The Descent of Spirit (1.04.09)
But thankfully, the cosmos is not a closed loop but an open circle -- or spiral -- with a way up and out: “The ‘good news’ of religion is that the world is not a closed circle, that it is not an eternal prison, that it has an exit and an entrance.... ‘Perdition’ is to be caught up in the eternal circulation of the world of the closed circle... [whereas] ‘salvation’ is life in the world of the open circle, or spiral, where there is both exit and entrance” (Meditations on the Tarot).
What do we mean by "vertical" and "descent?" When you think about it, most of our knowledge falls into the "as if" category. For example, we have no idea what's going in with the quantum world, but it's "as if" it sometimes behaves in a wave-like manner, other times like particles, depending upon how we look. Obviously it is neither. These are just analogies to try to get our mind around what's going on "down" there. "Down" is another one. Why is the subatomic world "below" our macro world? For that matter, why is the unconscious mind "below" the conscious, or the past "behind" the present? Sometimes merely tweaking your metaphor brings new understanding. What if the unconscious is the past within the present, the realm of the unthought known? Is Iraq Vietnam? Or is radical Islam nazi Germany? Different metaphor, different reality.
The fundamental axiom of esotericism, "as above, so below," actually applies to most of our knowledge, in the sense that, without even thinking about it, we resort to analogy to understand realms that are inaccessible to our senses. For example, there isn't really a genetic "code" or "blueprint." In reality it is neither of these manmade categories. Rather, it is what it is, which is entirely mysterious -- impossible, really. Likewise, time is a "river," but what is it really? Who knows? How can there be anything other than eternity?
It gets even more problematic when we try to discuss things like the mind. Here we can only use analogy. However, just as in religious disputes, you would be amazed at the academic fights that go on between people and their beloved analogies. It's easy to ridicule the Christian world, which formally split in 1054 over filioque controversy -- that is, the question of whether the holy spirit proceeds from the Father and Son or from the Son only -- but the identical thing goes on in academia.
I got a real taste of this in my psychoanalytic training, a discipline that has many religious trappings. It has a founding prophet (Freud), a group of original disciples, a dogma, an orthodoxy, and various initiatory rituals. It eventually split into various hardened camps that were, for a time, quite hostile to one another. I've been out of that world for awhile, so I'm not up to date with the politics, but there was a time when the members of one school would dismiss the other school by saying that their members were insufficiently analyzed -- in short, that they only believed what they did because they were more or less crazy. This is very similar to one sect of Christianity saying that another is damned to perdition over this or that doctrinal difference.
And yet, it would be completely wrongheaded to take this as an excuse to descend into a wimpy syncretism or odious relativism. For I think we can agree that, whatever the mind is, it is what it is. It isn't any single one of our models, but neither is it all of them put together, i.e., integralism. The truth is out there (to employ another analogy).
Yesterday I spoke of the "descent" of intelligence that occurred in me at age 29. Fortunately, it occurred at exactly the same time that I discovered the works of the British psychoanalyst W.R. Bion, which assured that my intelligence became a fluid thing instead of hardening into this or that dogma. For there is no end to the mischief created when intelligence mingles with some narrow viewpoint. When this happens, it is almost always for extra-epistemological reasons, usually narcissistic in nature, other times having to do with an emotional need for security or a failure of imagination.
For it seems that intelligence can only go so far before it becomes detached from imagination, so that people at the extreme high end of the IQ scale often lack imagination and become unbalanced spiritual cripples. Think of the typical proud MENSA type, whose IQ may be higher than yours, but who knows nothing about Spirit. They are essentially "idiot savants" with a warped and specialized perspective on reality. The same thing can happen in the other direction with an artist who has a brilliant imagination unmoored by intelligence. The greatest art, such as Shakespeare, is infused with both intelligence and imagination.
But so too is the greatest science, for what is science but a "probe" that extends into the unknown and allows us to think about reality in a fruitful and generative way? Good science makes you feel more alive to the mystery, whereas bad science always demystifiies the world. Remember, "mystery" is hardly an absence of knowledge. Rather, it is a means and a mode of knowledge, precisely. To be immersed in the mystery of being is not to be lost in an obscure cloud of ignorance. Rather, this mystery is the generative ground of all -- it is O.
As I have said before, most narcissists feel that they are in some way "special," and better than others. But the fact is, they usually are special in some area, whether it is looks, or intelligence, or academic brilliance. One's narcissistic pathology can easily attach itself to any of these gifts, so there are plenty of intellectuals whose intellect is more or less in the service of their narcissism and exhibitionism. As applied to spirituality, this combination is particularly deadly, for it ultimately means that one is co-opting God for the glorification of one's own ego.
Hoarhey asked a question along these lines, noting that some of the world's worst psychopaths have claimed to have been chosen by God, e.g., Hitler and Ahmadinejad. He suspects that "someone who actually did good and didn't cause such destruction would either have above average humility or be unaware of the aid, to minimize the ego involvement. The aware person also being somewhat reluctant to speak of it. Examples of America's founders receiving guidance and benefitting humanity come to mind (e.g., George Washington, as the receiver not the avatar)."
