I love the following passage from Carl Jung…not because I like that it’s true, but because it’s true.
The artist’s life cannot be otherwise than full of conflicts, for two forces are at war within him on the one hand the common human longing for happiness, satisfaction and security in life, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire. The lives of artists are as a rule so highly unsatisfactory, not to say tragic, because of their inferiority on the human and personal side, and not because of a sinister dispensation.
There are hardly any exceptions to the rule that a person must pay dearly for the divine gift of the creative fire. It is as though each of us were endowed at birth with a certain capital of energy. The strongest force in our make-up will seize and all but monopolize this energy, leaving so little over that nothing of value can come of it. In this way the creative force can drain the human impulses to such a degree that the personal ego must develop all sorts of bad qualities — ruthlessness, selfishness, and vanity (so-called “auto-eroticism”) and even every kind of vice, in order to maintain the spark of life and to keep itself from being wholly bereft.
How can we doubt that it is his art that explains the artist, and not the insufficiencies and conflicts of his personal life? These are nothing but the regrettable results of the fact that he is an artist, that is to say, a man who from his very birth has been called to a greater task than the ordinary mortal. A special ability means a heavy expenditure of energy in a particular direction, with a consequent drain from some other side of life.
from Modern Man in Search of a Soul
Corbin, Nature, Divinity (and me!)
One of the questions that appears on social-networking profiles, dating & matchmaking sites, and various personality surveys is: What is your Religion? I typically answer, ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ though there is never a box to check that adequately defines my relationship with the Divine.
I grew out of my Catholic upbringing before I hit puberty, and I’ve been exploring all sorts of spiritual and inner-mystical terrains since. I’ve spent time with Muslims, Mormons, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Celtic Druids, Amazonian Shamen…the list goes on.
In this blog, I’m going to focus on some of the realizations I came to after a six-month sojourn to Morocco in my twenties, when I was fist led to discover the Sufi tradition of Islam (and from there—other Gnostic & esoteric means of revelation.) I also dove into the philosophies of Heidegger, Jean Biès, Mircia Eliade, Avincenna, Suhrawardi, and one of my favorites—French philosopher and theologian, Henry Corbin.
Kind-hearted author/philosopher, Tom Cheetham, does a beautiful job of describing Corbin’s unique faith as: a bit of Christian theology, Heideggerian phenomenology, and Islamic mysticism fused with Zoroastrian angelology… all united by a deep reverence for the primordial revelation: the book of Nature. There is no better way to introduce Corbin than by reading a bit of his writing, so below is an excerpt from a meditation titled, Theology by the Lakeside, written by Corbin in 1932 at the edge of Lake Siljan in Sweden.
It will soon be dusk, but for now the clouds are still clear, the pines are not yet darkened, for the lake brightens them into transparency. And everything is green with a green that would be richer than if pulling all the organ stops in recital. It must be heard seated, very close to the Earth, arms crossed, eyes closed, pretending to sleep.
For it is not necessary to strut about like a conqueror and want to give a name to things, to everything; it is they who will tell you who they are, if you listen, yielding like a lover; for suddenly for you, in the untroubled peace of the North, the Earth has come to Thou, visible as an Angel that would perhaps be a woman, and in this apparition, this greatly green and thronging solitude, yes, the Angel too is robed in green, the green of dusk, of silence and of truth. Then there is in you all the sweetness that is present in the surrender to an embrace that triumphs over you.
…The Mystery of Holy Communion where you will be ushered in, where all beings will be present, yes, you can only say it in the future. Because at each moment where you read in truth as now what is there before you, where you hear the Angel, and the Earth and Woman, then you receive Everything, Everything, in your absolute poverty. But as soon as you have read and have received, as soon as you consider, as you want to understand, as you want to possess, to give a name and restrain, to explain and recover, ah! there is only a cipher, and your judgment is pronounced…
…you are the poor one, you are man; and he is God, and you cannot know God, or the Angel, or the Earth, or Woman. You must be encountered, taken, known, that they may speak, otherwise you are alone…
I believe one of the goals of being a human being is to bring everything possible into consciousness so we can become as whole as possible. We can then obtain freedom for the ego to participate in conscious evolution and freedom to consciously submit to the larger whole. This is, in part, why during my trip to Morocco, I resonated so intensely with the mystical aspects of Islam. In its purest sense, islam = submission.
