Friday, January 29, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 18

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 18
Hello, all! This week's Book of Mormon analysis is brought to you by 1 Nephi 18, the chapter where Lehi and sons sail across the sea to the promised land.
When Nephi, Lehi, and their family finally cross the ocean, the text makes a point of saying that they brought seeds along with them (verse 6). Why mention seeds, and why make a point of saying that they planted those seeds once they got to the promised land in verse 24? I'd suggest that these seeds represent what seeds, as miniature replicas of a grown plant, always represent: a microcosm of something bigger and more developed. Specifically, I'd go along with Alma 32's metaphor and suggest that these seeds symbolize tiny pieces of divinity that they keep safe as they cross the ocean. Seeds need ground, after all; they can't thrive in open ocean. The seeds in this chapter need protection and a dry place to be stored, which is exactly what Nephi's ship provides
So perhaps we can think of 1 Nephi 18 as the tale of safely getting these seeds from the Old World to the Promised Land. But what does this mean on a deeper level? The I Ching, a Chinese oracle text, can give us a wealth of symbolic associations to build on for this point. If you put the trigram symbolizing wood and wind (suggesting a ship) over the trigram symbolizing "the abyss," you get hexagram 59, otherwise known as Dispersion or Dissolution. The "Judgment" for this hexagram gives a very interesting description:

"Dispersion. Success.

The king approaches his temple.
It furthers one to cross the great water.
Perseverance furthers"
And the hexagram's "image" goes like this:
"The wind drives over the water:
The image of Dispersion.
Thus the Kings of old sacrificed to the Lord
And built great temples."
Even apart from the obvious resemblances, the I Ching's commentary on the hexagram parallels the Book of Mormon's story a great deal. Take the phrase "the king approaches his temple," for instance. Reading the word "temple" both as a literal temple and as any symbolic place to contain divine presence, we can see the Book of Mormon's story parallel that line from the I Ching in a) the way Nephi "did build a temple...after the manner of the temple of Solomon" in 2 Nephi 5, b) how Nephi makes plates of ore--themselves a divine receptacle--to record his people's history in 1 Nephi 19, and c) the fact that Nephi and his family have just arrived in a "land of promise," making the whole continent a kind of temple. To put it a little differently, the seeds of divinity that came across the sea can now grow into their own in a temple--effectively a safe plot of ground for divinity to grow into itself.
So at this point, the I Ching has given us a way to think of this Book of Mormon chapter as the story of these seeds getting blown across the sea to be planted in the "earth" of another continent. This is effectively what happens when we are baptized. We leave behind the old "natural man" and--by going through the water--emerge as a new person. We're "born again:" we get a new lease on physical life, meaning that life post-baptism has all the bounty and prosperity of Nephi's land of promise, albeit in a spiritual sense. The ground we walk on is no longer the same: we leave the natural earth behind and get celestial earth in its place; muladhara or the root chakra gets transposed to the visuddha or throat chakra, both of which share the earthy elephant as an animal symbol.
Therefore, I choose to read the exodus to the promised land as an exodus from a "natural" way of being to a "spiritual" one. We make this pilgrimage when we're baptized, yes, but we also make it whenever we abandon a literal, physical way of looking at the world for a spiritual one. In an ordinance like the Sacrament, do I just see bread and water, or do I use a metaphorical eye to see what those symbols represent? Are the scriptures just easily rippable paper or a window to divinity? By moving toward the metaphorical, the spiritual, or--as Henry Corbin and James Hillman put it--the imaginal, everything becomes spiritual unto us, just as Christ says everything is spiritual unto Him in D&C 29:34. By looking with a spiritual eye, the world opens up to celestial light; the world--before dirty and opaque--is now made of glass. We have left Babylon behind and entered the promised land.
Moreover, I have a hunch that this is how Joseph Smith saw the world. If it turns out that some things he claimed weren't objectively, historically true, this wouldn't bother me. In my opinion, Joseph Smith didn't care about history at all; he was a typical puer aeternus, a precocious youth who bounds in like Peter Pan from eternity's higher soil and tries to make this earth an image of heaven. The puer sees history as an obstacle to overcome; history doesn't matter, meaning that its "matter" is irrelevant and ultimately unreal. Despite whatever "actually" happened in America 2500 years ago, Joseph Smith saw the true history of that continent, the one you won't find in textbooks: one where--in a land mysteriously between east and west--the wisdom of a whole nation germinates like a seed in the (spiritual) ground until it's ready to be harvested in these latter days. In my opinion, that seed is what went across with Nephi on his boat, and the fruit is what Joseph Smith harvested millennia later.
That's that for this week. If you're interested in more of my take on this part of the Book of Mormon, check out my post on the Liahona from last fall.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Meditative Brainstorming

