Like any worldview, the concept of "spiritual evolution," has its origins. The subject is somewhat tangled in ancient mythology, modern mystics and intellectual map makers. So, let's begin at the beginning and try to tease out some of the common threads.
As mentioned in the previous article, "spiritual evolution" Is a popular phrase by a number of organizations and small-movements that wish to have a more engaging practice that is both personally and collectively transformational. It also is, however, a way of seeing the world. Like any culture or perspective, we weave the past, present and future according to a narrative. Facts alone do not make a story, but it is in the telling of the story that our perspective is revealed.
History isn't just a line of objective "facts," littering the past to the present. When we imagine history, we are playing an active role in creating, and recreating it. A quick comparison of a creationist and an evolutionary biologist is the most explicit example of this, but even within science itself there is a constant shifting of paradigms that re-arrange the facts into new models of reality. Particularly concerning human origins and the nature of evolution itself (cooperation vs. competition).
Any form of story-telling, whether it is sacred or profane, invokes the imagination. We can't help but do that. It is literally a part of who we are. If we look closely at our story telling, there are particular themes, patterns, motifs and archetypal structures that are common in both science and fairy tales. This is often called "mythopoeic" or "mythopoetic" thinking, where the imagination naturally and often unconsciously utilizes archetypal and mythical motifs. By myth and archetype, I am referring to their common usage according to Carl Jung, William Irwin Thompson and Joseph Campbell.
While our use of myth is explicit and profane (in the sense of describing the physical, tangible world), ancient societies used myth primarily to describe the mystery beyond form. Often, many creation myths were about the fall into time and space from a place which is infinite and eternal. For esoteric schools, mythology was a way to understand what was beyond the veil.
It was a way to get in touch with the Infinite, the Eternal, the Unknown. Myth and archetypal patterns were woven into the physical world; myth itself being a boat to cross the sea of unknowing. Rather than being something people merely "believed in" as a fact (which is a modern bias... See Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God), it was an activity, a verb rather than a noun.
Enacting in ritual was taking part in the mystery of reality. The ancients, in other words, had a great focus (whether or not it was consciously known) on utilizing the imagination to understand reality. Given, the common population of a society did not have an esoteric understanding like the priestly classes did, they knew to participate in a ritual act was sacred.
Surprisingly, many sacred symbols are perennial, in that they can be observed in many different ancient societies that had no contact with each other. This is partially what it means to be an archetype. Let's take a look at one example:
In the use of sacred symbols, the tree often represents the body of spiritual transformation. Traditional esoteric practice saw the world "out there," as representative of the world "in here." So the microcosm was a reflection of the macrocosm, and vice versa. This is important to keep in mind if we wish to understand a more inter-related view of consciousness with its environment.
The tree is one of the most important symbols, because it is a reflection of human physiology and spiritual illumination. The root of the tree is our base chakra, the trunk our spinal column and the domed branches the brain. The serpent itself represent the latent spiritual energy within us all, which can be activated through spiritual practice.
At the trunk of the tree is the serpent which rises, representing the practice of kundalini yoga. When the serpent rises up the spinal column (through the various chakras and stages) and into the dome of the tree, it becomes the bird (or the phoenix, in another sacred symbol).
Sacred architecture attempts to reflect this through great domed buildings, often with a tiny hole or circle in the center of the dome. This represents the ability to access higher planes of reality and illumination. In the brain, the sacred physiology is the pineal gland, often considered the seat of the soul.
The underlying theme present in these images is the idea that the the tree, the temple, and the humany body are sacred symbols themselves. Evolution is in its own way a sacred temple. Our bodies are living temples and the story of life is the gradualy construction and embodiment of the divine-in-form.
In the image of the Bird-Tree-Snake, the Bird shares a similar meaning to the circle at the top of the temple and the pineal gland. Quetzalcoatl is a prime example of this shared symbolism:
Quetzalcoatl is the serpent that turns into a bird... is said to make its nest only on the top of trees in the full light of the sun. The serpent that has turned into a bird thus has to make its way up the trunk of the tree to move out of the dark and into the light. -Thompson, Blue Jade from the Morning Star.
