Tag Archives: ineffable

Thoughts on “The Punishment of Pride” by Charles Baudelaire

In those old times wherein Theology
Flourished with greater sap and energy,
A celebrated doctor—so they say—
Having stirred many careless hearts one day
Down to their dullest depths, and having shown
Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne—
Tracks he himself had never journeyed on
(Whereby maybe pure spirits alone had gone)—
Frenzied and swollen by the devilish pride,
Like to a man who has climbed too high, outcried:
“Ah, little Jesus, I have lifted thee!
But had I willed to assault thy dignity,
Thy shame had matched they present fame, and lo!
Thou wouldst be but a wretched embryo!”

Straightway his reason left him; that keen mind,
Sunbright before, was darkened and made blind;
All chaos whirled within that intellect
Erewhile a shrine with all fair gems bedeckt,
Beneath whose roof such pomp had shone so bright;
He was possessed by silence and thick night
As is a cellar when its key is lost . . .

Thenceforth he was a brute beast; when he crossed
The fields at times, not seeing any thing,
Knowing not if ’twere winter or green spring,
Useless, repulsive, vile, he made a mock
For infants, a mere children’s laughing-stock.

(translation by Sir John Squire)

On my first read through of this poem, my immediate question was: Who is the doctor Baudelaire is referring to? My initial thought was John Dee, but upon my second pass, I didn’t think so. Dee did not have a tragic ending such as the poem depicts. Then I thought, “Lucifer?” No, Lucifer’s pride and fall predates the time when Theology flourished. So I did a little investigation online, and it seems that Baudelaire was referring to Doctor Faustus in this poem. That made sense to me, although, I think the dominant theme of the poem is universal and could be applied to many figures, historical and fictional. Just like the myth of Icarus—if you dare fly to close to the Sun, you will inevitably fall and suffer.

While the concept of pride leading to a fall is evident on the surface of this poem, I also got a sense of a secondary caution that is less obvious, but just as important. This is a warning to those who are called to follow the mystical arts.

We are told that the doctor traveled “Strange pathways leading to the heavenly throne.” I interpret this as the practice of occult rituals, with the intention of experiencing direct contact with the divine. While I applaud those who seek to glimpse the ineffable, every guidebook for those stepping onto the paths of mysticism emphasizes the importance of remaining grounded. Once you begin on the labyrinth, it is easy to lose one’s self and suffer the anguish of mental illness.

So the cautionary message Baudelaire is conveying to the seeker is two-fold. Remain humble in your accomplishments and in the light of divine majesty; and remain balanced and grounded, not allowing your spiritual quest to consume you to the point where you neglect and lose touch with earthly experience.

Thanks for sharing in my thoughts, and as always, if you have anything to add, feel free to do so in the comments section.

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Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

I’ve been wanting to read the Bhagavad Gita for a while, but the copy that I had (provided to me by the Hare Krishnas at a Dead concert) seemed very long, so I was reluctant to start. But recently I did give it a shot and quickly realized that it was about 90% commentary, so I put it back and made the decision to find a different translation. So when I was perusing books at a bookstore recently, I discovered a translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell. I figured this would be a good version for me to delve into, and I was correct. The text flowed beautifully, and it was very easy to follow and digest the text.

As with all spiritual texts, there is such a wealth of wisdom that it is impossible to do it justice in a short blog post. With that in mind, I will share a few quotes that I connected with, as well as my thoughts regarding those passages.

Driven by desire for pleasure
and power, caught up in ritual,
they strive to gain heaven; but rebirth
is the only result of their striving.

They are lured by their desires,
besotted by the scriptures’ words;
their minds have not been made clear
by the practice of meditation.

The scriptures dwell in duality.
Be beyond all opposites, Arjuna:
anchored in the real, and free
from all thoughts of wealth and comfort.

(p. 54)

While mystical and spiritual texts are great sources of wisdom and inspiration, Lord Krishna points out the issue—they fall short of the wisdom and freedom gained from active spiritual pursuits. Scripture uses symbolic language to try to express the ineffable experience of direct connection with the Divine which is gained through yoga and meditation. Those who seek the Divine solely in text will never find what they seek. It is only through actively engaging in practices that one may catch a momentary glimpse of the Divine.

As fire is obscured by smoke,
as a mirror is covered by dust,
as a fetus is wrapped in a membrane,
so wisdom is obscured by desire.

Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,
by the constant enemy of the wise,
which, flaring up as desire,
blazes with insatiable flames.

(p. 69)

This made me think a lot about our current society. Social media, advertising, and even the news to some extent, all feed the human desire for what they don’t have, or what they don’t have enough of, or what will keep them safe, and on and on and on. This desire, this constant striving, is manifesting much of our current social and political problems right now. People are prone to react rather than think and respond carefully. I have made a conscious effort to minimize the amount of social media and advertising information that I am exposed to, and as a result, I have become much happier and calmer.

I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
of all knowledge, the refiner, the sacred
Om, and the threefold Vedas.

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution,
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.

I am the heat of the sun,
I hold back the rain and release it,
I am death, and the deathless,
and all that is or is not.

