Your Own Angel

“The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses it.”
 –Sri Nisaragadatta Maharaj
If we take stock of things with the mind alone, the odds can seem stacked against us. The devastation of the environment, poverty, human trafficking–it can all seem overwhelming. Where to start?
Recently, I took walk on a bitter cold winter day. I stopped at a landing and looked out over a frozen lake. The scene was beautiful in a stark, primordial way–silver sky, silver lake. I imagined life during the Ice Age. But the dominant thought was: “Left to my own resources, I would die out here in a very short time.”
And yet. Maybe I am not the heartiest in my tribe, and maybe I don’t know how to start a fire without matches. But according to the Buddha, we are also endowed with qualities of heart that he called “divine” and “immeasurable.”  Usually, they are broken down into four: lovingkindness or friendliness; compassion, appreciative joy, which is the ability to delight in other beings happiness and good fortune; and equanimity, which is the calm born of wisdom (including the wisdom that everything passes).
Would any or all of these qualities help me survive in a raw, cold landscape? There is some pretty good science that tells us that positive emotions can steady and broaden the mind, helping us see more and find creative solutions–where to take shelter, etc. But the heart also crosses the abyss by reminding us, not in words but in feelings, that we belong to life This is not to say that life is always easy. But there is also kindness, compassion, joy, and possibility. Even on the coldest day.
The Buddhist word for the energy and effort necessary for awakening, viriya, comes from a Sanskrit word that meant hero or strong and virile man. But in my experience, practicing in the thick of life, the energy that is required is more subtle–and definitely not a specific gender. What is needed is more of an effort of the heart–a willingness to open to see and be with rather than an act of will. The hero’s journey becomes an inner quest that begins with gentle questioning:  Can I be with this right now? Can I let go of my attachment to a belief or a story about the past and about who I am? Notice how it feels to let yourself be with what is, just for a moment, resting in an awareness that is calm and compassionate and ope.
 We all have our memories of moments when life opens up and it seems clear that our highest human purpose is bearing witness to with love and attention.  But how can we get there on an ordinary day, mired with work and dukkha (the bumpy, sticky turning of many wheels).   Achieving this open awareness is a subtle kind of hero’s journey, but rather than delve into that last night it came to me to share something I once tried with a friend at a retreat.
If you feel like it, you can try it too.  When you think of it, see and sense everything that is happening to you.  Now think of it as if it is a memory or a dream that you are recalling.  “Sati” or mindfulness means remembering.  “Right” in “right mindfulness, etc.” means recollected and/or collected, pulled together and one of the meanigs of “right mindfulness” is “right memory” or even fully remembered memory.   I invite you to try remembering your life as it is unfolding.  This experiment has an extraordinary way of shifting our focus, opening the lens.
If you do the exercise, you may have the feeling of being accompanied.   I think of it as being accompanied by the better angel of our own attention.
“When you close the door of your dwelling and are left alone, know that there is with you an Angel, allotted by God to every man, whom the Hellenes call the spirit of the home. He never sleeps and being always with you, sees everything. He cannot be deceived, and darkness hides nothing from him. And be aware of that, besides him, God is present everywhere. For there is no place or substance where God is not present. He is greater than all and holds all in his hand.”
Antony the Great, from “Early Fathers from the Philokalia,” Kadloubovsky and Palmer, Faber & Faber 1954

38 thoughts on “Your Own Angel

  1. All this male He-ness and man-ness talk turns me off. Just more religious rhetoric. When we are talking Spirit, does it really need to be gender specific? I don’t think it IS gender specific, so why label it as such?

    1. Dear A, I no longer think of the hero–especially this cool kind of hero–as gender specific. It’s a way for a human being to open to Spirit that I’ve found has some truth in it–and I’m not a “he.” I don’t happen to like terms like “heroine” (too much like a bad drug) or for that matter “poetess” or “authoress” (too, well, something). What would be a non gender specific way of referring to that effort?

      1. In my language (Georgian language), there is no gender specification. Very often wife wouldn’t even change the last name in her marriage. And it’s funny, but before I would not think, that hero has mesqueleen gender. It’s funny, how the culture reflects the language, and vice versa. Thanks for emphasizing it:)

  2. I’ve experienced that it is not easy and takes a great deal of humility to begin to distinguish between remembering and interpreting. Introspection is a function of interpreting and may lead to what we call right thinking but is it as right as we believe. Simone Weil wrote in “lectures on Philosophy:”

    Introspection is a psychological state incompatible with other states.

    “1. Thinking about things of the world precludes introspection.

    “2. Very strong emotion precludes introspection.

    “3. All actions which require attention preclude introspection.

    “To sum up, thought, action and emotion exclude examination of oneself.