The meso-american cultures share another similar theme. Quetzalcoatl is a celibate priest who is lured into having intercourse with his older sister, Quetzalpetlatl. This fall from the sacred into the profane is,
"a reflection of the fall of the evening star under the earth where it remains until it emerges from its journey purified as the morning star... an echo of the fall of the eternal and unlimited spirit into a mortal and animal body." (W.I.T. Blude Jade from the Morning Star)
The theme of the fall is another perennial story. It takes us outside of time and space as we know it, and it is for this reason that myth and the imagination help us contact real mystery. It's difficult to imagine a "eternal and unlimited spirit," and so we tell stories and use symbols. Many esoteric mystery schools believed that the symbol was an expression of the inexpressible. God was beyond knowing. The way to actually know God was to become initiated into the priestly class and access these realities through first-hand experience. Nothing short of personal illumination.
If we are going to talk about spiritual evolution, then we can say the ancients wanted a "way back" to reclaim the birthright of the soul. To remember the eternal part of ourselves. Our emphasis, perhaps out of our focus on the physical, secular world, is a way to use that spiritual gnosis to engage this world, not escape from it.
The ancient mystics left behind in great detail the path of initiation, as well as descriptions of what "the beyond," was actually like. They had in some form a "contemplative science," where avid practitioners could, like the shaman, enter these higher realities and navigate them. In their descriptions, we have somewhat of a perennial account of the "Great Chain of Being."
If we go into that a little bit we can begin to understand their view of the cosmos, and the role that matter and form had to play.
The story of the fall itself can be considered "involution," the fall of the eternal into the partial and limited. In each of these accounts, the Eternal begins to fragment itself as it descends layer by layer until we reach the most "limited" and fragmented world of time and space. God, the Infinite, or Brahman dreams the heavenly spheres and the world into existence. In many mystical traditions, this greater Mind or Consciousness forgets itself in all forms, so that it may eventually remember itself. So there is an eternal cycle being described here, the in breath and out breath, the dreaming and waking up.
If the Fall is likened to a falling asleep, then the path of "evolution" is the awakening. We can understand involution and evolution this way. It is a matter of descent and ascent.
The story the mystics tell us is that everyone is already God, it is latent within them. The Great Consciousness that dreamed up reality is none other than our true nature! This is the play of form. Our ability to invoke these narratives in our cultural stories is because a part of our Mind is the greater Mind. Surely and slowly, it re-arranges itself and remembers Who it really is. But there is a catch to this, in that it is not merely about waking up and ending the dream.
Hermeticism, and subsequently alchemy tell us of "The Great Work." You may have heard of the alchemists attempt to turn lead into gold, but this had a deeply spiritual meaning that went beyond a lust for wealth and power. It was symbolic of the transformation of the profane into the sacred. A marriage of the infinite and the finite, particularly mastered through the human body.
There is an Eastern cultural equivalent of the lotus emerging from the mud.
Transmuting lead into gold, mud into lotus, snake to bird, all have an important emphasis on a metamorphosis of human form. However, to put things in perspective, I believe we can begin to introduce a few cosmic themes that have not only human transformation, but the whole physical reality in mind.
The mystic Rumi wrote a poem that detailed passing of consciousness from rock, to vegetation, to animal life, to human and finally to angel, in its journey back to self-remembrance. I believe this is telling, because it includes the whole of physical reality as one movement in the eternal return (term often used by Eliade to describe a cyclical return to the sacred):
I died as a mineral and became a plant
I died as a plant and rose to animal
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel-soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
Oh, let me not exist! For non-existence
Proclaims in organ tones, To Him we shall return.
There is a Hindu cosmology that describes 4 major yugas, or seasons. The descent and the ascent back to cosmic consciousness or the Eternal. One half describes a the fall (a gradual forgetting) and the other half the ascent (a gradual remembering). According to their time line, we are currently at 6 o'clock, the very epitome of forgetfulness. We are also right at the beginning of Dwapara Yuga, when things start to pick up, so there is slightly more positive than negative momentum.
