The mask and the true face

Lucida disappears for days at a time and when she does my brain starts to play an old song by Bill Withers:

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone

Only darkness every day

Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone

And this house just ain’t no home anytime she goes away

Kitty feels the same. We mope around the caff and she steers clear of this melancholy beast who tries to console himself by doing little chores. Like installing an under sink valve I found in the salvage shop, in its original box which said it was made by Honeywell. According to the restored microfiche at the Dead Library I learned that biz was an industrial conglomerate that once sold 20 backpack drones to the US navy for the modest sum of 8 million bucks but the brass valve only cost me a few barter bucks and works well.

In the morning I mix thawed plums with oats, water, ground flax and olive oil then bake the paste into a tasty muffin to go with coffee and read some news from the era just before the Burn. The big stories were about a British populist coup, the impeachment of the clown in the White House and a debate about whether the global heating was real or just a left wing hoax supported by more than 90 percent of the world’s climate scientists.

Since I have a free weekend I have time to read further about Proclus, who lived in Alexandria and Athens fifteen centuries ago and wrote about rituals for linking the soul to its god or gods and ultimately to the inconceivable source of all this flow we call life and existence. No philosopher of his time wondered if the gods and associated invisibles were real tho they were sketchy about where they lived. Some believed they inhabited certain mountains and rivers but Proclus probably thought they resided in some domain beyond any human conceptions of space.

I think it’s obvious that the gods and their associates live in the neural activities of the individual subconscious mind and imagination and in the broader field of conscious and subconscious minds connected by culture, media and conversation. In that broader field they appear as figures of religion, ideology and myth but also disguised as memes, cliches and characters in books and movies.

Looking up from my book I see that the Red Monk has entered the Clear Light and notice as he passes the luminous windows of morning that he casts no shadow. Tho I had not noticed the chair on the other side of my table I wave him to take it and bring a bottle of warm sake with two small cups. He holds it in his mouth before swallowing then, like the spirits in Hades, he is able to speak.

Only one thing I’d rather have on my tongue, he says.

That some zen riddle? I ask.

He only grins and says, I met Proclus in Alexandria, in the new Mouseion which local philosophers had improvised in the house of Theon. A youth 12 years my junior he had begun his education in Xanthos and moved from there to Alexandria to pursue the study of rhetoric in order to become a lawyer but during a journey to Byzantium he discovered philosophy as his vocation. Back in Alexandria he studied Aristotle and mathematics. Learned all of Aristotle’s logical writings by heart. Soon after our meeting Proclus moved to Athens, attracted to study at the Platonic School there. In Athens he would expand and systematize the philosophy of Plotinus which was a response to the sceptical position that we only know the appearances presented by our senses, and not the world as it is. Plotinus believed that the nature of the world is inherent in each part of it, including the part of the world that receives sense data, which he called the soul. This I learned from his lectures at the new Museion and our conversations after.

The soul, he said, knows the world thru sense data but it can also know itself directly by turning away from the senses which are of the external body and the external world. This direct knowing of its own nature is reflected in the insights and epiphanies produced by philosophy, and especially by its three primary practices: meditation, contemplation and theurgy. Meditation calms the mind and enables it to see what controls its attention. How its attention is commanded by habitual practices that offer relief from the pain of want, desire, insecurity, lack of freedom and lack of control, including self control. The soul then sees that the basis of taking command of its life is taking control of its attention.

Plotinus’s extension of Plato described a simple cosmos elaborated from an ineffable One which produced a supreme Intellect which produced a cosmic Soul of which each individual soul was an emanation. The individual soul then somehow produced the body locally as an instance of the cosmic Soul’s production of the material world.

What is theurgy? I asked.

Just as the cosmic soul is the sum of all souls, said Proclus, the One is the sum of all the great ones who are called the gods. Theurgy is the practice whereby an individual soul orients its attention toward the One by prayer or ritual directed to communion with one or several gods. On the day of the Sun, for example, my soul turns like a sunflower toward Helios the Sun who is the god of all sunlike forms.

