Masonic Soul Food

Masonic Soul Food

“What is a Soul? What is Spirit? What is Energy?” We begin to engage in conversations about such esoteric terms as soul, energy, and spirit without being cognizant that we are not speaking the same language. The words may be the same but meanings span the spectrum. We can debate these questions all night, all month, and for the rest of our lives and never come to understanding. Do people really know what they mean when they talk about energy, soul, or spirit? While these are common discussions amongst Freemasons, they are sometimes the most difficult subjects on which to remain impartial and fair.

Humans seem to have a lot invested in the idea of their souls, and in other people’s souls, too.

Many  people join Masonic groups so they can “have an energetic experience” or “touch something mystical.” Some talk about experiencing something that touches their soul or provides a spiritual meaning to their lives. Some Freemasons mention how they “love the energy of Lodge” or how it’s our job to “raise the vibration of our material world and send out ‘healing’ energy.” Many people start their Freemasonic career looking for something mystical, something secret that only they have learned, that no one else knows, that provides them a conduit to perhaps special insight that no one else has. Because Freemasonry deals with the questions of life and death, the neophyte may be looking for Freemasonry to unlock all those special secrets and have the answers. They use terms like soul, spirit, and energy without defining them for themselves and in their communications with others.

energy1It seems that many times, the conversations are about what people want to believe rather than reasoned conclusions. Discussion and debate are the way we educate ourselves and grow. Transformation requires thought.

To those who let go of preconceived desires and wishes, Freemasonry is transformative in many ways. It does discuss these questions of life and death. It leaves the aspirant to mull over symbols and meaning and yes, come up with personal insights on perhaps souls and spirit and energy. Freemasonry provides us the opportunity to to convert from a polarizing human nature to one of balance. We need to learn to deal with all aspects of our temperament in order to understand all the features of this life – material, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  It is this last realm, spiritual, that trips many up.

Most Freemasons accept the presence of a greater power, something undefined that connects us all to a single purpose. Most would agree with the idea of the multi-faceted nature of human existence, struggling with the balance of brain, mind, body, and this idea of “connectedness.” Many have experienced things they can’t explain, the nudges of intuition, and the sudden flashes of insight that seem “deep.” These are all valid experiences. It’s taking them from the experience to meaningful communication that humans struggle. We throw out a word like “soul” or “spirit” or “energy” and assume that the people we communicate with understand what they mean. Freemasons are philosophers,  and any good philosopher will not abide a discussion with random, undefined terms. When asked about souls, there are vague allusions to something energetic, mystical, unique, and connected to some form of god/goddess/force/Tao. A soul is what makes us individuals. A soul is something that is part of God. A soul is our energetic self.  “When our eyes met, our souls touched.”

What does any of that really mean?  For each individual who speaks on these subjects, there is a different answer. Pinning people down about souls and spirits and such can be quite agitating for people. Some people get downright angry.

Can we define any of it? Perhaps. Perhaps we can start with energy.

socratesUnless you wholeheartedly dismiss science, there can be no doubt for one second that we are energetic beings. Neurons use electrical impulses and neurotransmitters (chemicals) to enable our bodies to function in its entirety: to think, feel, heal, sense, breath – everything. Without energy, our hearts would not pump, we would cease to be able to think and process information, and we would die. Mitochondria, in a weird symbiotic relationship with us, enable us to live by helping us process the material world around us into energy. Every cell has mitochondria and every cell is able to produce energy of some sort. Life is energy.

Okay, we’ve established we’re energetic beings, and by the nature of the material world, energetic beings are everywhere. We communicate with our senses and receive communication with our senses. Abraham Hicks said, “We talk with words but communicate with energy.” Cyndi Dale, author of “The Subtle Body: An Encyclopedia of your Energetic Body,” states that “energy is information that vibrates.” This latter definition is a little more trustworthy, it seems, than the former. We can test it. We can retest it. We can play with it and work to define examples. However, this is also where it gets tricky, right? Let’s take a page, well, a short paragraph from Wikipedia: “In physics, energy is the property that must be transferred to an object in order to perform work on or heat the object. It can be converted in form but not created or destroyed.”

BB_timelineWell, okay then, simple question: where did the energy that makes up us come from? Ouch, right? In a recent conversation, I posited this question to a fellow Freemason. He answered, “the stars.” I said okay, get me from B to A. He said “Stars created the elements that trapped the energy that went into making us.” I replied that I agreed, but then, what makes up the stars? He said it must be “the Big Bang.” Humans are the trapped energy of the material created during the Big Bang. To him, we all derive from the single moment that created time, matter, and energy. Physicist or philosopher, the topic of energy is where we converge. We can conclude from this that elements that make up the material world are trapped energy. Is this trapped “energy” spirit? Is that our “soul?”

If we are trapped energy of stars, as is everything around us, then we have far more in common with other matter than we think we do. If we are all made of the same matter, we should be able to recognize one another by way of transferring energy. Or, so one would think. What is interesting to note is that many psychologists and philosophers considered love to be a transference of energy. Freud dwelt on the physical aspects of love while Plato talks about spiritual or unselfish love; but one in the same, what we call love is, to them, a transference of energy. When we love something, we do put energy into it, and it into us. Perhaps this is the idea of spirit. Spirit, Plato said, that that way we communicate emotionally with other humans. Is this not love? So, love is spirit. We can also say love is energy.

So if love, life, and elements are all energy, can we draw any conclusions about the soul?

Many philosophers have tried to explain ‘soul.’ Just one example, Plotinus, the first Neo-Platonist, did his best to help us along in understanding that the soul doesn’t necessarily need a body; yet, without a body, it can’t exist in the “intelligible realms and express itself in the visible realms.” This concept tells us how he thought the soul expressed itself, but not what it is. In a very basic sense, Neoplatonists call the soul “consciousness” or “psyche.” Still, it’s unclear even in modern terms what consciousness is. If we thought defining “soul” in religion is difficult, try the philosophical bent…Truly angst-ridden. It seems that Plotinus and Plato are already agreed that there is a soul, even if they can’t agree on its definition. Maybe it’s something that we all have to debate on until we get to learn for sure. Maybe we’ll never learn for sure, at least not in this world. galaxy-wallpaper-preview-4

One solid conclusion is that the meaning of a soul does not seem to be the meaning of a soul for everyone, and spirit is not something we can agree upon, either. If nothing else, the myriad world religions would illustrate that. The phrase “our souls speak to each other” doesn’t mean much if you can’t really explain to someone else what it means. “We communicated ‘energetically’ is really worthless unless you can really understand clearly what you intend. It doesn’t even matter if you can explain it to someone else; do we even understand ourselves?  A wise Freemason once said that if you can explain something to a five-year-old, and the five-year-old gets it, then you really understand the concept of it. Simple terms, clearly defined, done. We definitely need more five-year-olds around us to keep us honest and clear.

Freemason, scientist, philosopher, or physicist: regardless of what you believe about soul, spirit, energy, or anything else esoteric, definitions are important and personal understanding moreso. The exploration of life’s meaning is, whether we agree on terms or not, something we all share.

Why are we here? Because we’re here. Roll the bones.” – Neal Peart

diceroll

Brotherhood

Brotherhood

We are fast approaching the time when we share all those lovely good wishes for a happy holiday season. It seems that in general, people need the cold of winter and the idea of parties to bond together. In some ways, it is a sad affair – why do we wait until the end of the year to celebrate people with shallow displays? People in the U.S. have holidays galore, the UK has its bank holidays, and everywhere people get together in the summer for all kinds of recreation and relaxation. This, though, isn’t the same. We wait for Thanksgiving to ‘give thanks’ to our families and loved ones, then shower them with commercial ideas of a festive Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. It seems to me there has to be something more, something that we just can’t quite touch with commercialism. It makes me question if we truly value our fellow humans or merely follow the conventions of our day.

