Bumping Ugly Gnosticism

Note:  This “post” is part of a longer essay which has been posted as a separate “page” under the Nonduality menu:  Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If we attend closely to the Jacques Lacarriere quotation [in the longer essay] — which suggests that a cosmic deception extends to “all institutions, laws, religions, churches and powers” –we can begin to understand the way in which mythical / metaphysical gnosticism morphs (or might tend to morph) into unconventional / licentious gnosticism, as well.   For if the dominant culture is deceptive, the way to to find deliverance from the prison of this world– the way to find out who you really are –might be to intentionally live in a way that runs very much counter and contrary to the dominant culture.

NOTE:  Be forewarned, this can get rather ugly, at times, and is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart…

Unconventional/Licentious Gnosticism (the ugly)

the uglyEhrman devotes about 4 minutes of the second YouTube video on The Gospel of Judas to that which I am referring to as the ugly gnosticism.  Fielding a question on the possibility of a romantic or sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, he relates Epiphanius‘ account of the Phibionites in a 4 minute segment which I have cued to begin at the 24:45 minute point:

Jacques Lacarriere also appeals to Epiphanius‘ account as he, too, documents in some detail their very unconventional lifestyles (including the putatively licentious sexual practices attributed the 4th century  Carpocratians and the Phibionites — see chapters 7 and 8 of The Gnostics).  Note:  As Lacarriere indicates, it is also worth comparing and contrasting those groups to the Cathar communities which thrived in southern Europe about 10 centuries later.  It seems clear that if their alternative mythology and metaphysics was not enough, the alternative social and sexual practices of these groups almost guaranteed that they would be marginalized and ultimately condemned by the institutional church.  It is also worth noting, however, that The Gospel of Judas characterizes the mainstream church as similarly immoral (albeit, one assumes, in a metaphorical way — see segment 35:15 – 36:55).

In any event (whatever the details), just as we may learn from bad gnosticism, construed as a philosophical exercise or thought experiment, so per chance we may also learn from ugly gnosticism–i.e. by immersing ourselves in a very unconventional, counter-culture lifestyle, for a time (not unlike the prodigal son, perhaps, who does seem to have ended up wiser than his elder brother).  Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that the main-stream, institutional church condemned and continues to condemn such seemingly far-out, unconventional beliefs and behaviors.

What both Bart Ehrman and his more conservative colleagues (seemingly) fail to understand, however– something that, no doubt, has been overlooked many self-described Gnostics over the centuries, as well –is that one does not necessarily come to know who or what they really are (much less really find deliverance from the human predicament) simply by adopting an alternative metaphysics, mythology, and/or lifestyle.  Indeed, so doing, one may merely exchange one egoic delusion for another.  What is needed, instead, is an altogether different kind of vision.  An alternative metaphysics, mythology, and lifestyle are, at best, preparatory, whereas the seeing itself is unitive or nondual.

–> Unitive or Nodual Insight

the good2

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Unitive/Nondual Insight

Note:  This “post” is part of a longer essay which has been posted as a separate “page” under the Nonduality menu:  Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Unitive/Nondual Gnosticism (the good)

the good2In a related piece entitled, To Know OR Not to Know? (published concurrently), I explain the occasion for this essay and provide a number of links to the Yeshua21 Blog where the unitive/nondual Christian vision (which evoked the accusation of gnosticism in the first place) is articulated.  I also share elements of that vision in an essay, here, on Nonduality It should be apparent by now, that if this were really what my critics had in mind when they bandied about the words gnostic and gnosticism, I would have happily pled guilty as charged.  Unfortunately, it seems to me that they were just reacting to one thing which they don’t understand (i.e. my references to nondual awareness or seeing) by attempting to paint me with the broad brush of something else they don’t understand (i.e. gnosticism as historically condemned).  When it comes to the historical controversy, it seems unlikely to me that the Gnostics of antiquity would have been condemned for the nondual elements of their teaching considered in isolation from their alternative metaphysics and lifestyle.  The question remains whether or not that element can stand on its own as a part of the orthodox faith.

In fact, when it comes to that which I refer to (loosely) as nonduality, I have little doubt that (in sharp contrast to it’s attitude toward the early Christian heresy of gnosticism, per se) the institutional church will eventually realize that a unitive or nondual interpretation of the gospel will, on balance, provide the best point of entry into the teaching of both Jesus and St. Paul–both in the 21st century and beyond (see for example these Seven Themes explored by Fr. Richard Rohr).  220px-RichardRohrOFMFor while both Jesus and Paul may have had good reason to believe (2000 years ago) that an apocalyptic conclusion to world history was shortly forthcoming– and while they may also have had good reason to believe in any number of particulars about the resurrection of the body and and our life in the world to come, as well –the real key to their message (insofar as it truly timeless and universal) is the possibility of being reconciled to God NOW  (being atOne with the Father) through the Mind of Christ (“I Am”) and the power of the Spirit (“[who] will guide [us] into all the truth“).  NOTE:  None of the foregoing is meant to suggest that there is no resurrection or that there is no life in the world to come–just that we need not necessarily understand those terms in precisely the same way that they have been traditionally imagined any more than we are inclined to understand the Genesis account of creation or the apocalypse of St. John in the same way that the early or medieval church did.

