Being Demeter

“At difficult times in my writing life, I tell myself certain stories to remind myself of things I mustn’t forget, information which can only be encoded in story form or it won’t get where it’s going,” writes the great Latina writer Julia Alvarez in an essay written for the latest issue of Parabola. “That place I used to call the heart, and which I now call my soul, the heart you earn as you grow older.”

I always associated the soul with the awareness–the implicit understanding–that dwells in body, so I feels very right to me that the story Alvarez writes of turning to for guidance is that of Demeter, Persephone, and Hades:

“It is a story of death, and rebirth in a life and on earth.  Young Persephone is carried away by Hades, the king of the underworld; her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture and the earth’s fertility, is bereft.  In a fury of self-destructiveness, she punishes her own kingdom with plagues and droughts.  Plants, creatures, humans begin to die off.  Alarmed, the king of the gods, Zeus, orders that Persephone be returned, provided she hasn’t eaten anything in the underworld.  But to ensure her stay, Hades has tricked Persephone into eating seven pomegranate seeds.  Zeus’s compromise:  Persephone will spend spring and summer and fall with her mother on earth and then descend to the underworld to be with her husband for the rest of the year.”

Alvarez writes of those times when the “beginner’s mind” of Persephone is not enough.  At times we must be as bereft as Demeter, even as dark as Hades.   Alvarez writes about being a writer.  But I find that the great myth of Demeter descending into the underworld applies to spiritual practice as well.   To know reality– to be free–we die to thought and descend into the underworld of the body.

Bucking against a powerful inclination to be cozy and bask in the glow of one screen or another, I went out to meditate at the local sangha of my friend and mentor, Gina Sharpe, one cold night last week.  There had been no sangha for weeks due to the power outages and other havoc caused by the great storm.  Entering the little yoga studio was like entering a sheltering cave.  I sat down on my zafu full of thought, consumed by the looming prospect of loss, of my father, of a dear friend, of certain illusions.    As the quiet of meditation deepened, I kept thinking, feeling like a ghost, hovering above the ground of my own being.

It sparked my curiosity, to see how much I wanted to stay up in the attic, hovering above full embodiment, but I knew it had to do with the fear of going under, of losing control.  In her book My Stroke of Insight, brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor explains that the natural life span of an emotion—the time it takes to sweep through the body—is only a minute and a half.  After that, repeating thoughts keep the emotion alive.   In the face of loss, we tend to go over and over old ground, as if we could make life stay.

In the Buddha’s great teaching on the practice of meditation, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, the second foundation is feeling.  It is known in Pali as vedana, which is derived from a verb which means both “to feel” and “to know.” (Not to geek out on words too much, but think of the ancient Sanskrit word veda, as in Rig Veda, a way of knowing that must also be felt).   Vedana comprises both bodily feelings and mental feelings, but it is not emotion as we usually think of it.  Feeling tone is the instantaneous valuation we stamp on the basic physical experience of being alive that wafts in through the sense doors.   Without even noticing it, we judge every sensation, sound, and sight that touches us pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

When I was able to bring my attention to this curious tendency, this need to stamp the constantly changing flow of our experience with a personal value judgment, I discovered something extraordinary:  What we think we experience is not our true moment-by-moment flow of experience.  Within states we call “sadness” or “happiness” there are shimmering beats of pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, air on the skin.  There is a whole world of experience that opens up when we just sit and breathe.

I felt like Demeter, abandoning the surface of life, the known world of thought, to descend into the underworld of the body.  I was seeking the lost child of my own experience.  To put it in contemporary terms: science is seeking to find ways to measure the difference between subconscious versus conscious knowing, implicit versus explicit knowing.  As we open to the unconscious via meditation and prayer, a vast field of knowing opens.  May we learn to let go and receive the gifts that are constantly being offered.

Comments

  1. Thank you Tracy well written and thoughtful. Far too often we live only inside our heads it seems, we focus on that task alone, even in meditation, when it becomes habitual, repetitive, less intentional perhaps.

    We forget,and then leave the body out of the whole process. As an example, how often do we think about typing when we are actually typing? As I type these words I’m certainly not thinking about how each key is pressed and how this feels?

    We push it to the back of our mind, we disconnect ourselves from the process, somewhat like breathing, we all breathe automatically, not intentionally.

    Although, I might go crazy if I had to think about every breath I took to make it happen. Still, somewhere, at sometime, can we not learn to use the same mind used in meditation, when doing other mundane things, to increase our awareness.

    Aren’t there certain meditation techniques that help us to embody this? To be intentionally aware of our body and mind both, working together. It would make an interesting practice. It makes you wonder about other things as well, that we simply don’t consider.

    How many thoughts does the average person have per day?

    70,000

    Which hemisphere of the brain has more neurons?

    The left hemisphere has 186 million more neurons than the right hemisphere

    How much blood flows through the brain per minute?

    750-1000mL or 3 full soda cans

    How long can the brain survive without oxygenated blood?

