Ox-Herding Pictures–but hadn’t studied them much. However, I see this book as echoing the “gritty reality” and the “inescapable relevance of our daily lives.” That is what this book is about.
There are many versions of the stages and maps of the spiritual path. Teresa of Avila describes these stages as seven mansions, inner mansions. Many others have described stages ranging from as few as three or four to maybe fifteen recognizable stages. A Course in Miracles describes the path in six stages. The traditional Christian path describes three phases: 1-Purgative, 2 – Illuminative, 3- Unitive. John of The Cross describes it as Four Nights of the Soul: Active and Passive Nights of the Senses and Active and Passive Nights of the Spirit (Soul). And all the other traditions have their own maps. But the thing to remember is that “the map is not the territory,” as Alfred Korzybski said. There are many maps for this journey each using their own mythological language to describe it.
The fact that these maps exist is in itself encouraging in that they document the possibility inherent in the human condition. But, it is important to remember and act on what Lao Tzu says in The Tao Te Ching: “Every journey begins with a single step.” We all have to take our own steps, and as the opening lines of The Tao say:
The Way that can be told of is not an unvarying way;
The names that can be named are not unvarying names.
It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;
The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures, each after its kind (chap. 1, tr. Waley).
On reading Roberts’ booklet, I could identify five or six of the stages described, and I could precisely name the event or experience that had been a milestone or transition from one stage to the next. I had never been able to do this while on the path, but now, four years after the end of seeking, I could recognize stages I had passed through. So, I started to write descriptions of the stages I recognized. Over the coming days the stages I hadn’t recognized became apparent. In about two weeks, the whole path had been written, as it happened in my personal experience.
Every version of the spiritual journey is but a particular version of a universal process. However, while going through it I could not ever identify where I was on the path. I couldn’t distinguish between the various stages in anything I read. But, I did know and was comforted and inspired by writings documenting the stages of possible evolution for an individual. The very idea of this possibility made it too much to ignore. Therefore to aid my journey, I deliberately sought out books written by women in the hopes that I might better relate to or understand what this path might look like for a woman. And this did help. The way women wrote made the possibility seem more accessible for me.
Having said that, most of my reading and inspiration came from men, including the person I call my teacher, Art Ticknor. However, at the end of the day, spiritual evolution is beyond gender. It is about the human condition and we are all in the same boat, cut off from our True Selves.
The effortlessness with which this book came out is surprising, but then I am writing about my own experience and don’t have to think much about it in order to access it. My reason for writing it, or publishing it, is in an effort to communicate what I think is the most significant knowledge that can be put in the hands of another person. It’s my (effortless) effort to contribute something to the store of perennial wisdom of the world, which is what inspired me to follow this path. The Perennial Wisdom is available in all cultures at all times, constantly being renewed and re-articulated in the language of the day by those who have come to the end of seeking.
I read a lot, for decades, and cannot name most of the books I read now, but this constant reading led to a slow accumulation of ideas and practices that eventually prepared me for conscious seeking. It prepared me so that I recognized real spiritual teaching when I came across it. My hope in writing this is that you, the reader, will be inspired to actively follow your path. Your path and your experiences will not look like mine, but after it’s over, you too will see that your life was not a random series of experiences but that it was always moving towards a particular goal; it was always trying to return you to your natural state, your Home. It’s a question of you becoming aware of what is really going on in your life and then doing what you can to align your life with your innermost Self or God’s will.
At the end of the day, this is all about coming to the end of suffering, the healing of our existential angst, which is the root cause of all our suffering: our anxiety, our insecurities, our lack of love, our lack of self-acceptance. It’s about coming to know our true identity, our identity beyond that of being a creature of the world.
This possibility exists for everyone, but we have to work for it. The work we have to do is to be willing to look deep into our own minds and emotions and experiences and see what is really going on. The Dali Lama says “Happiness is not something ready-made. It comes from your own actions.”
We have to take responsibility for our own lives; that’s the first step. Nobody else is to blame, no matter how attached you are to such a story.
I think that for many people the notion of taking full responsibility for their own state of happiness or maturity or spiritual development is a foreign idea. Spiritual progress is based on each of us taking full responsibility for our own fruition into the full potential inherent in the human condition, as each of us experience it. Our relationship with ourselves is the most important relationship we will ever have. We die alone. Nobody else can accompany us on that journey.