From this standpoint, then, preoccupation with historical and prophetic narratives become somewhat academic.  To be sure, we need to teach those narratives as coherently and consistently as possible insofar as they remain an integral part of the exoteric tradition which is, indeed, preparatory and, as such, very important NTWright(N.T. Wright, among others, seems to be making some important contributions in this regard, but without acknowledging the importance of Christian gnosis).  Nevertheless, from the point of view of the good gnosticism (i.e. the inner or esoteric truth that comes through unitive insight or nondual awareness), it is clearly seen that we are ultimately reconciled to God through the mind of Christ and the Power of the Spirit– NOW –rather than through our understanding of the events of antiquity or through our anticipation of an apocalyptic future, as ordinarily understood or imagined.

Moreover, it can hardly be overemphasized that this Mind and this Spirit involves a seeing and a knowing that transcends our egoic minds and personal stories (including those historical and metaphysical constructs– gnostic or orthodox –which, while being significant and preparatory, are nevertheless tailor-made for the strictly limited and dualistic point of view of “the separate self” ).

In contrast, the kind of unitive insight which is characteristic of the mind of Christ— rather than being something the ego does or achieves –involves a nondual realization of the very seeing and knowing in which and by virtue of which the ego is able to appear to itself as a separate entity in the first place — a realization of that apart from which our egos would not and could not appear at all.  Indeed, walking in this light, it is seen that our egos shine in and by virtue of the light of the world— in and by virtue of the light in which we see light –just as certainly as the moon shines in and by virtue of the (borrowed) light of the Sun.  moon and sunThe problem is that prior to this realization, the ego tends to imagines itself as  self-contained and self-sufficient when nothing could be further from the truth.  Consequently, it is by taking up our cross and by recognizing and honoring the the light of the World, as such– the cutting edge of unconditioned consciousness –that we are truly raised with Christ in newness of life (however the end of the age actually unfolds–and whatever may actually obtain in the wake of our apparent physical demise).  Concurrent with this realization, the ego seems to step down from the throne of our hearts and, so, is sometimes described as having been regenerated or as a having submitted to the Lordship of Christ.  From this standpoint we can truly say, glory be to God for all things!

Unfortunately, conventional Christian teaching tends to conceal as much (if not more) of all this than it reveals–especially from the standpoint of modern skepticism/criticism.  And even those who have a measure of insight into the light of the world based on conventional Christian teachings alone may still associate this seeing and this knowing with a particular interpretation of scripture and/or particular aspects of the tradition which, as such, are held to in a rather dogmatic, sectarian fashion.  As a result, such believers are still at great risk of falling into unnecessary divisions and disputations.

What is needed– both for the benefit of the sincere skeptic and honest critic; and for the benefit of those who find it difficult to imagine that anyone else can know God without believing and behaving precisely as they do –is a clearer distinction between the carnal mind (aka the egoic mind) and the mind of Christ (aka unitive or nondual awareness), together with an understanding of a correlate distinction between the outer (exoteric) narrative and the inner (esoteric) truth of the tradition.   When the latter distinction is fully appreciated, we can begin to give due diligence to the quazi-historical, quazi-metaphysical narratives of Christian orthodoxy without missing out on the cutting insight which is the narrow gate that leads to life (referred to in Matthew 7:14).  essoteric exoteric3.1Heretofore, the alternative myth, metaphysics, and lifestyles of the bad and the ugly gnosticism may have given it some advantage in this regard (inasmuch as it tended to shake its adherents out of their entrenched habits of thought and enabled them to see the world differently), but increasingly, in our post-modern age, there is an almost universal appreciation for the relativity of all such myths and teachings.  As such, there is less and less need for anyone to take refuge in the bad and the ugly gnosticsm which has been consistently condemned by the church.

–> Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

good bad ugly 3

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Christian Gnosis

Note:  This “post” is part of a longer essay which has been posted as a separate “page” under the Nonduality menu:  Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

~ ~ ~

With [the aforementioned article] in mind, I will point once again to various resources that may shed light on the kind of unitive insight or nondual awareness  (aka gnosis) that I am referring to.  Then, I will refer the reader to some putatively gnostic texts that may be profitably understood in that light.  And finally, I will refer my Christian readers, especially, to additional resources which suggest that a unitive or nondual Christian gnosis can, indeed, supply the key to authentic Christian living in the 21st century.

Points of Entry into Non-Dual Awareness

Alan Watts describes the Bible as follows:

taboo“…’the Good Book’—that fascinating anthology of ancient wisdom, history, and fable which has for so long been treated as a Sacred Cow that it might well be locked up for a century or two so that men could hear it again with clean ears. There are indeed secrets in the Bible, and some very subversive ones, but they are all so muffled up in complications, in archaic symbols and ways of thinking, that Christianity has become incredibly difficult to explain to a modern person. That is, unless you are content to water it down to being good and trying to imitate Jesus, but no one ever explains just how to do that. To do it you must have a particular power from God known as ‘grace,’ but all that we really know about grace is that some get it, and some don’t” (THE BOOK on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are 4 — see PDF pages 9-10).

To hear the Bible again with clean ears is, indeed, what is needed, to be sure…  How wonderful, in fact, to see our religious traditions once again– in their entirety –with fresh eyes, as well!  Unfortunately, neither typical Christians, in their dogmatic piety, nor typical atheists/agnostics, in their cynical skepticism, tend to have clean ears or fresh eyes.   As such, neither are particularly motivated to see or hear differently except in the wake of, 1)  deep suffering, or 2) a realization of something profoundly incongruous about their respective worldviews (e.g. their Sunday school theology OR their reductive, mechanistic understanding of the natural world conceived of as the whole of reality).  Assuming that either one or both of these motivations are present, however (i.e. personal suffering and/or epistemic incongruity), some of the pointers from this essay on Nonduality—  or from the material posted on the Yeshua21 Blog –could provide the needed clues (see, for example, this thought experiment).   Readers for whom all this is totally unfamiliar terrain should probably have a look at one or all of those links, before continuing.  Then, perhaps, these (so-called) “gnostic” texts may be read with understanding:

Some So-Called “Gnostic” Texts

Conclusion  [to the longer article on Gnosticism]

There you have it: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!  It should be clearer, now, why the early church tended quite naturally to oppose gnostics and gnosticism.  Considering their alternative mythology and metaphysics, on the one hand, and their proclivity for alternative social and sexual conventions on the other, it is hardly surprising that they were strongly opposed by the mainstream church and that the current reaction of Christians, today, toward anything that may be plausibly associated with them (however tenuously) continues to be extremely negative.  And it does seem, historically, that– by virtue of both their beliefs and behaviors –the Gnostics did come into significant conflict with important elements of New Testament thought and culture.  Nevertheless, I have argued that with regard to the cutting insight that constitutes gnosis itself, there is no such conflict.  Not only is the same insight is perfectly consistent with a more conventional understanding of Genesis (see, for example, All Things Are New and The Curse and the Kingdom), but once the light of the world is seen, there is no call to disparage our bodily existence or to look for a way of escape through what would seem to be– at least for some participants –nihilistic forms of beliefs and behavior.  All things are lawful for us, but all things are not expedient (Cf. I Corinthians 10:23).  Let us rather see that being raised with Christ in newness of life, the kingdom of God is indeed within us; among us; at hand — spread out upon the earth although most human beings (in despair) do not see it.

The take-home message is clear:  Let us repent…  That is,  denying our separate selves, let us take up our cross and enter into life . . .  NOW!

NOTE:  While the idea of a unitive or nondual Christian Gnosis will no doubt seems strange to many on first hearing, it is, in fact, well on its way to becoming mainstream.  Here are several Christian authors who have advanced somewhat compatible views:

Francois du Toit
Wayne Teasdale
David Steindl-Rast
Richard Rohr
Henry Nouwen
Ted Nottingham
Thomas Merton
Thomas R. Kelly
Thomas Keating
Bede Griffeths
James Finley
Cythia Bourgeault

–> Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Some So-Called “Gnostic” Texts

Note:  This “post” is part of a longer essay which has been posted as a separate “page” under the Nonduality menu:  Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Some So-Called Gnostic Texts

It is my contention that these texts are best understood as pointing to the kind of unitive insight or nondual awareness referred to [in the longer article referred to] above.  There are three texts, in particular, that I find of interest in this regard:

  • The Gospel of Thomas
  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Hymn of the Pearl

Extended excerpts from each of these have been posted at Yeshua21.Com (under Gnostic Accents) together with links to the complete texts and other documentation elsewhere on the web.  In addition, I will conclude this piece with several key verses from each–that is, with selected texts that strike me as especially suggestive of the kind of unitive insight or nondual awarness which I have characterized as the good gnosticism.

forest trees rubiks cubeIt will be tempting to understand these texts metaphysically (and possibly, at times, even historically).  Unfortunately, to understand them that way is, as I see it, to misunderstand them.  In a sense, these texts, too– like their canonical counterparts [mentioned earlier] –are puzzles which conceal as much as they reveal.   In order to “solve” these puzzles — in order to “find the interpretation” — it is necessary first to solve the puzzle of the Self — i.e. to recognize and honor the light of awareness as our eternal life (NOW).  For walking in that lightand resting in that life —the Truth is known and we are, thereby, set free (a la John 8:32).   And finding the interpretation in this way, the texts may then be read with understanding.  In the meantime, it certainly doesn’t hurt (and may very well help) to puzzle over them–so go ahead, knock yourself out!  As always, take what you find helpful and leave the rest…

Let us begin with The Gospel of Thomas:

nag hammadi coptic text got1 - b(1) And he said: He who shall find the interpretation of these words shall not taste of death.

(3) …the kingdom is within you, and it is outside of you. When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will know that you are the sons of the living Father. But if you do not know yourselves, then you are in poverty, and you are poverty.

(15) Jesus said: When you see him who was not born of woman, fall down upon your faces and worship him; that one is your Father.

(19) Jesus said: Blessed is he who was before he came into being. If you become disciples to me (and) listen to my words, these stones will minister to you. For you have five trees in Paradise which do not change, either in summer or in winter, and their leaves do not fall. He who knows them shall not taste of death.

(24) His disciples said: Teach us about the place where you are, for it is necessary for us to seek it. He said to them: He who has ears, let him hear! There is light within a man of light, and he lights the whole world. If he does not shine, there is darkness.

(51) His disciples said to him: On what day will the rest of the dead come into being, and on what day will the new world come?  He said to them: What you await has come, but you do not know it.

(66) Jesus said: Show me the stone which the builders rejected; it is the cornerstone.

(67) Jesus said: He who knows the all, (but) fails (to know) himself, misses everything.

(76) Jesus said: The kingdom of the Father is like a merchant who had a load (of goods) and found a pearl. That merchant was wise. He sold the load and bought for himself the pearl alone. You also, seek after his treasure which does not fail (but) endures, where moth does not come near to devour nor worm to destroy.

(77) Jesus said: I am the light that is above them all.  I am the all; the all came forth from me, and the all attained to me. Cleave a (piece of) wood; I am there.  Raise up a stone, and you will find me there.

(83) Jesus said: The images are revealed to man, and the light which is in them is hidden in the image of the light of the Father. He will reveal himself, and his image is hidden by his light.

(84) Jesus said: When you see your likeness, you rejoice. But when you see your images which came into existence before you, which neither die nor are made manifest, how much will you bear?