    “[therefore] introspection results in one’s taking notice, for the most part, of what is passive in human thought. By the very fact that one keeps a watch on oneself, one changes: and the change is for the worse since we prevent that which is of greatest value in us from playing its part.”

    Perhaps our angel is getting help as suggested by Krishnamurti when he said:

    You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”

    1. I love that story about the devil, Nick. But just now, it is especially meaningful. How can I take in an impression without interpreting, labelling, organizing? Just to receive it, that it is a moment of waking up, isn’t it?

  3. Lovely piece,
    I often ask the people I work with to find the internal “observation deck” where they can “stand” to survey their whole experience –
    But, I like this image of re-membering, reassembling, re-calling our current experience.


  4. Hi everyone,
    Just a thought. It seems that much of this has to do with the concept of “hero” – how we define the hero, what the actual action or quality of the hero is and how this in turn further effects the hero and the hero’s surroundings. In college, I had to write a paper on the concept and evolution of the concept “hero”. If I remember correctly (and please bear with me – this was close to thirty years ago and I don’t have the paper in front of me), the concept can be traced back at least to the Sumerians, where it referred to a demi-god. Persisting through the Classical Age, their heroes were not held to any ethical standards that we would recognize, but rather a virile standard of honor that was worth dying for (think of Heracles/Hercules). But through time, the idea morphed as it passed through various cultures. I think my contention was that for us, the concept of the hero has expanded into it’s own diminishment via mass media, for it’s own economic ends – how else to explain a culture that can regard the sometimes ethical/sometimes testosterone-dripping assembly such as Jesus, Augustus, Charlemagne, Aquinas, More, Washington, Napoleon, Lincoln, Lee, Tubman, Lenin, Hitler, Weil, King, Steinem, Nixon, Namath, Madame de Salzmann, Michael Jackson, Obama and Michelle Bachman as all being PROMOTED as somebody’s hero at one point or another?
    As I agree strongly with Thucydides that an attempt should be made to agree to terms before a meaningful discussion can begin, should we try to find a definition for the hero that subtly opens herself* up to be filled, rather than the hero that spends time filling others with himself? Or, is there another word that fills this better?
    Can “examination of oneself” be, or should it become a constant state?

    *please forgive the gender-specific pronouns!

    1. Hi Lewis,

      It’s interesting in light of what you offer here, that the very first issue of Parabola, 35 years ago, was “The Hero.” In mean, it is a lively question, What is a hero? And what is a quest?

  5. Hi Lewis

    My understanding of the hero comes from these obserations by Gurdjieff and Simone Weil

    Gurdjieff defined a Man as one who is master of himself

    Simone Weil defined a hero as:

    “To be a hero or a heroine, one must give an order to oneself.”

    Pondering this I came to the conclusion that a hero is not defined by what one does but rather nu what one IS.

    You wrote:

    “Can “examination of oneself” be, or should it become a constant state?”

    Well there are times a person must just relax but the real question is the difference between the efforts to “know thyself” and to “imagine oneself”

    How does one tell the difference?

  6. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for an insight that cuts through my “luggage of words”. I
    imagine that to “know oneself” indicates having arrived at a certainty of the present, whereas to “imagine oneself” indicates an ongoing process leading into the future. To paraphrase: Like Goethe, I feel like the child who wants to “go around” and see what is behind such “imagining”.

  7. Hi Lewis

    I understand to “Know Thyself” refers to the conscious experience of oneself. To “Imagine Oneself” is the process of interpreting. It is the conscious devolution of the experience into mechanically creating ones own reality.

  8. Nick,
    I’m probably just nitpicking, but when we are “imagining oneself”, do we actually create our own reality, or do we create a model that conforms or mirrors our process of devolving the experience of reality?
    Peace and love,

    1. Yes, it is said that there is no limit to what you can accomplish if you are willing to let someone else take credit for it.

      1. There is a lot going for that insight, Bruce. Lately it’s been dawning on me that there is a way of relating to life that is more open and less self-centered, more interested in the common happiness and less interested in what I think would make me happy. It seems more likely that I will know happiness with that attitude–and when others are happy they are less likely to be mean and violent.

  9. Hi Lewis

    One of my favorite expressions I learned from Gurdjieff is his description of our normal thoughts as “Pouring from the empty into the void.” I believe this is what is actually happening as we “create our own reality.”

    This imagination isn’t connected to anything objective nor is it leading towards anything objective. So as I understand it, it cannot conform to anything but our conditioned devolution of reality into self justifying imagination

  10. Yes, it is my wanting and grasping that close me and bring me into the lower world which does not contain the happiness and bliss that are a natural part of the higher worlds. There is a piece by Mr. Bennett in his book, “The Way to Be Free” titled Expectation and Future Time which I’ve been rereading lately.