There is a story about a student who approaches a great sage and asks, “In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God…Why don’t they anymore?” The sage replies, “Because nowadays no one can stoop so low. One must stoop to fetch water from the stream.”
The greatest leap of faith we can take is to kneel, to bow, to relinquish control and to allow the Goddess to lead. I believe the hesitancy and fear many of us have is that we’re unsure of what exactly we’ll be submitting to. Will God expect to leave our partners or families for a life of solitude? Will we be called to relinquish our desire for wealth in order to follow our dreams? Can we hold onto our most cherished beliefs even after we’ve agreed to open our Minds to bigger ways of seeing? Ultimately, these questions are futile because when we agree to submit to God, we are just submitting to the reality of the Universe—the natural unfolding of things—and to not submit to that natural force is the only losing battle.
As Cheetham brought to the foreground of my consciousness: it’s been a long time since most of us have really experienced the World. Instead, we experience a constriction of it, a selection of it, a lack of breadth and depth. We step out cautiously checking ourselves against What is Allowed & What is Known. We throw a world out ahead of ourselves and move safely into it. We have found our way into a closed world…and we have mistaken it for infinity. So how do we come to know the World most authentically? And why our aching desire to know anything?
There is an old Sufi saying that God created the world so he could come to know Itself. By igniting the spark of creation and then hiding deep in the human heart, God could feel and be felt as an outpouring of Divine love. Following this line of belief, to be is to be perceived (by the Other), so God chose to forfeit wholeness so that God could then make the choice to return to that wholeness again…in part, through loving the Beloved. Only by making the choice to nestle inside the human heart did God have the ability to then turn back towards the source (Love!) and direct his gaze in contemplation and admiration. If God had never divided Itself, it would have never come to know Itself in all its infinite possibilities.
And since the purpose of creation is knowledge (for us to know God…which ultimately means: God within our hearts knowing Itself) we are fulfilling the purpose of creation by desiring to know and know thyself. To be known, is the most Godlike desire a creature can have.
—and it takes a special kind of attention to hear it. Jean Biès explores this beautifully in his book, Returning to the Essential. Nature is best addressed through a receptive mind and a gentle soul. It takes more than mere physics to explain nature. Nature is an equation of unknowable beauty and dignity. And the psyche of Nature, or what Henry Corbin refers to as the anima mundi, is often evident as a kind of sadness. Nature’s tone strikes many of us as having some melancholy in it. Lucretius refers to this as the tears of things. In Japanese poetry it is called ‘mono no aware’, the slender sadness. Iranian philosopher Mir Damad perceives this sadness as the silent clamor of beings in their metaphysical distress. All things can only be as made-to-be. This is mystical poverty. I feel this sadness in nature as similar to the sadness that the unrevealed God once experienced in his unknownness. It is a Divine sadness—an anguish, really.
In our ever-present desire to know, to be, and to become more and everything and whole and complete—one of the saddest paradoxes remains: we can only be as-made-to-be.
Everything human exists within the realm of the ‘more-than-human’—we are limited and bound by this fact. But it is when we can no longer sense the presence of something alien, vast, and Other just beyond our reach—when we imagine we are the be-all-and-end-all of creation—then, just where we feel secure, we are truly cut off and lost in a false universe of our own making.
The Imaginal Realm, Words As Angels, and Why Heidegger & Nietzsche fail…
Brought to my consciousness by Cheetham’s book Green Man, Earth Angel, we are currently living-out the consequences of three great crises: a rupture between the individual and the Divine, a severing of the felt connection between human beings and the living earth, and a profound breakdown of long-held assumptions about the nature and function of language.