Meditative Brainstorming
Emanuel Swedenborg--visionary, mystic, and my personal role model--didn't just stumble onto his visions of heaven and hell. Those experiences are extraordinary accomplishments, and if anyone wants to achieve them, they need to spend a long time preparing for it. Swedenborg did this, though he wasn't aware he was doing it: from childhood, he would go into a meditative state to efficiently work on intellectual problems. Wilson Van Dusen describes this process in his book The Presence of Higher Worlds:
"Since childhood, Swedenborg had a personal practice that happens to be one of the ancient Hindu Yoga and Buddhist ways to enlightenment. He didn't know he was following an Eastern religious practice because the literature on this had not yet been translated, yet his method is not surprising in one who so much enjoyed intellectual analysis. He would relax, close his eyes, and focus in with total concentration on a problem. At the same time, his breathing would nearly stop. Awareness of the outer world and even bodily sensation would diminish and perhaps disappear. His whole existence would focus on the one issue he wanted to understand"
When I read this passage about a year ago, I thought it was amazing. I wanted to use this process myself, but I was hesitant because my past experiences with conscious "brainstorming" had always been lackluster. If I have any interesting ideas (and I like to think I do) they happen spontaneously and without warning; deliberately pursuing insights almost never worked. However, I eventually realized that my conscious daydreaming was inefficient because I was trying to think the way I thought people were supposed to think. I believed that intellectual thought could only happen in words, since that's what you read in novels or see in films. But the ideas I had spontaneously never came to me as words; instead, they came as pictures.I couldn't see that Swedenborg's brainstorming didn't happen in strings of words or sentences. He actually says this in his pre-spiritual-awakening book Rational Psychology:
"[If] we remove particular ideas, that is, withdraw the mind from terms and ideas that are broken, limited, and material, and at the same time, from desires and loves that are purely natural, then the human intellect, being at rest from heterogeneous throngs, as it were, and remaining only in its own ideas and those proper to the pure intellect, causes our mind to undergo no other changes, or to draw forth no other reasons save those that are concordant with the ideas of the pure intellect."
In the meditative practice that inspired this passage, Swedenborg would withdraw his thought from particular, broken ideas and focus it on deeper, more perfect and universal ones. To put it in other words, he wouldn't think in terms of x issue with y particular mining operation (Swedenborg administered the mines in Sweden before his spiritual awakening), but would ponder the deep, general principle underlying that issue. You can't put this into words. Using language from his spiritual works, we can say that "a word is just a mental image given visible form" and conclude that he thought entirely in images or pictures while meditating.
So when I realized this, I decided to finally try Swedenborg's "meditative brainstorming" to plan an RPG campaign I've been working on. I filled up a bath and turned off all the lights except for a few candles. Then I closed my eyes and began to think. I immediately noticed that I didn't need to exert myself at all while doing this; letting symbolic pictures relate to other symbolic pictures--all without any words involved--moved the process along effortlessly. I also noticed that I didn't have to come up with an exact mental image: even just the suggestion of one would work.
I then realized that the images were completely arbitrary, though they worked perfectly. They were just a "body" that the purpose behind a thought could use to show itself to me, a "form" to its "substance," a mirror to reflect its light. All our thoughts are likewise "bodies" for mental purposes, but I don't think we realize that we can express our thoughts to ourselves (and maybe even to each other) without going through all the effort of formalizing ideas into words and sentences. We can use pictures--or even just suggestions of pictures--instead.
Finally, this experiment has influenced the way I pray. In prayer, I now don't use words as often as I used to. Instead, I think using the slightest suggestion of my meaning, which suffices. From my experience, God can then respond through an influx of impressions akin to the way I offered the prayer. And answers come more easily that way: if we're to believe Swedenborg, language becomes less and less verbal the higher in heaven you go, so it would make sense that prayer is more effective the more you think without words.
If you haven't tried anything like this before, I encourage you to experiment with thought that doesn't use words. It's amazing, it's fast, and it's very fulfilling.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 12