  11. If there are any particularly juicy bits, please pass them on. We can’t learn enough about the power of nongrasping!

  12. Hi Nick,
    Maybe this is getting a bit off the initial topic, but yes, I would like to think that I can somewhat understand and appreciate the premise of Gurdjieff as you have stated it, I must admit however that this is a bit of a challenge to MY childhood conditioning in the Episcopal Church AND my training in the scientific method in high school and college. In both instances, the existence of an overall reality that we all approach on different levels or from different angles was assumed. If our imaginations are in no way linked to reality but rather to a self-justifying imagination, and our actions in the world are justified by this self-created reality, then all actions must be equally justified – all inner paths towards a hero’s journey must be correct, so everyone must be a hero in one’s own mind — thus any overall definition of “hero” would be meaningless. I would also think that many of the testimonies in the current Parabola concerning how insights tend to flash across our peripheral consciousness would just be interpretations convenient to our beliefs at the time. This is probably a reach born of fear, but I am visualizing a world where everyone lives in a mental prison of their own construction.
    Perhaps a confession is required here. My mother was a “simple schizophrenic”, and in addition to my epilepsy, I have been diagnosed with clinical depression. The thought that there is no “higher reality” to progress towards, that all of what she, I and everyone else experiences is a self-created reality UNCONNECTED to anyone else’s, reality scares me – it seems that it creates a world without meaning or purpose, and
    that Tracy’s hope to develop some sort of “sanga of the mind” would be pointless. Perhaps you are right, and all of these thoughts – this reality of mine – is just some sort of crutch I am using right now because it is comfortable and safe, and with time and further education (boy, does this site challenge a person!), I will change it.
    Either way, I hope you don’t take any of this the wrong way – I treasure your (and everyone else’s) responses.
    Peace and love,

  13. During these times when the intellect is so frowned upon in favor of bliss, I am grateful for the opportunity to read those like Simone Weil who refused to sacrifice theirs on the alter of fashion.

    Without her influence, I could never have read this excerpt by a man inspired by simone with obvious spiritual and intellectual sensitivity who describes the hero in a profound common sense manner as a “captain”. I’ll share this with everyone so you’ll see what I mean. This excerpt is from: “READING NATURE AS SÃDHANÃ1 in Simone Weil” by J. Ranilo B. Hermida:

    The problem, then, for Weil is how to recuperate a supernatural reading of nature in the face of what science propagates as the indifference of nature to human welfare. Allied to this difficulty is the fact that for Weil there are various levels of reading nature. There are readings of nature that are debased because they eclipse the eternal truths that nature contains. She scored the sciences of nature, like astronomy and chemistry, as well as the magical or superstitious appropriation of nature, as found in astrology and alchemy, as prime examples in a descending order of this debasement:

    “Contemplation of eternal truths in the symbols offered by the stars and the combination of substances. Astronomy and chemistry are degradations of them. When astrology and alchemy become forms of magic they are still lower degradations of them.” (GaG, 120) She considers the kind of science which brings us farther away from God as “worthless.” (GaG, 60) “Science, today, will either have to seek a source of inspiration higher than itself or perish.” (GaG, 119) Weil persistently demanded that we feel the reality and presence of God through all external things, without exception, as clearly as our hand feels the substance of paper through the penholder and the nib.16 She, therefore, enjoins: “Let no activity – physical labor or study – be an obstacle in the way of seeing the ‘atman’17 in all things.”18

    Weil proposes to counter this degenerate reading and to retrieve a supernatural reading of nature through what she called “superposed readings.” (GaG, 123) This requires mounting an elevated plane from which to look at the world of nature more expansively and profoundly.19 She says: “If I am walking on the side of the mountain I can see first a lake, then, after a few steps, a forest. I have to choose either the lake or the forest. If I want to see both lake and forest at once, I have to climb higher.” (GaG, 90) From this higher perspective, the limited and inadequate viewpoints offered by other readings of nature can be transcended. Then we will be able “to read necessity behind sensation, to read order behind necessity, to read God behind order.” (GaG, 90)

    Weil also employs the metaphor of the experienced captain whose ship has become an extension of his body and as an instrument for reading the storm. The benefit of experience allows him a privileged reading of the storm, which is denied the ordinary passenger in his ship. This makes him remain calm, rising above his fear, and exploring ways of navigating the ship to safety. The captain, because he has gone through an apprenticeship, is able to read more adequately than the passenger; for though there is danger, and fear in the face of danger is appropriate, the danger is not limitless, because the captain knows what can be done to avert it. The captain is able to give a more adequate reading of the reality that grips both passenger and captain. Though our world is the meaning we read, what is important is to rise to a higher level that enables us to make more adequate readings – that is, to receive other and more adequate meanings. There are even higher levels than that occupied by an experienced captain, whose perspective enables him to make a more adequate reading of a storm than a passenger can. The higher levels reveal different and progressively more sophisticated meanings concerning the natural world; and these meanings are superimposed on each other.20

