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Posts Tagged ‘Gnosis’

Nature of the Ego

This ego, which is but a ghost without a form of its own, comes into being by taking hold of a form; keeping hold of the form and enjoying sense-objects, it waxes greatly in strength: if the truth of it be sought, it will run away.” ~ Sri Ramana Maharshi, Reality in Fourty Verses

This is a topic which I have been wanting to revisit for a while, now. I first posted about the ego back in 2009 in a post, one of my most popular ever by statistics, called “In Defense of the Ego”. Even at the time of that posting, however, my understanding of the topic was shifting dramatically. In fact, said understanding went through such flux that I made that post private until I sorted the whole thing out at least a little better. While I in no way claim to have become enlightened, I think that I at least see quite a bit better where certain teachings come from, what they mean, and why they are correct. So, while I am about to largely contradict my three-years-ago self, I have unblocked the original post; if you please, go back and read it with my blessings.

I still agree with my former self that New Age and New Thought teachers largely misunderstand the ego, its place, and what ought to be done about it, but at that time I misunderstood the teachings of the East, especially of India (Hinduism) and those teachings which arose from India (that is, Buddhism). I made the mistake of accepting the Western misinterpretations for the teachings themselves. In point of fact, the Buddhist and Hindu teachings are much more sober and sophisticated than I had believed.

The ego is, of itself, simply that part of the soul, psyche, or ruach which declares, “I”; the word “ego” is, after all, only the Latin word “I”. In the advaita-vāda, it is taught that the ego is, in a sense, the root of the individual soul or personality because the ego is what declares “I, I” concerning the body, the body’s characteristics, such things as personal preferences and tastes, and the whole bag of goodies which we call “personality”. The ego is the trick or illusion of identifying with these things, individually or together makes little difference. It is, then, no less egotistical to identify oneself with one’s charitableness than with one’s good looks and, quite surprising to many, it is still no less egotistical to identify with one’s collective affiliations. Patriotism and sectarianism, just because they require identification with multiple other egos, does not in any way transcend ego but merely makes it as large, powerful, and impenetrable as the group with which it identifies.

If the ego is the root of the personal soul, it sprouts from the seed of the Intellect. To those familiar with the Scholastic, esoteric, and metaphysical definition of Intellect, this may come as a surprise; after all, the Intellect is—far from being one’s individual property or identity—quite transpersonal and Universal in nature and orientation. René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon even go so far as to identifyātma with Intellect. There isn’t space within the present topic to enter into all of the subtleties, here, or the how/how-not why/why-not of this analogy (which Guénon and Schuon definitely intended such identification to be, given the limitations of language in this subject matter), but suffice it to say that Intellect is to the Absolute as the moon is to the sun, and that the individual mind is to Intellect as a mirror to the moon; this analogy, like all analogies, is not perfect, but it gives us the sense that Intellect reflects the Light of Wisdom into the darkness of ignorance in a form which does not blind the unprepared; this Light is apprehended even indirectly, however, through the agency of the mind of the individual, more or less perfectly depending upon the polish and cleanliness of each mind. The capacity of the mind to discern the Intellect depends upon the degree to which it has identified itself with Intellect, and the revelations which we receive into our minds from Intellect come by way of the highest mental faculty of intuition.

Returning to our main topic, Intellect serves as the ego’s seed insofar as Intellect is the root of the sense of “I”; in the case of Intellect, though, this “I” is Universal and beyond any actual object of identification. It is, in short, pure subjectivity without any object. The ego is, paradoxically, both the source of object-identificationand this object-identification itself. As explained above, ego is the mere statement of “I am that,” pointing toward any given transitory object or event. Thus, it is ego which says, “I am this body,” and equally it is ego which says, “I am a fan of that sports team”, and again it is the ego which says, “I am feeling pain.”