I am sure that this is absolutely true -- that God resists the proud. To a certain extent, those who know don't speak of it, and those who speak of it don't know. There is even empirical research documenting the fact that people who truly have had transformative "peak experiences," or full on, life-changing ingressions of the vertical, rarely speak of them. For one thing, they have a sacred quality that brings with it an instinctive reluctance to cast pearls before swine. But this cannot be an absolute rule, or no one would speak of God! Nevertheless, it is a good rule of thumb. Those who eagerly and recklessly presume to speak for God are most likely talking through their hat. For one thing, one must be authorized to do so -- not by some earthly religious body, but from above. Here again we are touching on the subject of "descents."
The Gospels tell us nothing about Jesus' education, but it seems doubtful that he received any formal theological training. When he first encounters the religious authorities, they are astounded by his ability to speak as "one who knows" -- with such authority. From whence did this authority come? Clearly not from man or from any manmade institution. Rather, he was authorized "from above."
Here is an analogy to try to understand authority, perhaps trivial, but I hope not. Last night I saw an absolutely wonderful documentary on the great American blues musician, Howlin' Wolf (1910 -1976). Perhaps you're unfamiliar with him, but he is a being whose musical authority -- if you have ears to hear -- was absolute. And yet, how can this be? Here was a man who grew up in a kind of material and cultural poverty that we can scarcely imagine. Functionally illiterate, his mother mercilessly threw him out of the house -- shack is more like it -- when he was a boy, when he objected to picking cotton for fifteen cents a day. He walked seventy five miles barefoot on dirt roads and eventually tracked down his father, who took him in. At the age of 18 he heard a travelling blues musician, and something "lit up" inside of him -- a musical descent. His father purchased his first guitar, and the rest is history.
Now, blues is a fascinating medium because it is so "primitive" that it almost cannot be played properly by a schooled musician. It is entirely "instinctive." And yet, the gulf between a great blues artist and a mediocre one is absolute -- as great as the gap between the greatest classical composers and the mortals down below. How can this be? I think of it this way. Musical genius is randomly distributed throughout mankind. Obviously, much will depend upon the accidental cultural circumstances in which one finds oneself. For example, what if Mozart had been born in a primitive culture without a rich musical tradition and access to sophisticated musical instruments? Would his genius have somehow found a means to express itself?
I think musicologists err in trying to derive aesthetic beauty from musical complexity. Rather, I believe there are certain people who do not "compose" or "play" music. Rather, they are music. You might say that they are "music made flesh" -- they literally embody the dimension from which music arises. Sinatra did this. Louis Armstrong did this. Van Morrison does this. Their music has a kind of authority and immediacy that no amount of musical training could ever be able to achieve. Again, if you have ears to hear, the gulf between a Howlin' Wolf or Muddy Waters and, say, Eric Clapton, is as great as the gulf between Bach and Vivaldi, or Mozart and Salieri. The gulf between Stevie Ray Vaughan -- another person who "embodied" music -- and an Eddie Van Halen or some other merely technical wizard, is literally infinite.
One thing the great musicians share is that they are motivated by love rather than ego. Their passion and their love are the channels through which the music flows. This cannot be faked. Nevertheless, for most people, it doesn't seem to matter. They cannot distinguish between the genuine and the meretricious, whether it is in music, spirituality, psychology, whatever. Thus, because people can be fooled, there are many who usurp the authority to do a whole lot of things that can only be authorized from above.
Now, you might ask, where does this leave Bob? Where does he get off speaking of these things? Who gave him the authority? That's a very good question. In my case, I am very aware of my limits. When my descent came, it came in the form of understanding. Suddenly, I understood spiritual reality in a way that I had previously only understood intellectually -- which is to say, did not understand. Thus, I do not feel that I am overstepping my bounds by merely trying to share -- never force, and never argue or try to convert -- my understanding with others. This is why I say it is more like singing. Not to say that I am an "artist," or something like that. Rather, merely to say that it's not an intellectual thing. It just is what it is, and I'm glad some people enjoy it. If they don't, that's fine too. That's why I don't want to get into arguments with those who shall not be named. Nor do I wish to become known, except by a very narrow group of people. How to reach that group without exposure to the wrong types is the vexing problem, but so far I have no complaints.
Now, on the other hand -- it's difficult to say this without sounding outrageously presumptuous, and yet, it does need to be said -- it is equally clear to me that I am not vertically authorized to be any kind of direct transmission of grace -- a "guru" type person, as it were. Yes, you could say that this is like conceding that I am not God, but obviously, untold spiritual mischief is caused by people who overstep their boundaries and do just that. It's not so much that I am tempted to do this, but there is something within many people that is tempted to confer this authority upon others, which many spiritual psychopaths happily identify with. There is no question that there are beings who are authorized to do this -- genuine saints and true theologians who are themselves transmitters of grace. They are on an entirely different plane.
But I humbly pray only for a deepening understanding and the ability to express it to others who might benefit from it -- to be the discussion leader. That is more than enough for me, because it keeps the descent alive by "prolonging" it into the horizontal on a daily basis. Plus, the feedback and comments flesh it out and make it all the more vividly present and real.