contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: April, 2017

SOPHIAN MYTH

“A Gnostic creation myth said that Sophia was born from the primordial female power, Sige (Silence). Sophia gave birth to a male spirit, Christ, and a female spirit, Acamoth. The latter gave life to the elements and the terrestrial world, then brought forth a new god called Ildabaoth, Son of Darkness, along with five planetary spirits later regarded as emanations of Jehovah: Iao, Sabaoth, Adonai, Eloi and Uraeus. These spirits produced archangels, angels and, finally, men.

“Ildabaoth or Jehovah forbade men to eat the fruit of knowledge, but his mother Achamoth sent her own spirit to earth in the form of her serpent Ophis to teach men to disobey the jealous god. The serpent was also called Christ, who taught Adam to eat the fruit of knowledge despite the god’s prohibition. Sophia sent Christ to earth again in the shape of her own totemic dove, to enter the man Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan” (1).

For me, Sophian myth is dream like. Consciousness experiences itself as stressed and divided, moving into the trance of duality and multiplicity. Yet there is also a strong counterbalancing drive towards reintegration and wholeness.

Culturally, Sophian stories are a cry against newly developing orthodoxies. They are a creative mythology, and affirm the emancipatory potentials of knowledge and freedom. They also maintain the strong ancient world link between Goddess and wisdom, a link that was coming under threat from the religious revolutions of late antiquity.

My personal Sophian practice has stabilized in recent months and is very simple. With the mantra ama aima, I connect with cosmic motherhood, or source, both in the sense of origin and of eternal now. This connection establishes my sense of home, and of the emptiness that becomes fullness. Sophia in the apparent world stands for an interweaving of wisdom, compassion, creativity and freedom. These can only be defined and expressed in the effort to live them. Subjectively, Sophia first came to me with the force of an inner guide or patron. Now she is more of an enabling personification – less numinous perhaps, but more firmly established in my psyche.

I no longer look back so much to the older history and literature for direct inspiration – not even as far as Jung, who met his unconscious God in dreams and felt validated by ancient gnostic texts. The Gnostics themselves believed in ‘continuous revelation’ and I like the word ‘continuous’ whilst not connecting so much with ‘revelation’. I am not a person of faith, or now part of any tradition, and I have got what I need from the myth. My inquiry focus now is with finding my own language where it helps, holding silence where it doesn’t, and learning to know the difference.

(1) Barbara G, Walker The women’s encyclopedia of myths and secrets Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, CA: 1983

BUDDHA AND MARA

Stephen Batchelor is my favourite Buddhist writer. He is also a model of spiritually grounded atheism. The passage below is from his Confession of a Buddhist atheist (1). I’m not Buddhist, yet I resonate with what he is saying and feel encouraged on my own path.

“For traditional Buddhists, the Buddha has come to be seen as the perfect person. He is an example of what a human being can ultimately become through treading the eightfold path. The Buddha is said to have eliminated from his mind every trace of greed, hatred and confusion, so that they are ‘cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, so that they will never arise again’. At the same time, the Buddha is believed to have acquired faultless wisdom and boundless compassion. He is omniscient and unerringly loving. He has become God.

“Yet the many passages in the Pali canon that depict the Buddha’s relations with Mara paint a very different picture. On attaining awakening in Uruvela, Siddatha Gotama* did not ‘conquer’ Mara in the sense of literally destroying him. For Mara is a figure that continues to present himself to Gotama even after the awakening. He keeps reappearing under different guises until shortly after the Buddha’s death in Kusinara. This implies that craving and the other ‘armies of Mara’ have not been literally deleted from Buddha’s being. Rather, he has found a way of living with Mara that deprives the devil of his power. To be no longer manipulated by Mara is the equivalent of being free from him. The Buddha’s freedom is found not in destroying greed and hatred, but in comprehending them as transient, impersonal emotions that will pass away of their own accord as long as you do not cling to and identify with them.

“In Pali, Mara means ‘the killer’. The devil is a mythic way of talking about whatever imposes limits on realizing one’s potential as a human being. As well as physical death, Mara refers to anything that wears you down or causes your life to be reduced, blighted or frustrated. Craving is a kind of inner death because it clings to what is safe and familiar, blocking one’s capacity to enter the stream of the path. Yet other kinds of ‘death’ can be imposed by social pressures, political persecution, religious intolerance, war, famine, earthquakes, and so on. Mara permeates the fabric of the world in which we struggle to realize our goals and reach fulfillment. Siddhattha Gotama was no more exempt from these constraints than anyone else.

“If Mara is a metaphor for death, then Buddha, as his twin, is a metaphor for life. The two are inseparable. You cannot have Buddha without Mara any more than you can have life without death. This was the insight I gained from Living with the Devil (2). Instead of perfection and transcendence, the goal of Gotama’s Dhamma* was to embrace this suffering world without being overwhelmed by the attendant fear or attachment, craving or hatred, confusion or conceit, that come in its wake.