The esoteric cosmologies of Genesis, the Secret Book of John, the Vedas, and others, teach us that this process is both intensely personal and terrifyingly cosmic. Thus, we see in the classic Gnostic myth of the Fall of Sophia a very clear retelling of this process in the form of a divine tragedy: Wisdom (Intellect-as-reflection) suddenly falls into a mis-identification or self-misunderstanding which produces the twisted creator-god.  The limitations of language do not permit the story to say that this demiurge is both the misunderstanding and its result, though the Valentinian Gospel of Truth attempts to get this point across by the seeming autogenesis of “Forgetfulness” out of “Error”; the great ambiguity, of course, is how and why did the perfect and pristine Wisdom-Intellect make such a blunder in the first place, and why did the Father-Absolute permit it? No Scripture, to my knowledge, attempts to give a firm answer to this question, though the Masters who have said anything on it at all have largely demured by reminding us that the “why” is of no importance and will answer itself by way of Realization/enlightenment. The fact that this process creates both the cosmic illusion of a trap and the individual delusion trapped within it is a great clue as to the means of escape, as well as the motive behind teachings that every individual’s enlightenment, salvation, or liberation is an event of cosmic importance.

The ego (and, by extension, the demiurge) is thus less of a villain and more of an antihero. There seems to be no intention on the part of any Master that we should hate it, in a passionate or emotional sense, but rather that we should hold dispassion toward it. If strong language like “hatred” or “revulsion” are applied to it, it is only in the ends of emphasizing what our proper relationship with it should be: not identification.

We are brought, then, to the two complementary ways given of “dealing with” the ego, once and for all. I will use, for examples of these two perspectives, a Master and His student.

Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi often taught that the goal is to “kill” or destroy the ego; one of His students, a Westerner called Paul Brunton, preferred to speak of transcending it or learning to ignore it. Though perhaps confusing, at first, the point is, in fact, the same in either case, though worded differently. The Maharshi Himself taught, on many recorded occasions, the same notion that the ego is not to be assaulted with passion, but rather simply ignored. If we like, we may combine the two languages and say that the ego, rather than being slain, is simply allowed to die as if by exposure to the elements.

We may liken the method to using the ego’s method against it, or even using the ego itself, against itself. Recall that the ego is simply the identification, “I”, with some object. Tracing it, bit by bit, back to its source, we gradually (or, in some quite extraordinary cases—such as that of the Maharshi Himself—all of a sudden) train our minds to identify “I” with higher and higher, or more and more inward, objects. Advaita-vāda gives these object-stages the title of “veils” or “sheathes” and names five of them: gross body, the vital body, the emotional mind, the rational mind, and the causal body. Most of us, most of the time, identify with some combination of the gross body, vital body, and emotional mind; the first goal, then, is to first realize that “I am not this body”, and so to loosen identification with the gross and vital bodies. Once this has occurred to some appreciable degree, we enter upon the task of identifying with the rational mind and its capacity to discriminate between truth and falsehood; this discriminative capacity of vijnana is aided greatly by dispassionate action (karma yoga), unitive devotion (bhakti yoga), and meditation on Scripture and teaching (nididhyāsana), along with exercise in mental concentration (dhyāna), all of these being methods of (among other important reasons for them all) opening one’s mind up to greater and greater clarity of intuition. In other words, the mind is itself purified and re-identified with Intellect.

All of these stages, in a sense, turn ego around on itself. They trick it into working for the proper Master, turning from one object-identification to another, subtler, one, thus “transcending” it; they rob it of its illegitimate force by simply ignoring its false authority and “allowing it to die”. They “slay” the ego with the sword of discrimination (between True and false), “drown” it in the Divine Ocean, and “cremate” it in the Fire of Truth. These are all different ways of expressing the same meaning by placing emphasis on a different part of the subjective experience of the process; at times, it is quite a painful process, and so we say that it is like death by fire; sometimes it is panic-inducing and stressful followed by subsidence, and then we call it drowning; yet again, we sometimes feel beset upon by our own emotions and thoughts, and then we call it combat, war, a duel; sometimes it is a calm subdual, and so we say that the ego has simply passed away in its sleep. And, yet, until the final curtain, in point of fact and in personal experience, the ego hangs on throughout (however submerged, scorched, or sliced up, at times) as both the lock and the key to the whole problem of wrong identification.