(90) Jesus said: Come to me, for my yoke is easy and my lordship is gentle, and you will find rest for yourselves.

(107) Jesus said: The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep; one of them, the biggest, went astray; he left (the) ninety-nine (and) sought after the one until he found it. After he had laboured, he said to the sheep: I love you more than the ninety-nine.

(113) His disciples said to him: On what day will the kingdom come? It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.

(Find additional selections at Yeshua21.Com)

Let us continue with The Gospel of Truth:

The Gospel of Truth2. Now the Gospel is the revelation of the hopeful, it is the finding of those who seek him. For since the totality were searching for him from whom they came forth—and the totality were within him, the incomprehensible inconceivable, he who exists beyond all thought— hence unacquaintance with the Father caused anxiety and fear. Then the anxiety condensed like a fog so that no one could see.

3. Wherefore confusion grew strong, contriving its matter in emptiness and unacquaintance with the truth, preparing to substitute potent and alluring fabrication for truthfulness. But this was no humiliation for him, the incomprehensible inconceivable. For the anxiety and the amnesia and the deceitful fabrication were nothing— whereas the established truth is immutable, imperturbable and of unadornable beauty. Therefore despise confusion! It has no roots and was in a fog concerning the Father, preparing labors and amnesia and fear in order thereby to entice those of the transition and take them captive.

4. The amnesia of confusion was not made as a revelation, it is not the handiwork of the Father. Forgetfulness does not occur under his directive, although it does happen because of him. But rather what exists within him is acquaintanceship—this being revealed so that forgetfulness might dissolve and the Father be recognized. Since amnesia occurred because the Father was not recognized, thereafter when the Father is recognized there will be no more forgetting.

5. This is the Gospel of him who is sought, which he has revealed to those perfected thru the mercies of the Father as the secret mystery:
Y’shua the Christ!
He enlightened those who were in darkness because of forgetfulness. He illumined them. He gave them a path, and that path is the truth which he proclaimed.

6. Therefore confusion was enraged at him and pursued him in order to suppress and eliminate him. He was nailed to a tree, he became the fruit of recognizing the Father. Yet it did not cause those who consumed it to perish, but rather to those who consumed it he bestowed a rejoicing at such a discovery. For he found them in himself and they found him in themselves— the incomprehensible inconceivable, the Father, this perfect-one who created the totality, within whom the totality exists and of whom the totality has need. For he had withheld within himself their perfection, which he had not yet conferred upon them all.

10. He was nailed to a tree in order to publish the edict of the Father on the cross. Oh sublime teaching, such that he humbled himself unto death while clad in eternal life! He stripped off the rags of mortality in order to don this imperishability which none has the power to take from him. Entering into the empty spaces of the terrors, he brought forth those who had been divested by amnesia. Acting with recognition and perfection, he proclaimed what is in the heart of the Father, in order to make wise those who are to receive the teaching. Yet those who are instructed are the living, inscribed in this book of life, who are taught about themselves and who receive themselves from the Father in again returning to him.

11. Because the perfection of the totality is in the Father, it is requisite that they all ascend unto him. When someone recognizes, he receives the things that are his own and gathers them to himself. For he who is unacquainted has a lack— and what he lacks is great, since what he lacks is Him who will make him perfect. Because the perfection of the totality is in the Father, it is requisite that they all ascend unto him. Thus each and every one receives himself.

19. Each one shall receive himself in the unification and shall be purified from multiplicity into unity in acquaintanceship— consuming matter in himself like a flame, darkness with light, and death with life. Since these things have thus happened to each one of us, it is appropriate that we think of the totality so that the household be holy and silent for the unity.

23. For who is the existent-one, except for the Father alone? All dimensions are his emanations, recognized in coming forth from his heart like sons from a mature person who knows them. Each one whom the Father begets had previously received neither form nor name. Then they were formed thru his self-awareness. Although indeed they had been in his mind, they had not recognized him. The Father however is perfectly acquainted with all the dimensions, which are within him.

25. Whoever lacks root also lacks fruit, but still he thinks to himself: ‘I have become, so I shall decease— for everything that earlier did not yet exist, later shall no longer exist.’ What therefore does the Father desire that such a person think about himself?: ‘I have been like the shadows and the phantoms of the night!’ When the dawn shines upon him, this person ascertains that the terror which had seized him was nothing. They were thus unacquainted with the Father because they did not behold him. Hence there occurred terror and turmoil and weakness and doubt and division, with many deceptions and empty fictions at work thru these.

27. Then the moment comes when those who have endured all this awaken, no longer to see all those troubles— for they are naught. Such is the way of those who have cast off ignorance like sleep and consider it to be nothing, neither considering its various events as real, but rather leaving it behind like a dream of the night. Recognizing the Father brings the dawn! This is what each one has done, sleeping in the time when he was unacquainted. And this is how, thus awakened, he comes to recognition.

28. How good for the person who returns to himself and awakens, and blest is he whose blind eyes have been opened! And the Spirit ran after him, resurrecting him swiftly. Extending her hand to him who was prostrate on the ground, she lifted him up on his feet who had not yet arisen. Now the recognition which gives understanding is thru the Father and the revelation of his Son. Once they have seen him and heard him, he grants them to taste and to smell and to touch the beloved Son.

(Find additional selections at Yeshua21.Com)

And, finally, let us conclude with The Hymn of the Pearl:

dragon-pearl2I went down into Egypt,
And I dressed in their dress,
that they might not hold me in abhorrence,

because I was come from abroad in order to take the pearl,
and arouse the serpent against me.