I’m not a cynic. Stoic, perhaps, but not a cynic. I know that many people feel this same way, and are not sure what to do with it. We want something more, we feel it, and can’t seem to find it.

You might remember a song in the early ’90’s called “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blonds. There’s a phrase in the song that has always stuck with me:

“I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means.”

For at least 25 years, I’ve been searching, like the author, for “whatever that means.” I think it about it more at the end of the year, in the winter, when we want to bond together more, when we’re a hoping to be a little more full of grace and forgiveness, when everything we hope for is looking for softness and warmth. (This leaves aside the one place where there is no grace or forgiveness: retail parking lots at Christmastime. No, I won’t digress…)  Most of human history is not filled with this alien, modern way of living, in asphalt-covered cities and in high-rises; we are ensconced in concrete structures and shopping malls, where our every-need-provided mentalities take away that sense of brotherhood and even community. No one in American cities truly lives or works together. We exist closer together and yet are farther apart emotionally, and certainly farther apart from nature. We have no idea how to debate, discuss, or theorize because we do not socialize. Facebook is a poor human community, and it certainly is no brotherhood.

Nature relies on a collective to get through the autumn and winter, to live until springtime, when everything is renewed. Birds and insects migrate to warmer climates, communitybanding together to achieve their goal for the good of the “group.” Some animals, mice and squirrels, huddle together in enclaves to stay warm and keep out of harm’s way. Humans sometimes migrate to warmer climates; some humans gather in houses, staying warm and sharing food. We humans have corrupted some of this to follow a prescribed dogma of festivities, duties, and “musts” during a time when we could be more selective, more mindful of our fellow species. Nature has no dogma.

Brotherhood is a relationship between brothers, comrades – those who have a common association. A brotherhood is this created group of people, who may or may not be your family, where common interests are discussed, shared, and respected. The word “brotherhood” has certain characteristics in its reference; it implies a close relationship but not intimate, it implies something that is almost a blood-bond, but greater because its idealized, and it implies intelligent selection rather than genealogy. It reflects common purposes and goals, where brothers are dedicated to each other more than the rest of the world, and more perhaps than to family.

The idea of brotherhood is crystallizing ideals into personal goals that we share with others, with the idea that together we can achieve more than we could apart. It is, perhaps, about the survival of those ideas and ideals, and  that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t expect those in the brotherhood to be perfect; we expect them to continue to work towards the prosperity of the all as best they can, with their own unique talents and skills. The human clans do not survive on only one type of labor, one type of mentality; human groups survive on the skills of the many flowing into the good of the whole. Uniqueness is valued as long as the purpose is shared.

Human beings need friendships (the tribe), community, and brotherhood. Friendships help us transcend loneliness and provide us greater insight into our personal nature. Friends help validate our thoughts and emotions and assist us to perfect our victor-hugo-author-the-human-soul-has-still-greater-need-of-the-ideal-than-of-therelationships with human beings in general. Community helps fulfill our very human need for connection without actually requiring a lot from us. It expects us to show up, be who we are, be present, and participate at the level at which we are able. Community attends to an almost physical, matter-related purpose; brotherhood is where we really shine.

As a community, we are able to meet a concrete need with action, and there’s little overlap into our lives. Brotherhood delves into the reasons we come together, the personal goals and aspirations of the individual, and binds us together in action for that purpose. The ideals of brotherhood, whatever brotherhood they may be, transcend both community and tribe. We need these latter two to take care of physical needs, protect us, perhaps provide us with a shared history with which to bond and form purpose.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I see brotherhood as something more, something chosen. We may not choose our tribe; we may not choose our communities, but we sure as heck choose brotherhood. And it must also choose us. We choose to be in these bonds of commitment, regardless of the diversity of our backgrounds. We choose, when entering a brotherhood, to focus on purpose rather than “who you are.” Brotherhood requires commitment; brotherhood has to be maintained. Constantly. For the rest of your life.  If you choose to stop adhering to the commitments you made, then you fall out of the idealism you value. Brotherhood is a privilege and a consciousness. Done right, brotherhood is extraordinary.

Brotherhood, to be clear, is not friendship, although brothers may be friends. Brotherhood transcends the personal affectations and affections. We may have many friends in our lives but we have few true brothers, few “comrades-in-arms,” if you will.

So, is “brotherhood of man” the entirety of the human race? What does that mean? Maybe it means that we’ve chosen to be part of the human condition, and we need to cloud-team-590x384start looking at each other, all of the people we encounter, as part of our ideal of a better condition in which to live. Taking from nature, we have to work together to survive the ugliness of the world, human-created and natural, in order to build a better place. I also think, though, that brotherhood of man is a consciousness of the human condition. The human brotherhood has chosen us, us, to fulfill the ideal of itself. It’s chosen every human to play their part; it’s up to us to choose to live in a way were our ideals are about the human condition, not simply our personal needs or desires. Being part of the brotherhood of man requires us to be constant in our consciousness. We want the human race to be better, no? Perhaps, that’s part of what Freemasonry also tries to achieve – this “brotherhood of man” that our 4 Non Blonds advocate.

As I write this, the outside world is filled with the gray of an early snowstorm; branches are laden with wet globs of icy powder, and the streets are soaked with the fast-melting flakes. Soon, the true winter will be on us, and we’ll be frantic yet again. Perhaps this year, we can be conscious of our human brothers and bond together, in some small way, that transcends the dogma of the season. Perhaps we can reach inside and chose to finally be part of that “brotherhood of man.”

[Note: I use the term brotherhood not to segregate or be divisive. I use it because in the English language, there is no gender-neutral better term. When I speak of the brotherhood of man, I mean all humans, regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender.] 

practicaltheosophy

 

The Key of Solomon

The Key of Solomon

Many people have heard of the Key of Solomon, and indeed, Dan Brown’s book The Lost Symbol emphasized some of its mysterious ideas and brought them to the fore of modern culture. The Key of Solomon is ostensibly a text of “revealed” secret information given to King Solomon, son of David (Israel), and written by Solomon, to help others gain deeper knowledge of the mysteries of the universe.

The text is now thought to be a 14th or 15th Century Latin “grimoire” of Renaissance “magic” couched in Judeo-Christian terminology and mythos. This symbolic substitution was a common method of many alchemists and “magicians” in an age of the Catholic Inquisition and heresy trials. The majority of manuscripts of The Key of Solomon have overt references to alchemy, kabbalah, and hearken back to what many would see as the ancient mystery schools (e.g. Pythagoras, Orpheus, and Eleusis) of Greece and Rome. Most remaining manuscripts of this Key of Solomon date from the 16th to 18th Centuries, many of which can be found online in PDF form (sacred-texts.com) or orderable fromSolomon Sheba Amazon or Kessinger’s. You can download an 1888 translation by S.L. MacGregor Mathers here.

The Key of Solomon contains neither a key nor Solomon within it; while the book may have some overtones of unlocking “esoteric” information in the forms of diagrams, the key specifically refers to what it unlocks. In other words, the title Key of Solomon” would translate to the 14th C. alchemist as “that which unlocks what Solomon does/is.” The document was written long after Solomon died, and this might be evidenced in the fact that some of the references do contain links to Jesus. In at least one transition, “Jesus Christ” is mentioned; this is an obvious anachronism to Solomon the King. Why Solomon?

