The So-Called Meaning Of Life

Have we, as Westerners, placed too much emphasis on the idea of meaning? We’re always asking, What is the meaning of life? Perhaps this is not really the correct question to be asking. Inquiring into the meaning of life seems, in this day and time, to be an exercise in futility. I question whether this practice was ever a fruitful endeavor.

Meaning in life infers that there is a goal to be attained. You start out your life here, and, if you do the “correct” things, such as go to school, go to church, marry someone you supposedly love, get a great career going, have a few kids, and then end up with a boat-load of money when you’re sixty-five. And then you float up to heaven when you die (What do you do for eternity when you get there?). Is that it? These things sound great, but aren’t these really what the ego desires? I contend that it is the ego that requires a meaning, a signification in life. If we were not living in the clutches of egocentricity, we would not even think to bother with such trivial questions.

We have adopted the way of the god, Hercules, at the expense of all others. He is the archetypal hero. In his twelth labor, Hercules did not journey to Hades to learn from death and the underworld, as he should have, but with intense aggression, he drew his sword, wounded Hades, slaughtered cattle, wrestled herdsmen, and choked and chained Cerberus. We view our so-called heroes in the light of Hercules’ victories. Hercules is the heroic ego of Western culture. The hero of today is consumed with ego, as in those who think of nothing but money, power, and success. Most of all, they desire to conquer death, as in Christianity.

One day the Buddha held up a flower in front of an audience of 1,250 monks and nuns. He did not say anything for quite a long time. The audience was perfectly silent. Everyone seemed to be thinking hard, trying to see the meaning behind the Buddha’s gesture. Then, suddenly, the Buddha smiled. He smiled because someone in the audience smiled at him and at the flower. . . . To me the meaning is quite simple. When someone holds up a flower and shows it to you, he wants you to see it. If you keep thinking, you miss the flower. The person who was not thinking, who was just himself, was able to encounter the flower in depth, and he smiled. That is the problem of life. If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything.
–Thich Nhat Hanh

The quest for meaning is an ego-trip, nothing more. The ego cannot accept that life simply is. We should simply live, for life is poetic, musical, colorful. Life is it’s own meaning. So, stop searching and just live it! Stop climbing the ladder, stop running the race! Live! Smile!

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Hades, Ruler of the Underworld

Hades, as we all know, is the god of the Underworld. At his birth, he was devoured by his father, Kronos, along with his four siblings. Later, his brother, Zeus, forced the Titan god to vomit forth his children. This led to a great war on the Titan gods, whereby they were vanquished to the dark pit of Tartaros.

The victorious gods then drew lots for their portion of the cosmos. Hades, of course, ended up drawing the shortest straw and was allotted the realm of the dead as his portion. From our modern, Herculean, hero-worshiping, egocentric point of view, I suppose you could say Hades was a loser; he fumbled the ball; he ran too slow; he went bankrupt.

The Ruler of the Dead, however, is quite an interesting fellow. For instance, did you know that Hades is the god of the hidden wealth of the earth? One of the common names associated with Hades is Pluto, which is derived from ploutos, meaning “wealth.” Hades is god of all precious minerals and metals that are mined from the depths of the earth, for

The entire bulk and substance of the earth, was dedicated to father Dis [Haides] (that is, Dives, ‘the rich’, and so in Greek Plouton), because all things fall back into the earth and also arise from the earth. – Cicero, De Natura Deorum 2.26

He is also responsible for the fertility of crops, since it was Spring when he released Persephone, the goddess of Spring’s bounty.

Furthermore, Hades is known as the god of funeral rites and mourning.

Of Haides it is said that he laid down the rules which are concerned with burials and funerals and the honours which are paid to the dead, no concern having been given to the dead before this time; and this is why tradition tells us that Haides is lord of the dead, since there were assigned to him in ancient times the first offices in such matters and the concern for them.” – Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 5.69.5

What does this all mean for us, you may ask? Are you interested in becoming conscious of unconscious psychological processes?

Hades himself is described as a
sombre and dark man with a dark, full beard and regal garb of deep
(typically blacks and crimson) carrying a bident or two-pronged harpoon
and, like Hecate,
a key. The key has always been an important
in magickal religions representing the key to the unknown or
The gateway of the sub or supraconscience. It is a symbol of knowledge
and wisdom, which is usually attributed to darker Gods and Goddesses.( 

If you are interested in depth psychology and becoming more acquainted with True Self, James Hillman has this to say to you:

To start with the image in depth psychology is to begin in the mythological underworld. . .(Dream and the Underworld, page 5).

 Hades is the ruler of the Underworld, so we should become very familiar with him and what he represents in the psyche. This has much to do with our dream lives.

Hades is not equivalent with the Christian Satan. He has both positive and negative attributes, as do all the gods.

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The Logical Western Box

The attitude that says we must force meaning from myths and dreams is an attempt to place them into our own little logical Western box. It is reductionist in that we try to limit them to a particular interpretation. The same holds true for the interpretation of dreams. These images are so multifaceted and so complex that they cannot be circumscribed within our analytical minds. They comprise a vast, limitless landscape of imaginality where reason cannot tread.

For example, a dream of being in a deep, dark forest doesn’t necessarily mean that the forest is the unconscious. It may be, but it also may have different meanings. One must take into account the context of the entire dream. So-called dream dictionaries are worthless because they attempt to reduce the image to a formulaic interpretation.

In this epoch, we are in the grip of the Hero archetype, fueled by ego and selfishness. The hero is best typified in mythology by the Greek god, Hercules. The hero craves victory at all cost. The drive for corporate profit is one of its manifestations. War is another of its pastimes. Sports, yet another. These are all exercises in futility. The ego must be pulled down from its lofty pinnacle. There are other gods who deserve recognition. The pendulum always swings. The Hero/Ego will diminish as we other archetypal figures to come to the fore.

Our heroes today, in the quest for victory at all cost, are totally opposed to death and the underworld. The hero of today is consumed with humanistic ego, as in those who think of nothing but money, power, and success. Most of all, they desire to conquer death, as in Christianity (The last enemy to be conquered is Death). They refuse to recognize the underside of things, much to their dismay.

Today, cut off from this psychic background, the heroic becomes the psychopathic; an exaltation of activity for its own sake (James Hillman).

This “psychic background” is nothing other than the gods, who we have forgotten and tried to kill. Cut off from that, mankind has become enamored with itself, thus leading us to the present rule of Ego.

What we are seeing today in our government, our places of worship, our universities, etc., is blatant egocentricity, or the cult of Ego. Our so-called cultural heroes have, for the most part, rejected Soul and its mundus imaginalis. This attitude has led to disastrous results, such as endless war and rampant corruption in government and business.

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Humans are hard-wired to suffer. To be truly human, suffering is necessary. I think we miss the point, however, when we think there is some Omega Point to it all, some teleological reason to explain it. Life is as it is. We are thrown into the world, to borrow from Heidegger, and it is how we deal with this thrownness that is important.

At this point in my life, I suppose my purpose, or reason to get up every morning, is to remember who I really am. I feel like a man who has awakened to find he has no real memory, an amnesiac. Here and there, I get fleeting glimpses, memories of the real me, but they fade quickly and I am overshadowed by black melancholia.

The few moments of remembrance, however, are incredible! If one could somehow sustain such experiences! If I could only hold the moment in eternity!

I sense these voices and images within all of us are natural ways for us to remember. We try to repress them with so-called education and cultural inculcation, but they are always there. If ignored and repressed, they reveal themselves as devils; if embraced, they are gods, willing to share with us the universe.

Fleeting glimpses are probably all we will ever have. We are so mired in this world and its trappings that it’s very difficult to remember accurately.  Alas, for this we suffer.

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Active Imagination: The Bridge to the Unconscious

Photo by Someone35

Between the universe that can be apprehended by pure intellectual perception and the universe perceptible to the senses, there is an intermediate world, the world of Idea-Images, of archetypal figures, of subtle substances, of “immaterial matter”. This world is as real and objective, as consistent and subsistent as the intelligible and sensible worlds; it is an intermediate universe ‘where the spiritual takes body and the body becomes spiritual,’ a world consisting of real matter and real extension, though by comparison to sensible, corruptible matter these are subtle and immaterial. The organ of this universe is the active Imagination; it is the place of theophanic visions, the scene on which visionary events and symbolic histories appear in their true reality (Henry Corbin).

