Sunday, February 28, 2016

Active Imagination, the Spiritual World, and the "Maximus Homo"

Active Imagination, the Spiritual World, and the "Maximus Homo"
In 2013, I started doing "active imagination," a personal practice that I still do today. Active imagination is ultimately just a form of fantasy or daydreaming, but it differs from most daydreams in that you consciously participate in active imagination. Whereas a fantasy can unfold in your mind's eye and not make much of a dent on your conscious attitude, by doing imagination "actively," you insert yourself into the reverie and participate in it as though the daydream were real life.

What the practitioner of active imagination soon discovers is that the figures she encounters in fantasy are not passive recipients to her will. They have wills of their own; if you try to make them do what you want, they will stubbornly resist you. This used to frustrate me as a child. In my mind I would picture a scene and try making it change according to my will, but it would only sometimes cooperate. In reality, I was going along with our society's collective misconception of the imagination as something unreal. Imagination is actually very real, possibly more so than the world of dirt, pavement, and skyscrapers that surrounds us.

In doing active imagination, I discovered that certain recurring figures started emerging. One was the mysterious but kind woman in white. Another is an angry, thin man dressed in black. Yet another is a slothful lizard or snake. Though I came to this conclusion only slowly, I consider each of these figures to be as real as you or I. They just "live" in a different world: the world "between" each of us, the realm that exists in relation to this earth as the visuddha or throat chakra does in relation to the muladhara or root chakra. As a part of this, they pop up or even incarnate themselves in the world through what psychology would call a "projection." But they aren't projections in the sense most people use the term. These figures from the world of imagination "project" themselves from our mind onto the people and things surrounding us. That's what love at first sight is: I'm not falling in love with a fleshly person but instead an imaginal figure who forms part of my soul.

In a very real way, then, these presences from "the between" can incarnate themselves in the physical world. This is nothing scary; it happens all the time. In fact, I would say that any emotional attitude we display is evidence of a "presence" in the imaginal world. Feeling angry? Attribute it to the imaginal archetypes of anger. Are you ever lustful? Trace it back to the presences who personify lust in the between. This is a good way to explain the nature of the gods in classical mythologies, especially those of Greece: the emotional attitudes we embody are actually the gods and goddesses incarnating themselves through us. My fury comes from Ares; my lust derives from Aphrodite; my longing for meditative stillness originates in Hestia. Knowing this, we can read the stories of Greek mythology not as obsolete stories to entertain but instead as eternal patterns that display the relationship between emotional attitudes and those who would embody them.

Swedenborg also said this, albeit in a slightly different way. In his seminal work Heaven and Hell, he writes:
"There are good spirits and evil spirits with every individual. We have our union with heaven through the good spirits and our union with hell through the evil ones....When these spirits come to us, they come into our whole memory and from there into all our thinking--evil spirits into the matters of memory and thought that are evil, and good spirits into the matters of memory and thought that are good. These spirits are totally unaware that they are with us. Rather, as long as they are there, they believe that all these matters of our memory and thought are actually theirs. They do not see us, either, because their sight does not extend to things in our subsolar world."
The "good spirits and evil spirits" are what Swedenborg calls "forms of love." The good spirits embody good loves (i.e. good desires) and evil spirits embody evil loves (bad desires). When he says that the good and evil spirits flow into us, he's really just saying that we receive "influx" from the loves or desires to which they correspond. Moreover, Swedenborg writes that every spirit has a place in the Maximus Homo or Grand Human: a comprehensive human body that each spirit helps make up like cells or organs. Though that may sound odd, reflect on the last time you felt anger. Where in the body did you feel it? For me, I feel it as an indignant flame in the chest, a feeling Swedenborg would attribute to the spirits or forms of love that occupy that part of the Grand Human. I symbolize with it, you see; I am a microcosm to its macrocosm. When I feel the heat in various parts of my body that go with each emotion, I'm resonating with the fires of love that spirits embody in that part of the Maximus Homo. You can think of the chakras in Kundalini Yoga and various New Age systems the same way.

So when I do active imagination, what I'm really doing is letting those spirits--as embodiments of desires in the world "between" all of us--come out through me and speak directly. Swedenborg admits this is possible when he wrote in his spiritual diary that:
"Spirits, if permitted, could possess those who speak with them so utterly, that they would be as though they were entirely in the world; and indeed, in a manner so manifest, that they could communicate their thoughts through their medium, and event by letters; for they have sometimes, and indeed often, directed my hand when writing, as though it were quite their own; so that they thought it was not I, but themselves writing."
Active imagination is a way to consciously embody those presences we normally embody only unconsciously. By actively daydreaming or else engaging in actual conversations with these figures through writing, you start to understand the relationship between the various figures of this imaginal world. You learn the topography of heaven and hell; you know more and more of the Maximus Homo's anatomy. And in this process, you begin to learn more about the patterns you continually embody in your life. Do you keep attracting the same kind of relationship? Maybe that's because the spirits/loves that you projected onto the other person are connected to you in a way you haven't acknowledged. Do you have recurring dreams or nightmares? You may want to check out what presences lie behind the mask of those dream figures.

