“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 Seng 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.