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The Esoteric Significance of “Brave New World”

For whatever reason, the two dystopian novels always chosen out to be compared and contrasted with one another are George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is true that they project fairly dissimilar visions onto the future (for them) of human civilization. Orwell’s take was one of a Western Plutocratic Fascism and an Eastern Communism joining political forces behind the scenes in order to produce an indefinite Cold War scenario, all the better for both sides to maintain iron-fisted social, cultural, and economic control over their populations. As Orwell himself puts it, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Orwell’s is a future of tight social control and inhumane oppression upon what it means to be a thinking, feeling being.

Orwell’s dystopia has one major factor in common with Huxley’s: the suppression of rational thought and promotion of irrational emotionalism is used as the means of undercutting any possibility of escape or revolution. In Orwell, the overriding emotional factor is, of course, terror. In Huxley’s, it is quite different: it is pleasure.

In point of fact, neither one has come to pass in full, but both have come upon us in different ways. Whether or not it is entirely intentional, it is quite clear that we are being manipulated by our fear-responses. This seems to be the basis, however, only of foreign policy and international economic policy. Within countries, at least in the West, Huxley appears to have largely won the day. Again intentionally or not, people largely keep themselves in place by way of unquestioned consumption, unconscious absorption of endless streams of advertising, and psychological infantilization in the guise of “self-actualization” and by way of “self-esteem”. (An important documentary on this topic by Adam Curtis of the BBC may be found, for free, here. If you cannot download from this link for any reason, just do a search for “Century of the Self” by Adam Curtis.) In point of fact, though, and as strange as it may now sound, this particular post is not a political one.

As I have stated before, my approach to political question is essential moral rather than political in the usual sense. As such, I have no interest at all in merely dissecting various political ideas and then arguing over my own preferred version of them. I would rather discuss Huxley’s ideas within their own context: the Perennial Philosophy. Huxley was himself of a Perennialist persuasion; he even wrote a book about it, and a very good book at that.

You see hints all the time in Brave New World (BNW) that Huxley was not just lamenting the decay of liberalism (though he was indeed so lamenting); he was simultaneously lamenting the loss of Traditional values. Let’s be clear: Huxley’s values, though Traditional, were not at all narrow. No, the Perennial Philosophy permits of no bigotry, certainly no sexism nor racism. Homophobia is a dangerous byproduct of “family values” tribalism which passes under the name of “tradition”, but really has no place in Tradition. Where any of the Revelations mention it, it is generally for a very specific purpose that they do so, one which unfortunately has become obscured by time and the unfortunate human tendency to utilitarianism. I do not know what Huxley’s personal feelings were on homosexuality, but given his own friendships and acquaintances in life I would very much doubt if he took other than a neutral, disinterested view of the topic. But that is, really, neither here nor there; it is merely an important aside to make, given the present day’s social climate.

Huxley laments, in BNW, the loss of Christianity. This he does not because of the prejudices of exoteric Christian theology, but because of Christianity’s perennial sense of morality (karma-yoga), its salvific sacramentalism, and its rich and inspiring hagiography. What Huxley misses from Christianity in his dystopian vision is not “churchianity” but rather the living, operative core of the religion, the very fact that it, like all of the revelations, has something to it which hasdescended to us that we might become liberated from the shallow, the fragile, the meaningless. BNW illustrates this in narrative fashion by pointing to a sort of sacramental parody practiced by the citizens of the “one-world” society in the book.

