Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Secret Teachers of the Western World

An apocryphal story has Picasso confronted on a train by a man waving a photograph of his wife under his nose declaiming, “Why do you not paint things as they are? Like this’’. “You mean small, square and rather flat,” responds Picasso! Different minds perceive differently but what if our own, apparently single mind, has two distinct modes of behavior? The one, like Picasso, seeing intuitively, things as a whole and the patterns that connect; and, the second, like the man, in precise yet fragmented, mechanically sequenced parts, of high utility but reduced depth or meaning. This, in a compressed nutshell, was the thesis of Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Mastery and His Emissary’ that explored in a renewing way the discussion of ‘right and left brain asymmetry’ and suggested that the emissary, the utilitarian, reductionist if practical brain, had usurped its place and become the dominant mode of perception. We have come to know much of value in the process but drained life of meaning and purpose.

The Western esoteric traditions are in essence pathways to meaning that aim to transform our way of seeing who and where we are, not an accidental part in a meaningless universe, but as a living being connected, enfolded within a cosmic order that is sacred. Could our understanding, Lachman asks in this accomplished book, of those traditions be enriched by looking at them through a lens borrowed from McGilchrist? As practices for replenishing and repositioning the relationship between our two minds, of restoring them to balance? 

With this question in mind, Lachman takes us on a tour through the multiple pathways, convergent and divergent, that comprise the Western esoteric tradition, secret sometimes out of necessity either to guard knowledge from the ignorant or hide it from the persecutors but primarily because though culturally profoundly important and creative, mostly unacknowledged especially since we entered Yeats’ ‘the three provincial centuries’ of ‘left brain dominance’. It is all deftly handled, with sufficient space devoted to the key figures and contexts, so that you emerge with a sense of their contribution and their significance to the whole, often with a desire to know more; and, you recognise that the motif of double mindedness does run through the traditions.

You notice too how difficult it is to maintain a sense of balance betwixt the two minds – what Lachman describes as ‘the Goldilocks’ moment’ where each finds its appropriate balance, place, and they enrich rather than confront one another. This is partly, as Lachman notes, the apparent violence of the utilitarian left brain that reaches for the constant security of the certain, the complete, even at the expense of the whole, extinguishing vulnerability to the felt, the emergent, the unknowable. While there is a necessary truth in this, what if one imagines it from the other side? The emissary has tasks to perform, a life to run and secure, important but so often little acknowledged or praised. Is it is akin to being the elder brother of the prodigal son whose service is too easily taken for granted? Tripping into the imaginal, the cosmic, the ‘ungrund’ is transformative but to what purpose if not practiced here and now, in each and every encounter within the life that we are given?

This brings us to the importance of Lachman’s second lens – does our consciousness change over time in a way that creates grounds for hope that this dichotomy between minds will find, if not ‘a solution’, a newly conscious way of being lived out? One possible answer is in the work of the Swiss German philosopher,  Jean Gebser, who, in his magnum opus, ‘The Ever Present Origin’ sets out a masterful case for how human consciousness has evolved through specific, describable stages from magical to mythical to mental-rational to now the possibility of the integral. At the heart of this possibility is the invitation to live ‘ego-free’, not it must be seen ‘ego-less’. ‘Ego-free’ is where each preceding structure of consciousness is enfolded within the new, recognised as valuable but transformed by being seen from within the new structure; and, this structure is itself illuminated by the Origin with a renewing transparency.  Perhaps the master and the emissary can finally become friends rather than master and servant?

Likewise with McGilchrist, this is an accompanying lens through which we follow the esoteric traditions as they unfold. Each tradition wants to transform us but each must speak into, and reckon with, the place it finds itself with regard to our presiding ‘structure of consciousness’. Our brains are, as Bergson suggested, limiting devices so that we can be both opened to but also critically bear consciousness, they are what we navigate with and at different times navigation may require different maps.  One way of reading Lachman’s book is to see each tradition seeking to create the necessary map required at the time to find one’s way to transformation – no map is ever redundant, one can learn from all of them, but no map is ever complete and new one’s may add features not before noticed as necessary because the demands of consciousness have changed.

The book can also be read, more simply, as a treasure trove of lucid exposition. My own favourites were the passages on Plotinus that allow you to taste what it might mean to navigate the One; a compelling description of the ‘Imaginal’ through the eyes of Surawardi and his inspiration for Henri Corbin to coin the term; and, on why Dante is an esoteric thinker as well as a great poet. Or as a way of recognising how deeply influential such traditions have been on the wider culture; say, Newton's discoveries as emergent out of, rather than despite, his concern for alchemy or the profound influence of theosophy on the birth of abstract art.