Anyway, active imagination is a good practice, and it's probably helped me more than any therapy or other attempts at self-improvement I've tried. If you're curious, look at these books for helpful advice on how to start: Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth by Robert A. Johnson (link) and Jung on Active Imagination (link).

Saturday, February 27, 2016

A Sea of Glass and Fire

A Sea of Glass and Fire

"The Angels do not reside on a planet like this earth; but they reside in the presence of God, on a globe like a sea of glass and fire, where all things for their glory are manifest, past, present, and future, and are continually before the Lord." -D&C 130:6-7

I first read this verse in high school, and I was dumbfounded by it. Not in a bad way, though: it hit me with all the weight meaning can have, as if meaning itself had momentarily disrobed itself in front of me. In that verse, the "the glory of all things" is laid bare. Reading it, you see the light and life buried beneath all things hesitantly emerge from their hiding place before they, startled, dart back into hiding once again. Truth, after all, is shy. She shows herself cautiously, if at all.

Nevertheless, I want to use this post give you all an "exposé" of the truth this verse conceals beneath its letters. If truth herself is an awkward, reclusive introvert, I want to show you all how fantastic she can be. Don't be shy; I think you'll be great friends.

The Sea of Glass

A sea of glass: what an image! The sea--what separated humankind from one another for thousands of years--is now no longer a barrier but instead a means of connection. All things become present through it. In a way, it's like the Internet: largely invisible (or transparent) in itself but able to show us all things. The sea of glass, as the next verse makes clear, is also "a great Urim and Thummim." Buried beneath soil for millennia, it will one day become unearthed and show us the meaning of what we have forgotten.

If earthy ground is the muladhara or root chakra--the roots of our bodily existence--the earth of the glassy sea is the visuddha or throat chakra. When our earth becomes transfigured into its millennial condition, matter won't mean the same thing; what "matters" will change. The ground beneath our feet will no longer be soil, stone, or sediment but instead the words that issue forth from our throat. Things will no longer be "just things." Their surfaces will become transparent to the meanings shining out from within them. We will realize that "the Word" is not a leather-bound set of pages or an abstract metaphysical concept but a very real earth in itself. The dirt-encrusted edges of things will be wiped clean; the Word, what eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg described as "a mirror in which [we] see God, although each in a different way" will replace soil as the ground, what "grounds" us.

The Sea of Fire

And yet the glassy earth is still only the ground. Regardless of how clean or pure it is, it was "made for walkin'." What treads upon this earth made of glass? The answer, of course, is fire. The sea of glass is a way to contain the fire that would otherwise get out and consume everything. Glass comes from fire: it already knows the fire's tricks and how to take them. Our fiery passions, obsessions, lust, or anger would run rampant if the sea of glass didn't vessel them, and the way today's earth has become a worldwide fire-hazard of desire speaks to how desperately we need the glassy sea that keeps the flame in place.

For the sea of glass vessels the sea of fire. The former envelops, contains, and grounds the latter. Without a glass vessel to contain the desirous flame, it would flare out without limit in a desperate attempt to find itself. But of course, a fire can find itself only in a mirror, something that is not itself fire or desire. The glass sea lets the fiery sea see and know itself; it enables desire to step back from itself enough to know itself clearly.

The New World

But we don't often have this luxury nowadays. The fire is already here: it's what drives our love, our passion, or even our obsessions and lusts. But desire's fire--whether in the loins or the bosom--will run rampant unless it has a vessel. Desire must see and know itself; it must be vesseled; it must undergo reflection. My passion for spirituality will burn itself out in self-righteous fervor if I don't reflect on that desire in itself, and my lust for a woman will petrify me if I don't use a mirror to see it from a safe distance. The desire must begin to see not only what it desires but also itself; desire must see and know its own fire. Desire--whether as love and hope or greed and lust--can avoid frustration if I see not only what I desire but also the desire as desire. The object of my lust must become translucent to the fire within it. The earth scorched by lust must become glass.

To put it another way, the world will change--perhaps even achieve its millennial state--when it no longer serves as a veil to the fire that burns within it and all things. I must take all things not as ends but instead as means. Or in other words, I must take the fire within all things as the end and make their surfaces the transparent medium through which I access the fire. Everything literal becomes a metaphor. Everything will wear everything else as a face. Then the fire at the heart of reality--the hearth-goddess Hestia to whom the Greeks offered sacrifices before any other deity, the sulfur that the alchemists said burned within all things, and the divine sun that Swedenborg said appears continually before the angels' faces--will display itself freely before all of us. No longer shy, the once-reclusive daughter of Zion will arise from the dust and find herself expansive. Love, once buried, will shine freely. The world itself will become endless.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The "Letter to a CES Director" Made Harder

Hello, all! Today, I'm going to get down to something that's been on the radar for me for a while. A few years ago, a fellow named Jeremy T. Runnells published a PDF pamphlet called "Letter to a CES Director, one that criticizes many truth claims made by the LDS Church as untrue. As a document, it reflects an attitude by many up-and-coming LDS youth that the LDS Church "lied to them," purposefully not telling them about things like the seer stone or Joseph Smith's multiple wives in Sunday School or Seminary.