The excursion into spirit must always return to a grounded soul in order to be connected with sensuous reality, and it is through speech and song—the primordial technologies of the soul—that this return continually occurs, embodying spirit without collapsing it into matter. The language of poetry is as close as we can get to the language of the angels. It is a language of images, of imagination. And imagination is central in helping us understand and navigate the imaginal realm. This realm is the gulf that lies between the senses and the intellect—the place of the Prophets, the mystics, the shaman’s visionary flight, the place of the burning bush. It is interior, but not subjective. Real, but not visible to all. It is the realm of the alchemical, the wonder-ful. It is the Earth of visions, Hurqalya.
According to Henry Corbin, Hurqalya is the world in which all spiritual events take place…though they do not ‘take place’ in the sense that events chronologically recorded to ‘make history’ take place because in Hurqalya, events transcend historical manifestations. The imaginal realm is the suprasensory dimension.
A case could be made that Frank Baum’s Oz was created as a reflection of this imaginal realm. Baum was known to be a Theosophist, and the 14 books comprising the Oz series are laden with esoteric Theosophy. One vibrant example: for the Theosophists, the ‘rainbow bridge’ leads to higher realms, and the seven rays of the rainbow correlate to the seven steps of initiation that one must master along the return to God. The Theosophists also had a system where each of the colored rays correlated to the seven chakras, or energy centers, in the human body.
Most Baum fans are familiar with the geographical landscape of the world of Oz; it is surrounded by a deadly desert of shifting sands. In the teachings of Theosophy, this is called the ‘ring-pass-not’ between the etheric and other dimensions. As Baum lay on his deathbed, his last words to his wife—“Now we can cross the shifting sands.”
Is the imaginal realm imaginary? No. Not at all. It is as vast and full as the entire Universe itself; it is the multi-verse itself…darkness et al. Though the Divine darkness found in Hurqalya is not a Darkness to be feared. It is the nihil a quo omnia fiunt, the Nothing from which all things derived—the Nothing superior to being and thought. Do not be afraid of that Darkness. That is where we all come from. That emptiness is also God.
This leads me to address the contingency of being—the experience behind the great question of metaphysics: “Why is there something instead of nothing?” What is typically lacking in the philosophies of the grand-daddy, Western metaphysical thinkers such as Heidegger & Nietzsche is the Godly breath of compassion which breathes life and sympathy into the world. This breath is the soul-substance of all living things. It is Divine love and energy itself—the Sufi’s God-song-love-poetry hidden in the human heart, yearning to ascend back to God. Both Heidegger & Nietzsche built philosophies denying the spirit’s need for transcendence of the human being. There is no ascent for Heidegger, no ascent for Nietzsche. According to them, and to most other Western-minded philosophers: we have appearances, we have things, we have subjective reality—but there is nothing except nothing behind all this. And not the Divine Nothing which is also God, but rather an enormous, gaping LACK. It is this belief that is ultimately responsible for the Godless emptiness and inhumanity of Heidegger and Nietzsche’s work. (Cheetham)
Moving Eastward, we find the core of Islamic philosophies regard the ta’wil of a text (or any subject or thing) as the spiritual exegenesis (interpretation) of that text, subject, or thing. Literally translated, ta’wil means: “to take something back to its source”, and it involves understanding on multiple levels simultaneously. It is a matter of harmonic perception, of hearing an identical sound (the same verse, the same hadith, or even an entire text) on several levels simultaneously. The Qur’an itself is said to contain seven levels of inner meaning… the highest which only God knows. And not every individual possesses the inner Hurqlyan ear which allows one to hear the richest resounding possible of any given text, nor can one be made to hear what one does not possess the ability to hear. Which leads to this question asked within the Qur’an: “Are they equal, those who know and those who know not?” (Qur’an 39:9)
Surely God does not judge us negatively for what we do not know, if there is no means at our disposal by which to overcome the ignorance, but that does not alter the reality that in order to be spiritually efficacious, our understanding and our actions must be based upon the truth.
“Religion, is a smile on a dog.”
Do you remember that old Edie Brickell lyric? I do. And at this moment, I don’t find anything to be more true.
Dogs live in the moment…and only in the moment. Sure they remember old tricks and all their favorite trees, but dogs don’t sit around worrying about the past or stressing about the future.
