The Mindsight Intensive course begins soon, and during the preparation, the notion of a beginning intrigued me.
Not only are we at the beginning of an academic year, but to me, the fall is also the beginning of a descent into the unconscious realms of our psyche, in which we roam during the winter, and hopefully derive great benefit from the creative potential to be unleashed for the upcoming spring and summer.
I am not a Christian, a Buddhist, or any other kind of -ist, but I am a student of those. As far as I know, neither was Jesus a Christian, nor Buddha a Buddhist. Originality and innovation come more from ‘going out into the world and fucking it up beautifully’ (‘Make Trouble’ by John Waters), than dutifully following a master’s creative energy without making it your own. Owning our teachers’ creations means creating ourselves by transforming traditions and teachings into something new that reflects our unique, from the originator’s different circumstances. In his ‘The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions’, Thomas Kuhn makes this point very nicely. We tend to stay safely imprisoned within a given paradigm as we contribute to its expansion and improvement, even when obvious discrepancies and limitations point to the fact that the paradigm may be inadequate. At some point, someone comes along and shows that the whole paradigm is flawed and proposes a better one. After much protestation, everyone falls in love with the new paradigm and then engages again in the process of expanding and improving it. This happened for example with Einstein’s relativity theory, which revolutionized the Newtonian view of physics. Of course, not everyone has the genius necessary to come up with and propose new paradigms, but it might at least be worthwhile exploring our tendency to defer and abdicate our creative authority and project its power on an idol we admire, thereby losing much of our own creative energy that makes us feel alive. That’s not to say that we don’t always stand on the shoulders of giants, who came before us – we do. But in integrating their wisdom, we tend to forget the importance of taking the risk of personal engagement in the journey into the wilderness, that has no signposts we can follow, and that challenges us in a profound way to allow the creativity of the unknown to transform us. That is in fact what the mindsight journey is all about. You cannot engage in the exploration of mind and expect that everything you find convenient in your life will stay the same. Mindfulness practice is deeply revolutionary, and therefore not entirely comfortable.
One giant, on whose shoulders I stand, is Northrop Frye. Around 1984 a book by Northrop Frye unexpectedly crossed my desk, and I was told that he was apparently famous and a towering figure in his field. I don’t remember which book it was, but a cursory look at it satisfied me that he was speaking gibberish to me in what obviously was a specialized treatise on literary criticism I knew nothing about. Two years later I heard the 1962 CBC Massey lectures he gave, entitled ‘The educated imagination’. Like a lightning bolt, they struck my neurofirings and opened my mind to what he had to say about the human psyche. I began reading these texts that were more relevant for my psychiatric bend – talks he had given on myth and metaphor, writings on matters spiritual and the imagination, as well as his two books on the Bible, ‘The great code’ and ‘Words with power’. Extremely interested in what he had to say about the mind and other psychological matters, I decided I had to meet the man. I was blissfully unaware at the time that Peter Gzowski, the longterm host of CBC’s ‘Morningside’, had once referred to Northrop Frye as the most difficult person he ever interviewed, because of his ‘thought-stopping silences’.
Frye graciously invited me for a chat in his office, where we spent about an hour talking and reflecting. Thought-stopping silences indeed followed his brief responses, comments, or questions he threw my way, during which he looked deeply into my eyes. As a psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist, I was used to that rhythm while dialoguing, where words, sentences, and stories are like pebbles thrown into a pond, after which long periods of reflection follow the waves the pebbles caused. We both enjoyed mutually created thought-stopping silences, during which much non-verbal and imaginative material was allowed to simmer like a primordial soup from which new creations arise. My time with him was transformative because I got to experience firsthand the embodied imagination of a genius from another field than my own, which frankly blew my mind. Our dialogue became increasingly animated over the course of that hour, and he ended up inviting me to audit his lectures on the Bible for free, which I attended religiously for a year at the Old Vic in Toronto. He spoke the way he wrote with immense clarity. His somewhat monotone voice seemed to be the perfectly self-effacing and humble messenger that carried his incredible wisdom to his audience. Lecture after lecture, I felt orthogonal shifts in my consciousness being triggered by his brilliance and vast imaginative vistas. Needless to say, he had taught me to look at the Bible in a completely new way as in fact the one text that shaped the imagination of western culture like no other. He helped me gain access to an intuition I already had my whole life, that the Bible, like the Bhagavad Gita, was a book of wisdom and revelation about the human mind and its liberation from delusion. It is scripture, and scripture is an art form that has been lost in our digital age. We don’t know anymore how to read it, let alone write it for what it is, a means of personal and social transformation, not a rigid dogma to confirm our own views. This is why I am now going to open the Bible on its first page as Frye would likely have wanted me to do.
