Friday, November 28, 2014

Quotes on Childhood, Innocence, and Pre-Existence

I think that most of us have felt a certain nostalgic longing for the joys of childhood. The inevitable loss of childhood innocence is what I consider to be the tragedies of life; despite the freedom of adulthood and all the joys it brings, something is definitely lost when we grow old. However, as a result of my voracious reading, I have discovered several thinkers who, in one way or another, espouse a return to the state of childhood. This is not infantile retrogression, by any means. On the contrary, it is a reconnection with the joyful fire at the depths of our memory. By reconnecting with our childhood, they say, we reconnect with the heart of being.

I won't explain the nuances of this idea myself. Instead, I'll just present quotes from the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg and the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard (examples of these thinkers), figuring that they could explain it better than I could. Also, be on the lookout for connections between the thinkers--they are there, and they reveal profound truths about the what lies at the depths of our memories (or rather, what lies before our birth).

"And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn; and all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth" -D&C 93:21-23

"In our dreams toward childhood, in the poems we would all want to write in order to make our original memories live again, to give us back the universe of happiness, childhood appears, in the style of the psychology of the depths, like a real archetype, the archetype of simple happiness. It is surely an image within us, a center for images which attract happy images and repulse the experiences of unhappiness. But this image, in its principle, is not completely ours; it has deeper roots than our simple memories. Our childhood bears witness to the childhood of man, of the being touched by the glory of living. From then on, personal memories, clear and often retold, will never completely explain why reveries which carry us back toward our childhood have such an attraction, such a soul quality. The reason for this quality which resists the experiences of life is that childhood remains within us a principle of deep life, of life always in harmony with the possibilities of new beginnings. Everything that begins in us with the distinctness of a beginning is a madness of life." -Gaston BachelardThe Poetics of Reverie

"To meditate on the child we were, beyond all family history, after going beyond the zone of regrets, after dispersing all the mirages of nostalgia, we reach an anonymous childhood, a pure threshold of life, original life, original human life. And this life is within us--let us underline that once again--remains within us. A dream brings us back to it. The memory does nothing more than open the door to the dream. The archetype is there, immutable, immobile, beneath memory, immobile beneath the dreams. And when one has made the archetypal power of childhood come back to life through dreams, all of the paternal, maternal forces take on their action again. The father is there, also immobile. The mother is there, also immobile. Both escape time. Both live with us in another time. And everything changes; the fire of long ago is different from today's fire. Everything which welcomes has the virtue of an origin. And the archetypes will always remain origins of powerful images." -Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

"Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God." -D&C 93:38

"When we are being regenerated, we are brought first into the innocence of infancy, which is realizing that we know nothing of truth and are capable of nothing of good on our own, but that we long for what is true and good simply because it is true and good. These gifts are  granted by the Lord as we advance in age. We are led first into knowledge about them, then from knowledge to intelligence, and finally from intelligence to wisdom, always hand in hand with innocence, which is, as already noted, the recognition that we know nothing of truth and are capable of nothing of good on our own, but only from the Lord." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 279

"For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father." -Mosiah 3:19

"People who are in the inmost or third heaven, though, are in innocence of the third or inmost level; so they are the very innocent of heaven, since they above all others want to be led by the Lord the way infants are led by their father. This is why they accept divine truth directly into their intent and do it, making it a matter of life, whether they receive it directly from the Lord or mediately through the Word or sermons. This is why they have so much more wisdom than the angels of the lower heavens. Because this is the nature of these angels, they are the closest to the Lord, who is the source of their innocence, and they are also distanced from their self-centeredness so much that they seem to live in the Lord. In outward form they look simple--even like infants or little children in the eyes of the angels of the lower heavens. They look like people who do not know very much, even though they are the wisest of angels. They are in fact aware that they have no trace of wisdom on their own and that to be wise is to admit this and to admit that what they know is nothing compared to what they do not know. Knowing, recognizing, and perceiving this is what they call the first step toward wisdom. These angels are also naked, because nakedness corresponds to innocence." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 280

"I have also been told that true marriage love derives its origin from innocence because it comes from the union of the good and the true that engages the two minds, the minds of husband and wife. When this union descends, it takes on the appearance of marriage love because the spouses, like their minds, love each other. This is the source of the childlike and innocent play in marriage love." -Emanuel Swedenborg, Heaven and Hell, 281

