It is somehow incongruous to encounter a Westerner in casual dress speaking in the passionate, poetic phrases of a mystic. Visionaries like this are supposed to appear in robes or at least wear their hair in dreadlocks. But Andrew Harvey breaks the mystic mold, and in doing so empowers the mystic within each of us. He even redefines the term, calling for a modern, practical mysticism that will take divine love into the streets for the cause of world preservation.
Andrew Harvey was, until last December, a devotee of the Hindu guru Mother Meera, and has studied with Tibetan Buddhist Master Thuksey Rinpoche. His books include Journey to Ladakh, Hidden Journey: A Spiritual Awakening, The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi, and most recently Dialogues With A Modern Mystic. He also collaborated with Sogyal Rinpoche on the bestselling Tibetan Book of Living And Dying. Wes Nisker held the following conversation with Andrew Harvey at his home in San Francisco, in May, 1994.
Inquiring Mind: You recently helped organize a conference for the California Institute of Integral Studies entitled, “The Return of the Divine Feminine.” What exactly do you mean by the divine feminine?
Andrew Harvey: I think history is giving us a message which can be summed up in four words: “Transform or die out.” And the key to our transformation is a part of ourselves which we have stashed away for a few thousand years—the divine feminine. What I mean by the divine feminine are those powers of intuition, reverence, harmony and Eros that are the restorative, ecstatic powers in the psyche. They bring us knowledge of our bodies and nature as a constant theophany, a fountain spring of divine light and beauty. The old religions—and even the old mystical traditions—have not helped us, because they have been obsessed with transcendence, attached to detachment, and have neglected or rejected our bodies and the world of nature.
IM: Would you define those old religions and mystical traditions as the masculine principle at work?
AH: I think that human history can be divided into three main periods. The first was largely a matriarchal period in which the divine mother was worshipped as life and the source of life.
Then around 500 BC there came what you could call the patriarchal period, when the feminine myths were replaced by the masculine hero myths. This period also saw the growth, especially in Greece, of rational, dissociative thought and, in the Middle East, the separation of a creator god from the creation.
This period of history has had tremendous successes. During this time we have learned how to exploit nature, but in the process we have had to subjugate and humiliate the feminine.
IM: Was this subjugation of the feminine somehow necessary to the masculine project?
AH: Yes, I think so. There has been in the human psyche a fundamental tension between the masculine and feminine, which no religion and no philosophy has ever managed totally to reconcile or to harmonize. I think the central cause of that tension is a very profound fear of the body, because the body is what brings death. To be in a body is to hear the heartbeat of death at every moment.
Inherent in the patriarchal enterprise, I think, was a Promethean desire for immortality, to transcend death by transcending the body. As we all know, that is a futile endeavor. Death has to be embraced. Death, as Wallace Stevens wrote, is “the mother of beauty.” The real immortality is in the ecstatic embrace of time and all the conditions of time. Women, in their rhythms and their emotions, in their embodiment of the lunar side of things, deeply understand this truth.
I would like to stress here that what we need is balance. We don’t need another dogma—the feminine dogma—another set of lunatic fantasies centered around the mother or the goddess. What we need is the marriage of the masculine and the feminine in every human being, the bringing together of the sun and the moon, the father and the mother within each of us. That union is the great mystical key that the alchemists and the Mahayana Buddhists and some of the Christian mystics and the very greatest of the Hindu mystics, such as Ramakrishna, glimpsed to be the highest truth. Out of that union in the depths of the spirit is born the divine child.
IM: Perhaps the masculine and feminine are being brought together through the transmission of Asian wisdom teachings to the West. It seems that somehow the East represents the planetary feminine and the West, the masculine.
AH: Absolutely. The West has chosen to emphasize will, reason, and the clarities of the masculine ego, while the East has held on to the traditions of mystical understanding and receptivity. So perhaps what we’re coming to is a marriage of East and West, prayer and action, doing and being, science and mysticism. And perhaps out of this marriage will come the healed global mind. And out of the healed global mind will step dancing and laughing a million million divine children.
IM: What an ecstatic and hopeful vision! Such a contrast to the pessimism now rampant in the world.
AH: Yes, and I think everybody knows at some level—at three o’clock in the morning, perhaps—that we’re at the end of a civilization and possibly at the end of history. But, out of that psychic fear and sense of loss that we all feel, comes a vast hunger for real meaning, a hunger that is fueling an extraordinary change of perspective and direction.
