Bernadette Roberts (1931 – ) is a rare and extraordinary contemporary mystic of the nondual persuasion. She was born in California to devout Catholic parents, and entered the Monastery of Discalced Carmelites in Alhambra, California when she was seventeen in January 1949. After eight and a half years of monastic life, Bernadette left the cloister and entered the University of Utah where she was a pre-medical student for three years. After studies in Utah she returned to her parents’ home in Hollywood, California and obtained a degree in Philosophy from the University of Southern California. She taught Physiology and Algebra at Our Lady of Loretto High school in Los Angeles for four years where she met and married a fellow teacher, with whom she had four children. Bernadette went on to obtain a Montessori credential in London, England and opened her own Montessori school in Kalispell, Montana in 1969. In her Montessori school, Bernadette repeated all of Piaget’s cognitive (developmental) experiments with children. In 1973 she obtained a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from the University of Southern California. In 1976, Bernadette’s husband left her and the children, after which she obtained a Church Annulment. Between trying to earn a living, raise her children, and now helping out with grandchildren, Bernadette has a very busy life. Apart from this, however, for the last forty years she has annually made extended retreats with the Camaldolese Monks on the Big Sur in California. She has often said that “Camaldoli is my only true home on this earth.”
Bernadette has extensively chronicled and described her life and spiritual journey. Her book Contemplative: Autobiography of the Early Years, presents an account of her early family life and spiritual experiences. Her spiritual journey after entering the cloister is described in The Path to No-Self: Life at the Center. This book includes descriptions of her experience of the “Dark Nights” and of the state of “Union,” as spoken of by various Christian mystics. After years of life in union with God, Bernadette describes an event she calls the experience of “no-Self” in The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey. The book, however, only covers a two year period after the events described. Bernadette has since further elaborated on the context for this event. After the first publication of The Experience, Bernadette was invited to speak around the country, to present her talk, “A Passage Through Self,” that uses a series of circles to illustrate the spiritual journey. For the last 30 years Bernadette has given annual retreats entitled “The Essence of Christian Mysticism,” in which she presents the essence of Christian mysticism as Trinity, Christ, and Faith. Her most recent work is The Real Christ (2012).
Roberts, who began what she characterises as a three-part journey through transformative experience as an adolescent in a devout Catholic family and continued it through ten years as a member of a contemplative order before leaving the convent, consequently tends to use the language of Christian contemplative theology to describe what happened to her. She realises the hazards of using a Christian vocabulary when addressing a wider audience, however, and offers this caveat: “All that man knows of God, or what Is, is either theoretical – and therefore speculative – or is no more than one man’s attempt to describe his experience of ‘that’ which is all that Is.” This, then, is her attempt to describe her “experience of ‘that’ which is all that Is”, for which she uses the shorthand referent, “God.”
Lest her references to “God” put her readers off, she says, “I’m always reluctant to use the word, God, because everybody seems to carry around his own stagnant images and definitions that totally cloud the ability to step outside a narrow, individual frame of reference. If we have any conception of what God is, certainly it should be changing and expanding as we ourselves grow and change. This is the very nature of our life’s movement: to expand, to open up and blossom…. Whatever we care to call the ultimate reality, we cannot define or qualify it because the brain is incapable of processing this kind of data; thus we must every look upon words as mere descriptions of a man’s experience — the nature of which we do not really know.”
As a self-described contemplative (Roberts writes her book, in fact, as a kind of contemplative handbook) she finds the descriptions of the contemplative state in the standard literature to be incomplete. Although she considers St. John of the Cross a particularly useful guide, in her view he shares this shortcoming. Her explanation of this seems to be that St. John knew more, but he wasn’t telling: “To journey beyond the self means leaving behind our relative notions, expectations, and theories concerning what lies beyond the known. It means going beyond our usual frames of reference and encountering areas of theological sensitivity which, alone, would necessitate such accounts remaining unrecorded. I have always been of the opinion that John of the Cross, with the Spanish Inquisition breathing down his neck, failed to give us the full story. We know that his writings were left incomplete.”
