Bernadette Roberts is the author of two extraordinary books on the Christian contemplative journey, The Experience of No-Self (Shambhaia, 1982) and The Path to No-Self (Shambhala, 1985). A cloistered nun for nine years, Roberts reports that she returned to the world after experiencing the “unitive state,” the state of oneness with God, in order to share what she had learned and to take on the problems and experiences of others.
In the years that followed she completed a graduate degree in education, married, raised four children, and taught at the pre-school, high school, and junior college levels; at the same time she continued her contemplative practice. Then, quite unexpectedly, some 20 years after leaving the convent, Roberts reportedly experienced the dropping away of the unitive state itself and came upon what she calls "the experience of no-self” — an experience for which the Christian literature, she says, gave her no clear road maps or guideposts. Her books, which combine fascinating chronicles of her own experiences with detailed maps of the contemplative terrain, are her attempt to provide such guideposts for those who might follow after her.
Now 55 and once again living in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised, Roberts characterizes herself as a “bag lady” whose sister and brother-in-law are “keeping her off the streets.” “I came into this world with nothing,” she writes, “and I leave with nothing. But in between I lived fully — had all the experiences, stretched the limits, and took one too many chances.”
When I approached her for an interview, Roberts was reluctant at first, protesting that others who had tried had distorted her meaning, and that nothing had come of it in the end. Instead of a live interview, she suggested, why not send her a list of questions to which she would respond in writing, thereby eliminating all possibility for misunderstanding. As a result, I never got to meet Bernadette Roberts face-to-face — but her answers to my questions, which are as carefully crafted and as deeply considered as her books, are a remarkable testament to the power of contemplation.
Could you talk briefly about the first three stages of the Christian contemplative life as you experienced them — in particular, what you (and others) have called the unitive state?
Strictly speaking, the terms “purgative," “illuminative,” and “unitive” [often used of the contemplative path] do not refer to discrete stages, but to a way of travel where "letting go,” "insight,” and “union” define the major experiences of the journey. To illustrate the continuum, authors come up with various stages, depending on the criteria they are using. St. Teresa, for example, divided the path into seven stages, or “mansions.” But I don’t think we should get locked into any stage theory; it is always someone else’s retrospective view of his or her own journey, which may not include our own experiences or insights. Our obligation is to be true to our own insights, our own inner light.
My view of what some authors call the “unitive stage” is that it begins with the Dark Night of the Spirit, or the onset of the transformation process — when the larva enters the cocoon, so to speak. Up to this point, we are actively reforming ourselves, doing what we can to bring about an abiding union with the divine. But at a certain point, when we have done all we can, the divine steps in and takes over. The transforming process is a divine undoing and redoing that culminates in what is called the state of “transforming union” or “mystical marriage,” considered to be the definitive state for the Christian contemplative.
In experience, the onset of this process is the descent of the cloud of unknowing, which, because his former light has gone out and left him in darkness, the contemplative initially interprets as the divine gone into hiding. In modern terms, the descent of the cloud is actually the falling away of the ego-center, which leaves us looking into a dark hole, a void or empty space in ourselves. Without the veil of the ego-center, we do not recognize the divine; it is not as we thought it should be. Seeing the divine eye-to-eye is a reality that shatters our expectations of light and bliss. From here on we must feel our way in the dark, and the special eye that allows us to see in the dark opens up at this time. So here begins our journey to the true center, the bottom-most, innermost “point” in ourselves where our life and being runs into divine life and being — the point at which all existence comes together.
This center can be compared to a coin: on the near side is our self, on the far side is the divine. One side is not the other side, yet we cannot separate the two sides. If we tried to do so, we would either end up with another side, or the whole coin would collapse, leaving no center at all — no self and no divine. We call this a state of oneness or union because the single center has two sides, without which there would be nothing to be one, united, or non-dual. Such, at least, is the experiential reality of the state of transforming union, the state of oneness.
How did you discover the further stage, which you call the experience of no-self?
That occurred unexpectedly some 25 years after the transforming process. The divine center — the coin, or “true self” — suddenly disappeared, and without center or circumference there is no self, and no divine. Our subjective life of experiences is over — the passage is finished. I had never heard of such a possibility or happening.
Obviously there is far more to the elusive experience we call self than just the ego. The paradox of our passage is that we really do not know what self or consciousness is, so long as we are living it, or are it. 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.
How does one move from “transforming union” to the experience of no-self? What is the path like?