    The metaphor of the captain reminds us of Weil’s favorite allegory of the cave in the Republic of Plato.21 It takes one unchained prisoner to come out of the cave and behold reality bathed in true light, and then to return to the darkness of the cave and inform the rest of the prisoners of his discovery, before they in turn are able to see beyond the shadows projected on the wall. To move to a higher level necessitates the assistance of someone who has gone up to the higher level. We find a parallel to this requirement in the Advaita of Sankara, who prescribes learning from a master as the primary stage in the process of advancing to the knowledge of the ultimate reality, which consists of true liberation and, therefore, eternal bliss.22 For our superposed reading of nature, Weil will be theguru who will lead us in the way to the peak and show us how to read necessity behind sensation, order behind necessity, and God behind order.

    To read necessity behind sensation is to overcome the effects of the ego upon the reading of reality. It is to grasp reality as it presents itself, devoid of the blurring impositions of the self. This requires a disengagement from the perspective of the self to which everyone is easily enslaved and by which he is often deceived. “Perfect detachment alone enables us to see things in their naked reality, outside the fog of deceptive values.” (GaG, 46). Indeed, the inclination to self-centeredness permeates the thoughts and actions of everyone. He sees everything from his selfish perspective and supposes that everything exists for his enhancement.

    The article concudes with:

    “Where others see a closure, Weil sees an opening; where others see a hindrance, she sees an opportunity; where others see a wall that blocks, she sees a ladder that allows us to climb to the other side. She counsels us to always take this attitude of intellect. It is true that no belief is utterly devoid of truth. However, if we grant that, we have to affirm in turn the presence of truth in what is contrary to that belief. Weil advocated a balancing against each other of contrary propositions not in order to arrive at a synthesis of thoughts, since that would be too simplistic a method, but in order to achieve what she called an equilibrium of contradictions.
    We are always urged to adopt this attitude of intellect for “we know by means of our intelligence that what the intelligence does not comprehend is more real than it does comprehend.” (GaG, 116)

    Intelligence cannot be separated from humility, from a posture of receptivity, from a stance of disponibilité. Authentic intelligence is synonymous with genuine humility and for Weil, this consists of “the knowledge that we are nothing in so far as we are human beings as such, and more, generally, in so far as we are creatures.” (GaG, 116).”

    What could be more heroic then opening to reality and acquiring the wisdom to function within it as a human being rather than a slave to mechanical “necessity?”

  14. Dear Nick,
    Upon reading your latest missive, I am beginning to wonder if we are saying similar things in different ways. Certainly I think I misread the 2:12 message – you said “The imagination isn’t connected to anything objective nor is it leading to anything objective”.
    This doesn’t say that there is NOTHING objective – just that our imaginations can’t DIRECTLY connect with such a thing.
    When you say “There are readings of nature that are debased because the eclipse the ETERNAL TRUTHS”, and, “It takes one unchained prisoner to come out of the cave and behold the REALITY bathed in true light, then to return to the darkness of the cave and inform the rest…”, I sense shadings of the ultimate truth that I have grown up to believe in.
    I also agree that “To read necessity behind sensation is to overcome the effects of the ego upon the reading of reality…devoid of the blurring impositions of the self”. If I might be so bold I would also add the effects of culture. The Cathedral that I have attended off and on all my life has always seemed to be fairly broadminded — it was in college where my beliefs were openly ridiculed. It’s strange – the institution most acclaimed for its logic and practice of objective reason was the one most intellectually isolated!
    So thanks – I think I have a slightly better grasp of the argument — indeed, as long as there is a reality to open to for the benefit of others as well as self, nothing could be more heroic.

  15. Wow Lewis. A very substantial and meaningful post at least for me. Yes, we are in complete agreement. It isn’t that objective reality and universals do not exist. The problem is fallen human nature that creates imagination to justify itself and in turn this imagination denies objective reality.

    I’ve also experienced that what are considered institutions of knowledge and wisdom have often expressed precisely the opposite.

    I am a long nosed broad shouldered Aries male. If you have seen Star Trek the Next generation, you may remember where Warf once said “I am not a Merry Man.” I know the feeling. Naturally any of this smoothing over fashionable with New Age and secular Interfaith thought I also find superficial since it doesn’t begin with Man in Plato’s cave, attached to shadows on the wall and asleep to reality. Gurdjieff asked what knowledge can a sleeping man can have? A very good question completely ignored in modern education.

    For example read Simone Weil’s following quote. From a secular Interfaith perspective it would be horrible. Yet from the perspective of the effect of cave life on humanity it is perfectly reasonable. That is why I like these very rare people that have come to understand the fallen human condition and unafraid to say it as it is. Simone is not for the politically correct.