    4-6 minutes before the cells begin to die. After 10 seconds you loose consciousness

    How much of your body heat is lost through your head?

    40-50%

    What is the longest living cell in your body?

    Your brain cells can live up to an entire lifetime

    How many brain cells (neurons) does the average human have?

    100 billion

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  2. Hi Tracy

    I appreciated your post. Part of this appreciation has made me more aware of what has been sacrificed through thought having become an all purpose word with no qualitative distinctions.

    I believe it is only through a specific quality of thought I know of as “pondering” that emotions are awakened to a quality of valuing not normal for the world. Consider Orage’s remarks:

    Question: “How do you differentiate impulsive action from action due to pondering?”

    Orage: “What is weighed in pondering is inclination and disinclination as opposed to thinking, in which ideas and concepts are weighed. The contents of the emotional center–likes and dislikes–are the units weighed in relation to the criterion of more or less being.

    “Pondering is the assimilation of the third food. With the Psalmist we can say: ‘When I consider the heavens, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained,’ I ask, ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?’ This is asking, after contemplation, ‘What am I?’–the transfer of the note Si of the thinking octave to Do of the pondering octave. Pondering is thinking with the emotional center (its thinking sub-center) which is the seat of essence. This sub-center is said to be the most highly developed of the sub-centers.
    **************

    Our animal emotions arising from the earth cannot value levels of reality. This requires emotions furthering conscious awareness of levels of reality. Consider Gurdjieff’s Law of Three as described in “All and Everything.”

    “And as regards the second fundamental primordial cosmic law, namely the sacred Triamazikamno, cosmic Objective Science formulates it in these terms. A new arising from the previously arisen through the “harnel-miatznel, the process of which is actualized thus the higher blends with the lower in order together to actualize the middle, and thus to become either higher for the preceding lower or lower for the succeeding higher.”

    I experience this as the vertical universal processes of ascent and descent, (evolution and involution.) Can science verify this process since it deals with explicit knowledge of measurable facts? Simone Weil describes it as possible.

    “To restore to science as a whole, for mathematics as well as psychology and sociology, the sense of its origin and veritable destiny as a bridge leading toward God—not by diminishing, but by increasing precision in demonstration, verification and supposition—that would indeed be a task worth accomplishing.” Simone Weil

    I believe she is right but how can science measure the quality of a moment that connects above and below which is the domain of the great traditions?

    Science deals with the Law of the Excluded Middle which is described in Wiki as:

    In logic, the law of excluded middle (or the principle of excluded middle) is the third of the three classic laws of thought. It states that for any proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is.

    The law is also known as the law (or principle) of the excluded third (or of the excluded middle), or, in Latin, principium tertii exclusi. Yet another Latin designation for this law is tertium non datur: “no third (possibility) is given”.

    The earliest known formulation is Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction, first proposed in On Interpretation,[1] where he says that of two contradictory propositions (i.e. where one proposition is the negation of the other) one must be true, and the other false.[2] He also states it as a principle in the Metaphysics book 3, saying that it is necessary in every case to affirm or deny,[3] and that it is impossible that there should be anything between the two parts of a contradiction.[4] The principle was stated as a theorem of propositional logic by Russell and Whitehead in Principia Mathematica as:
    ***********

    Quantum physics can be explained in a new way through the use of the Law of the Included Middle. Basarab Nicolescu explains and further clarifies Gurdjieff’s law of Three:

    As I understand it, the Law of the Excluded middle refers to one level of reality while the middle for the Law of the Included Middle reconciles the extremes of one level of reality and the extremes become part of ONE functioning within this middle.

    http://ciret-transdisciplinarity.org/bulletin/b12c3.php

    I don’t know if levels of reality can be experienced through meditation alone. As orage said:

    Question: “How is pondering different from meditation and contemplation?”

    Orage: “There are notes in the thinking scale, of which Sol is concentration, La is meditation, Si is contemplation. But each is still a process of thought, in which the emotional may enter; and it must be present in pondering, which is motivated by the emotional center, by the personal relation to the subject pondered. Pondering is essential thinking. If emotion were lacking pondering would be only weighing. Pondering is establishing values by weighing; otherwise there is only clarity and logic.”

    Trying to understand Simone Weil puts one up against the ideal of social justice which is only concerned with one level of reality, and the quality of the moment as an expression of a relative quality of our being made possible through becoming aware of levels of reality.

    There was a showing on 11/18 of “An Encouter with Simone Weil” I didn’t attend since I knew Simone would be reduced to the one level of reality furthered by secular Interfaith and described as being in Plato’s cave, as compared to her knowledge of being that enabled her to die as a Christian mystic.

    http://www.theriversidechurchny.org/events/index.php?event=12388

    . Long before interfaith dialogue was the norm for progressive Christians, she explored Buddhism and Hinduism, teaching herself Sanskrit so she could read the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita in the original language.
    ************

    Simone wasn’t or couldn’t be a progressive Christian. Rather she understood and lived the essence of Christianity and its levels of reality unnecessary for life in the World, Christendom, or Plato’s cave. She understood striving for the quality of being that would make social justice possible but has become a source of annoyance to those striving for social justice as they are which can only result in furthering what Plato called the idolatry of the “Beast” which assures the status quo regardless of the finest platitudes..