She outlines this journey beyond the self as a three-stage trip, and maintains that the standard Christian contemplative literature only describes the first stage, known in the mystic trade as the unitive state, (which in her case lasted some 20 years). In this state, one apprehends God as residing in the centre of being, even during those periods of spiritual sterility, usually called “the Dark Night of the Spirit.” Roberts contends, from her own experience, that there are two more stages after this unitive state. The first of these other stages is a period she describes as “the Passageway”, which is characterised by “the falling away of the self and a coming upon of ‘that’ which remains when it is gone.”
It was a time of utter terror for her as the self fell away: “Now I cannot convey what it is like to stare at some invisible horror when you don’t know what it is. Just knowing what it is may be all the defense you need; but when you’ve gone through your list of name-calling and it does no good, you just have to resign yourself to not knowing and face it anyway. This thing I had to stare down was simply a composite of every connotation we have of ‘terror,’ ‘dread,’ ‘fear,’ ‘insanity,’ and things of this order.” She gradually realised that “it was now obvious that fear – the mother of all inventions – was the core around which the self was built and upon which its life so depended that self and fear were here, all but indistinguishable.” The Passageway, then, was a time after this encounter during which she just coped with the loss of self.
Roberts remarks that “This journey [through the Passageway], then, is nothing more, yet nothing less than a period of acclimating to a new way of seeing, a time of transition and revelation as it gradually comes upon ‘that’ which remains when there is no self. This is not a journey for those who expect love and bliss, rather, it is for the hardy who have been tried in fire and have come to rest in a tough, immovable trust in ‘that’ which lies beyond the known, beyond the self, beyond union, and even beyond love and trust itself.”
The final stage in Roberts’ journey began when she finally came to terms “with the nothingness and emptiness of existence which, for me, seemed to be the equivalent of living out my life without God — or any such substitute. Only when this came about, only when the acclimation to a life without an ultimate reality was complete; when there was no hope, no trust remaining; only when I had finally to accept what is, did I suddenly realise that what is, is truth itself, and all that Is. I had to discover it was only when every single, subtle, experience and idea – conscious and unconscious – has come to an end, a complete end, that it is possible for the Truth to reveal itself.”
She discusses current notions of reality: “I had already learned how empirical reality stands in the way as a barrier, not only limiting our vision, but limiting any discussion …as well. Seemingly this barrier is the failure to realize that the reality we see, hear, feel, and think is so perishable, we can grind it down to a few elementary particles that even then, continue to baffle the mind. Nevertheless, I do not regard empirical reality as a true barrier to vision; on the contrary, it is the gateway through which we must pass in order to see what, if anything, lies on the other side. But the irony of this passage is that empirical reality is not seen as a barrier until the other side is reached, at which time it is seen as no barrier at all. Therefore, it is only in retrospect we see this as a barrier to others, while knowing it is also the gate through which all must pass. . . .
Those in a less advantageous position would be those who have skirted or surmounted empirical reality by some intellectual endeavor, without passing through it experientially. This could lead to a denial of empirical reality and, by making the ground we walk on a mere illusion, pull the rug out from under any meaningful discussion. When we cannot discuss what lies two feet ahead because it would be too un-understandable or too ineffable to do so, the subjects that matter most in life become so esoteric and privileged, they end up belonging to a few superior men; as someone once said to me, “when you see the world as illusion, you will have become a superman.” Even if this incentive had not come too late, I would have preferred to pass through the gate of the known and remain as is, which means to discuss what is when the chance arises….
After making this journey, I have no choice but to believe this transition can not only be made, but that it is inherent in everyone to do so whether they realize it or not. Though I do not understand how it can be made on a purely intellectual or technical level, I am nevertheless familiar with the experiential aspects of such a crossing; so if the following explanation appears clumsy, it is because the particular level or view from which I speak does not always allow for logical fulfilment….