The next section of the Book of Mormon I'll examine is 1 Nephi 12, part of Nephi's vision.
Take a look at verse ten:
"And these twelve ministers whom thou beholdest shall judge thy seed. And, behold, they are righteous forever; for because of their faith in the Lamb of God their garments are made white in his blood."
What an interesting image! And it's one that appears over and over in Mormon scripture. To have "my garments made white in His blood" goes against common sense; blood is red, whereas it whitens. However, the paradox of white and red isn't a new image, by any means. Swedenborg wrote that the two main colors of the spiritual world are red and white: red for the principle of good/love and white for truth/wisdom. These images correspond to "heat" and "light" in his writings, respectively. Red is the color of life's intensity: flowing blood, rosy cheeks, a ruddy complexion, etc. But if red has intense vitality, white has cool reflection. White is the color of purity and cleanliness: worn by doctors in hospitals and by temple-goers.

Alchemy, the pre-scientific ancestor to chemistry, can help us here. In alchemy, two major parts of the opus are called the albedo or "whitening" and the rubedo or "reddening." Normally the albedo would precede the rubedo (instead of the other way around, as in the Book of Mormon passage). In his book Alchemical Psychology, the master psychologist James Hillman writes that the white albedo by itself is incomplete:
"Having absorbed and unified all hues into the one white, the mirror of silvered subjectivity expands to reflect all things at the expense of differentiation of itself. It takes something outside subjectivity to see into oneself."
If white is the cool peace of spiritual wellbeing--nothing wrong, things going smoothly--it's still only subjective. It reflects everything back into itself; since everything is peaceful, no fundamental distinction, division, and opposition exist between the things in the world. Multiplicity gives way to unity. However, red is what the passage calls the "something outside subjectivity." It is the "other," what interrupts the clean union of everything with myself. Moreover, white doesn't like red; referring to the white albedo stage, Hillman writes "This condition does not want more light, more heat." But somehow--whether as rosy desire or ruddy anger--the rubedo's passion interrupts white's peaceful unity with itself.

Ideally, says Hillman, the white albedo functions as the self's "ground," what the alchemists call the terra alba or "white earth." However, red as the rubedo should be the focus of that self: extraversion, the complex, multiple "outside," what's "out there." Knowing this, the way Christ encourages our garments to be "made white in his blood" begins to make sense. Christ--whose blood we symbolically drink in the Sacrament--is the stuff of life itself, an insight Swedenborg made repeatedly. However, while white is a color of purity, it's also the color of death: think of gleaming white skulls and the white moon which was a gathering place for the dead in cultures the world over.

If we combine these insights, Christ's red, sacramental blood gives life to our stark, white inner death. This has a few implications. For one, it suggests that we need to symbolically "die" before we can become pure and receive Christ's life, but that insight is hardly new. More fascinating is the idea that blood as a symbol of life can revive the dead. Greek mythology says just this: that shades in the Underworld can be temporarily revived through living blood. Moreover, Jung's Red Book gives a similar insight:
"We sacrificed innumerable victims to the dark depths, and yet it still demands more. What is this crazy desire craving satisfaction? Whose mad cries are these? Who among the dead suffers thus? Come here and drink blood, so that you can speak." 
The "innumerable victims" sacrificed to "the dark depths" is ostensibly the violence we commit in the name of egoism: though we like to play the "hero," any heroics we commit in the name of an ideal kills something. In its most innocent form this shows up as the repression necessary to build an ego and in its worst form it causes the wars and genocides we commit for the sake of an imagined virtue. From Jung's perspective, "the dead" are anything that's been thrust down and killed in this egoistic pursuit. So when we give life to the dead by "feeding them blood," we're really giving life to the repressed parts of our personal and collective unconsciouses.

