Cary Gardner – USA
A beautifully and carefully designed "spiritual".garden
It is astonishing what force, purity, and wisdom it requires for a human being to keep clear of falsehoods
Quote Margaret Fuller
If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put foundations under them
Quote Henry David Thoreau
Freeing the mind.
There is a wonderful scene in The Matrix film when Morpheus, a teacher of secrets, is taking Neo out for one of his first training programs after being painfully liberated from the illusion of the “Matrix”. They have entered the “Jump Program” and find themselves standing on top of a high-rise building. Morpheus turns to Neo and poses this challenge, “Free your mind”, and then proceeds to leap impossibly several hundred yards to the nearest building, suggesting that Neo follow behind. Neo’s response: “Whoa.”
Philosophy rightly understood is about freeing the mind. It is about the “clarification of ideas and the removal of muddles”. Before we can grasp how we can free the mind, it is imperative to first understand how the mind is manacled in the first place. We are, all too often, strangely unaware of what ideas are coloring our perceptions. Like a set of colored glasses, our perceptions are all tinged with blue or red or green, depending upon the lens. These ideas we hold to be true are often adopted without inspection or evaluation.
What religion we come from, what society has nurtured us, what core life assumptions came from our education, what values our family has imparted, all form a kind of lens through which we view the world, life, and ourselves. Our inability, and often unwillingness to break away from these established lenses, even momentarily for the sake of evaluation, form a kind of prison cell of perception. Like Neo in The Matrix, we have an unsettling feeling that there is a larger perspective, a broader view, a more comprehensive understanding that evades our current range of understanding.
These traps are easy to recognize in the political dialog of today. People gravitate to one camp or another and view all events, all debates, and all positions from the standpoint of whether or not it furthers the cause of their camp. To approach a social problem from outside of the camp, to look at it independently, is extremely difficult. Religious and cultural biases are equally easy to recognize in contemporary society.
Many ideas passed on to us through our culture simply live on in our minds unchallenged. For example, there was a time in Europe, not that very long ago, when the idea of the Earth being flat was a common belief. It went unquestioned for centuries. Similarly modern Western culture assumes we only live once. Few doubt it. For a great deal of recorded history slavery was deemed acceptable and many cultures considered women inferior. Some religions view dark skin as a disapproving sign of God. These assumptions go unchallenged by the passive mind.
Philosophy is intended to be an adventure of the mind — an invitation to step outside of the prison cell of our current state of consciousness and explore new fields, new dimensions, new perspectives. Those who remain inside the prison cell, no matter how large, are, in the words of Beckett in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “living and partly living”. Thoreau considered a life devoid of such exploration as a life of “quiet desperation”. And this epitomizes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s sentiment: “The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end.”
What is philosophy?
We know the word “philosophy” was coined by Pythagoras in pre-Socratic days in Greece — philo = “love” and sophia = “wisdom”. But the idea of philosophy is extremely ancient and has been referred to with other words and conceptions in various cultures throughout human history, which theosophically stretches back at least 18 million years. What all these ancient conceptions have in common is the notion that the human mind has immense hidden power and vast untapped potentiality.
According to ancient philosophers, this is due to the connection the human mind has to the Whole, Oversoul, or the Divine, however conceived. Modern philosophy in its normal academic setting has often crippled the notion of philosophy and relegated it to mere logic and semantics. In modern times it has lost the luster of its arcane roots. In ancient Greece, for example, man was the “microcosm of the macrocosm”. There is nothing in contemporary thought that approaches this Olympian vantage point and therefore the depth and breadth of the mind are significantly “cabined, cribbed, confined”, as Macbeth says in Shakespeare’s play.
Many philosophy courses in college or high school take a tour through a laundry list of significant thinkers, usually in the Western tradition. Descartes, Hegel, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Nietzsche, and sometimes ancients like Plato and Aristotle usually get touched upon in these classes, just to name a few. It is good training to try to understand these thinkers, but the main point is missed. As parents may ask their young adult children: “What are the enduring questions?” Why are they important to YOU?
Once you have raised the big questions — Who am I? What does it mean to be human? What is justice? What is real? What is my role in life? What is life for? What happens after death? and so on — it might then interest you to find out what other people think as well. But until these are burning questions for you, academic philosophy will remain nothing more than intellectual gymnastics and the point will be missed. Philosophy is not about a survey of what other people think; it is an investigation into what is true and important to us. In the end each one of us must make choices as to HOW we are going to live.