Solomon is found across all of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious texts in the form of a wise, wealthy, and learned man. He’s noted as being a prophet, astronomer, poet, builder, architect, and businessman. Biblically, he is attributed to building many temples in his life to a variety of deities, not just Yahweh. Again, I believe we have Solomon as a symbol and not as a ruler in Israel. He’s the symbol of the learned man, striving for knowledge of the seen and the unseen. In this quest for knowledge, the human being will find the success that Solomon had found. Whatever historical or factual information may or may not be found about King Solomon, he has become the ideal of the powerful and wealthy monarch that is wise, intelligent, and devoted. It necessarily follows that the “key of Solomon” would be the guide or guides to unlocking the wisdom, knowledge, and riches of all earthly, and thus natural, matters.

This latter part appears important. If we understand that these original Key of Solomon texts may have been written by both Islamic alchemists and Judaic kabbalists, we can take the meaning of the title Key of Solomon to be as ascribed above: the key to unlocking super-human abilities, especially the ability to manipulate nature. In the Qu’an, Solomon asked for, and received, from God many of these abilities, such as the ability to speak with birds, control of air (wind) and fire (Djinn), and thus the elements.

And to Solomon (We made) the wind (obedient): its early morning (stride) was a month’s (journey), and its evening (stride) was a month’s (journey); and We made a font of molten brass to flow for him; and there were Jinns that worked in front of him, by the leave of his Lord, and if any of them turned aside from Our command, We made him taste of the Penalty of the Blazing Fire.” (34: 12) and “At length, when they came to a (lowly) valley of ants, one of the ants said: “O ye ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you (under foot) without knowing it.” – So he smiled, amused at her speech; and he said: “O my Rabb (Arabic: رَبّ‎‎, Lord)! So order me that I may be grateful for Thy favors, which Thou hast bestowed on me and on my parents, and that I may work the righteousness that will please Thee: and admit me, by Thy Grace, to the ranks of Thy righteous Servants.” (27: 18–19)

key_of_solomon_1One might believe that Solomon was the first, or at least the most famous, alchemist, no? Perhaps.

Several versions, transitions of the manuscripts of various Keys of Solomon, were picked up by the occult movement of the late 19th and early 20th Century, when many of the most recent versions were translated and/or compiled. Waite wrote two editions of his book The Book of Ceremonial Magic (formerly The Book of Black Magic and Pacts)  in 1913, both of which draw heavily on these several Key of Solomon manuscripts. While not a direct correlation, it seems as if the Key of Solomon received a “black magic” reputation from this association, and perhaps fueled some of the aggression toward Freemasonry. One only needs to do a Google search on “Key of Solomon Freemasonry” to see various works on the black, and backwards, associations.

Why would this be? The Key of Solomon is typically associated with the Holy Royal Arch degree, as evidenced by its jewel. A lovey description and write up of the jewel can be found here. For anyone who has seen the jewel, its likeness to any of the seals or glyphs contained in the book Key of Solomon is similar. While it may be a more modern, stylized version of the one of these glyphs, it’s clear that the idea represented is an unlocking of “wisdom” for those who have “ears to hear.”

The idea of anything dark associated with this degree is rubbish; and yet, for the same reasons our medieval ancestors hid the knowledge of alchemy within a Judeo-Christian mythic book, perhaps Freemasons, in developing this degree, felt the same way. Thecompanion-jewel-r-a legends and teachings within Freemasonry have been housed in the same myths of Judeo-Christian-Islamic literature, and it’s no surprise that this figure of Solomon would connect to the conscious and unconscious psyche of the majority of the Western world. Freemasonry is a Western invention.

Additionally, there is a fascination in these tenuous connections from ancient to more modern authors; reading original texts, one hopes to unlock a different way of approaching the problems of life and death, and thus perhaps gain some “secret” knowledge. Like all things esoteric (and Freemasonic), the key to unlocking the secrets lies within the seeker, not in some random jewel on the breast of someone who has taken a degree. As with alchemy, kabbalah, and any mystery school, the seeker must work his mind to gain the insight. These texts, symbols, and mysteries appeals to our sense of power, to the secret knowledge that perhaps we alone can find. To what ends we apply these tools, for the benefit of ourselves or the benefit of humanity, is solely within our sphere of control.

 

 

 

 

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Why Beauty? The Splendor of Truth

Is beauty important? Why does it even exist in the first place? Everyone has a definition of beauty, and they are all different: A beautiful body, a beautiful painting, a beautiful sunset. It captivates and arrests the gaze. Beauty shines through the whole universe. When confronted by true beauty, one cannot turn away one’s eyes. We aspire to be beautiful so people will love us. It captivates all the senses, the soul and the spirit.

Maybe the question is not “what is beauty,” but “why is beauty?” Why is it any use to us at all? How do we know it? As Freemasons, we are taught that Beauty adorns all great and important undertakings. Beauty in the arts gives pleasure through inspiration. A gentle obsession with beauty is a source of much in our lives. Let us muse together on beauty.

How does one decide if something is beautiful or not? The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato are said to have been the first who tried to define beauty. They thought that an object is inherently beautiful. Other philosophers argued that beauty is subjective. Beauty is not the quality of the object but it is an experience of our own, thus the popular phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” For example, after seeing a starry sky, a gorgeous painting, or a mystical rainbow, a person may feel wonder and awe by the beauty in it. But not everyone may feel the same way about those same things.

Is beauty objective or subjective? Does our perception of beauty define us?

Plato’s Ladder

Plato uses the symbol of a ladder to show different levels of beauty in his dialogue in The Symposium. Each rung of the ladder gives a different perspective. On the first step or level, a person loves a body, and then all bodies. By the third step, he relates to the beauty of souls over that of bodies. This leads to the love of laws and institutions, leading to the love of certain types of knowledge. It ends in the pursuit of knowledge, or the love of wisdom. Upon reaching this, the person will see Beauty in its purest form or Beauty itself.8154643392_20cf304518_z

Step 1 – A beautiful Body
Step 2 – All beautiful Bodies
Step 3 – Beautiful Souls
Step 4 – Beautiful Laws, Institutions
Step 5 – Beautiful Knowledge
Step 6 – Beauty Itself

Looking at this it seems that beauty is not just about pretty things, but it’s something much deeper and vaster. It involves some sort of process of transformation. There is a saying In Italian, “bello da morire” which means “beautiful to die for.” The presence of beauty creates the possibility for a shift in us. If we change too much, we die of our old selves. According to philosopher David Hume, “Beauty is no quality in things themselves. It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”

I think that beauty is like love in that it is one of those big realities in our life. Our relationships may be complex and at times contradictory and difficult. For example, we know that someone who looks traditionally very beautiful could be very dreadful indeed.

Ultimately, we face a paradox. Beauty may be important because it has strength and the power to transform us. But there are parts of us that resist that; we are attached to our old images of ourselves, old dogmas, and habits, and therefore, we prefer not to let in too much to beauty. It can be dismissed or ignored, and life goes on anyway in quiet desperation.

Do we even dare climb the ladder to this ineffable beauty? Plato said that beauty is truth. For example, if a statement is true it will also be beautiful. But there is even a problem 3913221135_a6918bf8cf_zwith this. We might see a statement that is beautiful to us, yet if we test it we find out it is not true. Beauty is a very complicated relationship.

Beauty in Freemasonry

In Freemasonry, we learn the concept of beauty cannot only be of a material beauty. If we go deep enough we will indeed find out that beauty is the splendor of truth. Inner beauty is goodness, and inner goodness is beauty. At some point, comes a decision to tread the way and be a better person. Embracing beauty helps with that.