Before this event…I had never noticed how automatically and unconsciously the mind was aware of itself, or how continually conscious I had been of my own awareness in all mental processes, or in all my thoughts, words, and deeds. But when this…came to an end, I suddenly realised the profound roots of self-consciousness, roots that unknowingly had infiltrated every aspect of my existence. To have this entire system uprooted, made for so many amazing discoveries as I moved through the ordinary affairs of life that I could never hope to recount them all….
By the time the journey is over, the only possible way of living is in the now-moment, wherein the mind moves neither backward nor forward but remains fixed and fully concentrated in the present. Because of this, the mind is so open and clear than no preconceived notions can get a foothold; no idea can be carried over from one moment to another; much less, could any notion demand conformity from others. There are no more head-trips — no clinging to a frame of reference, even if it is only the reference of tomorrow’s expectations. In a word, what is to be done or thought is always underfoot, with no need to step aside in order to find out what is to be thought, believed, or enacted….
As I hope I have shown, empirical reality is not itself an obstacle to seeing; rather, it is what we think about this reality that creates an obstacle to a transition that otherwise might not have been necessary in the first place. As it stands now, I still have a number of problems due to the continual need to compromise. I am surrounded by people with whom I need to relate; I live amid values, ideas, and opinions on which I must express myself; and because of this environment, I am continually impressed with the difficulty of sharing a journey with others who do not see as I now see. Yet this very inability, this abiding difficulty, only brings home to me the more how incomplete life is and ever will be until everyone can see.”
She sums up her realisation under the heading, “How it Works:” “There is no multiplicity of existences; only what Is has existence, an existence that can expand itself into an infinite variety of forms that constitute the movement and manifested aspect of itself. Though what Is, is the act, movement, and changing of all forms – and is form itself – it is, at the same time, the unchanging, unknowable aspect of all form. Thus, that which Is, continually observes the coming and going – the changing and movement – of its own form or acts, without participating in any essential change itself. Since the nature or essence of Itself is act, there can be no separation between its knowing, acting, existing, or between any aspect of itself, because that which acts, that which it acts upon, and the act itself are one without division. It never goes outside itself to know itself because the unmanifested, the manifesting, and the manifested are One.”
The third, and most difficult, of her three books, is the privately printed What is Self?, subtitled “A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness”. In her Introduction to this book, she makes it clear that her assertion of the existence of this third stage – the no-self experience – has met a fair degree of resistance, not only from within the usual Christian contemplative community but also from those New Age eclectic metaphysicians who are drawing from Eastern traditions. She explains this resistance as follows:
“The whole problem is that until we come upon this final event we do not know it is missing from the literature; thus we have no way of knowing what, specifically, to look for. In other words, until we know first-hand or by experience exactly what to look for, we are not in a position to judge whether or not this event is in the literature.
This does not mean that millions of people have not come upon the no-self event; indeed, sooner or later everyone will do so. All it means is that an accurate, distinguishable or clarifying account is not in the literature. The challenge of providing such an account is what my writing is all about. Attesting to the difficulty of this challenge is the fact that my first two books failed in this matter, so here, now, is a third attempt. I might add, the fact this book was not acceptable to a trade publisher further demonstrates the difficulty of putting the no-self event into the literature. It may be that for centuries our various censors have eliminated any event they did not understand or which they thought too upsetting to their clientele. I can only speculate about this….
As matters stand now, however, it seems that the very idea that the unitive state eventually falls away strikes the mind as incomprehensible, unbelievable – impossible in fact. For this reason the no-self event has been variously misinterpreted as: (1) the ‘no-ego’ event, (2) a mistaken interpretation of the experience, (3) a misunderstanding of the traditional path, (4) a semantic error or improper use and definition of terms, (5) a kind of mulish pride and prejudice on the part of the author. This list of mis-interpretations goes on. At bottom, however, the whole problem is that, by its very nature, self or consciousness is incapable of conceiving its own non-existence. It cannot possibly imagine any kind of life without itself because that which could imagine such a life IS self. So the true difficulty of understanding the no-self event is not one of semantics; rather, it is consciousness’ (psyche or self’s) own inability to go beyond itself; it is impossible…..We cannot believe experiences we have not had, or unable to conceive or imagine; much less can we believe any experience we cannot find verified and described in our traditional literature….