The dead--corresponding to the cold, stark white of bone, winter, or a moonlit night--have the purification we seek. For when we feed the white dead with red life, we're bringing life and death together into a kind of marriage. We acknowledge ourselves as dead--empty, poor in spirit, meek--and receive life into ourselves that's nevertheless still distinct from us. We become white to receive the red, and red lets the white have life in its death, as if death were a vessel for life.

When we're made white through Christ's blood, we lose the sense of our life belonging to us and realize that it belongs to Christ as the "other." We become white--dead in itself, a white reflection of all other color--and Christ's redness acts as a way to enliven our white purity with the life and intensity present in the world. Christ--as life itself--gives us life when we turn to Him. We just have to die to ourselves first.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 1 Nephi 1

Hey all! Last April I wrote a post where I promised to do a Swedenborgian interpretation of the Book of Mormon, something I didn't end up actually doing. However, since the Church's Gospel Doctrine lessons this year are focused on the Book of Mormon, I thought that now would be as good a time to start as ever. In fact, I now (hopefully) want to write a post each week to go with the lesson in that Gospel Doctrine manual. That way I get to live out my fantasy of being a Sunday School teacher.
However, I'm going to interpret the Book of Mormon by drawing on more resources than just Swedenborg. I want to use a whole bunch of mythic, religious, and artistic resources to draw out hidden meanings from this work of scripture. I justify this by saying that all images in the Book of Mormon--notwithstanding their historicity--reflect an internal "necessity" inherent to similar images. You'll see what I mean as I get further on in the post.
To start out with, we'll analyze some passages from the first chapter of 1 Nephi. Enjoy!

1 Nephi 1:5-6

To begin with, consider the image that begins the Book of Mormon's narrative:
5 Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people.
6 And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much; and because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tremble exceedingly.
A pillar of fire pops up in a few places throughout scripture, notably in Exodus 13, where God appears as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and in Helaman 5, where a pillar of fire appears around Nephi and Lehi in a Lamanite prison. We can discern a similarity in each of these cases: the fire helps one see. Nephi wrote that his father saw and heard much, as if he wouldn't have been able to learn without the fire's light. In Exodus, the pillar guides; it shows the Israelites the way in what would otherwise remain unknown wilderness. And in Helaman, the pillar of fire gives the impetus that allows the prisoners there to develop a faith (compared with sight in Alma 5:15, among other places) that will later completely change the Nephite-Lamanites dynamic in the promised land.
A pillar of fire therefore always illuminates, in this case whatever Lehi didn't yet know. Emanuel Swedenborg actually writes this in his symbolic interpretation of the Exodus passage, where he says that a pillar of fire represents an "illustration of good." However, the fact that this fire takes the form of a pillar has other connotations. A pillar connects the above to the below: it extends all the way from the ceiling (a cognate of the French word ciel, which means heaven, itself a derivative of the Latin word caelum) to the ground. Likewise, we see pillars connecting earth and heaven in religious traditions the world over. For instance, the "Djed Pillar" of ancient Egypt functioned as a representation of both the Pharaoh and Osiris, and the Egyptians would raise it upright from a prone position to commemorate the climax and perceived rebirth of the new Pharaoh. Here the Pharaoh himself--as a "type" of the dying-and-reborn Osiris--points to the pillar's linking function. Like with Christ's role as mediator between God and humanity, the Pharaoh functioned as a god among men, the link that kept the world of the gods and the world of humans connected. Pharaoh--like Christ--is a pillar that keeps the earth and heaven conjoined.
One could also read the pillar of fire in terms of the spinal column in Kundalini Yoga. As a practitioner of Kundalini Yoga myself, the exercises make my spine--naturally pillar-like--feel like it's on fire. As with the other examples I've mentioned, Kundalini Yoga sees the spine as a link between heaven (microcosmically represented in the upper chakras) and earth (represented in the lower chakras). In fact, one could productively read the rock upon which the pillar of fire dwelt as a parallel to the Root Chakra: made of earth, it provides a base for a pillar that goes up indefinitely into the heavens.
We can therefore start to see a pillar of fire as a vertical connection between opposites. It connects the above to the below and the below to the above; it reveals heaven on earth, the "Spirit of God" burning "like a fire" upon the ordinariness of an everyday rock. Hence this image is perhaps the one that best describes the Mormon phenomenon: in this religion, where God is a man and miracles occurred alongside steam engines and the telegraph, we see the spiritual or the supernatural (a revelation of fire from heaven) as it dwells in/through/upon the everyday (a rock). The pillar of fire dwelling upon a rock suggests that spiritual fire naturally inheres in the ordinary, the plain, or the common. That, anyway, would seem to be what the Book of Mormon suggests when Nephi says that he "glories in plainness." The plain and simple truths are a manifestation fire's "unspeakable glory" upon a simple boulder. What was a representation of life's absurdity for Camus and Sisyphus becomes for us a window to the divine; the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.

