Obligation in Modernity

Obligation in Modernity

Freemasonry is built on the idea of obligating yourself to perform certain tasks, with a specific set of goals in mind. The word “obligation” comes from the roots of Middle English, from the verb “oblige,” which means to formally legally or morally bind someone to a promise. North Americans are used to hearing the phrase “much obliged,” in a sort of archaic sense, which means “to be indebted or grateful.” This is a derivation of the word; the more archaic form, from where the word “obligation” comes from is “to bind (someone) by an oath, promise, or contract.” The current 21st century definition is “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.”

The most common obligation people run into is that of marriage. Divorce rates in the United States are down, possibly because marriage rates are also down. A shift? What about other obligations we make during our lives, especially the ones to ourselves? Upwards of 25% of current high school Freshmen will never complete high school. College drop out rates are the highest they have ever been, even with the highest enrollments ever. Even fraternal and social groups suffer from those who start and, for whatever reason, drop out.

To be fair, there are many reasons for giving up the path; financial, health, and family issues may cause problems for the student or spouse. Yet, we find little effort being made to surmount those challenges; we see the heroes as ones who complete school against all odds – but those odds are sometimes no greater than odds we all face. Everyone has challenges in their life. Completing or dedicating yourself to an endeavor takes will and strength, a desire to go against the easy life and really work hard to achieve your own success, whatever that might be. In an age of “Alexa” and “Siri,” doing things for yourself is seen as too much effort.

Molecular Thoughts

People who choose an esoteric path have put themselves on an extremely hard working journey. It’s not easy. As Buddha said, “life is suffering.” Enlightenment is not found in simple meditation. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual work are all necessary. Freemasonry, an esoteric and mystery path built on the foundations of “operative masonry,” is perhaps the epitome of working esoterically and externally.

An excellent article on the “Obligations of a Freemason” can be found on Pietre-Stones. In this article, the author expounds on the obligations of the individual as well as the collective. As Freemasonry is an “individual path worked in a group/collective,” it’s very right that we also look at not only what our obligations to ourselves but also to the group. In fact, from the very onset, in our application, we are promising certain actions that are considered obligatory.

Why all this emphasis on obligation, promises, and commitment? Is there some deeply esoteric meaning in obligating yourself to someone or something? Perhaps.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” ~ (John 1:1)

Much has been said about the divine logos, or, according to the Greeks, “The One Great Reason.” It’s representative of the unseen force of the universe that links us all together, whether we call it God, Love, the Divine, the Force, or whatever. Our ideas about “the Word,” and I suspect John’s as well, came from the Greek philosophers – Heraclitus, Plato, and Epictetus. Where Plato defined logos as an archetype, an idea representation of the divine in an independent-of-physical world, the Stoics refined the idea of logos to impart to it an active principle, and one which incorporated “the Reason” for all being into the function of “The Word.” It’s clear that The writer of the Gospel of John, as well as Buddhists, Jews, Taoists and others have also integrated this idea of the logos into the active Divine in the function of speaking the Word.

The divine Logos is the divine purpose, plan, or word that is the ultimate reason for the cosmos, which orders the universe and gives it meaning. That is, the sound or word has meaning, weight, in creation. As noted above, the Stoics defined logos as the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos. That is, we humans, through our actions and words have generative power. The act of committing ourselves, or creating a binding agreement to complete work has power over us, either consciously or subconsciously. It also has the power to affect other individuals and other groups. This is a ripple effect; what we achieve has a lasting effect on the world around us, and flows out from us in a physical and metaphysical wave.

LOGOS-GreekThus, in giving our “word” or “bond,” we are creating. We create not only the superficial matter – such as our place in a Lodge or our status as spouse in a marriage, but we are creating an unseen, immaterial ripple that will create an effect throughout time. We create – it’s what humans do – and through our words, we create more than just simple relationships. Each word is a spoken manifestation of divinity.

Thus, promises, obligations, and commitments have weight – perhaps even more weight than we realize – when it comes to our overall spiritual life. It is important that we chose and use them carefully.

It’s funny that some individuals see their obligations as infringements on their time, or resources, or futures; funny because most, if not all commitments, promises, and obligations are solely made as the choice of the individual.  We think the promise we make to ourselves and others is somewhat disposable, minimal, with little effect on others and perhaps not even ourselves. Divorce and breakups, broken familial relationships and school dropouts – these are the failures of not understanding ourselves and our words. Failure is always an option and do-overs are necessary – but in order to achieve relief from the suffering, we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves. Pain is inevitable, and suffering doesn’t arise from pain but from our resistance to it – from our resistance to honesty and careful thought; it comes from our resistance to speak “the Word.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from a children’s fantasy book, one which understands and captures the essence of “the Word” in a very real sense – The Wizard of Earthsea.