This is the world we journey through every night in our dreams. The multitude of images and stories we experience have their own unique reality. We are said to “fall asleep.” We do, indeed, fall; rather we plunge into a world of depth and mystery. Most people just dismiss this as something we ate the previous day, or some other reductionist retort.

We in the West are trapped in materialism and, therefore, cannot accept the Imaginal. We can’t seem to bridge the yawning chasm Descartes placed between mind and body. We’ve been conditioned by several hundred years of rationalistic and materialistic thinking, to neglect the awesome forces within us.

On the other hand, this situation is changing dramatically. More and more people are awakening to the fact that we are more than simply biological automatons living in a world of dead matter. Even scientists are waking up. For example, biochemist Rupert Sheldrake has integrated Jungian ideas into his theories. Sheldrake mentions Jung in this quotation:

specific morphogenetic fields (consider Jung’s ‘archetypes’, Plato’s ‘Ideas’, or the astrological signs and planets as further examples of morphogenic fields ) are responsible for the characteristic form and organization of systems at all levels of complexity, not only in the realm of biology, but also in the realms of chemistry and physics. These fields order the systems with which they are associated by affecting events which, from an energetic point of view, appear to be indeterminate or probabilistic; they impose patterned restrictions on the energetically possible outcomes of physical processes. If morphogenetic fields are responsible for the organization and form of material systems, they must themselves have characteristic structures. …the structures of past systems affect subsequent similar systems by a cumulative influence which acts across both space and time (qtd. at

Henry Corbin, among others, has already told us how to cross the abyss and move into this amazing world of Imagination.

Corbin is saying that if you know how to use your imaginative faculty, you can reliably reach the Imaginal Realm. He called this faculty “active imagination,” the same term Jung used to describe his method of accessing the psychoid realm of the archetypes. Unfortunately, our culture is largely clueless about how an imaginative faculty works. Like other unused things, our active imaginations have atrophied. When it comes to imaginative muscle, we’re couch potatoes (The Door To The Imaginal, by Mary Pat Mann).

 In the following passage, Jung discusses the technique that he rediscovered (it was used by the ancients to gain spiritual insight):

It is therefore with the greatest hesita­tion that I make the attempt to illustrate from case-histories. The material I shall use comes partly from normal, partly from slightly neurotic, persons. It is part dream, part vision, or dream mixed with vision. These “visions” are far from being hallucina­tions or ecstatic states; they are spontaneous, visual images of fantasy or so-called active imagination. The latter is a method (devised by myself) of introspection for observing the stream of interior images. One concentrates one’s attention on some impressive but unintelligible dream image, or on a spontane­ous visual impression, and observes the changes taking place in it. Meanwhile, of course, all criticism must be suspended and the happenings observed and noted with absolute objectivity. Obviously, too, the objection that the whole thing is “arbitrary” or “thought up” must be set aside, since it springs from the anxiety of an ego-consciousness which brooks no master besides itself in its own house. In other words, it is the inhibition exerted by the conscious mind on the unconscious.

Under these conditions, long and often very dramatic series of fantasies ensue. The advantage of this method is that it brings a mass of unconscious material to light. Drawing, painting, and modelling can be used to the same end. Once a visual series has become dramatic, it can easily pass over into the auditive or linguistic sphere and give rise to dialogues and the like. With slightly pathological individuals, and particularly in the not in­frequent cases of latent schizophrenia, the method may, in cer­tain circumstances, prove to be rather dangerous and therefore requires medical control. It is based on a deliberate weakening of the conscious mind and its inhibiting effect, which either limits or suppresses the unconscious. The aim of the method is naturally therapeutic in the first place, while in the second it also furnishes rich empirical material. Some of our examples are taken from this. They differ from dreams only by reason of their better form, which comes from the fact that the contents were perceived not by a dreaming but by a waking consciousness (CW Vol. 9i, p 190).

Active imagination is the bridge that allows us to pass into another world. It is a practical means of dredging unconscious knowledge from the vast ocean of the unconscious.

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Spring, by Konstantin Pankox, 1940, Public Domain

Imaginatio is the Star in Man, the Celestial or Supercelestial Body (A Lexicon of Alchemy, by Martin Rulandus).

We don’t realize what is available to us. We go through our daily lives, often extremely depressing, usually focused on material things. We forget that all we need do is close our eyes and enter another world. The Imaginal is a vast landscape, an immense cosmos where nothing is impossible. It is not limited by physical laws, the constraints of logic, or space-time constructs we are accustomed to.

One of the most significant characteristics of this realm is that within it the things that one encounters—and they are very specific things indeed, ranging from rocks and trees to buildings and entire cities have about them a distinctly personal character. As Corbin says, the pronoun best used when describing the specifics of this dimension is not “what” but “who.” The imaginal dimension, he wrote, is “a universe for which it is difficult in our language to find a satisfactory term.” It is “an ‘external world,’ and yet it is not the physical world. It is a world that teaches us that it is possible to emerge from measurable space without emerging from extent, and that we must abandon homogeneous chronological time in order to enter that qualitative time which is the history of the soul” (Recovering a Visionary Geography, by Ptolemy Tompkins).

One cannot rationally explain such things. When the experience comes, however, there is a deep sense of meaning and emotion. This is the nature of Truth, Aletheia, if you will. With such truth comes, not necessarily enlightenment, but a sublime sense of satisfaction.

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[Man] can be understood only as an image of the macrocosm, of the Great Creature. Only then does it become manifest what is in him. For what is outside is also inside; and what is not outside man is not inside. The outer and the inner are one thing, one constellation, one influence, one concordance, one duration, one fruit. (From Paracelsus, Selected Writings, ed. Jolande Jacobi, trans. Norbert Guterman.New York: pantheon, 1951, p. 21.)

Know that you are another world in miniature and have in you Sol and Luna and even the stars [Origen, Homiliae in Leviticum, 5, 2.].

With those who accept the doctrine of Microcosm/Macrocosm, there is the tendency to think that the macrocosm is superior. This is not the case at all. In our Western mindset, large is better than small, but this entirely misses the point. These realities are intermingled in such a way as to be nearly indistinguishable.

This seeming dichotomy between Microcosm/Macrocosm is illusory. Speaking this way, of two realities, is a kind of heuristic device to aid in understanding. The teaching is directly related to the esoteric doctrine, As above, so below. I would say there are myriad possible meanings to the phrase. I take it to mean that the depth of Soul is comparable to the infinity of the physical universe. Just as there are innumerable worlds in our universe, there are innumerable worlds within us. The complexity of the physical universe corresponds to the complexity of mankind as well.

If you travel the way of spirit and climb the scala paradisi, you will ultimately fall from your lofty heights and end up deep in the mire. If you traverse the depths, you will, in my opinion, find the place you have long sought after. The way of Soul is a descent, not always pleasant, but the roots emanate deep and draw up the water of life. This is why the sages have always admonished us to “know thyself.” Because of the ouroboric effect, the deep passageways will lead to the height of Man’s glory.

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New World Order?

For some time, there has been speculation that a shadowy cabal exists in our world that has conspired to lead us down the road to a one-world government. Some call this the Illuminati, or the New World Order. Some claim the Freemasons are behind it, or the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission, or the Council On Foreign Relations. It is truly a fascinating mythology of the most complex twists and turns. There is some evidence, I suppose, that it’s all true.

What if, however, we don’t look at this “conspiracy theory” so literally? What if we look at it as a story emanating from the collective unconscious? Perhaps the claims are, indeed, factual; most myths have their origin in empirical facts. For our purposes, however, let us lay aside the literal meaning for now and examine the imaginal contents of this theory.

The first thing we must understand is that this theory is a collective myth. It has arisen out of the psyches of many people the world over, in one form or another. It is a story being told by the anima mundi, or World-Soul.

Conspiracy theories have been around as long as there have been social groups, especially secret societies. Things done in secret always arouse suspicion.