According to Proclus philosophy was an activity which could liberate the soul from subjection to bodily passions, remind it of its origin in Soul, Intellect, and the One, and prepare it not only to ascend to the higher levels while still in this life but to avoid falling immediately back into a new body after death. Thru these methods, he said, philosophy shows the soul how to resume command of its attention, wake to its origin, resume its journey back to the Source and liberate it from its obsession with the body so that, if death comes before it attains the goal it will not automatically fall into rebirth but, if reborn, will resume the journey at a higher level.

I concluded that Proclus had created an impressive picture of a dynamic cosmos of things, intellects and souls and their relations to each other. But was not convinced that this was the universe I was living in. Even so, I liked the idea of a practical way to find out who or what was really in control of my attention so I asked Proclus to teach me how to use meditation for this purpose.

A few days later I found myself led by torchlight thru a dark cavern beneath the radiant marble of Alexandria. On either side the walls were scooped with shallow cavities filled with bones or dedicated mummies, the entrances festooned with the stink of dying flowers or candles where mourners knelt to murmur prayers, oblivious to the rats whose eyes occasionally reflected our passing light. Finally we came into a deep side channel and I realized that this dry necropolis had once been an underground river that had forked here on its way to the great Middle Sea. Here we stopped and sat on ancient stones to contemplate the walls inscribed with the shapes which ancient plants and fishes had left in the walls before their contents rotted away. I could almost here the sound of waves then I heard a deeper sound, the sound of a conch that seemed to rise from somewhere deep below the ground and a chorus of deep voices began to chant in unison until the torch bearers moved forward to encircle a robed figure with the head of a strange animal.

I surmised that it was a person wearing a mask of hide that enclosed her head, leaving only holes for three eyes that glistened thru the dark above two pale parentheses of horn. Tho the figure had no visible mouth it produced a voice that sounded clear but soft, like a child’s.

I am, it said, the first mother of all animals and men. You are the children of my children and all living are your kin. What can I tell you? What do you most need to know?

What is the origin of evil? I asked.

Look within, she whispered, as the torches withdrew and she melted into darkness.

~

Back above ground I walked with Proclus thru the hot, white city, keeping to the shade of trees and walls as we returned to our apartments. Your question, he said, is probably the most urgent a soul can ask. Plotinus said evil stems not from the soul but from matter. Not that matter is evil, as some Gnostics say. It rises from our fascination, absorption in material forms. Evil happens when we get mired in material concerns and forget to look up toward consciousness and the emanations of the Divine. Plotinus teaches that even tho the soul so distracted may fall into evil thoughts and actions it is still intrinsically good and just has to wake to its true nature and divine origin.

So you believe there are no irremediably corrupted souls, I said.

Plotinus believed that, he said, but when I consider, for instance, what the vile monks of Nitria did to Theon’s daughter I am not convinced. I think they serve an evil god.

But Plotinus probably believes that the souls of gods, like those of humans, are essentially good?

Exactly, he said, I will move to Athens soon, to study at his academy and I intend to question Syrianus his successor about this absurd belief.

But, I said, if the souls of humans and gods can be corrupted how far up the ladder of souls can this corruption reach?

Well, he laughed, if you believe, as we Platonists do, that the gods are real and the myths about them must be taken seriously you must accept that the gods are sometimes ruled, like us humans, by passion, ignorance and hate and these forms of evil go back to the very beginnings of the world as depicted by our creation myths. Shall I go on?

I nodded my eager assent.

According to our earliest myth there was originally a formless state called Chaos from which arose Darkness and Night who copulated to give birth to the bright upper Aether and Day. Then Night by herself produced Fate, Doom, Death, Sleep, Dreams, old Age, Pain, Revenge, Strife, Deceit and Sexual Pleasure which of course leads to all the miseries of embodiment. Chaos also produced Gaia the Earth who gave birth to Uranus the Sky and with him bred the Titans. One of them was Cronus and Gaia persuaded him to castrate his dad with a threshing sickle. (Cronus is also a name of Time which produces and consumes all things.) Because he castrated his father Cronus feared that his own children would do likewise so every time his wife gave birth he grabbed the child and ate it. I could go on but you see my point.

