image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In Peter Kingsley's remarkable book entitled In the Dark Places of Wisdom, he describes the general condition of "the hollowness we feel inside" and for which "the world fills us with substitute after substitute and tries to convince us that nothing is missing" (33 - 34).
"But nothing has the power to fill the hollowness," he says.
Even religion and spirituality and humanity's higher aspirations become wonderful substitutes. And that's what happened to philosophy. What used to be ways to freedom for our ancestors become prisons and cages for us. We create schemes and structures, and climb up and down inside them. But these are just monkey tricks and parlour games to console us and distract us from the longing in our hearts. 35.
Dr. Kingsley states directly that this problem introduces a very negative aspect into the very heart of Western culture specifically. He says:
Western culture is a past master at the art of substitution. It offers and never delivers because it can't. It has lost the power even to know what needs to be delivered. 35.
And yet, In the Dark Places of Wisdom explores evidence that at least some of the ancients -- even in what was later to become "the West" -- knew what needed to be delivered, and what's more they knew exactly how to deliver it (or, perhaps more precisely, they knew "how it is delivered").
The paradox is that what we are looking for in all of the external substitutes and external systems cannot be found in that endless train of substitutes -- but that we actually "already have everything we need to know, in the darkness inside ourselves" (67). The ancient wisdom keepers, including the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, Dr. Kingsley asserts, understood that the answer was "all a matter of finding their own link to the divine," and that the link was within us all along (64). It was "just" a matter of going within and turning ourselves "inside out until we find the sun and the moon and the stars inside" (67).
I believe that this profound message is very much at the heart of what the ancient knowledge in all its different manifestations was trying to convey to us, or to help us to discover. It is expressed in metaphor after metaphor -- the one I have used as a kind of "shorthand" for all of them is the concept of the "raising of the Djed," but it is also found in many other forms, such as the contrast between the good red road in the vision of Black Elk and the fearful black road of troubles.
It refers to the re-discovery of the divine within, an awakening to the fact that we are actually already connected to the entire universe outside, and the practice of going into the darkness and stillness of the invisible world and awakening to our connection to it on a regular basis -- "to find out," Peter Kingsley says, "how you're related to the world of the divine, know how you belong, how you're at home there just as much as here. It was to become adopted, a child of the gods" (64).
A society that has somehow lost or destroyed or buried this knowledge can be expected to be characterized by the kind of desperate pursuit of "substitutes" that Peter Kingsley describes in the quotations cited above.
But what a different attitude and approach to life is offered in the understanding that we already have the entire universe inside of us, that we are already inseparably connected to the invisible realm, described as "the realm of the gods," that in fact we are just as much "at home there" as we are in the material realm, the ordinary realm. That we are each somehow "a child of the gods" -- bearers of a divine nature lost and almost forgotten within our physical and animal nature.
What is taking shape in this discussion is a framework of two very different visions of the world, two very different "paths." They can be seen to be very closely related to the two "paths" or "visions" articulated in all the world's myths and sacred stories and scriptures which express this contrast using (among other things) the great cycles of the heavens, including the cycle of the year and the "cross" formed by the "horizontal line" between the equinoxes and the "vertical line" between the solstices, expressed in the mythology of ancient Egypt as the "Djed column cast down" and the "Djed column raised up" (for some background on this central concept, see this video and this video, and numerous previous posts such as "Scarab, Ankh and Djed," or "O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree," or "The Djed Column every day: Yoga").
The "great cross of the year" is itself a metaphor for the crossing of the material and the spiritual, invisible, or divine which together express the dual nature of every human being -- as well as the dual nature of the world around us. To the extent that our vision is operating along the "horizontal" or material line, we can be expected to exhibit the frantic pursuit of external substitutes described in Dr. Kingsley's quotations above.
But if we can awaken to the truth that we are already connected to the invisible realm, the divine realm -- that we actually "belong" in the invisible realm just as much as in the material realm with which we are more familiar -- the entire paradigm shifts (to use a phrase that has been ruined by over-use, unfortunately, but which I choose to deliberately employ here to describe the situation, because it expresses the complete transformation of the entire framework or way of seeing).
It should be evident that the first situation (frantic and endless substitution) would logically tend towards an attitude of scarcity, of always needing more (because desperately needing new substitutes when the old ones turn out to be as unfulfilling as all those that went before them).
