Book Review: “Reality” by Peter Kingsley

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“Reality” is a book by Peter Kingsley which delves into the mystery tradition of Parmenides. Parmenides is the philosopher held as the “father of logic.” The poem he left behind holds the basis of all logic used today, which also makes him, in a way, the father of rational thought, science, and pretty much the entire cultural basis for the Western world. The trouble though is that Parmenides was not a rationalist. His exploration of logic is a byproduct of what he was really about, if you accept Peter Kingsley’s interpretation. Parmenides was a mystic and a practitioner of an initiatory practice known as “incubation.” In this initiation practice, one lays perfectly still in a dark, enclosed space, for hours, or even days, on end. The poem Parmenides left behind is not an allegory, it’s a field report of a trip to the underworld where Paremnides was shown by the goddess Persephone what reality really is.

Sidebar here: I’ve poked around a bit and there is a lot of heated debate out there about Kingsley’s interpretations. I am in no way qualified to have an opinion about whether Kingsley is on to something here. This review is more about the teaching he outlines, and how it happens to parallel a few other teachings I also happen to be a fan of.

Peter Kingsley spends 560+ pages outlining the teaching and tradition of Parmenides, and those who he passed the torch onto, namely Empedocles, and then Gorgias. He shows how the intended lessons of Parmenides were whitewashed by Plato, and then Aristotle. It is due to these manipulations, and careful re-workings of this teaching that changed the transmission of a method for coming to direct embrace with the underpinnings of reality, into a dry set of maxims for the foundation of logical and rational thought. Essentially reducing a model that relates to our heart and gut to one that only exists for the brain.

What Parmenides was actually leaving us was a road map for traveling to the divine realms so that we might re-connect with our own divinity and see beyond the veiled face of reality we normally live with. Heady stuff for a guy who history touts as being (only) the father of dry logical process. Early in Paremnides’ poem, the goddess giving him a tour of reality makes a bold claim: Everything is real. Everything you can conceive is real. Somehow, somewhere. Whatever is, in any form, is real. The goddess takes Parmenides to a fork in the road and tells him that one fork leads to utter reality and existence. The other road leads to non-existence. Of course a road to non-existence is a paradox, but paradoxes is what this teaching is all about. She instructs our poet that the real trap in existence is not whether you choose existence, or non-existence. Rather, the trap lies in not making a choice, and passing your days vacillating at the fork in the road. The goddess says that this is the default condition of humanity. They neither make the choice for existence, or non-existence. Instead they waste their lives taking a few steps along one path, then they think better of it and give the other one a try, and so on. Back and forth, neither fully existing, or fully not-existing for eternity while life and reality pass them by.

After illustrating this basic problem with humanity, and the plight of the “ordinary” person, the goddess goes on to tell Parmenides that reality is all an illusion. This is a seemingly complete reversal of her previous statement that everything exists. This too is a major characteristic of this teaching tradition: a constant flipping of meaning, intention, and instruction on its head. Now the goddess shows to Parmenides how the reality we call home is illusory due to our dependence on, and misunderstanding of, our sense perceptions.

Then along comes Empedocles as Parmenides’ successor in this teaching tradition. He does not continue on from where Paremnides’ poem ends. Instead he paints a very different picture of how reality works. He puts aside the idea of everything being real while also being an illusion. Instead he paints a picture of reality being an oscillation between periods of everything being separated into the four basic elements of earth, water, fire, and air, and periods of everything being mixed together to create the myriad things we find in day to day life. Empedocles states that these cycles run from Strife, to Love, and then back to Strife. Oddly enough, he is regarded as teaching that all things are (in essence), Love. People seem to run past the fact that he specifically starts his list with Strife. Empedocles taught that the basic state of things was separated, and not desiring to mix. Realities basic state, the one to which it returns again, and again, is Strife.

As Empedocles’ work progresses he paints a picture of Love, personified by the goddess Aphrodite, as being the ultimate seducer. Love is a supreme trickster that attracts us into a state of being intermixed and holds us there blinded by the seeming joy of life. Empedocles specifically calls to mind the aspects of Aphrodite which are not altogether positive. In the mythology of the time, Aphrodite was infamous for using her beauty and charms to get what she wanted without a care for the costs others would pay. (Can you say “Trojan War”?)