Dogs ‘get it’. And while you and I may need to meditate, pray, and constantly remind ourselves to be here now, dogs are always living in a state of utmost awareness.
Did I tell you I adopted a dog? Her name is Sammie, and she’s an angel. I won’t ramble on, but I will say this: she keeps me grounded in the present. If I’m ever suffering through a spell of sadness and get the urge to stay in bed a little longer in the morning feeling bad for myself…I can’t. Why not? Because Sammie jumps up beside me, licks my face, and reminds me it’s time for breakfast.
So I get up, feed us both, and stay out of my head long enough to begin to feel how nice it is to be walking my dog through the park when the grass is still wet from dawn, how lovely the smell of waffles is drifting from my neighbor’s window, how excited I am to check my mailbox and find a package Amazon delivered yesterday. Before I know it, my morning funk has disappeared and I’m living.
That is Spirituality.
This is not to say we should go through life without ever reflecting upon our experiences or ourselves, but to linger too long in a state of doubt, depression, fear, or sadness is not a healthy mode of being. Thank you, Sammie, for forcing me to remember that when I’m down.
I’ll leave you with an excerpt from one of Andrew Harvey’s memoirs, in which he recalls an elderly friend in Paris who had fallen into dark, lost times filled with suffering, until she finally resurrected herself because, well, here’s the quote…
Her life did not change because she had a vision or met a master or suddenly fell in love with God. “I did not meet Jesus,” she used to say tartly, “I met a dog.”
Here is a video I created, inspired by Max Ehrmann’s prose-poem “Desiderata.”
I hope it brings you peace.
I recently discovered this passage and wanted to share it with you. It’s rare that I come across a quote, stop abruptly in my tracks, and say: “Hey! This is absolutely true.” But that’s what I did when I read this passage by Terence McKenna. Enjoy.
“Nature loves courage. You make the commitment and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.”
– Terence McKenna
This was the topic chosen by one of my students, Brenda, for her final project in my Honors Seminar this summer. “The Hedgehog’s Dilemma” (also called ‘the porcupine dilemma’) is a metaphor exploring the challenges of human intimacy. A group of hedgehogs desire to become closer to one another in order to cuddle-up and stay warm through the cold weather. However, when they get too close, they poke each other with their spines, so they must remain apart. So even though they have the shared desire for closeness, which they continue to attempt to create, they also recoil as to avoid hurting one another.
Schopenhauer applied this situation to individuals in society, suggesting that despite good intentions, human intimacy cannot occur without substantial mutual harm, and what results is cautious behavior and weak relationships.
Brenda composed a chapbook of poetry based on this concept. Accompanying that written portion of her project, was a 15 minute presentation during which Brenda asked her classmates to come forward and stand in front of a projector screen displaying a series of images and music that she had previously compiled. The activity was meant to have students experience the warmth, comfort, and awkward uncertainty of intimacy firsthand.
Brenda asked that I remain in seat in the classroom during the experiment. I abided, though not without taking out my phone to record a portion of the experience.
we were feeling a little blurry
Friedrich Nietzsche acknowledged the will to superficiality–an embrace of the trivial and an avoidance of anything troubling, profound, or anomalous–as a healthy impulse and natural tendency in the human psyche. Nietzsche also thought this instinct was hidden beneath most claims in science. “Here and there we understand and laugh at the way in which [science], at its best, seeks most to keep us in this simplified, thoroughly artificial, suitably constructed and suitably falsified world.”
The instinct toward the false and flighty protects against the chance that one might “get a hold of the truth too soon, before man has become strong enough, hard enough, artist enough” to handle it. Nietzsche also believed that the seeker of knowledge was secretly “lured and pushed forward by his cruelty, by those dangerous thrills of cruelty turned against oneself.” This is something I’ve been confronting lately…and though I’ve never been a big Nietzsche fan, these thoughts resonate with me. I’ve been insisting on descending to the Grund in search of substantial truth.
Wasn’t that Sophia’s descent? Eve’s tantalizing bite? Isn’t the search for truth always a form of self-inflicted exile? And isn’t it necessary? Doesn’t all of creation begin with descent? Isn’t the creation of form in which we can then contemplate the Divine, a very reason for existence?
