When my nephew was two years old, he told his mother about “purgatory”. Neither of his parents were religious and he had never been to church. His grandparents were Protestant and would have had no reason to discuss purgatory with him. Then he told his mother, “everything is wuv, (love), mommy.” Today he has no memory of the event, nor of the wisdom that he brought with him into this world when he incarnated.
This is not as rare as we might think. The Dagara tribe, of Burkino Faso, Africa, for example, have a knowing that we come into this world with knowledge of our purpose for this lifetime. This is communicated before birth with the elders of the tribe who then watch over the soul of the individual, and help the individual to remember through a rigorous initiation ceremony.
We instinctively dismiss this cosmology because we ourselves have been systematically initiated into a very narrow worldview. By the time we get out of school, and certainly if we have any graduate or post-graduate education we are so deeply immersed in the mental-rational worldview that the possibility of other worlds or dimensions of reality is a non-starter.
The poet Wordsworth wrote that we come into this world, “trailing clouds of glory”. In Intimations of Immortality he writes:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. Rationalists dismiss this sentiment as romantic twaddle. I recommend to the reader, Of Water and the Spirit, by African priest, and Sorbonne-educated scholar, Malidoma Some, as a corrective to this biased rejection. His powerful story includes being abducted by Jesuit priests from his people and being violently initiated into the Christian religion, but more importantly away from his tribal “superstitions”. His true initiation, by his own tribe, is nothing less than a healing of his soul, during which he is introduced to the lost wisdom of other worlds and realms.He is given back his life.
It’s not merely that we forget. We are actively initiated away from indigenous wisdom that is based upon direct experience of other realms. Physicist, Brian Swimme, wrote that one of the primary ways we initiate our children into the modern materialist worldview is through television commercials. Our education systems complete our initiation by closing our minds to any realms other than the material. Indeed, even mind is identified with the physical material of the brain.
By the time we reach adulthood we are practically cut-off from soul, and can see no deeper purpose than making a good enough living to retire comfortably?while our soul, along with Rome and all of Earth burns. This system-supported forgetting is absolute in the year 2016, but unlike Malidoma, we have no elders, no magic, no wisdom readily available to open us up to a more robust and mysterious reality.
(Portals that do open us to these other worlds of archetypal consciousness, and other more subtle and higher realms of consciousness are holotropic breath work, plant medicine and psychedelics?the latter two, as I said are not readily available however?in a culture that actively holds its citizens captive in the trance of materialism by legalizing and collecting taxes on the sale of alcohol but stigmatizes and punishes those who want to awaken from the trance of addiction through ancient plant medicines and psychedelics.)
We are depressed and desperate, even if on the surface of things everything appears “normal”. That’s the problem, we’re living on the surface of a multi-layered reality, but we don’t know how to go below or rise above “ordinary” states of consciousness. We are yearning to be initiated into the deep wisdom that is our birth right. How much of our epidemic of depression has its source in our not knowing our soul, and having no wisdom teacher to help us remember?
I have decided to be a transpersonal psychotherapist for my remaining years because this vocation enables me a) doing my own soul work and b) learning more about these lost dimensions of human existence by creating space for others to do their work.
Evolution and the Soul
All this got me thinking about all the theories of evolution of consciousness and culture. Most of these theories arrogantly assume that the mental/rational structure so prevalent today is “higher” or more evolved than, say the tribal/magical structure. But when it comes to soul intelligence I’m coming to the conclusion that we’re actually far less intelligent than magic, mythic, or even traditional worldviews.
I wonder if, in the absence of elders and wisdom teachers who still have the “knowing”, human civilization has just fallen deeper and deeper asleep – culminating in the deep sleep of modernist rationalism and materialism. Just as my nephew follows the trajectory in his own life trajectory of coming in to this world remembering, and then as Wordsworth observed, forgetting, this is recapitulated at the collective level at the social and cultural level when it comes to the soul.
To use Jean Gebser’s model these emergent structures of consciousness are archaic, magic, mythic, mental/rational, and integral. By the time the mental/rational structure emerged, (first 2500 years ago in ancient Greece, and then 500 years ago in Europe) it was severed from the other structures, and therefore represents an intensification of forgetting?a massive, cultural ignorance about any reality other than the physical.