I imagine an ideal world philosophy coming out of a mixture of astrophysics, Mahayana metaphysics, and the aboriginal understanding of the interconnections of everything in nature. Absolutely essential in that mixture is the tribal mysticism which is about the sacredness of this planet, this world, this body.
Many mystical traditions have a kind of pipe dream about a new world that’s going to rise out of the ashes, a phoenix of the liberated humanity that’s going to fly about when this world is destroyed. The native tribes don’t see it that way. For them, nature is an integral part of any human transformation. Its a fantasy to think that we’ll all be saved after we burn down the rainforests.
What there has to be is a massive waking up to our responsibility for everything that lives. Everybody has been searching for the out-of-body experiences, the visions, the flashing lights. What’s needed now is the “in-body experience,” bringing us face to face with the beauty and responsibility of being incarnated in the world, and that’s the tribal wisdom.
IM: Many environmentalists would agree that it is essential for us to relearn the tribal wisdom, and at the same time they are critical of mysticism. They say that mystics are escapist, indulgent, and irresponsible.
AH: They are probably right. I think that a great many modern so-called mystics are just wounded narcissists. I count myself amongst them. I realize that a good part of my own mystical search was just a desire to escape from the horrors of this world. But I have lived through enough pain and disaster, both in my own life and in the world’s life, to realize that transcendence is a fantasy.
As far as I’m concerned, a mysticism that isn’t practical or political at this moment is not really worth the paper that it’s written on. We really need practical, active mystics, almost more than we need oxygen. I dream of a massive civil rights movement, demanding the rights of the forest, the animals, the whales, the rights of our children to a clearer, saner life. I believe that within the next decade we will see millions of people take to the streets in the name of a new humanity. It’s the only way to turn our situation around.
IM: You want engaged mystics. Cosmically conscious, earthbound political activists.
AH: Yes, and we don’t have time to wait for all of us to become enlightened before we do something. All that is needed is a kind of holy common sense. You don’t need to be a triple-gem Bodhisattva to realize that it is obscene and mad to go on burning the forest and polluting the seas. You only need to be half awake. We just need human beings to act like real human beings and face up to their responsibilities.
Besides, the so-called spiritual truths are not that difficult or elaborate. One of the great disservices the mystical traditions have done has been to present these truths as if they were wildly complicated, as if to understand them demanded all sorts of long stints in the Himalayas standing on one foot. Not so. That’s been part of the patriarchal abuse of power, the way in which spiritual elites withheld the truth from people. I think the time has come to go beyond gurus and the whole paraphernalia of gurus, to take back the powers we have been projecting onto so-called “masters,” and to accept them as our own. We are all God’s children and we have to start acting together from that realization or die out.
IM: You seem to be defining a new kind of mystic, a practical mystic who loves the world enough to try to save it.
AH: Everyone is potentially this new kind of mystic, because everyone is a closet mystic. There’s absolutely no one on this earth who isn’t a mystic. I know that. I’ve taught so many classes over the years. The first thing I do sometimes is to say, “Who’s a mystic here?” One spindly hand goes up out of sixty people. About a day later I’ll say, “Write about some extraordinary experience, a life-changing experience that you’ve had.” All sixty people write about a dream, or making love, or listening to Aretha Franklin one sunlit morning. And then I ask, “Who’s a mystic?” and all sixty people’s hands go up. Everyone without exception has had illuminations and dreams, messages from the beloved, from the divine. Everyone has known something in lovemaking of the great lovemaking of the universe. Everyone who has ever had one tender orgasm with someone else has known something of the divine. The divine is in everything foaming around everywhere. We’re all in connection with it, but we’ve not been given permission, we’ve not been given the information, we’ve not been taught how to understand our glimpses and how to follow them. The perfume of the beloved is everywhere, but we’ve never been taught to follow that perfume to the room in which the beloved dwells. And that’s what all of the religions should be teaching us how to do, instead of just encouraging our fear, or manipulating our guilt.
Our refusal of the divine life force has shown itself most disastrously in the religious hatred of sexuality. Nothing reveals the psychosis of humankind more directly than this hatred of the most beautiful, most noble, most thrilling and wonderful force of all, the force that mirrors the lovemaking that is itself creating the cosmos. At least the Hindus got this right. They realize that the cosmos is the love foam of Shiva and Shakti, the spilling of their juices from their couch of wild, endless, abandoned lovemaking, the continual explosion of their mutual adoration.