The psychological tendency for humans to fear the rule of a one-world government is a reaction against a paternalistic, overly-rational, monotheistic self-tyranny. James Hillman wrote,

To define my person by my waking state neglects [the many dream] figures and their influences. I then become tyrannical, reflecting the jealous monotheism of Number One, who will not recognize the existence of independent partial personalities, and through this denial places them outside in the world, where the internal influences of complexes now become paranoid fears of invasions by enemies.
(Re-Visioning Psychology, page 33, brackets mine)

Hillman is here discussing the temptation of humans to understand the inner state in a monotheistic fashion, ignoring the multitude of personalities who make up the human psyche. The more primal viewpoint, polytheism, actually better coincides with the natural state of the psyche.

Hillman breaks with Jung in a major way. Jung taught that the archetypes, or inner personalities, could be integrated (individuation) into what he called The Self, kind of a Christic Center of the psyche. Individuation equals wholeness. Hillman sees this as just another example of monotheistic thinking. He would rather the archetypes remain independent and unique. The entire monotheistic/monistic concept is a form of ego-consciousness. The heroic Ego, like Hercules, believes it can subdue all others to itself and stand as Number One.

This idea, applied macrocosmically, gives ample evidence as to why nations need to remain autonomous. If it is healthier for the inner persons to remain independent and autonomous, then, according to the principle, As above, so below, it is healthier for nations to remain autonomous as well.

There is tyranny when only one rules. The One is jealous of all others. The mythology of one-world rule is a projection of our inner paranoia, our fear of a self-tyranny.

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The Source Of Dreams

Hypnos, by
Wilhelm Baron von Gloeden

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore (Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk XI:573-649 The House of Sleep, tr. Anthony S. Kline).

Here we have a description by Ovid of the place where dreams originate. The home of Hypnos, the god of sleep, is located in Erebos, the land of eternal darkness. Hypnos is the twin brother of Thanatos, the god of death. You can see how closely dreams and death are related.

Hypnos is the father of Morpheus, the god of dreams. He is the leader of the Oneiroi, the dark-winged daimones of dreams.

They emerged each night like a flock of bats from their cavernous home in Erebos, the land of eternal darkness beyond the rising sun. The Oneiroi passed through one of two gates (pylai). The first of these, made of horn, was the source of the prophetic god-sent dreams, while the other, constructed of ivory, was the source of dreams which were false and without meaning. The term for nightmare was melas oneiros (black dream)(

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Life Is As It Is

What exactly does it mean “to become?” It is change, of course, activity, movement from one state to another. It is a flower closed that turns and opens to the rays of the sun. It is the metamorphosis of a moth into a brilliant butterfly.

We can’t help but become. We are constantly changing. We don’t need to strive; it is automatic.

If the saying, Tat Tvam Asi (Thou Art That), written in the Upanishads is at once true, then what is it I need to become? It seems that becoming is just an illusion created by our enculturation. The whole idea of striving toward an endpoint, ala Teilhard De Chardin, is a mistake. Development in a linear fashion seems to be very important to Western culture, but linearity is a flawed view of things.

I am that, so there is no need for me to strive. I am that I am. I am already what I was meant to be. There is no further need for development or action.

By making the statement, I am that, I recognize I cannot know the Unknowable. I know what I can know, i.e. the knowable. The unknown cannot be known with that which is known. So, if I am to know the Unknowable, I cannot know it with my brain.

All that remains is a tremendous sense of tremendous mystery. Life simply is as it is. There is no amount of intellectual understanding we can arrive at that will change anything.

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Black Bile and the Soul

In his De Vita, Marsilio Ficino writes, “Of all scholars, those devoted to the study of philosophy are most bothered by black bile, because their minds get separated from their bodies and from bodily things.” (Ficino 7). Ficino, of course, is using the framework of Hippocrates’ theory of the four humors to explain the melancholic temperament in scholars. Aristotle also dealt with this problem, as did Plato.

According to Ficino, philosophers have a preponderance of black bile. My approach to this very odd-sounding statement will be one of openness. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt without immediately rejecting this seemingly absurd proposition. I want to know why he sees it this way.

The first impression I have is that the black bile is a powerful symbol for the darkness of melancholia.  Nowadays, biologists would scoff at the mention of the four humors. What most of them do not understand is how important imagination and myth were in the lives of the ancients. I believe the Soul was a very powerful idea for them and imagination is the way the Soul communicates. Being the Doctor of Soul that Ficino was, he picked up on this. I think he understood the symbolic nature of the four humors, especially black bile. He also speaks as though he accepted it as a viable biological theory. If we understand it in a metaphorical fashion, the modern cry of absurdity does not arise. We are free to be imaginative.

The theory of humors is a complex matter. I will but scratch the surface. As the theory goes, everyone has some black bile. The melancholy person, however, has too much. The scholar detaches his mind from external things and directs it internally. The philosopher, perhaps, does this to a greater extent than other scholars, due to the difficulty of the subject matter. According to Ficino, one moves “from the circumference to the center” (Ficino 6). He compares the center to the interior of the earth, “which resembles black bile” (ibid.). Truly, when we look inside ourselves, sometimes it is very dark. Black bile is a good image to represent the acerbic and somber nature of melancholy. It is disgustingly dark and bitter.

I first encountered this bitterness when I began to ask questions about my life and my world. It was the bitter uncertainty that plunged me into darkness. I could not answer my own questions satisfactorily, nor could anyone else. With the realization that “truths” I once embraced were now shattered, I clung to uncertainty as a drowning man would a life-preserver.

I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced detachment from my body, but I am certain there have been times when I despised it. It has greatly hindered me from seeking Truth, or at least I thought it did. I am rather of the opinion now that I am here in this body because this is my destiny. For some reason unbeknownst to me, Fate has led me to the situation I find myself in. I must “grow down” into it as a tree would sink it roots into the earth. Perhaps my desire for detachment is merely a projection of my dislike for the materialistic, literalistic worldview. Still, though, along with all my rationalizations, I have too much black bile.

Work Cited
Ficino, Marsilio. The Book of Life. Irving: Spring, 1980.
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Where Are The Birds?

Once in awhile, on the eve of some tremendous cataclysm, birds will sing a most distinctive tune. I have witnessed this. One misty morning, I was walking beside a great lake in Switzerland (I would rather not name it), when I noticed that the birds were humming a most curious song. Taken aback, I cocked my ear to get a better hint at what they were saying.

The fog had rolled across the lake and encircled the shoreline, making visual perception very difficult. To compensate, ears perked up to the song-sounds emanating from these remarkable creatures. In an instant, just when I thought I was beginning to comprehend the message, the wind swept it away like so many dead leaves. The fog, then, quickly lifted and I found myself in brilliant sunshine. This saddened me, for the mist was trying to help me understand the music. I shook my fist at the sky and cursed the sun!

Apparently, the fog had brought the message to the birds and they were trying to relay it to me. I wish I had listened closer because, by the end of day, the birds had been taken away.

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Two Eyes Of The Daimon

In the midst of thunder, there are two eyes: one for time and one for eternity. In tandem, they see the ubiquitous depths of man’s affliction. Once I saw, as you see, a great dearth in the land. Asphyxiating gas held me in its sway, and the Sun swallowed the sky.

I looked and beheld, within the deluge, the dross of ignorance slowly abating. Fire overwhelmed the green stars. From charred remains, I saw blue slivers of night fall upon the ground.

The waters above my head,
Lest they wash over me.
I descend,
Into the formless deep.

I stood at the edge of the universe and watched as bolts of lightning flashed upwards and entered my body. A gaping chasm yawned at my feet and expelled its energy. Never had I witnessed such an infusion of power. Then I looked and saw a burning red sphere ascend from the Abyss. It engulfed me in its miserable, glowing intensity.

From below.
Whirring, humming,
Breathing, pulsating,
Rising up,
Past layers of ignorance.

I was immersed in a vortex of power. The root of humanity, blazing, circumambulated me. I fell on my face, prostrate, and was frozen.

When I awoke, I was atop a high cliff. Below me lay a great river, which followed a serpentine path down the cobra’s back, shining in the noonday night, as if diamonds were being swept along its bed. At any moment, lightning might break the dullness of the day and bring with it wreaths of hoary rain to pound, to tantalize, the living creatures within.