Now, there is a series of books by BYU professor James E. Falcouner called "The Scriptures Made Harder," where he takes scriptural texts and--instead of giving insights to make them easier to understand--raises insights that that make them harder to understand by bringing out their unseen depths. Now, I haven't read these books, but I admire the sentiment behind them. So I'm going to do the same thing with Mr. Runnells' pamphlet. If you admire his work, feel free to continue doing so. I'm just going to use this post to ask questions--questions I won't answer--that will make the clear-cut conclusions he comes to seem less clear cut. For reason I hope you soon see, truth isn't what most people think it is.

I'll go in the order of Runnells' own chapter divisons:

Book of Mormon Concerns and Questions

  1. If the Book of Mormon is unhistorical, does that mean that it isn't true?
  2. Would the Book of Mormon lose any of its power if the events it depicted didn't historically happen?
  3. If so, why?
  4. Does an event have to happen in history for it to have occurred?
  5. Can fiction be true?
  6. What is history anyway?
  7. What does it say about us if we assume the only kind of existence is historical? Isn't that just secular materialism?
  8. Could the Book of Mormon have a symbolic meaning?
  9. Could the Book of Mormon have taken place in another kind of existence entirely?
  10. Could the Book of Mormon have taken place in the spiritual reality where Islamic mystics (among others) say the events of scripture happened? (link)
  11. Could the Book of Mormon be a collection of "archetypes" for events rather than a series of actual historical events? Like a "periodic table of human life?"
  12. Could the Book of Mormon be what scholars of Islam call a "recital?," an "incarnation" of ineffable spiritual events in a symbolic story?
  13. Could the Book of Mormon have been dictated by spiritual presences in the present? Is the Book of Mormon more séance than science?
  14. Could the book of Mormon--as the record of voices "crying from the dust"--be an outcry of the Native American residue in America's collective unconscious, desperately crying for attention in the same year as the infamous Trail of Tears?
  15. Is the Book of Mormon the voice of what Carl Jung calls "the dead" in his Red Book? (link)
  16. Does God always speak in words?
  17. Does God ever speak in words?
  18. If revelation comes from an infinite being, how does an endless meaning get incarnated in finite words and sentences?
  19. Could Joseph Smith himself have come up with the Book of Mormon's verbiage?
  20. Can the Book of Mormon be divine in its meaning and human in its details?
  21. Could the meaning behind the Book of Mormon have clothed itself in the concrete details (words, names, geography) that Joseph Smith knew?

Book of Mormon Translation Concerns and Questions

  1. Does the seer stone have to have been special in itself?
  2. Could the seer stone have been like tea leaves, palms in palm reading, or any medium for interpretive divination? In other words, is it possible that the seer stone was just a way for revelation to embody itself in randomness? (link)

First Vision Concerns and Questions

  1. Do visions actually happen physically?
  2. Do visions happen in time at all?
  3. Can visions become more clear with time and recollection?
  4. Can two (or more) descriptions of an event both be true?

Book of Abraham Concerns and Questions

  1. Can an artifact like the Book of Abraham's papyrus "show forth" something it physically isn't?
  2. When I fall in love with a person who's objectively nasty (i.e. blinded by their beauty, love at first sight, etc.), what am I really falling in love with?
  3. If I get an insight while reading the scriptures that wasn't physically there in the text, did I get the insight from the scriptures or not?
  4. Can a text mean something more than the sum of its words?
  5. Can a text be more of a means than an end for its meaning?

Polygamy/Polyandry Concerns and Questions

  1. Could polygamy have been a manifestation of the gathering?
  2. Does polygamy deconstruct the chauvinistic attitude of "ownership" inherent to some marriages?
  3. Is polygamy wrong?
  4. Are polygamous marriages elsewhere in the world (i.e. in places where it is tradition) valid?
  5. Does God guide those peoples?
  6. Does the attitude that the west's monogamy is the only way implicitly assume a cultural superiority over other cultures where polygamy is the norm?
  7. Could Joseph Smith have been planning a doctrinal development about polygamy he never got to implement (i.e. because he died too soon)?
  8. Would a doctrine of polygamy publicly expounded by Joseph Smith have been the same as the one propounded by Brigham Young?

