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Book Review: In the Dark Places of Wisdom (Peter Kingsley)
On the cover: “A set of ancient inscriptions on marble found forty years ago in southern Italy, recording details so bewildering that scholars have kept silent about them… Strange evidence about a tradition of people who were mystics but who were so intensely practical that, two and a half thousand years ago, they shaped our existence and the world we live in. And yet they did this with a purpose we’ve completely forgotten…”
I highly recommend this extraordinary book that details how Western Civilization has been separated from its deepest philosophical treasure and why for the last hundred years, we’ve been turning eastward for spiritual inspiration.
I’ve wondered all my life why metaphysics has been so marginalized in the unfolding of Western Civilization - which we trace back to the Greek giants, Plato and his disciple, Aristotle. Why is the powerful underpinning of every other culture and religion on earth, conspicuously absent in our way of life. Even Christianity from Aquinas onward has lost more and more of its metaphysical “Way,” from the Middle Ages - when translations of the Greeks first infiltrated European learning. Kingsley solves the mystery…
The works of Plato and Aristotle were especially influential - leading ultimately to the Renaissance, and the track set at that time has brought us into the modern world. Much has been accomplished but there is a void that many spiritual seekers look elsewhere to fill.
This book is about the ancestors of our ancestors, a group of ancient mariners forced from the city of Procaea on the western coast of Turkey, by the Persian army in 540 BC. Advised by the Oracle of Delphi, they eventually settled in southern Italy - the land of the mythic Hercules who overcame hell to fulfill his destiny, in a town they named Velia (Elea), and this is where Parmenides, “the lawgiver,” was born.
Parmenides left us one mythic poem, “Nature,” in which he like Hercules and Orpheus descends into the Underworld to encounter the goddess and claim his power. All the characters are female and it begins:
"The steeds that bear me carried me as far as ever my heart
Desired, since they brought me and set me on the renowned
Way of the goddess, who with her own hands conducts the man
who knows… through all things…”
"The first part describes his journey to the goddess who has no name. The second describes what she taught him about Reality. Then the last part starts with the goddess saying, Now I’m going to deceive you; and she goes on to describe, in detail, the world we believe we live in."
Excerpts: “… the purpose of this book…is to awaken something we’ve forgotten, something we’ve been made to forget by the passing of time and by those who’ve misunderstood… or wanted us to forget. It could be said that this process of awakening is profoundly healing… but… for most of us, healing is what makes us comfortable and eases the pain… what softens and protects us… we want healing from illness, but it’s through illness that we grow and are healed of our complacency. We’re afraid of loss, and yet it’s through what we lose that we’re able to find what nothing can take away from us. We run from sadness and depression, But if we really face our sadness we find it speaks with the voice of our deepest longing; and if we face it a little longer we find that it teaches us the way to attain what we long for.”
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Speaking of Light
"If they ask, from where have you come? Reply, ‘We have come from the Light, the place where the Light came into being through itself alone…’ " (Gospel of Thomas #50)
This passage is a powerful reminder that consciousness exists independent of the body. And, after two thousand years, Light metaphors are still common spiritual lingo, but, there is a substantive aspect of the term that is nearly always overlooked, and it doesn’t translate easily into modern psychological parlance.
Light symbolizes an inner Awareness of the Numinous, and seeking enlightenment is the way we talk about our attempts to stabilize this state of conscious Awareness - across cultures and spiritual traditions. But, few recognize the consequences of having brought this level of Awareness - which we refer to as Light - with them. And, not recognizing that this deep Awareness of Unity with others, is a substantive gift but also a burden, allows it to produce external resistance, obstacles, and frustrating relationships.
Light is a natural product of the evolution of human consciousness. And, people who possess this level of Awareness - grasping the value of every human being and truly passionate about contributing to the whole - are potentially the most powerful among us. This passion simply shines through their words and actions, and such passionate individuals are universally unique in how they perceive the world and the gifts they bring to the whole.
But, when we assume that everyone with whom we interact in daily life possesses Light (our same level of understanding), because it seems so obvious and self-apparent, those in which the Light has not yet switched on, will appear as obstacles and maintain our sense of stuckness in a limited and frustrating world.
But, if we don’t become attached to “battling windmills,” there is a way out of this suffering. When we clearly See others simple lack of Awareness… and forgive them, we soon discover that we are no longer trapped in the non-responsive environment which is the defensive ego’s deeply familiar dimension of childhood. We’ve literally returned to the Light...
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From The Enneads by Plotinus (250 A.C.E.)
