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Nondual Christmas: Your Own Soul Is Bethlehem
Jesus is not the reason for the season. Christ's birth in you, right now, is.
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Eleven years ago today, I published a Teeming Brain post filled with excerpts from a variety of thinkers, writers, spiritual teachers, and sages on the subject of Christmas and its deep meaning as a symbolization and celebration of an ever-present mystical/nondual reality. This week, for calendrically obvious reasons, I found myself reflecting on that post and deciding that it felt worthwhile to republish a revised version of it here, complete with the original introduction that I wrote to accompany it (see below), especially since the truth it all points to is timeless and therefore, by definition, perennially fresh and new.
Speaking of new, the updates I have made to that old post include adding a short video near the end, creating enhanced source citations in the form of footnotes, and further abridging the quoted material to make it more concisely readable and digestible. I have also retitled it, including the addition of a subtitle whose first part some Christians might find offensive or even borderline sacrilegious. The thing is, the Jesus of Nazareth who reportedly said “I and my father are one” (John 10:30) while also, according to all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19), refusing to accept being called “good,” on the grounds that only God is good, and who according to the Gospel of Thomas taught that when you really learn who you are, “you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father” (Thomas 3) — this Jesus would likely have approved of it.
If you feel motivated to read (and watch) the whole thing, I hope it may provide some worthwhile material for reflection and meditation during the present Christmas season, or really at any time, regardless of your religious or non-religious persuasion, orientation, affiliation, or predilection. The highest truth, the truth of the Absolute as categorically distinct from the world of the relative into which I am writing these words and in which you are reading them, is inherently amenable to expression in a near infinitude of vocabularies and forms, none of which ultimately captures it or has the right to claim exclusive ownership of it, and all of which invite us to look in the direction of the Absolute Itself, to which, in the end, they can only point. And of course looking in the direction of the Absolute only means to look at and into the reality of who and what we ourselves really are. May the pointers below help you to look truly and accurately.
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Most of my readers know that I grew up in a strongly evangelical Protestant tradition and went on to make the study of world religions, spiritualities, and philosophies a major part of my life. This informs all of my horror fiction (and in fact forms a great deal of its explicit substance), as well as my personal relationships and my basic intellectual and emotional outlook.
I have publicly described myself from time to time as an “agnostic Zen Christian.” But in the actual conversations and interactions that I have had in my life as a writer, and also in some of the philosophically and spiritually oriented blog posts that I have published, and in some other aspects of my online and authorial life, I think I have tended to display and support the first two parts of that self-description at the expense of the third. That is, I have tended to show that I am deeply agnostic, and deeply Zen-oriented (or Zen-Vedanta-nondual oriented), but the Christian part has received short shrift.
This does not mean, however, that Christianity is not a major part of my day-to-day life, both inner and outer. This is especially true during the current season. I am typing these words on Christmas Eve, and every year when this season rolls around, I find myself reading and thinking about, and dwelling and meditating on, the deep meaning of the spiritual reality that is the substance of the Christmas holyday.
Below are a number of passages from various books and authors that have proved meaningful to me in this regard over the years. I have arranged them so that they tell, as it were, a coherent story when read from start to finish, beginning with some statements from religious scholars to clear up concerns about the historical and literary status of the birth narratives about Jesus, and then progressing to interpretations of the deep meaning of the whole idea of divine birth and sonship. At root, Christmas is quite pointedly all about this divine birth, which is something that refers not to a specific, one-time historical event that happened two millennia ago in a rural backwater of ancient Palestine but to a transcendent reality that is manifesting all the time, including right here and now, in your and my immediate, firsthand experience.
Nondual Christmas: The Bethlehem of Your Soul
Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel according to Jesus
We can’t even begin to see who Jesus was until we remove the layers of interpretation which the centuries have interposed between us and him, and which obscure his true face, like coat after coat of lacquer upon the vibrant colors of a masterpiece. . . . We should set aside, first, the Christmas legend. We don’t have to eliminate it; it is beautiful and has its place; but we should realize that it is a fairy tale and, though it is suffused with the joyful spirit of Jesus, tells us nothing about his actual birth.1
Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary
[M]ainline scholars do not see the stories of Jesus’s birth as historically factual reports, but as metaphorical narratives. Some Christians are uncomfortable with this conclusion. To some, denying the factuality of the virgin birth and the other spectacular happenings in the stories seems like denying the power of God. But that is not the issue. The question is not, “Can God do things like this?” Rather, the question is, “What kind of stories are these?” Many of the same Christians think that denying the virgin birth involves denying that Jesus is the “Son of God,” as if that status is dependent upon biological conception by God. And so in this context, I repeat what I said earlier: believe whatever you want about whether Jesus’s birth happened this way — now let’s ask, what do these stories mean? To argue about whether the stories narrate what actually happened most often distracts us from the meaning of the stories.2
Thomas G. Hand, Crossing Over Together: Walking the Zen Christian Path
It is when we look at the birth of Jesus as part of an immense movement of the spirit that is bringing a new and powerful energy into the human energy form field and our individual form field that we see the birth of Jesus in the context that we can really celebrate. All the teachings of the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke have been contrived to lead us to an advance in awareness, and we need not see them as historical documents. The best modern biblical scholarship does not treat those texts as purely historical scholarship. They are primarily teaching us the process of a “coming to.” Therefore they are teaching us how to advance to a higher manifestation of divine life.
The church has always taught us that contemplating the birth of Jesus is to enter into the Christ life. So the accounts in the texts of Matthew and Luke are not necessarily a factual account of Jesus’ birth, but a presentation of one human being in whom the Absolute has come, perfectly. Therefore they are a manual teaching us and leading us to our birth as Christ . . . as our coming. The Christ state of life is a rebirth, born of the movement of the spirit. Jesus brings us into the reign of God, out of the reign of the ego in which we suffer. . . .