The Twelve Apostles are replaced by the twelve participants around the table during the pseudo-religious service known as the Solidarity Service. Christ is Himself replaced by Henry Ford, whose prominence is assured as the one who perfected the concept of the factory assembly line and, thus, of efficiency over humanity; it is also dryly remarked that in his inscrutability, “Our Ford” referred to himself as “Freud” when discussing matters of psychology. (Again, see the documentary linked above.) All of the crosses of the world have had their heads cut off to make them capital Ts, after the Ford Model T. The hymns to God Almighty, the pre-existent Reality, are revamped into songs invoking the mere “Greater Being/Social Friend”, an egregore of the society itself rather than anything higher or deeper than itself. The Holy Sacrament is nothing but a narcotic/hallucinogenic/aphrodisiac drug cocktail called (in another nod to Traditional religion) soma after the Hindu mythology’s equivalent of manna or ambrosia. The whole affair is wrapped up with, well, an affair called “Orgy-Porgy” in which the twelve participants, alternating male and female, give in to mere lust and conduct a soporific orgy around the periphery of the circular chamber. Even this last detail is symbolic; given his knowledge of the esoteric dimension of the world’s religions, Huxley was fully aware that the Altar of the Divine Mass, no matter where it is actually situated in the church building, represents the Center where, if the metaphor will be permitted, Heaven and earth conjoin and Heaven makes Herself manifest in a way that permits of participation by unregenerate human individuals. Orgy-Porgy, on the other hand, takes as its position the periphery of the “worship” space, representing a moving-outward from Essence to form rather than the other way round.

It is often said that Huxley spent much of his intellectual life trying to reconcile “passion” with “rationality”; this seems to me to be a rather shallow interpretation of Huxley’s actual aims. Brave New World, along with many of Huxley’s other fictional works, certainly presents passionate feeling as a counterpoint to a stifling sort of rationalism. Those qualifications, however, count. It was not rational thought itself to which Huxley made himself an enemy; how could he have? No, it was the mechanizing rationalism of the modern movements he saw around him which troubled him, and whose fruits we are now eating today in blissful ignorance of the diseased tree from which they have fallen. Just as Aldous predicted. (And, now, another documentary from Adam Curtis: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.)

As all of the Revelations attest, passion-as-such is not necessarily a good thing. More often than not, it is intensely destructive and tends to act as one of the primary imprisoning forces in our lives. After all, when we are passionate about something, we are unduly attached to it and will tend to go to absurd lengths to obtain our ends, or at least make certain that nobody else will be able to get it away from us. In the face of oppression, however—especially the sort of oppression which dissipates even healthy emotion—it may well be passion which allows us our first real contact with something other than the controls put in place to maintainstatus quo. Emotion is a lot like plumbing for a shower; if the pipes are kept too wide, we will likely not even get a trickle, as gravity will not permit the water to rise beyond a certain base level. If, however, the pipes are made more and more narrow, capillary action draws the water up the pipe by way of its own surface tension and, fwoosh!, you get a nice, hot shower with plenty of water pressure. Likewise with emotions; if the channels for their expression are wide, the emotions remain shallow and soft, while if the channels are tight, the emotions will naturally tend to burst forth by the power of their own tension. If we are permitted to determine our own emotional channels and our own mental focus (the tightness of the pipes), we might be able to use the resulting force to burst out of our selfish prisons. In order to ensure liberation, rather than reincarceration in a higher security prison, this process requires intense discipline; hence the difficulty of authentic Yoga, Tantra, Alchemy, theurgy, contemplative prayer, and other forms ofsadhana. Still, if passion is not permitted at the outset, any and all of these methods are immediately closed off from all but the born contemplative, a rare enough breed in any case. So the tension, here, is not between rational thought and emotion, but rather between the misapplication of rational thought over against a deeper mental discipline which uses the passions as its fuel without being overwhelmed by them.

Huxley’s Brave New World still seems somewhat far off to many people. To those with eyes to see, however, we are living in the thick of it, albeit in a modified form. Rarely is a prophet correct on specifics, even where he is deadly accurate on the overall trend. But it is this bird’s-eye-view that is most dangerous to the powers and principalities of this world. As Huxley wrote barely into the first chapter of Brave New World: “For particulars, as every one knows, make for virtue and happiness; generalities are intellectually necessary evils. Not philosophers but fretsawyers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.”

