A Question of Levels

In his advice to fellow gnostics, Ibn al’Arabi warns that one of the most common mistakes made on the path entails confusing the truth of one level for the truth of another. That is good advice, but as always the devil lies in the details. How, after all, do we distinguish one level from another?

I propose that at least part of the answer may lie with reversing the formula–i.e,, when you cross from one level to another, the truths of the previous level cease to hold. That pushes us back to what defines gnostic work in the first place, knowledge. Knowledge is a matter of determinations, of limits, and we find those limits more often than not by crossing them, by making mistakes and discovering ourselves as having made mistakes.

This is a strange sort of relativism, because the standards of truth are actually quite stable, they are just distributed across a spectrum. I am rattling on about this because it is important for integrating my broadly spiritualist perspective with my broadly gnostic perspective.

Most of the time, we spend our time lodged at the level of personal consciousness, of being self-aware. As self-aware, we are aware not just of our own self, but of other selves. Some of these selves are genuine, like our own, while others are less so, only derivatively possessing a self. Yada-yada, right? Herein lies the basis of spiritualism and animism of various sorts.

As we extend and intensify that consciousness, the quality of our consciousness changes, While we may or may not remain self-aware, the consciousness becomes more diffuse and the boundaries that allow us to distinguish one self from another become permeable. Here, our own self and the selves of others are more entangled. This gets tough to talk about because words are basically dialogical, they presume a fairly well-defined field of selves.

This is true not just of ourselves, though, but of our spirits. When we change the level of our awareness, the sorts of objects that occupy it are similarly transformed. In these more diffuse states, it makes less sense to talk about distinct spirits since those distinctions are derivative of self-awareness, The trick, though, is that this cuts both ways. As spirits become less distinctly present, so too do we.

When we return to a state of self-awareness, though, we are prone to make a few mistakes. These include:

  • denying the existence of our self and other spirits because they do not seem to exist in the same way in the more diffuse states of consciousness
  • denying the independent existence of our self and asserting the primacy of spirits
  • denying the independent existence of our spirits and asserting the primacy of our own self-awareness

These mistakes all entail conflating the levels. In the first instance, it entails judging one level on the basis of another. The second and third instances make one element (self or other) of self-awareness primary, as the ‘source’ of selfhood which the diffuse state seems to represent.

This is where the Buddhist notion of co-determination provides a helpful corrective. Under this concept, all existent things are understood to be entirely causally dependent on each other. This notion accurately captures the sort of awareness where self-awareness recedes while preserving the actual existence of those things; they all exist but in relation.

If we persevere, we discover a mode of awareness that fuses or overlays the two modes of awareness, so that we can begin to see interconnections between the diffuse level of co-determination and the point-like level of self-awareness. This is a level of thresholds, where we become other spirits, other spirits become us and each other. There is both a sense of interdependence and a sense of agency.

There are two ways that this can be developed. The first puts weight on agency and ‘pushes’ the patterns of co-determination. The second puts weight on the presence of co-determination, seeking to harmonize the self with them. We might call the first more ‘magical’ and the second more ‘spiritualist.’ That is useful as long as we don’t get rigid about the distinction. A given magician or spiritualist will likely use both strategies even as they favor one or the other.

Once we start operating on this level, we need to be even more vigilant about the sorts of mistakes described above. Spiritualists risk succumbing to a lazy syncretism, mistaking the union of spirits they encounter in the hybrid awareness for their union at the level of self-awareness. There seem two basic avenues for this:

  • the spiritualist conflates themselves with one of their spirits, identifying their everyday self-awareness with the expansive awareness in which they and their spirits comingle
  • the spiritualist conflates spirits too easily with each other, either treating spirits that join in the hybrid awareness as being joined at the lower level or, even worse, freely associating connections between spirits based on their experience of their union at the hybrid and diffuse levels

Humorously, while this problem deals with some subtle ontology, many spiritualist traditions have a simple and direct manner of dealing with the problem–they assign spirits to groupings based on everyday concepts of connection, like families, tribes, kingdoms, and the like. When they are in their everyday self-awareness, they cue themselves to be alert to ‘family resemblances’ while looking to differentiate them from the other so that they can be engaged as individuals at the plane of self-awareness.

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