I witnessed this, from my perch, high above the fray. The dynamic fixated my gaze. My ears stood on edge, awaiting the next articulation. There was a strange aroma in the air, almost garlic, not quite cinnamon. It lingered for a moment and then rushed away with ferocity. Suddenly, an energy spoke with a voice so soft I could almost see it. It reminded all that autumn was now quite near and that the green shoots we were witnessing would last forever.

At this, the river began to spiral and coil. The movement was at once exciting and interesting. I longed to reach out and touch it, but I feared its shiny fangs. They were arrows and bows, ready to spring at the throat. Even with my armor about me, I dared not move, for I would regret any passivity on my part.

Much sunlight passed before I looked again into the rocky valley. A white mist had ascended from the vernal seascape and enveloped the cobra, now ready to pounce if anything dared breach its boundaries.

Giddy with delight, I lost sight of the dynamic and fell into a terrible maelstrom that had formed just above me. I whirled round and round for several years before alighting upon the cobra’s back. Finding myself in this position, I was amazed at how uncomfortable it was. It was as if I had been born to ride the serpent all along.

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Three Images Of The Unbound

In the days of Heraclitus, Greek philosophy was still in its infancy. But even at this early juncture, Greece had already experienced the profound intellects of such luminaries as Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes. Of course, there were others, but these are the ones I wish to discuss, leading up to Heraclitus and his idea of boundless depth.

This period in history is within the era Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age (Ger. Achsenzeit, “axistime”). Jaspers, and other scholars of spiritual and philosophical history, believed that a great awakening of consciousness began around 800-1000 BC (Hick 113). During this time, the archetypes of Western religious and philosophical thought were established. The various theories of the arche, which the aforementioned Greek thinkers conceived in the sixth century B.C., are crucial to the understanding of Heraclitus’ idea of psyche.

Thales proposed the arche to be water. He believed water to be the cause of all things. I have read many speculative treatises as to what Thales meant. Most of them seem to literalize his statement, as if he were a modern scientist. We should examine statements from this period in a mythopoeic manner, seeing that the Greeks at this time were still very much in a mythical mode of consciousness, a kind of hypnogogic state.

The early Greeks stood at the dawn of rational consciousness. They had just stepped out of participation mystique with nature (Edinger 8).

They were attempting to understand their world by asking rudimentary scientific questions, but it would still be a long, long time before humans began to think scientifically, as we understand it today. I see Thales as being deeply introspective, as most philosophers are. Legend has it that, while gazing at the heavens one day, Thales fell into a well, hence the beginning of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. He must have been a very contemplative thinker. Thales looked into his inner recesses and perhaps thought about the sea, which he was so familiar with, being a resident of Miletus. To a coastal city and its residents, the sea is the lifeblood of the community. What better image to represent the arche? Thales intuitively recognized that man’s Being, and everything else, originates with the sea, both psychologically and biologically; the former because the sea is an archetypal image of unconsciousness, from which consciousness arises; the latter because we now know that all biological life originated in the sea. In my own view, I think the sea could be the most ancient metaphor of psyche. On an intuitive level, Thales may have been thinking of a connection between water and psyche. One thing is certain, a nexus was established at this point in the history of Western culture between water and the primordial source of all things.

Anaximander took another step toward identifying the arche with the Soul. He said the arche is the Apeiron, or the Boundless. Being a student of Thales, Anaximander was no doubt familiar with the contemplative, introspective habit of his teacher. Even though we hear much of his external accomplishments, such as being the first to construct a map (an imago mundi), little is said about his inwardness. I believe his idea of the Apeiron is a product of deep self-examination. He disagreed with Thales and claimed that the arche could not be one of the material elements. Here, I see Anaximander withdrawing the projection, at least for the source of all things, from external substances. He realizes this incomprehensible “something” is not material, even though it is the material cause. The Apeiron is boundless, infinite, eternal, ageless, indestructible, and “encompasses all the worlds.” As Thales before him, I believe Anaximander is getting a glimpse of the nature of Soul. By his recognition of the infinity of the Apeiron, Anaximander, perhaps unwittingly, pushes Western consciousness toward a quantum leap in its development, and toward Heraclitus’ idea of Soul as boundless depth. The idea of Soul was also prevalent with the early Greek thinkers, but mostly as a result of the poets and sages. At that time, Soul was viewed by the Greeks as “the life-breath or animating ‘spirit’ which departs as a ghost” at the point of death (Kahn, 126).

Next, Anaximander makes a remarkable conclusion:

And into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is meet; for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time, as he says in these somewhat poetical terms. – Theophrastus, Phys. Op. fr. 2 (R. P. 16).

He now tells us that when things originate from the Apeiron, a crime is committed against it. And to make reparation for the things wrongdoing, it returns back to the Apeiron, thus satisfying some idea of cosmic justice. There is an idea of shame associated here with the coming into being, or, as I see it, the arising of consciousness from a sea of unconsciousness. Just as the author of Genesis declares Adam and Eve guilty for partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Anaximander associates guilt with the differentiation of consciousness. It also reminds me of the sin of the fire-thief, Prometheus, who kindled the anger of Zeus. For some reason, when ancient man began to think of himself as an individual, a painful sense of wrongdoing accompanied his self-consciousness.

Another Milesian thinker, Anaximenes, who was a student of Anaximander, put forth his own idea that air is the arche. Here is yet another powerful image of the source of all things that can be associated with Soul. For thousands of years, air, wind, breath, etc. have been archetypal symbols of both Soul (psyche) and mind (nous), as well as spirit (pneuma). In fact, Anaximenes made the association himself. According to Theophrastus, he said,

Just as . . . our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world.” — Aet. i. 3, 4 (R. P. 24).

According to classicist John Burnet, this is a point in Western thinking where the microcosm/macrocosm idea makes an appearance, which was also the Pythagorean view. Usually with this idea, psyche is microcosm while the universe is the macrocosm. Clearly, therefore, a connection is established in Anaximenes’ theory between the arche (air) and Soul.

So, we have three unique philosophers with three wonderfully different ideas of the arche, which I believe are actually symbols of Soul. These men gazed into their own inner processes and derived three creative ideas which undoubtedly speak to their own individual personalities. They describe, however, a phenomenon which is common to all mankind.

It is my contention that Heraclitus’ idea of the unfathomable depth of Soul was directly influenced by these three previous ideas, for there is an idea of infinite depth in all three. Concerning Thales’ theory, the primordial images of sea, abyss, and ocean certainly contain an element of immense depth. The archetypal sea is unfathomable. Anaximander states clearly that the arche is the Apeiron, the Boundless. An element of Anaximenes’ theory of air speaks to the airy heavens of the macrocosm and the pneumatic realms of the microcosm, which encompasses the infinity of the universe. Besides this, Cicero mentions that “Anaximenes said that air is a god, that it is infinite and always in motion” (De Natura Deorum I. 26).

By the time Heraclitus arrives on the scene, he has much prima materia to work with. Heraclitus brings the strikingly new and unusual thought of the logos of Soul as being so immeasurably deep we will never find its bounds, no matter how far we travel. We do not understand our own cavernous inner recesses. Our rationality can no more understand Soul than we can understand God. Language breaks down when one attempts to think and write about such things.

It is amazing to think there is “something” within me that has such depth, I will never discover its limits. I know the thing I am thinking of is not an objective thing at all. Heraclitus is utilizing the Greek idea of psyche to shed light on his experience of unbounded connectedness to the world. He feels it within himself. In some way, Soul has a sense of numinosity which is so perplexing and paradoxical to our rational minds, we will never fully understand it. But I don’t think Heraclitus is concerned with rational understanding. That will come later in Greek philosophy. What he is talking about is an experience within himself of the very foundation principle (arche) upon which reality is structured.

The logos of Soul and the logos of the cosmos are discussed separately, but I don’t think they are actually to be understood separately. What I think may have happened with Heraclitus is that, as he said in another fragment, “I have searched myself.” Obviously, again we are dealing with someone who was deeply introspective. What seems to occur after one gazes inward for some time is that the deep logos of Soul is recognized as being identical with the cosmic logos, which, according to Heraclitus, orders everything in our universe. And herein is the error of the people “who live as though their thinking were a private possession” (Fragment 3 in Kahn). Actually, the account, the logos, is shared among all humanity. Just as the deep logos of Soul is common among us all, so is the cosmic logos.

