As a general rule, we think generally too often. Contrary to some romantic notions of savage immediacy, human beings on the whole seem naturally disposed to conceptual and symbolic thinking. We compare and empathize easily, to the point that it is only a slight exaggeration to say that what we call our self, our ego, is nothing more than the conflation of our being with that tendency and its products. As a corollary, we can with just a little exaggeration say that a ‘culture’ is simply the dynamic organization of this habit and its products.
The corollary isn’t just a corollary; we are born into a society and are exposed to its representations and encouraged to imitate certain aspects of it. The culture has a profound impact on the ego, even though it is the ego that remains the active agent that compares and empathizes (or, by contrast, fails to compare and empathize).
The culture provides opportunities for the individual, presenting models to emulate and methods to achieve that. Just as an individual can fail to follow those models, the culture can provide models and methods that make the achievement difficult or even impossible.
This play of imitation without substance may be all that there is, but spiritual experience suggests otherwise. There seems to be something else, something animating us, no matter how entangled and limited. That is more intimation than anything else, though spiritual work strengthens the intimation and makes it something more like a promise.
To become aware of the promise, the spiritual worker must cultivate some form of contemplation. In contemplation, we slow down comparison and empathy until it gives way to a recognition of profound difference, to the point where empathy and comparison become something qualitatively different. Contemplation begins as a simple modulation of our ego but ends up rupturing and upending it. In more phenomenological terms, contemplation transforms ipseity into alterity.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
(From “Sailing to Byzantium,” W. B. Yeats)
This is key. That spiritual self, that soul or ‘ghostly self,’ isn’t the same thing, at all, as the fabric of values and behaviors, hopes and dreams, in which it is embedded and through which it lives.
At this level, too, we encounter other spiritual presences, ones we cannot easily join to our human being or the human being of others. Yet these presences take great interest in our human being, seek to occupy the fabric of culture we weave around ourselves.
“Let it be this way, think about it: this water should be removed, emptied out for the formation of earth’s own plate and platform, then should come the sowing, the dawning of the sky-earth. But there will be no high days and no bright praise for our work, our design, until the rise of the human work, the human design,” they said. (Popol Vuh, trans. by Dennis Tedlock, 65)
Our kinship and divergence from these beings is hard to fully establish. We have a hard enough time just glimpsing our soul, much less plumbing it so deeply as to understand its relationship to these others. There is a necessary and inescapable fusion and confusion proper to this level of spiritual experience.
Work must be undertaken to distinguish inescapable confusion from the confusion of resolvable ignorance and misunderstanding. That can’t be done beforehand, only in the long work of improving our understanding. Here we encounter the dance of Populus and Via that animate my approach to geomancy. This is also what leads toward my spiritist-inflected gnosticism; holding to the confusion rather than escaping it, leaves you enmeshed in the spirited world that some forms of work attempt to escape or transcend.
Which gets me (back) to the so-called Axial Age. There is some sense to thinking of it as an extended exploration of how to assert our spiritual interest in life against the interest of these other beings. A lot of the techniques that developed under its aegis helped to build a wall between us and the broader spiritual world.
It is a useful term so long as we remember it describes a relative shift rather than a total one. The axial values were never universal, they were almost surely cultural rather than biological, they are ongoing, and they developed in surprising ways. The shift produced numerous innovations, ranging from theatre to iconoclasm, mindfulness to atheism.
In short, we come to the idea that there was a phase in human experience when spiritual beings covinced a lot of humans that humans were less than them and that humans should worship them. Then, somewhere along the way, there was a transformation in that relationship, a revolt, that made possible an other way of being. While that began with a radical exclusion, it may end in a transformative re-integration.
If so, one of the challenges ahead entails figuring out how to integrate hardwon axial techniques into more ‘traditional‘ ways of living with the world of spirit.
That isn’t going to happen at the level of generality, but in the belly of the world. The specific dimensions of life uncovered in contemplation play a more prominent role than theoretical ideas extracted from those details.