Plotinus, one of the most influential philosophers in the ancient world, talks about fostering an inner vision:

Cut away that which is superfluous, straighten that which is crooked, purify that which is obscure: labor to make all bright, and never cease to fashion your statue until there shall shine out upon you the godlike splendor of virtue, until you behold temperance established in purity in her holy shrine.

By making “crooked things straight,” it seems that we can begin to experience a portion of those beautiful truths. Raise your consciousness and beauty will unfold before you. Attending a beautiful masonic ceremony or engaging in the creative arts can be enlightening and so can eating a box of chocolates. Divine!

I recently was listening to an interview by the late poet John O’Donahue. Something in his words and in his haunting deep Irish voice touched my soul ever so beautifully. I closed my eyes to as if to pay homage to the gods of poetry and philosophy. It was one of those rare encounters with beauty. We have all had them. In a moment of sublime Beauty, we are all rendered speechless. Beauty is ineffable. Why Beauty? It conveys something Divine that book knowledge doesn’t. Beauty gives way to contemplation. Admittedly, the very heart of Beauty cannot be captured in words.

Beauty does not linger, it only visits.
Yet beauty’s visitation affects us and invites us into its rhythm,
it calls us to feel, think, and act beautifully in the world:
to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful.

– John O’Donahue     

 

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

Know Thyself: The Ship of Thieves

“I am not the person I was.” We hear that a lot, especially when it comes to growing older and, one hopes, wiser. Indeed, we’re not the same person we were. Over the course of time, our cells die, regenerate, add, delete, change, morph, and eventually we have all new cells. But we retain our name, our memories, our lives. Are we not the same person?

One would argue that of course we are. Or are we? Really?

We cling to our identities like dryer sheets to hot cotton shirts. In our minds, we are who we always have been. We are that twelve-year-old child who swam in the lake as well as that adult who had their first job in fast food. We remember events, creations, or possessions and claim them to be ours.

Conversely, we claim our “self” to exist because of those things. We do not change, or if we do, it is at a glacial pace. We affix our identity in time and space, and like an astronaut, place a flag on it and proclaim it to be ours, to be “true” identity: knowing who we are.Theseus_Helene_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2309_n2

In a recent conversation with a fellow Mason, I was discussing the Ship of Theseus. The paradox is quickly explained in this video: The Paradox of the Ship of Theseus. In essence, the question is this: at what point does the ship cease to become Theseus’ ship and become something else?

If we take one plank from the ship and replace it, we generally can agree that the ship is still Theseus’ ship. At what point, however, do you fix enough broken pieces that the ship becomes something else? My colleague was convinced that the ship remained and always remained Theseus’ ship. For him, the idea of identity stays with the generally recognized “thing” even if the sum of its parts is not original.

Conversely, the argument is this: if I am a thief, and I slowly steal the pieces of Theseus’ ship, replace them with identical parts,  take the original parts, and put them together in my backyard, who has the ship of Theseus? The original owner, or me?

My friend said that the original owner did. I disagree. If I take a painting from the Louvre, and replace it with an identical painting, and everyone recognizes it as the “painting,” who has the “real” painting? In my colleague’s eyes, then, have I really stolen anything?

identityI contend that I have, if nothing else, I have stolen the certainty of the Ship of Theseus. I have stolen, or potentially stolen, the idea of the ship. But these painful musings do have a purpose: they help us work out our identity – the answers to the question of: Who am I?

A brilliant article on this is found on Brainpickings. I would encourage you to watch the other short videos on this site: not only is the one on Who Am I thought-provoking, but there are links to life’s other huge questions. How do I know I exist? What is the Nature of Reality? But, I digress.

The question is, at what point is our self no longer “us?” Is it when all the cells in our body have replaced themselves? What about new neural pathways or brain cells? If we replace a leg or arm or heart, are we the same person? 

Freemasons live by an adage of “Know Thyself,” which also adorned the Oracle of Delphi  at the Temple of Apollo. We must first understand what it is that makes up our “self” and when does that “self” become something else. I think this is a life long exploration and, since the self is constantly undergoing change, are we always who we were? Perhaps not.

But then, where did “we” go? Does our identity persist? If it does so, how? What makes us, us?fingerprint

I asked my fellow Mason about clones, which sent us down an entirely different path, discussing identical twins, and the like. Does time make a difference? If a plank is rotten on Theseus’ ship, and it is replaced, does that make identity linger, as opposed to replacing a “new” plank? If I change my mind about how I feel about something, am I still the same person? What if I create new habits? What then?

We are ever seeking to understand our true natures; yet, our true nature is ever-changing. Freemasonry teaches us about the cycles of life, death, rebirth, nature. and science. It teaches us all of Life’s Mysteries. If stagnation is death and change is life, how can we ever be the same person moment to moment? Perhaps that is the mystery that we must ever follow: a constant, persistent discovery of who we are, and what we are doing.

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Doubt on the Path: Lessons from the Buddha

Big doubt, big enlightenment; small doubt, small enlightenment; no doubt, no enlightenment.

That’s what the saying is in the Buddhist Lonji tradition of Chan. The spiritual life has always been a quest for meaning and for answers to the two existential questions: “Who am I?” and “Why am I?” A quest for truth, a quest for “what is,” a quest for purpose; these are the foundations of the spiritual way. Too often life’s paths seem paradoxical and confusing. Doubt and perplexity play a vital role in the journey to enlightenment.

Are there lessons from the Buddha that can help us sort out the contradictions?

Fundamental to the entire Buddhist philosophy is the idea that everything depends upon the mind. To help us understand that we are not just what we are thinking, Buddhist teachings make a distinction between what is called “small mind” and “big mind.”  Small mind is the rambling, limited, distorted, distracted, often out-of-control ordinary thoughts of the mind. Big mind is what we call Buddha-nature. This is our true inner nature — the pure boundless awareness that is at the heart, and part, of us all — still as the surface of a mountain pool… calm, lucid, empty, clear and at peace.  

Wat SuthatIn the great Tibetan Monasteries of Lhasa, monks seek to purify their minds and study the subjects of awareness and consciousness. Through understanding the nature of the mind and the process of cognition, inner peace can be attained.

The Buddha often described the nature of existence to be impermanent. One of the most frequently quoted passages from the Mahayana Buddhist Sutras is this short verse:

So you should view this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

Perhaps existence is not really what we think it is?  So how do we know what is real and what is unreal? How do we know what is illusion and what is truth? 

Most of us who enjoy philosophy are always seeking answers to the big questions. Fortunately, searching for more meaning is considered a desirable human quality. The French writer André Gide once wrote, “Believe those who are seeking truth. Doubt those who find it.”

The Three Stages of Doubt

Wat Suthat 1We are always doubting.  A doubting consciousness is defined as a knower having qualms in two directions. Doubt can tend towards one side of an issue or another, or it can be completely undecided, but it is always accompanied by an element of uncertainty. 

In the book “Mind in Tibetan Buddhism” by Lati Rinpoche, he describes three types of doubting consciousness. For the purpose of illustration, I will give an example.  We might have a statement like: “Sound is impermanent.” Also, let us say this statement is true or fact. Then, you might entertain three stages of doubt about it.

  1. Tending towards the fact — You might think that “Sound is probably impermanent.”
  2. Tending toward distortion — You might think that “Sound is probably permanent.”
  3. Tending towards both equally — You might not be able to make up your mind and wonder whether sound is permanent or impermanent.

Lati Pinpoche says that doubt can be beneficial in that it is an initial step in weakening the wrong view. This begins the process toward developing correct understanding. One of the basic requirements for all Chelas is an open-minded point of view.  No Chela is expected to accept, untried or unsubstantiated, any statement made to him in the course of his training.  The point is not to just “believe in” the teachings, but to evaluate them, understand them, and test them against our own experience. Awakening comes through a direct experience, not through beliefs and dogmas. Although there are benefits in questioning, doubt is still considered in Buddhism an afflicted state of mind. It can be undesirable if the Chela is constantly questioning if this is the right road or not, which makes it hard for him to arrive at his destination.  