    “Our patriotism comes straight from the Romans. … It is a pagan virtue, if these two words are compatible. The word pagan, when applied to Rome, early possesses the significance charged with horror which the early Christian controversialists gave it. The Romans really were an atheistic and idolatrous people; not idolatrous with regard to images made of stone or bronze, but idolatrous with regard to themselves. It is this idolatry of self which they have bequeathed to us in the form of patriotism.

    Rome is the Great Beast of atheism and materialism, adoriing nothing but itself. Israel is the Great Beast of religion. Neither one nor the other is likable. The Great Beast is always repulsive.
    – Simone Weil, Prelude to Politics, completed shortly before her death in 1943
    the Simone Weil Reader, edited by George A. Panichas (David McKay Co. NY 1977) p 393

    In Chapter 8 of “Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson,” young Hussein describes man on earth as like “slugs.” A very dangerous thing to do.

    The truly great heroes IMO are the ones who have inspired awakening from their own awakened state and the freedom “to do” for the benefit of our species that it enables.

    The trouble is that suggesting humanity as a whole exists as the Great Beast residing in Plato’s Cave (the world) is about the most offensive thing one can say. The World must hate the message.

    “Pity them my children, they are far from home and no one knows them. Let those in quest of God be careful lest appearances deceive them in these people who are peculiar and hard to place; no one rightly knows them but those in whom the same light shines” Meister Eckhart

    These people understand the fallen human condition both in themselves and in the World. Their awakening influence IMO on the minority open to it is as essential for our collective survival as much as it is scorned

  16. Nick,
    I return your wow — yes, I think that somehow we are close to compete agreement, though possibly from slightly different tangents. I am a prematurely graying, nearsighted Pisces (I think). If you remember Data from Star Trek, you will know that his greatest wish was to “know” the human condition. In many ways I feel similar. Being alone and isolated as a child, I wanted to understand every little flash of the outside world that managed to sneak through to me. Yet I have come to feel as if the “Great Beast” and it’s exponentially expanding marketing ability to convince us that anything is true, good and politically correct is like the “Q” in the same series – is he trying to fool us towards his own ends, or is he just holding a mirror up to our own egotistically-driven foibles?
    Or perhaps a combination of the two?*
    Either way, thanks. I feel as if I have been given a great deal to think about.

    *Everyone should get a copy of the current Harper’s to read “Pennies From Heaven”, to see how the American political system is trying to re-engineer traditional Abrahamic attitudes towards wealth to garner support for free market economics

  17. Nick,
    Just a short thought that came to me last night. In the quote from 8:05, you said that Weil said “Rome is the Great Beast of atheism and materialism, adoring nothing but itself”. I think there may be an important distinction to be made here – Rome the EMPIRE is the Great Beast…
    There is something about the building of empire that seems to lead to this. If you remember the Catilinarian Orations by Cicero, he and many other prominent Romans of the old school were horrified at the directions the evolving empire with all of the plots it was taking: “O tempora, O mores. Senatus haec intellegit…”. “O what times! O what customs! The Senate has it right in front of it!” As Catillus fell, any vacillating senators literally moved away from him.
    Or take a story from Nazi Germany that I had never heard of until this summer.* The Nazi’s initially reached out to the German churches for their support, assuring them that in the new age the ancient German standards of morality and ethics would once again rise. The “German Christians” responded wholeheartedly, promising that the “Marxist” polyphony, atonality and volkhaften, or Jewish influences championed by the Organ Reform Movement would be eliminated for the good of the church. As the article states, “Against this background, it comes as no surprise that leading church musicians in the ensuing years emphasized again and again how closely the musical ideas of the church and of the Nazi Government were connected. Today we wonder to what degree that arose from genuine conviction OR MERE ACCOMMODATION”.
    It should also be no surprise that when Hitler consolidated his power, he began to move against the church, as atheism and idolatry of the blond-haired, blue-eyed state would now be the true philosophy, or that in later years such musicians moved away from their earlier statements.
    In closing, it almost seems to me that the “Great Beast” is too “smart” to move in at just any time. In so many examples from history, including what I believe is happening to America right now, The Beast waits for it’s moment, when a nation merging into empire is so full of it’s successes that it’s easily distracted by flattery and subterfuge.

    *The American Organist, “Hugo Distler and the Origin of a Legend”,
    May 2011

  18. Hi Lewis

    I’d like to elaborate on the Great Beast so as to be clear. The Beast is the collective results of society. It is esy to believe that certain personality traits are less beastly but I’ve come to see tha the Beast is a mechanical creature. We have the conscious potential to realize ourselves in this unfortunate position.

    Actually original sin in the Eastern Orthodox tradition is simply the continuing results of collective acquired habits reflecting our lack of conscious alignment between head, heart, and senses. In other words, original sin is the dominance of imagination from the absence of consciousness. It is imagination that perpetuates life in Plato’s cave.