I originally thought that Heraclitus may have been the first depth psychologist in Western culture. I have now modified my view to include the Milesians alongside Heraclitus. All these men were acutely aware of the boundless nature of the source of all things.

Works Cited

Edinger, Edward F. The Psyche In Antiquity. Toronto: Inner City, 1999.

Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. New York: Cambridge, 1979.

Hick, John. Philosophy of Religion. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1990.

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On The Wings Of A Dream

Lament For Icarus (1898) by Herbert James Draper

The myth of Daedalus and Icarus has been on my mind recently. You can read a brief account of it here.

Daedalus was a skilled artificer. One of his creations was the Labyrinth to house the Minotaur. He was said to be the originator of images.

After the Minotaur was slain by Theseus, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the Labyrinth. Daedalus, of course, knew his way out, so it was not a problem. Getting off the island of Crete was, however. So, he fashioned wings from feathers and wax for him and his son. They would fly to freedom. Daedalus told Icarus to fly a middle way, not too high lest the heat of the sun melt the wax, and not too low lest the sea foam moisten the wings and make them unusable. We all know the outcome. Icarus flew too close to the sun and plunged into the sea and drowned.

I’d like to return to the subject of metaxy, the Greek word meaning “in-between.” In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates argues that Eros is a daimon who is in-between (metaxy) god and mortal. Indeed, according to Socrates,

the whole of the daimonic is between [metaxy] god and mortal” (202d11-e1).

This state of “in-between-ness” is important in the history of religion and philosophy. I would like to focus on psyche as metaxy.

Daedalus tells Icarus to fly a middle course, not too high, not too low. I see this as a wonderful image of the state of metaxy. It is a place between time and timelessness. It is living in the moment. It transcends opposition.

The metaxy is the realm of

alam al-mithal, the world of the Image, mundus imaginalis: a world as ontologically real as the world of the senses and the world of the intellect, a world that requires a faculty of perception belonging to it, a faculty that is a cognitive function, a noetic value, as fully real as the faculties of sensory perception, or intellectual intuition. This faculty is the imaginative power, the one we must avoid confusing with the imagination that modern man identifies with “fantasy” and that, according to him, produces only the “imaginary” (Henry Corbin, Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam).

The metaxy is this imaginal realm, where image is the meeting place between conscious and unconscious, between human and divine, between all polarities. We visit this world every night in our dreams.

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Ficino’s Idea Of Soul

The theme of Soul is the thread that weaves together the tapestry of Ficino’s thinking. I would like to focus on a passage from Ficino’s commentary on Plato’s Phaedrus:

You must understand that in approaching the task of depicting the idea of the soul. . . (Marsilio Ficino and the Phaedrian Charioteer, Michael J.B. Allen, page 96).

He goes on to describe six conceptions of the soul, which I may deal with in later essays. For now, however, my aim is to dissect what Ficino means by an idea of the soul.

Years ago, when I was taught about the soul as a Christian, the language used suggested an objective entity living inside my body that is the real me, the me which will ascend to Heaven when this body is no longer functional. I was under the impression that my soul and spirit were one in the same and that I somehow possessed them in the same way I possessed clothing or a pair of shoes. Why did they speak of my soul as if I owned it? All of this was frustrating and perplexing to me.

When I began trying to break free from the influence of Christianity, (which is a very difficult thing to do, by the way) I tried to understand myself in various ways, most of which brought me no closer to understanding my human nature. I could not accept the viewpoint of materialism, so I delved into depth psychology. I have always been convinced that my epiphanous experiences of music, literature, philosophy, and art have a deeper explanation than simply brain chemistry. Actually, there is probably no explanation at all, for “You could never arrive at the limits of soul, no matter how many roads you traveled, so deep is its mystery” (Heraclitus). I am now of the opinion that Ficino’s idea of soul, which is of course heavily influenced by thinkers like Heraclitus, Plato, and Plotinus could be of great value to me in my understanding.

What I like most about Ficino’s idea of soul is that it is just that, an idea. He doesn’t claim that his idea of soul is the definitive explanation, as we are accustomed to hearing in dogmatic theology. I think he is letting us know that soul is something very deep and mysterious, which we will never fully understand. The best we can do is use metaphorical language (ideas) to help us scratch the surface. Furthermore, I don’t think he is coming to us from the point of view of religion, even though he was an ordained priest. From what I have read so far, he is telling us that Soul is the foundation for all aspects of our lives. It is the very bedrock of our existence here in this world. Perhaps Soul is akin to Heidegger’s Dasein?

Ficino doesn’t seem to compartmentalize our experience of the world, as we see today. For example, a university has different colleges, which are totally set apart, to study liberal arts, engineering, mathematics, etc. The spirit of the Renaissance, which Ficino was so attuned to, examined human experience as a holistic endeavor. Engineering was as much an aspect of Soul as the liberal arts. I think it is sad we have lost touch with this viewpoint. I recall Heidegger’s discussion of tools and how they interact with Dasein. I would venture to say that a similar discussion could be made using the idea of Soul.

The main point in this essay, then, is that Soul, in Ficino’s writings, is an idea, a perspective, a way of seeing something that is unfathomable and mysterious.

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Jung’s Coniunctio: The Chymical Wedding and Heraclitus











In the workings of alchemy, the reconciliation of Sol and Luna is often referred to as The Chymical Wedding. Carl Jung’s theory of the conjunction of polarities in the psyche borrows heavily from this teaching.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, tells us that “the way up and the way down are one and the same” (qtd. in Wheelwright 78). The idea that opposites complement each other and are actually the same is still alive today in Jungian psychology. As we will see, Jung relied heavily on the interrelatedness of opposites to explain his entire psychological theory. This article will attempt to show the Heraclitan influence in Jungian thought.

The philosophy of Heraclitus is one of the most fascinating examples of thinking in the ancient world. He may have been influenced by Eastern philosophies seeping into the Mediterranean region. He was certainly inspired by the Pythagorean and Milesian thinkers. He was rumored to be a pupil of Xenophanes.

Heraclitus understood the world to be a place where nothing remains fixed; everything is in flux and is constantly being transformed.

One of the main aspects of his teaching is that “opposition brings concord,” and “out of discord comes the fairest harmony” (qtd. in Wheelwright 77). What he means by this apparent contradiction is that both positive and negative realities are required in order for harmony to exist. Justice is exhibited by the striving of one thing against another, for in this striving there is agreement or harmonia. He points to the bow and the lyre to illustrate his point. The strings of a bow and lyre require tension in order to operate harmoniously. If the bowstring were not tightened, an arrow could not be shot. Similarly, if the lyre strings were not tightened there would be no beautiful music. There is harmony in the shooting of an arrow with a bow, and in the music of a lyre, just as there is a certain harmony in the world. The discord which we experience is merely the process whereby unanimity arises. Heraclitus teaches that the consensus is not obvious, but concealed, for “hidden harmony is better than the obvious” (qtd. in Wheelwright 79).

Heraclitus believed that fire, which he seems to identify with God, or the world process, is the source of all becoming. “It throws apart and then brings together again; it advances and retires. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed” (qtd. in Wheelwright 70-71). To him, fire was the perfect symbol to describe reality.

Regarding the human soul, Heraclitus believed it is impossible to ascertain its limits, in the sense of our understanding the depths of the soul. He said, “You could not discover the limits of the soul, even if you traveled by every path in order to do so; such is the depth of its meaning” (qtd. in Wheelwright 72). Here, we have an indication of a similarity arising with what we in the modern world call depth psychology, of which Jung’s Analytical Psychology is an example. Depth psychology is based on the theory of the unconscious mind, i.e., that there are things in the mind which we are not consciously aware of. Sometimes our conscious minds will thrust something which is too painful to bear into the unconscious. These things can then fester in the unconscious, affecting our conscious attitude. For example, certain emotions can be repressed and can influence behavior, many times causing mental distress. The main point here is that Heraclitus recognized the boundless depth of the human psyche some twenty-five hundred years before Freud and Jung.