We can only see a path in retrospect. Once we come to the state of oneness, we can go no further with the inward journey. The divine center is the innermost "point,” beyond which we cannot go at this time. Having reached this point, the movement of our journey turns around and begins to move outward — the center is expanding outward. To see how this works, imagine self, or consciousness, as a circular piece of paper. The initial center is the ego, the particular energy we call “will” or volitional faculty, which can either be turned outward, toward itself, or inward, toward the divine ground, which underlies the center of the paper. When, from our side of consciousness, we can do no more to reach this ground, the divine takes the initiative and breaks through the center, shattering the ego like an arrow shot through the center of being. The result is a dark hole in ourselves and the feeling of terrible void and emptiness. This breakthrough demands a restructuring or change of consciousness, and this change is the true nature of the transforming process. Although this transformation culminates in true human maturity, it is not man’s final state. The whole purpose of oneness is to move us on to a more final state.
To understand what happens next, we have to keep cutting larger holes in the paper, expanding the center until only the barest rim or circumference remains. One more expansion of the divine center, and the boundaries of consciousness or self fall away. From this illustration we can see how the ultimate fulfillment of consciousness, or self, is no-consciousness, or no-self. The path from oneness to no-oneness is an egoless one and is therefore devoid of ego-satisfaction. Despite the unchanging center of peace and joy, the events of life may not be peaceful or joyful at all. With no ego-gratification at the center and no divine joy on the surface, this part of the journey is not easy. Heroic acts of selflessness are required to come to the end of self, acts comparable to cutting ever-larger holes in the paper —acts, that is, that bring no return to the self whatsoever.
The major temptation to be overcome in this period is the temptation to fall for one of the subtle but powerful archetypes of the collective unconscious. As I see it, in the transforming process we only come to terms with the archetypes of the personal unconscious; the archetypes of the collective unconscious are reserved for individuals in the state of oneness, because those archety pes are powers or energies of that state. Jung felt that these archetypes were unlimited; but in fact, there is only one true archetype, and that archetype is self. What is unlimited are the various masks or roles self is tempted to play in the state of oneness — savior, prophet, healer, marty r, Mother Earth, you name it. They are all temptations to seize power for ourselves, to think ourselves to be whatever the mask or role may be. In the state of oneness, both Christ and Buddha were tempted in this manner, but they held to the “ground” that they knew to be devoid of all such energies. This ground is a “stillpoint,” not a moving energy-point. Unmasking these energies, seeing them as ruses of the self, is the particular task to be accomplished or hurdle to be overcome in the state of oneness. We cannot come to the ending of self until we have finally seen through these archetypes and can no longer be moved by any of them.
So the path from oneness to no-oneness is a life that is choicelessly devoid of ego-satisfaction; a life requiring heroic, selfless giving; a life of unmasking the energies of self and all the divine roles it is tempted to play. It is hard to call this life a “path,” yet it is the only way to get to the end of our journey.
In The Experience of No-Self you talk at great length about your experience of the dropping away or loss of self. Could you briefly describe this experience and the events that led up to it. I was particularly struck by your statement “I realized I no longer had a ‘within’ at all. . . . My interior or spiritual life was finished.” For so many of us, the spiritual life is experienced as an “inner” life — yet the great saints and sages have talked about going beyond any sense of inwardness.
Your observation strikes me as particularly astute; most people miss this point. You have actually put your finger on the key factor that distinguishes between the slate of oneness and the state of no-oneness, between self and no-self. So long as self remains, there will always be a “center.” Few people realize that not only is the center responsible for their interior experiences of energy, emotion, and feeling, but also, underlying these, the center is our continuous, mysterious experience of “life” and “being." Because this experience is more pervasive than our other experiences, we may not think of “life” and “being” as an "interior” experience. Even in the state of oneness, we tend to forget that our experience of “being” originates in the divine center, where it is one with divine life and being. We have become so used to living from this center that we feel no need to remember it, to mentally focus on it, look within, or even think about it. Despite this fact, however, the center remains; it is the epicenter of our experience of life and being, which gives rise to our experiential energies and various feelings.
If this center suddenly dissolves and disappears, the experiences of life, being, energy, feeling, and so on come to an end, because there is no “within” any more. And without a “within,” there is no subjective, psychological, or spiritual life remaining — no experience of life at all. Our subjective life is over and done with. But now, without center and circumference, where is the divine?
To get hold of this situation, imagine consciousness as a balloon filled with, and suspended in, divine air. The balloon experiences the divine as immanent, “in” itself, as well as transcendent, beyond or outside itself. This is the experience of the divine in ourselves and ourselves in the divine; in the state of oneness, Christ is often seen as the balloon (ourselves), completing this trinitarian experience. But what makes this whole experience possible — the divine as both immanent and transcendent — is obviously the balloon, i.e., consciousness or self. Consciousness sets up the divisions of within and without, spirit and matter, body and soul, immanent and transcendent; in fact, consciousness is responsible for every division we know of.