    The more Man becomes conscious and aware of his psychological prison condition, the less beastly he becomes. Instead of being fixated on the ground, one becomes aware of a new inner vertical direction that enables a person to begin to “know thyself.”

    “Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace.” Simone Weil

    This is what attracts me to esoteric Christinaity. It understands the helplessnes of the human condition and the need for grace to allow the heart to appear and enable what the mind knows.

    I once wrote this as part of a discussion on the Beast. Hopefully it clarifies what I mean. I do appreciate your interests as a human being to pondering the human condition rather than indulging either in denial or escapism for the sake of acquiring impartial understanding.

    Society is the “Great Beast.” The image of the Great Beast is most valuable for describing what I believe to be the most severe challenge to the essence of religion and man’s humanity we will face in this and future generations if we are to survive the dangers of technology in the hands of egotism..

    Simone Weil described Plato’s introduction of this image which occurs in Revelations as well and builds on the idea as illustrated in this collection of excerpts:

    “The Great Beast is introduced in Book VI of The Republic. It represents the prejudices and passions of the masses. To please the Great Beast you call what it delights in Good, and what it dislikes Evil. In America this is called politics.”


    “The Great Beast” is the only object of idolatry, the only eratz of God, the only imitation of something which is infinitely far from me and which is I myself.”

    If we could be egotistical it would be very pleasant. It would be a rest. but literally we cannot.

    It is impossible for me to take myself as an end,or, in consequence my fellow man as an end since he is my fellow. Nor can I take any material thing, because matter is still less capable of having finality conferred upon it than human beings are.

    Only one thing can be taken as an end, for in relation to the human person it possesses a kind of transcendence: this is the collective. The collective is the object of all idolatry, this is it which chains us to the earth. In the case of avarice: gold is the social order. Science and art are full of the social element also. And love? Love is more or less an exception: that is why we can go to God through love, not through avarice or ambition. Yet the social element is not absent from love (passions excited by the princes, celebrated people, all those who have prestige…} From Gravity and Grace, p.218.

    “The power of the social element. Agreement between several men brings with it a feeling of reality. It brings with it also a sense of duty. divergence, where all this agreement is concerned, appears as sin. Hence all returns to the fold are possible. The state of conformity is an imitation of grace.” Gravity and Grace, p..220

    “The service of the false God (of the social Beast under whatever form it may be) purifies evil by eliminating its horror. Nothing seems evil to those who serve it, except failure in its service. The service of the true God on the other hand, allows the horror of evil to remain and even makes it more intense. while this evil horrifies us, we yet love it as emanating from the will of God.” G&G,p.221.

    I know this last paragraph is rough to take but if you consider it in the context of Plato’s conception of justice or the Eastern idea of karma, do we accomplish anything by hating justice or karma rather than being open to its reality and consider how we can profit from becoming aware of the human condition in the context of human evolutionary potential rather then justifying continuing cyclical expressions of human weakness through periodic condemnation?

    If society as the Great Beast keeps us in chains in Plato’s cave, how can we deal with it? Jacob Needleman explains his concerns in the preface to his book “Lost Christianity:”

    “What is needed is either a new understanding of God or a new understanding of Man: an understanding of God that does not insult the scientific mind while offering bread, not a stone, to the deepest hunger of the heart; an understanding of Man that squarely faces the criminal weakness of our moral will while holding out to us the knowledge of how we can strive within ourselves to become the fully human being we were meant to be — both for ourselves and as instruments of a higher purpose.”

    Where the Beast strives to be idolized thus preserving its power, Prof Needleman suggests Man’s purpose to be more than just serving the Beast. But of course suggesting this to representatives of the Beast can lead to disastrous consequences as Socrates describes in Plato’s Cave analogy:

    “[Socrates] And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the cave, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death”

    According to Simone Weil, society can either serve as an idol or a sacrament. The Beast can either serve the development of human potential, conscious evolution, or cause Man to sacrifice its potential for the glory of the Beast and the prestige it offers.

    Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop. G&G, P. 53.

    Simone Weil wrote the book: “The Need for Roots” as she was dying as her recommendations for rebuilding France after Hitler’s devastation. It includes much food for thought.

    She compares a human being to a plant. Where the roots are planted in the ground, the culture, receiving one quality of nourishment, the leaves receive the nourishment of the light: grace.” Our lower selves can be healed or “balanced” through cultural values that encourage our higher selves to become more open to grace. Of course this is far easier said than done and in fact may now be impossible.

    Where the beast now denies grace by keeping man dominated by imagination, it would be possible for its values to emphasize, including in its educational institutions, the means for receiving the light at the expense of imagination. The society would then serve the development of true individuality that is now sacrificed to the Beast in exchange for prestige and perceived security. She examines these values and I could post them if there is interest.

