Revolutionaries of the Soul

It was the Enlightenment that put the final touch (in the West) on the division between our state of being or consciousness and our state of knowing. The latter, knowing, was now a function of one part of the mind, namely reason. This one dimensionality was matched in mainstream philosophic reactions with an emphasis on a contrasting sub-mind - 'the imagination' or 'feeling' or 'the will'! It was left to certain poets - Blake or Goethe - or the esotericists such as Swedenborg to defend traditional modes of knowing that linked what you beheld as the 'state of reality' with who you were - on the quality or state of your consciousness. Transforming consciousness through embodied practice was at the core of this view.

Gary Lachman's 'Revolutionaries of the Soul' is a series of essays on the defenders (and reanimators) of this traditional view in the West, through Yeats' 'three provincial centuries', down to our own time.

They range from the familiar such as Blavatsky and Jung, through the lesser know such as Dion Fortune to the frankly notorious such as Evola and Aleister Crowley, the self-proclaimed (and self-regarding) 'great beast'.

Each essay is a compressed, elegant vignette of the person's life reflected through their experience of a world other than the commonplace, daily reality of things and on their work to bring this other dimension to a more conscious level of knowing and living. They succeed both in being stimulating in themselves and as an invitation to further exploration. They succeed too in reminding us of the challenge and cost of maintaining a sacred view of things in the face of an age turned materialist, emptying out and privatising religion as it did so.

Often this encounter with the alternative possibilities of consciousness began in childhood such as the young Rudolf Steiner encountering the apparition of a female relative, asking for help, at the exact moment of her later reported suicide.  How were these psychic revelations to be understood - what manner of metaphysic gives account of them - and how were they to be integrated into the pattern of one's living?

The answers to these questions are many-fold, borrowing from traditions, West and East, and shaped within the biographies of diverse souls and yet sharing family resemblances both across traditions and within the particular biographies of each person.

However, I found myself thinking of themes implicit yet not directly addressed by Lachman's accomplished accounting.

Primary amongst which is the notion that truth needs not only to be understood but also withstood. The revelation of other worlds, other levels of consciousness, and their integration, require a level of physical and emotional maturity that not all of Lachman's subjects possessed and this possession depends on two key factors.

The first appears to be the ability to make sense of one's experience within an intellectual framework that is both owned and shared. Meaning springs from an abiding narrative that is woven within a life of an answering community. You may step into the fires of revelation as a 'solitary' explorer but coherence is granted by a hearing community. Jung plunged into his 'breakdown' alone (if within the context of a loving family) but emerged into a shared pattern of thinking and living that was embraced in his coterie of remarkable, primarily female supporters and co-workers, not least of whom was his wife, Emma. A number of Lachman's subjects committed suicide, in part, because apparently they could not reconcile their life of seeing with a community of being seen (and an accompanying assurance of intellectual coherence and life meaning).

The second appears to be a degree of emotional stability (or intelligence) that allows the challenge of transformation to rest within a space clear. I was reminded of a young monk who comes to study on Mount Athos, charged with the idea of becoming a 'holy elder'. His teacher gives him a copy of David Copperfield and suggests he read it. He is disgusted. He has not come for this - reading sentimental nineteenth century novels. His teacher admonishes him: if he cannot absorb the normal lessons of a commonly shared, compassionate humanity, how does he imagine he can go further into the demands of a supernatural love? A number of Lachman's subjects appear disabled by their inability to rest in emotional currents of ordinary fellow feeling and outstretching empathy. The space from which we can respond to 'revelatory experience' with the necessary mix of assurance and humility; and, can affect the difficult work of what in Zen is called 'polishing the stone', of bringing the new awakened sense of reality home, within the dynamic complexities of our lived life.

Many of the most attractive of Lachman's revolutionaries are so because they have both an intellectual (even if you may disagree with the content)  and an emotional coherence and express their vision through patterns of shared healing. They were not simply theoretical revolutionaries - their revolution remade the possibilities of their soul, souling and an empathetic offering to others.

For myself, it is the accounts of Swedenborg, Jung, Steiner, Jean Gebser and Owen Barfield for which I am most grateful. Through all of them runs a current of do not look at me but search within for your own, gifted resilience, hope and wisdom. Running through them is the sense that their intellectual exploration was truly married with the embodied ability to ensoul their lives and the lives of others in practice.

Finally, it is a sense that you could be trapped in a lift with them in the confidence that you would emerge with a shared wisdom, carried in an abiding compassion.


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