IN OUR OPINION, Bernadette Roberts is one of the most important spiritual authors of all time because:
She was fully self-realized. In other words, she reached the state known as manonasha in Hinduism, which she called “no-self.”
Her books describe this state and her path with extraordinary clarity and precision.
In her view, loss of ego and loss of self are two different stages. She calls loss of ego the “unitive state”. In that state, the ego is gone but it has been replaced by a different center of conciousness, one that involves unity with God or all that is. At that stage, consciousness, self, and God still exist. There is a sense of nonduality but it is a nonduality of identity between a center and whatever is outside the center. There is still an inner and outer.
The second stage, which she calls no-self and Hindus call manonasha, is much more radical. Self, consciousness, and God fall away completely and no center remains; there is no knowing in the ordinary sense and no inner experience. This second stage is the real enlightenment.
Most of the people who talk about enlightenment and awakening on the Internet are talking about the first stage. Most of them don’t realize that the second stage exists, even though some famous teachers like Ramana Maharshi are examples of it and focused on it in their teachings. Bernadette herself didn’t realize that the second stage exists until it happened to her, and she was astonished by it.
The reason many seekers and spiritual teachers are unaware of the existence of the second stage is because when they hear about it, they misinterpret the words and think they are being told about the first stage which they know to some extent experientially. One of the main purposes of this website is to tell people that the two stages are different, and that the ordinary kind of enlightenment is not the same thing as Self-realization. This was also one of the main purposes of Bernadette’s books and lectures.
Bernadette came to Self-realization through the Catholic contemplative tradition, following the teachings of Saint John of the Cross, and when she fell into the no-self state, it came as a complete surprise because, she said, nothing in Catholic tradition mentions such a state. She then looked for information about this state in Buddhist and Hindu literature but could not find anything there either. She has been criticized and ridiculed for claiming that Hinduism and Buddhism do not describe this state (of course they do, it is the state that Ramana Maharshi was in), but she defended herself as follows:
From the beginning, the sole purpose of my writing has been to put into the contemplative literature an entire stage and final event (the no-self event) that presently is not there. Despite objections to the contrary, this particular stage and final event have not been accounted for in our contemplative literature, East or West. To search a hundred or more classics in the field and find only a few hidden suggestions of such an event is not sufficient. My affirming that it is not in the literature, however, has been the cause of some ridicule. The impression is that I am illiterate, have no formal knowledge of the path, or am totally ignorant of the available classics. 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.
The challenge of providing such an account is what my writing is 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.
[From What is Self, Introduction.]
Since she couldn’t find an adequate vocabulary or theoretical framework in any tradition to describe her experience, she invented her own. She did this by taking terms and concepts from Christianity and the Catholic contemplative tradition and repurposing them.
But she didn’t say she was repurposing them. Instead she said she was explicating their real meaning. For example, in her last book, The Real Christ, she says that the word “Christ” doesn’t mean what Christians think it means. What it really means, she said, is a union of God’s human nature and God’s divine nature which takes place inside human beings.
There is a lot of this sort of thing in her books, and it turns them into a peculiar mixture of testimony about her state and tendentious rewriting of Christian theology. This probably puts off many Christians because they get offended by Bernadette’s heretical views, and bores many non-Christians because they have no dog in that fight. But if you can lay such reactions aside and view her vocabulary and concepts as tools through which she conveys information to you about the no-self state, the result will be worth it.
A suggestion for Christian readers of her books: be open to the possibility that she understands Christ better than some of the people who wrote the dogmas of your church. And a suggestion for non-Christians: make the effort to understand her ideas and vocabulary. You can do this and recognize the truth of what she says without becoming a Christian in a sectarian sense.
We list her books in the order in which she wrote them. Many sites list them in order of the years in which current editions were published, but that is misleading because some of her books have gone through several editions from different publishers..
The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey (1982)
Alhough this was her first book it turned out to be the third volume of her autobiography. It describes a two year period in her late 30s during which she lost all sense of self. We would call this process self-realization but she calls it the falling away of the unitive state and true self (not the ego, which in her terminology fell away at an earlier stage). The current revised edition was published in 1993.