    Could the collective become open to such ideas? I hope so. Men like Prof. Needleman try so hard to open us to them. Simone gave her life in pursuit of the truth so can we really just ignore them as is usual in the quickness of a modern technological life or is there a way to begin to change the beast from an idol to a sacrament by beginning with ourselves?

  19. Tracy,
    I have been reading and re-reading your latest blog, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it, and your way of refocusing the lens of attention and openness. Truly we are co-creators of our own reality, and how we participate in it makes all the difference.
    I love the latest issue of Parabola too, and all the articles on seeing. I keep trying to shift my sights and change the setting of my lens whenever I find my thoughts going astray….I hope that I can “see” the cup as half full rather than half empty!
    As my muse says, “It isn’t so much WHERE you go as HOW you go. That is what makes all the difference.”
    Bless you and “the angel within you, and around you.”

  20. Nick,
    Again, it seems to me that we are saying roughly the same thing, although the shaded subtleties in such a mass of material could be manifold for the novice. You say “The Beast is the collective result of society…I’ve come to see that The Beast is a mechanical creature”. I don’t believe that, off the top of my head, I have any problem in this. My basic concern was that, not only are the well-meaning or those schooled in opening themselves to reality educated in such things – that the politicians who impose their reality on others – the ones Weil was concerned with (say in America), could use or direct the polymorph elements we ALL probably contribute to The Beast, to their own ends — REGARDLESS of the needs of the healthy society. Again, this may be naive, but my limited reading of history seems to indicate a greater and greater potential for abuse as a country slides towards Empire, NOT that Empire itself is actually The Beast.
    Just chalk it up to a very long learning curve on my part. Again, thanks for all your wonderful insights.

  21. I would agree. As I see it, a culture considered the Great Beast is born , matures and dies, much like an individual does. This slide into the empire seems like a normal mechanical aging process in accordance with the human condition. The slide then reveals the condition.

    But how do we use this knowledge in relation to the theme of this thread? I at least have come to admit at least intellectually that I am part of the Beast living in Plato’s cave. What should my attitude be towards mysefl and to the cave?

    I’ve got interpretations of reminding angels, a horned community organizer for my own inner plurality, all sorts of societal pressures, and my own insecurities fighting this knowledge as a resident and participant in cave life. Consider this excerpt from the Gospel of Thomas:

    (3) Jesus said, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.”

    It seems from this perspective that all these interpretations and wonderful thoughts that replace self knowledge with fantasy prevent us from being known. It seems so hard to remember that we are in Plato’s cave and at least maintain an attitude that can enable us to objectively benefit from this awareness.

  22. Hi Nick,
    Yes I agree. To assume that “supra-human” level of objectivity reserved for the privileged floating “above the Cave”, assumes a level of hubris that is in part the fantasy that destroys any hope for self-knowledge. But it does call into question where mortal man must draw the line. The overall consensus of this blog has been that the proper focus of man (from the Latin focus = hearth or center of the household) is to turn one’s conciousness upon the inner self – yet the Cave is a community of sorts, demanding by definition a responsibility to the outer whole. I suspect that this is a fluid, mutable ballance, requiring much concentration on the part of the well-meaning.
    But however all this works, have a great weekend!

  23. Hi Nick (and D. Wertenbaker, if she reads this blog),
    Spent the afternoon in the park getting caught up on my reading (it was a breathtaking day in Denver, with the trees just starting to turn), and I finally managed to finish the latest Parabola, which included Ms. Wertenbaker’s article on Seeing and the Yogi Sutra. The notion of our “blind spot” being metaphoric as well caught me as almost an epiphany in the well of low, golden autumn light I found myself in. If all of us in the Cave have a spiritual, ethical or conceptual blind spot that we fill in with our ego’s needs via the abilities of the imagination, then the “Parable” of the Cave makes much more sense to me now. I guess I need to admit that, being a musician and artist, the somewhat negative conotations of the imagination have been slightly rubbing me the wrong way this week. But, if I can “imagine” (foregive me!) a reality where imagination can serve both good and ill, the value of this week’s blog becomes that much more valuable!
    Anyway, thanks to everyone!

    (By the way, I think my previous response of today will make more sense if the first sentence reads “constant objectivity”).

  24. Hi Lewis

    We both play music. I’m a keyboard player/vocalist. I was playing at a Senior Center today. I get paid because I inspire imagination. I give people a good time.

    There is nothing wrong with this. Imagination is harmful when it takes the place of a necessary function. if I were depriving these people of their potential I wouldn’t do it. But my warped sense of humor and energy gives them a good time for an hour or two.

    Creative thought isn’t imagination as I use the word. Imagination as I define it is self justification through escapism.

    One of my ancestors was a 19th century Romantic painter. Yet he was considered unique in depicting the interactions of elemental forces that created the waves of the sea. His imagination contained something objective within it.