If the content and purpose of this writing seems to be in total contradiction to the reader’s beliefs and expectations regarding self and the journey, then he or she is advised to read no further. Those who do read further are advised to keep in mind that the Christian path is the only one I ever lived; thus what I know of other religious traditions and psychological paradigms is solely by way of reading and discussion with others. So, although I speak of Hinduism, Buddhism and the psychology of Carl Jung, I have never had their particular experiences or shared their perspectives. I trust readers will allow for this just as they allow for those who, never having lived the Christian contemplative path, nevertheless continue to give us their views on it.”
Some further excerpts from her writings:
“Gradually I began to notice a shift in this seeing. Where at first it had been nebulous and general, I soon noticed that when I visually focused in on a flower, an animal, another person, or any particular object, slowly the particularity would recede into a nebulous Oneness, so that the object’s distinctness was lost to my mind. Visually of course, nothing changed, the change was merely in the type of perception itself. Until this happened, it never occurred to me how I had always taken for granted the individuality of all objects of visual perception. But now, with the imposition of the “3D glasses”, it became impossible for the mind to perceive or retain any individuality when all visual objects either faded from the mind, gave way to something else, or were “seen through” I do not know which is the best description to use. I might also add, I do not understand the mechanism of this change in perception, yet I regard this change as one of the most significant events in the entire journey. It not only remained as a permanent irreversible fixture of perception, but it seemed to be the necessary vehicle by which I eventually came to the final “seeing”.”
“The moment was unheralded, unrecognized, and unknown; it was the moment I entered a great silence and never returned. Beyond the threshold of the known, the door upon self was closed, but the door upon the Unknown was opened in a fixed gaze that could not look away. Impossible to see or remember self or to be self-conscious, the mind was restricted to the present moment. The more it tried to reflect on itself, the more overpowering the silence.”
“Nine months passed before the eye upon Oneness became the eye upon nothingness. Without warning or reason, all particulars dissolved into absolute nothingness. At one point, the mind came upon the hideous void of life, the insidious nothingness of death and decay strangling life from every object of sight. Only self can escape such a vision because only self knows fear, and only fear can generate the weapons of defense. Without a self the only escape is no escape; the void must be faced, come what may.”
“As the river flows, from out of the formless void arises the greatest of great realities, a simple smile. The smile itself, the one that smiled and the one at which it smiled were as identical as the trinity. The smile is neither subject nor object, but the act and manifestation of the otherwise unknown and unmanifest; it is the form of the formless, the Eternal Form from which all multiple form arises and to which it ultimately returns. The true nature, then, of what remains beyond self is Eternal Form – the act and manifestation of the formless and unmanifest. The relative mind cannot hold on to this truth, it cannot grasp, convey – or even believe – that which has revealed itself. This identity can never be communicated because it is the one existent that can never be either objectified or subjectified.”
“Christ is not the self, but that which remains when there is no self. He is the form (the vessel) that is identical with the substance, and he is not multiple forms, but one eternal form. Christ is the act, the manifestation and extension of God that is not separate from God. We cannot comprehend “that” which acts or “that” which smiles, but we all know the act – the smile that is Christ himself. Thus Christ turns out to be all that is knowable about God, because without his acts, God could not be known. Act itself is God’s revelation and this revelation is not separate from God but is God himself. This I believe is what Christ would have us see; this is his completed message to man. But who can understand it?”
“Whoever was responsible for the idea of dividing self into lower and higher parts committed a serious crime against humanity. This division has given rise to the notion that the lower (ego and immature) self must be overcome while the higher (unitive and whole) self must be sought as the goal of human realization. Out of ignorance, I too clung to this notion because I believed it was this higher self that would be united with God for all eternity. It took a long time before my experiences led me to doubt this conviction and, at the same time, let in the possibility that this was not the whole truth and that there was still further to go.”