Prophets Concerns and Questions

  1. What does it mean to "be God?"
  2. Who is Adam anyway?
  3. Is Adam one? Or is Adam many? (Moses 1:34)
  4. What does it mean that the word "Adam" just means "man" in Hebrew?
  5. If Christ said that "ye are gods" (John 10:34), what does that mean for the Adam-God theory?
  6. Could Brigham Young have misinterpreted Joseph Smith?
  7. Does the prophet recite what God dictates? Or does he interpret impressions?
  8. Would dictating revelation like this actually violate agency?
  9. Is revelation--as Blake Ostler has written--a co-creative process between God and humankind?

Witnesses Concerns and Questions

  1. Is imagination real?
  2. Does a vision or a witnessing that occurred only in the imagination have to be false?
  3. Is "spiritual sight" just a version of the imagination? (link)
  4. If so, does that denigrate spiritual sight or elevate the imagination?
  5. Do we ever perceive anything without the imagination? (Reference Kant, etc.)

Temple & Freemasonry Concerns and Questions

  1. Does revelation ever come "sideways?" (i.e. from other people and only indirectly from God?)
  2. If we think of ordinances like those in the temple as "bodies," where are their spirits?
  3. Is the ordinance powerful in itself? Or does it just display power?

Science Concerns and Questions

  1. Is there only one meaning for scripture?
  2. Was the Fall of Adam--like Swedenborg and other religious thinkers think--a fall in human consciousness?
  3. With the right eyes, is death real even now?
  4. How is reading the Bible (or the Book of Mormon) literally like judging someone based on their looks?
  5. If Noah actually, literally, historically built an ark with all the animals, etc., does it affect me at all?
  6. Do I lose anything at all by interpreting the Bible symbolically?
  7. What do I gain?

Other Concerns and Questions

  1. What does it say about the Letter to a CES Director that the author considers two-hundred-year-old inconsistencies to be a bigger problem with the Church than the pain it causes in the present-day (with homosexuality, etc.)?
  2. Was Joseph Smith a manifestation of the "Trickster" archetype, a mischievous but revered type of figure in cultures across the world who "stirs the pot" (even involving lies and deceit) to unravel the too-stuck-up?
  3. Is it significant that Jacob and Joseph from the Old Testament are also Trickster figures (think of Jacob's bowl of pottage or Joseph tricking his brothers in Egypt)?
  4. Is it significant that the Bible takes Jacob's and Joseph's side?
  5. Did Joseph care about the literal meaning of what he taught, or did he care more about the purpose behind it?
  6. Should we care about the literal meaning of what what we teach? What we learn?
  7. Does history even matter?
  8. If not, what does?

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Clouds Between You and God

The Clouds Between You and God
Here in Utah Valley during January and February, we spend a lot of our days under overcast skies. The toxicity of the air aside, we don't get a lot of sun or blue skies during this time of year. But I think I can use the weather as a way to symbolically explain a thought I've been having.

Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg wrote that everything in sacred scripture has a symbolic inner meaning. Talking about the rainbow that appeared after Noah's flood, he writes these interesting remarks on the symbolism of clouds:
"A cloud [symbolizes] the dim light in which a spiritual person lives [the second level of heaven, as opposed to the highest 'heavenly' or 'celestial' level]....The darkness in such people—which is being called a cloud—is falsity, which is the same thing as their intellectual selfhood. When the Lord infuses this selfhood with innocence, charity, and mercy, the cloud is no longer seen as something false but as the outward appearance of truth, together with truth that is true, which comes from the Lord."
In the two main levels of heaven, the higher, celestial heaven corresponds to love, whereas the lower, spiritual heaven corresponds to truth. But the above quote indicates that the spiritual principle acts as a veil for the the celestial principle. Like clouds passing between you and the sun, thoughts, mental chatter, and the intellectual--all the domain of the spiritual principle--obscure the light of love that emanates from within everything. Or perhaps more accurately, it lets in light, but only a cold, dismal light like on our February days in Utah Valley.
There are "clouds" between you and God whenever you let the intellect get in the way of your relationship to Him. When temple-goers are bound not to reveal sacred symbols, I think that this is the reason: to utter or describe them is to stain the love manifest therein with thought, to dim the warm light that emanates from them. The relationship between humanity and God should be pure, manifest presence--undimmed by critical analysis or any kind of judgment.
Judgments are the "clouds" par excellence. When we realize that to love one's neighbor is to love God, it becomes clear that judging another person precludes our ability to witness that person's inner divine "spark." When I judge you, I only ever see what that judgment lets me see of you; I only see you through clouds. But when I get rid of those clouds and "judge not," I witness you as a manifestation of your inner divinity--of pure being in itself (link)--undimmed by anything that would obscure that clarity of perception.
This also has bearing on how the atonement works, or more specifically on how one "uses" the atonement. Celebrated Mormon philosopher Blake Ostler writes on this topic in his book Fire on the Horizon:
"Atonement is God's very mode of being in relationship with us. He is always giving Himself to us unconditionally. He waits upon us to open the doors to our hearts and let Him in...He accepts us as guiltless before Him the moment we are willing to turn to Him--the very moment we are willing to repent. Repentance is just turning to God with an open heart, with a willingness to do whatever it takes to repair the damage to the relationship caused by our decision to hide. By Christ's Atonement, the moment we give ourselves to Him we are justified--we are free of guilt. This is what justification means. He accepts us in unconditional love. When we give ourselves to Him whole heartedly, the sin that was in us is given away and released."
The atonement is simply God's willingness to love and accept us despite our sins and shortcomings. Sin occurs whenever we turn away from the ever-present influx of God's love and hide behind the clouds of our own judgments about ourselves, one's neighbor, God, and the world. But if I turn toward God and pierce through the cloudy veil of judgment, God's grace begins to work on me instantly, and I am accepted by Him without a second thought. I am only judged by God when I judge myself (or else judge myself by judging others--all judgments only show me a reflection of myself). When I accept the world just as it is given to me, I immediately give up sin, since, as Mormon philosopher Adam S. Miller writes, preferring your stories to [God's] life is sin."
To repent is to dissipate the clouds that populate the space between you and God or between you and your neighbor. It is to stare God straight in the face through the now-translucent world, where--like the prodigal son--you realize to your astonished joy that He accepts you just as you are. For the only thing He asks is that we turn toward Him. This means accepting life as it comes in on you from all corners--joy, pain, and all--as the grace of God. And once you have thus cleared the clouds between you and God, you are already saved.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 3

