The Ascetic at the End of the Bar

In college I read a book that was modeled on Dante’s Inferno.  Charting the progress of a young African American man through various American cities, the tale made the point that we have rings of hell right here and right now, and that we have our own poets and storytellers (Dante travelled with Virgil) to bear witness.  By now (thanks to the lectures I listen to in my car) I realize that Dante was radical himself, filing his tale with bold examples of corrupt popes and officials but the image from that  masterpiece that stays lodged in my aging brain is the image of the deepest ring of hell and Satan frozen, utterly incapable of movement.  The idea that evil was being outside the flow of life and that freedom had to do with being in alignment or obedience to the higher laws of life—freedom as obedience–this was a huge paradoxical news flash.  But I intuitively knew it was true; think of addiction, think of dreary nowhereness of life on the lam.

What stayed lodged in my heart and mind from the modern urban inferno was an image of a young black man sitting in a rough bar, playing the tough guy, harboring a secret asceticism under his ragged coat.  I was a dreamy white girl from the sticks and I identified with him!

I realize now that I have treated having a spiritual like being in a rough bar.  Picture the bar in Star Wars or any other archetypal rough bar, full of strange characters.  My sense of having a spiritual life was that it was best lived as a kind of secret agent—outside seeking to be a woman of the world, learning things go, finding a place, a craft, then being a worker among workers;  while inside seeking truth, exploring what it might mean to be in alignment with higher laws.   The sense that having a spiritual search was best kept under wraps was born of a sense of how quickly consciousness gives up its freedom, attaches itself to images, memories, thoughts—especially thoughts about self.  I was wary of identifying with a spiritual path, of assuming the role of follower or teacher of any particular way, because even as beginner (especially then) it was easy to see how people lost the openness of beginner’s mind as they identified with a role.   It seemed to me that it was best to live a double live, to be a kind of secret agent of transformation.  I longed to know a greater life, a life that I felt certain was lived by other beings in other times.  But I didn’t want to deceive myself, to lose the life I was seeking by grasping at it.

It took a long time and many experiences of loss and gain to realize that we find the path to freedom in those moments (really, in moments) when all separation falls away.  Almost everyone has had a few “if I get out of this alive” moments.   In those moments, for me at least, there is no more inside and outside, no self and others.  There is just the understanding that life is fleeting, burning–it really is an inferno!  There is no time in such a moment to care about who we are–there is  just  a wish to join in and be helpful, to be one more pair of hands on the bucket  (or broom or sandbag or feeding) brigade.   Separation is hell, and there is a way out.

15 thoughts on “The Ascetic at the End of the Bar

  1. I enjoy very much your writing, Tracy. You are articulate and are able to describe many experiences that are shared, as it turns out. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are all not very different in the important matters, so whenever someone is able to articulate the situation or the experience or the aspiration, it is a gift to those who can’t articulate so well. Whether or not you see it this way, your written efforts are a real service. . . to the circulation of a particular energy in life. It helps, in ways you will never know.

    I’ve often had the experience of reading a particular formulation of something that I already “know,” in a way, or that I’ve heard said a hundred times. But this particular formulation coalesces something and the light goes on. . . furthering and deepening something I already thought I knew…opening an old question.

    1. How wonderful to come home and find this reply, Tanya. I am very grateful for what you say because when I wrote this post I had a sense of wanting to be part of a particular flow of life. To add my particular color to a deep experience some of us share, as susieq says. Thanks to both of you.

  2. Tracy,

    You’re posting today is reminding me of my wayward mispent youth and all the honky tonk bars in Texas, I once frequented, including the original Gilley’s from the movie Urban Cowboy. Not mention a girl from then, who won a part in the Dolly Parton look-a-like contest. An old college friend actually, and not someone I knew in a biblical sense, but someone who was a close friend at the time.

    This is all too long ago for me to think about these days and it’s probably not a tale worthy of telling here on your blog. Although, my two best friends and I once ….

    Oh no, I can’t tell that one either I’m afraid. ;-)

    We are all it seems, an endless source of stories, each one of us is story in an of itself, certainly one that is still in the making.

    When I was a child of six or seven, I once asked my father (a clergy), where hell was, and I have never forgotten his response.