It should be equally evident that the second situation, in which it is known that what we seek is already in our possession -- that in fact we contain the "entire universe inside," that we are in some way an "adopted child of the gods" -- points towards a vision of plenty (we don't have to worry that we won't get what we need, if it is already and always securely within ourselves, and impossible to be separated from ourselves).
The second situation, it can be seen, also leads towards a sense of connection with all other beings, if we ourselves are always in deep connection with the invisible realm, if we ourselves already reflect and embody the entire universe, which they (all other living beings) are also inseparably connected to and which they also contain.
But, if you are still in the mode of desperately cycling through "substitute after substitute" because you don't realize that you already have access to exactly what you seek, it might lead to profound division and competition and conflict between different men and women, and in fact it has.
I believe these two contrasting visions, and the attitudes of "plenty" versus "scarcity," and the understanding of "connectedness" versus "division and competition" can also be seen to be very close to the powerful message shared with the world by the Lakota holy man Black Elk and recorded in Black Elk Speaks, a message with tremendous importance for all people today.
Black Elk offers a very similar contrast between two approaches to life and the world, expressed in his vision of the two roads: the good red road which runs between the north and the south (which would correspond to the "vertical column" between the solstices on the great cross of the year, and to the Djed column "raised up") and the black road which runs between the east and the west, "a fearful road, a road of troubles" (corresponding to the "horizontal column" between the equinoxes on the great cross of the year, and to the Djed column "cast down"):
In his explanation of his vision recorded in Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk contrasts the very different way of walking found on the two roads: traveling the black road, the fearful road, the road of troubles, he saw "everybody for himself and with little rules of his own" (215), while along the good red road he sees a fleeting vision of "the circled villages of people and every living thing with roots or legs or wings, and all were happy" (22), along with symbols of life blossoming forth in the world and in the heart of the people.
These characteristics are important: the attitude of "everybody for himself" is contrasted with the attitude of harmony and cooperation, and they relate directly to the contrast between what a previous post labeled "Vision A" and "Vision B," in which people and all other living beings lived together "like relatives" and in plenty (Vision A) versus everyone making "little islands" that separate people from nature and from one another, and the islands are always becoming smaller and smaller as a "gnawing flood [. . .] dirty with lies and greed" seethes around them (8).
Upon further thought, the terms "Vision A" and "Vision B" don't really convey these concepts very well. It might be better to call them the "spirit road" and the "fearful road," or some other terms. But, we can lay out some of the characteristics inherent to each of these two opposing visions in a table below, each of which could easily become the topic for much more discussion and examination in the future:
- Unity and community, "circled villages" vs. "Little Islands" and "Everybody for himself"
- Vision of plenty vs. Vision of scarcity
- Attitude of confidence vs. Attitude of fear and resentment
- Connection to nature and to other creatures vs. division from and hostility towards nature and other creatures, and a desire to subjugate them (all part of the same endless pursuit of something that can never be attained)
- Awareness of the dignity in each man or woman vs. racism, endless categorizing and divisions of humanity into "my allies" and "everyone else"
And there are many more contrasts that could be added to the list above.
Some might object that the "spirit road" vision is nice, but not practical "here in the real world." This is a broad objection, but I would propose that it is at least possible that this objection basically stems from an attitude of fearfulness, rather than an attitude of confidence -- and from a vision of scarcity rather than a vision of plenty. The important ancient philosopher Plutarch addressed these kinds of arguments from his opponents, when he laid out his treatises against the eating of flesh.
Just think of the profound changes we might see in our lives if we were to suddenly realize, on a very deep level, that we already have access to that which we have spent so much of our lives chasing after. How it might change the way we speak, or drive in traffic, or go about our daily lives. And how it might change the way we think about some of the bigger issues that have impacts far beyond our daily lives.
I believe this message is very central to the message contained in all the world's ancient wisdom, bequeathed as a precious inheritance to all humanity, in the esoteric Star Myths found in the scriptures and sacred stories of virtually every culture on earth.
They are telling us that the connection to the entire universe is already right inside of each one of us, all the time. And every culture has (at some point in time) possessed knowledge of some of the different techniques for accessing that connection, and entering the realm of the gods, a realm we belong to just as much as we belong to this one.
In places where that knowledge has been lost (or deliberately destroyed), it is imperative that we find it again, for our own sanity and health -- and for that of the rest of the world.
The good news is that the answer is still there, in the stars over our heads -- which means that it is also right inside of us.
If we know about this, we owe it to others to tell them about it, because the substitutes "never deliver."