Wat Suthat 2

Beyond the stages of doubt, there are states of higher awareness and what is called “correctly assuming consciousness.”  One wonders about the consciousness of the Bodhisattva or the person who has attained Buddhahood and lives the vow to liberate all sentient beings. Here we might find Wisdom and Compassion mutually supportive, and totally inseparable. The Light of Wisdom is clear, precise, sharp and sword like. Compassion is warm, nurturing, and open-hearted. These are complementary facets of the heart-jewel of Bodhicitta or the heart of enlightened mind. How incredible!  

The Search for “Suchness”

Recently, I was reading some Zen literature that described enlightenment as “suchness.” What in the world is “suchness?”  “Suchness,” like love, is a way of being in the world or Tathata. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, we might say “The Power of Now.” You just have to stop thinking. Then you will be in a state of “suchness”: the suchness of the moment, beingness, the as-is-ness. 

Wat Suthat 4“Suchness” is such a quintessentially marvelous word to represent the quality of living an enchanted life. Each moment, each breath, is unique. The sacred, the magical, and the radiant are not somewhere else. They are all right here, where we are. “Suchness” is a refusal to let life descend to a cycle of worry about the past or the future and the mundane. Instead, we find sparkle and wonder in the present — this I feel is truly living the spiritual life. 

The wonderful thing about doubt and healthy skepticism is that it can be the propellant that fuels the spiritual engine towards “suchness.” When you experience your own doubts — and almost everyone has doubts — you will wonder what to do and where you go with your questioning. In my own spiritual practice in Freemasonry, I have several times struggled with doubts about many of my beliefs. I have found that it is through doubting on the path that I have come to see both the something and the nothing of existence. With “suchness,” we allow both perceptions to coexist. Anything we can know with this body or this mind, through our senses, may be fleeting, ephemeral, and insubstantial … or not??

From the great Chinese Philosopher Chuang Tzu:

I dreamt that I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke.

Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I butterfly dreaming that I am a man?

——————

Note: Images are from Wat Suthat Thepphaararam, a Buddhist temple in Bangkok, Thailand

 

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

Eritque Craticula Usque ad Tenebras

The precipice of Winter. The hollow wind of Autumn. We humans are always on the edge of something. In this case, we are on the edge of seasonal change. As we slip from the warm days of Summer into the chillier nights of Autumn, we sense that change is imminent. We are on the edge, slipping from one day to the next, seasons rushing by in a flowing, ever changing stream. A stream, I must add, upon which we are always standing on the edge.

Nature teaches us a great deal of how to be in the world; most of the time, we just choose not to listen. Cement jungles are no place for the breath of the Green Man or the dance of a water nymph. Yet, Nature finds a way to express herself. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is expressed as Yin and Yang. A Taoist concept, everything contains Yin and Yang. Yin and Yang are two opposite yet complementary energies. Although they are opposite in their individual qualities and nature, they are interdependent. They are never separate and cannot exist without one another. The hard Yang of the cement contains in it air and space, Yin, in which it yields to the grass growing in its cracks. The meadow is dotted with hard boulders, unyielding and yet grounding to the lush, loamy soil.

silhouette-cliff-man-tree

The traditional translation of Yin-Yang is Dark-Bright, which in turn translate to the traditional Chinese icon we see for it – two tear drops, intertwined, with a dot of the other deep in their bellies. Saying they are opposites is a faint allusion to their true natures. They are complex and rich for as simple as they appear. Both are archetypes and ideals, where simple human words are inadequate modifiers. They may be translated as “the shady side of the mountain (yin)” and “the sunny side of the mountain (yang).” Yin may also indicate the feminine, the moon, softness, passivity, sinister, darkness, overcast, or even treacherous. Yang, the “opposite” indicates masculine, the sun, hardness, assertiveness, open, overt, relief, light, and positivity.” There is always a bit of one in the other, a taste which makes them less opposite and more like polarities. Neither is good or bad, they just exist; intertwined for eternity in a dance of possession.

Chapter 42 of the Tao Te Ching (about 500 B.C.E. by Lao Tzu) is where the duality and Yin-Yang are found:

“The Way gave birth to unity,
Unity gave birth to duality,
Duality gave birth to trinity,
Trinity gave birth to the myriad creatures.
The myriad creatures bear yin on their backs and embrace yang in their bosoms.

They neutralize these vapors
and thereby achieve harmony.”

This may be interpreted that while the Way (Tao) gave birth to all of material life, it is contained within that life in the form of this duality. Thus, all matter, of animal, plant, or mineral contains yin and yang. All of Nature contains within it opposing truths, a constant tug of each end of the living spectrum. Being of Nature, we should be intimately at ease with the duality of our natures, right?

260px-Yin_yang.svg

Relative and absolute. We see absolute as our eternal goal – absolute truth. Is this not what the philosopher strives to attain? Is this not what the Freemason seeks? Absolute is the Truth which we hold as dearest, that which give us “rightness” of whatever we are understanding. Yet, relativity is important to our personal lives. We make judgments and choices about the relative Truths we perceive with our senses every day. How does that green shirt go with those pink pants? Does the omelet need more salt? Are we thirsty? These are truths, however small, in which we are always seeking answers and using our senses, our knowledge of duality, to provide answers. We are always on the edge, wondering if we are being deceived, somehow, by falsehood and ignorance. Curiosity is a sword to slay our own ignorance. Curiosity is not sheathed in ego.

The philosopher sees the duality in the people and situations around him. We recognize that there may be two sides to a situation: yours and mine, his and hers, etc. Without this sharing, we cannot see more Truth. We have to stand on the edge of reality, with another human being, and accept that this truth might fill in our blanks. Once we let judgement of Truth go, there is vast chasm in front of us. It is in recognizing duality that the pieces start to come together. Unity. We realize that we cannot have the whole picture. We may not ever have the absolute truth; yet, we may have relative truth to share. In heaps and bounds.

Thus, we are always on the edge of true understanding. Of knowledge. Of peace. Thus, perhaps we are always at an equinox within our natures. Halfway to Darkness. Halfway to Light. Eritque craticula usque ad lucem ac tenebras. A motto of change? A reminder of being on the edge? Perhaps we need not be so afraid of the darkness and the change, go out into nature, and learn what living really means. We can find Nature in everyone we meet, sharing in a brief bit of harmony by seeking to understand. Enjoy this Equinox, with balance and joy, understanding that the world will keep turning, seeking balance and yet, always on the edge. The Darkness is coming. So is the Light.

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Metaphor: The Language of the Mystics

Metaphor: The Language of the Mystics

In the outskirts of every society, you will find the mystics. Some are holy men in monasteries; some are Buddhists seeking enlightenment; some are public figures; some are Christians serving Jesus; some are Freemasons, like myself. Mystics have an amazing amount in common despite all that. They are not satisfied with what they learn in books, with ceremonies passed on for the sake of tradition, or with faith that comes from an assertion that “You really ought to believe in this.” What they want, instead, is conviction— the kind of conviction that comes only from a direct spiritual experience. Many say they have found it.

How do mystic seers convey their experience in words, or in stories? Our ancestors’ answer was: with tons and tons of different images – with metaphors, that is. Metaphors, after all, are symbols used to creatively describe a deeper reality, to give a sense of the color and taste of it. There are many metaphors in the teachings of Freemasonry.