The next entry in my "Inner Meanings" series for the Book of Mormon will be on 2 Nephi 3, the chapter that's infamous for saying the phrase "fruit of thy loins" enough times to make any reader feel a bit awkward. Though, in all seriousness, 2 Nephi 3 might qualify for the chapter in the Book of Mormon which best describes the Book of Mormon's purpose.

The chapter depicts Lehi giving a blessing to his last-born son, Joseph. The Book of Mormon's Joseph is effectively a "type" for Joseph Smith. Both are the "last born:" the Book of Mormon's Joseph is the literal last-born son of Lehi, and Joseph Smith is person sent forth to bring about or "birth" the last dispensation. Both come out of a time of affliction and trial: for Joseph of the Book of Mormon, he was born in the wilderness, while Joseph Smith was born in the wilderness of an apostasy of the Church.

However, they're both types of another Joseph, namely Joseph of the Old Testament. Like both later "Josephs," the Old Testament Joseph was separated from and persecuted by his brothers (the Lamanites for Joseph in the Book of Mormon, and the churches who were lost in apostasy for Joseph Smith). Moreover, all three Josephs would eventually be reunited with their "brothers:" Joseph of Egypt in the famous story involving the Pharaoh's court, Joseph of the Book of Mormon in the latter-day coming forth of that book to the Lamanites, and Joseph Smith with the promise that, eventually, "every knee will bow" as one to Christ.
Moreover, we can find another parallel by pointing out that all three Josephs were somehow lost or buried. Joseph of Egypt was thrown into a pit and lost in Egypt; Joseph of the Book of Mormon's descendants "cry from the dust;" and Joseph Smith was buried in the darkness of the apostasy's falsehoods. Moreover, in each case, they "come forth from obscurity," with Joseph of Egypt reuniting with his brothers, with the Book of Mormon's coming forth, and with Joseph Smith's restoration of the truth.

These massive parallels suggest that all three stories are reflecting some deep, archetypal reality. Master interpreter of the Bible Emanuel Swedenborg gives us a good idea of what that reality is when he declares that the Bible's Joseph is a correspondence of what he calls God's "Divine Human." In other words, Joseph is symbol for humanity's knowledge of God's human nature. Swedenborg repeatedly insisted that God could only appear to human beings in the form of a man, and he also said that the knowledge of this divine humanity had been lost and suppressed in modern Christianity. This is what he says Joseph's sale into slavery symbolizes. More specifically, Swedenborg wrote that God's "Divine Human" was the appearance of God, or rather how God shows Himself to us. We can extend that to mean that, as that which Joseph symbolizes in the Bible, God's Divine Human is any way human beings can come to know God in the "appearances" of things--not just in a human form, but in the everyday, pedestrian ways in which God shows up to the simpleminded but pure in heart (as in, those who don't delve underneath "appearances").