Meanwhile, neither lens is wielded in a way that tends towards reductionism – we may have two brains because consciousness is structured that way, not the reverse, and accepting neither lens as ‘true’ is necessary in order to profit from the book. The beauty of the book is indeed in the faithful, sensitive rendition of the essences of the traditions themselves whilst continuing to pose the question to all of them: where and how do we find the right balance between whole and part, transcendence into meaning and practice into life? There can be no more important question.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The year's (re) discoveries

It began with a reminder of the sea - a brief holiday, before meeting Prince Charles and receiving an OBE, found me in Cornwall and St Ives. The weather was perfect, ever changing, crisp, cold, full of light and the sea was at my door. The sea holds, I feel, our deepest consciousness  - of earthly origin and symbolically of a unity from which we step forth and yet remain a part of (even as we forget).

Whilst there I read Philip Marsden's 'Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of a Place' that is a marvellous account of coming to live in Cornwall and making of it home, coming to recognise the spirits that animate a locality and that invite one to it as home.

Paying attention to the education of nature was the theme of 'Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants' by Robin Wall Kimmerer who is both Native American and professional biologist. It is a beautifully written book exploring how different traditions might complement, rather than confront, one another to arrive at a deeply enriching whole.

For which both are an invitation to remember that 'knowing' is a emergent property of being. We come to know what we love and we love what we come to know. There is a necessary link between our connection, openness and vulnerability in being that allows us to see. The truth of this was witnessed to repeatedly as I read myself through the year. It is there in Aldous Huxley - our consciousness permits us to see, it is there in Charles Williams - our imagination conditions the possibilities of knowledge; and, it is there in the rich pattern of Orthodox theological thinking that Andrew Louth captured so engagingly in his 'Modern Orthodox Thinkers'. Here he relates a mostly lay phenomena of a remarkable group of men and women, many of them in exile from their place, who remind us that truth only matters when it is lived, when truth transfigures life into holiness, then it can be known, singing on the sinews of a person's embodied soul.

Let us trust that we seek it - a home, a comfort in the world and a place for the soul.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Happy Christmas and a hospitable New Year!

Virgin Laboris by Nicholas Roerich

Nicholas Roerich's Madonna Laboris depicts the story from an apocryphal gospel that captured his imagination. 

At the gate of Heaven stands the Apostle Peter. He was disturbed and said to the Lord God: ‘All day long I watch the gates of Paradise; I do not let anyone in, yet in the morning there are newcomers in Paradise.’ And the Lord said: ‘Let us make the rounds at night, Peter.’ So they went in the night and they saw the Holy Virgin lowering along the wall Her snow-white scarf, up which souls were climbing. Peter took this to heart and wanted to interfere, but the Lord whispered: “Shh... let be…”

Even when the disciple is commissioned, they can lay hold of the wrong end of the stick! Peter may be the rock on which the Church is built but the rock is not a fortress to exclude but a welcoming strength. Mary's 'let it be' was her acceptance of the gift of a child who in turn was themselves to be the gift to the world. Christ's coming was to unpick our constraining imagination that heaven was not open to all. We have all been summoned to become as friends and the city of God is where we hang out, altogether, or not at all. That this realisation is a work in progress is a painful truth - enfolded in this story, enfolded in the news of the year, where much as been made of boundaries and their transgression.

The righteousness of Peter is wholly comprehensible as long as we rest in the fear of our identities (and that is for most of us, for much of the time, where we reside) but Mary lets down her scarf to all of us, inviting a different ascent, out from our fear into a place where we all live in a common, graced humanity, and can figure out, from this renewing unity, living places that welcome all. The practical challenges of which can only be figured out if we respond, heartedly, to the spiritual challenge. As never before, we look towards truly understanding what it means to say yes and surrender to the learning of hospitality.

Wishing everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Wild Reeds

My choices are not, I feel, unbearably esoteric but several of the films that I most love appear to be virtually unobtainable - except as broken up versions on YouTube or on VHS or as over-priced second hand DVDs.

One that I had acquired, before this miserable fate be fell me, is Andre Techine's 'Wild Reeds' (and as Les Roseaux Sauvages it is available in a remastered version in the original French without any subtitles). I watched it again  yesterday and it is a beautiful film.