How significant, then, is the relationship between mysticism and metaphor?

There are hundreds, maybe thousands or millions of metaphors in existence about mystical things. Rumi, the great Sufi poet, once said that God created everything in the outer world to serve as a metaphor for the inner. The outside world contains objects that can awaken and remind us of truths that, when applied, can be of real benefit. For example, if you read mystic literature about the soul, you might find the soul as ladder, the soul as garden, the soul as mountain, the soul as ark, the soul as mansion or castle, the soul as shining, living stone or even precious jewel, and so on. There are equally as many metaphors about the path to enlightenment.

34382722213_6e1d57324f_zA metaphor is a comparison. A metaphor establishes a relationship at once; it leaves more to the imagination. It is a shortcut to the meaning; it sets two unlike things side by side and makes us see the likeness between them. A metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use the words “like” or “as,” while a simile is one that does use those words.

Why do metaphors in the writings of the mystics even matter? As the great consciousness-researchers Julian Jaynes and Owen Barfield both explained in their writings, it is very difficult to discuss consciousness except through metaphor. Metaphors create new ways of thinking, new realities, and new worlds.

Do metaphors shape the way we think? Let us look at an example.

Juliet is the Sun
From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the metaphor, “Juliet is the sun.”

This statement equates two different things: one human, the other sidereal. Juliet is a human; the sun is a star. How do they get to be equal?

For the purpose of illustration, I will show how a metaphor is born, logically. We could say:

There is a human called Juliet.
There is a star called the Sun.
The human called Juliet is radiant.
The star called the Sun is radiant.
Therefore, the human called Juliet is like a star, called the Sun (because of the radiance).

Not very thrilling or poetic, is it? How can we make it more exciting? How is the metaphor created? First, we delete all the unnecessary words and steps, only leaving the simile “Juliet is like the Sun.” The final deletion comes about by eliminating the word, “like.” Voila! “Juliet is the Sun.” 34382660583_c940b54102_z

As we can see, this metaphor comes alive through deletion and transformation. Keep taking away words until something “becomes” something else. Keep stripping away the Maya and the illusion until we arrive at the truth: the direct perception or the mystical experience.

In the words of William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to a man as it is, infinite.”

If you have ever had an “aha” moment, there is something wonderfully joyous about experiencing the mystical – to remember that we have spiritual faculties in us open to the dimensions beyond. Wonder. Awe. The metaphorical language of the mystics points us to the stars – bridging earth to heaven and to a world beyond itself.

But how do we react when we encounter something that exists outside of our realm of study? Does everything have to fit into what is already known, otherwise it doesn’t exist? The experience of the Transcendent seems to defy expression.

One of the greatest mystical saints of all times, St. Teresa of Avila, says that the intellect cannot go with her to the higher realms. It must stay behind. She writes in her book The Interior Castle: “One should let the intellect go and surrender oneself into the arms of love, for His Majesty will teach the soul what it must do at that point.”

I do believe the central role of metaphor in shaping consciousness can be impactful in someone’s life. I also believe the intellect is not always our ally. 35192178685_29b4993ed4_z

Such was the case with Edgar Mitchell, astronaut on the Apollo 14 mission. On his return trip from the moon, he stared out of the window at our blue planet, Earth. At that moment something profound hit him. All of a sudden he was lifted out of his normal consciousness and felt an intense oneness with planet Earth and the universe. In a flash of higher consciousness a higher truth was revealed to him that dramatically changed his intellectual perspective. (Watch Edgar Mitchell’s “We Are One” video)

How lovely to live in possibility, to think in beautiful metaphors, to cherish the precious jewel in each sacred word,  and to overflow with sweeping amazement. Your turn. What mystical metaphor would you want to leave behind as a jewel to humanity?


Note: Featured images are from the Art Exhibition, Beyond the Stars; The Mystical Landscapes from Monet to Kandinsky.

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Perhaps your first thought, as was mine, is: “How can Astronomy be an ‘art?'” Furthermore, how can Astronomy be called a ‘liberal’ art? From a very interesting (and worth exploring) website called “Arts of Liberty,” we have a snippet for explanation:

“To call astronomy an ‘art’ can come as a shock to a modern reader… Perhaps without thinking much about it, we think of “science” as being a genuine and exact knowledge, whereas ‘art’ is more expressive, or touchy-feely.  But, that is not quite adequate, since medicine is also an ‘art,’ and it is anything but touchy-feely… And while ‘science’ and ‘art’ do not appear to be synonyms, it could very well be that the same discipline can be called both a ‘science’ and an ‘art,’ although for different reasons.

To understand this properly requires us to consider a sense of the word ‘science’ not in common use today.  The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia, which meant a very exact knowledge, a rigorous and sure knowledge of things deduced from self-evident truths.  The ancient Greeks would have called such knowledge epistémé...  

In the vocabulary of the ancients, an ‘art,’ like a science, meant a carefully reasoned-out knowledge, but more than that, it meant a knowledge of how to produce something.  Where there is no ‘product,’ there is no ‘art.’  So it is possible for a form of knowledge to be a ‘science’ but not an ‘art.’  For example, Aristotle considered the study of god to be a ‘science,’ a body of knowledge rigorously reasoned out from self-evident principles, but not an ‘art,’ because it did not teach us how to make gods, or how to do anything about god.”

Ptolemaicsystem-smallClaudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE) was a Greek mathematician living in Alexandria. His work The Amalgest was one of the most influential astronomical works until Galileo’s discoveries in the 17th C. The Amalgest documents many mathematical and astronomical treatises, including works by other mathematicians – works thought to be lost. The most significant piece of this Amalgest (total of 13 books), is the documentation of the geocentric model of the universe. Ptolemy’s work became the accepted theory of the structure of the planets and stars, with the Earth central to all.

This influenced not only astronomy and mathematics but also theology, philosophy, and fine art. Three centuries after it was written, Hypatia and her father Theon, genius mathematicians, added to the work with their own commentary, throwing in their thoughts of elliptical orbits, the procession of the equinoxes, revising Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, and introducing the sexigesimal calculation systems. It’s believed that this rendering of the Amalgest, with the Hypatia/Theon commentary, is the one that was used for the majority of the Middle Ages although no direct reference to Theon survives and Hypatia is mentioned only in a passing 10th C. reference.


And thus, the Quadrivium ends. I hope you’ve enjoyed my answer to the Bro.’s challenge of finding a significant event, work, or person who influenced each specific liberal art. The question was posed, should Freemason’s really learn the liberal arts? The answer, to me, should be obvious. Not only should we learn the liberal arts individually, but understand their context in the whole of being educated about the natural world. Human beings can be taught easily to survive; we cannot just “pick up” how to thrive, generate ideas, and create a better world.

An example of this “Freemasonic mindset” is James Madison, even though he was not a Freemason. In his early twenties, when the United States was in its infancy, he gave up much of his career and life to studying the histories and government of world cultures. He was relentless in his pursuit of the histories and knowledge of government administration, what worked, what didn’t; he studied philosophy, history, theology, art, classical literature, geography – the liberal arts and more. By the time he finished, and began his work in the new nation’s government, he was arguably the single biggest influencer in shaping the United States Constitution and the framework of our Democracy. By learning the past deeply, he was able to innovate and create a new world. To me, that is a main goal of the Service of Freemasons.

The History of the All Seeing Eye

The History of the All Seeing Eye

What people in the U.S.A. commonly referred to as the “All Seeing Eye” is more appropriately called the “Eye of Providence.” No, not Rhode Island. This would be the more divine providence – the big guy watching over all of us. Or gal. Or it. Whichever you prefer.