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”
― Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

Traversing Transitions: Where Freemasonry and Tibet Meet

“It’s hard to have those conversations,” the palliative care doctor was saying. She was talking about telling a loved one that Stage 4 cancer is terminal, and all the discussions and decisions that surround such a prognosis. The patient, an 85-year-old man, had lived a good life and yet, because of his fear of death, of losing this life, he was in denial and angry. This caused him and his family pain and turmoil as he sought to find his way to some acceptance of his situation.

Conversations about death are hard because U.S. culture is steeped in the fear of death. One only needs to look at television or magazine ads to see this; a culture that prides itself on fitness, youthfulness, and acquiring things has little understanding of the true nature of death. Death is a skeleton to be feared, a lurker in the closet that should not be acknowledged. Many aged have lived a life of denial of death, waiting until perhaps the last possible moment to “find God” or think about “the other side.”

People fear dying, not death, in general. They fear the pain and suffering that comes with long illnesses. Who wouldn’t? Cancer is certainly not a pleasant state. We hope for a quick death or to die in our sleep. Death in this way removes the focus on the body, on the horrors of what happens to the flesh that decays. Westerners don’t spend a lot of time on what it means to transition in death; they mostly focus on the unpleasant physical effects of the dying process. What is fascinating is that if one steps outside of perhaps the standard Western religions, he sees a far greater world that is not only accepting of death, but embracing of death.

While the Egyptian Book of the Dead (The Book of Coming Forth By Day) is a book, or set of scrolls, that specifically addresses the stages of death and afterlife, it doesn’t speak to the reader in such a way as to make the stages of death clear. It is still, after all, a Western book, early (2670 B.C.E.) as it may be. The scrolls were lists of spells which were left in the tombs of the dead. Their purpose was to provide the deceased a way to navigate the afterlife successfully. A very good modern interpretation / translation of this book is titled “Awaking Osiris.”

The Bardo Thodol, or “The Great Liberation Upon Hearing in the Intermediate State” is a book which is written for the living to assist the dying and deceased to make the transition off the Wheel of Life to Nirvana. This book is also known as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, although that is a fanciful 20th C. Western name.

Three bardos, or intermediate states between activities, are to be navigated, and success in these provides pathways toward different ends. A bardo may be any intermediate state, such as between birth and death, death and rebirth, even between something like sleeping and awakening. The guru or teacher sits with the person that is about to die and speaks to him of his journey, reminding him of his true being. He is prompted to enter the Clear Light, and thus, remove himself from the path of Earthly physical life. If he transitions to the second bardo, further instructions are given, and so on, until the soul either returns to Nirvana or back into a physical body, depending on the spiritual acumen of the deceased person. That all sounds a little complicated; in essence, it is assistance by the earthly person to the unearthly one, guiding him on his way to reincarnation or elevation.

“O Nobly Born, that which is death being called to thee now, resolve thus: “O this now is the hour of death. By taking advantage of this death, I will so act for the good of all sentient beings, peopling the illimitless expanse of the heavens, as to obtain the Perfect Buddhahood, by resolving on love and compassion towards them, and by directing my entire effort to the Sole Perfection.”

This section, from the First Bardo, is an example of the cultural views of death; not only its acceptance but total embrace to do what is best for the good of the collective humanity. This section goes on to remind the deceased that his life is in service to the greater good. The bardos continue in a cycle, all the while being guided by a guru, a “man of Faith,” a brother, or other person. The person acts as a guide from this realm to the next, allowing the soul to find peace by whatever means it finds possible. The thought of reading these beside the dying person is somehow comforting, perhaps as much to the speaker as to the “hearer.”

I think much of this same type of symbolism and instruction is provided to the Craft Mason, who winds through these bardos in the the rituals of all Craft degrees. Freemasonry, being an initiatory rite, seeks to impress on its membership the repeated lessons of life and death, until these ritual words and actions become very familiar to him. At first he is the recipient and later the provider. The nature of Freemasonry, the Service to Humanity, maybe partly this: imparting the ability to have each human experience a peaceful transition from this life to the next, and thereby improve the overall state of all beings.

The three bardos of death to rebirth transition, as explained in the book, are the Bardo of the Moment of Death, the Bardo of Experiencing Reality, and the Bardo while seeking Rebirth. To me, these mirror perfectly with the Craft degrees, where the lessons are told in with a Western slant. In some Masonic traditions, a chamber is used to create a space for the candidate to experience a true bardo, an intermediate state between activities, where reflection and change can take place. Symbolic in this world, perhaps these ritual trappings are faint shadows of the reality of our earthly transition.