Think of these structures of consciousness as portals into reality. The “reality” that Malidoma Some knows is far more expansive than my reality?because the portal I’ve been initiated opens up into a very small section of the whole multi-layered enchilada. He sees more because he has access to the magic, mythic, and traditional portals that have been lost to us.
The mental/rational portal opens us, yes, to the micro and macro realm of the physical, which is wondrous and has blessed humanity is some ways. But when the physical realm monopolizes consciousness with the advent of philosophical materialism we are forced to live dissociated lives. This portal then represents an intensification of forgetfulness, wherein intellectual maps of reality reduce the vastness of the territory, wisdom is confused with information, knowing is reduced to what can be known through reason and scientific research, and all of reality is reduced to the physical. The portals to other dimensions has been sealed off almost completely.
Gebser (The Ever-Present Origin) himself appears at times to take the view that this unfolding of consciousness structures is a loss of “origin”, although there is a certain ambiguity in his writing. Most proponents of conscious evolution respect him, but ignore this aspect of what he is saying. They might allude to his work, but don’t know what to make of it, and indeed rarely linger on it. Yet it is without doubt the most scholarly and granular work ever done on the evolution of structures of consciousness. One thing is certain: he is dead set against any notion of modernist progress.
…under no circumstance is this form of development (unfolding of consciousness structures) to be considered “progress”. We must accept the term “progress” for what it is and not what it has become counter to its original sense. “Progress” is not a positive concept, even when mindlessly construed to be one; progress is also a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, from origin.
On the other hand, he does write that consciousness increases in “intensity” and “dimensionality” with each new structure of consciousness (p.41 Ever-Present Origin). But this again is followed by a statement that each new emergent structure is also an “impoverishment because of the increasing remoteness from origin”.
Progressive religion ironically is farther away from Source than more traditional expressions. I can only speak for Christianity, but in my experience, progressive Christianity has acquiesced more to rationalism and its narrow worldview than traditional expressions of Christianity. Pentecostalism, for example, is more open to magical structures of consciousness (speaking in tongues, healings, etc.), and mythic structures (in taking the narratives of scripture and the parables of Jesus seriously.)
The so-called “demythologizing” of the parables of Jesus follows the rationalist agenda of needing to be able to explain everything physically. Miracles, healings, exorcisms, the raising of the dead are all reduced by a rationalistic, materialistic worldview of modernism as primitive ways of understanding. We now know better. But do we know better?
Modernist secularism (beginning some 500 years ago), with its legitimate concern to liberate itself from the priests and the church, culminated in the deepest expression of spiritual amnesia, philosophical and scientific materialism.
Gebser claims that the structure of consciousness that is now emerging is “aperspectival” or integral. He doesn’t mean by this the absence of perspective, but the refusal to privilege a particular perspective as absolute. Reality, in its all its unfathomable depths, becomes “diaphanous” or transparent as each of the structures of consciousness are validated and enacted in us.
This means that a spiritual community would need to embrace the ways of knowing (portals to reality) in the archaic, the magical, the mythic, and the mental-rational. The integral philosophy of Ken Wilber employs the mantra of transcend and include, but I don’t see it happening in practice. This is because we have no easily accessible way of walking through the portals of the earlier structures of consciousness, even if we could validate these other aspects of consciousness. We end up making assumptions about them that are arrogant and false. An evolutionary ideology is assumed and then read back into history?the earlier the worldview the less evolved it is. Thus the self is considered to be undifferentiated in tribal cultures.
For example, it is often assumed that early tribal cultures were more undifferentiated from nature than we are. (We are actually dissociated, not differentiated.) The assumption is that tribal peoples lacked self-awareness which was subsumed within the tribal identity. But what do we make then of Malidoma Some’s elder who told him explicitly that every circle has a centre, and every centre has a circle. Never forget your centre, he warned him, or you will also lose the circle. Here is an elder of a tribal culture teaching the ancestral wisdom of how important it is to have a unique self! Or listen to the song that his father sang to him after going through a gruelling and treacherous initiation process.
So I went and knocked at doors
Locked in front of me. I craved to enter. Oh, little did I know the doors did not lead outside.
It was all in me.
I was the room and the door.
It was all in me.
I just had to remember.
And I learned that I lived always and everywhere.
I learned that I knew everything,
Only I had forgotten…
This an ancient tribal song that was handed down for generations in this tribal culture. It conveys a remarkable degree of self-awareness?for creating one’s own reality to begin with, which seems more like something from The Secret. “I was the room and the door. It was all in me. I just had to remember”. The song then shifts into what Hindu and Buddhist teachers would call non-duality?Atman (self) and Brahman (All) are one. “I learned that I lived always and everywhere.”