The Eye of Providence is the idea that some divine force is watching over us all, sees our deeds and actions, and judges accordingly. The Eye is associated with the Judgement card of the Tarot: Alchemical texts of the 17th Century and Egypt.

While the Eye of Providence, as noted above, has from the 18th Century C.E. onward been associated with Christianity, the idea of an “all-seeing God” has been around for Millenia. What is called “The Eye of Horus” originally was known as the Wadjet Eye, for the goddess Wadjet.

EyeofHorus

The Eye of Horus

Wadjet, as many can read on the Internet and in several Egyptian Mythology books, was one of the oldest deities in Egypt and dates from the pre-dynastic period. She is associated with Lower Egypt as well as the papyrus. Her name symbolizes the color of blue/green – the color of the papyrus plant. She is nearly always associated with a cobra and is considered the protector of pharaohs and the ruling classes of Egypt.

She’s seen as the Goddess, which represents time, heaven, and hell, and she is an ardent protector, especially of children. Over the millennia, she has been merged with many other goddesses, such as Bast and her sister, Nekhebet, Goddess of Upper Egypt, who is shown as a vulture. Wadjet has also been associated with Buto, the city which first revered her – originally named Per-Wadjet.

According to Herodotus, in his Histories ( Herodotus, The Histories, ii 55, and vii 134), “The Egyptians were also the first to introduce solemn assemblies, processions, and litanies to the gods; of all which the Greeks were taught the use by them. It seems to me a sufficient proof of this that in Egypt these practices have been established from remote antiquity, while in Greece they are only recently known.” There is note of a Temple to Wadjet in Buto (Per-Wadjet) that had an Oracle in it; it was considered that the Greek practice of using Oracles was co-opted from the Egyptians who, as Herodotus states, “taught them in their use.” 

The Eye of Wadget

The Eye of Wadget

Originally, oracles were used to be able to link the individual to the divine. A worshiper would travel to the oracle with a very specific and important question relevant to their lives. Kings would consult oracles to strategize on war or gain insight on divine events which would influence their people, like famine or floods. Using auguries drawn from various animals innards, smoke, visions, the flight of doves, or other “symbols,” the oracle would define the upcoming events based on intuition and divine inspiration. Oracles were eventually replaced by priests and religious figures as a way to connect the individual with their god or goddess, and in a way be a conduit for the divine.

We humans have always been looking for a way to have some kind of communion with the mind of our Divine source, whether it is through other individuals, hallucinogens, runes, tarot, channelling, or simply study. We look for some higher source to tell us what we ought to do, what will help us be successful, happy, healthy, or free. In this case, I find the idea of the Eye of Wadjet to be a symbol that connects us to a dusty, mythic past with some vague idea of what it really meant.

We’ve gone from the protection of a goddess to the protection of a country or our ideals, or maybe even our prosperity. I think this is the most interesting thing in this: the symbols we have in our daily lives are historical treasures that have been modified as our cultures modify them. They come to reflect what, and how we think about the world.

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

Inspired By Art: Nicholas Roerich’s Symbolic Journey

The Himalayan paintings of Nicholas Roerich (1874 – 1947), Russian painter and philosopher, mesmerized me when I first laid eyes on the collection. I stared at them for hours. I feel a bit as though these paintings knew me better than anyone. It’s like I understood them, and in turn, they understood me. I became interested in why. 

It could be that as a child my imagination was captured by the breathtaking views of mountains. I was inspired as much by the physical grandeur of their peaks as by the spiritual mysteries harbored within them. Indeed, for me the towering peaks represented the very summit of beauty and spirituality. The tallest mountains I ever climbed were in Zermatt, Switzerland.  I had a truly a remarkable time discovering certain wonders in nature such as glaciers and rich vegetation along with snow-capped points. I would take a rest at several spots which were beautiful and magnificent. There were always more heights to scale, another plateau or peak above, views of the Matterhorn.

Was it this experience that caused me to have a connection with Roerich’s art or something else? Are we drawn to art that mirrors a part of our inner self? What was it specifically about Roerich’s art?

Mount of Five TreasuresIt is virtually impossible to separate the artist’s art from his philosophy. Many contemporaries were skeptical of Roerich’s spiritual mission and tended to dismiss his work as being repetitive and unoriginal. However, those who embraced his philosophy experienced something transformative in those same canvases – never ending spiritual realizations.  A brief survey of his life reveals that Roerich was not an adherent of any one established religion or philosophical movement. His name is universally known not only as Master of the brush but also as a thinker and a builder of life.  His art and writings are an evocation to Beauty, to Knowledge, and to Culture. Art education would pave the way to universal beauty and open the gates to spiritual enlightenment. This vision is nicely captured in his philosophical statement of the Master Institute of United Arts which he formed in New York in 1921:

“Art will unify all humanity.  Art is one – indivisible. Art has its many branches, yet all are one.  Art is the manifestation of the coming synthesis. Art is for all.”

Regardless of whether his lofty ideals will ever be realized, or if you agree with the artist’s art philosophy, his paintings are replete with rich symbolic jewels that are a pure delight for anyone to reflect upon.

19284963678_72350b9c8f_oFor example, Roerich refers often to the great treasures stored deep within the Himalayas. The very name Kanchenjunga, he tells us, means, “the Five Treasures of the Great Snow,” because it contains the five most precious things in the world.  He alludes to them in the painting, Treasure of the Mountain. The setting is deep inside a mountain cave.  Roerich causes us to question what treasures he is referring to? Are they rubies, gold, and diamonds?  Or, upon deeper reflection, is he talking about other more inner treasures?

The gurus hold a lamp. Does it suggest that the Light of Wisdom is the treasure of the mountain?   Roerich reminds us that we must think about what we hold valuable. And – taking this to the deeper level of reflection – we should think very clearly about how we find these symbolic jewels.  What does it take?

Pearl of Searching Flickr mediumIn the Pearl of Searching, another journey is pictured. The teacher-student relationship is a theme in many of Roerich’s paintings. Our eye is drawn to the figures and we identify with them, experiencing the panorama that unfolds behind from their perspective. They have reached a plateau and are celebrating the view and a treasure they have found. What is it? What symbolic meaning do we see?

Perhaps the “Pearl of Great Price” is what gives purpose to life.   The mountains themselves symbolize a spiritual world separate from earth but accessible to those who are attuned to the higher realities. The necklace – a symbol of eternity – signifies that this daily seeking is destined to go on forever, an emblem of immortality. This all causes us to consider, “Why are we here?”

Unquestionably Roerich is one of the most interesting 20th century figures. It seems to me that his life was a symbolic journey documented in his massive body of works, each canvas a masterpiece of daring composition, glowing with color. Himalayan is the word not only for his art, but also a metaphor for his thoughts on the process of transformation.

The path to enlightenment, spiritual ascent, the sacred signs of Satyum, Shivam, Sundaram (Peace, Beauty, Truth) – these are the symbolic themes at the heart of Roerich’s paintings and writings, also at the heart of Freemasonry.  They continually cast a spell on me.  Once we begin on this infinite and exponential journey of discovery, we might stop for a moment to enjoy the view or a treasure found, but there is no turning back. Ultimately, we choose the next plateau we want to rise to.

From Roerich’s “Realm of Light”:

“Let us abandon the past for the future. Let us impel our entire consciousness into the future and let us suffuse it with radiance, for this is within the access of humanity.”

Note: To read further on Nicholas Roerich, check out the Nicholas Roerich Museum.

