Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

State and Station

Progress on the path brings new and unusual experiences: some confusing, some exhilarating, most unexpected, and nearly all deeply satisfying. These markers along the way confirm the rightness of our efforts. But the undeniable attraction of spiritual experiences may lead us, counter-productively, into pursuing them as an end in themselves. However, it is not our purpose in the path to chase after new and fleeting experiences, as if the spiritual world were an amusement park. Rather we embark on a steady quest for permanent changes in our level of being, a quest to be able to serve more deeply. We need not play the spiritual tourist in a sacred land, snapping photos as keepsakes of our journeys. Instead we seek to become residents of that land. Sublime spiritual experiences, in themselves, do not necessarily indicate changes in our level of being.

The Sufis offer a clear description of these issues with their two terms: state and station. States are temporary experiences, which come and go. Regardless of how high a state we might enter, we return to the same station when the state departs. Our station describes our level of being, our stable inner home, characterizing our usual modes of living and perceiving, defining the limitations of our daily life. We may even experience states corresponding to a very high station, but unless our being changes, we soon fall back to states more typical of our true station..

We can describe states and stations in terms of their characteristic energies. For example, we usually operate on the automatic energy. Thus, our station, our starting point in the spiritual journey is the automatic energy and the particular patterns and habits it drives in us. Sometimes an intense experience may shake us out of our autopilot mode: perhaps a beautiful sunrise touches us. At that moment, we temporarily live in the next higher energy, the sensitive, more aware of ourselves and our surroundings. Life vividly blossoms and fills us. A short time later finds us mired once again in our habitual patterns, associative thoughts and daydreams. Then we remember the state we entered during the sunrise, how wonderful we felt. We tell ourselves and our friends about how much progress we have made on the spiritual path and offer the sunrise experience as proof. We even begin to daydream about our progress, about how much we have learned and changed.

The problem is we have not changed. We still live primarily in the automatic energy. And instead of diligently pursuing the practices that could help us awaken by creating our stable home in the sensitive energy, we daydream about former glories. Passing experiences, passing states do not signify a change in our station, in our level of being. Bearing in mind this distinction, pointed out so powerfully by St. John of the Cross, helps us persist in our practice and prevents us from being sidetracked by high states. Wonderful experiences will come. We do not try to hold onto them, nor do we reject them. In fact, mulling over or boasting about them, even to ourselves, saps their benefit to us. We just let them come and go, without attachment, while we keep up our practice.

All this is not meant to imply that the experience of higher states constitutes a problem in itself. The problem only occurs if we grow attached to or identified with the state. But these higher than normal states can indicate progress toward permanent change of station. The new experience encourages us to continue the inner work. The excitement and enthusiasm in their wake enable us to practice more than before. This new level of practice may even repeatedly propel us into the new state. Alas, the excitement inevitably wanes, our practice diminishes, the new state stops visiting us, and we slip back to where we were before.

Then we face the challenge of strengthening our inner work without the immediate gratification of the higher states we have tasted. This situation calls us to a steadfast, sober, and mature practice, bolstered by the faith awakened by our earlier experiences. Persistence pays, though. Perhaps after several cycles of this whole process and some years of practice, the higher state gradually becomes more normal for us, we enter it as our new and natural domain, and some of our old attachments no longer control us. Then we accelerate our practice again and we reach a tipping point. In retrospect, we discover that our station, our being has changed and we have a new freedom.

And then we practice more.


     

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