There are many fundamental differences between ancient philosophy and its modern shadow. Consider this: according to Buddhist thought the difference between an enlightened human being and a normal person is equivalent to the difference between a normal person and a black beetle. Plato speaks of an elaborate fifty-year educational process necessary in developing “philosopher kings” worthy of advising society from the standpoint of universal principles, seeing where justice lies and translating universal principles into contemporary policy.
What is overlooked and often misunderstood is that the very notion of wisdom in the ancient world (the Greeks, for example, and certainly in the minds of great souls like Plato, Plotinus, and Pythagoras) means far, far more than the quaint conventional idea of wisdom found in contemporary times. For us Westerners the word “wisdom” in common usage has to do with truisms and perhaps axioms that help us navigate through life more gracefully.
But for the ancients of Greece, Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and many indigenous peoples of the world like the Hopi and Navajo in North America or the Australian aboriginals, wisdom has a much more profound meaning. It represents the liberated mind, the enlightened mind, or direct spiritual perception, “the ability to see into the hidden source and pattern of things, to witness causal spiritual dimensions”. In other words, wisdom was measured in degrees of enlightenment.
Wisdom is not something we have; it is something we become. In most ancient cultures, and sorely missing in our modern one, people revered wise men, sages, and seers because they understood how life works and what life is about in significantly more profound ways. The wise know that every little thing is more important than we think it is, and simultaneously know that nothing is as important as we think it is.
Another limiting factor that ancient philosophers like the Buddha, Krishna, or Lao Tzu addressed is the illusion that what is real is what can be experienced through the five senses. All that seems real to us is what we can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste. But we know the senses are severely limited in their perceptive powers. We know that the human eye can only recognize a very small band of the electromagnetic scale. An eagle can see distances more acutely than the human eye. A dog’s sense of smell is much stronger than ours. And with instruments like a telescope or a microscope we can extend the range of human sight. So it is clear that the five senses have their perceptive limits. Hence the perceptive range of the senses also creates a prison cell of awareness in its own right.
According to the ancients, the mind works like a laser when focused in particular ways, enabling broad-ranging perceptive power. But for most people the mind is like a monkey jumping from branch to branch, attraction to attraction, desire to desire, and rarely stays focused for any length of time. If a person took the trouble to simply observe the activity of their mind for just five minutes one would discover how inconstant the mind is and how it resists focus. This is precisely why calming the mind and bringing it into focus is a prerequisite of philosophy and contemplation in the ancient traditions. Practices to remedy this condition can be found in Platonic thought, Vedic teachings, Patanjali’s sutras and Buddhist philosophy, for example. They can be found in the mystical traditions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well
In other words, philosophy is important because it has to do with seeing things as they are and not as we want them to be, or as they appear to our limited senses or the range of our social concerns or our personality or prejudices The goal of true philosophy is to perceive the Truth. It is to gain a universal perspective and to become liberated from private, personal, partial, and parochial ones. (It is best to assume that almost all of us labor under these limitations in differing degrees all the way along the path until some level of transcendent enlightenment is achieved. And even with enlightenment, like a black belt in karate, there are additional levels of refinement available, we are told by Great Teachers.)
The aim of philosophy is to grasp the whole and to transcend the parts, no small task. The ideal of the Renaissance Man is to see universal patterns in all fields. The heart of the philosopher is to discover sympathies with all of his fellow men.
What is a universal perspective?
There is a wonderful Indian story that sheds light on this idea. There was a group of blind men who approached a large sleeping elephant outside the village they inhabited. They bumped into the elephant all at once and together asked, “What is it?” One of the blind men grabbed the elephant’s tail and exclaimed, “It is a rope!” The second blind man could feel the elephant’s leg and proclaimed, “It is a tree trunk.” A third blind man was touching the elephant’s trunk and mistook it for a snake. Yet another thought it a wall, for he had run into the massive flank of the elephant. The last blind man touched the elephant’s ear and thought it was a large fan. Down the road came a man with unimpaired vision and told them that each one of them was partially right but what they encountered was actually an elephant. A universal perspective is the ability to look at something from all angles and points of view, thereby determining the truth of the matter. To look at things from multiple perspectives is one of the disciplines of philosophy. It requires flexibility of mind, agility of perspective, tireless mobility of thought.
