The Long Emergency
In the present circumstances of the long emergency (which is certainly an ambiguous term for an ambiguous situation), knowledge or the pursuit of knowledge which does not initiate us into a radically new understanding of, and relationship with, “life, the universe, and everything” is simply frivolous. We need to put to ourselves the question that Nietzsche put: “what is its value for life?”, and not just for the human life.
We are facing the prospect of planet death. In the face of this abysmal prospect, what we urgently require is not knowledge, but vital knowledge or crucial knowledge — the kind of knowledge that is snatched from the jaws of death and the abyss, for what is touched by death acquires power — mana. This kind of vital or crucial knowledge (Rosenstock-Huessy calls it “survival knowledge”) is what has traditionally been called “wisdom”, and wisdom comes to no one who has not had, like Nietzsche, their own “stare into the abyss” or who lives, like Nietzsche did, with one foot in life and one in death, and who does not, in those terms, “die to oneself daily” as Jesus put it. I know of no genuine rites of passage or initiation or transition that does not summon death as a witness. Death is ever-present also, and that is the real meaning of the Buddhist principle of “impermanence”.
So, here at The Chrysalis we’re concerned not with knowledge for knowledge’s sake, nor with l’art pour l’art. That’s the kind of thing I call “frivolous”. We’re after bigger game — vital knowledge.
What’s death? It’s simply shedding form. That’s the law of impermanence, and even the principle of evolution itself — a continuous shedding of form. Vitality, by its very nature, must remain fluid. Death preserves and safeguards the fluidity of awareness and life, otherwise it becomes, as Blake put it, “stagnant water” breeding “pestilence” or “reptiles of the mind”. And such pestilence and reptiles of the mind are very prevalent today largely because of what is called “reification of consciousness” (routine existence) and the “denial of death”.
Everything flows, everything is flux. Even what we call “matter” flows, as we now know. All forms are transient. And because of this flow, we perceive our world to be a world of Time and Death, which is the very meaning of the word “secular”, which is pretty much our equivalent expression for what Buddhists call “samsara“. Our world is a world of energy in continuous flux. What we call “time” and what we call “space” and what we call “things” are interpretations of the energetic flux, which is the flow of awareness in a continuous play of donning and shedding form. The human form, or “mold of man”, is only one expression of the flux of energy and awareness. It is not the only form awareness can take.
I refer you, once again, to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s very profound experience — actually archetypal experience — of her own rite of passage or initiation, as she described it in her TED talk on her “stroke of insight”. You might have missed the part where she did, in fact, pass through the portal of death and was transformed by it. Death isn’t what it seems. What happened on the other side of death, and which she brought back from the experience, she describes very movingly, very beautifully, very powerfully in fact. She brought back wisdom — a realisation of the fluidity of awareness, that awareness is unlimited, and that all awareness is one — the One that she calls “the Life Force Power of the Universe” with which she was identical, and which she correctly named “nirvana” — the state of non-duality.
This is what Jung described as the archetype of the “Hero’s Journey” — to pass through the portal of death and return with the “treasures of darkness” from the “other side” — vital knowledge. There are a couple of other contemporary examples, one being Nietzsche-Zarathustra after his incinerating “stare into the abyss” and the other being Carlos Castaneda. The pattern of the hero’s journey always repeats itself in similar ways.
(And the attempt to “brand” the hero’s journey, trademark it, and sell it as a “brand”– “risk free” — is an abomination and a profanation. But that is exactly what “spiritual marketing” or “archetypal marketing” attempts to do. The commodification of all experience is even expressed in the saying “There’s an app for that”).
This preamble brings me to the purpose of today’s post, and that is to comment again on Daniel Kealey’s “Revisioning Environmental Ethics” and the issue of vital or crucial knowledge (or “survival knowledge”), which it must satisfy to become effective as an ethos at all. Vital knowledge, as wisdom, is not about “the facts of the matter” so much as it is about “the truth that sets free”. That’s the truth that we are hungry for, isn’t it? Not for more details and more facts of the matter. And this is what William Blake means when he writes: “More! More! is the cry of the mistaken Soul. Less than All cannot satisfy Man.” What this “All” is, is the issue of the One as the All-in-All. This was “the truth that sets free” that Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered through her “stroke of insight”. It’s here that we are in the presence of the sacred as this “Life Force Power of the Universe”.