Experiences of pleasure and distress, fear and courage, desire and aversion… have their seat in the Soul alone, or in the Soul employing the body, or in some third entity deriving from both…
Sense-Perception, Discursive-Reasoning; and all our ordinary mental activity are foreign to the Soul: for sensation is a receiving… and reasoning and all ordinary mental action deal with sensation… and as to Pure Bliss… this belongs to the Soul in its solitary state…
Soul must have Sense-Perception since its use of its instrument - the body - must acquaint it with the external conditions, and such knowledge comes by way of sense… the eyes are the instrument of seeing, and seeing may bring distress to the soul: hence the Soul may feel sorrow and pain and every other affection that belongs to the body; and from this again will spring desire, the Soul seeking the mending of its instrument…
We come to the question whether Purification is the whole of human virtue, or merely the forerunner upon which virtue follows? Does virtue imply the achieved state of purification or does the mere process of transformation suffice to it; Virtue being something of less perfection than the accomplished pureness which is Virtue?
To have been purified is to have cleansed away everything alien to authentic Being: but Goodness is something more.
… The Absolute Good cannot be thought to have ever taken up its abode with Evil, so we can think of it only as something of the nature of good but paying a double allegiance and unable to yet rest in the Authentic Good.
The Soul’s true Good is in devotion to the Intelligence, its kin; evil to the Soul lies in attachment to creatures. There is no other way for it than to purify itself and so enter into relation with its own Being and the new phase begins by the new orientation.
After the Purification is there still this orientation to be made? No: by the purification the true alignment with the Authentic Good stands accomplished.
The Soul’s virtue, then, is this alignment? No: it is what the alignment brings about within…
Now if happiness did indeed require freedom from pain, sickness, misfortune, disaster, it would be utterly denied to anyone confronted by such trials: but if it lies in the fruition of the Authentic Good, why turn away from this and look to means, imagining that to be happy a man must need a variety of things none of which enter into happiness… which only can be that which is ultimate and noblest, that which calls to the tenderest longings of the Soul.
The quest and will of the Soul are not pointed directly towards freedom from this sphere: the reason which disciplines away our concern about this life has no fundamental quarrel with things of this order; it merely resents their interference; sometimes, even, it must seek them; essentially all the aspiration is not so much away from evil as towards the Soul’s own highest and noblest: this attained, all is won and there is rest- and THIS is the veritably willed state of Life.
"Blessed is he who was, before he came into being. If you become my followers and hear my words, these stones shall minister unto you. For you have five trees in Paradise which do not change in summer or in winter, and their leaves do not fall. He who knows them shall not taste of death." (Gospel of Thomas)
From the Sayings of Jesus (30 CE) written down by Judas Thomas, the twin (the betrayer/doubter/outer man), and similar to other enigmatic statements commonly found in mystical texts across cultures, referring to the power of the original Authentic (Christ) Self and the mastery of mind necessary for re-birth - “eternal aliveness.”
The word, tree, is a creative, manifesting symbol in sacred texts, referring to both ingesting its fruits - taking in ideas that cause conflict/shame as in Genesis, and producing fruits, i.e. our experience in the material world.
In the much later text, Acts of Thomas (400 CE), Chapter 27, Judas Thomas in an anointing ceremony implores, “Come, knowledge, elder of the five aspects of mind: thought, reflection, consideration, reason, and communication - to these young men.”
The five words for ‘mind’ according to Theodore bar Khoni (www.gnosis.org/library/actthom.htm) are the equivalents of hauna (sanity), mad’a (reason), re’yana (mindfulness), mahshebhatha (imagination), tar’itha (intention) - considered the Five Manifestations of the Father of Greatness; these five being the causal factors in the experience of the Real.
“Know what is before your face, and what is hidden from you shall be revealed to you; for there is nothing hidden which shall not be made manifest.” (Gospel of Thomas)
Transforming our life is impossible without a place to begin, but the conditioned ego is formed in relationship with others… becoming trapped in a never-ending mirror-effect… experiencing and seeing only what it “believes” to be true… defending itself until death brings an end to its suffering.
But, we are not the fearful ego…and our painful Reality provides a fool-proof method to escape the maze of suffering, when we accept, “A conflicted part of my mind is the cause of this.”
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MYSTICISM, one of the most abused words in the English language, has been used in different and often mutually exclusive senses by religion, poetry, and philosophy: has been claimed as an excuse for every kind of occultism… transcendentalism… symbolism, religious or aesthetic sentimentality, and bad metaphysics.
On the other hand, it has been freely employed as a term of contempt by those who have criticized these things. It is much to be hoped that it may be restored sooner or later to its old meaning, as the science or art of the spiritual life. Meanwhile, those who use the term “Mysticism” are bound in self-defense to explain what they mean by it. Broadly speaking, I understand it to be the expression of the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order; whatever be the theological formula under which that order is understood.
This tendency, in great mystics, gradually captures the whole field of consciousness; it dominates their life and, in the experience called “mystic union,” attains its end. Whether that end be called the God of Christianity, the World-soul of Pantheism, or the Absolute of Philosophy, the desire to attain it and the movement towards it—so long as this is a genuine life process and not an intellectual speculation—is the proper subject of mysticism, and I believe this movement to represent the true line of development of the highest form of human consciousness.