One of the most telling stories of the mystic journey comes from the Talmud. As told by Rabbi David Cooper in his book God Is a Verb,
The Talmud contains a famous story of four scholars who “entered the Pardes” (garden/orchard). The Pardes in this context was not an ordinary garden, but a realm of expanded consciousness, some say Paradise. The experience these four sages had was so overwhelming, one died, one became demented, one gave up his faith, and only one, Rabbi Akiva, survived unharmed.
That seems right to me: about one in four survive. Many should have been dissuaded from the journey to begin with. Then there are those who did not really survive the journey but remain among us, cautionary tales of how giftedness and good intentions can go awry.
Jewish mysticism has a dictum that states, “The work of the chariot may not be taught to anyone, unless this person is a sage,” but as this story illustrates, even sages get wiped out by waves larger than they can handle. And what happens to those fragile sages, teachers themselves, when the wave breaks and they become search and rescue stories?
I had the unsettling experience last week of meeting one of the fragile ones, a former teacher of mine whose psyche was not quite stable enough for the wisdom that could come streaming through it. I’d learned a lot there for several years, and a few years ago when things started to feel “off,” I found a way to bow out gracefully without burning bridges.
Our chance meeting brought that past connection flooding back, and I fell into a deep sadness. It was not fun to see someone I cared about so unmoored in space and time, and I saw how concern and right action on anyone’s part could easily feel like betrayal from the other end.
One of the first things we learn from our teachers is discernment: the ability to tell truth from fiction, to know when we have lost our center and how to find it again. Discernment is also one of the last things we learn, when our paths diverge and we must separate from our mentors in order to stay true to ourselves.
There is little comfort right now in knowing that I made the right choice. I do not enjoy seeing people suffer, nor do I take pleasure in watching my concerns come to pass. My sadness is not just about this particular person, though. It is also a reminder of the limits of my own ability to fix things.
The Talmud doesn’t mention whether Rabbi Akiva had survivor guilt, or what he might have said to the followers of those other three rabbis. I imagine that then, as now, everyone had their own story about what happened and what healing was possible.
For me, with a lifetime habit of too much caretaking, it is very important to see exactly what is, and acknowledge that I can’t change it. Equally important is the ability to talk about it openly, with compassion. There is a huge stigma around mental illness, and a strong culture of denial, in the realm of spiritual teachers. And yet…one in four. It is so important to know which one that is.