Mirror for the Divine
Keeping this positive movement in mind, we can take a look at the old Hermetic addage, "As above, so below."
As the physical arrangements of matter begin to organize themselves in more complex ways (matter, life, mind, etc), Spirit can begin to embody form in greater degrees. Many ancient mythologies describe the descent into matter (Gilgamesh cutting down a tree so it may become a bedding for divine incarnation), but the tree had to grow in the first place. Without a few billion years of evolution, there would be nobody to experience spiritual transformation. So there is an importance, if only implied, of the process that time and space play out. This is evolution.
They say the pineal gland is the seat of the soul, but the seat had to first be grown. The ancient societies implicitly included evolutionary themes in their narratives and symbolism, for sure, but excluded knowledge about the nature of the profane, the time-bound and its evolutionary processes.
For many modern mystics describing spiritual evolution, this is exactly why our modern scientific understanding is important. For those inclinded to interpret it this way, the evolution of matter is another way of describing Rumi's ascent to God.
The myth of Isis and Osiris is, for the most part, a description of the fall into time. Osiris is cut up into many pieces and tossed around the world, where he slowly tries to piece himself together with the help of his lover, Isis.
He is not able to and thus inhabits an in-between state, often associated with the astral-realms. This "sea" as often described is placed in one of the many emanations between God and the physical world. You could consider the nest of realities to be a layered cake: the profane, the intermediary, and the source, with many dimensions in between.
Osiris's failure to fully incarnate in the physical world represents the work-in-progress. Spirit has yet to fully incarnate. With the story of Jesus, we have a different, more triumphent view. Jesus, like Osiris, descends into the underworld. Unlike Osiris, he returns, fully divine and fully human.
The mystic Teilhard de Chardin believed, as many others do, that Jesus is an archetypal symbol of the marriage between the sacred and profane. We are each called to realize our divine potential. Not only to reconnect with these "truer" realities, but to allow them to inhabit and embody this world.
It is this true challenge, not only of Rememberance or Awakening, but dreaming awake.
The analogy of the lucid dream is particularly important here. Dream yoga is the practice of becoming lucid during our dream state, to perceive the world as a dream and we (not the ego, but our true Self) the dreamer.
The marriage of both dreaming and wakefulness may seem paradoxical, but for those who have experienced it in their sleep, it is vivid and playful. Developing a wakefulness even while dreaming is another way of expressing the Hermetic Great Work. This is the challenge, and the importance of the world of form. While physical reality is the most partial, it also is the most challenging for Spirit, or God to awaken to himself into.
Teilhard saw the universe itself as a "the body of Christ." If we are to take this image and really explore its implications, it asks for nothing short of "sublimating the world."
So as the physical world begins to reflect the infinite, it allows for the infinite to manifest (For more on this specifically, check out Rivers to the Sea, an article wrote for Single Eye Movement). This can be seen as an evolutionary way of understanding, "as above, so below." It is literally like a mirror, or a vessel which prepares to embody a more total consciousness.
The world of form is the story of God told in time. As there are infinite varities and dimensions, so there is an infinite way things can play out. Not to mention, if we take the human body as a sacred symbol for this act, in order to exist we need a body, a mind, a heart and soul.
For Teilhard, the emergence of mind in evolution was no mistake.
He posited that there was a geosphere, a biosphere, and a noosphere, literally something like a thinking layer to the Earth. This would manifest first in the microcosm of human beings, but eventually become an emergent layer itself. With the growing infrastructure of global communication and the internet, there is something like a noosphere emerging on the Earth.This noosphere would enable a greater consciousness to emerge and inhabit the world. Translated this into what we might understand more concretely, our modern global civilization offers something to the Earth that never existed. We offer Mind as a dimension to life.
If we remember from earlier that the esoteric schools provided us with a detailed account of the higher realms, we can make sense of what's going on today.