But in some way other or another
they found out that I was not their countryman,

and they dealt with me treacherously,
and gave their food to eat.

I forget that I was a son of kings,
and I served their king;

and I forgot the pearl,
for which my parents had sent me,

and because of the burden of their oppressions
I lay in a deep sleep.

But all this things that befell me
my parents perceived, and were grieved for me;
And they wove a plan on my behalf,

that I might not be left in Egypt;

and they wrote to me a letter,
Call to mind that thou art a son of kings!
See the slavery,–whom thou servest!

Remember the pearl,
for which thou was sent to Egypt!

Think of thy robe,
and remember thy splendid toga,

which thou shalt wear and (with which) thou shalt be adorned,
when thy name hath been read out in the list of the valiant,

and thy brother, our viceroy,
thou shalt be in our kingdom.”

My letter is a letter,
which the king sealed with his own right hand,
…flew in the likeness of an eagle,
the king of all birds;

it flew and alight beside me,
and became all speech.

At its voice and the sound of its rustling,
I started and arose from my sleep.

I took it up and kissed it,
and I began (and) read it;

and according to what was traced on my heart
were the words of my letter.

I remembered that I was a son of royal parents,
and my noble birth asserted itself.

I remembered the pearl,
for which I had been sent to Egypt,

and I began to charm him,
the terrible loud breathing serpent.

I hushed him asleep and lulled him into slumber,
for my father’s name I named over him…
And I snatched away the pearl,

and turned to go back to my father’s house.

And their filthy and unclean dress I stripped off,
and left it in their country;

and I took my way straight to come
to the light of our home in the East.

And my bright robe, which I had stripped off,
and the toga that was wrapped with it,

…my parents had sent thither

by the hand of their treasures,
who in their truth could be trusted therewith.

And because I remembered not its fashion,–
for in my childhood I had left it in my father’s house,–

on a sudden, when I received it,
the garment seemed to me to become like a mirror of myself.

I saw it all in all,
and I to received all in it,

for we were two in distinction
and yet gain one in one likeness.
and the image of the king of kings
was embroidered and depicted in full all over it,

and like the stone of the sapphire too
its hues were varied.

And love urged me too run
to meet it and receive it;

and I stretched forth and took it.
With the beauty of its colors I adorned myself,

and I wrapped myself wholly in my toga
of brilliant hues.

I clothed myself with it, and went up to the gate
of salutation and prostration;

I bowed my head and worshipped the majesty
of my father who sent me,–

(Find additional selections at Yeshua21.Com)

good bad ugly 3–>  Gnosticism:  The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Two Arguments Against Physicalism

“Physicalism (also known as Materialistic Monism . . . is the philosophical position that everything which exists is no more extensive than its physical properties, and that the only existing substance is physical. Therefore, it argues, the mind is a purely physical construct, and will eventually be explained entirely by physical theory, as it continues to evolve.” ~ PhilosophyBasics.Com

1)  Presupposing consciousness, evolutionary biology and neurophysiology may account (more or less adequately) for changing states of mind by correlating them with changes in physical structure and processes.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in principle, how they might explain the advent of consciousness,  per se.  For if (for billions of years) we imagine electro-chemical processes taking place “in the dark”, there is simply no reason to think that such processes should ever become “illuminated” — no reason to think that, at some point, there should suddenly be “something that it is like” (on the inside) to be one of those processes (cf. “What is it like to be a bat?“, by Thomas Nagel).

bat2) But even if we assume, per chance, the advent of this or that “emergent state of consciousness”, there is no reason to speak of such a state as being “selected for” (in evolutionary terms) unless it is not ultimately reducible to the material substrate on top of which it appears.  Genes are material…  Brain-states are material…  Natural selection as ordinarily understood  operates materially…  So unless we are willing to grant that, at some point, conscious minds began to contribute something over and above their material substrate, there is no reason to say that consciousness, qua consciousness, is selected for.

If, however, we want to say that consciousness, as such, does indeed contribute something over and above its material substrate–that the physical structures associated with sentience, perception, or discursive thought are selected for with a view to a qualitative contribution to life that somehow flows through them (and not just for their quantitative features, as such), we are at that point leaving a strict physicalism behind in favor of what I would call an “emergent dualism” or mind/body “interactionism”.  If on the other hand, there is no such contribution, then it is simpler to think of some rudimentary “consciousness” (or “interiority”) as being present from the beginning, in any and all material forms (cf. Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin).  But if that is the case, reality is not (and has never been) merely physical.

An alternative would be to argue for the primacy of consciousness (as do, for example, Peter Russell and Bernardo Kastrup), but either way, the mystery of consciousness endures and would seem to remain irreducible….

–>  Recognizing and Honoring the Light of Awareness

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Ask Dr. Robert…

robertosombramarc20211Nearly two years ago, when I wrote this essay on Nonduality, I expressed my intention to introduce readers to some other teachers besides the ones mentioned at the time–other teachers including some who, though less well known, are nevertheless  quite good (perhaps equal to the best) but who are (understandably) much more accessible than their more famous counterparts.  First and foremost, the person I had in mind at the time was my online friend and interlocutor Dr. Robert Saltzman.