When I talk about the Bible in mindsight circles, there are those who are enthralled by the new vistas I present, and those who for various reasons get extremely nervous, uncomfortable, or even incensed. I always find it astonishing to see how otherwise intelligent folks internally dissociate from reason and are just unable to see past their internalized religious doctrines of all sorts. These people are not able to just read the words that are on the page without regressing to preadolescent Santa Claus belief systems they hold on to for dear life. Beliefs are thought patterns unfolding in close proximity to sensory cortical brain centers, thus giving them an unusual sense of embodied reality, even though they are nothing more than thoughts. So if you believe the Bible, or any other scripture for that matter, was written by God as an external entity dwelling somewhere you are not, you are simply deluded. If on the other hand, you realize that these texts arose from the collective human imagination and wisdom that reaches way down through our collective unconscious to the mystery of the nameless unknowable, and you want to use the word ‘God’ to denote that mystery, then I am with you.
There is little more fascinating than to know that the Old Testament was mainly written in Hebrew; that Hebrew words have many different meanings that open vast webs of potential understandings; that meanings evolved and changed during the many centuries during which the Bible was compiled; that oral transmission of wisdom stories gave rise to a plethora of different Bible mythologies, out of which only some were chosen into the official canon; that the New Testament was written in Greek; that translations of all sorts are recreations and transformations of meaning rather than exact carbon copies of the original; that indeed there is no original, but only an ongoing process of creation, recreation, and adaptation over many centuries past without a beginning anywhere; and that the Bible is not a historical treatise, even though historical circumstances shaped the language used, but a mythological inspiration, ‘mythological’ meaning belonging to the domain of story-telling, not of historical science. In short, there is nothing simplistic about reading the Bible. On the contrary, it radically confronts us with the complexity of mind, life, universe, and love in ways we tend to ignore.
Put your preconceived ideas, beliefs, non-beliefs, or skepticism aside for a moment, and let’s just read the words on the page with discerning logic, imaginative sensibility, and a generally educated humanistic intelligence. The Bible begins with a Big Bang: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ With this logically non-sensical, paradoxical statement the Bible challenges the reader right from the start – either the Bible writers were illogical dumbheads, which is greatly to be doubted, or you know immediately that you are about to embark on a most uncommon journey. This statement tells us immediately that we are not into a scientific, historical, or otherwise logical account, but a metaphorical one that will defy the rules our problem-solving left-brain minds like to live by, let alone the rules our preadolescent concrete mind wished us to indulge in as a way of making the world magical. How incredibly difficult the journey proposed by the Bible will be is then further emphasized by the fact that it takes about 15 pages for humanity to get into deep trouble, and then 1500 or more pages to get out of it. So let’s get to it – what is so absurd in this first sentence?
If there really is a beginning to the heavens and the earth, then there cannot be anything before the beginning, since the beginning is an absolute one of everything, including time. The notion of something before the beginning of time is absurd since there can only be a beginning within the context of time. What was before the beginning is thus an absurd question. Yet, the sentence sounds like there was something or someone before the beginning, namely God. But that poses problems, since if there was, it would not be the beginning. This first Bible statement gives us a warning: Don’t even try to think of or imagine God, because if you do, God becomes an entity, a noun with certain attributes, and such an entity can only exist in time, which would make the notion of God absurd. Furthermore, God cannot exist before the beginning unless we invalidate the beginning and have to ask, who created God? We begin down the absurd road of an infinite regress, turtles all the way down. The absurdity of imagining God as an entity expressed by a noun is implied by the absurdity of someone before the beginning. Unless concretized by the primitive and infantile delusional mind and projected onto the image of a person, God is established right from the start of the Bible as a verb, which cannot be imagined, a verb that suggests God is a process, the formless source of diversity.