"Thus, taken in the perspective of its archetypal qualities, put back into the cosmos of great archetypes which are at the base of the human soul, meditated childhood is more than the sum of our memories. To understand our attachment to the world, it is necessary to add a childhood, our childhood to each archetype. We cannot love water, fire, the tree without putting a love into them, a friendship which goes back to our childhood. We love them with childhood. When we love all these beauties of the world now in the song of the poets, we love them in a new found childhood, in a childhood reanimated with that childhood which is latent in each of us." -Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie

Friday, November 21, 2014

My Experience with Self-Esteem

For long stretches of my life, I really didn't like myself. By all objective accounts, you'd think that a National Merit Scholar and produced playwright like me would have every reason to think highly of himself, but that's simply never been the case. For no matter how awful or how favorable my circumstances were, a feeling of self-dislike always bubbled under the surface of my mind. It was more visible at some times than others, sure, but it was always there waiting for a sudden disappointment to set it loose. 

However, I have recently found some really helpful strategies to help with those feelings. These strategies may or may not be what you'd expect from such a piece of advice, but they are what has helped me, and so I hope that it can help some of you.

I realized a while ago that all intelligent beings have a drive to somehow see themselves in their experience of the world. This is not narcissism (at least as the Narcissus myth is conventionally interpreted), but rather a concrete desire to know that you really exist, that you are not just a subjective phantom, but are real. In ignorance of this desire's existence, many people try to satisfy it by recklessly trying to prove themselves to others. In these cases they look to their actions and others' opinions of them as a mirror in which to see their worth, for they secretly believe that they would stop existing if they stopped their figurative reflection-gazing (Thomas Merton talks about this in his book No Man is an Island). I did this extensively, but I didn't realize that this way of going about it is not only futile, but misses the whole point of the matter. 

You see, I have recently found that the best "mirror" to use for this purpose is love. That might sound like a trite cliché, but when you look into the nuances of the idea, you realize that it's quite an effective solution to the problem. As Swedenborg explains, we are all beings of love, and so each person sees herself in what she loves. Love effectively projects one's being onto the outside world, and so as a consequence of this, all a person has to do to effectively see himself is to love somebody else. I learned this only slowly, but I eventually discovered that I could only really get a sense of my true worth by externalizing my concern onto the lives of others.

In that sense, you could say that your heart wants to roam far and wide across your experience of the world, but that if you limit its range to your own experience and concerns, you will stifle it and force it into the captivity of your selfishness. Selfishness, then, amounts to nothing more than an act of self-negation, for by it you force your being to only reside inside your own skin.

However, I will say that serving others often isn't quite enough to fully establish my self-esteem. While it is true that love externalizes your being, it is not the only emotion to do this. Feelings ranging from anger to despair to anxiety are all images of a person's being, and so it is also true that you can see yourself in all of them. And this is the crucial point, for if you don't value those emotions, you neglect valuing yourself.

On this point, I have discovered that it greatly helps my self-esteem to treat every emotion I feel with value. And I do mean every emotion--whether I feel despair, guilt, spiteful anger, or even lust, I have found it incredibly helpful to respect those feelings and the parts of me from which they come. If I don't do this, I find that I don't feel at home in my own skin; indeed, if I don't trust my emotions, how could I ever learn to trust myself?

Practically speaking, I realized that this means respecting both the physical sensations and the fantasies that the emotion causes in me. I talked about the sensations and fantasies of sexual hunger in the post Letters to a Doubter: on Gender and Sexuality, but it is also true that they exist for every emotion. Take a feeling of anger, for instance: though you may resent the intense sensations involved with anger (for me, they are mainly in the chest) and its sudden fantasies of revenge, for me, forcing these manifestations down only makes the problem worse on a long scale. The same works for despair, its feeling of depressed panic, and its fantasies of emotional self-flagellation: if I aggressively fight those feelings, I fight the only part of me I can concretely see while in the midst of that pain.

