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Milan Kundera opens his celebrated novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by examining Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’.

What, asks Kundera, might it mean if everything we do, think, and say recurs ad infinitum – ad nauseum – throughout the eternal black holes of time and space?

What if, contrary to the dogma of most religions, life weren’t a dress rehearsal?  What if the mistakes we make in the here and now were never going to be made ‘right’ on some dim, distant redemption day?

Would the knowledge that you had no second chance weigh you down like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board?  Or would it make you savor life, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche believed, as if it were a precious, precocious art form?

I’m a firm believer that what one says about something (especially if it’s controversial in any way) tells more about them than about that which they have commented upon.

Keeping that in mind, on the question of ‘eternal return’ I throw in my towel with Existentialism.   I accept that the question Kundera and Nietzsche have raised is not whether God (in whatever shape or form) really exists, but why it is that one chooses to believe either way.

To me, the need for any form of escapism from the joys and sorrows of life as experienced is rooted in fear, resentment, and bad conscience.  Be honest.  How far wrong can anyone go if he or she is prepared to live with the result of his or her choices throughout eternity?  In my view, to take action as if you’ve anything less than total commitment to life as experienced is a cop-out to the fullest degree.

Kundera reminds us that Nietzsche believed the idea of ‘eternal return’ to be the heaviest of burdens.  If we can’t or won’t carry that burden, then it only makes sense we’ll invent some way to cast off the significance of our lives leaving us light as a bird, free to fly straight to heaven.  Do not pass ‘Go’ – do not collect $200.  Who cares?  It’s only a game…

“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.  Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”

Isn’t the real question then not as Hamlet suggests ‘to be or not to be’, but instead ‘when and where are we committed to being’?

Kundera frames our dilemma nicely.

“What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?  Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ.  He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being.  One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative.  We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?”

I choose weight.  Which do you choose and more revealing – why?

William James (often referred to as the father of modern psychology) was greatly impressed with what he believed to be the distinction between classical and modern art.

In ancient Greek art, he argued, lay the quintessence of all reality. There the artist’s idea runs through all his creation allowing it to lose any amount of detail and still smile as freely as before.  A smashed nose or broken arm could never diminish a Greek statute’s rapport.  By contrast the ‘modern’ Madonna’s missing nose destroyed her very essence.

According to James, something in modern art created a dissonance, a subjective distance that was absent in ancient art.  Both pointed – as they should – to the existence of the ineffable beyond.  But for James, the distinction lay in the artist’s consciousness of it.

Part of the reason for this must lay in the difference between the modern and ancient worldviews.  Since Descartes, Western man has struggled with the connection between objective (I perceive) and subjective (I think) realities.  By contrast, the ancients embraced a more holistic –even magical – cosmology where all of creation was caught up in a seamless harmony of ‘being’.

For example, in the Hermetic and neoplatonic traditions, telestike or statue animation played a major part in religious rituals, which aimed to align the human soul with the gods so as to achieve immortality on earth.  In such rituals, both humans and statues became ‘god-possessed’, their material form becoming a vehicle for divine life.

While such traditions are for the most part no longer practiced today, they serve to remind us of a significant element of our humanity which sadly, we have forgotten.  As the American writer Ursula Leguin puts it, we live in an age where media continually undermines our capacity for recognising what she calls ‘real myths’.  Soul-less, artificially fabricated ‘glamour’ vanishes as soon as it appears.   But no reason or cynicism can destroy the power of the timeless truths as expressed through myth.   “You look at the Blond Hero (a golden haired Ben Hur clone),” she says, “really look – and he turns into a gerbil.  But you look at Apollo and he looks back at you.”

There’s little doubt that like the Greeks, our imaginations are still gripped with a fascination for living statues.  Many fine examples of theatre traditions of mime and tableaux have now migrated off stage to become part of everyday life.

Yet do we use them, as did the ancients to achieve immortality on earth?   No.  We use them as does the Italian company Fendi in their advertisement for a perfume called La Passione di Roma,  to sell ourselves a sexier tomorrow.