If ‘soul’ refers to the deepening of events into experiences, then it’s upsetting that the soul’s depression is often under attack by modern medical and societal conventions–for a society that does not allow its individuals ‘to go down’ cannot find its depth. Through allowing gravity we enter depths, and in depths we find soul.
Gravity is also essential as it brings refuge, limitation, focus, weight, and humble powerlessness. Nietzsche writes, “It might be a basic characteristic of existence that those who know [the truth] completely would perish, in which case the strength of a spirit should be measured according to how much of the “truth” one could still barely endure–or to put it more clearly, to what degree one would require it to be thinned down, shrouded, sweetened, blunted, falsified.”
Are we brave enough to really see?
Once we open the part of ourselves that is able to see things clearly, we can never return to our prior state of seeing again.
I asked Antolak to share his thoughts on living so closely to the truth. He said it was a fine aspiration, and that today more than ever, we need more people to attempt it. “Most don’t even look for, let alone to live by it. Because it can make your life very uncomfortable and very dangerous.” Antolak didn’t stop there. He said he didn’t think any of us ever really reached the Truth.
“Truth with a capital T, that is. We keep getting ever closer but never quite reach it. Instead, we settle for minor truths (which we outgrow when we see things from other perspectives). Usually we settle for some kind of rational explanation, definition or verbal expression. Words and concepts.
And words can be the problem, rather than the solution. They are often the illusion that prevents us from perceiving the Truth. Truth is not a verbal explanation. But once we make it so, words, cherished beliefs and concepts become idols to be fought over or jealously guarded. And then we’re stuck.
We need to treat language (and concepts and “thought” in general) with a degree of healthy skepticism, as just conventions, rough signs and descriptions, (fingers pointing to the moon). Only then can we really “wake up” to Reality (in the Zoroastrian sense) and perceive it as nearly as we can. We need to become “disillusioned” by the enchantment, the seduction, the spell of verbal thought, of words and concepts. We can take them or leave them; change one for another when it suits. Believe all or nothing. We need to treat concepts and ideas the way we treat images: as works of art which point to reality but which shouldn’t be confused with it. For the real reality always comes veiled. The trick is not to mistake the veil for the real thing.”
The story of the soul is partly mythical and partly literal—though we can ever really draw a line between the two and say, “This is poetry; this is philosophy,” for the transition from one to the other is imperceptible. I like to think our minds are in service to our souls. Maybe we’re in this worded world to find the vocabulary to describe what’s going on, so we can then bring into words that which has all along been sounding. (A phenomenological coming-out party, if you will.) I think that by sharing our experiences with each other, we’ll somehow validate the experiences themselves, and ourselves, and our personal truths, whatever they may be. I think we all just want to be known. Maybe words help us to be seen. Maybe if you touch me, I’ll exist. Maybe men are trees.
I’ll end this with a line from one of Lila’s poems. She was a sudden and beautiful friend of mine– and while we sat on the floor in her walk-in closet, underneath her skirts and sequins, she unearthed a journal from 2nd grade and opened to a random page. “Here,” she said. “I’ll read.”
You and I are traveling a path
too parallel to truth to ever find it
Sadly, I have yet to visit Iran. I did a good deal of planning last year but fell into difficulties because I have an American passport and was restricted to travel only within a guided group.
Since traveling in a tour group is not my preferred method of exploring the world, I momentarily tossed my hands in the air and placed the trip on hold. Since then, I’ve begun the lengthy and tedious process of obtaining Italian citizenship through my grandfather’s line. I’m sure an EU passport will allow for much more freedom. Until then, I will dream.
Iran has moved within me since I first began to feel Islam during a six month stay in Morocco. Reading all that I have since then, and re-watching Majid Majidi films, has only propelled my heart further Mid-East–and if an opportunity ever arouse for me to live or study in Iran, I wouldn’t think twice before receiving it. I’ve been told there’s something in the soil and air in Iran that naturally turns the heart towards poetry, and this leads me to focus on nothing other than ways to transport myself to Damavand.