    He told me that heaven is where God is, and hell is where he is not. And then we talk about how God is everywhere, especially within us.

    Still, when we lose this sight, stop seeing that it is true, a truth, and begin to feel that God is not there, or here, or within, it really can lead to terrible feelings of isolation, loneliness, and separation; great despair even.

    This is one reason I was always drawn to the 20th Century theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote so eloquently about our relationship with God, and that at some point in our life we are given a gift of grace, where we simply come to see and to “accept that we are accepted and beloved of God.”

    I hope that you or anyone reading these words, have experienced in their life such a moment of acceptance and grace. I love how Tillich describes it in these words …

    “Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”

    If that happens to us, we experience grace after such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”

    Tillich doesn’t put any rules, requirements, or conditions around this experience, since there is not anything anyone can actually do to make it happen. And that’s the point, it’s a gift, a gift of grace and one that comes unearned. This is why we call it grace.

    What amazes me about life, is that even in some of our darkest and most isolated moments, moments when we are brokenhearted beyond all measure, such grace can come pouring through.

    It makes me think of these words from one of Leonard Cohens songs.

    Ring the bells that still can ring …

    You can add up the parts
    but you won’t have the sum
    You can strike up the march,
    there is no drum
    Every heart, every heart
    to love will come
    but like a refugee.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Thanks for helping us let in some light today, through all the cracks in our steel plated armor.


    1. That way Tillich quote is crucial and transforming, and I love linking it with Leonard Cohen. The Tillich quote presents salvation as a state of living outside the cage of isolation and fear we usually live in–outside of ego and ego-driven imagination.

  3. Wonderful post, and a wonderful comment above as well. I heartily concur, and it reminds me yet again of why our (encouraged) taste for the constant next new thing is such a distraction from the path. Really, sometimes it just seems to me that I keep needing to hear the same five very simple/totally profound things over, and over, and over. Each person who speaks those things is coloured just a little bit differently than everyone else who speaks those things, and there is something very beautiful about all of those different colours, all one in the white.

    I do like your colour, Tracy. Keep on writing.

  4. Tracy,
    Yes, separation is hell. I think that’s where we get into all the churning and inferno of the mind. If we could all realize that we are truly connected to one another, then life would be so much easier. I love where you say that you connected to that Ascetic at the Bar, that is the point of our searching!
    Peace and joy,

  5. I think that may be the end of the search, strange as it sounds, embracing that cloaked and frightened figure at the end of the bar. Peace and joy to you, e

  6. It is ideas like this that inspire gratitude in me for discovering esoteric Christianity. I simply could not put any of this into a meaningful perspective without it.

    Tracy writes: “I think that may be the end of the search, strange as it sounds, embracing that cloaked and frightened figure at the end of the bar. Peace and joy to you, e”

    I prefer an old term “metaxu” used by Plato that Simone made me aware of. It and describes this connection. two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication.

    She considers the physical world that is both the barrier and the “way through” to the spiritual world. Metaxu then represents an intermediary, a bridge.

    It is easy to superficially glorify this connection because of our limitations. We cannot distinguish the acquired personality from the essence one is born with. Rather than seeing, we imagine. This is of course what inevitably corrupts the finest intentions; yes even in Interfaith where self importance quickly becomes dominant to hide our fears. Even the Apostles argued who was the most important. It is how we are.

    So what can one do when they become humble enough to admit the human condition inside of their common presence and their helplessness in front of it? Simone suggests a means.

    She describes a human being as like a plant with roots and leaves. The roots are fed by the nourishing quality of metaxu a society offers. Does it serve to promote individuality or the psychological slavery of life in the Beast roaming about in Plato’s Cave?

    The leaves of a plant are fed by light from our son. In the same way the higher parts of the human soul are fed by the light of grace if a human being can be open to it. This light is what makes the understanding of a healthy metaxu possible. Without it people remain lost in imagination producing the hypocrisy normal for imagination that denies the human condition.

    The light of grace exposes the darkness for what it is making the “bridge” metaxu creates the potential for a reflection of genuine understanding.

    As I witness the actions of society all around me, there is nothing more obvious than the denial of grace being replaced by the glories of imagination. The worship of the golden calf is so attractive. It looks and feels good as a societal ideal. yet it is blind and impotent underneath its glorious exterior. It is easy to try to see people through what we want to see rather the reality of what we all are in contrast to human potential that can only be revealed through the light of grace.