If he were alive today, William James would likely be disappointed.  For he truly believed that if in modernity a balance between the material world and that of imagination could be found, it would not in the bank accounts of multinational corporations, but in the Divine.

“Today is the summer solstice – the longest day of the year.   From here we start the long, slow slog to darkness, which culminates at the winter solstice when the sun does its annual ‘about face’ to again, favour us with its warming rays.

As markers of our seasons, the solstices have long been the subject of magic and myth.  Even in our scientifically oriented times – if approached with an enquiring spirit, these ancient ideas can inform much about our relationship with the world.

In a letter to a wealthy patron, the renowned Renaissance philosopher and astrologer, Marsilio Ficino, addressed the esoteric significance of the summer solstice, which marks the sun’s entrance into the zodiac sign Cancer:

“Ancient theologians said that souls (animae) go into lower things through Cancer, the domicile of Luna.  For since by a disposition to generation they come into a region subject to generation, appropriately they were thought to make their way through the zone of Luna which favours generation.  Therefore the ancients called Cancer the gateway of mortals.”

And so according to the ancients, it’s through the portal of the summer solstice that heavenly souls incarnate into the earth plane.   Indeed, the sign of Cancer is still associated with lunar functions like mothering and nurturing the tender and young.

Kabbalistically, the moon is associated with the ninth sephira Yesod, which corresponds to the organs of reproduction.  Because of its central position in the Kabblistic Tree,  Yesod participates simultaneously in the worlds of both body and spirit thereby bridging the gap between the impersonal world of the archetypes and our most intimate selves.

But because Yesod is also associated with the concept of Maya or illusion, it is a place where we can easily go astray.  Maya literally means ‘that which is not’.  For example, at twilight is it not easy to mistake a rope for a snake and thereby summon inappropriate and unnecessary fears?

For this reason perhaps the most important lesson to learn at the summer solstice is that not everything is as it seems.   At this sacred time , we can all too well see that the light force is at its strongest.  Yet how many of us take time to comtemplate that within this moment already lies the seed of solar decay.

So today, take time to honour not only the sun’s zenith, but  the entirety of its cycle.  In doing so, you make a conscious step toward making most of your incarnation through the portal of mortals which likewise, has both a beginning and an end.

“God” is a dicey word.

Not only is it downright dangerous to use the word “God” at the wrong time or in the wrong place, but even when you do get it right there’s no guarantee the person with whom you’re speaking entertains the same ideas about what you mean by “God”  as do you.

Having been brought up as an open-minded Christian, I was still very surprised to learn there were so many possible definitions or images of God.

The following are just several broad images of what has over time been meant by “God” (with many variations on the main themes).  As you’d expect each has its strong points and each has its weaknesses too.  Which do you choose and more importantly, why?

  1. Deism – God created the world and then bowed out to leave us to it.  The problem with this definition is that it leaves us no one to pray to when the going gets rough – or rather if we do pray there’s no one there to hear it.
  2. Pantheism – God is transcendent and immanent – God is me and I am God (more or less).   The problem with this definition is that if God is me and I am bad, then God is bad and that can’t be right can it?
  3. Animism – God is ‘soul’ and ‘soul’ is in every rock, tree and especially in me.   The problem with this is that many are unwilling to believe that animals have ‘souls’ and if they do then aren’t they on the same level as humans?  When we throw chicken breasts on the BBQ are we really prepared to eat someone’s soul?
  4. Theism – God made the world and he’s right here by our sides taking care of it (and by implication – us).  Despite a few inconsistencies this concept works fairly well.  This could be why it’s been adopted by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
  5. Dualism (Ditheism) – God is good and he has a twin God who is bad and the battle rages on through eternity.  This has in part been embraced by Christianity in the form of Satan.  The problem with this definition is that if God is good (and omnipotent) and good is the only way, then why can’t the good God ever win?  Is it because he is impotent (i.e. not omnipotent) or is it because he doesn’t want to win (in which case he’s bad).  Either way is a dilemma.
  6. Polytheism – God takes many forms – usually like the Greek or Roman pantheon where there’s a top dog god who presides over his cabinet.  In some cases, this manifests in a coalition government rather like the one we now have it Britain.
  7. Panentheism – God = nature.  The problem with this is that when nature goes (i.e. an atomic bomb or the collision of earth with an asteroid) where does that leave God?
  8. Process Theology – God made the world and he’s obliged to stick around and manage the process.  This is an attempt to integrate evolution with God.   The problem with this is that if God is perfect, then why isn’t His creation perfect?  (which it clearly isn’t if He has to micromanage it).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”[i]