Robert is a retired psychologist and photographer who currently resides in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.   I don’t recall precise order of events that led up to our initial acquaintance and friendship, but my first impression of him was very much informed by these paragraphs that I discovered on his website in the Summer of 2011:

“What I mean by “spiritual unfoldment” is the possibility in the human being of finding a center which is more than just “myself,” a center which seems to embody a level of wisdom, empathy, creativity, humor, and joy which is missing in the ordinary, everyday personality, a center, that is, which is not the outcome of thoughts, attitudes, and ideas, but which seems to exist prior to thought. Once this center is somehow intuited by the ordinary self, “unfoldment” refers to the ever-expanding experience of finding meaning and value in living more from that greater center and less from the demands of the everyday personality as it expresses itself in thoughts, fears, and desires.  To put this in somewhat grander terms, that which is finite, time-bound, and subject to death, becomes aware in some way of the underlying ground of being which feels infinite, timeless, and everlasting.

fern_unfurl“I say that this center must be intuited by the ordinary self because intuition is a human faculty which functions beyond the region of conscious thought, and so may provide a kind of bridge between thought and the underlying ground of being. I like to use the word “unfoldment,” because it suggests that this process involves the unfurling or unwinding of something that is already present but needs to be opened up in order that it may function to the fullest within the individual life of each person. If you have ever seen the leaf of a large fern uncoiling, this may provide a good visual metaphor” (excerpted from What is Spiritual Unfoldment?).

Those paragraphs resonated strongly with the insight gleaned a few years earlier from Eckhart Tolle–an insight subsequently clarified and stabilized to some degree as I was exposed to various nondual teachers and teachings on Facebook, YouTube, and elsewhere on the web.  Still, there are certain things that it is difficult to learn apart from direct communication with someone who really knows.  And, for me, Robert Saltzman became that person, for a time, and provided a significant measure of direct communication (insofar as that is possible via email and Facebook).

This is not to suggest that I willingly accepted everything he had to say– or even, at this point, that we always see eye to eye –quite the contrary.   But I find in him someone who is extraordinarily wise and deeply compassionate and who was, at the time, willing to discuss difficult questions with me–especially as they relate to what he sometimes refers to as awakening to true nature.  I was particularly impressed with his willingness to follow each thread of our discussion to its logical conclusion without getting bored or angry or throwing in the towel when the going got tough.  It seemed we were always able to come out the other side–not necessarily agreeing, but with a deeper respect and appreciation for one another as time went on.  This was exactly what I needed at the time and I remain very grateful for the experience.

god-talk-croppedPerhaps our biggest bone of contention over the years has had to do with the idea of God, the advantages and disadvantages of religious traditions, and the truth-value of religious modes of discourse.  I continue find the Christian categories in which I was raised to be meaningful and am inclined to think that some sort of traditional, religious  culture is good and preferable to the secular consumerism that seems to be replacing traditionally oriented cultures around the globe.  Having said that– and without attempting to speak for Dr. Robert in this regard –I can also say that there is little that I disagree with in his response to the question, Why do you criticize religion?  Indeed, I criticize religion, too–albeit (on balance) somewhat more gently and sympathetically than he does.  See, for example, these various pieces which I have posted here and at Yeshua21.Com over the past 3 or 4 years:

A lessor bone of contention has been the topic of consciousness and whether the hard-problem of consciousness (as it is sometimes referred to ala David Chalmers) is indicative of a level of reality that transcends the material world — a level of reality which we, as conscious beings, somehow participate in (or have access to) in a way that suggests that we are not merely these apparent bodies, but that there pertains to us and our lives a transcendent aspect that is logically and ontologically prior to the unfolding of our material existence.  Robert recently weighed in on this question as follows:

. . . the idea that consciousness exists separate from and prior to the brain is, in my view, pure speculation. In other words, it is a religious idea or a metaphysical one, not a scientific one, although some try to claim, erroneously in my view, that it is demonstrated, or even proven scientifically, by quantum mechanics.

Whether the brain is the source of consciousness, or whether there is some larger overarching consciousness that exists prior to the material world, the human experience (feeling/perception/thought/self-awareness) would feel precisely the same–one cannot see that which sees or know that which knows. Therefore, I say, no human being can be situated so as to know which of those is a true view, or even if neither is.

gullibility test 1 dollarYou won’t find the answer by “self-inquiry” either, I say, or any other approach. That answer is beyond the human “event-horizon.” The only “answer” comes via received knowledge. In other words, you credit some other human being with somehow having access to that which you do not. On what basis you make such a determination, I cannot imagine. If you believe Osho, or Deepak Chopra, or NameYourPoison and take their word for it (no matter how buttressed by logic, scripture, or tradition), you are, I say, acting like a fool.

Science, by the way, does not claim that consciousness is something that the brain does (albeit many scientists do favor that view). Science says that the answer–the solution to the so-called “hard problem”–is unknown, and possibly unknowable. I tend towards unknowable myself.  [posted on Facebook].

While I have no great objection to the idea that the ultimate answer to this question is unknown and may, in fact, be unknowable, I am not yet convinced that this is not a fruitful avenue of inquiry for the spiritual seeker–not as a belief to adopt, mind you, but as a question to reflect upon deeply.  And because there is a relatively large contingent of very vocal atheists who pretend that they do know that consciousness is merely a function of the brain, I regularly respond to them by emphasizing the following:

1)  Presupposing consciousness, evolutionary biology and neurophysiology may account (more or less adequately) for changing states of mind by correlating them with changes in physical structure and processes.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine, in principle, how they might explain the advent of consciousness,  per se.  For if (for billions of years) we imagine electro-chemical processes taking place “in the dark”, there is simply no reason to think that such processes should ever become “illuminated” — no reason to think that, at some point, there should suddenly be “something that it is like” (on the inside) to be one of those processes (cf. “What is it like to be a bat?“, by Thomas Nagel).