It is an interior event, a psycho-mystical event. Your whole psyche changes. Your whole mode of perception must change, and then you are brought into the mystery which cannot be expressed.3
Willis Jäger, The Search for the Meaning of Life: Essays and Reflections on the Mystical Experience
Tonight [at the feast of Christmas] we are not concerned with celebrating a birthday. Anyone who gets bogged down in the story kills the living element in the message of this night. A religious message doesn’t refer to historical facts. Today the Savior is born to you. Not back then, a long time ago. In the feast of Christmas, as in all Christian feasts, we see realized the myth of the unfolding of eternity in time. This myth is realized today in us. . . .
Reality has two aspects: the essence of God and the creaturely. God expresses himself in creatures. We, too, are nothing but this word spoken by God. This is what the Christmas gospel wants to tell us. . . . That is the message of Christmas, which is all about our birth from God. We are meant as Jesus was meant. “Had Christ been born a thousand times in Bethlehem / And not in you, you would still be lost forever” (Angelus Silesius). . . .
We celebrate this feast so that we, too, may understand that we are God’s sons and daughters, that we, too, are “God-men,” and that the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism were meant for us too: “This is my beloved Son, this is my beloved Daughter.” We celebrate this feast so that for all our crassness, earthbound minds, and stupidity, we may notice that our origins are divine. . . .
We celebrate this feast so that one day it may also dawn on us that “I and the Father are one,” and “The kingdom of God is within us,” and “I am the light of the world.”4
The true meaning of Christmas is that the very Being that you are is Truth. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Jesus speaks of the inner essence identity of every human being. Some Christian writers call this the “Christ within.” The real meaning of Christmas is to find that essential self that is universally experienced as the Christ within no matter what your cultural or religious upbringing is. As we approach the ceremonial date of the birth of Christ, and as many of you gather with friends and family, perhaps standing in the silence of the Christ within can keep bringing you back to Being — the eternal life that Christ promised humankind.5
Rupert Spira and Meister Eckhart
[NOTE: The partial transcription below this video is my own, with Meister Eckhart's words enclosed in quotation marks to distinguish them from Spira’s.]
“Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth.” When he says “here in time,” he means here on Christmas Day. “Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature.”
So, these beautiful opening words really sum up the entire Christmas message of the eternal birth, the eternal presence of God’s being, which shines in each of us as the knowledge “I am,” but which is obscured by the content of experience and seems, as a result, to be missing. And it is for this reason that the eternal, God’s divine Being, seems to need to be reborn in us: because we have overlooked its presence in our self, as our very self. Meister Eckhart is suggesting here on Christmas Day that we are celebrating the eternal presence of God, which is now born. Although God’s presence is eternal, Christmas Day represents its birth in us, in time. . . .
“The soul in which this birth is to take place must keep absolutely pure and must live in noble fashion, quite collected and turned entirely inward, not running out through the five senses into the multiplicity of creatures, but all inturned and collected and in the purest part — there is His place.”
So here he’s suggesting that our minds are normally turned outward through the five senses into the multiplicity and diversity of what he calls creatures — objects and things. And he’s suggesting that the mind must turn around and instead of running out, through the faculties of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling, into the world, it must, so to speak, turn around. As he says, it must be “all inturned and collected in the purest part. There is His place, the purest part,” that part of the mind that is still untouched by experience, the fact of simply being, or being aware. So, he’s really teaching his students what those of us familiar with the Vedantic tradition would know as self-inquiry or self-abidance, this turning around of the mind, the mind turning away from the content of its experience and coming back, sinking back into its essence.6
Meister Eckhart, excerpts from two sermons (the first of which is also quoted above):
St. Augustine says, "What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters". . . . What good would it do me for Mary to be full of grace if I were not also full of grace? And what would it profit me that the Father gives birth to His Son unless I bear Him too? God begets His son in a perfect soul and is brought to bed there so that she may bear Him forth again in all her works.7
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
Just as our Lord came into human history from outside it, He must also come into me from outside. Have I allowed my personal human life to become a “Bethlehem” for the Son of God? I cannot enter the realm of the kingdom of God unless I am born again from above by a birth totally unlike physical birth. “You must be born again” (John 3:7). This is not a command, but a fact based on the authority of God. The evidence of the new birth is that I yield myself so completely to God that “Christ is formed” in me. And once “Christ is formed” in me, His nature immediately begins to work through me.
Stephen Mitchell, The Gospel according to Jesus (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993), 17, 17-18.
Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 62-63.
Thomas G. Hand, Crossing Over Together: Walking the Zen Christian Path: Selections from the Writings and Talks of Thomas G. Hand (2006), ed. Judy Howe Hayes, 89, 90, 91, retrieved December 24, 2022, from Espiritu y Zen, http://espirituyzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Handokai-CROSSING-OVER-TOGETHER.pdf.
Willis Jäger, Search for the Meaning of Life: Essays and Reflections on Mystical Experience, revised edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori/Triumph, 2003; 1995), 225, 224-25, 226.
I am unable to source this passage reliably. The text of it is something that several people have shared around the Internet. Having read Tolle’s books and listened to many of his talks, I can affirm that in both tone and content, it sounds exactly like him.
Rupert Spira, “Rupert Reads from Meister Eckhart for Christmas,” December 24, 2022, YouTube video, 16:18, https://youtu.be/MCHa0L-wmOk.
The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, ed. and trans. Maurice O’C Walshe (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2009), 29, 429.