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The Socio-Politics of Gnosticism

Gnosticism is not a religious movement easily politicized; anybody with a genuine understanding of the “nature of Gnosis”, whether they accept it or not, can see that Gnosticism is an enemy to temporal power in all of its forms, natural as well as supernatural. We aren’t likely to lay ourselves down for a politician or a god who makes us promises we know they cannot keep. Still, this is not an argument for isolationism or quietism. An equally important aspect of Gnosticism’s rejection of authority is its general insistence on courage in the face—or jaws—of authority. The early Christians who got branded as Gnostics by heresy-hunters (a name which we moderns have taken up proudly, but which we must remember was rarely, if ever, used by our predecessors to describe themselves) were largely no big fans of martyrdom, but understood that it was necessary to be ready to suffer and die with dignity and faith. But not only do we not want to walk into the grinding maw of suffering, but most especially we do not want others to be forced into that position.

Gnosticism is not a faith of elitism, but neither are we populists. Really, we refuse to limit ourselves to such categories, as if we had to leave behind our suffering sisters and brothers in order to accept scholarship, ideas, and personal experience. And that’s the rub: our fellow humans, our fellow life-forms generally, are suffering just by virtue of living in this world-system. And so are we, personally. Neither is the problem purely collective, nor purely individual; it cuts across such simplistic notions. And so does salvation. Fundamentalists are all about the individual, while liberals are all about the Group. Gnostics don’t see a conflict, there, but only a confusing array of artificial barriers which are designed such that to break one down another one must be erected; to get rid of racial tensions, we must substitute religious ones, to evoke a particularly successful (read: pernicious) example from American society. (This is not to say that racism doesn’t still exist, and strongly, but only to point toward one of the strategies of social integration.)

If you put a gun to my head, I would call myself a “social democrat”, but that hardly encapsulates my entire socio-political worldview. It just gives you an idea. Similarly, many Gnostics of my acquaintance identify as “libertarian”, but I would never try to argue with them as if they were simply Tea Party stooges. That would miss the point. Just like everybody else, Gnostics try to ally themselves with whichever mass movement seems to be aiming in the direction of the Good; the difference is, we also try to remind ourselves that the Good, in the Enlightenment sense, is inherently unattainable in this world. We aren’t caught by empty promises quite as often because of it. Of course, we often fall off the opposite edge into raw and bleeding pessimism, a possibility we must try to guard against by invoking the Romantic sensibility of the inherent divinity of each and every human and of humankind as a manifestation of a profound spiritual totality.

That is the crux of the Gnostic worldview in the modern world, especially as concerns politics and society: we are neither wholly of the Enlightenment, nor wholly of the Romantic, but both speak to us deeply. We are truly children of the Greeks, for we see the bare pathos of existence while trying to reason-out an ethical response to it.We lop-off the nihilistic relativism of postmodern culture with one edge of the blade while slicing through the prefab truths of absolutism with the other. We live with contradictions and seeming-paradoxes until resolution comes, always by a drop of reason, a bucket of sweat, and a downpour of Grace.

So, when we Gnostics enter into political discourse, we do so not as liberals or conservatives, not as progressives or libertarians, certainly not as Democrats or Republicans; we enter in as smiling-faced Siddharthas, as laughing Jesuses, as Strangers to the Powers of this world-system, who aren’t willing to play by those rules for the brute fact that they have been decreed. No empty iconoclasm, here; it isn’t by whim that we ignore the rules to the game of life, but because it is by those rules that we are made sinners, while freedom from them allows us the chance to be truly moral, truly good, truly loving. And that won’t mean the same thing from this moment to the next.

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Toward a Modern Gnostic Philosophy of Mind

The psyche (or soul, or mind; except where specifically noted, these three terms will be used interchangeably throughout this article) has an important place in spiritual practice. Nevertheless, the psyche is not identical to the spirit, Nous, Atman, Divine Spark, or essence of being. That being said, we must have a proper understanding of the psyche’s role in the process of spiritualization. To this end, a “philosophy of mind” is necessary, one which not only agrees with Gnosis, but which also takes into account the findings of modern neuroscience. Neuroscience is now seen as an enemy to religion, seeing as how the common assumption—even, or especially, among neuroscientists—is that contemporary studies of the brain have dismantled the very concept of a “mind” separate from the physical processes of the brain itself. This assumption, however, requires an overturn in light of new data, in light of quantum physics, and in light of Gnosis.

Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist David Hubel, quoted in Jeffrey M. Schwartz’s book The Mind & The Brain, said, “The word Mind is obsolete.” (pg 25) What he meant by this is that, based on the scientific investigations of the functions of the brain, every function formerly ascribed to the immaterial “mind” can now be seen as a function of the material brain. On the surface, this seems true to many people. However, materialism (or physicalism) is a metaphysical assumption; just as a person’s religious bias can blind him or her to evidence, so too can “irreligious” bias. Doctor Schwartz’s research, as well as the research of others (Mario Beauregard, Wilder Penfield, Henry Pierce Stapp, just to name a few), has demonstrated that there is “something” at work upon the brain, not merely in it. This “something” is what we call “the mind”.

The primary function of the mind appears to be that of volition; that is to say, the psyche makes choices between different possible brain-states. The contents of our everyday consciousness seems to be seated in the brain (as far as science can presently tell, anyway), but awareness of those contents is not. The question of the interplay between mind and brain, too, has found a resolution in the sciences, namely in physics. The Newtonian view of billiard ball atoms bouncing one into another into another and eventually producing “something” in the process has been overturned for a century, now, but has yet to find its way fully outside of the physics department. This is exactly the mechanism—fully, inescapably deterministic in nature—which many neuroscientists and “philosophers of mind” propose is at work in consciousness. Consciousness itself is, the claim goes, merely a “user illusion”, even an “interface error”, resulting from the functioning of the brain; consciousness thus has no essential reality apart from the brain, and really has no function as mind-brain causality runs in only one direction: the brain affects the mind, but not the other way around. However, this is clearly not the case. Something is causing the brain’s very physical structure (in macro scales, no less) to shift, however gradually, in response to the will (Jeffrey Schwartz’s “mental force”) being exerted upon it in, say, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, or even just the exertion required to resist biting one’s nails or tapping one’s foot. To simplify, “habits” are the functions of brain circuits, while “decisions” are the functions of mind.

None of this is to say that there is not a physical component to volition; there are regions of the brain which become more active during the exertion of will. However, this is a chicken-or-egg question, and there is strong physical evidence that a decision is made prior to the activation of those brain centers. For instance, electrical impulses move across the surface of the scalp in anticipation of such a volitional brain change measurably before the brain change occurs. None of this is a slam dunk, of course, but it makes quite clear that the question is, scientifically speaking, still wide open.

Thoughts, memories, and other mental events can be seen as the yoke which binds the mind and the brain together; without the contents of consciousness, there wouldn’t seem to be anything to choose from, at least not during normal states. The quantum processes (please see the work of Schwartz, Stapp, et al) which hold the mind to the brain carry these mental events up and down the chain. This constant subatomic flurry of activity is what permits the immaterial mind to choose between brain states; it also corresponds to what occultists know as the “etheric double” and the “silver cord” which links soul and body. In other words, these quantum activities form a constantly shifting matrix of information “between” the mind and the central nervous system.

Spiritual practice—within the Gnostic, Hermetic, and related frameworks—is a series of volitional events by which we choose where to place our attention and where to identify our”selves”. If we take the (maybe overused) image of an onion, we can roughly say that during our normal experiences, the body is the outermost layer, then the etheric double (see last paragraph) just underneath, then the psyche, then something else, and then the spirit or Nous (which, again, will be used interchangeably). The Nous is that with which the many and varied spiritual traditions identify the “true Self”; it is not merely the individual soul of mainline religion, as that is the psyche or mind of which we have been speaking. Instead, it is simultaneously individual and collective, immanent and radically transcendent, so far from our ordinary waking experiences that Buddhism, Gnosticism and Advaita Vedanta all use apophatic/negative language to describe it: it is not this, not that; cannot be compared to this, that or the other; cannot even be said to exist but certainly cannot be said not to exist; etc. When discussed at all, it is always discussed in paradoxical or non-literal poetic language of which we can make little or no sense rationally. And yet, the fact that it is so very weird to rational consciousness is itself a rational conclusion, for how could something more exotic than dark matter (because it is not a substance at all) be meaningfully put into the limited clothing of words, or even abstract mathematical formulae?