Set in 1962, it follows the lives of four adolescents - three boys and a girl - as they approach adulthood, their baccalaureate, and new opportunities. One, Henri, is, at least by the calendar, already 'there', as he is a twenty one year old yet his consistent failure to graduate holds him back.

The backdrop is the convulsive war in Algeria that spread to civil strife in France. Serge (one of the four) has a brother who is a conscript in the French army who is killed by an OAS bomb (French resisters to Algeria's independence) whilst Henri's father (a pied noirs - a longstanding French resident of Algeria) has, himself, been killed by an FLN bomb (FLN being the Algerian liberation movement) and sympathises with the OAS.

This tangled, painful politics creates a depth to the lives of the struggling adolescents and the miracle of the film is to depict the everyday against the flow of history. We live in time, and time's place matters and conditions our lives, yet, at the same time, something universal flows on past, touched by history but not wholly conditioned by it.

This is most amply illustrated by Francoise, the central character, who is a sensitive young man, who whilst allied to his platonic girlfriend, Maite, is attracted in turn towards Serge and Henri. His struggle is timeless -  not least in resolving his sexuality. This is a universal given yet it is captured in time and its expression is narrated by the possibilities of his time and place. There is a wonderful scene where he goes to the local shoe shop to ask for counsel from the proprietor (the only gay man in the village) who cannot give it because he is trapped in his own accommodation with what is seen to be presently possible; and, cannot, for fear, step out of it.

It is all beautifully observed - we live always in, at least, two realities - a universal one where we find ourselves puzzling again over what it means to be an adult and a relative one where we realise that the universal struggle is conditioned by the particularities of a particular time and place.

The recognition is, of course, that if we live the former, wholly and sincerely, it will continually break open the latter towards new possibilities.

The four discover this in their unlikely friendship, given their competing backgrounds, and it gives rise to an underlying empathy, rooted in the transcendence of their common humanity.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Catholic terrorism and its lessons

It is Simone Weil who reminds us that a fault is no less a one for being in the past. The standard that judges human behaviour is eternal. Pain does not change nor pleasure. The eloquence of grief has not deepened simply because we have moved forward in time.

I am reading James Shapiro's accomplished book, '1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear' (ahead of attending a New Year retreat on Lear in England). The book explores how Shakespeare's art, in part, is skilfully woven from the fabric of timely concerns. Two of which in 1606 was the unity of the kingdom (King Lear) (James as King of Scotland and England was seeking an Act of Union) and regicide (Macbeth) (following the Gunpowder Plot). Though the book is a skilful weaving of history and literary scholarship, it has been the history that I have found most compelling.

The Gunpowder Plot strikes me as highly topical - a terrorist attack launched by the disaffected middle class representatives of a religious minority, in this case Catholics. It was a failed attack that was responded to harshly, though the authorities struggled to balance their response. Though Catholics were to suffer increased penalties for recusancy, the authorities sought to ensure that there would be no violent reaction towards Catholic communities as a whole. It is a difficult balancing act, now as then; and, the final target came to rest on the Jesuits and their (alleged) preaching of the wicked sin of 'equivocation' (a word that entered the language only then). This sin was saying one thing whilst thinking something different, even under oath, and if it were allowed to spread, it would become the root of all disorder. (Needless to say 'equivocation' fascinated Shakespeare - drama is after all a kind of deception - and he noticed it as one of the snarling roots of all communication leading often to tragedy).

The planned attack itself was breathtaking in its ferocity - it was not only the King and the members of his parliament that would have been killed, maimed or injured but many bystanders from the force of the 36 barrels of gunpowder packed in such a way as to cause maximum damage. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is a 'non-event' that has continued to linger in the national imagination; and, indeed, the court remained convinced for a long time that no such event could have been planned without support of the local Catholic aristocracy and a foreign power (neither of which appears to have been the case). Conspiracy theory too has long roots back in time.

Shakespeare (Shapiro demonstrates) was not simply interested in the unfolding drama of the Plot and its consequences as a cultured observer alert to the flows of the body politic and what it might mean for his audiences - how you might address them and what you might show forth - but was intimately bound with many of the protagonists (on both sides) for the Gunpowder Plot emanated from and came to its broken conclusion in his (and my) native Warwickshire. It was then (and possibly now) a small place and Shapiro shows how many of the 'actors' had connections with the world of Shakespeare (father and playwright son). If the sources of violence sit in our communities (often in name only) what does that say to our responsibilities?