The "astral" or "bardo" realms are described as a dream-like dimension where thoughts, feelings and intentions instantly manifest. This is one of the closest "realms" to us and is likened to the worlds we play in during our dreams. Like all realms, particular spiritual beings inhabit them. In this one, there are helpers and tricksters that can guide us or confuse us. We can become lost in our own unconscious shadows and not make it through (Just imagine Osiris trapped in the underworld).
The information age has done a peculiar thing, in that an idea can very quickly become a reality. Internet transparency allows for an immediate release of things we'd rather keep hidden, whether it's political or personal. What we put out is what we get back. This may have always been true, but as history begins to speed up, time intensifies and we get a situation of something like "instant karma."
A Collective Spiritual Initiation
Now an ancient practitioner might look at the world today and tell us that, "the veil is being lifted." This potentially tricky realm is descending as our technology and communication quickens as it encapsulates the globe. In popular culture, the idea of holographic realities, the Matrix, etc. are all popular themes. Like any realm, however, the mystics know one can get through them, but they must be strong.
It requires not a clever intellect nor brute force, but true maturity and development. If you exist in a realm where your thoughts and feelings instantly come back to you, you're going to want to be positive, constructive. Reality can as easily become hell as it can become heaven. For the initiate, this is where they must discover their hidden potential and transcend the "realms of power."
On the physical level, our actions have never been more immediately consequential. Global climate change, ecological disasters and warfare impact everything we do. We are being forced, quite literally, to change the way we think, because our attitude and behavior towards the world and each other are more self-descructive than ever before.
Our level of consciousness has now become the biggest obstruction to the continuity of human existence. We have made normalcy nonviable, so we have opted fo ran "up or out" scenario in cultural evolution. We either shift upward to a new culture of a higher spirituality to turn our electronic technologies into cathedrals of light, or we slide downwards into entropy in a war against all. -W.I.T. Coming into Being
As we ascend to higher levels of complexity, it requires us to step up to higher degrees of maturity. We must begin to work together, from a greater and higher place of spiritual wholeness. It is this exact theme that Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo and many other modern writers speak of when they talk about spiritual evolution. It is an opening up, a coming of age for humanity in a time where it has never been needed to this degree.
In the past, esoteric schools could remain obscure or reserved for the priestly classes. This is no longer possible. In our modern age, a whole new way of perceiving the world and ourselves must be transmuted. We must somehow make our mode of being sacred, in order to reconnect with the world and give birth to a new kind of human being in a planetary age.
It is indeed part of some great cosmic cycle or season, of ascent and descent. This is the play of form, but it is also a challenge. We are being challenged today to withstand the flames of our own shortcomings in order to be born anew, like the phoenix rising from the ashes, or the serpent that rises to grow wings and reach the sun. As civilization seems to be bursting at the seams, tumbling into chaos, we are being invited through the darkness into a new dawn.
We are living a kind of collective mythos, whereby we, like Orisis, are trying to become whole again. This collective spiritual initiation of humankind includes:
- The Illumination of the shadow side
- Discovery of the edge of sanity
- Defeat of the ego
The oil spill is certainly a case of illumination, as the shadow side of our industrial civilization can no longer be hidden. We must find a way to see how what is going on without is a symptom of what is going on within us, so that the sacred self (or fragmented) is reflective of what's happening in the world. Detaching the spiritual from the profane will no longer work. Simple intellect is not going to help us solve the problem, it requires something more within us to begin to live from a place of connection, not abstraction, with the world. This will be explored in later articles, but suffice to say we are certainly being asked to transform our consciousness, to act and be from a place of love and greater consciousness in order to handle the challenges at hand.
Can we, or dare we transmute our consciousness from mud to lotus, lead to gold?
Links of interest:
- Single Eye Movement, see this site for more on sacred symbols and esoteric practices.
- William Irwin Thompson
- On Rivers to the Sea; or the Cosmic Pull: an article I wrote concerning involution and evolution in more detail.