And so we begin at the ‘beginning’ when ‘the Word was with God’ and indeed ‘the Word was God.’

This intriguing combination of time and speech suggests a storehouse of immense cosmic energy awaiting release.  I’m reminded of zimzum, the Jewish mystical concept used by the Kabbalists to signify the self emptying aspect of the creator.

God (know as Ain Soph) withdraws his Light in order to create a vacuum allowing a single thread of his Light to traverse the darkness in a series of ten concentric circles called Sephiroth – collectively know as The Tree of Life.  Each Sephira acts as a vessel containing some of his Light; each represents an aspect of God.

For the Kabbalist, the ‘Tree’ is not only a diagram of God’s unfolding creative impulse, but also a path for spiritual union with the Divine.  Legend has it that after the fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, angels brought the Kabbalah down from Heaven to teach Adam how to recover his primal bliss.

It’s important to remember that The Gospel of John was originally written in Greek and what is translated simply as ‘Word’ was originally Logos, one of the most complex concepts of the Hellenistic world meaning nothing less than the natural order of things –  the very rhyme and reason of creation.

Rather than decanting the majesty of Logos into a single human being, a man called Jesus of Nazareth (as is often done), I suggest that John meant to focus our attention more broadly – perhaps on Adam Kadmon, the eternal image of man and God, which historically has been equated with Logos.

In John’s time, the Pharisee mystics expounded the idea of the Son of Man as an archetypal ‘Heavenly Man – the image of God.  Adam Kadmon, the archetypal figure, is the cosmic blueprint for all mankind.

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he create him.’ (Genesis 1:27)

But Adam Kadmon is not only the archetypal image of God, but of all men.   If Adam Kadmon is the equivalent of Logos – the “Word of God” – then the awesome truth is that not only did God send his only Son to dwell among us (as the usual translations go), but also in us, as it literally says in the original Greek.

Even more awesome is the implication that it’s our job to do more than simply receive Jesus, the man from Nazareth, as our Messiah, but we must actually ‘receive’ Logos, God’s big-picture plan,  into our hearts and lives.  So how might that be accomplished?  I suggest through Tiphareth.

Tiphareth, the sixth Sephira of the Tree of Life, is also referred to as Adam Kadom – the Son of Man.  Because Tiphareth lies at the very heart centre of the Tree, it forms the balance point where the component forces of manifestation stabilise. allowing God to dwell among us.  Tiphareth, the place of our humanity, represents God incarnate in the form of the Messiah – the sacrificed God.

In the Kabbalistic world, symbols and ideas find association through correspondence.[ii] As well as its associations with ‘the Son’, Tiphareth has correspondence with both the heart chakra and the astrological sun, ruler of the zodiac sign Leo.

Many equate the astrological sun with the quest for Self, or in the words of Joseph Campbell, ‘The Hero’s Journey”, which not surprisingly is a journey of the heart.

This journey is well illustrated by the story of Perceval, who is closely associated with astrological Leo.  Although raised in isolation in the forest by his mother, as the true son of a nobleman, Perceval finds his way into the chivalrous world of knights and kings.

As a Knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, with his head held high he sets off to heal the injured Grail King and redeem the failing land.  But sorely lacking in compassion and understanding of the ways of the world, he fails miserably in his task.   As the result with his head held low, he sets out on the long, painful path of self-discovery.