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

Silence: A Way to Wisdom

What happens in silence? Many argue that silence can invite reflection, contemplation, and discipline. In other words, silence  — along with inquiry — engages learning. It makes you wise. The significance of silence has been highlighted in practically all mystery traditions. Secrecy and silence play a big part in the masonic teaching. Pythagoras, one of the best known champions of silence, is thought to have said:

Silence is the first stone of the temple of wisdom. Listen and you will be wise; the beginning of wisdom is silence.

Silence is generally considered to mean quietness or not making any sound. And while this is indeed silence, I do not think it is everything silence is. It can also mean to preserve a secret, calm the emotions, or still the mind. There is no real silence when emotional tides are raging within us and when we find our monkey mind chattering to itself. 

Is cultivating silence a way to becoming wise?

I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the quest for wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy. Basically, many of us want to be wise. To know the truth. To know thyself. To know others. To know our beliefs. To know answers Silence 2to questions. To know, know, know.

However, I am not sure we all want to know silence. Why?

The practice of silence invites us to not-know. Is there room in our seeking for not-knowing? Is there space in our pursuit for un-knowing? Listening? Unlearning? For dumping how we have come to cherish our beliefs? To dismiss the knowledge that we carry in our small boxes of understanding? To be open to a magnificent, wondrous world of undiscovered realities? To hold a mystery?

Can we embrace a secret? Can we live in the question?

The Pythagoreans were huge advocates of secrecy and silence. A wonderful little book called Divine Harmony describes the Pythagorean way of life as it is thought to have existed, although we know little for sure. To become a member, an Initiate took an oath of silence for two to five years. Novices were called “listeners” and were not permitted to partake in class discussions. The ancient brothers were quite serious about silence, believing it develops powers of attention and memory.

The school curriculum consisted of developing a host of virtues in the students. Silence 3Knowledge was transmitted symbolically, through cryptic statements and riddles.

The Pythagorean Y

One of the symbols studied was called the “Pythagorean Y.” Manly P. Hall explains:

The famous Pythagorean Y signified the power of choice and was used in the Mysteries as emblematic of the Forking of the Ways. The central step separated into two parts, one branching to the right and the other to the left. The branch to the right was called Divine Wisdom and the one to the left Earthly Wisdom.

This symbol reminds me of the fork in the road that Robert Frost talks about in his poem,  “The Road Not Taken.” Earthly wisdom or Divine Wisdom? Each path corresponds to a different direction his life may take. He must choose carefully. Left turn or right turn? Mundane or spiritual?

I look back on my own life, wondering how many times I have faced that fork (and still do). I do not always take the road “less traveled.” Sometimes it is just easier to be busy with the mindless daily grind. Wise people are people who make the hard choices, who know things – things that matter. They put that knowledge to good use in practice. I saw a saying the other day on someone’s T shirt that said:

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.

Confucius, another wise person, once said that there were three ways to learn Wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and

Third by experience, which is the bitterest.

As we can see the ancient philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom and silence. But what relevance does it have for our modern times?

Silence in a Modern World

First, it seems to me that silence is a very good thing. The powers of observation can lead to truth and wisdom. Moreover, seeking truth and finding wisdom both have Silence 4instrumental value to the modern world.

On the other hand, not all silences are created equal. Some silences don’t lead to truth. We could, I suppose, spend all our time in silence seeking to know every possible truth, but that does not seem like the path of wisdom. What we want to know are silences that matter, that lead to those truths that are relevant to our practical projects and society. Some truths are clearly more actionable than others.

I find encouragement in the exemplary lives of those who have practiced silence, people like Gandhi, the Indian civil rights leader. He is one of the wisest people I know that did great things while being dedicated to spending one day a week in silence. For him, it was a choice to continue to redeem the world and to save the world from our own selves. He knew that a person cannot be wise if he arrogantly over-estimates the power of his own beliefs and judgments. There needs to be humility: to listen and learn, and to give other voices their due.

Thomas Carlyle, philosopher and writer, speaks of a Ghandi type of silence in Sartor Resartus:

Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule.

The great things are not “over there” somewhere. They are all right here, where we are, waiting in silence, the element of not-knowing. Vast. Majestic. Subtle. No knowing them. No rushing them. No trapping them. Only accepting the silence for what it is. And what it will become.

 

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

A Little Light Reading: The Arts and Freemasonry

I have been asked often: “what are good books for people who are interested in Freemasonry?” Personally, I feel that any reading is good reading: it strengthens the mind, opens you up to diverse ideas, enhances your vocabulary, and makes you a far more interesting person for conversation. Regardless, there are a myriad of paths the aspirant’s reading may take, and still find they add substance and interest to the philosophies that make up your life. Nearly every genre has something to add, and I’ve personally found Masonic meaning in many non-“serious” readings. Masonry is everywhere, and for the ardent Freemason, it can be found in movies, science fiction writings, and even children’s books.

For those interested in Freemasonry, titles at The Masonic Publishing Company are robust places to start the journey. I’d highly recommend The Brother of the Third image-masonic-publishing-companyDegree, the Kybalion, and The Law. For those interested in Co-Masonry in general, On Holy Ground is a particularly engaging book on one organization’s foundation and history within the United States. There are really two aspects of reading in Freemasonry – about Freemasonry and about symbolismIf you’re interested in the symbolic nature of Freemasonry, The Secret Teaching of All Ages, by Manly P. Hall, is a fascinating romp through all kinds of studies and is a good foundation into alternative ways of looking at life, the universe, and everything.

Most late 19th century and early 20th century Masonic authors, like Leadbeater, J.F. Newton, Powell, and Wilmshurst, are also very good authors to explore some of the specifics of Freemasonry, without giving anything away. That is my caveat with anyone interested in becoming a Freemason: don’t read ahead. In fact, don’t read any ritual or about any degree you don’t have. Sure, you can find anything on the Internet; Freemasonry, however, is an experiential process and to truly find it work in yourself, it’s really a good idea to go in without expectations or knowledge. You might find you get in your own way. Books like The Science of the Sacraments, by Leadbeater, give one an idea of ritual work without speaking strictly to Freemasonic ritual.  The Golden Bough and The Magic of Freemasonry provide deeper insight into ritual and its importance in human life. Georges_de_La_Tour_-_Magdalen_of_Night_Light_-_WGA12337

As a Freemason, I see Freemasonry everywhere and find the concepts housed within almost every genre – fine arts (drama, oil paintings, etc.), science fiction, philosophy, fantasy writings, and many movies. Walking through an art museum, one may find the aspect of a ritual here, or a teaching there. Many Renaissance and Baroque painters styled their subjects in familiar Masonic situations. In writing, I find Freemasonry in Asimov, Le Guin,  Pullman, L’Engle, and Zelazny, as well as in various philosophies like Pythagoras, Plutarch, and Seneca. Reading autobiographies of people like the Founding Fathers (United States), provides some clarity in the type of “enlightened mind” that feeds a Freemasonic soul.

Movies are always fascinating to watch through a Masonic lens. Movies such as “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Inception,” The-Matrix“The Matrix,” and “I, Robot” capture the challenging questions of reality and what is the perfection of humanity.  In music, one can explore Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Holst’s “The Planets” to find how music can be influenced by a Masonic mind. Any artistic medium that addresses the larger questions of life, why are we here, and how can we find meaning, speak to the Freemason who is seeking to add more to their Masonic work.

Beware of those authors who sensationalize Freemasonry. If it sounds too good to be true, it generally is. That is equally true of Freemasonry writings founded in speculation and falsehoods. There is much speculation without much fact, and while Freemasons are speculative, they are also rooted in truth, nature, and science.

That said, the arts are wonderful places to explore the concepts contained within Freemasonry and help broaden the minds of those seeking more of life. The secrets of Freemasonry are all around us and we have only to open our senses to find the way.