It is up to each one of us to find a way to awaken from the deep sleep of the materialistic worldview. We need to get people off of anti-depressants and lead them into portals that open to the much deeper and richer landscape of the soul.
A Sleep of Prisoners
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now.
The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
What are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity?s sake!
12 Comments on “Our Birth Is But a Sleep and a Forgetting”
Whoo! When you show up, you really show up, my friend!
This was a romp across the starry sky and down through the ages in an unexpectedly joyful (and, I felt playful) exploration of self that leaves me breathless!
I don’t know what you’re finding to smoke up there in Vancouver, but I appreciate that you did send some to me today.
I know I’ll want to re-read this over and over; and I remember why I have missed your comments from the past when you were still “one of us”!
But I really like this new you and soooo appreciate the gentle-but-definitive kick in the ass just administered.
And along the way you deeply validated my own journey into our new paradigm through attempts to understand and reach for authentic community that seems to lie so frequently just beyond my reach. Yet my grasp also seems to remember an illusive something I can’t quite recall with clarity, but that continually calls to me. So I continually wonder and wander among my brothers and sisters inquiring if they know what it is I seek.
And sometimes, some of them do.
Thank you for being one of them for today.
I celebrate who you are and are becoming.
You’ve made it plain again–if only for the moment–that I do seek the portals that open to the much deeper and richer landscape of the soul.
Come on down Darryl, you can smoke of little of it! Thanks for the great response. I feel your soul in it. I haven’t left. Just re-tooling or dying or something. Trusting. Good to hear from you.
This provides an interesting backdrop for reflection on Jesus’ instruction: Do this in remembrance of me. And the Jewish understanding of re-membering their mystical, magical liberation from Egypt.
As I have mentioned before, I am developing a small project called “Centre for Creative Living” using the arts as a contemplative practice that can nourish the soul. I find that the unchurched are being attracted to this activity and as they share their perspectives I am hearing them speak about insights and experiences that suggest a much broader consciousness of who they are and their interests –e.g. Shamanism, reincarnation, synchronicity, being a channel.
Sue, sounds like a fascinating project. I like your insight about remembrance. So much of tribal way of being is re-membering. I think Jesus had the heart, mind, and orientation of a shaman.
Good stuff bro! A little heady for me but fascinating – will be re-read. Went to a Kirtan the other night, using some ancient Sanscrit texts and some English ones. Was really an amazing experience – singing as divine practice, no other purpose (at that time, anyways). I’m very interested in the song that Some’s elder sang to him – does he remember how the song went? if not, it would be cool to come up with new music for it…
And you’d be the guy to write it, buddy! I think what you guys do is a contemporary version of shamanic chanting, at least potentially.
I love the post and look forward to reading the references. I agree with you that I don’t see Ken Wilbur’s “transcend and include” happening, either. Seems to me that if, in our transcendence, we really include our former ways of knowing, we would still be able to converse fruitfully with those whose knowing we think we have transcended.
Hey Bruce. Very interesting read. Indeed our “progression” is always away from something but it can also be towards or returning to something. So much of the journey is letting go of the layers of teaching in order to find the centre. Your nephew’s statement reminds me of the story of the 4 year asking to speak with the new born sister alone. His question to his sister was “remind me about heaven I am nearly to forgotten.” The traditional words and understandings of the cosmos aside this story shows within our worldview an understanding of the wisdom we bring into the world with us. My sister speaks of my own four year self’s wisdom when I said clearly that “God is in everything, even the sidewalk we are walking on.” Our way of being in the world can perhaps be called “The Great Forgetting.”
I like one quote from Richard Rohr when speaking of the state of our spiritual leaders: “Transformed people transform people” And suggesting that many of todays spiritual leaders have not experienced transformation in their own lives, and in fact are stuck in the modern materialistic non mythical world. How can we expect to lead others in spiritual journey if our leaders are stuck? Recently I have been acknowledging that I am a Mystic – although i always condition it with a confession that this on my best of days. Other days I am ego driven, insecure and self focused. I think claiming the transformation is the beginning to living it out.
A heart-felt thank-you. I have always felt that authentic Indigenous Peoples have so much to teach us European types. This is our way out of materialism. Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!