bat2) But even if we assume, per chance, the advent of this or that “emergent state of consciousness”, there is no reason to speak of such a state as being “selected for” (in evolutionary terms) unless it is not ultimately reducible to the material substrate on top of which it appears.  Genes are material…  Brain-states are material…  Natural selection as ordinarily understood  operates materially…  So unless we are willing to grant that, at some point, conscious minds began to contribute something over and above their material substrate, there is no reason to say that consciousness, qua consciousness, is selected for.  If, however, we want to say that consciousness, as such, does indeed contribute something over and above its material substrate–that the physical structures associated with sentience, perception, or discursive thought are selected for with a view to a qualitative contribution to life that somehow flows through them (and not just for their quantitative features, as such), we are at that point leaving a strict physicalism behind in favor of what I would call an “emergent dualism” or mind/body “interactionism”.  If on the other hand, there is no such contribution, then it is simpler to think of some rudimentary “consciousness” (or “interiority”) as being present from the beginning, in any and all material forms (cf. Spinoza or Teilhard de Chardin).  But if that is the case, reality is not (and has never been) merely physical.

With respect to Robert’s observation that consciousness, as such, would not feel any different to us (whether it is merely a function of the operation of our brains or if it somehow transcends neurophysiology), it remains the case that what we believe about it does have a practical import.  And, IMO, to believe that consciousness is merely a function of brain-states tends to keep people stuck in duality–imagining, as Alan Watts puts it, that their ego is “something or other, located about half way between their ears and a little way behind their eyes inside their head” (see this Alan Watts video).

So rather than imagining that consciousness is limited to our brains or even to our apparent body as a whole, it seems more reasonable to me (and more conducive to awakening) to think of the world as my body–i.e. the cosmos in its entirety.

the world is your body

Indeed, from where I stand, it seems almost as accurate to say that the cosmos is in me as it does to say that I am in the cosmos.  As Martin Heidegger observes–in a quite different but not unrelated context:

“For the Dasein there is no outside, for which reason it is also absurd to talk about an inside” (“Basic Problems in Phenomenology” 66).

Thus, the distinction between inner and outer– insofar as it obtains at all –is not nearly as definite or dominating as it once was (see also My Spirit, by Thomas Traherne).  It is with this point of view in mind that I have shared the following observations on consciousness:

But having said all that, I am quite willing to leave this question behind if and for as long as physicalism is not expressed or implied as a default position by whoever I happen to be talking to.  another infinityMoreover, I fully acknowledge the dangers posed by both religious and metaphysical speculation– dangers which I think Robert has in mind when he objects to such discourse –namely, that people who are attached to such mental positions may, in fact be clinging (in fear of death and in despair of reality as it is given) to some vestige of hope for an afterlife that will serve to soften the specter of death and to reinforce their hope and desire for personal immortality.

In that vein, one of the most fruitful exercises that emerged, early on, as Robert and I conversed, had to do with the contemplation of death construed as personal annihilation. What I came to realize through such contemplation is that to be willing to die utterly is to be totally surrendered to the awake space that I Am.  “What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?”,  Alan Watts inquires…  “This is a yoga”, he continues, “this is a realization” (The Nature of Consciousness).  It has been my experience that it is, indeed, helpful to mind the gaps (as the saying goes), but that it is also possible to do so in a way that is very much akin to dying before we die–i.e. it is possible to be so deeply and profoundly aware of our bodies as to be on intimate terms with the silence between each heartbeat; and with the stillness between each breath we breathe.  Resting in that peace, there simply is no fear of death.

come and dieIn short– in spite of our differences –I am very thankful for Robert Saltzman and the opportunity I have had to converse with him over the past 3 or 4 years.  While it is true that he often speaks harshly of religion in general and Christianity in particular (while  I, in contrast, retain a sincere appreciation for many elements of the Christian faith in which I was raised), there are also times when he expresses in rather general terms certain insights which seem to me to pertain to the very essence of the Christian gospel.  In addition to the opening paragraphs on spiritual unfoldment (above) which, to my way of thinking describe the mind of Christ, I was particularly impressed by the following  exchange which I cut and pasted from his Facebook page last summer (2014).  One of his Facebook followers, whose name I have replaced with initials, inquires as follows:

B___ K___:  What I had been wondering about is how the personality functions when the ego dissolves. . . . I mean the conditioned egoic mind and the inborn personality.

Robert Saltzman:  Just speaking personally, I would not say that ego “dissolves.”  Ego has a vital function in living a human life (unless one lives as one of those so-called “god intoxicated” yogis who has to be fed and carried around from place to place–none of that for me, thanks).

The experience as it unfolds for me from moment to moment is that, more and more, impersonal Self is felt as “reality” (defined neither by ideas of duality nor of nonduality–it simply is what it is) and ego is seen as a temporary, limited manifestation within Self called “personality,” or “point of view.”

For example, when earlier Bernard said it was a nice spring day in Montreal, that was ego (his) speaking, and ego (mine) listening. But when he touched upon deeper matters, any distinction between Robert and Bernard disappeared in the face of the truth beyond words that was being expressed. When I thanked Bernard for his comment, he said, “Ah well, takes one to see one,” meaning that either of us could have said exactly the same thing.

Seekers and many deluded teachers like to tell themselves that this work is about erasing or destroying ego (some of the “teachers” have foolishly convinced themselves that they have somehow “transcended” ego) but real understanding has nothing to do with erasing, destroying, or transcending anything.