The Path to No-Self: Life at the Center (1985)
The second part of Roberts’s autobiography, starting at age 17. It covers a period of twenty years, beginning with the Dark Night of the Spirit (falling away of the ego-center) and describing the unitive state.
What is Self? A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness (1989)
Essays on the Christian Contemplative Journey (2007)
Republished in 2017 as The Christian Contemplative Journey: Essays on the Path.
Contemplative: Autobiography of the Early Years (2014)
The first part of Roberts’s autobiography, describing her life from birth until age 17.
The Real Christ (2017)
Roberts’s theological ideas about the true nature of Christ and God.
The true nature of self can only be fully disclosed when it is gone, when there is no self. One outcome, then, of the no-self experience is the disclosure of the true nature of self or consciousness. As it turns out, self is the entire system of consciousness, from the unconscious to God-consciousness, the entire dimension of human knowing and feeling-experiencing. Because the terms “self” and “consciousness” express the same experiences (nothing can be said of one that cannot be said of the other), they are only definable in terms of “experience.” Every other definition is conjecture and speculation. No-self, then, means no-consciousness. If this is shocking to some people, it is only because they do not know the true nature of consciousness. Sometimes we get so caught up in the content of consciousness, we forget that consciousness is also a somatic function of the physical body, and, like every such function, it is not eternal. Perhaps we would do better searching for the divine in our bodies than amid the content and experiences of consciousness.
By Bernadette Roberts
“This is an extraordinary account of our journey with God. In it, Bernadette talks of a milestone in the spiritual life that lies beyond union with God. After years of living a life united with God and given completely to God, she comes upon an event in which the entire self falls away. There is now no union, no center, and strictly speaking no experience at all. What remains is Christ and the Resurrection and a knowing (without subject) that to me speaks of the beginning of a beatific vision of God--a vision without mediator. In The Path to No-Self Berndette writes of the first part of our journey – the transformation where God replaces self at the very center of being. She speaks of this as the falling away of ego distinct from the later falling away of self. In What is Self a work that I hope will be printed again she speaks in much greater detail about what is known after the no-self event – about God, self, Christ, the Trinity and the Incarnation. There is no truer account of the spiritual life than these works by Bernadette Roberts. They profoundly illuminate the truth of the Christian revelation, and also provide insights for contemplatives of all backgrounds.”
—rb (an Amazon reviewer)
By Bernadette Roberts
“This lucid and unfailingly honest account of the process of coming to terms with the loss of "self" is simply a grace for those with ears to hear. Ms. Roberts, a former nun, has walked the contemplative path to the point where it disappears into nowhere and then, remarkably enough, kept walking. Her personal experiences and reflections on the journey are invaluable to those traveling a similar route; along with the writings of St. John of the Cross, her books (I include "The Experience of No-Self" as well) are simply the most nourishing of mana for those lost in the desert of God, as well as for those who have lived in the desert and are being called at last back to the city. The straightforwardness of her writing and her contemporary reality are a blessing. No one tells it like it is about the dark night of the soul better than Bernadette Roberts, and her books have been sustaining companions to me for almost twenty years. They were all I could read, at many points. These are not books for scholar; these are books for those in the grip of the real thing.”
—An Amazon Customer
By Bernadette Roberts
“So pleased to have connected with this very unusual offering. Roberts spends the first half of the book explaining in great detail – sometimes tediously, but in the end thoroughly and with stunning insight – the nature of all self identity – Small Self, Big Self, or as some refer to it, True Self and consciousness. Her conclusion is that they are all temporary, mutually supporting constructs that fall away as one matures along the human journey. Her description of the "no self" condition - her ability to describe "no self" to readers who assume their identity as being the one absolutely, irreducible, "personal" accessory is an amazing accomplishment. Beyond unitive consciousness, Roberts describes conditions of pure knowing without a knower. And not as some have led us to believe - not God realized, omniscient knowing. Instead a knowing that includes the sober realization that all that has been previously "known" was really and unavoidably, mere self reflection. Roberts, now in her seventies is described by those who know her as, "A Force Of Nature."
—Thomas Carroll (an Amazon reviewer)
This page was published on April 27, 2020 and last revised on May 31, 2020.