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.

Stoic about Time

Stoic about Time

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.”  – Seneca

In a recent Masonic Philosophical Society meeting, we discussed the likeness of Stoicism to Freemasonry. Seneca, Zeno, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius all took center stage. It was a lively discussion and the argument that Stoicism and Freemasonry are the same was extremely compelling. As I always do, I went on my own journey to rediscover what I had learned in school about the Stoics; with what I knew about Freemasonry, I felt that I was well armed to learn some new ways of looking at the Stoics.

I first went to TED Talks, where I always find a wealth of great ideas and food for further thought. There is an excellent animated video on the Stoics, by Massimo Pigliucci, entitled The Philosophy of Stoicism. It’s a very well done quick course on the Stoics. Another excellent TED talk on Stoicism is by Ted Ferriss, “Why you should define your fears and not your goals.” This is about 13 minutes long and is a very practical look at why Stoicism is beneficial and how you can use it in daily life.

What was very interesting was a single quite that Ferriss said helped him change his life: “We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”

Huh, I thought. Of course we do. But why? Another recent reading foray brought me to brain_opener_free_0another idea: time. We humans understand time only superficially, as it applies to us. Our brains are wired to understand and extrapolate possible futures, opportunities missed in the past, and move our lives to live in synchronicity.

There are factions of large people, including myself at one point, who thought that “living in the moment” was the key to being happy. I now don’t think we’re wired that way.

In a recent article in the New York Times, author and professor of psychology Martin E.P. Seligman agrees. “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” examines how our minds work and why. He and his co-authors have outlined this process in their book, “Homo Prospectus.” The article, and the book, are really discussing the philosophy of Stoicism to make it through life.


Time. We are subjects of Time. 

What really solidified this for me was listening to a recent Radiolab episode, which was a repeat of their first season, discussing “Time.” In it, the two podcasters discussed the idea of time and living in the moment. Robert Krulwich takes his co-host on a journey of reason.

Our mind does not process data at the time it is created. Smell, sound, and light – these are all generated by something and transmitted over some distance to our surroundings, where we pick it up via our senses, and whereupon it is interpreted by our brains. This distance travel take… time. It is not instantaneous. Our minds process – speed is only a matter of relativity. Ergo, we are never experiencing the moment. We are always processing memories. And memories are always subject to misinterpretation.

It’s no wonder we fear. We cannot live in the moment and must always interpret the past to create possible futures. Truly, like we never really touch anything, due to the molecular distance between surfaces, all that we have is an interpretation of our surroundings, received and processed in past, to guide us in our futures. Spending the time to put emotion into it grounds it even future in “memory.”


To pull ourselves out of time is impossible, and thus, living in the moment is impossible. Ergo, we need a tool to bring us around to dealing with these memories in such a way as to not freeze us in our tracks. We are brought back to, again, the wisdom of the Stoics. “A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature,” stated Zeno of Citium.

Our modern psychologists agree:

“Homo prospectus is too pragmatic to obsess on death for the same reason that he doesn’t dwell on the past: There’s nothing he can do about it. He became Homo sapiens by learning to see and shape his future, and he is wise enough to keep looking straight ahead.”

– From Homo Prospectus, by Martin E. P. Seligman, Peter Railton, Roy F. Baumeister, and Chandra Sripada

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.

Are Sacred Places Important? The Labyrinth at Chartres

Are Sacred Places Important? The Labyrinth at Chartres

In our present time, there seems to be a huge market for “buying” your way to enlightenment. Everyone is peddling a secret. Chant this mantra. Hold this crystal. Buy some incense. Rub that oil. Say these words. Go to this retreat. Some of these things may have some value. Spiritual longing is a real part of the human experience. Labyrinths hold a special attraction for me. Can a labyrinth really be a tool for enlightenment? Are sacred places important?

The first labyrinth that I ever experienced was a Chartres Labyrinth, although I was not lucky enough to be in at the famous labyrinth in Chartres, France. I liked it so much I began to investigate labyrinths in general and the Chartres Labyrinth in particular.

Chartres Cathedral was built one thousand years ago to be the site of a Mystery School. Not only was the cathedral an architectural feat but was one of the leading learning centers at the time. The edifice combined the visionary teachings of Plato with Christian mysticism. You must walk the entire labyrinth path before gaining entrance to the Temple. It is the “way in,” if you will, a Chamber of Reflection of sorts.

Those who have been to the actual site in France say that the effect of the Cathedral is peaceful and nurturing. You are at rest, left to wander or to meditate in tranquility. The atmosphere suggests that the veil between the human and celestial worlds is thin, and God is very near. It represents the ideal of a sacred space: a blending of the divine and material. The impact of Chartres on people at that time must have been enormous. How can a place be so heavenly?

Sacred Geometry

The Divine mystery of the labyrinth walk might be due in part to the magical pattern. One path leads inwards to the center, and the same path leads back out again. Chartres has an eleven-circuit design, divided into four quadrants. They are encircled by an outer ring of lunations, thought to represent a type of lunar calendar. The quadrants suggest the even armed cross. At the center is a Rosette pattern of 6 petals which is the place of 14761614336_92dabf6bf4_zrest. It reminds us of the sacred lotus, symbol of enlightenment.