So when the Book of Mormon writes that the seed of the Old-Testament-Joseph will "cry from the dust," we could take it to mean that the wisdom of knowing God in "simple" things will cry from their lack of recognition by the institutionalized church. And that is indeed what happened. From the time the apostasy began, people began to deny God's human, relatable face. They cast that human God into a pit, condemning him to be "trodden under the foot" of man. And the multifaceted ways that this human God informs the fullness of everyday life--symbolized by Joseph's multicolored coat--was torn from Him and made unclean. But Joseph doesn't die. He is hidden--cast into a faraway land where he can come forth triumphant later. This is what the Book of Mormon does, as well. As the record of a relatable, embodied God and the everyday way of worshiping Him in the world, it was buried in the ground of our ignorance only to come forth by way of "a choice seer" who could "see" what had been lost. And eventually the wisdom of that Human God will come forth and reunite with the wisdom of the religion it had been separated from (the Bible, the brothers, etc.) to "grow together" toward a fullness of truth.

The Book of Mormon is a record of God's evidence in the world. The Book of Mormon's God isn't "an ethereal mist or a vague philosophical First Cause or a deistic absentee landlord," but a viscerally embodied human God with a real interest in our lives and concerns--one who can show Himself to us in body, so we can answer His call to "come forth unto me, that ye may thrust your hands into my side, and also that ye may feel the prints of the nails in my hands and in my feet, that ye may know that I am the God of Israel, and the God of the whole earth." Through the Book of Mormon, that human God comes out from the dust and into the knowledge of the world. And those who always felt lost in a religion where they felt unloved or out of place can now join those throngs going forth to know Him in person.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 2

The Book of Mormon's Inner Meanings: 2 Nephi 2
Hello all! In this post I'm going to focus on the deeper levels of 2 Nephi 2, the famous "opposition in all things" chapter.

This chapter is famous for its theology of the Fall: how it reframes the fall of Adam as a positive event instead of as a negative one. That particular piece of doctrine is one way in which I think Mormons are more spiritually sophisticated than other Christian denominations, for we see the creation-inducing fall not as a mistake but as a blessing. However, this chapter also includes the infamous doctrine that, if Adam hadn't fallen, "all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created." Criticized in the CES Letter and other places, this passage goes against our modern commonsense knowledge that life evolved slowly and painfully over the course of billions of years. But is there another way to understand this passage, one that doesn't conflict with the science behind evolution? I think there is, and I'm going to share it with you here.

This chapter--like all theologies of the Fall--centers around two trees in Eden: of Life and of Knowledge. Eve's and Adam's eating of the Tree of Knowledge made them subject unto death. More accurately, though, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil separated Adam and Eve from God, since the Book of Mormon defines death as separation ("dying unto righteousness," etc). Now, consider this fact: though our doctrine teaches that knowledge actually brings you closer to God, at least originally it was the opposite. Knowledge--from the Tree of Knowledge--separated you from God. How can this be?
I'll suggest a first interpretation of this idea: since you need to be distinct and hence distant from another to know him, knowledge requires separation. I can't know myself, at least not in the same way as I know another. Likewise, the fetus can't really know her mother until she is born, since she needs the separation of their bodies to come into a relationship with her. I then suggest that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil gave Adam and Eve their distinct being, or rather their awareness of that distinct being. By way of the Fall, an originally muddled unity gives way to distinct parts, which later enables those parts to relate to each other as individuals. Naturally, the separation into distinct parts also evokes "the law" mentioned in the chapter, just as the relation of those parts together evokes Christ as "the great Mediator of all men."

But what was this muddled whole or "one body" that existed before the Fall? In at least some sense, that "one body" denotes the union of creator and creature, where God and humanity are not yet separate. I'll go further, though. Since Adam and Eve fell through knowledge, I suggest that the state pre-Fall is simply the same state that would exist post-Fall, only without that knowledge. In other words, perhaps the only difference between pre- and post-Fall humanity is the way they perceived reality. Whereas before they wouldn't have seen themselves as distinct from the "other," they begin seeing themselves as separate "subjects." In other words, the Fall severs the primordial unity of subject-and-object into a subject and object opposed to one another. Or perhaps that unity actually consisted of neither subject nor object but instead of the reality that existed between them.

Here we come into correspondence with how Emanuel Swedenborg understood the Fall story. For him, the Fall of Adam was a symbol of how the "First Church" on the earth fell away from their direct perception of divinity in the world. They originally saw every leaf, mountain, and river as a symbol for God, and instead of paying attention to whatever material thing symbolized Him, they paid attention to the divine attribute they saw through it. The Fall then consisted of the way they began to pay attention to the symbol instead of what it symbolized (i.e. God). Swedenborg likens it to how one can lose the intent of someone's speech if you pay attention to the sounds that person makes with the her mouth instead of what the words mean. As in my speculations above, since this "First Church" was in a state where everything was a window to God, those in it were not separate from Him. Mankind and God--as perceiver and perceived--were simply two sides of the same coin. They existed in a "between" of human and God, creator and creature (not to mention subject and object). They were "one body."