Aldous Huxley remarked that possibly the only thing men learn from history is that we don't learn from history; but, that said, perhaps there are resonances to contemplate.

The first would to be wary of the disaffected 'middle class' - there may be a connection between social fluidity and indeterminacy with regards to identity and revolutionary acts. The perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11 (whatever the time difference) occupied similar positions within their respective societies. What might it mean to heal people's lack of a sense of place, placing?

The second is that no religion is 'a religion of peace'. At the heart of any authentic religious tradition is peace but occupying the heart is a long, complex praxis in any faith. Most adherents skip it for the compromise of religion as a comfort and a identity. In the right social contexts that reveals a perfectly acceptable commitment to assorted goods. In the wrong social contexts,  one's that are fractured, defeated, uncertain, sadly usually the norm, it reveals every possible reinforcement of the bad indeed as the Jesuit equivocation demonstrates, excuses and justifies it.

Third that we are all potentially guilty - unless we transcend our identities into peace and into the recognition of our unconditional forgiveness that is at the heart of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The horror of violence is with us always as a real possibility and it belongs to us, not to them, because ultimately them could quite easily, with a twist of history, become us. It is 'us'. Ultimately there is no 'salvation' from violence except that we own it in ourselves first, taking 'the shadow' back in the path of a sacred discipline.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Bringing people to light

Sebastian de Mora by Diego Velasquez

Wittgenstein suggested that on any visit to a gallery you should chose only one painting and study it in depth, anything else he suggested was superficial and an exercise not in culture but futility. 

Spending yesterday morning in the Prado in Madrid, I could see what he meant - to me a wholly new collection, never seen in pigment and canvas before, it could simply overwhelm. But we are not all equipped with Ludwig's austerity; and, in any case, I expect people absorb art differently, if they do. For me, I am a speedy looker, whizzing round, then, noticing what arrests, return to specific points to watch closely to what reveals.

Also, being prejudiced, I can eliminate swathes of stuff that, however remarkable, leaves no impression on me whatsoever - Dutch seventeenth century still lives of dead pigeons, pewter and fruit, for example, or eighteenth century portraits of aristocrats by virtually anyone; and, most Baroque religious painting. In the latter to achieve any real contemplative depth - as distinct from wrought emotion - requires disciplined genius and a retrospective borrowing from before Raphael's sentimentality over washed or from starting elsewhere. El Greco is, in this, the exception that proves the rule. 

There were, thus, many works that stepped into the loved and known - Fra Angelico's 'The Annunciation' a large scope work of poised beauty awash with light and grace, Durer's Adam and Eve on the brink of expulsion, a thwarted promise awaiting a thornier journey of grace; and, the reconstruction of a Romanesque chapel - thirteenth century frescos of a quiet humanity, simple narrative and assurance of grace received. 

Beyond the known, there were works studied in books like Goya's Black paintings but now seen for the first time in all their contained, intelligent questioning fury. Here violence is exposed as the dark failure it is with no ennobling light, whatever the justice of the cause, as here with two men simply clubbing each other shorn of mystery, in an abjectness complete. They are paintings that sadly remain as topical as ever.

And there was the new and for me yesterday that was Velasquez, known yes, noticed fleetingly sometimes, but seen no. For me, the most accomplished of his works, apart from the famous depictions of court life, are his portraits of court dwarves as above with Sebastian de Mora and below with Diego de Acedo:

They too, though in a different vein, remain hauntingly topical as paintings of a compassionate inclusion of difference, of that which is apart brought within the viewers' recognition; and, painted whole in their own light, seeing out with their own eyes, gestures, positions. Seeing them together in their own gallery space was deeply moving. A reminder of how uncommon it yet is to allow everyone's beauty to be seen, to break it open from stereotype (and canon) and allow it to sing its own song. 

I was reminded of reading only last week that the one explanation for absence that gains no traction with an employer is that you are suffering from depression. We carry around multiple assumptions of what constitutes 'other' but consciousness and conscience are omnipresent in all, for all who have eyes to see; and, here Velasquez is dismantling one such otherness by allowing us to step towards a population dismissed from view into a disabling category and be seen as particular persons in all their diversity and complexity. For the disability lies in us.

Everyone is interesting, even if to requires a few sherries to find out how

V.S. Naipaul, who died recently, once asked one of his interviewers, before he would permit them to start, "What have you read? And do...