In medieval times, the path was considered a substitute for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It is symbolic of the pilgrim’s journey into his Soul: the Center. It must be a two-way journey, which ends at the starting point. The pilgrim must not seek to remain inside. He goes and comes back. He visits. He walks from the unreal to the real, from the periphery to the center, from the mundane to the spiritual and back. Is this not life?

Symmetry of the Design

In his book, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral, Louis Charpentier recalls his first experience of being inside the cathedral. He was immediately struck with the impression that “everything contained its opposite in itself.” He said that the same balance contained in the secret of the Chinese Tai Chi, is at work in Chartres where the “proportions, orientation, position and symbolism have all been designed to alert the psyche and refresh the spirit.”

This idea is hinted at in Chapter 14 of the Tao Te Ching

LabyrinthWhat we look for beyond seeing 
And call the unseen,
Listen for beyond hearing
And call the unheard.
Grasp for beyond reaching
And call the withheld,
Merge beyond understanding
In a oneness
Which does not merely rise and give light,
Does not merely set and leave darkness,
But forever sends forth a succession of living things as mysterious
As the unbegotten existence to which they return.

Charpentier further states:

“If the pilgrim experienced the entire sensuousness of the cathedral, it would be because the body’s senses had apprehended all the musical and geometrical proportions, and all the numbers and lines expressed in the building’s interior.”

Geometric forms that exist in the labyrinth or even the Masonic Temple such as the cube, triangle, sphere, square, or oblong square could act as a doorway into various states of awareness. “God Geometrizes.” Sacred Temples can be said to stand for an unseen condition of something that can be known.

Beauty as an Expression of Truth

Divine archetypes are said to be not only doorways to the unknown, but as Plato has indicated, they are the very essence of beauty. The nature of beauty cannot always be described in words, and so it is possible, that certain symbols act as a bridge between the visible and the invisible. Satisfying both a physical and metaphysical need, sacred architecture can:


1. Provide an energetic focusing center on the physical plane wherein the mysteries are learned and enacted;

2. Serve those seekers who enter the building and become intellectually and spiritually stimulated.

The more beautiful the appearance in form – the more closely will it correspond with spiritual truth. Buckminster Fuller stated it like this, “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

My sense is that if a person does not appreciate beautiful or holy things, he will lose them. Without reverence, the sacred feeling will diminish and then be forgotten. Thereafter, his only concern will be his personal comfort and selfish desires.

On the other hand, as we honor holy places we will be entrusted with holy things. Just the opposite of disbelief and despair, the goal is eternal life and peace. Contemplating art and architecture, the spiritual and the divine, moves us away from the mundane world of the daily round.

Do sacred spaces make us more enlightened? Some have scoffed at labyrinths, masonic temples, mantra, and things like crystals or incense for centuries. In times of need, I have tried all of them.

Music and the Quadrivium

Music and the Quadrivium

Music is delivered to us via our sense of hearing, which when young hears a wider range than when we are older. Our mind processes the complex mathematical formulas of sound waves, and that processing, can affect our mood, thoughts, feelings, and memories. Music is found in all cultures, at all human times – humming, hitting things together, singing, instruments. We have found a way, through music, to sounds and words much more integral to our lives than mere language.

There are so many aspects of music that it is impossible to scratch even the surface here. In a recent conversation, I asked a Brother, proficient in music theory, playing music, and song, what he felt the most important aspect of music was. Without hesitation he said, “The perfect fifth.” I asked him to explain.

M_Octave_Fourth_FifthThe human mind likes consonance, or harmony in its music. We find our minds like notes to be evenly spaced, and those that are not are “out of tune.” The perfect fifth is considered the most consonant of musical intervals. However, the musical scale cannot, mathematically, work with all perfect fifths, up octaves and down. There must be adjustment, otherwise it sounds “off.” This equal  interval spacing, what we’re familiar with today, is called equal temperament. There are several tuning methods, and several types of equal temperaments. These differences come from how the octave is divided mathematically.

This brings us to The Well-Tempered Clavier. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a collection of two series of Preludes and Fugues in all major and minor keys, composed for solo keyboard by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is sometimes assumed that by “well-tempered” Bach intended equal temperament, the standard modern keyboard tuning which became popular after Bach’s death, but modern scholars suggest instead a form of well temperament. There is debate whether Bach meant a range of similar temperaments, perhaps even altered slightly in practice from piece to piece, or a single specific “well-tempered” solution for all purposes. There are 24 pairs of preludes and fugues, in each book (48 total) each representing the entire set of musical keys.

Johann Sebastian Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750), German musician and composer playing the organ, circa 1725. From a print in the British Museum. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This set of music is significant for a few reasons. The first is that it is really Bach’s catalogue of the styles and techniques of Bach’s day. It inspired many composers and it can be seen, in some ways, as a type of “color card” for music – not unlike the paint chip cards you find in a hardware store. The music exploits tuning methods, temperaments, and construction that Bach would have used on any keyboard instrument.

Interesting book on humankind and music here: The Singing Neanderthals: the Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005. ISBN 0-297-64317-7 374 pp.