To reuse an idea from Adam S. Miller's Letters to a Young Mormon, I have found that it is best to experience the emotional sensation or fantasy without either losing yourself in it or forcing it away. I try to just sit with it--letting the emotion and its manifestations come and go without passing judgment. And as I let this activity of emotion simply happen, I get the sense of increased well-being. I feel more solid, more alive, more real. And I guess I shouldn't expect anything else, for I had just respected the only manifestation of myself I could access in such a dark moment.

So, as far as I can tell, self-esteem is a question of truly believing you exist. If you can't see yourself somehow in your experience of the world, I suspect that you will feel somewhat ghostly and unreal. Fixing this can involve letting your love so shine as to illuminate the whole world of your experience, but it also helps to shine upon your entire emotional life the light of value. Doing these things really make one feel embodied and at home in the world, while without them no one can feel at home anywhere.

Friday, November 7, 2014

An Esoteric Islamic Take on Eternal Progression

ARMCHAIR SCHOLAR WARNING: Though I've become an enthusiast of various kinds of mystical thought, know that at least for Islamic spirituality I am far from an expert. What I present here I gleaned largely from books by the orientalist and scholar of comparative religion Henry Corbin. So if you find mistakes here, don't be surprised--I'm still kind of new to this topic.

Mormonism is, without a doubt, an odd religion. Not only do we believe in seer stones and Liahonas, but we also affirm the existence of a human God, complete with hair, a nose, and toenails. But by far the oddest belief we hold is that of a hierarchy of gods, or rather, that just as God was once a man, you can someday become a God or a Goddess yourself. 

However, at least with the last belief, it may console the self-conscious believer to know that another, completely independent belief system believes in almost exactly the same thing. This system is the Ismāʿīlī sect of Shia Islam, and though it may seem exotic, there are actually few things closer to the Mormon worldview.

As opposed to many other branches of Islam, the Ismāʿīlīs place their emphasis on esoteric and mystically-minded interpretations of the law and the Qur'an. As such, they have a concept of ever-deepening spiritual interpretation (what they call ta'wil) that they hold in especially high regard.  But ta'wil doesn't just mean the act of interpretation. At least in an Ismāʿīlī context, ta'wil refers to the act of bringing something back to its eternal origin. To do this with a sacred text means seeing through the text to the aspects of divinity that manifest through it, but it is far from a mere textual exercise--even events in the world can be spiritually interpreted this way.

Here we have the first inking of a connection with Mormonism: in both perspectives all things strive to go "upwards" toward God, to connect in actuality with the eternal potential they had pre-existently ("the measure of its creation," to quote D&C 88:19). In the Ismāʿīlī perspective, this happens because what they call "the angel of humanity" was himself cut off from the ultimate divine source and thus  longed "nostalgically" to go back to it. Much like Joseph Smith's presentation of God the Father, this angel of humanity acts as the creator of this world, its window to divinity, and the "image" off of which each person's own angelic potential was based. Again in alignment with Mormonism, this angel is not ultimate--he is actually relatively far down the chain of spiritual hierarchy that pinnacles in who Muslims call Allah.

And though I don't know much about this particular aspect of Ismāʿīlī belief, I have read that once a person dies, they believe he or she is able to indefinitely progress with that angel of humanity back to the divine source from which all emanates. Hence here we have something strikingly similar to the Mormon doctrine of eternal progression.

It's worth noting, however, that this indefinite spiritual progression happens in a way you might not expect. The process actually occurs through ta'wil, or the attempt to return to the source of something's being by ever-deepening interpretation. Ta'wil lets one encounter the divinity manifest through an object, animal, or person; instead of being opaque, they become transparent to divinity. By doing this with your life, you get "drawn up" to divinity, while divinity becomes glorified in you. Thus ta'wil, as a method of seeing the source of things through an object of perception, lets one reconnect with that source both here and in eternity.

Though people might find it distasteful to believe that the process of eternal progression happens through ever-deepening interpretation (i.e. in a Mormon context, too), I don't see any reason why somebody shouldn't. After all, Joseph Smith talks about "all things [having] their likeness, that they may accord one with another--that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly," and insists that rituals like baptism for the dead act as such a salvific window to heaven. In fact, to view the concept of eternal progression in terms of ever deepening insight into the nature of reality echoes Joseph Smith's oft-repeated declaration that man is saved through knowledge.