(pp. 116 – 117)

What I like about this passage where Lord Krishna is describing himself to Arjuna is that he uses a series of opposites to describe his essence. It is like a balancing of light and dark, yin and yang, life and death. The Divine must surly encompass all, for everything emanates from the Source and, therefore, everything must exist within the Source. This kind of echoes Revelation 22:13 where Christ says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

This is the soul-destroying
threefold entrance to hell:
desire, anger, and greed.
Every man should avoid them.

The man who refuses to enter
these three gates into darkness
does what is best for himself
and attains the ultimate goal.

(p. 173)

This is so true. If more people would replace desire with acceptance, anger with love and forgiveness, and greed with charity, what a different world this would be. How much happier we would be as a global society. There is still hope for us. Although I sometimes despair, I remember that humans have an incredible capacity to change. I will do my best to help promote change for the better.

Thanks for stopping by, and many blessings!

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“The Way of Zen” by Alan Watts

This book has been on my shelf for a really long time (price on cover is .60¢). In fact, this was my dad’s book, and I suppose I somehow came to possess it. Anyway, I reached the stage in my life where I felt now was the time to read it. I am a firm believer that we read books exactly when we are supposed to read them.

I have been maintaining a daily meditation practice for a while now, and I feel that this book has re-centered me on the path. There is a wealth of insight in this book, and regardless of where you are on your individual journey, I am certain that you will benefit from reading this book. That said, I want to share a few of the many quotes that I connected with.

Every positive statement about ultimate things must be made in the suggestive form of myth, of poetry. For in this realm the direct and indicative form of speech can say only “Neti, neti” (“No, no”), since what can be described and categorized must always belong to the conventional realm.

(p. 45)

The spiritual experience is ineffable. For this reason, we can only express an approximation of the experience through the symbolism of myth, poetry, and other art forms. I personally find music to be one of the best vehicles for expressing the mystical or spiritual, because it conveys pure emotion and energy, without the baggage of words and the associated interpretations. Although, there is no shortage of poetry that does an amazing job of expressing the inexpressible.

Another passage that I found deeply interesting discussed nonduality as defined by Buddhists and Hindus.

Thus his point of view is not monistic. He does not think that all things are in reality One because, concretely speaking, there never were any “things” to be considered One. To join is as much maya as to separate. For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many. This doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts, and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.

(p. 50)

This was like a bolt of lightning for me. In everything that I had read which mentions nonduality, I always associated it with One. Now I understand that this is just another layer of illusion, essentially my mind using my limited set of symbols to try to grasp something that is well beyond the reach of my conventional thinking. Just as the yin cannot exist except in relation to the yang, so my concept of a divine One can only exist in contrast to my concept of many, and both fail to express the entirety of reality, which is the nondual. I can see that I will be spending a lot of time contemplating this in days to come.

The state of heightened awareness is something that is equally as impossible to describe as the One, but Watts includes a quote from Sokei-an Sasaki that does a great job in describing that indescribable sensation that one occasionally experiences while meditating.

One day I wiped out all the notions from my mind. I gave up all desire. I discarded all the words with which I thought and stayed in quietude. I felt a little queer—as if I were being carried into something, or as if I were touching some power unknown to me . . . and Ztt! I entered. I lost the boundary of my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos. I spoke, but my words had lost their meaning. I saw people coming towards me, but all were the same man. All were myself! I had never known this world. I had believed that I was created, but now I must change my opinion: I was never created; I was the cosmos; no individual Mr. Sasaki existed.

(p. 122)

Reading this reminds me of the quote from William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”: If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. Everything, including ourselves, is infinite, and therefore, part of the nondual, and beyond our ability to express in this constructed reality.

To sum up, Zen, like all spiritual paths, is a journey, without beginning and without end. But the joy of being on the path is in the traveling of the path itself.

. . . Zen has no goal; it is a travelling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.”

(p. 190)

Enjoy your journey!

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 40” by Lao Tzu

Image Source: Wikipedia

The movement of the Tao consists in Returning.
The use of the Tao consists in softness.

All things under heaven are born of the corporeal:
The corporeal is born of the Incorporeal.

The beauty of Lao Tzu’s work is the amount of wisdom expressed in a few short lines. This is a great example. Let’s go line-by-line.

The first line expresses the endless cycle of eternity. Everything that exists is in the process of returning to the divine source, from which it is re-emanated.

The second line expresses the need for subtlety when attempting to align one’s self with the Tao. We cannot force or bend the divine way to suit our wants or needs. We must remain flexible like the tree in the wind, that bends so as not to break.

From the third line, we understand that everything that exists in this world is a product of this world. Essentially, we are part of Nature and cannot be separated from Nature. We must accept that we are a part of this whole.

Finally, we learn that Nature and the world came from something that is not Nature or the world. This is the Tao, the ineffable. Everything that exists will return to the place beyond existence, from which a new existence shall manifest.

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“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard: A Hero’s Journey into the Subconscious

I picked this book up on a whim, basically because it was on sale and I had heard of it, and also because I liked the character of Allan Quatermain (the protagonist in this book) from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notes on the back cover also state that this book influenced the Indiana Jones movies. All in all, it seemed like something I should read.