    A work of art has an author and yet, when it is perfect, it has something which is anonymous about it. (Simone Weil)

    As usual Simone raises questions. When is art perfect and what is the anonymous? Can the objective manifest within an imaginary setting?

    I am more wary then you of secular Interfaith because it relies on imagination to justify politically correct commonalities. If my concerns are legit, they will at best be meaningless as is normal for cave life.

    Yet there are those like Frithjof Schuon, the Muslim mystic who wrote the book “The Transcendent Unity of Religions” who seem to understand levels of reality. I read his description of the exoteric level as Plato’s Cave. All differences are as a result of the quality of imagination that supports Plato’s Cave. Schuon describes the esoteric path as connecting the exoteric with the Transcendent level where the essence of religion unites.

    Striving for the transcendent unity of religions is a quality of Interfaith that is attractive to me but completely different from secular Interfaith that is a function IMO of Plato’s cave.

    For example is it possible to objectively reconcile what appears to be this contradiction, I believe so.

    “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not seek a supernatural remedy for suffering, but a supernatural use for it.” — Simone Weil

    Buddhism strives for the cessation of suffering

    We would agree as to how much arguing takes place over conceptions of Christianity and Buddhism. Yet if they result from the cave or exoteric level of reaction, they are probably just normal from being governed by imagination.

    I’m not suggesting what to think but just indicating that these questions you raise are important and can result in meaningful exchanges when we become capable of the humility necessary to remember the human condition and how we are dominated by imagination..

  25. Hi Nick,
    This further defining of imagination helps me to understand your concerns with greater clarity – especially entering into this political season, where various factions are engineering stances designed to attract a target segment. Now that I think about it, there ALMOST seems to be a collateral, subconsciously conspiratorial escapism at work here – the politician justifies himself (to himself?) through his statements, and the people justify themselves through their responses. The politician takes note, modifies his message in such a way that he can still justify himself while coming closer to the perceived needs of his constituents, who further fine tune their self-justification, ad infinitum. If so, it would almost seem like an eternal cycle that, through various needs, desires and prejudices* generates it’s own eternal motion.
    I am intrigued by Weil’s idea that art can be perfect, and yet have something that is anonymous. Yesterday, I was a this great used bookstore on Broadway (Fahrenheit 451) and found a treasure trove of old Parabolas – including the first eight issues. When I got them home and was looking through them, a thought came to me – would it be possible, upon reading an issue, finding the article or articles that find the greatest hold on my mind and researching that particular topic a bit further, to commit an illustration to canvas that symbolically, maybe in the style of Magritte, reflects the new-found understanding of the topic.
    (were I a composer, poet or writer other avenues might be available).
    I guess I’m wondering – how can art be perfect, except as far as the needs and opinions of the artist are concerned? What is the role of the critic? And what does it mean for a piece of art to have an anonymous component – is this something that comes from outside of the artist?
    Anyway, thanks for your insights (who knows – some of them may find their way into my paintings!).

    * Not to mention the vast sums of money available

  26. Hi Lewis

    Here is my favorite definition of the demagogue:

    “A demagogue tries to sound as stupid as his audience so that they will think they are as clever as he is,” Karl Krauss

    The point here is that the influence of the demagogue is dependent on our collective ignorance.

    “Imagination is always the fabric of social life and the dynamic of history. The influence of real needs and compulsions, of real interests and materials, is indirect because the crowd is never conscious of it.” Simone Weil

    Think of the difference if there were a greater awakening influence in society. Obviously everything would be different and freedom would be put to good use. But the reality is that since we are as we are, everything is as it is regardless of the finest platitudes. The road to hell is paved with good intentions but reality creates reality.

    Some are attracted to the anonymous. We don’t know what its source is but somehow, though we can intellectually conceive it, we “FEEL” its attraction.

    “When science, art, literature, and philosophy are simply the manifestation of personality they are on a level where glorious and dazzling achievements are possible, which can make a man’s name live for thousands of years. But above this level, far above, separated by an abyss, is the level where the highest things are achieved. These things are essentially anonymous.” (Simone Weil)

    The Source of the anonymous and the being of man is connected in several ways one of which is “ART” capable of this connection. Perfect art has the capacity to allow for an objective emotional experience not possible through ordinary life and normal subjective expression.

    As I mentioned, one of my ancestors was good with a brush. When asked how he was able to paint the sea as he did he replied that one has to remember it. He went back to his studio and re-membered it. His genius was in the precision of his memory. The only way I can explain it is that the essence of the sea, the integration of elemental forces was vivified soul knowledge for him and could come through him.

    Now as an artist, if you can re-member nature, express its underlying unity, its “soul” including its negative space in context, it may become more meaningful for you in ways not possible for some others without the talent.

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