Our first reaction to this statement might be that this is selfish. Many people have said this to me, but I can assure you that the opposite is true. Having a good relationship with yourself, knowing who you really are is the greatest gift you can give to others. Remember though, paying attention to yourself, your inner world, in no way means that you neglect your relationship with others. Giving all your energy and attention to others at the expense of your relationship with yourself is refusing to take on the potential inherent in your life. It’s unlikely that others will encourage you to do this, but then they are not suffering your suffering.
Nobody has the right to prevent us from healing our inner wound and we need to know this in order to have the confidence to follow our path. People may not understand what we are doing and so be inclined to dismiss it. We don’t have to have anyone else’s permission to do what is necessary to heal our suffering, and we can do it right in the middle of ordinary life. I did. I did it by retaining some of my energy and time for this inner work, and at the same time I honored all my responsibilities to others in my life. They didn’t even notice what I was doing really. This inner journey is private and can be done while washing the dishes or walking to the shop. Everyone can carve out time for it once they see the need for it. Admittedly, there are phases in life when we may be overrun by responsibilities, as for instance when we are raising a family and working outside of the home. But, even then, to neglect our relationship with ourselves completely is asking for trouble.
It’s not a question of time; it’s a question of understanding that the goal of spiritual development is finding peace within. Looking back on my journey, the main part of it took place over the course of my life, but the intense part took about five years. For three years before the final revelation, it had come to dominate my life. My inner life had come to the fore with daily life in the background, and my attention was directed towards the inner changes that were taking place. It had become an obsession. In addition, this coincided with menopause, which is commonly referred to as The Change. I have to wonder if this period in a woman’s life is not more conducive to spiritual growth than any other.
As I say in the book, I had many physical symptoms going on and when I Googled them, I always got back both menopause and kundalini. I couldn’t distinguish between these symptoms, but the kundalini symptoms stopped completely following the revelation and the menopause symptoms continued. So, now I can see how they were different. For one thing, menopause symptoms are more dense and general in the body. The kundalini symptoms moved up the body, starting in the pelvic area and finishing in the head, and then vanished. I don’t have any explanation for these physical symptoms. I haven’t read much about Kundalini. I took the attitude that they were another aspect of the inner change that was happening and not the primary thing. In other words, I didn’t get hung up on the symptoms, which I think is a problem that many get lost in.
For two years after the revelation, I found it difficult to participate in daily life other than in a minimal way, but that has changed, and I am now able to participate fully again. So, I’d say, the intense part of the spiritual path took five years. John Moriarty, an Irish writer, refers to this intense phase of spiritual unfolding as The Tridium Sacrum and wonders if we’ll ever see the day when people can take time off work to undergo their “tridium sacrum” in much the same way as maternity leave is given now to have a baby.
This book is written in the spirit of sharing “spiritual labor” because it is difficult enough to find such information, and yet it is a universal phenomenon. I grew up in a culture and time where the physical labor of birthing a baby was not talked about. So I went into my own first labor with little more than trust that it would work out fine. It would have been helpful, I think, to have had a better idea of what to expect. Having said that, “labor” does its thing whether we understand it, or are prepared for it, or not. Knowing about such things in no way alleviates us of the need to live through it. I recognized that I was going through a spiritual process, or as I called it “a spiritual pregnancy,” for about three years and knew that this would one day lead to a birthing, but I had no idea what that might entail. Actually I don’t think anyone can be prepared for this event other than knowing that this is what is happening, in both the spiritual and biological sense. I also think that only a woman who has had babies would be likely to think in this way.
The book has ten main chapters, based on the traditional ox-herding story from the Zen Buddhist tradition. The version of the poem used is taken from a course given by John M. Koller, Department of Cognitive Science, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) 110 Eighth Street, Troy, NY USA 12180.
He credits the version he uses to “the twelfth century monk Guo-an Shi-yuan (also known as Kuo-an Shih-yuan or Kakuan Shien) revised and expanded upon the traditional Taoist story of the ox and the oxherd by creating a series of ten images and accompanying verses to simultaneously depict and narrate this well-known tale. Guo-an’s version subsequently became one of the most popular and enduring versions of the parable. Nevertheless, despite the dominance of Guo-an’s paintings, other Zen Buddhists and artists have repeatedly repainted and retranslated Guo-an’s immortal verses throughout the following centuries. While the illustrations of the tale vary, the verses tend to be either direct or indirect translations of Guo-an’s original verses, and their message stands unchanged.”
Each chapter begins with a verse of the Ox-herding poem and is followed by the explanation, in italics, given by John Koller. Each chapter finishes with a Bernadette Roberts commentary on the ox-herding verse from a Christian perspective.
So, I hope you find inspiration and ideas in the following pages to help you on your way, on your great journey Home.