Funnily enough, the philosopher Roberts Avens talks about almost exactly the same process occurring in the psychology of "primitive" civilizations. In his book Imagination is Reality, he writes:
"Mythical images tend to become symbols (gods become diseases...) only when the objects of the outer world, instead of acting directly on the emotions of early man, begin to recede into a distance, when they can be looked at and recognized again whenever they appear. The transformation of images into symbols more or less coincides with our gradual separation from embeddedness in the process of nature. Whereas the primitive lives in the momentary, and spends himself in the momentary, the symboling animal must step twice, in fact, many times into the same Heraclitean flux."
From this perspective, the "Fall of Man" occurred when early humans stopped seeing the tree or the mountain as a spontaneous display of the divine but instead as a mere symbol or representation of God. From there it's only a short step to either worshiping the mountain as a god itself (idolatry) or, since you can't see Him, denying God's existence altogether (atheism). Death then entered the world--not only as separation from God and the ever-present ancestors, but also as a consciousness of finitude, since the finite is just that which has distinct boundaries or "ends."

To put it a slightly different way, I'm suggesting that the Fall of Man involved a "finite-ization" of the human consciousness of the world. Whereas originally everything was endless (see this post to see more of what I mean), the Fall into self-awareness put an end to that endlessness by making everything simply what it appears to be. Originally a rock or a flower could act as a display of Gods and worlds, but since the Fall of Man, it's just a flower, just a rock. The world loses its translucence and becomes opaque; the light shining through nature grows dim.

But if we're to believe 2 Nephi 2, this process was necessary. If we hadn't fallen into the awareness of our and the world's distinct being, we would never have developed writing, culture, or even language. We would have just been another animal, since animals, after all, never left the Garden. However, our destiny is to return to the Garden after we have developed the fruits of our separateness. This happens through Christ's atonement. As the at-one-ment, it unifies us to God even in our separateness from Him. In Swedenborg's terminology, we become "distinguishably one." Through Christ's atonement, the painful effects of our fall into separateness and finitude can be healed: we see unity through separateness, the infinite in the finite. And by doing so, we re-enter Eden and the world again becomes glass.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Mind's Ground Floor

I just had a realization about how my mind works, and I want to share it with all of you. And I'm going to do it by using a parable.
There once was a house with two stories. I lived on the top floor, along with my friends, who adored and supported me. However, thieves and murderers lived on the bottom floor. For what seemed like an eternity, I lived happily on the top story of the house, but the peace was an illusion. For though I had happiness on the second floor, I could only ever get out into the world by descending to the ground level. I sometimes did this, but the thieves and murderers would inevitably get out with me. And when I realized the evil I let out into the world, I got discouraged; the thought that I was evil even crossed my mind. However, I had missed the point. Murderers and thieves live on the ground floor, and though they can never go up the stairs to the second story, my good friends there can go downstairs. They can fight the thieves and murderers, and they can accompany me out into the world instead of the evil.

As I mentioned above, this parable concerns my mind. The human mind has at least two levels: an inner or "upper" level and an outer or "lower" level. Each of us can go between them. However, good impulses come from the upper/inner level, and evil impulses come from the lower/outer level. This is why we call bad people "superficial," "shallow," or "base." The evil in our mind's "externals" can't go up into the internals of our mind, but it does work in reverse: the good upstairs in our "internals" can invade the externals downstairs.
Speaking practically, the good on the internal level is less clear to the conscious mind, like a feeling or a vague thought. This is the "still, small voice" or the voice that comes "as a whisper." However, the evil on the outer level comes loudly If you aren't quiet and you don't make an effort to listen, you'll ignore the inner, good impulses and let your attention get consumed by the brash voice of your external levels. This "external" is the natural man--people as they naturally are, without reflection or effort of conscience. You need to silence the external natural man so you can listen to the "inner man," as Moses 6:65 puts it.
That's the first step. However, once you know that the inner man is there, once you realize that there are good impulses living like friends at the top level of your mind, you're only half done. As I explained in my parable, the evil in the lower parts of your mind will run rampant in you if you don't let those friends on the top floor come down. This means that you need to make the faint impulses of goodness in your inner self clear and concrete; you need to turn the "still, small voice" into a shout from the rooftops. I never did this, and I suffered as a result. I thought I could live only in the top of my mind and never deal with details or the concrete. But because you have to deal with the concrete externals of life if you live in the world, I decided to make the effort of bringing good impulses "downstairs."
This isn't mere thought, and you can't do it just by wishing. To bring the good in the inner self out into the outer self takes effort and action. You need to be willing to do good deeds and refrain from doing evil, even if it's true that the evil you do comes from those "thieves and murderers" on the bottom floor. The more you fight against the evil on the bottom floor, the more the good impulses on the top floor come down.
I wrote in a recent post called Meditative Brainstorming (link) that the more internal parts of the human mind think in pictures. This is true, although I'd revise that thought just a bit. If you think in pictures, you should make sure that you make those pictures as clear and distinct as possible if you want to make real change on the mind's bottom floor. And words are even more useful for change on the outer level; that's why we have words in the first place. The more clear the thought appears to your mind's eye or ear, the "farther down" the thought has come. When people tell you to use self-talk or visualization techniques, that's what they mean: the more clear you make a thought, the more of an effect it has on the outer levels of your mind. And the outer levels are where the trouble is.
So I'm going to make an effort to really use self-talk, even if thought in words doesn't come naturally to me. In fact, I've realized that when I have negative thoughts, they only come in words, so I think it's high time something in my mind stopped the bullying rampage that often goes on there. I also plan to use concrete visualizations to build my skill set and improve my behavior, since that will help my desire to reach that goal move from "still, small voice" to "shout." And I advise all of you to do the same thing.