When finally he puts aside his personal agenda and prays to God to shown the way,  Perceval is at long last able to ask the right question, ‘Whom does the Grail serve?”.  It is with this that the Grail king is redeemed and with him, the land and its people.  It is then also, that the Grail king reveals that not only is he Perceval’s grandfather, but that Perceval is to become the new Grail king.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So whom does the Grail serve?

Perceval never got an answer.  Perhaps it’s enough to know there’s a question that needs asking.

But I like to think that which the Grail serves is Logos – The Word of God – the natural order – the harmony of all things with all things.[iii]

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[i] “Prologue to the Gospel According to John,” The Revised Standard Version of the New Testament. New York: Thomas Nelson & Son, 1946.

[ii] Imagine two violins that vibrate in sympathy with each other when their strings are tuned to the same pitch.

[iii] Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Grail mystery (and the secret societies dedicated to its service, is that its symbolism seems to have no apparent connection to Christianity.  This has led some to speculate that the Grail tradition has something do with a secret teaching of Christ or perhaps an even more ancient gnosis.

Today, many believe that the Christian God of our forefathers – a god distinct from and superior to man – is dead.  Astrology concurs with this conclusion.  For a preview of what might come next, read on.

For the last 2000 years, we’ve been living in the Age of Pisces – the symbol of which is two fishes swimming in opposite directions.  If you look carefully, you’ll see that one fish is moving upwards toward heaven while the other is moving parallel with the earth plane.  The underlying assumption is that the material and spiritual worlds are separate and distinct.

At the beginning of the Piscean Age, it was Plato who first formatted this distinction; the earth plane symbolising the world of the senses and the heavens symbolising the eternal world of ideas.   Early Christian theologians renamed  Plato’s eternal world ‘Heaven’ and dubbed its architect as ‘God’.   The Christians further borrowed from Aristotle the notion of God as both the ‘Prime Mover’ of the cosmos and the ‘First Cause’ of everything that exists.

Over time, philosophers have challenged these notions.  When scientific discoveries made Descartes wonder ‘what can I know for certain’, he comes to the famous conclusion ‘I think, therefore I am’.  But his matrix keeps God as the ‘First Cause’ of – and the only link between – a divided universe where subjectivity ‘(“I think”), remains isolated from objectivity (the world which ‘I perceive’).

Next comes Hume claiming that the only thing of which we can be certain is that we perceive an unbroken stream of subjective images and ideas.  Under his ‘radical skepticism’, we can’t even be certain there’s something called the mind to contain these ideas because the mind may be itself, just another idea.

Then comes Kant who suggests we can only ‘know’ the sensory world and just ‘believe’ in any world beyond that.

Finally Nietzsche announces that “God is Dead” and worse – that it is we ourselves who have killed him by scientifically collapsing the metaphysical assumptions upon which He was based.  With this comes the dawning of the Age of Aquarius where it’s no longer possible to legitimately argue that anything of substance lies beyond our earth plane.

The symbol for Aquarius is the “Water-Bearer” and if you look closely you’ll find he’s not ‘bearing’ but ‘pouring’ something to earth from the sky.  Because of the link between Aquarius and immorality giving waters like the flooding Nile, there’s reason to believe he’s not pouring ordinary water.  Some suggest that instead, he’s pouring a stream of universal consciousness – that because it’s distributed (like the internet) to everyone regardless of race, colour, or creed, will promote a deeper understanding of our humanity.  Aquarius is very democratic in thought, word, and deed.

Nietzsche suggested that man was something that must be overcome to order to allow the God who had long been projected to the beyond, to be reborn within the human soul.

Likewise, in the Age of Aquarius, man will reposition himself  vis à vis God.  The mythological symbolism of Aquarius gives clues how this might work.  Take for example, Prometheus who is associated with Aquarius because he overstepped the divine bounds by stealing fire from the gods to give to mankind.  Some suggest that the Promethean urge to transcend our humanity – i.e. to  play God –  must bring disaster.  Just look at Icarus, Frankenstein, the Tower of Babel.

Instead, I believe  that in Aquarius man will reach to the stars not by playing God – but instead by creating his reality through his ideas.