As in the Heraclitan doctrine, Jungian psychology stresses the existence of a conflict of opposites, or enantiodromia. This is a term which Heraclitus used to describe the endless to and fro process of the eternal flux. The opposites are at war with each other, but in this conflict there is harmony, for both positive and negative need one another. Jung based his theory of compensation on this principle, claiming that the conscious attitude, at times, must be balanced by gaining awareness of certain unconscious processes. According to Jung,

Just as all energy proceeds from opposition, so the psyche too possesses its inner polarity, this being the indispensable prerequisite for its aliveness, as Heraclitus realized long ago” (Jung 346).

A good example of what Jung means lies in an explanation of his doctrine of the anima and animus.

For Jung, all human beings have both male and female characteristics. For instance, all men have a female element abiding in their unconscious minds. Similarly, all women have an unconscious male element. One’s conscious attitude is usually dominated by those characteristics belonging to whatever sex one happens to be. The opposing characteristics, if not recognized by the conscious mind, can bring about many problems in the conscious attitude. For instance, a man who is not aware of his anima may experience irrational moods, peevishness, and bad temper. (Bennet 122). A woman who represses her animus may, for example, not respect the feelings of others because she is overly rational (Bennet 130). For men, Jung called the female image anima. For women, the male image is the animus. These are Latin words which both mean “soul.” Anima is feminine; animus is masculine. If one set of characteristics is dominant, the opposite will manifest itself in dreams, possibly hinting at how the conscious attitude should be adjusted so that balance can be restored to the psyche.

Another area where Jung was influenced by Heraclitus is in his personality typology. Again, he utilizes the Heraclitan principle of enantiodromia to explain why people have different personalities. He begins with the distinction between what he terms introverts and extroverts. Basically, the introvert is characterized by a flow of energy inward; the concentration is on the subject. The extrovert’s energy flows outward, into the world; the concentration is on objects and other people. Every person has both characteristics within them, just as in the anima/animus doctrine. One of the two, however, will dominate the conscious attitude.

Each of these basic attitude types consists of four functions: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. As in the introvert/extrovert distinction, one of the opposites will be dominant. For instance, someone may be an extrovert who is thinking-oriented instead of feeling-oriented. This person might also be guided more by his intuition than his senses. Another may be an introvert who is feeling oriented, and who relates more to sensation. Using this procedure, Jung was able to study human beings in a more precise manner. The Myers-Briggs Personality Test, used by psychologists today, is based on Jung’s typology.


Bennet, E.A. What Jung Really Said. New York: Schocken, 1966.

Jung, C.G. Memories, Dreams, and Reflections. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Wheelwright, Philip. The Presocratics. Indianapolis: ITT, 1966.

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Zen Consciousness

Recently, while going over some of Heidegger’s ideas on thinking, it suddenly occurred to me how similar these sound to some notions I studied in a course on Zen Buddhism. In the course, we explored the teachings of a Zen scholar by the name of Katsuki Sekida. Sekida is a lay teacher of Zen who has been associated with Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. In his book, Zen Training, Sekida’s focus is on thought-impulses, or, as they are called in Japanese, nen.

According to Sekida, the mind operates in a particular way. The way the mind operates is only one nen at a time. You cannot really do two things at once because you cannot be conscious of two things at once.

Nen actions make their appearance before we are aware of them. A thought impulse occurs without our being aware of it. If you are going to become aware of a nen action, it takes a separate nen action to become aware of the first nen action.

First-nen occurs, for example, when one has an experience of a beautiful sunset. Before the awareness of “just how beautiful it is” dawns on you, you are momentarily held spellbound in the grasp of the experience. Then, immediately, there follows second-nen, which reflects on first-nen. According to Sekida,

The first and second nen come and go momentarily, and when a serial process of thought is occurring the second nen will frequently arise to illuminate the preceding nen, and the two will intermix as if they were entangled with each other (Sekida 109).

In second nen, one is aware of first nen. Second nen allows us to analyze and evaluate first nen. Although we can think of these as being two separate operations, they appear to us as being intertwined, as Sekida points out. Third-nen is thinking on the thought of “how beautiful the sunset is.” Third-nen bonds with first and second nen to give the illusion of the continuity of the ego. Being deluded, we believe that the ego is some sort of permanent entity. In Buddhism, any kind of permanent sub-strata is rejected as being illusory. There are only discrete nen-actions.

Through zazen, or meditation, an experience known as one-eon nen can occur. One-eon nen is where second nen never emerge. The experience consists of first nen impulses, one right after another. A good example of this can be seen in a story about Ryokan, a famous Japanese Zen Master. Bosai, an eminent scholar, had gone to visit Ryokan to discuss poetry, philosophy, and literature. Ryokan suggested they have some sake‘. He told Bosai that he would have to go borrow some at a farmhouse not far away. After waiting and waiting for Ryokan to return, Bosai set out to look for him. After searching for awhile, He found him sitting under a tree, gazing at the moon. Ryokan had been engaged in one-eon nen while experiencing the sight of the beautiful moon; the first-nen impulse was repeating itself over and over (Stevens 133).

The more primordial kind of thinking which Heidegger discusses seems to be very similar to first-nen. Heidegger’s study of Parmenides illuminates the original connection between thinking and being. Thinking, to Heidegger, belongs to being. In this belonging-together of being and thinking, thinking thinks on being. It does not evaluate and analyze a thing–it experiences it as “that which emerges out of hiding.” In this, it is similar to first-nen. The initial impulse of the essence of a thing, as in the example of the sunset, carries with it no logical analysis of the thing. The thing emerges, and is grasped in its essence. One-eon nen would be a looping of this first-nen impulse, or the logic-free thought of the being of the sunset, being experienced over and over.

I’m not certain that Heidegger’s idea of thinking and Sekida’s first-nen action are the same, but they both seem to be aiming at the same emerging of the thing-to-be-grasped.


Sekida, Katsuki. Zen Training. New York: Weatherhill, 1975.

Stevens, John. Three Zen Masters. New York: Kodansha, 1993.

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Dreams and Literalism

Taking images literally, with the same kind of realism as the ego uses in the daylight world–this is the heroic error, a mistake of Herculean proportion, given further Judeo-Christian blessing through warnings against demons, dreams, ikons, and all forms of the soul’s imaginings (Dream And The Underword, by James Hillman, page 116).

The literal mindset has wreaked incredible havoc in Western civilization. The tendency to literalize images has been a problem in human history ever since the advent of ego in the dark, misty past. When ratiocination became firmly entrenched in the human psyche, literalism was intensified.

Much damage has been inflicted by religion on the manner in which we view images. Warnings have been issued by church leaders concerning dreams, visions, icons, demons, etc. Why the fear of images? Are they afraid we may learn something about reality they don’t want us to know? Was this another method to keep the masses in their place? It has been a disaster for Soul. Literalistic religion is poisonous. It’s not just Christianity; all religions suffer from fringe sects that promote literalistic interpretations. True religion knows better. 

We have been taught that real is the same as corporeal. This is yet another lie to provoke attack upon images. It’s a well-known fact that people can imagine themselves to be ill until they actually become physically ill. That’s a real phenomenon.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy (From Hamlet).

Logic breaks down when it tries to examine the imaginal. It simply cannot deal with it. Logic is the work of the ego, the hero who would bravely slay the dragon of irrationality.

Ego cannot deal with images, such as dreams. Because it can’t find clear meaning, it guesses, assigning all sorts of interpretations to the image.

Each morning we repeat our Western history, slaying our brother, the dream, by killing its images with interpretative concepts that explain the dream to the ego” (Hillman, 116).

A dream-image is what it is, nothing more, nothing less. In order to derive anything from it, it must be examined phenomenologically, not logically. The use of hermeneutics, as in the close reading of a religious text,  brings forth truth; in this way it is epiphanously revealed, as in the Sufi idea of ta’wil. Jung’s use of active imagination is a powerful technique that can be used for this purpose.

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An Imaginal Look at Trees

Albert Einstein said,

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

I am of the opinion that we can learn all we need to know from Nature. The Hermetic maxim,

As above, so below.

implies this in the sense that Nature as Macrocosm mirrors man as Microcosm. We can learn more about the Microcosm, ourselves, by observing and pondering the images we see in Nature.