The spirit only begins as an abstraction; as our attention draws closer and closer to it, and as our consciousness gradually becomes truly aware of it, we actually find that we are it. In a sense, we have reversed the layer order of the onion: the physical body now rests within the mind, which itself rests within the Nous which is its archetype. Abstraction falls away, leaving an experience more concrete than anything we had experienced with our fingers and toes and eyes and ears and noses and tongues. This process requires grace, which is to say that the steps along the way are freely given by a force beyond our mere conscious minds; but the process still requires the participation of our psyches, because a gift given but not accepted is just a box with pretty wrapping paper, a decoration at best and an unasked-for burden at worst.

The participation of psyche in the whole process is, once again, the task of volition, the capacity to actively choose between two or more possibilities. For most of us, will begins as a weak thing—a squeaking grunt of effort against a door made of oak—but through various disciplines (yoga, contemplative prayer, theurgy, even magic) and through direct application (making oneself do chores on a hot, balmy day), we gradually build up our reserves (so to speak). Like a muscle regularly worked, the power of mental force grows bit by struggling bit. Luckily for those of us on the spiritual path, the mere practice of our regular disciplines of prayer, meditation, and the like, perform double duty: not only do they bring us into closer contact with Nous and Things Beyond, they also strengthen our will as we go.

In Gnosticism, we usually describe there being three “states of the soul”, and every person can be said to act from one of these. There are the hylics (materialists) who focus entirely on their bodies and on physical things and experiences; the psychics (soulish) who are said to be “in the Midst”, experiencing things primarily of the emotions, passions, and imaginations; and there are the pneumatics (spirituals) who experience things “from the top down”, so to speak, or from the perspective of the Nous. Hylics may become passionate or emotional,  but generally only over physical things; psychics may be intellectuals or have an aim to achieve spiritual things, but tend to be waylaid by their own literalism and zeal; pneumatics, however, have achieved what Buddhists and Hindus call “clear mind”, a mental state allowing for intellectual inquiry from a bird’s-eye-view, from which emotions, imaginal visions, and even purely material life all continue to exist but enter into an infinitely larger, more tightly interwoven context.

Now, it is my contention that these categories are not fixed destinies, but rather that they are states through which we can pass (in both directions, unfortunately). The ultimate goal, of course, is to achieve the pneumatic framework and stay there; here, the material life is not forgotten, but is put in its proper place, and likewise emotions do not dry up but rather take on their appropriate value, and all work in accordance with true Wisdom. And here is where volition comes in.

Psyche gets to choose where to aim attention throughout life. A hylic is a person who “looks down” more often than not, and even when the gaze turns upward it is usually momentary and immediately interpreted according to the individual’s understanding of purely physical events. “That feeling of oneness with something far greater than myself must have just been the sudden activation of certain neural circuits in my right hemisphere, involving the release of a specific shopping list of ‘feel good’ neurtransmitters, etc., all toward the end of greater environmental and social awareness and responsibility.” None of this is necessarily a bad thing, or entirely incorrect, but it is a narrow view.

A psychic is a person who primarily looks horizontally, at all of the wonderful thoughts and feelings floating around, the beautiful and horrible visions available, and the potential present and future realities which have not yet been actualized. The life of a psychic can be either irrationally optimistic (see New Age and New Thought movements for examples), or else overwrought with pessimism (see fundamentalist movements); either way, it is the passions which preside, and not the intellect. Once again, this is not to say that the intellect is nonexistent in a psychic, any less than the emotions are dead in a hylic; instead, it is a matter of which “layer” is used as the basis of interpretation. In the case of a psychic, literalism tends to hold sway, as their visions and emotions are not only taken quite seriously (which, in truth, they deserve to be), but are actually taken to be the greatest reality. The psyche, then, is the realm of the spirits of passion, the flowering of the elements, and the vengeful gods of the world; this realm of the Midst is not necessarily a place of evil, but is certainly one of illusions which can be used productively or which can become an ever-shifting maze in which a soul becomes lost.