“Only God is love, and for this love to be fully realized self must step aside. And not only do we not need a self to love God, but for the same reason we do not need a mind to know him, for that in us which knows God, is God.”
“It is one step, and a giant one, to see clearly and participate in the love that flows between the persons of the Trinity, but even here, God is seen as the object of his own love. It is yet another step to realize that God is beyond all subject and object and is Himself love without subject or object. This is the step beyond our highest experiences of love and union, a step in which self is not around to divide, separate, objectify or claim anything for itself. Self does not know God; it cannot love him, and from the beginning has never done so.”
“Once beyond the self, however, holiness is no longer possible, because now, there is nothing left to give and no-one left to do the giving.”
“But coming home that day, walking downhill with a panorama of valley and hills before me, I turned my gaze inward, and what I saw, stopped me in my tracks. Instead of the usual unlocalized centre of myself, there was nothing there, it was empty, and at the moment of seeing this there was a flood of quiet joy and I knew, finally I knew what was missing — it was my ‘self’.”
“The assumption that the egoless condition, or union of self and God, is man’s final goal and ultimate destiny is a great mistake. My purpose here is to affirm that the unitive state is a hidden path in itself, a movement in its own right that ultimately leads to no-self (no true-self and no-union). In short, the unitive state is the hidden path to no-self.”
“Since the moment of self-consciousness comes to a permanent end – and a new journey begins — is such a decisive stroke or milestone in the contemplative life, I can only speculate why so little has been said of this breakthrough; in fact, I may never get over the silence on the part of writers who say nothing about this second movement.”
“The onset of this second movement is characterized by the falling away of self and coming upon “that” which remains when it is gone. But this going-out is an upheaval, a complete turnabout of such proportions it cannot possibly be missed, under-emphasized, or sufficiently stressed as a major landmark in the contemplative life.”
“This journey then, is nothing more, yet nothing less than a period of acclimating to a new way of seeing, a time of transition and revelation as it gradually comes upon “that” which remains when there is no self. this is not a journey for those who expect love and bliss, rather, it is for the hardy who have been tried by fire and have come to rest in a tough, immovable trust in “that” which lies beyond the known, beyond the self, beyond union and even beyond love and trust itself.”
“It is far more than the discovery of life without a self. The immediate, inevitable result is an emergence into a new dimension of knowing and being that entails a difficult and prolonged readjustment. the reflexive mechanism of the mind -or whatever it is that allows us to be self-conscious – is cut off or permanently suspended so the mind is ever after held in a fixed now moment out of which it cannot move in its uninterrupted gaze upon the Unknown.”
“A point is reached where the self is so completely aligned with the still-point that it can no longer be moved, even in its first movements, from this center. It can no longer be tested by any force or trial, nor moved by the winds of change, and at this point the self has obviously outworn its function; it is no longer needed or useful, and life can go on without it. We are ready to move on, to go beyond the self, beyond even its most intimate union with God, and this is where we enter yet another new life — a life best categorized, perhaps, as a life without a self.”
On the Silent Mind:
“I wish I understood the mechanism of self-consciousness, or how it is possible for the mind to bend back on itself, for if I did, I could more easily convey a better understanding of no-self and its most noticeable effect — the silent mind. But whatever this mechanism is, the state of no-self is the breaking up of a self-conscious system whereby the mind can no longer see itself as an object; and at the same time it loses the ability to find any other object to take its place, because when there is no self there is also no other.
I might add that the mind has never had the ability to see itself as a subject — this would be as impossible as the eye seeing itself; yet I think this very impossibility may be the clue to the type of consciousness that remains when consciousness without a knowable subject or object becomes the whole of it. This type of consciousness is not available to our ordinary way of knowing, and because it cannot be experienced or understood by the relative mind, it falls squarely into the realm of the unknown and the unknowable.