With that in mind, I would like to focus on the tree, a very common image that most of us see everyday. The tree has long been used in religious and mystical teachings to represent life, its proliferation, abundance, growth, and regeneracy. It is a very important symbol in the teachings of most religions. For example, In Norse mythology, the Yggdrasil is a huge ash tree that connects the nine worlds of the Norse cosmos. In Mayan religion, the Wacah Chan similarly encompasses the three realms of Mayan cosmology. The Tree of Life in Christianity and Judaism is well-known. In alchemy, the arbor philosophica symbolizes evolutionary growth. In Qabala, the Sephirotic Tree of Life is the central symbol for the entire teaching.

Photo by 
Andy Beecroft

I’ve become interested recently in the image of the inverted tree, with the roots growing into the heavens and the branches growing into the earth. Humans are such trees, but there is something else. Humans are also trees having their branches growing into the heavens, while their roots grow deep into the earth. Paradoxical? Yes, but we are such beings. This symbol is akin to the Yin-Yang of Taoism.

Photo by Jonathan Billinger

I believe that Soul is exemplified by trees that do not look “normal.” I like the gnarled, twisted kinds best. They remind me of old souls, who have suffered much, but have learned much about life. I am reminded of Tolkein’s Ents in The Lord of the Rings. What an incredible insight into Nature he had!

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The Philosophy of Water

For souls, it is death to become water, and for water death to become earth. Water comes into existence out of earth, and soul out of water. –Heraclitus

The first thought that comes to mind upon reading this passage is that Soul, for Heraclitus, is capable of becoming. It can change from a state of being dry to that of being wet. There would seem to be a dichotomy of Soul here, but there really isn’t. Heraclitus believes that Soul can pass back and forth between the two states, yet remain one. This signifies its opposition, and thus its harmony. It is in line with his ideas of constant flux and the unity of opposites. So far, Soul follows the same cosmological principles as all other things in existence.

Why is it death for Soul to become water? In another fragment, Heraclitus says, “a dry soul is wisest and best.” I am assuming he is thinking about his idea of fire as cosmic principle. Soul is a mixture of both fire and water, it seems. The more fire, the drier it is; the more water, the wetter it is. More fire means a wiser and superior Soul. The wetter Soul becomes by yielding to the passions through surfeit, the more inferior it is.

The way we are to keep Soul dry is to “follow the common.” The common is the logos, the principle of the ordering of the universe. The common says, “It is not good for men to get all they wish to get.” Overindulging in anything moistens the Soul. Here, Heraclitus is simply using good common sense. Excess is a sure road to failure.

Perhaps Heraclitus derived his view from observing Nature in action. The rain falls and mixes with earth and is washed into the sea, thus bringing about the seeming destruction of earth. Assuming Soul is being compared with dry earth, then it would be, in a sense, death to become water. The dry earth, being washed away by the sea, dissolves into the sea and cannot be recognized as earth. Paradoxically, however, water comes from the earth; there is a continual exchange. Harmony is the result of this strife. Dryness and wetness are both attributable to Soul. They are two, but yet they are one, just as Nature is one. The logos of Soul includes dryness and wetness. The two, striving against each other, help bring about our very existence.

I don’t think Heraclitus is saying the Soul literally dies. I believe he thinks Soul is immortal; he just doesn’t say so. His cyclical, regenerative worldview implies that Soul also be cyclical and regenerative. For a time, Soul is wet and ignoble. Then, there is a shift to dryness. A desirable state of balance between the two extremes is reached, which brings about a state of symmetry.

When I think of dry as a metaphor, I think of dull and boring. For me, wet seems more alive and exciting. It reminds me of vacationing on an island or beach. It is peculiar how images are viewed differently around the world and in different historical milieus. Perhaps it is because we have lost touch with Soul, due to our extreme emphasis on the materialistic. We think of pleasure and material things as fiery, superior, exciting, while things of the Soul, such as art, poetry, philosophy, and literature are dull and boring. At least that seems to be the opinion of most people. Of course, metaphors also lose their power over time and must be reinvented.

Heraclitus gives us the idea that Soul comes into existence out of water. Again, I don’t take this literally. I don’t think his worldview includes a finite moment of creation for Soul, or anything else in Nature. This view may have been influenced by Thales’ assertion that all things originate with water. But Heraclitus gives us something else to think about: “water comes into existence out of earth.” This would make absolutely no sense if we take it in a linear fashion. What if we say, “Water comes into existence out of Soul” and “Soul comes into existence out of water?” We interpreted dry earth as a metaphor for soul earlier, so this seems to be a valid statement. Here again is a cyclical mode of thought. It is in line with Heraclitus’ cosmology. Soul is in constant, cyclical motion, exchanging dry for wet, wet for dry, hot for cold, cold for hot, etc. Soul is at the foundation of human existence; our lives are energized by the endless unrest.

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Heidegger And Hendrix

Photo by Denis_Bourez – Madame Tussauds, London
I have in mind the Heideggerian concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand, as well as the music of Jimi Hendrix. These musings have convinced me that Hendrix demonstrated the kind of thinking Heidegger talked about.


I have listened to the music of Jimi Hendrix since I was fifteen. Even then, I sensed something magical in his lyrics and in his guitar work. I suppose I could say that certain of his songs touched me (whatever that may mean) at the very center of my being. I liked the psychedelic stuff, but it was the gentle, poetic songs which made me think there was more to him than being just another rock star.

When I think of ready-to-hand, I see Hendrix and his guitar performing on stage. Heidegger said, referring to a hammer, “the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly it is encountered as that which it is” (Being and Time, page 98). I can think of no better example of an object revealing itself as that-which-it-is as in the virtuosity of Jimi Hendrix. He seemed to fuse with the instrument, all lines of distinction being blurred in the magical sounds which emanated from him/it.

Jimi’s hands were incredibly large. He had very long fingers. Sometimes, he would play certain notes with his thumb, strategically hooking it around the neck of the guitar. It seemed as if his very Being was pouring out of him through his hands, through the guitar, into our ears. According to Heidegger, what gives food for thought withdraws from us. What withdraws from us is strange, or enigmatic. The music of Jimi Hendrix is no less strange than, say, the painting of Dali, or the poetry of Blake. It seems that true food for thought is always perplexing. Take, for example, Hendrix’s song, Bold as Love. It is a very melodious tune with strange lyrics about colors. It makes absolutely no sense logically, but there is something about it that is mysterious, something Zen-like which draws you into a deeper, more primal mode of thinking. Some might say it has to do with all the acid Hendrix ingested. I don’t know. I only know that it is a beautiful song, and that it is very deep. Heidegger says:

Whenever man is properly drawing that way, he is thinking–even though he may still be far away from what withdraws, even though the withdrawal may remain as veiled as ever” (Basic Writings, page 382).

I can’t get over how similar this sounds to what I have learned about Zen. In the koan, you have food for thought which withdraws just like Hendrix’s music, just like a Blake poem, or a Dali painting. So mysterious, yet so revealing!

Jimi’s creative use of feedback was one of the most enlightening aspects of his music, I think. Was it really just a lot of noise, or was it Dasein/Hendrix crying out in pain and pleasure? When he played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, was he experiencing angst? Is that why he burned his guitar at Monterey in 1967? Noise or Being? I only know that when I hear it, I am deeply moved.

Undoubtedly, Jimi Hendrix was no less a thinker than William Blake or Salvador Dali. Sure, Jimi did drugs, but so did Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Should we ignore Kubla Khan or Rime of the Ancient Mariner for that reason? Doesn’t Dali’s work look like it was drug-induced, if viewed from within the categories of ratiocination?

Poets and artists are more qualified to be called thinkers, in my opinion, than those who limit themselves to logic. Jimi Hendrix deserves to be included among the thinkers.

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Mnemosyne was the daughter of Gaia and Uranus in Hesiod’s Theogony, one of the Twelve Titans. In Greek myth, she is the personification of memory. Zeus lay with Mnemosyne nine nights and bore the Nine Muses. She is also said to be the inventor of words.

