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Since early childhood Roberts had a number of experiences which she interprets as revelations of God — as present in nature, as within her, and as entirely transcendent. She entered the Carmelite order in her early teens. Soon afterwards, she experienced the spiritual deepening of the "dark nights" described by Saint John of the Cross. She recounts that when she was 18, a new novice mistress asked her about her prayer life, "so I told her: I do nothing; there is just silence. This astounded and upset her" (Path to No-Self, p. 57). Her superior believed Roberts to be deceived, possibly even to be under the influence of Satan and falling into the heresy of Quietism. But her reading of John of the Cross convinced Roberts that her experiences were valid and that she could trust in the journey so carefully described by the saint. Roberts distinguishes between the mystic's journey to God and the contemplative path, saying of Teresa of Ávila, "she was a mystic and I, a common contemplative". Teresa of Ávila's writings did not resonate as much with Roberts as the writings of John of the Cross who emphasized the path of naked faith and warned contemplatives to be wary of mystical visions and revelations.
After spending 10 years as a cloistered nun, Roberts left the Carmelite order with permission from her superiors. She married, raised four children and lived an ordinary life with God "in the marketplace". She remarks that this particular stage of life is characterized most of all by the intense and outward leap of the "living flame" within.
Roberts writes about her journey to foreground an event that she refers to as "no-self" — the ending of all "self-consciousness" and the revelation of what remains beyond self. She distinguishes between two major milestones in the spiritual journey.
The first of these, the "unitive" state, is the breakthrough of God at the center, followed by a permanent and abiding union in which God becomes the "other half" that completes a person as a human being. This milestone is well known in the Catholic contemplative literature, as well as in other religious traditions, and marks the beginning of a person's mature life as a human being. According to Roberts, this first milestone is often mistaken for the end of the spiritual journey.
The most important element of Roberts' discovery is that there is a further stage in the contemplative journey beyond that of the unitive state. Roberts describes this passage as heading into the complete unknown. This is where the map ends as far as the well-worn path of Catholic mysticism as historically described. Roberts discovered this passage — "the path to no-self" — accidentally and describes it as a "falling away" of the unitive centre. However, she believes that other contemplatives also walked the path of the dissolution of self, notably Meister Eckhart, and perhaps John of the Cross himself, who may have been unable to speak of it. Her book The Experience of No-Self describes the journey through this passage in an experiential and autobiographical way, while the following two books are attempts to describe and unpack the experience of no-self for the reader.
"What is Self?" Roberts has understood the answer to this perennial question experientially. She describes the experiences as the process of human maturation but a maturity that is only possible through God's grace. The ego and self are both self-reflexive and dualistic modes of psychological functioning based on the subtle process of mental discriminating judgment, a process that is inherently built into the structure of the psyche. Her understanding of the spiritual path can be seen as the relationship between self and God, but it is the unveiling of the truth of this relationship where the profundity lies. For the Western tradition in general, Roberts is quite radical: unlike Eastern traditions, there was no human Master or Teacher to introduce her to this state.
Brief overview of the journey
The ego, matured through life experience and spiritual practice, falls away to reveal the unitive state, the oneness or wholeness of the self in unity with God, a state characterized by the feelings of love and subtle ecstasy. This was the end of the Christian journey — or so Roberts initially believed — and from this point we can see where Roberts travels beyond the limits of doctrinal Christianity. The self of the mature human in a state of union with God also falls away. This is the import of Roberts' work. So what does this mean and what is left when there is no-self? Fundamentally the unitive state is still a form of dualism — self and God — it means that an idea or archetype of God is still captured by the psyche. Fundamentally this unitive state is nondualistic - in which the self and God are One, not two - "I and my Father are One," one without a second, without even the concept of one. Roberts experiences the falling away of the idea of God simultaneously with the experience of the falling away of self — when there is no self, there is no God. For someone wholly devoted to the spiritual life and to God, to discover that there is no God, not one iota of subtle conception of God left to grasp at or attach to, was a particularly horrendous and terrible experience and is described in detail in "the experience of no-self". The experience is of a raw, pure and unadulterated reality without the imposition of concepts and ideas. Gradually this state, this initial loss, cleared to become a profound understanding of reality itself. In place of "unity" with God comes identity with God — a state she calls seeing with God's own eyes. But neither the ego-based sense nor the spiritualized self is "God". Instead, God is Reality itself, of which the human person is a single cell.
Roberts had not realized that there was a spiritual conception of "no-self" because it was not part of her traditional contemplative framework. It was only after she had the experience that she decided to research the phenomenon in other spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism. She discusses her discovery of the Buddhist categorisation of the five Skandhas ("What is Self?", pp 114–117, 2005) where she states; "Together the five Skandhas constitute the true nature of self; their experience is the entire self-experience including the experience of the divine." (WIS p114-115) She believes Buddhism has hold of "a profound and difficult truth" which is in her opinion, that "no-self" is the falling away or cessation of the five Skandhas. (WIS pp. 115–16)
- She has written three books about the spiritual journey:
- The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey. State University of New York Press; ISBN 0-7914-1694-1 (revised edition March 1993); the first edition was published by Iroquois House (1982); ISBN 0-931980-07-0
- The Path to No-Self: Life at the Center (1985). Shambhala Publications; ISBN 0-394-72999-4
- What is Self?: A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness (2005) Sentient Publications; ISBN 1-59181-026-4
- "The Real Christ" shipping 10/25/2012. 380 pages, spiral bound.
- A short biography and excerpt from The Path to No-Self is included in Mystics, Masters, Saints, and Sages by Robert Ullman and Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman. (2001) ISBN 1-57324-507-0
- An account of the early years of her spiritual journey, as well as other unpublished essays and materials, is available at a site established by some of her friends, called Bernadette's Friends
- Nonduality — outline of The Experience of No-Self
- Bernadette Roberts, a website with information on unpublished works, DVDs and retreats
- The text of a 1986 interview with Bernadette Roberts can be found here