I used to believe that in order to know of the self’s existence, it was not necessary for the mind to reflect back on itself — to make itself an object or to be self-conscious, that is; instead, I believed that the basic awareness of thoughts and feelings went right on, and was present whether I reflected on them or not. Now, however, I see this is not the way it works. I see this is an error, but an error it is only possible to realize once self-consciousness had come to an end. It seems that on an unconscious level this reflexive mechanism goes on so continuously, it makes no difference if we are aware of this mechanism on a conscious level or not. In turn, this means that when the mechanism is cut off, we not only lose awareness of the self — or the agent of consciousness on a conscious level — but we lose awareness of the self on an unconscious level as well. Stated more simply: when we can no longer verify or check back (reflect) on the subject of awareness, we lose consciousness of there being any subject of awareness at all. To one who remains self-conscious, of course, this seems impossible. To such a one, the subject of consciousness is so self-evident and logical, it needs no proof. But to the unself-conscious mind, no proof is possible.
The first question to be asked is whether or not self-consciousness is necessary for thinking, or if thinking goes right on without a thinker. My answer is that thinking can only arise in a self-conscious mind, which is obviously why the infant mentality cannot survive in an adult world. But once the mind is patterned and conditioned or brought to its full potential as a functioning mechanism, thinking goes right on without any need for a self-conscious mechanism. At the same time, however, it will be a different kind of thinking. Where before, thought had been a product of a reflecting introspective, objectifying mechanism — ever colored with personal feelings and biases — now thought arises spontaneously off the top of the head, and what is more, it arises in the now-moment which is concerned with the immediate present, making it invariably practical. This is undoubtedly a restrictive state of mind, but it is a blessed restrictiveness since the continual movement inward and outward, backward and forward in time, and in the service of feelings, personal projections, and all the rest, is an exhausting state that consumes an untold amount of energy that is otherwise left free.
What this means is that thinking goes right on even when there is no self, no thinker, and no self-consciousness; thus, there is no such thing as a totally silent mind — unless, of course, the mind or brain (which I view as synonymous) is physically dead. Certainly something remains when the mind dies, but this “something” has nothing to do with our notions or experiences of a mind, or of thought, or of ordinary awareness.
What I call a ‘silent mind,’ therefore, is a purely relative experience belonging to a self-conscious state wherein silence is relative to its absence, its opposite, or to some degree of mental quietude. But in a fully established non-relative state — which is non-experiential by ordinary standards — there are no longer the variations, degrees, or fluctuations that could be known as the silent mind. This does not mean we cannot pass beyond the mind to ‘that’ which remains when the self-consciousness falls away, but it does mean that whatever lies beyond the mind has no such tool for its description.”
Further recommended reading:
An interview with Bernadette Roberts by Stephan Bodian. In this exclusive interview (published in the Nov/Dec 1986 issue of YOGA JOURNAL), author Bernadette Roberts describes the path of the Christian contemplative after the experience of oneness with God.
“This work on nondual realization is a detailed report on growth beyond what may be called the final duality, or what Roberts calls the first of two distinct and separate movements in Christian contemplative tradition.
The first contemplative movement is described as union of the self with God, where God is the ‘still-point and axis’ of being. In the first movement, self is not yet lost, but functions as a higher self in its union with God. The sense of personal selfhood remains. Abiding in God remains. Being centered in God remains. The divine life remains. God and self remain.
But in the second contemplative movement, self and God fall away, and “that” remains. Union with God gives way to God beyond union. The mind becomes fixed in the permanent now. The self’s union with God transcends itself.
‘Here now,’ Roberts says, ‘begins the journey beyond union, beyond self and God, a journey into the silent an still regions of the unknown.’
So begins the outline of a detailed and revealing journey whose insights are fresh and capable of nudging a person toward a further understanding. It is also without reference to Eastern traditions and vocabulary, which makes it interesting and different.”
Zen Oxherding Pictures for the Modern World with a Catholic Contemplative’s Commentary, Jeff Shore and Bernadette Roberts