Empedocles seems to paint a picture of Love being all bad, and Strife being all good. However, he leaves some loud clues later in his work that this is a trap. Here again we see the reversals and contradictions that this teaching tradition employs. He paints a very strong picture of seeing Strife as the hero, and Love as the villain, then he flips that hard and lets us know in no uncertain terms that if we hold these rigid views, we will be trapped.

The along comes Gorgias. A famous sophist both touted, and vilified for his wit. According to Kingsley (and a document left behind by an Arab scholar), Gorgias was Empedocles’ successor. He was the next step in this mystery tradition of purposefully obfuscating and inverting the teaching. Accordingly, he spent some good amount of his teaching time undercutting both Parmenides, and Empedcoles. He also spent a lot of time poking fun at anyone who thought they knew what was going on.

The sum and substance of long mystery tradition is this: The problematic habit that humans have that sits at the core of their suffering relationship with life is not a matter of holding onto the wrong beliefs. It’s a case of holding onto any belief at all. As long as you cling to something as being right, and something else as being wrong you will get into trouble.

This tradition falls into strong accord with three other sources that I happen to hold near & dear, and in which I find great value.

The first is the “Hsin Hsin Ming” (Verses on the Faith Mind) attributed to┬áSeng T’san, the 3rd patriarch of Zen.

“The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.

When the deep meaning of things is not understood the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.”

This is the opening refrain of the Hsin Hsin Ming. Like the works of Parmenides and Empedocles, it comes down to us in the form of a poem. Seng T’san opens with a direct, and radical, disclosure of the teaching of not holding to any belief as true. The trick of course, which he goes on to describe in the rest of the poem is holding to tightly to even the belief that one should not hold to a belief. In this way the teaching is not so much a thing learned as it is a constant practice, ever reaffirmed.

Another source I find to be in line with Parmenides, et al, is the profound and monumental Principia Discordia. Also inspired by the Greek treatment of the idea of Strife. In this case, the Goddess Eris, mother of discord, bureaucracy, and international relations. This wonderful tome was penned in the late 60’s and can be viewed as either a joke disguised as a religion, a religion disguised as a joke, or both. One of the core revelations of this thin tome is the idea of reality-tunnels. That each of us (through biology, psychology, philosophy, and cultural conditioning) inhabits a tunnel, or view on reality that is uniquely our own. No two reality-tunnels are ever the exact same. All perception is a gamble, and the best way to make do with what you have is to let go of the idea that what you have is correct in any real (or ultimate) sense.

Lastly there is the body of work of Robert Anton Wilson, who was also a huge proponent of Discordianism. In the introduction to his book, “Cosmic Trigger volume 1: The Final Secret of the Illuminati” Bob tries to clarify something his critics don’t seem to get. In big, bold letters he makes a singular declaration, “I don’t believe anything.” The book deals with a period in Bob’s life when he purposefully experimented with intentionally changing his world view, and his belief system, in specific and radical ways. I won’t spoil the fun of reading the book, but one example is when Bob was practicing ritual magic and he started receiving telepathic messages from someone in the Sirius star system. As he played with this information, and entertained this idea, he slowly morphed who he held as the originating source of these messages. For a while they came from his guardian angel. Later they came from a creature of Irish legend called the Pooka, a 6 foot tall invisible white rabbit. Bob settled on the last form because there was no chance anyone else would take the messages seriously, and there was very little chance he, himself would take the messages seriously. Bob did that in service to his lifelong philosophical principles which are perfectly crystallized in the statement, “I don’t believe anything.”

All of these traditions illustrate very strongly the profoundly liberating stance of not taking a preferential stance on any point. In the end, it may be impossible to have no preferences at all about anything. Being human seems to entail some basic preferences. However, the point here is not perfection since that too would be a preferential stance. Instead this is a lifelong practice: to not have a preference where one is not needed, and to hold any that do show up incredibly lightly. In this way we become free to move through life as it shows up, rather than demanding that certain aspects be a particular way.