I say that this work is, as in Edinger’s diagram, about ego seeing and feeling the distinction between ego and Self so that ego can enjoy a healthy relationship with Self (Truth). Without a distinction, there IS no relationship, and then all kinds of unbalanced ideas, unmitigated by truth, arise: ego trips, megalomania, delusions of being “Jesus,” etc, or, in the other direction, self-hatred, guilt for being alive at all, etc. With a real relationship, stress eases and ego no longer pursues any urgent agenda (including about attaining “enlightenment”). This seems to me to be a natural process of ego coming at first to recognize, and then to love and obey Self.

I cannot recall where I heard this analogy (perhaps it is Hindu or maybe Sufi), but ego can be compared to a horse. The horse may imagine that it can go wherever it likes, but it soon gets into all kinds of trouble.  Then, with luck, the horse may notice that it has a rider on its back, and the rider knows the territory. Then the horse can relax and provide the motivating force for getting around in life while the rider (Self) guides the journey.

The ego/Self relationship appears everywhere in adage, fable, and folk-tale: “Let your conscience be your guide.” The “higher power,” etc.

galatians 2 - 20 crucified with christWow!  That is so powerful–so insightful…  Despite the fact that Robert tends to discount and eschew the idea of transcendence, in general, and Christian categories, in particular–to my mind, the Facebook exchange above nevertheless expresses almost perfectly what is, as I see it, a very Christian point of view.  The ego, as he describes it, has in Christian terms been regeneratedI am no longer setting on the throne of my heart but have surrendered that throne to Christ (cf. the Self).

To be sure, this is often spoken of in terms of death.  St. Paul writes, “I am crucified with Christ–I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).  Elsewhere he writes, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).  While in some contexts, his references to death are intended very literally, it is also the case that death is often employed by him (and throughout the New Testament) as a metaphor — a metaphor which,  IMO, may be fruitfully compared to the Sufi notion of fana (annihilation of the self).  Moreover, fana is a notion which appears to have been influenced by the Buddhist understanding of nirvana (i.e. the extinction of the self — cf. nirFana).  But there is reason to believe that the emphasis on the death of the ego in all of these descriptions is somewhat exaggerated.  Thomas Merton explains this as follows:

[The higher religious traditions felt it necessary] to speak in strong negative terms about what happens to the ego-subject, which instead of being “realized” in its own limited selfhood is spoke of rather as simply vanishing out of the picture altogether.  The reason for this is not that the person loses his metaphysical or even physical status, or regresses into non-identity, but rather that his real status is quite other than what appears empirically to us to be his status.  Hence it becomes overwhelmingly important for us to become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences, or as candidates for realization, attainment and fulfillment.  In other words, this means that a spiritual guide worth his salt will conduct a ruthless campaign against all forms of delusion arising out of spiritual ambition and self-complacency which aim to establish the ego in spiritual glory.  That is why a St. John of the Cross is so hostile to visions, ecstasies and all forms of “special experience.”  That is why the Zen Masters say: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him” (“Zen and the Birds of Appetite” 76-77).

On balance, it seems to me that Robert’s point about the function of the ego is well taken.  In any event, it is consistent with my own understanding and experience.  Moreover, from where  I stand, he seems far more in touch with (what I refer to as) the mind of Christ and the power of the Spirit than most (nominal) Christians I come in contact with.

Regarding the Eddinger diagram which Robert refers to, I don’t recall seeing that last summer when I first read that exchange,  but here (perhaps) is a similar diagram which I have reconfigured somewhat in conjunction with my own Christian vision:

self Self jungian psychology pilgrimage of the soul

Perhaps this is as good a place as any to draw this to a close.  If you’d like to learn more about Robert Saltzman, visit his web site or stop by his Facebook page.  Most importantly,  perhaps– as a way of balancing what may have been a one-sided and idiosyncratic presentation  on  my part –you should should consider browsing through the various photographs and Facebook memes that he shares from time to time.   And if you have any questions, feel free to Ask Dr. Robert:)

NOTE:  With regard to awakening, you could do worse than simply remembering these words from (Robert’s friend) the late Bill Gersh:

You get what you get when you get it! 

And in conjunction with that, you should also remember this:

Awakening Never Ends

Pilar - the great aunt of Robert Saltzmans friend and auto mechanic MartínThis photo portrait is by Robert Saltsman:

“Pilar is the great aunt of my friend and auto mechanic, Martín. He brought me to meet her. She lives alone in the old way, the way people grew up on the ranchos on this peninsula. She’s 89, completely compos mentis, and wise. I saw her this morning again to bring her prints of this image. We had a lovely conversation.  This portrait was captured within two minutes of meeting her, hand-held camera, and no stage management.” ~ Robert Saltzman (in response to my inquiry)

–>  See more of Robert’s photos on Facebook

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The Eternal NOW

now - past - futureThere is a beautiful distinction to be drawn between “the real present” (a la Boris Mouravieff), aka “the eternal NOW” (a la Paul Tillich, et al), on the one hand, and what we might call “the conventional present”, on the other.  We have the mind of Christ and, as such, God is with us (cf. parousia). But for the carnal (or egoic) mind, the garden of God is but a faint memory and the conventional present is merely a paper-thin means to some imagined future (as the prodigal pilgrimage continues).

peaceBut rather than fleeing tribulation, we always have the option of, Christ-like, denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and entering into life NOW.  Those first two steps are a doozies, to be sure, but in the words of a rather famous Quaker who was active during the first half of the 20th century:

“The Now is no mere nodal point between the past and the future. It is the seat and region of the Divine Presence itself…. The Now contains all that is needed for the absolute satisfaction of our deepest cravings…. In the Now we are at home at last.” (Thomas Kelly, “A Testament of Devotion”)

–> Now is the Accepted Time…

this moment welcomes you

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