1 Nephi 1:8-12

If we move on to a subsequent image in the text, consider the following passage from later in the chapter:
8 And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God.
9 And it came to pass that he saw One descending out of the midst of heaven, and he beheld that his luster was above that of the sun at noon-day.
10 And he also saw twelve others following him, and their brightness did exceed that of the stars in the firmament.
11 And they came down and went forth upon the face of the earth; and the first came and stood before my father, and gave unto him a book, and bade him that he should read.
12 And it came to pass that as he read, he was filled with the Spirit of the Lord
When the passage talks about God sitting upon His throne and an angel descending out of heaven whose "luster was above that of the sun at noonday," the image resembles other Mormon theophanies or visions of God, Joseph's Smith's first vision as a case in point. And the comparison of a revealed God with the sun is not a new image. Swedenborg explicitly says that God appears to the angels in the highest heaven as a sun, for instance, and there are sun deities in pantheons from all over the world. But perhaps the most penetrating insight on this image comes from the Chinese divination text called the I Ching, specifically by combining the trigrams of "fire" and "heaven" into the thirteenth hexagram, Fellowship with Men. The "image" for the hexagram illuminates this point:
Heaven together with fire:
The image of fellowship with men.
Thus the superior man organizes the clans
And makes distinctions between things
There are many fires; rage, lust, artistic passion, and determination all act as manifestations of mental flame. However, when fire appears together with a heavenly angel, its meaning gets restricted to a specific set of connotations. Specifically, fire combines with heaven to make a spiritual warmth. Instead of rage, we get fervor; instead of lust, we get tenderness; instead of ambition, we get faith. Whereas fire would have to burn through earth or boil water, fire goes together with the heavens. Fire is at home in the above, so this coherence of one image in the other suggests the meaning behind the I Ching's interpretation of that symbolic combination. We can see "heaven together with fire" in many kinds of "fellowship with men" [and women]: the tender family moments the LDS Church so often touts, a ward's camaraderie, or the heavenly love that both that Church and Swedenborg say can only exist between a husband and wife. There, sparks of passion don't flare up but instead glow warmly. The burning is in the bosom--the heart--and not restricted to the loins. I therefore suggest that Lehi's vision foreshadows later developments in Mormon doctrine: the fire is in the sky, letting upward drive of fire reach its goal, combining the warm intensity of love with the purity of spirit.
The hexagram also implies why the Church takes roles so seriously. Fire doesn't just give us pleasant warmth but also refinement and purification. Swedenborg once said that a substance becomes more perfect to the extent its parts are "distinguishably one," and fire brings about just this in whatever it burns: it lets "the above" rise as smoke and "the below" fall as ash. In other words, fire judges. When the angel suddenly has a train of twelve others following him, you can easily see correspondences to the twelve tribes of Israel or the twelve apostles, each an image of judgment into parts. Fire lets what has knotted itself to other things return to its own proper place; it makes it so "light cleaveth unto light." So no one should be surprised that the LDS Church emphasizes the distinct roles of men, women, and children even today: to elevate fire into the heavens is to let fire accomplish heaven's aim toward purity. In the Church, no one claim purity just by staying "as is;" fire must do the spirit's work. Purity becomes purification, no longer a state of being but instead an active verb. And so naturally one sees in the Church both a) an emphasis on works as opposed to grace and b) a doctrinal focus on eternal progression. Fire, like truth, will out; it will eventually die if you don't feed it more fuel for it to purify.
That's that for this post. Check back next week (hopefully) for another along the same lines!