Like Nietzsche, I believe that man’s striving toward the future will result in the birth a new being who will incarnate the meaning of the universe. Look carefully at the symbol for Aquarius – two parallel lines.  Might this not represent our new status with God?

As noted above, in Descartes’ matrix, which still underlies most of our thinking, the problem of the separation of mind and body is due to a difference in kind.  In theory the non-spatial mind and the mechanistic body shouldn’t interact but in fact they do so in the human body.  Through scientific research, Descartes’ problem is being reworked so that the distinction between subject and object is collapsed.  Even now some scientists consider the mind to be no more than a material function of the body.

With such advances, humans will become both the creator and the created and – as such – will finally be free to put to rest their distinct and superior, creator God.

The concept of ‘self’ is as woolly as that of  ‘spirituality’.

Yet today’s Western spirituality seeker must come to grips with both because now he’s so psychologically oriented, the ‘self’ is the centre of his ‘spirituality’.[i]

While both mystics and psychologically oriented spirituality seekers often speak in terms of ‘transcending the self’, I suggest they mean completely different things.  The confusion is not surprising given that the source for today’s Western notions of spirituality is found in the European mystical traditions of the 12th century.[ii]

In his book Riding the Ox Home (London, 1982), Willard Johnson helps come to grips with relationship of the psychologised ‘self’ to spirituality using the ancient Taoist parable about the ox tamer on the Zen path to enlightenment.

The story begins with the ox tamer and his missing ox.  The ox tamer isn’t sure whether his ox is lost or he just can’t see it.  Either way he’s unhappy for all the traditional things that should bring him happiness do not.  Intuitively the ox tamer knows only his ox will bring meaning to his life so he sets off on the first part of his journey, the goal of which is to tame his ox.

Traditionally, the ox symbolises the ultimate, undivided reality, the Buddha-nature that is the ground of all existence.  The ox tamer symbolises the part of the ‘self’ that initially indentifies with the individuated ego, separate from the ox.  However with progressive enlightenment, the ox tamer finally comes to realise the fundamental reality – he and the ox are – and always have been – one.

Psychologically, Johnson suggests that the ox tamer represents that part of the self that makes choices and acts in accordance with them.  At the beginning of the ox tamer’s spiritual journey,  this ‘self is immature and uncertain of its place in the world.  This nascent (and easily manipulated) self, sees everything as in service to it needs; the world is to be exploited for its pleasure.   According to Johnson, to achieve maturity we must overcome this infantile self unless we wish to die unfulfilled having known life only from the perspective of our animalistic needs.

In turn, the ox represents the ox tamer’s psychologically deeper self – his daemon or inner voice, which keeps his more immature self in check.

As with most Eastern religions, to lose one’s ‘self’ is to rediscover a deeper ‘self’ that will become his orientation to reality.  In most Western religions, this deeper self corresponds at least in part, with God of the Divine.  In the west, generally it is only mystics who achieve unification with this other dimension of self and as they well know, this requires more than just finding and taming one’s ox.

Playing his flute, the triumphant ox tamer rides home on his ox.  Having tamed his ox (i.e. his need for self-gratification) he is free to express his creative energies in the celebration of life.  He has won the battle for self-knowledge; he knows that he himself created his ox through his thoughts.  After taming his ox, the ox tamer hears his inner voice –  he has found his true home.

But the ox tamer is not yet finished.  In next part of his journey he must say goodbye to his ox and leave it behind.

In both Zen and Western mystical traditions, the goal is not just to tame the self but instead to transcend it.  This is the essence of spirituality in the ultimate sense.  I suggest this requires more time, space, and personal commitment than most spirituality seekers are able and willing to devote.  Instead, I suggest that their goal is more like that of the first part of the ox tamer’s journey – the taming of their egoist ox.

The key point is that we confuse the two at our peril.  While psychology does offer us knowledge about ourselves as human beings, it has not yet been shown to offer us any knowledge about God.


[i] For more information see Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality – The Silent Takeover of Religion, (Routledge, 2005).

[ii] For more information see Passage to Modernity – An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (Yale University Pres, 1993)by Louis Dupré.