A pneumatic is able to remain calm even in the Midst, to look upon things of the body and soul as the temporary ephemera that they are, and to apply a standard of intellectual rigor to all questions and experiences, not merely those within the purview of the material world. A pneumatic, then, is a person whose psyche has “looked Heavenward” and been rewarded by the true Beautific Vision beyond visions and become identified with the Nous. That last part is vital for understanding: the psyche identifies itself with the Nous; this act of identification is, of course, an act of will by which the psyche travels beyond itself and is taken into the archetype of which it is a reflection. And just as the psyche influences the brain by way of semi-material quantum effects, so too the Nous influences the psyche by way of a corresponding entanglement (the something else mentioned above in the onion analogy). And so, there is a multilayered, instantaneous interplay of influences constantly flitting through the whole economy of the individual human being. The psyche’s relationship to the Nous is that of a reflection to the original; the brain’s relationship to the psyche is a similar one. The process of spiritualization is that by which the psychic reflection is not only gradually made aware of its own reflective nature, but is also finally fully identified with that which it reflects; the brain, unfortunately, never has this sort of opportunity for enlightened immortality, but its job is to remain a healthy intermediary between the immaterial psyche and the material world, between the subjective and the objective.

Gnosis (or jnana, in Sanskrit) is the information, the practice, the gift, and the process by which this spiritualization occurs. Gnosis happens in so many ways and in so many layers, and comes from so many sources, that it is impossible for us to put all of the pieces together until we have made it quite a long way up the mountain. Still, if we don’t constantly try to revise our conscious, rational understanding, we are liable to lose our way altogether. Our ultimate goal, beyond even the process so far described, is beyond words (or, at least, beyond my words). So let the above, a whirlwind tour of my own philosophy of mind in relation to the Gnosis beyond space/time, be helpful to you in formulating your own understanding. I pray to God’s Sophia and the Divine Logos that I have at least succeeded in getting some gears turning (an analogy grown from the outdated clockwork model of consciousness!) for others, as my own continue to turn; as Gnostics, mystics, and theurgists, it is our right and responsibility to always keep the lights shining.

See Also:

Beauregard, Mario, & Denyse O’Leary. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. New York: HarperOne, 2007.

Schwartz, M.D., Jeffrey M., & Sharon Begley. The Mind & The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002.

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A Triple-Prayer to the Mother of the All

Gnosis! Gnosis! We cry out for thy gnosis, O Sige! Silent art thou, thou Void before all things, even before the aeons themselves. Thou Mother of Spirit, before whose creative Kosmos mere kaos is less than dust, we pray unto thee to receive thine supernal gnosis. Holy! Holy! Holy! Sige!

Gnosis! Gnosis! We pray thee thy gnosis, O Charis! Thou art compassionate, the Mother of Love, to whom we pray. In the inmost heart of thine aeon do we seek all miracles, in thy darkly resplendent treasure trove do we seek the true gold of Heaven. Rain down on thy children the healing which resides in the comfort of thy embracing wings, that gnosis which makes all things whole. Holy! Holy! Holy! Charis!

Gnosis! Gnosis! We ask thee thy gnosis, O Sophia! Thou tender Soul of the Fullness in whom was Life then death, and is Life once again, let us glimpse in thee the Redeemer in whose Sacred Heart we are made safe. For we know the thrust-and-stab of homelessness, the screaming desolation of matter apart from thee, even the shattered madness of psyche in which the Light shines not, and we trust in thy perfect sympathy that Incorruptibility descends to claim our incorruptibility by thy refulgent gnosis. Holy! Holy! Holy! Sophia!

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