Your gods, I said, have even more mischief in them than you Greeks do.

Exactly, so if Plotinus believes that our gods are real and that they are void of evil then he must believe that our myths about them are lies. But then you are denying the authority of tradition which says that to err is not only human it is also a propensity of the gods. I intuit the truth of that view and I believe the propensity to think or do evil is present in all beings, all the way up to the First Soul and the First Intellect. So I do not accept that evil only arises from us lower souls and our fascination with material form.

So evil is a propensity of being, I said. What about good?

Evil is just good with its power drained by evil and vice versa. Both are polar manifestations of the energeia which stands beyond good and evil.

Energeia? I said.

Aristotle’s word, he said. It has to with the power that enables movement between the possible and the actual, dream and reality, thought and action.

I would like to learn more about that, I said. But what, in your view, is the original or primary good to which good minds aspire.

That’s a good question, he said with a laugh. Plotinus said that the primary good is the One because it makes all things, and in so doing it bestows on each one the primary good of individuality which makes it distinct and separable from all others.

That also describes perception, I said. Maybe things only become distinct when I perceptually distinguish them, from the background.

That would usurp the role of the Creator. We Platonists believe that things first become distinct individuals when the original Intellect so distinguishes them.

But maybe, I said, when you and I perceive a valid distinction between a bird and a tree we are channeling the creative perception of the One and bestowing individuality upon each of them.

I like that idea, said Proclus, it would mean that each of us participates in the creation of each thing in the act of perceiving it.

~

That was my first contact with the idea that mind is the source, the generator of all forms, says the Red Monk. Later, when I reached the lands of the Indus and the Ganges I found the school of Mind Only which takes the idea even further. The Platonists say that the first mind the Nous or Intellect creates all souls and all bodies but that matter so created exists independently of our perception. But the Mind Only schools teach that material forms are forms created by each mind that are fundamentally insubstantial figures of change and the dreaming mind alone is real. That view is erroneous I think because mind can no more exist without body than darkness without light. Mind minds body and body embodies mind. If there were no embodiment of mind in thoughts, feelings, words and acts what would the mind be? Conversely if there were no thoughts, feelings, words or plans for action what would the body be?

In dreamless sleep, say I your humble narrator. Which suggests that matter might exist before mind then evolve into thinking matter.

Yes but at what point does it become mind-like matter? If mind is a function of evolved matter then matter must always be latently mind-like.

Or mind must always be latently matter-like, I say. So the primary delusion of the Mind Only schools is the notion that a mind could exist that is not actually or latently material and the converse delusion, held by materialists, is that matter could exist that was not actually or latently mental.

Yes, says the Red Monk, but the Platonists built a second illusion on the first. They claimed that the Mind bestowed individuality as the fully separable and unitary nature of persons and things. But in deeper meditation we see that no man is an island entire unto itself. Our unity is only complete insofar as we share in the unity of all things.

That suggests an aphorism, I say: only the One is entirely one.

One what? He asks.

One cup, I say, of sake. I pour and we sip in silence then I ask, what does this have to do with your question about the source of evil? Is it not just an inexplicable propensity?

That propensity is at bottom a propensity to see myself as fundamentally separate from others. Ironically the Platonists, however pious their intentions, actually divinized the common illusion that our separate individuality is fundamental. They failed to see that we are only superficially separable and the delusion of a separable self is the source of the constant anxiety and coldness that alienates us from all other beings. Ironically even our mutual indifference and hostility is produced by our inseparable natures because they impel us to act as one in mutual hostility when we fall as one into the collective delusion that we are fundamentally separate, a delusion that denies our natural impulses to love our other selves. All hate is self hatred.

That hatred is really the tension between our true nature and our delusory separate persona, I say, the mask and the true face beneath it.

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