I have something of a daily routine when not traveling, part of which usually involves sitting in a coffee shop for a period of time mid-day. While doing so today, I was surrounded by a particularly idyllic scene: bright clear blue sky on a cool, crisp autumn day, red and gold leaves swirling about on the quiet side street, while I sat outside enjoying my coffee and bagel.
This Taster’s Choice moment was soon interrupted by a madman who came barreling down the sidewalk, pushing his cart filled with assorted stuff. He was extraordinarily angry, furious with the world. He accidentally banged his cart into a tree, and then, like some drunken version of Jesus, cursed the tree. He straightened up his cart and barreled on, telling the world to fuck off as he did. He soon rounded a corner and disappeared down an ally way, cursing loudly as he went, his cart periodically crashing into things. Then he faded into the distance.
This agitated storm of a human being was so over the top, so theatrical, that one was hard pressed not to laugh, as inappropriate and cold as that may have seemed. His agonized face had been red and contorted. One could scarcely wonder at the disappointment, frustration, trauma, rage, and pain that could bring such a state of being about. Anyone in his vicinity had mainly one natural reaction, and that was recoil.
It is always easy to think in terms of non-duality when in the company of serene settings (and not to mention, serene people). The essential realization of Self-knowledge is that there is no actual separation between our subjective consciousness and the apparent objects in our experience—whether that object be a thought arising in the mind, a flower on a hillside, or a madman with a shopping cart. Philosophy has always struggled to resolve the mystery of the apparent separation between subjective awareness and apparent objects (‘phenomena’) in our field of perception and/or mentations. Vast critiques have been put forth by famed philosophers to explicate these views (much of which is indeed worth reading), but the essential dilemma has always remained, which is tackling the matter of the apparent separate condition of the mind, and its apparent inability to truly ‘know’ something that is ‘outside’ of itself.
As sincere students and practitioners of non-dualistic teachings such as Advaita realize, this ‘dilemma’ is resolved via Self-knowledge, and in particular, a regular application of self-observation and inquiry into the matter of apparent personal identity.
Over the years I’ve spent some time studying Western alchemy, especially the teachings that arose shortly before and after the time of the so-called ‘Rosicrucian Enlightenment’ of the early 17th century, centered in Prague around the court of the eccentric Emperor Rudolph. The teachings of alchemy largely drifted off the radar as the scientific revolution was birthed, being mostly consigned to the dustbin of pre-scientific historical artifacts. C.G. Jung did much to ‘rescue’ this mostly lost tradition, by pointing out that many ideas from medieval/Renaissance alchemy fit quite nicely with his ideas around the process that the psyche undergoes in its natural quest for balance and self-knowledge.
What Jung understood as ‘self-knowledge’ (or ‘individuation’, as he called it) is not quite what Vedanta understands by that term. For Jung, individuation centers on the correct integration of the individual, distinct from the vast collective influences that surround them. The integrated individual may be said to be an excellent candidate for spiritual enlightenment in the Vedantic sense, but Jung had less concern with non-dual realization than he had with the blossoming of the individual. (The story of his last-minute decision to not visit Ramana Maharshi when he was in India in the 1940s is interesting, but material for another blog). Of relevance here is that Jung made liberal use of a teaching from alchemy referred to as ‘solve et coagula’, along with the ‘coincidentia oppositorum’. The first means ‘divide and combine’, and the second is a reference to the idea that in order for us to integrate (become whole) we need to first see things correctly, and in particular, to see what appears to be opposite to us. We need to ‘separate out’ the stuff of our psyche, see it, assume responsibility for it, then we can effectively re-combine (integrate) it.
The old cliché is that ‘opposites attract’. This is largely true, and for a reason. Opposites attract because (on a psychological level) they learn from each other, but they can only learn if they associate, to some degree, with each other. Gurdjieff once said that one key to awakening is to learn to ‘bear the unpleasant manifestations of others’. This is important because it we always flee the unpleasant manifestations of others—if we are always controlled by our impulsive reactions of fear and loathing—we fail to see how these manifestations of others we dislike so much are part of our own nature as well.
Balance is the key, and psychologically, this takes the form of recognizing our habitual tendencies and ‘opposing’ them by providing the opposition—countering them, literally—with awareness of the so-called opposite. For example, if we fear the anger of others, we are to recognize our own capacity for anger; if we see ourselves as limited and weak, we are to open to the notion of our limitlessness and innate strength. This balancing is necessary because without it, we tend to operate in denial. To paraphrase Jung, ‘the more a person is in denial of their shadow (hidden impulses), the blacker and denser it is’. The spiritual seeker in particular has a shadow element to work with, and that has been symbolized in alchemy by the element antimony (a toxic metalloid), which in some cases has been connected to the wolf, symbolic of the ravenous beast that is the hidden side of the monk or priest or seeker of God/enlightenment.
It has long been an interesting twist that in the realm of mathematics, the idea of ‘opposites being ultimately equal’ is absurd, as 5 clearly does not equal -5. But perhaps more meaningfully, 5 added to -5 = 0, which can be taken to be an effective symbol for Self-knowledge. Zero is a more accurate symbol for non-duality than One, because One is an appearance, a ‘thing’, and thus must be in distinction from some other thing. 1+1=2, but 0+0 still equals 0.
Our mind can be very tricky, taking as it does ‘spiritual enlightenment’ as some ideal to be attained to that is in opposition to something else. When ‘shadow work’ is not done—the cognitive realization of inherent opposite states within—then a spiritual persona (mask) is gradually cultivated, which becomes increasingly artificial, the monk hiding the inner wolf. That guy pushing the shopping cart and yelling like a madman may have been disturbing, but the capacity for his rage exists fully within me and you as well. The universe is not to be turned away from. We have to face into things, and into ourselves.