Philosophy is important because it begs the big questions. Why was I born, what happens after I die? Why am I in the conditions and circumstances I find myself in? What am I supposed to do (duty)? What is truly valuable? What is real and what is illusory? And last but not least WHO AM I?
Philosophy invites us to do and develop that aspect of the human constitution that is one of the most essential: thinking. The word “man” itself comes from the Sanskrit manas, meaning mind. Human beings are mental beings, and in the broadest sense mind includes “heart”. Philosophy is love of wisdom, which by definition unites the heart and mind. Without love there is no motor power, no energy or will to move, therefore mind without heart becomes proud, heart without intelligence can be misdirected.
The philosophical process at its most rudimentary level involves the art of asking good questions. At its highest level it is what Plato called “dianoia”, or thinking things through to their logical conclusions. It is seeing things clearly without tinted glasses — looking at things both from the highest and lowest, from the universal to the particulars, from the theoretical to the practical. This movement back and forth is known as the “dialectic”, and for the ancient philosopher it was an art form and a master craft. The dialectic is founded on a simple assumption, “as above, so below”. The above is universal and abstract, what is below is particular and concrete. For the ancient philosopher the most useful tool was the power of analogy and correspondence.
Plato is often considered one of the West’s most profound philosophers. He used the character of Socrates in his Dialogues to describe the problem of double ignorance. When some young students went to the Oracle of Delphi near Athens and inquired who the wisest man in Athens was, the Oracle replied unhesitatingly, “Socrates”. When this was reported to Socrates himself he was puzzled because his life-long effort to “think things through” brought him to a place where he had sorted out endless misconceptions and partial understandings that were blocking the truth and came to the conclusion that on all the most pertinent philosophical questions of the day he really did not have any final answers.
So as the story goes, Socrates set out to discover why the Oracle would proclaim him this honored position in Athens, when he was certain about nothing. Socrates proceeded to engage the most “knowledgeable” men of his society on subjects like the immortality of the soul, justice, beauty, and love. What he discovered and proved through questions and answers was that these Sophists (the college professors of Greek times) really did not know what they were talking about. These courtyard debates provided hilarity and amusement to the youth of Athens who enjoyed witnessing the pretentious and the proud brought down a few notches in the public square. These Sophists were doubly ignorant, mired in the thoughts of others, parroting their observations and without a single original thought of their own. They thought they knew the answers to big questions when in fact they were unaware of their ignorance. To quote the Tao Te Ching: “False learning is pursued through daily addition; Tao is practiced through daily subtraction.”
Not surprisingly, since they were enamored of their half-baked “knowledge”, they had stopped searching for the truth, unlike Socrates, who saw the search for truth as an endless quest. So even though he felt he knew nothing for sure, he was the wisest man in Athens because he was not mired in double ignorance. He was aware that the acquisition of wisdom was a never-ending process.
Socrates found that to get closer to the truth he must first clear away the rubble of falsely held ideas before he could reveal the truth. This process was called “un-learning”. If you have a hitch in your golf stroke, for example, you must unlearn the habit to establish a new and more reliable swing. If you believe you have reached the truth there is no incentive to march ahead. Philosophy is about the adventure and discovery and not about final destinations. This process is short-circuited by any adherence to blind belief.
Philosophy is important because ultimately it is all about the search for truth. The search for truth requires objectivity, the ability to look at things from outside our current circumstances and customary outlook. But it also requires imagination, the ability to draw a clear picture in the mind like a good playwright or songwriter. Einstein said the most powerful tool at the disposal of the scientist is imagination. This is equally true of philosophy. How can we examine a proposition if we cannot imagine, at least for a moment, that it is true? We have to imagine the implications of an idea, imagine the logical outcome of an idea, imagine how an idea would play out like a good playwright. This forms the basis of becoming adept at the art of making good choices in the course of a lifetime.
One simple form this takes is the ability to see things through the eyes of others. When we go to the movies and identify with a given character in a story we are using our imagination to see life as they see it. Philosophers train themselves to see any question or issue from multiple points of view and to draw a conclusion only after a thorough examination. Knowledge and wisdom do not come cheaply. It requires tenacity combined with a strong, vigorous effort. Wisdom cannot be had by the weak-willed, closed-minded, or hard-hearted.