In fact, if one recognizes the eerie similarity that the Ismāʿīlī system has to Mormon doctrine (it strikes me as hard not to), one might gain insight by reading certain Mormon concepts in an Ismāʿīlī way. For instance, to the question of how "progression" can occur in a timeless state, we might turn to the Ismāʿīlī notion that "past," "present," and "future" mean different things when separated from lower, "earthly" time. Namely, in higher spiritual echelons the present simply means eternal being. Similarly, in such a state the future refers to that eternal being in an active sense, while the past refers to the same eternal being as utilized toward action. Naturally this is quite difficult to understand, but the gist of it is that eternal time is nowhere near as absurd as time is here (in which we chase forever after ever-receding future satisfaction); there the past, present, and future exist together, only differentiated in mode of being.

One might also compare the Mormon notion of "many worlds" to its Ismāʿīlī parallel. These Muslims also believe in many worlds that are all presided over by the same overarching divinity, but they avoid the common Mormon way of interpreting these worlds as literal planets (which I think is in error). Instead, they declare that they are independent emanations from other angels, which themselves are emanations from higher ones. In other words, these worlds aren't just separated by quantitative distance--they are different from our mode of being in a qualitative way (in which one could never travel there in a spaceship, for instance). To use a crude metaphor, one could compare them to the parallel universes of science fiction, though that image is too materialist for my taste. But most interestingly, they declare that these parallel worlds (which, by the way, can be "higher" or "lower" in the spiritual hierarchy) connect with ours through the spiritual archetypes/aspects of divinity that manifest in both. It's the same image in both places, so to speak.

Moreover, one might productively understand Mormon conceptions of gender difference as do the Ismāʿīlīs. For them, the feminine principle represented the esoteric side of reality, the principle that, though hidden, is so because it is closer to God. Naturally, then, the masculine principle would represent the exoteric principle, that which is concerned with outer appearance and literalisms (Gaston Bachelard, whom I quoted in a recent post, says something similar in his Poetics of Reverie). As I mentioned in my post Letters to a Doubter: On Gender and Sexuality, one can read human anatomy in this way--though the woman's reproductive organs are more hidden from sight than the man's, they represent the origin of all human life. One might even say that, just as human life has an invisible origin in the woman, the human spirit itself rests upon and derives its entire being from the less-talked-about feminine aspect of the divine. Such would be an understanding of the feminine that, while symbolically manifest in the female body, does not necessarily determine the woman's personality or destiny (again, see the post mentioned above).

Finally, one might compare the Ismāʿīlī idea of the "The Final Imam," who will come at to initiate the final resurrection, with the Mormon/generic Christian idea of the Christ of the Second Coming. For Ismāʿīlīs, the final Imam will come as the embodied summation of the entire human spiritual community. In that sense, he is the manifestation in the world of the "angel of humanity" mentioned above, of whom we are all images. Naturally this conures images of "the body of Christ" and of Paul saying that "when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory." (Colossians 3:4). In a very real sense, we are in Christ. Though this might strike you as needlessly sectarian, even the Book of Mormon says that "in Christ there should come every good thing," implying that Christ is indeed the recapitulation of all the good in the world. What comes from this observation, one which says that Christ's coming is really the coming to earth of the fullness of all good, is that we contribute toward that coming's fulfillment by manifesting that good within ourselves. Indeed, you could say that every manifestation of that good brings Christ back in miniature. The Ismāʿīlīs certainly thought this of their Imam, of whom they declared "may we be those who bring about the transfiguration of the world." But lest you think I'm eschewing or the personality of Christ, know that, as far as I'm aware, the Ismāʿīlīs thought of their Imam as a very real, concrete figure to come (whose body they spoke of in very real ways). Likewise, though I think that Christ will bring all good things with Him when he comes, I don't think that's opposed to the idea of his literal body. Oppositions of that sort are only exclusive to the mind attuned solely to the everyday.

In summary, l think we as Mormons have a lot to learn from the esoteric parts of Islam. As If have tried to show above, I believe that these two systems represent different perspectives of the same eternal landscape, if you will. By comparing the two, we may get a better intuitive grasp of what the landscape looks like in itself.