Oh, and these thoughts were brought to you by Swedenborg's immense writings. If you're curious about them, check out his writings on the "inner self" and the "outer self."

Monday, February 1, 2016

Windows to Being in Itself

Windows to Being in Itself
I try to meditate at least once a day. When I calm my breathing and let my attention soften to the present moment, I usually begin to feel at ease, at least more so than I was before meditating. But recently I've had an experience in meditation that I've found difficult to put into words, and I want to try explaining it in this post.

When I meditate and focus on my breath, sometimes everything but my breath seems to fade away. It's as if my breath were the only thing that existed in the universe, or at least as if everything else were just an "aspect" or a "shadow" of that breath. This works for anything I focus my attention on: a patch of stucco, a thought, a mood, or even another person. The boundaries defining that focus for my attention become the edges of being: outside it, nothing seems to exist in any meaningful sense. My entire existence gets wrapped up inside that object of focus; it becomes my world.
Taken at face value, what I just said is nonsense. However, there is some philosophical precedent for the thoughts I'm trying to express. Ludwig Wittgenstein, specifically, had some remarks to offer in the notebooks he kept while writing the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
"As a thing among things, each thing is equally insignificant; as a world each one equally significant.
If I have been contemplating the stove, and then I am told: but now all you know is the stove, my result does indeed seem trivial. For this represents the matter as if I had studied the stove as one among the many things in the world. But if I was contemplating the stove it was my world, and everything else colourless by contrast with it.
(Something good about the whole, but bad in details)
For it is equally possible to take the bare present image as the worthless momentary picture in the whole temporal world, and as the true world among shadows.
When I look at my breath "as a world," it becomes limitlessly significant. Its "limits" (its edges, where the breath stops and other things start) don't matter; they might as well not exist. My focus goes entirely within those edges, and I "dive into" my breath rather than see it "as a thing among things."
Moreover, as I pointed out in my most recent metaphysical worldview, things in the world have "forms" in common with other things: you and I are both human, I and my dog are both mammals, both my body and my computer are material. Moreover, you can just as easily say that humanity "shows itself" in both you and I as say that you and I "are" human. The forms we share in common with each other show themselves in whatever things "display" those forms. And while "humanity," "mammal-ness"," and "materiality" are forms like this, so are "color/coloredness," "space," "time," or even "being." When I focus on something in meditation, I think I stop seeing whatever I focus on in meditation as just that thing, and instead I see whatever forms show themselves through it. My breath isn't just a breath; it also "shows forth" air, matter, space, time, and existence. The icon I look at while meditating likewise displays the forms of color, shape, time, space, and so on. Whatever I look at then becomes no longer a thing that exists but instead a display of existence. I see the statue in light of its being instead of in light of its statue-hood.
To put it a little more visually, it's as if my object of focus is a vase that contains water, and when I lose myself in it, the vase goes away and I just see the water. It's also like when you gaze at the sky and the clouds suddenly go away and you can see off into the endless reaches of the heavens. In the dichotomy of substance and form (not exactly the same kind of "form" as above), the form goes away and I only see the substance. The matter of existence loses all the vessels which contain it, and I just see the matter as matter.
Eighteenth-century scientist and visionary Emanuel Swedenborg also gives a cool description of this phenomenon. In the spiritual world, there are two main principles in heaven: the heavenly/celestial and the spiritual. As far as I can sum it up here, the celestial part of heaven is existence in its own light, whereas the spiritual part of heaven is just a reflection of that existence. For Swedenborg, love and good are features of the celestial principle and truth is of the spiritual principle. When you stop thinking, you can see being as being or love as love without the veil of thoughts to get in the way. For Swedenborg, to reach the highest level of heaven is to accustom your mind to the celestial principle in this life, where everything becomes a means to God--the ultimate reality--instead of an end in itself. Wittgenstein puts the same idea a little differently in his notebooks: "To believe in a God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter." Facts--existence as I perceive, think, or reflect on it--don't give the world in itself. The world in itself is God, inwardly vaster than any limitation or demarcation. in D&C 29's language, God is endless, meaning that there are no edges or "ends" to his being. He is the infinite within the finite, the "bigger inside" in any outside.