    What does being in the body mean in relation to the conscious human potential for connecting above and below as Gurdjieff described? Must knowledge of facts interfere with this vertical conscious connection or is it our acquired emotional attachments to fact generated opinions that prevent experiencing the forest and the trees as a unified whole?

    You realize of course that tonight I’ll have to consider all this over a double scotch and it will be your fault.

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  3. In an issue dedicated to Science & Spirit.

    “It would be most satisfactory … if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality.”

    It seems appropriate to consider our place in a visible universe that is 28 billion parsecs (93 billion light years) in diameter, if we can even begin to understand how big that really is in realtion to where we stand here on earth.

    And then consider the impact that consciousness (thought) plays in creation. Are we creating our own reality in some fashion, does it arise from our consciousness and a universal consciouness that is at work in and across creation? Are we not co-creators with God? At a very intimate level we are given stewardship over all the earth, it is a gift and a responsibility.

    If we look at the life of Hildegard of Bingen or Teilhard de Chardin, what healing can we offer to one another and the world. There is an “Intimacy of Spirit” at work here that is invisible to many, and to others quite visible. We live inside one another, dwell in one another. It is a divine dance, perichoresis, an indwelling of the spirit that flows through us all. Would you agree?

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  4. I’ll show you something I find interesting. We are all aware of speculations concerning 666 as the mark of the Beast. But what is the Beast? Is it the Devil? Actually I know the mark to be the mark of Man.

    the 13th book of the Book of the Revelations”

    “The beast forced all the people, small and great, rich and poor, slave and free, to have a mark placed on their right hands or on their foreheads. No one could buy or sell without this mark, which is the beast’s name or the number that stands for the name. “Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man: and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.”
    *********

    Living in Plato’s cave, the desire for wisdom which can only come through conscious contemplation revealing the fallen human condition in the context of a conscious human perspective, is sacrificed for our reactions normal for living guided by imagination in one level of reality. The right hand representing our emotions is corrupted through egotism that denies levels of reality and thought represented by the forehead is restricted to the duality of associative thought and its enchantment with technology.

    The fact that science and religion seem in opposition only proves to me how difficult it is to acquire wisdom and opening to vertical reason essential for modern times. Consider The Emerald Tablet of Hermes:

    2) That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one.

    From Jabir ibn Hayyan.

    0) Balinas mentions the engraving on the table in the hand of Hermes, which says:
    1) Truth! Certainty! That in which there is no doubt!
    2) That which is above is from that which is below, and that which is below is from that which is above, working the miracles of one.
    3) As all things were from one.
    4) Its father is the Sun and its mother the Moon.
    5) The Earth carried it in her belly, and the Wind nourished it in her belly,
    7) as Earth which shall become Fire.
    7a) Feed the Earth from that which is subtle, with the greatest power.
    8) It ascends from the earth to the heaven and becomes ruler over that which is above and that which is below.
    14) And I have already explained the meaning of the whole of this in two of these books of mine.
    [Holmyard 1923: 562.]

    Science compares facts in the flow of time while the essence of religion deals with the vertical quality of NOW; the great Chain of Being.

    Without enough people opening to the relativity of objective human perspective or the relative objective quality of human being and the value of doing so, the Beast IMO will become more powerful in its lust for self glorification expressed through prestige. Facts are facts. The Beast uses them for self glorification and consolation. Conscious humanity sees them as expressions of a higher truth one wants to experience.

    I doubt there is a way to escape Armageddon. It seems like we have to endure the horrors of collectively hitting bottom. The desire for pleasure and prestige nourished by imagination seems far greater than the desire for truth at the expense of our illusions. In chess it would be considered a lost position. This cultural artificial division between science and the essence of religion just proves to me how lost it is. That is another reason I support Simone. I respect her hope but I just cannot see her profound insight as possible for the ever strengthening “Great Beast” If she was willing to be open and strive for conscious experiential truth even when it annoys the Great Beast, who am I to argue?

    “I believe that one identical thought is to be found–expressed very precisely and with only slight differences of modality– in. . .Pythagoras, Plato, and the Greek Stoics. . .in the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita; in the Chinese Taoist writings and. . .Buddhism. . .in the dogmas of the Christian faith and in the writings of the greatest Christian mystics. . .I believe that this thought is the truth, and that it today requires a modern and Western form of expression. That is to say, it should be expressed through the only approximately good thing we can call our own, namely science. This is all the less difficult because it is itself the origin of science.” Simone Weil….Simone Pétrement, Simone Weil: A Life, Random House, 1976, p. 488

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