Philosophy has played a role in all of the major religious systems of the world at one point or another and it lies at the heart of the scientific method. Freedom of thought and the quest for truth lie at the very heart of the human experience. Philosophy is a quest to become an individual who chooses wisely the ideas to live their lives by. Philosophy is an attempt to wrestle free from the patterns of ingrained habits and cultural conventionality and regain the noble position of captain of one’s fate, or as the poem “Invictus” says, “the Captain of my Soul”.
To free the mind requires a correlative level of commitment and focus as found in great musicians or athletes. If the mind needs to be trained, who is the trainer and what the trainee? So yet again we come back to the central question of philosophy: “Who am I?” And what could be more important than to better understand this central conundrum? “Neo, free your mind.” ²
A. Primary Skills of the Philosophical Mind:
- The art of asking good questions. Questions that reveal what is missing and point towards additional light. A good question should lead to additional and more fundamental questions.
- The art of introspection: The ability to discover one’s own assumptions and preconceptions. This leads to impartiality and impersonality, essential qualities to discover the truth of any proposition.
- The ability to look at an idea from multiple points of view. (It is a very good exercise to argue a position that one does not in fact hold to. This plays a big role in the training of Tibetan Buddhist monks, for example.)
- The ability to trace a problem to the core questions, and to see what is essential.
- The courage and capacity to honestly enjoy saying, “I don’t know”. This requires us to clear away the clutter of what we think we know and what is blocking real knowledge.
B. First Principles
"Every man should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration of his first principles; are they or are they not rightly laid down? And when he has sifted them, all the rest will follow.” Plato’s Cratylus
C, The Importance of Plato:
Alfred North Whitehead was a widely influential twentieth-century philosopher and mathematician. He is responsible for coining the following celebrated quote about Plato’s enduring influence: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Process and Reality, Free Press, 1979, p. 39) Apology is Plato’s great dialog, capturing the spirit of philosophy. It is short and sweet and poignant because it has to do with Socrates’ life-and-death situation.
D, Top Ten Philosophical Questions:
- Who am I?
- What is the nature of Truth?
- What is Reality?
- What, Where, Who is God?
- How should I live?
- What is the significance of death?
- What is the scope of human nature?
- What is Justice?
- What is Nature?
- Is there Evolution, and how does it work?
E, Eight Philosphical Propositions
♦ You cannot know the truth until you establish objectivity and exercise subjectivity.
♦ The imagination is the creative tool of the mind in the furtherance of an ideal.
♦ You cannot claim to have lived a full life unless you have grappled with life’s big questions.
♦ Ideas rule the world; examine them well.
♦ You cannot understand the manifest without understanding the unmanifest, matter without mind, or the particular without the universal.
♦ “I don’t know” marks the beginning of the philosophical quest. To arrive at this point one must see through all that one previously believes to be true.
♦ Behind any mental picture of what is real or true is a larger one, a grander one, a more universal one, and another one and another one without end.
♦ The ultimate philosophical question is “Who am I?”
F, Important Philosophical Resources:
Eastern religions are in general really more about philosophy than a set of belief systems, as seen in the Western monotheistic religions.
Tao Te Ching: Book of ancient Chinese philosophy, paradoxical and challenging to conventional notions.
Dhammapada: Core teachings in Buddhism. The Twin Verses are really good.
The Bhagavadgitâ: Contains the core philosophical notions of India (detachment, self-realization, renunciation of the fruit of action, and so on.)
The Gospel According to Thomas: (Core philosophical teachings of Jesus before being altered by the Church; they were uncovered from the Nag Hammadi Index). This will also protect against the charge of fundamentalists and dogmatists that Christianity is being ignored. (See the Council of Constantinople.)
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Oversoul”, “The American Scholar” and “Self-Reliance” are all about philosophy in the best sense. He is America’s preeminent philosopher.
“Sophie’s World” by Jostein Gaarder — a Norwegian novelist — Good for young adults
This article was also published in The Theosophist VOL. 142 NO. 10 JULY 2021
The Theosophist is the official organ of the International President, founded by H. P. Blavatsky on 1 Oct. 1879.
To read the JULY, 2021 issue click HERE