But what if we pop the balloon — or, better, cause it to vanish like a bubble that leaves no residue. All that remains is divine air. There is no divine in anything, there is no divine transcendent or beyond anything, nor is there anything in the divine, nor is the divine anything. We cannot point to anything or anyone and say, “This or that is divine.” So the divine is all — all but consciousness or self, which created division in the first place.
As long as consciousness remains, however, it does not hide the divine, nor is it ever separated from it. In Christian terms, the divine known to consciousness and experienced by it as immanent and transcendent is called God; the divine as it exists prior to consciousness and after consciousness is gone is called Godhead. Obviously, what accounts for the difference between God and Godhead is the balloon or bubble — self or consciousness. As long as any subjective self remains, a center remains; and so, too, does the sense of interiority.
You mention that, with the loss of the personal self, the personal God drops away as well. Is the personal God, then, a transitional figure in our search for ultimate loss of self?
Sometimes we forget that we cannot put our finger on any thing or any experience that is not transitional. Since consciousness, self, or subject is the human faculty for experiencing the divine, every such experience is personally subjective; thus, in my view, “personal God” is any subjective experience of the divine. Without a personal, subjective self, we could not even speak of an impersonal, non-subjective God; one is just relative to the other. Before consciousness or self existed, however, the divine was neither personal nor impersonal, subjective nor non-subjective — and so the divine remains when self or consciousness has dropped away.
Consciousness by its very nature tends to make the divine into its own image and likeness; the only problem is, the divine has no image or likeness. Hence consciousness, of itself, cannot truly apprehend the divine. Christians (Catholics especially) are often blamed for being the great image makers, yet their images are so obviously naive and easy to see through, we often miss the more subtle, formless images by which consciousness fashions the divine. For example, because the divine is a subjective experience, we think the divine is a subject; because we experience the divine through our faculties of consciousness, will, and intellect, we think the divine is equally consciousness, will, and intellect; because we experience ourselves as a being or entity, we experience the divine as a being or entity; because we judge others, we think the divine judges others; and so on. Carrying a holy card in our pockets is tame compared to the formless notions we carry around in our minds; it is easy to let go of an image, but almost impossible to uproot our intellectual convictions based on the experiences of consciousness.
Still, if we actually knew the unbridgeable chasm that lies between the true nature of consciousness or self and the true nature of the divine, we would despair of ever making the journey. So consciousness is the marvelous divine invention by which human beings make the journey in subjective companionship with the divine; and, like every divine invention, it works. Consciousness both hides the chasm and bridges it — and when we have crossed over, of course, we do not need the bridge any more.
So it doesn’t matter that we start out on our journey with our holy cards, gongs and bells, sacred books, and religious feelings. All of it should lead to growth and transformation, the ultimate surrender of our images and concepts, and a life of selfless giving. When there is nothing left to surrender, nothing left to give, only then can we come to the end of the passage — the ending of consciousness and its personally subjective God. One glimpse of the Godhead, and no one would want God back.
How does the path to no-self in the Christian contemplative tradition differ from the path as laid out in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions?
I think it may be too late for me to ever have a good understanding of how other religions make this passage. If you are not surrendering your whole being, your very consciousness, to a loved and trusted personal God, then what are you surrendering it to? Or why surrender it at all? Loss of ego, loss of self, is just a by-product of this surrender; it is not the true goal, not an end in itself. Perhaps this is also the view of Mahayana Buddhism, where the goal is to save all sentient beings from suffering, and where loss of ego, loss of self, is seen as a means to a greater end. This view is very much in keeping with the Christian desire to save all souls. As I see it, without a personal God, the Buddhist must have a much stronger faith in the “unconditioned and unbegotten” than is required of the Christian contemplative, who experiences the passage as a divine doing, and in no way a self-doing.
Actually, I met up with Buddhism only at the end of my journey, after the no-self experience. Since I knew that this experience was not articulated in our contemplative literature, I went to the library to see if it could be found in the Eastern religions. It did not take long for me to realize that I would not find it in the Hindu tradition, where, as I see it, the final state is equivalent to the Christian experience of oneness or transforming union. If a Hindu had what I call the no-self experience, it would be the sudden, unexpected disappearance of Atman-Brahman, the divine Self in the “cave of the heart,” and the disappearance of the cave as well. It would be the ending of God-consciousness, or transcendental consciousness — that seemingly bottomless experience of “being,” “consciousness," and “bliss” that articulates the state of oneness. To regard this ending as the falling away of the ego is a grave error; ego must fall away before the state of oneness can be realized. The no-self experience is the falling away of this previously realized transcendent state.
Initially, when I looked into Buddhism, I did not find the experience of no-self there either; yet I intuited that it had to be there. The falling away of the ego is common to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Therefore, it would not account for the fact that Buddhism became a separate religion, nor would it account for the Buddhists’ insistence on no eternal Self — be it divine, individual, or the two in one. I felt that the key difference between these two religions was the no-self experience, the falling away of the true Self, Atman-Brahman.
