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.


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     


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


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.

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.

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.

The Quadrivium

The Quadrivium

What scholars call the “foundation of Liberal Arts” – the Trivium – is taught in order that one may expand to other subjects, building upon the skills learned. These subjects have been varied over time, based on the philosopher teaching them but they are now generally accepted as mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy – the Quadrivium. While these subjects were taught by ancient philosophers (Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), they became “the Quadrivium” in the Middle Ages in Western Europe, after Boethius or Cassiodorus had a go at translation.

(Encyclopedia Britannica has an excellent article on Mathematics in the Middle Ages, which discusses the Quadrivium briefly.)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (usually known simply as Boethius) (c. 480 – 525) was a 6th Century Roman Christian philosopher of the late Roman period. Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (c. 485 – c. 585), commonly known as Cassiodorus, was a Roman statesman and writer, serving in the administration of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths.  The former, Boethius, did a great deal to translate most of the ancient philosophers from Greek to Latin. Many of his works on Aristotle were foundational learning in the Middle Ages. Cassiodorus made education his life’s passion, particularly the liberal arts, and worked diligently to ensure classical literature was at the heart of Medieval learning. Both men have been credited with coining the term “Quadrivium,” or “where four roads meet.” Adding to the mix of Medieval education “influencers” is Proclus Lycaeus, one of the last classical philosophers and an ardent translator of Plato. He is considered one of the founding “fathers” of neoplatonism and had a great influence on Medieval education as well. His translations of Plato are peppered with his own ideas of education and philosophy. One of his most interesting books, considered a major work, is “The Platonic Theology.”

sevenLA1For the serious student of the classics, all of these philosophers, in their original Greek or Latin (with English translations alongside the original) can be found in the Loeb Classical Library series. Many used book stores, especially near universities, carry these books and they can be had for about 10$ each. There are hundreds of books but all are quite good as original references (See NOTE below) Back to the Quadrivium…

While many see the Trivium and Quadrivium as “separate,” I think this is a manufacture of our modern educational system. The Trivium are the basics for communicating thought, generating ideas, and conveying those thoughts clearly; yet, like Freemasonry, I don’t know that you would have jumped completely away from your foundations. Plato, in The Republic, does note that the quadrivium subjects, as identified above, should be taught separately. The Pythagorean School divided the subjects up between quantity (mathematics and harmonics, or otherwise known as music) and magnitude (geometry, cosmology or astronomy.) Personally, I find it difficult to talk about music without first having at least fundamental mathematics and exploring both together makes sense. I have not delved into the curriculum of the universities of the Middle Ages in Europe but if someone else has, it would be interesting to hear about it. sevenliberalarts

What I find most fascinating about the art surrounding the Quadrivium (and the Trivium, for that matter) is that nearly all of the plates, pictures, or engravings represent the subject matter as female or feminine. Perhaps it has to do with the receptive qualities of studiousness, or the idea of fecundity or maybe gentleness; whatever the reason, many of the Medieval and Renaissance European depictions show all subjects with a feminine demeanor. Since nearly all scholars in the middle ages in Europe were men, perhaps it was simply a bleed-over of the Medieval ideal of women. I am sure this is another subject for another time.

On an additional side note, I searched for representations of the Quadrivium and Trivium in Islamic art, also knowing full well that Islam is aniconistic. Islam really had begun to gain ground at the last part of the classical period in North Africa & Europe and as such did not really experience the same type of “downfall” or Dark Ages, that Europe did. The schools of Islam continued to develop the subjects of the quadrivium and trivium uninterrupted until Europe “caught up.” In fact, many of the mathematics, geometry, and astronomy texts of the latter Middle Ages were translated from Greek to Syriac Aramaic or from Arabic to Latin, and later taught in Latin universities in Europe.  Suffice to say that Islam did have an impact of the learning of the West, probably much more than most people today are aware.

So, why would the Freemason study the Quadrivium? The answer, to me, is obvious. If the one of the primary studies we must take on is Geometry, we need to understand how number fits into this process. We need Mathematics to understand Geometry, and Music to understand relationship of numbers, working in harmony. Astronomy teaches us our place in universe, and allows us to expand our knowledge of our own earth toward the heavens. Geometry, or the study of the measurement of the earth, is far more than the squares and triangle theorems we all know…and love. It’s about how to apply these numbers to the world around us. As we will see in each of the subjects, they can be taken for their base modern “ideas” or we can expand and overlap them, apply them to the natural world, and thereby become better caretakers of not only the earth we live on but the beings who live on it with us. The idea of a Renaissance Man is one who is well-versed in these foundations and has ideas that expand the world around us. They make the world a better place to live in, now and for the future. The Freemason, to me, embodies this idea completely.

Next stop, the subjects of the Quadrivium. Thank you for joining me!

NOTE For those interested in more of the Loeb Classical Library, but limited access to purchase these books, Harvard University Press has been working to put them online. The link is here:

Individuals can subscribe for a yearly cost, with subsequent years being cheaper, and non-profits can also subscribe for a reduced cost. If you are a serious researcher and you would like primary sources, this library is an excellent resource.