“A clue to how this might be done is found in the parable of the raft. Gotama compares the Dhamma to a raft that one assembles from pieces of driftwood, fallen branches and other bits of rubbish. Once it has taken you across the river that lies in your way, you leave it behind on the bank for someone else and proceed on your way. The Dhamma is a temporary expedient. To treat it as an object of reverence is as absurd as carrying the raft on your back even though you no longer need it. To practice the Dhamma is like making a collage. You collect ideas, images, insights, philosophical styles, meditation methods, and ethical values that you find here and there in Buddhism, bind them securely together, then launch your raft into the river of your life. As long as it does not sink or disintegrate and can get you to the other shore, then it works. That is all that matters. It need not correspond to anyone else’s idea of what ‘Buddhism’ is or should be.”

  • Stephen Batchelor Confession of a Buddhist atheist. Spiegel & Grau: New York, USA, 2011
  • Stephen Batchelor Living with the devil: a meditation on good and evil Riverhead Books: New York, USA, 2004

 

  • Batchelor uses Pali forms rather than the more widely known Sanskrit ones – hence Siddhattha Gotama than Gautama Siddhartha and Dhamma rather than Dharma.

WORD POWER

“In Hebrew, the word davar … means word and thing. No distinction. We see and hear the world with our minds, with words, in categories, not in raw sensory data.   I believe in holiness because I experience it. I don’t view it as a personal presence, but holiness is as vivid as sexual pleasure or hunger.”

The words are spoken by Malkah, the central and anchoring figure in Marge Piercy’s He, She and It (1) and one of two given prominence as a point of view character. The other is her granddaughter Shira. Their spiritual lens is Jewish and they live in a 2059 imagined by the author in 1991. This world has experienced social breakdown, massive population loss and partial desertification due to the co-arising phenomena of corporate oligarchy and unchecked climate change.

I read this book again last week because I half remembered it and wanted to refresh myself. I had no other agenda. But as I went on it seemed to be contributing to my inquiry about the meaning of ‘creativity’ and ‘magic’  (Druidry’s Awen) in a context where material and social forces need to be addressed at their own level. For me, He, She and It also shows how speculative fiction may itself be a creative cultural force.

Malkah asserts that, “in fascination with the power of the word and a belief that the word is primary over matter, you may be talking nonsense about physics, but you’re telling the truth about people.    A person reacts and decides what’s good or bad. For us the word is primary and paramount. We can curse each other to death or cure with words. With words we court each other, with words we punish each other. We construct the world out of words. The mind can kill or heal because it is the body.”

Hence, the creative word is always “perilous”, giving true life to what has been inchoate and voice to what has been dumb. “It makes known what has been unknown, that perhaps we were more comfortable not knowing.” What we cannot name, we cannot talk about. When we do name something, we empower it, and the naming has consequences – “as when we call an itch love, or when we call our envy righteous”. More creatively, “we may empower ourselves” for if “we can think about and talk about what is hurting us”, then “we may come together with others who have felt this same pain,” and try to do something about it.

Malkah likes to tell the story of the Maharal of Prague*, who in 1600 defended the Jewish Ghetto there against anti-Semitic attack through the creation of a golem, a man of clay, large and strong, animated through Kabbalist magic. It becomes a second timeline in the book, though always in the form of Malkah telling the story. She describes the creation of Joseph, the golem, with relish.

The face of the Maharal is pale with ecstasy. He feels the power coming through him. It is the power of creation. It is always dangerous, it is lightning striking the tower and the world set on end. Word into matter and everything born again. He feels the energy of something strange and new and terrible and focused to a spear piercing through him and into the clay before him. He sees his own hands shining with a blue-white radiance. His hands are crackling. His hair stands up with electricity.

All the combinations of letters and vowels he chants, and the hidden name of G-d he speaks, and the sacred numbers that built the atoms of the universe. He has become transparent with power that is pouring through him. His flesh is blackened like glass that has stood in a fire. His eyes are silver as the moon, without pupils or iris. He knows in that moment more than he has ever known in his life and more than he will know in five minutes.

But we also know that power like this, even within the mythos,  is a rare and precious gift. When the assault on the ghetto comes, developing out of a Good Friday procession, the strong but simple Joseph says to the Maharal, “’your prayers as strong as my fists’”. The Maharal demurs. “’Prayer doesn’t work that way’, the Maharal says quietly and sadly. ‘It makes the heart and mind strong in belief, but it doesn’t keep one leaf falling from the tree. Still, I will pray’”. The ghetto defence is successful, though with many losses and much destruction. The aggressors are turned back. This is partly down to Joseph directly and partly because he inspires the community to rally. The Christian state levies reparations on the Jewish community for all the trouble that’s been caused, and life goes on. Survival – but with no change in underlying conditions. Joseph, who has an inbuilt tendency to violence, is put to back to sleep (though not destroyed) by the very magician who made him that way.