Why is realising your identity with this All or this “Life Force Power of the Universe” what Castaneda’s don Juan calls “total freedom” or Jesus also called “the truth that sets free”? Once it is appreciated that awareness has no limits, that it is infinite and eternal, that all awareness is one awareness, then it is evident that awareness is not bound at all by, or within, the matrix of space or time and yet is within it and present in it nonetheless. This is the paradox of the One and the Many and of Blake’s “universe in a grain of sand” and “eternity in the hour”. There is no “other world” in effect. There is only a barrier of perception called “the Cloud of Unknowing”. In consequence, it is completely understandable when Blake insists that “everything that lives is holy” because it is all an expression, or manifestation, of the One, the “Life Force Power of the Universe”.
But the problem here is not just to appreciate the “concept” or simply to believe it, but to know it, for this is the essence of wisdom, and from this knowledge of the One or the Whole comes true vital knowledge, or what we can call “holy knowledge” or “sacred knowledge”. It is not true knowledge until it is lived knowledge –an ethos — and this is what Carlos Castaneda’s teacher called “claiming knowledge as power” — as living knowledge, and which corresponds somewhat to what Nietzsche called “Dionysian wisdom”.
This is Kealey’s interest, too, in raising Plotinus and his idea of “the One” in Revisioning Environmental Ethics. So, at this stage in my reading of Kealey’s book — his quest for a new valid ecological ethos — it has become a bit slow, because I’m not familiar with Plotinus’s ouevre, (although some of it is available online I see). I don’t know whether Plotinus experienced the One directly or simply borrowed it as an abstract idea from elsewhere (from Plato for example). But the “One” as Plotinus uses it is what Kealey relates to Gebser’s “archaic consciousness” and as “the ever-present origin”, and its return as the “diaphanon” of Gebser’s integral consciousness structure from which all other consciousness structures (the magical, the mythical, the mental) are derived. It’s clear that this “One” of Plotinus is Blake’s “All” and also Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “Life Force Power of the Universe”, and of course of Castaneda’s vision of “energy as it flows in the universe” — and that our familiar, physical timespace reality is “simply” a perceptual interpretation of the flux of energy. In those terms, as the Buddhists say, “nothing has self-nature”, so that even to say that everything is related to everything else (in current terms, quantum non-locality or butterfly effect) in “inter-being” (inter-esse) is an approximation or metaphor. In Buddhism, too, everything that is, is a manifestation of the One, even the atoms. Everything that arises or is “originated” nonetheless retains its share and portion of the sentience of the commonwealth in the One as this Life Force Power of the Universe.
Now comes what we might call the Mystery of Mysteries, or perhaps what Church dogma refers to as mysterium iniquitatis, or mystery of iniquity. In Buddhism, all of existence has fallen into a trance, a narcissistic stupor. The Bodhisattva vows never to enter nirvana himself or herself until every last atom is finally liberated from samsaric existence. This is not far removed from the traditional Christian idea of original sin, that the Fall of Man precipitated a fall of nature, too. And it is in the notion of “stewardship” that we see reflected also the Bodhisattva vow. Human consciousness is evolved for the purpose of leading all creation out of samsaric existence. If the First Adam brought the sleep of death into the world, the second Adam would lead it back into life. The implication here is that all creation has forgotten its divine origins in the One, and has lapsed into the pursuit of the self-interest. The Bodhisattva, on the other hand, prays for enlightenment not for his or her sake, but in order to lead nature out of the delusions of self-interest, the basis of samsaric existence, because “nothing has self-nature”.
I’m pretty certain that “stewardship” did not mean management of nature, but guiding nature out of the throes of suffering — out of samsaric existence, and as embodied in the Bodhisattva vow, and that this is the authentic meaning of “redemption” and of the “redeemer” — the second Adam who is Blake’s “Albion” as integral human. This is really the majesty of Blake’s vision of the “New Age”. In Albion, he saw the Second Adam as the transfigured human form that would redeem nature from its fallen state he called “Ulro”, which is samsaric existence. Plotinus also holds, apparently, that material reality is a fallen form of the true reality. There is something of this equally in Nietzsche’s idea of the “overman” or “transhuman”, who combines aspects of Blake’s Albion, Gebser’s integral consciousness, and notions of the “steward” and the Bodhisattva too, and, as such, of “the Second Adam”. Zarathustra himself is a representation of the First Adam, or first Zarathustra who led the world into darkness, and now returns as the Second Adam, or second Zarathustra, a now enlightened Zarathustra, to set his first errors aright again.
We’ll see where Kealey goes with this in his book, and even how far we can take this theme of “stewardship” restored in the sense understood by the Bodhisattva too — as a new “ethos”. It may get interesting.