This teaching has been around for thousands of years. It’s voice still seems to be very quiet. In keeping with the teaching itself, this idea is not insistent at all. If it were, that would be in opposition to its message. I, for one, am listening and I think if you let it bend your ear you may be very happy with the results.

How to Follow a 1,000 Day Writing Vow When You Are Sick

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Recently a fellow blogger reached out to me because of my story about my first 1,000 day vow in Chris Guillebeau’s new book “The Happiness of Pursuit.” She asked me about overcoming fears during such a vow. One of the fears that comes up for me when following a 1,000 day vow (like the current one I am on for writing every day) is of getting so sick that I have to skip a day, and start over from one.

Today is a day where I face such a fear. I am fairly sick, and appear to be getting worse. (Doing my best to get better though, upping my water intake, eating healthy food, staying away from sugar, and so on.) So, what is the solution to such a fear? Well my friends, you’re looking at it. I have found that in nearly all cases where fear comes up around failing at a 1,000 day vow, the solution is to do it anyways. As it happens this poetically provides an easy subject to write about, so there’s that.

What I have found over the course of my 2 successful 1,000 day vows so far, and the one I am currently about half way through, is that it is never about doing 1,000 days of something. It’s really always about doing one day. This one. Then you simply repeat that until you are done.

This dove tails into a few things I have been learning recently. I was raised with the idea that the way to succeed is to have a goal, chunk it into smaller portions, make a plan, and then execute until you get it. I’ve had some success with that mode of living. More failures. I’ve learned from the failures, but what has taken me sometime to learn is that the goal oriented way of doing things is not for me.

I am more of a systems man. More of a repetition man. As I mentioned above, the secret I have found to completing a 1,000 day vow is not to complete the goal of 1,000 days. The secret is to complete the vow this day. Tomorrow will be there when I get there. Before I realized that I a systems guy, rather than a goal guy, the way I succeeded at the goal I am most proud of was by following the system of doing the vow one day at a time. That is a systems approach, and it works.

Another thing that has come to light for me recently has to do with a roller coaster I have been on for a lot of my life. I am reading Jeff Olson’sThe Slight Edge” and his first couple of chapters deal with this roller coaster. Jeff describes what he has seen thousands of people do over his decades of being in the personal development field, which he also describes himself doing in his earlier years. It’s a patter I am sad to admit I fall into all too often.

The roller coaster goes something like this: You make a decision about how to get your livelihood taken care of. Then you start taking actions to come up from zero. As you reach the survival level of income, you relax a bit. Your effort wanes, and you start to fall towards the failure line. The fall starts slowly at first, then accelerates. Once you realize what is happening, you buckle down and get back into gear. You start taking your actions again… until you get to the survival line, at which point you taper off. Rinse and repeat. You waffle between failure and survival, and never make it up to success. What Jeff noted, and what I am getting, is that achieving success does not lie in doing something special, or new. Rather it lies in continuing to do the actions that took you from failure, to survival. Rather than tapering off, just keep going. The way to get from survival, to success, is the exact same way you got from being in danger of failure up to a survival level.

When I read this distinction in Jeff Olson’s book, it was a big “duh!” moment for me. It was also a bit embarrassing. However, I saw how much sense it made when I considered my vows. The secret to succeeding at them is simply doing them every day. I am looking forward to putting this distinction into use in my professional life. I find this distinction a great relief. No longer is it a case of working harder, or smarter. Rather it’s a case of working consistently. That I can do.

Well, there you have it. My sick day post. I hope it hasn’t been too rambling, but if it is, I’ll blame it on being ill. ;)

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Leave a comment below if you are so inclined.

Cheers!

Of World’s Ending and Things

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One of my good friends has been on a strong campaign recently to raise awareness of the apparent ecological disaster looming ahead in our near future. I had some thoughts about this, and they ended up going on for a bit, so I’ve decided to make a post about it.