The same is true of 2059. The people there are vulnerable and have enemies. They live in harsh physical conditions, though without losing the capacity to recognise and create beauty. They too wrestle with the ethics and politics of what we now call artificial intelligence, which in their world has become, and in our world is becoming, a realistic proposition.

Malka’s conclusion seems to be that we can sometimes access resources beyond our little selves, though we don’t really own them, and can’t rely on them to exempt or rescue us from things we don’t like or want. But they do have a role to play and can at times make a difference. “We partake in creation with ha-Shem, the Name, the Word that speaks us, the breath that sings life through us. We are tool and vessel and will. We connect with powers beyond our own fractional consciousness to the rest of the living being we all make up together. The power flows through us just as it flows through the tiger and through the oak and through the river breaking over its rocks, and we know in our core the fire that fuels the sun.”

(1) Marge Piercy He, She and It (Kindle edition). First published in 1991 (as Body of Glass outside the USA). 1993 Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.

*The Maharal was an historical figure, the title being the Hebrew acronym of Moreinu Ha-Ra Loew, used for Judah Loew be Bezalel,1512/26? -1609) and widely known to scholars as the Maharal of Prague. In 1592, he was granted an audience with Rudolf II, the mystically inclined Holy Roman Emperor. This was probably to discuss Kabbalah. The legend concerning his creation of a golem to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks is thought to be a German literary invention of the early nineteenth century.

BOOK REVIEW: LESSONS IN MAGIC

 

In a seemingly artless little book*, Philip Carr-Gomm celebrates a kind of magic that is “supremely natural”, like conceiving a child or planting seeds in the earth. He defines it as “the art and science of bringing ideas into form, of making what is intangible tangible. It is, in essence, the creative process – but informed with spiritual understanding”.

Lessons in Magic is organized into six chapters and ends with a list of resources. The first chapter, Apprenticed to Magic, describes the author’s own journey and sets the tone for what follows. The other five are a series of lessons. The resources include poems, songs, films, books and meditations.

The author describes his life-long attraction to magic, beginning in childhood, and nourished in youth by apprenticeship to the Druid magician Ross Nichols. His understanding was later extended by Jungian analysis, the study and practice of esoteric spiritualities from around the world and a training in modern psychology. To capture the essence of life lived magically, he quotes Fiona Macleod: “there are moments when the soul takes wing; what it has to remember, it remembers; what it loves, it loves still more; what it longs for, to that it flies”.

The stance is unrepentantly romantic and transcendentalist, whilst earth and life loving as well: we are here because we are meant to be. This is our theatre of becoming. Thus, the five ‘how to’ chapters show us how to align ourselves with what our soul wants, rather than what we think we want as average sensual folk. How do we tell the difference? One suggestion is to draw up lists of what we want to have, to do and to be – and then reverse cultural custom and tackle them in the order of be, do, and have. Going first for what we want to be may save distracting levels of concern with doing and, more especially, having. Another recommendation is to look for unsuspected strengths in our apparent weaknesses and failures. They may be the key to our flourishing.

Through such means, the book suggests, we find passion and purpose. Following our bliss, in this sense, is experienced as the best and most natural way of serving a higher purpose, and of bringing healing and joy into the world. To achieve this, we will need to draw both on an open receptive capacity and on the powers of focus and intention. The author takes us through the processes of finding and establishing our magical purpose, letting it gestate and grow, and asking for help at all levels (including prayer and divination). We are also warned not to over-specify outcomes once the work is under way. In this magic, we are always serving a higher purpose as well as our own. We are working in a larger context than we can expect wholly to own or control. Eventually we find that magic is happening around us. Unsuspected possibilities present themselves. The quality of our experience changes. We are in partnership with the living cosmos.

Philip Carr-Gomm speaks with the authority of someone who has walked the talk. Just under thirty years ago he re-founded the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids (OBOD) [1] based on a visionary prompting. It has been a highly successful venture, both itself and as a catalyst for others, playing a major role in the modern Druid and Pagan revival. One of OBOD’s key offerings has been the distance learning course offered to its members. This isn’t just a training in knowledge and skills about Druidry. It includes a thread of personal development work understood in magical terms, which students may follow at their own pace and in accordance with their own inclinations. A kind of apprenticeship, made more widely accessible, to meet modern needs in modern conditions.

Although this book is an introduction, it clearly presents a significant lens on magic, as understood by Philip Carr-Gomm and within OBOD Druidry. Highly recommended to anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

*Philip Carr-Gomm Lessons in magic: a guide to making your dreams come true Lewes, East Sussex, England: Oak Tree Press, 2016

[1] www.druidry.org