It was said to me, recently, that Freemasons seem to be less afraid of death than perhaps the average Western human. If we listen to what Freemasonry is imparting, the Mason can’t help but put away the denial of his physical, transitory nature. We will die from this world. Freemasons may be better able to embrace the transcendence of being that marks the animus, the soul, the spirit, or whatever you wish to call the immortal principle in each living thing. Fear is the mind killer and is that which brings pain to what may not need to be a painful experience.

Freemasons are repeatedly provided the tools, symbolic and ritualistic, to learn to guide themselves and others through all the bardos of the human existence. It seems to me that all humans could use a lot more peaceful transitions into whatever intermediate state we find ourselves.

“Thine own consciousness, shining, void and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light.” ~ Buddha Amitabha

Ego and the Freemason

Ego and the Freemason

I have to say, I love my Lodge’s Study Groups. They bring up all kinds of interesting subjects in relation to all aspects of life, and more particularly, life as a Freemason. We recently discussed how Ego affects our lives, and what our particular work is as Freemasons in regards to the Ego. These study sessions give me an opportunity to explore not only my own experiences with the topic but also what I think about it objectively – form an opinion, as well as be able to articulate that opinion. Since we all have an ego, it’s easy to have experiences with it. It’s harder to form objective opinions. After all, isn’t the ego involved in forming those opinions?

One of my first college classes, as a fresh-faced 18 year old, was Psychology 101. This was predated by a class in Western Philosophy, both having an extremely big pull for me. These were classes that my high school did not offer, a whole new world of learning that was and still is exciting. We learned all about Freud and Jung’s theories of the Ego, amongst other things, but nothing really “stuck” with me after that class. I never went back and explored ego until it came up so often in religious and metaphysical studies years later. I identified most closely with Jung’s writings and I often go back to read up on him when questions of psyche were, and are, involved.

In his writing about ego, “One of Jung’s central concepts is individuation, his term for a process of personal development that involves establishing a connection between the ego and the self. The ego is the center of consciousness; the self is the center of the total psyche, including both the conscious and the unconscious.” The reference goes on to say, “For Jung, there is constant interplay between the two. They are not separate but are two aspects of a single system. Individuation is the process of developing wholeness by integrating all the various parts of the psyche.”

The most interesting part of that statement is the fact that the ego and the self are different entities that must be integrated. How did they get dis-integrated in the first place? How did something that was whole become separate yet linked, and our goal is to try to integrate the two? Is it birth that separated them? If so, what are we before? And is that the state we are trying to achieve? It makes my head spin to think that we might have been integrated in the womb (or before?) and dis-integrated at birth, and we spend our whole lives working toward re-integration. Is that the purpose of human life, to find that which was lost? What happens, then, if you integrate earlier than dying? Is that perhaps our goal? Do we evolve as a species if that happens?

Hurts your head, right?

If these are two linked-yet-separate energies, they may be difficult to identify without each other. Imagine a binary star system, two bright points of light circling each other, embracing each other as only two fiery systems of gas and elementals can – never touching and continually burning each other. Love that consumes and renews itself. Yes, that must be the ego and the self, in Jung’s world.

If the ego and the self are inseparable, then it seems to me we have to learn to live with both, separate and equal parts, calling to and screaming at one another all the time. How do we reconcile? Do we even try? Since we cannot unequivocally say where the mind resides, perhaps these two things are part of the overarching mind that controls us. If “as above, so below,” we must ask – does that Divine mind have a self and ego, too? Does the Divine even have a mind? Maybe that’s a weird question, but maybe not.

Freemasonry simultaneously chooses to subdue our egos and find our “self.” Perhaps one of the binary stars must be dominant, and in that dominance is where we find the traits of a person – arrogance or humility, graciousness or rudeness. In the balance between the stars, we find the nature of the gasses they put off. It is difficult to be of service to your fellow Masons and at the same time be immodest and arrogant. There’s little room for others when you fill the room with your ego. Perhaps that is also why we learn to subdue passions – the passions of the ego – and develop the passions of the self – the connection to the divine. One star must dim to have the other shine. The Roche Lobe of Personality.

In the past, I wondered why we, as Freemasons, pin medals on our chests and put numbers at the end of our names, or added titles when we attain certain Masonic degrees. I think this is another of those tests – do we do it for prestige? Do we wear our outward jewels as a “brag rag,” as I heard one brother call it long ago? Or do we wear them to honor the Work we’ve completed and bring to the gathering? Do we shine our ego brightly to make our “self” fade? Intent is everything and nothing; we must be clear about what the outward trappings mean in order to not fall into the trap itself, yes?  Is one degree better than another? What have we really attained? I think about these things often. I do my best to remember the duty and cautiously regard the glitter. It seems to stick to everything.

Does Masonry feed the ego? Or help one subdue it? Maybe it’s an ongoing dialogue rather than a simple, solitary question.