  7. Hi Nick, In order to see through imagination, I think we need to cultivate a new attitude, a new way to see. I found this quote by Jung: “Even the ‘Middle Path’ finally becomes ‘obscured by desires.’ ….On becoming acquainted with our unconscious potential, we “hurl (ourselves) upon it with the same heedless desirousness and greed that before had engulfed them….The problem is not so much a withdrawal from the objects of desire, as a more detached attitude to desire as such, no matter what its object….we are forced into a sort of contemplative attitude which, in itself, not rarely has a liberating and healing aspect.” C. G. Jung

  8. Hi Tracy

    I agree as far as the need for a new attitude but may appreciate it differently. For one thing I don’t see why desire is necessarily a bad thing. There are desires and there is aspiration.

    Consider Gurdjieff’s question: “What is the sense and significance of life on earth in general and of human life in particular?”

    This is a desire to understand. The desire and search for the “pearl of Great Price” seems like a necessary human attraction towards transcendence.

    Is the desire to know as bad as it is often made out to be in New Age thought or is it really the motivation that is the potential problem? Simone Weil inspires thought. People may frown on it but I appreciate it. Consider how Simone inspired thought in this writer concerned with the unfortunate death of Amy Winehouse:

    A week ago today, the talented young British R&B/pop singer Amy Winehouse died. I think I can sum up the popular reaction thus: everybody was sad; nobody was surprised. The chorus to Winehouse’s most popular and famous song went: “They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no.” The lifestyle she lived matched her lyrics exactly – as when she was hospitalized for an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol.
    It’s a shame that the world lost such a great singer so early. And yet, the same louche excess that killed Winehouse was part of the appeal of her songs. Nobody wants to hear a soulful voice sing “I ate all my vegetables and flossed daily,” even if this idea is put in more poetic cadences.

    Since her death I’ve been thinking about the 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil – who was not much older than Winehouse when she died herself. Weil’s most famous work Gravity and Grace is regularly quoted for this line: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.” Winehouse’s self-destruction was an evil in the wider sense of that word; one suspects it may have been gloomy and monotonous for her, as romantic and varied as it was for us. Though the evils she faced were real enough for her and those close to her, this nonfiction story may as well have been imaginary for most of us, the ones who knew her only as a voice and a moving image. *******************

    Perhaps imagination is far stronger than we give it credit for. Do we really understand the relationship of good and evil? If Simone is right we glamorize the monotonous. Why?

    How can a new attitude towards imagination be anything but recognizing the importance of developing the ability for conscious attention since glorified imagination is what takes the place of our gradual loss of the ability for conscious attention?

    When I first read this passage from Dr. Nicoll in volume one of his Commentaries, it was hard to understand.

    Karma Yoga is the science of action with non-identifying, This phrase must be remembered by everyone. It must not be changed into “the science of action without identifying”. The essence of the idea of Karma-Yoga is to meet with unpleasant things equally with pleasant things. That is practicing Karma-Yoga, one does not seek always to avoid unpleasant things as people normally do. Life is to be met with non-identifying. When this is possible, life becomes ones teacher; in no other sense can life become ones teacher for life taken as itself is meaningless, but taken as an exercise it becomes a teacher.

    “the science of action without identifying” is a mechanical adaptation of the conscious ability to sustain action with non-identifying. That is how subtle it becomes. That is why my heart goes out to this minority that does not want to be part of the crowd that has become this imaginary goal in much of New Age thought but rather feels the need to become oneself from having become aware of the human condition as it exists in themselves keeping them a slave to imagination.

  9. Hi Nick, I love that Simone quote. Evil (and certainly the evil of addiction) is boring. Also the Nicoll, which I’ve heard before. Lately, non-identifying has come to take on a new meaning. For whatever reason, I am not seeming to care about situations that used to bother me. What the Buddhists call “unworldly pleasant feelings” sometimes take the place of the old identification and negativity–the pleasant feeling of being non-identified and interested in non-ego things. I’m not saying it happens all the time, mind you, but it’s a hint of the wondrousness of the good.

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