It’s basically a story about a small group of adventurers in Africa who go on a quest to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. The writing is great, the story is exciting, and the imagery is dazzling; but what I found most fascinating about this book is the symbolism concerning the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld.

For me, the hero’s journey into the underworld is symbolic of a person’s exploration of the hidden realms of the subconscious mind and is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth. This book is brimming with these types of symbols.

Before the intrepid crew sets out, Sir Henry Curtis lets everyone know that this journey they are about to undertake is the strangest on which a human can embark.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Henry, presently, in his low, deep voice, “we are going on about as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtful if we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for good or for evil to the last. And now before we start let us for a moment pray to the Power who shapes the destinies of men, and who for ages since has marked out our paths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with His will.”

(p. 53)

As they set out on the journey, Quatermain attempts to describe the mountain landscape, symbolic of the border realm between the two states of consciousness. But because this lies on the border of the subconscious, it is ineffable and beyond the ability to describe in words.

To describe the grandeur of the whole view is beyond my powers. There was something so inexpressibly solemn and overpowering about those huge volcanoes—for doubtless they are extinct volcanoes—that it fairly took our breath away. For a while the morning lights played upon the snow and the brown and swelling masses beneath, and then, as though to veil the majestic sight from our curious eyes, strange mists and clouds gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope. Indeed, as we afterwards discovered, they were normally wrapped in this curious gauzy mist, which doubtless accounted for one not having made them out before.

(p. 61)

Consciousness is eternal, and a symbol that frequently is used to represent the continuity of consciousness is the ourosboros, or the snake devouring its tail. This symbol is tattooed upon the body of Umbopa.

“Look,” he said: “what is this?” and he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.

(p. 103)

Later, Quatermain contemplates the eternal nature of the soul, or the subconscious.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

(p. 132)

When the adventurers finally enter the cave, they marvel at the forms, the strange creations of the subconscious, reminiscent of the forms in Plato’s cave. These forms are described as strange, since they exist beyond the realm of our ordinary waking consciousness.

Sometimes the stalactites took strange forms, presumably where the dropping of the water had not always been in the same spot.

(p. 173)

It is also worth noting that water is another symbol of the subconscious. Essentially, the hidden divine aspect of our consciousness is what creates the forms which eventually manifest in the material realm.

Quatermain then contemplates how the inside of the cave is illuminated.

… I was particularly anxious to discover, if possible, by what system the light was admitted into the place, and whether it was by the hand of man or of nature that this was done, also if it had been used in any way in ancient times, as seemed probable.

(p. 174)

This symbolizes one of the most important questions for humankind: From where did consciousness arise? Light is the symbol of consciousness, or the divine intellect. It casts light into the darker regions of the subconscious and enlightens us with the divine knowledge. But is this the result of our own doing, a construct of our own minds? Did we evolve this way? Or was some divine “nature” responsible for the gift of enlightenment?

When the group emerges from the cave, they are greeted by a friend who acknowledges the importance of their return to the world of normal consciousness, which is the symbolic end of the hero’s journey, the return from the land of the dead, or the deep reaches of the subconscious.

“Oh, my lords, my lords, it is indeed you come back from the dead!—come back from the dead!”

(p. 196)

I have to say, I really loved this book. It spoke to my sense of adventure, but also inspired me with its rich symbolism. And the quality of the writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it. It’s short and quick, and definitely worth it.

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“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

I’ve had this book on my shelf for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it from. But as part of my goal to clear some of my unread books and continue reading more spiritual texts, I figured I would give this one a read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were great insights, it read well, and the language was nicely crafted. In fact, it seemed just a little too polished for someone who was not a native English speaker, but hey, every writer needs a good editor.

Many years ago, I was a vegetarian, and I was so for about 13 years. When I started eating meat again (my body needed it when training for my first marathon), I grappled with the ethical questions of eating meat, even though I made sure to only get ethically raised meats. Then one day, I had a realization that plants and rocks, being comprised of energy, must also possess consciousness, just like animals, but a type of consciousness that we cannot perceive as humans. To survive, we must get energy from other things, living and non-living (in the case of minerals). A passage in this book affirmed this belief that I have.

The telltale charts of my crescograph are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.

(p. 78)

During times of deep meditation, I have been fortunate enough to experience momentary shifts in consciousness, slipping briefly into states of heightened awareness. These moments are virtually impossible to convey using the limited tool of language, but Yogananda does an excellent job describing that ineffable experience.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

(p. 167)

While I love to read, and I believe there is value in reading spiritual and mystical texts, it is important to not only read, but to practice too. Book knowledge will only take a person so far on the spiritual path.

The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,” he said. “Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable speculations for actual God-communion.”

(p. 377)

The last passage from this book that I want to share concerns what is important for the sustainability and longevity of a society. We are at a point in human history where wealth, military power, and materialism are the measures of a society’s worth and strength. I do not agree with this paradigm. I believe it is art, the humanities, and how we care for each other that are the true measures of a society’s strength and endurance.

The Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the Divine reply: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,” gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from oblivion. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India’s contemporaries: ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome.

The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not in its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.

(p. 340)

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