Unless you are happy to dumb down the notion of God into banality, ‘God’ is a notion that points to a no-thing that is nameless, timeless, unimaginable, indescribable, and unthinkable. In other, quite intriguing words, we can say that the beginning arises from a creative nothingness we call for lack of a better word God, and which has no beginning nor end, only transformations. That is not eternity, by the way, since eternity means endless time. We are talking about a timeless realm! Since even ‘nothingness’ is a noun pointing to something called nothing, and no ‘thing’ can exist before the beginning, we have to take our reflection a step further and speak of no-thingness in the sense of a fundamental absence of any essence. The beginning is the creation of diversity that timelessly occurs moment-by-moment, a manifest universe from a creative pure potential realm of no-thingness without an essence we could grasp, imagine, or describe. This unimaginable nameless is to my mind quintessentially God in unmanifest ‘form’, giving rise ‘in the beginning’ to the manifest form of the universe, which always vanishes back into its unmanifest source of no-thingness before reappearing again in a new form. As a not so unimportant and intriguing aside, physicists have now figured out through mathematical explorations that our universe was created out of nothing, the closest way to rationally imagine nothingness as a creative pure potentiality. Don’t try to get any clearer than that in your logical understanding.
The beginning of St. John’s gospel in the New Testament supports these ideas so far: ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’ Let’s not forget that while the Old Testament was originally written mostly in Hebrew (some parts in Aramaic), the New Testament was written in Greek. The ‘word’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘logos’, which refers to the manifest God principle as it appears out of no-thingness through everything created, as we have seen before. In the beginning is the manifest world of diversity, of phenomena and appearances, the exploration of which inevitably leads to the discovery and realization of the nameless, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginable ground of non-manifest Being as its source. Interestingly, we can find a neuropsychological correlate to this notion of a beginning: Formless sensory experience mediated by the senses called conduit, which does not make sense to us, receives meaning through its being constructed by the brain into language-based stories. ‘The word’ here is literally the beginning of meaning, and as we all know, most narratives end up sooner or later pointing beyond themselves to the nameless ground of Being. The beginning is thus always a bidirectional transition point between the manifest and the unmanifest, the creative present moment energy flow from the source into manifestations, and through dissolution of manifestations back towards the source.
Between the beginning and the end in the obscure and extravagant imagery of the Apocalypse, we meet a God quite like a person suffering from multiple personality disorder, at different times angry, petulant, vindictive, wise, loving, reasonable, bat-shit crazy, and more. This is in fact the one-person version of many pagan and eastern multi-god versions of religious beliefs corresponding to the Jungian notion of archetypes. Buddha always reminded his disciples that we are the boss having to manage and rule over these many gods, and this is no different from the ‘God’ of the Bible after the beginning, an archetypal collection of psychological tendencies it behooves us to manage with the power of awareness. God as the unmanifest nameless underlying the beginning is fundamentally different from the manifest divine archetypes. The nameless only appears through an orthogonal shift in consciousness mediated by a serious awareness training and is the foundation from which the archetypes can be successfully managed to give our lives meaning. Paradoxically, you need to familiarize yourself with emptiness to manifest God and keep the gods in check.
The beginning, as the Bible shows, leads to catastrophe pretty quickly after about 15 pages, which is the metaphor for the inevitable beginning of human suffering. This suffering is worth it, though, otherwise, the Bible would not waste 1500 pages worth of ink exploring how to get out of the suffering mess. Suffering is our ticket to liberation and wisdom. The beginning is thus an invitation to learn to deal with suffering effectively, and the nameless ground of being the beginning implies is the mystery of initiation and transcendence we need to orient ourselves towards by a very subtle, but powerful act of reorientation: Skillfully entering the now of the present moment. If your head spins now, feeling that such innocuously appearing an idiom as ‘in the beginning …’ has morphed into an intellectually confusing meaning monster you would rather avoid, the scripture has fulfilled its purpose. By simply grasping the message of scripture intellectually we have not mastered it by a long shot. Its real meaning lies in its power of transformation, which the scripture can only suggest or point to. To discover and embody that power, the real-life embodied relationship to the world we are a part of, and more particularly to an experienced teacher, is essential. The real power of words lies in their ability to point beyond themselves to timeless truths and the mystery of Being. Like any myth, words with power conceal their meaning unless it is put into daily practice moment by moment, hour by hour. The left and right brain need to cooperate harmoniously for us to decrease human suffering.
Copyright © 2020 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.