The basic thrust is that we humans have, through runaway use of fossil fuels (and other abuses of the environment) touched off a number of “positive feedback” loops that will inevitably lead to the extinction of the human race. (Note, the use of the term “positive” here is in the cold scientific way, meaning that these processes are additive and self-perpetuating, and not positive as in good for us… ) One such loop has to do directly with the rising of the ocean’s temperatures. As the temperatures have risen, especially in the northern hemisphere, we have been loosing the ice in the Arctic circle. This loss of ice means that the natural reflection of some of the sun’s rays back into space off the white surface of the snow and ice has been decreasing as the amount of snow and ice decreases. The darker color of the exposed sea then pulls in more heat from the sunlight and the cycle builds on itself.

Another such positive feedback loop has to do with the release of sequestered methane into the atmosphere as the permafrost of the Arctic circle thaws. This is releasing millions of tons of methane gas into the atmosphere, which traps more heat from the sun, which in turn thaws more permafrost.

Those are just two examples of the growing number of such self-feeding cycles that scientists are tracking and trying to warn people about.

Firstly, let me say that I think that anyone who does not see global warming and climate change as a real threat, and cause for concern, is being exceptionally foolish.

Secondly, in my opinion, anyone who doesn’t see humanity, and it’s actions, as the primary contributors to this situation is being even more exceptionally foolish.

However, I do take exception to a certain trait that the dire warnings about the coming extinction event seem to share. They all say that it looks like it’s too late, and that it seems like a near mathematical certainty that within a few decades the Earth will not be suitable for human life, and very likely any life at all. What they seem to miss though is a phrase I mentally attach to any such statement. That phrase is, “… at current technological development.”

The pace of technological development, which also means scientific development, on this planet is ever accelerating. The difference between how life is now, and how it was three decades ago is staggering. Further, the way these technologies are relating to each other is ever more deeply and completely. The number of people using internet as I write this is approximately 1.5 billion. Within three years it is estimated to hit 5 billion. I would guess that a few years after that it will be the case that everyone on the planet who wants access to the information on internet will have it.

Increased information means increased innovation. One only needs to peruse the various crowdfunding sites to see what happens when inventive people with good ideas are able to get the word out. Inventions get realized. Change happens. And, it’s going faster and faster every day.

Personally I don’t see this as an excuse to continue the way we have been going. I think the threat to our environment is very real indeed. However, I simply can’t conceive of what life will be like in twenty years, when I think of what it was like twenty years ago. Based on the acceleration factor, I imagine that the world twenty years from now will look as different to us, as our current life would look to someone from a hundred years ago.

One way or the other, I see us coming to a singularity of existence, of some sort. I have no idea which way it will go. I do know that I can have no idea. The definition of “singularity” is a horizon past which you cannot see. The concrescence of technologies, ever accelerating, leads to a place coming very soon that none of us can see past. We have no way of knowing what is on the other side of such a demarcation.

Personally I am grateful for the people who are steadfastly raising the red flag of doom, and raising consciousness about the perils we are facing. What I can’t do though is go along with any declaration of how things will be. Our world is just changing too fast, and I for one will not be surprised if the human will to survive wins out, even if we face the tragedy of a dead planet.

One of my personal favorite thinkers is Terence McKenna. One of the things he said in his talks was something that the beings he contacts through psilocybin once said to him. They said, “this is what it looks like when a species gets ready to leave for the stars.” In his talks he uses the example of child birth. When you are aware of what childbirth is, you can view it from a bit of a detached view and find it something beautiful, a miracle of life unfolding just as it rightly should. However, if you had no idea what birth looked like you might have a very different reaction. If you rounded a corner into an alley and came upon the scene of a woman giving birth you would be justifiably horrified. There are screams (often), blood, tears, heaving, sweat, and a woman being squeezed open from the inside by something trying to force it’s way out. If you didn’t know any better you would be perfectly justified in freaking the fuck out.

It might very well be that the situation on our planet is something like that. With all the terror, and environmental breakage looming, and all the violence, and religious strife. Perhaps we are at a breaking point something like birth.

Of course, not all births are successful. Not all new born children make it. That’s simply a sad fact of the process of life. Still, a lot do make it. Especially as technology advances. That gives me hope.