When the universe is lived truly in the heart it is known and lived as a constant brimming over of love, and in the highest sense, that love is erotic. It finds expression in food, in friendship, in bodies, in understanding of the light on the sea, in absolutely every area of life. We must sanctify and consecrate Eros, the child of anarchic Aphrodite, the child of the divine mother, the sweet, fiery, connecting force between all things.
IM: What you’re saying, basically, is that once we find and intensify our love for all of life, then we will find the determination and courage to save the world.
AH: How can we save the world when we don’t have a vision of the glory of ordinary life? When we don’t understand that so-called normal life is just an unbroken flow of miracles, one theophany after another?
Like the Sufi mystic who was so far gone that his disciples could not bring a rose into his room, because if he saw even one rose he’d be off in ecstasy for the whole afternoon. But he was the one who really understood where he is living. We don’t.
What I would love to do is to find a way of intravenously injecting that Sufi master’s ecstasy into every human life. Because if we did have that, even five minutes of that, we would see where we are. And we would do everything in our power to preserve it. Nobody’s going to save the world just to go on believing in original sin. Nobody’s going to save the world just to go on trying to get the hell out of it into some nowhere, into some nirvana. What we are going to save the world for is love, Eros, friendship, for new kinds of communion with each other.
IM: Finding the divine in the middle of our hectic cities and clogged streets and polluted rivers and denuded forests might be a formidable tantric exercise.
AH: Ramakrishna said once, that if you don’t see that the water of the dirtiest puddle is as sacred as the Ganges, you aren’t there yet.
Once, in India, I went to visit a rat temple. I didn’t realize what it was until I walked in and suddenly realized that I was surrounded by thousands of swarming rats. I was terrified. But then I realized that in order to bless life, I had to bless the rats too. So I knelt and blessed them.
I walked out of the temple stunned, and just outside on the road, I saw a naked yogi sitting in a puddle of his feces. And as I walked past him he took some of the feces and smeared it across his mouth and ate it, smiling at me. I nearly lost it. But I realized he was giving me a very extreme teaching, saying, “You’re still in duality. You still want a nice, sweet, harmonious yoga. You don’t know anything about life, because life is going to ask you to eat the shit of death, to eat the shit of loneliness, to eat the shit of loss. And unless you’re able to eat all that shit, you will never come to that divine place, the Shiva place, where you’ll be dancing for creation and destruction at the same moment.” It was a tremendous teaching and I’ve never forgotten it.
IM: To embrace all things as manure for awakening is also the teaching of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, which you have studied and written about.
AH: What I revere about the Tibetan tradition is its fearless embrace of death. They use that fear of death to go deep into the soul, deep into the nature of mind, and deep into compassion. Realizing you are dying is to know that everyone and everything else is dying with you. Realizing that everything is vanishing as you look at it purifies you of so much aggression, and so much stupid, wasteful anger.
There’s a beautiful, ancient Singhalese poem which says, “When I realize that the oak tree is dying, suddenly everything seems radiant.” In that moment you have no choice but to open your heart to everything including the torturers and the killers and the bankers and the heads of DuPont, because they also are dying—they may not know it, but they are.
IM: That’s the message of the ecstatics as well, of Ramakrishna and Jalal-ud-Din Rumi. In fact, in your speech it is possible to hear the texture and timbre of Rumi’s poetry, some of which you have translated and published. Why do you think Rumi has become so important to people today?
AH: People are so thrilled by Rumi because they hear in his work the notes of an authentic wild lover of God for whom everyone and everything is sacred. It’s as if this huge, blazing heart is embracing everybody. And I think anybody who really reads Rumi’s poetry feels the presence behind it of this extreme humanity.
For so long we’ve been taught, and even encouraged to become divine, as if being divine was somehow separate from being human. But in Rumi, I think, you begin to glimpse the great secret that, in fact, being divine is being completely human. And that’s the biggest joke of all. And that transcendent joke is what Rumi’s work, and I hope my own, is dedicated to propagating in the human race. As Rumi said,
“Wherever you are and in whatever circumstances, try always to be a lover and a passionate lover. Once you have possessed love, you will remain a lover in the tomb, on the day of resurrection, in paradise and forever.”