Mnemosyne is also the name of one of the five rivers flowing through Hades. After their deaths, initiates of the Greek mystery religions were encouraged to drink from the Mnemosyne instead of the Lethe (forgetfulness), probably so that, after they were reincarnated, they would remember their past lives.

Plato taught that the world of Ideas is the true reality, and that appearances and particulars are relatively unreal. The purpose of human life, in his estimation, is for souls to participate in this realm of Ideas. Basically, the soul becomes more intelligible by focusing on imperceptibles (the Forms) instead of constantly concentrating on the world of perceptibles (this world, matter, literal reality).

I would add that the realm of Ideas includes metaphor, images, dreams, myths, etc. In my thinking, these have more durable substance than perceptibles. So, I suppose I am saying that Soul is fashioned as one learns to pay attention to Imperceptibles.

Memory is the means by which Soul can join itself to matter and become more intelligible, thus having the ability to walk unfettered in the world of Ideas. Remember, this is all metaphorical. Soul is not a literal substance that sits in the pineal gland, as Descartes claimed.

Plato believed that memory is

that power by which the soul is enabled to profer in some future period, some former energy: and the energy of this power is reminiscence. Now the very essence of intellect is energy, and all its perceptions are nothing more than visions of itself: but all the energies of soul are derived from intellectual illumination. Hence we may compare intellect to light, the soul to an eye, and Memory to that power by which the soul is converted to the light, and actually perceives. But the visions of the soul participate of greater or less reality, in proportion as she is more or less intimately converted to the divine light of intellect. In the multitude of mankind, indeed, the eye of the soul perceives with but a glimmering light, being accustomed to look constantly abroad into the dark and fluctuating regions of sense, and to contemplate solely the shadowy forms of imagination; in consequence of which, their memory is solely employed on objects obscure, external, and low. But in the few who have purified that organ of the soul, by which truth can alone be perceived, and which, as Plato says, is better worth saving than ten thousand eyes of sense; who have disengaged this eye from that barbaric clay with which it was buried, and have by this means turned it as from some benighted day, to bright and real vision: in these, Souls, Memory and Reminiscense, are entirely conversant with those divine ideal forms, so familiar to the soul before her immersion in body (From a footnote to The Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor, 1792)

I leave you with this poem to Mnemosyne:

Help me Mnemosyne, thou Titaness
Thou ancient one, daughter of Heaven and Earth,
Mother of the Muses, who inhabit not
In flowery mount or crystal spring, but in
The dark and confin’d cavern of the skull –
O Memory, who holds the thread that links
My modern mind to those of ancient days.

– A.S. Byatt, Possession

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The Dreams Of Tantalus

We are all like Tantalus. We are all thirsty for the true goods, but we all drink dreams. While we absorb the deadly waves of the river of Lethe through our open throats, we scarcely lick with our lips a shadowlike bit of nectar and ambrosia. Therefore, a troublesome thirst continually burns us, oh we poor Tantali (qtd. in Kristeller, 210).

This wonderful quote, which I found in Paul Kristeller’s work on Marsilio Ficino, is in the context of Ficino’s musings on melancholia, especially the melancholy of scholars.

Ficino uses the Greek myth of Tantalus to illustrate how we come so very close to truth at times, only to have it snatched away from us. Banished to Hades by the gods for serving up his son at a banquet, he was caused to stand chin-deep in the water with fruit dangling above him. When he would try to eat or drink, the water would recede or the fruit would be lifted away, just out of his reach. A horrible punishment, indeed!

I have experienced this many times in my own search for truth. Just when I think I have retained a nugget of insight into the workings of my own psyche, I am dashed against the rocks by doubt and fear. I reach for that delicious piece of fruit, only to have it snatched away from me by some element of uncertainty. I stoop to drink from the waters of life and they, in turn, recede from me. It is a terrible plight, especially for the thoughtful person.

This phrase strikes a deep chord within me: “we all drink dreams.” We thirst for truth, but instead, we drink dreams. One way I look at this is to think about my own experiences with dreams. Most of the time, I cannot remember my dreams. It is utterly frustrating. I know that what I just dreamed is important, possibly some clue to help me understand myself better, but the image just slips away. Sometimes I can close my eyes and think about it a little and a bit of it will return. If I wait until I am fully awake, it is useless. I have to be in a hypnagogic state to even come close to remembering. Usually, no effort on my part will retrieve it. This may be part of what Ficino is talking about. We desire to drink freely and fully from the waters of life, but instead we drink only bits and pieces of elusive images.

Ficino says we “absorb the deadly waves of the river of Lethe.” In some Greek myths, if a newly dead soul drank from the Lethe, he/she would forget what had happened to them in their previous life. To Ficino, forgetfulness seems to be a deadly state. Possibly, he is thinking of Socrates’ doctrine of recollection. Perhaps he feels that forgetfulness leads us away from truth because we do not remember truth discovered in previous existences. When we forget truth, we grab at shadows of the true. We mistake the shadows for the real. In this state, we are deceived. It is similar to the Hindu concept of maya.

Even though we drink our fill from the waves of the Lethe, we are still parched, hence our state of melancholia. This happens to me occasionally. I may feel that I have learned many new things from my studies, and thus I feel elated. The next day, I may awaken with a gnawing feeling of despondency. I can’t explain it; it is simply there. I may have no apparent reason to feel sad, but yet I do. It is a great mystery to me. I feel, however, that my encounters with sadness actually lift me, in a paradoxical way, toward that which I seek.


Works Cited

Kristeller, Paul Oskar. The Philosophy of Marsilio Ficino. New York: Columbia UP,

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The Inferno of the Soul

Marsilio Ficino writes in his Opera Omnia:

The ardor of the mind is never extinguished, whether it looks at human or at divine things. If it desires human things, what mass of wealth, what fullness of empire ends that ardor? If it desires divine things, it is not satisfied with any knowledge of finite or created things.

Like the fervor of an inferno, the mind, for Ficino, is never at rest. It is never content with its discoveries or its accomplishments. There is a fiery grief that underlies human existence that can grip the mind like a vise. One is sometimes thrown into a pit of despair where the beasts of the underworld gnaw fiercely at the Soul until all strength is depleted. It doesn’t matter if one possesses the material riches of this world, the Soul is not satisfied; it doesn’t matter if one discovers the truths which philosophers seek, the Soul is still filled with an unrest that defies reason.

This conflagration is no transitory state. It lies hidden beneath the usual placidity of the mind, ready to blaze out of control at any given moment. Ficino makes the astute observation that many times a fire can be unleashed when we are at leisure, when our minds are unburdened by the mundane cares of everyday living: “whenever we are at leisure, we fall into grief like exiles” (ibid. 208). He says we try to expel our grief by socializing and pleasures, but when the party’s over, we are more sorrowful than we were before.

I can’t count the number of times this has happened in my own life. I suppose I have always sensed the underlying grief of my peculiar existence. I can’t remember when it wasn’t there, lurking in the shadows. Since I began studying philosophy about twenty years ago, it has nearly overwhelmed me at times. Sometimes it happens when boredom sets in. Boredom appears to be a great enemy of Soul. Schopenhauer once said, “The two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom.” But pain and boredom are just ingredients in the alchemical recipe. Soul descends, then ascends, then down again, then back up, ad infinitum. It is as Heraclitus taught, a constant, circular flux. Boredom, pain, and grief are just as important to the health of Soul as are joy and happiness. The attempt of modern clinical psychology to totally rid the mind of depression is misguided. Soul must move in its own natural way.

Referring to Soul Ficino says, “after a short and false bitterness, a true and lasting sweetness overflows it” (ibid. 209). Many spiritual paths teach that the road to God, enlightenment, etc. is an ascent. We hear about “spiritual development,” “spiritual growth,” or a much older version, the Scala Paradisi. Ficino recognizes, not an exclusive ascent, but a continual rising and falling of the moods of Soul, indicating an ongoing process of change. The unrest seems to be a cathartic process, where old things are continually discarded and new things are continually acquired. Soul strips itself at times of dead things, and gives birth to new things. If this didn’t occur, Soul would be lost.

The fire of Soul is not extinguished, no matter how hard we try. Its ways are its own. Its course is set and it must not deviate. The path of Soul is our destiny.

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