Unfortunately, what most Buddhist authors define as the no-self experience is actually the no-ego experience. The cessation of clinging, craving, desire, the passions, etc., and the ensuing state of imperturbable peace and joy articulates the egoless stale of oneness; it does not, however, articulate the no-self experience or the dimension beyond. Unless we clearly distinguish between these two very different experiences, we only confuse them, with the inevitable result that the true no-self experience becomes lost. If we think the falling away of the ego, with its ensuing transformation and oneness, is the no-self experience, then what shall we call the much further experience when this whole egoless oneness falls away? In actual experience there is only one thing to call it, the “no-self experience”; it lends itself to no other possible articulation. Initially I gave up looking for this experience in the Buddhist literature.
Four years later, however, I came across two lines attributed to Buddha describing his enlightenment experience. Referring to self as a house, he said, “All thy rafters are broken now, the ridgepole is destroyed.” And there it was — the disappearance of the center, the ridgepole; without it, there can be no house, no self. When I read these lines, it was as if an arrow launched at the beginning of time had suddenly hit a bull’s-eye. It was a remarkable find. These lines are not a piece of philosophy, but an experiential account, and without the experiential account we really have nothing to go on. In the same verse he says, “Again a house thou shall not build,” clearly distinguishing this experience from the falling away of the ego-center, after which a new, transformed self is built around a “true center,” a sturdy, balanced ridgepole.
As a Christian, I saw the no-self experience as the true nature of Christ’s death, the movement beyond even his oneness with the divine, the movement from God to Godhead. Though not articulated in contemplative literature, Christ dramatized this experience on the cross for all ages to see and ponder. Where Buddha described the experience, Christ manifested it without words; yet they both make the same statement and reveal the same truth — that ultimately, eternal life is beyond self or consciousness. After one has seen it manifested or heard it said, the only thing left is to experience it.
You mention in The Path to No-Self that the unitive state is the “true state in which God intended every person to live his mature years.” Yet so few of us ever achieve this unitive state. What is it about the way we live right now that prevents us from doing so? Do you think it is our preoccupation with material success, technology, and personal accomplishment?
First of all, I think there are more people in the state of oneness than we realize. For everyone we hear about, there are thousands we will never hear about. Believing this state to be a rare achievement can be an impediment in itself. Unfortunately, those who write about it have a way of making it sound more extraordinary and blissful than it commonly is, and so false expectations are another impediment — we keep waiting and looking for an experience or state that never comes.
But if I had to put my finger on the primary obstacle, I would say it is having wrong views of the journey. Paradoxical though it may seem, the passage through consciousness or self moves contrary to self, rubs it the wrong way — and, in the end, will even rub it out. Because this passage goes against the grain of self, it is, therefore, a path of suffering. Both Christ and Buddha saw the passage as one of suffering, and basically found identical ways out. What they discovered and revealed to us was that each of us has within himself or herself a “stillpoint” — comparable, perhaps, to the eye of a cyclone, a spot or center of calm, imperturbability, and non-movement. Buddha articulated this central eye in negative terms as “emptiness” or “void,” a refuge from the swirling cyclone of endless suffering. Christ articulated the eye in more positive terms as the “Kingdom of God" or the “Spirit within," a place of refuge and salvation from a suffering self. For both of them, the way out was first to find that stillpoint and then, by attaching ourselves to it, by becoming one with it, to find a stabilizing, balanced anchor in our lives. After that, the cyclone is gradually drawn into the eye, and the suffering self comes to an end. And when there is no longer a cyclone, there is also no longer an eye.
So the storms, crises, and sufferings of life are a way of finding the eye. When every thing is going our way, we do not see the eye, and we feel no need to find it. But when everything is going against us, then we can find the eye. So the avoidance of suffering and the desire to have everything go our own way runs contrary to the whole movement of our journey; it is all a wrong view. With the right view, however, one should be able to come to the state of oneness in six or seven years — years not merely of suffering, but years of enlightenment, for right suffering is the essence of enlightenment.
Because self is everyone’s experience underlying all cultures, I do not regard cultural wrong views as an excuse for not searching out right views. After all, each person’s passage is his or her own; there is no such thing as a collective passage.
Stephan Bodian was a Zen Buddhist monk for many years before becoming editor of Yoga Journal.
This article is reprinted from Yoga Journal, November/December 1986.
Copyright © 1986 California Yoga Teachers Association.
Photo of house by Keith Levit. Photo of Bernadette Roberts by Donald Meyer.
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 September 12, 2016 and last revised on April 28, 2020.