In mystical practice we may tend to expect distraction from the contents of experience. This is an assumption I acquired from following the path of Buddhist vipassana.
In vipassana the focus is upon the nature rather than the contents of experience. Suppose I am looking at a green triangle. In concentration meditation, I concentrate upon the green triangle. In vipassana, I contemplate the perception of the green triangle. Eventually, I see that the perception of the green triangle is neither green nor triangular. The perception itself has different characteristics: it is dependent upon attention; it is intermittent, seeming to arise in bursts or pulses; it is neither ‘in me’ nor ‘out there’. The characteristics of sensory perceptions are therefore non-sensory. Nothing in the nature of perceptions is actually perceivable, but only in their contents.
As well as sensory perceptions, the contents of experience include stories we tell ourselves about what we perceive. ‘This is a green triangle’ is one such story, yet the perception of the green triangle itself nowhere includes this telling to ourselves of what we see. In vipassana they are simply recognised as stories, as just more contents of experience, rather than an indication of what that experience ‘is’. And then they are allowed to dissipate. In the process it often becomes apparent how unnecessary, neurotic or false those stories are.
Recently, I have been trying to learn counselling skills. Certainly, these skills can be helpful, yet my vipassana mindset baulks at them, because the tools of therapy consist mostly of re-arranging the contents of experience. For example, we might construct a story concerning why a certain feeling is felt; or we might start to identify as anger what was formerly experienced as depression.
Many people have odd notions about what ‘enlightenment’ means, but the liberation brought about through meditative practice is no defence against the contents of everyday experience, our personal psychological ‘stuff’, which continues to insist and to mean something. If it did stop, that would be terrible. Yet Buddhist discourse can sometimes foster an impression that the contents of experience are a cruel trick, to which the only sensible reaction is to try to escape. Certainly, I have struggled with moving into the areas of activity I am now moving into, because it seemed unbearable to embroil myself in other people’s psychological issues. ‘Content’ seems a distraction. I already have more than enough psychological stuff of my own, without trying to deal with other people’s. Yet when I run these ideas through the Neoplatonic framework that I favour these days, ‘content’ seems less like a cruel trick played by a hostile reality, and more like a direct embodiment of the providential nature of Soul.
Intellect and Soul
In the previous article, we encountered the ‘levels of being’ or hypostases, by which the Neoplatonic cosmos is structured. Intellect is that level at which the famous ‘Platonic Forms’ abide: those pesky things-in-themselves, which were denied existence by Aristotle, ruled unknowable by Kant, and psychologized to buggery by Jung.
The Intellect is the level at which things and appearances coincide, where understanding is not an issue because all Forms (participating at this level so strongly in the One) are already self-evidently comprehensible, now and unchanging for eternity.
The overflow of the perfection of Intellect produces the next level, which is Soul. Whereas the Intellect is unchanging, Soul differs from it precisely in being subject to time. Consider the contrast between knowing that 2 + 2 = 4 and knowing that you love your mother. Both might be true, but one of them will not be true always and forever. The first is a product of the human intellect; the second of the human soul.
Soul is the level at which ‘content’ manifests. A characteristic of content is its capacity to distract, and, to distract us, something has to suddenly appear (and hopefully disappear again). Feelings, for instance, are clearly comprehensible whilst they arise. We have no doubt that we are angry when we feel angry, ecstatic when we feel ecstatic. The problem with feelings is that they may not arise singly, but alongside other, contradictory, equally self-evident feelings. The reason they can pull off this duplicitous feat is that all feelings are ‘true’ yet also, to some degree, temporary.
How does eternal Intellect descend into time-bound Soul? How is the eternally self-evident transformed into an individual’s experience of what is temporarily the case? The answer to this question would be an answer also to the difference between awakening and preoccupation with ‘contents’. For Plotinus, however, this does not seem to have been much of a concern. He seems to have been more interested in the ascent of the Soul to the Intellect, and thence to The One itself, rather than with the metaphysics of the descent. He assures us:
[Y]ou will, by arousing the virtue that is in yourself and by remembering the perfection that you possess, regain your likeness and through virtue rise to The Intelligence and through wisdom to The One. Plotinus, Enneads VI (9: 11). (O’Brien 1964: 88.)
Yet, evidently, this purported experience of Intellect and The One is neither eternal nor even constant throughout our life. It is evident at certain times but not at others, which would seem to indicate that it is largely determined by the workings of Soul. It is the nature of Soul that must therefore be calling the shots in any purported experience of the hypostases above itself. All spiritual experience, because it is temporary, must be thoroughly permeated by Soul.
Proclus enters into minute detail in his attempt to nail the problem, which amounts to this: if Soul participates in Intellect, then in what sense is Soul separate from or independent of Intellect? To formulate an answer, in Proposition 64 of his Elements of Theology, he introduces the concept of ‘illuminations’ or ‘illuminated states’:
Every Archetypal Monad Gives Subsistence to a Two-fold Number; One indeed, Belonging to That Self-Perfecting Hypostases [sic], but the other, of Illuminations which Possess Their Hypostasis in Another. (Balboa, 2008: 76.)
According to this, the perfection of Intellect overspills into two kinds of manifestations of Soul: one that does indeed belong to itself, is intellectually self-aware and therefore self-complete; but also another that is an ‘illumination’ only from the Intellect, not actually belonging to Soul itself.
Human beings are embodied. Our experience is of the participation of a body not in Soul Itself, but in an individual instance of a soul. We are somewhat further down the chain from Soul as it has been described thus far, but hopefully it is possible now for us to grasp what – for Proclus – human experience fully entailed: the participation of a body in a self-complete soul.
Because it is self-aware, our individual soul evidently participates in the perfection of Soul. Yet our body is not itself self-aware; instead, bodily-awareness belongs to our soul (in the form of sensations and feelings). Nevertheless, human beings are the embodiment of a soul in body, so evidently there is some kind of a relationship between them. Proclus introduces an additional term to encompass this relationship: the irrational soul. This is not self-aware, but is the participation of body in soul in the manner of an illuminated state. The irrational soul achieves the linkage between a human body and soul, but not in a manner that renders our body self-aware in the same way as our soul is self-aware. The irrational soul is perhaps that which is described in psychological terms (i.e. ‘from the side of soul’) as the Freudian unconscious, and in biological terms (i.e. ‘from the side of body’) as instinct, subject to evolutionary (‘irrational’) imperatives.
Each hypostasis is characterised as a disunified multiplicity, in relation to the more unified and simple hypostasis on which depends, culminating ultimately in dependence upon The One, the most unified and simple of all. As Proclus points out (Proposition 111, Balboa 2008: 128), in this case there must be more souls than possess intellects, and more bodies than possess souls.
As we have suggested, humans are embodied, yet have self-complete souls, by means of the irrational soul that yokes together soul and body, whereby body is an illuminated state of soul (i.e. soul is aware of body, but body is not self-aware like soul). Animals, meanwhile, have no self-complete soul, but only an irrational soul: an awareness of body, but not an awareness of self. And thus, the level of body is less unified and more multifarious than the level of soul, in that there are more bodies than possess self-complete souls.
But before we start to feel too smug about being human, or too outraged by the description of animals as ‘lacking’ souls, we have still to consider from this perspective how humans stand in relation to Intellect, the level above Soul. For if we follow Proclus to his conclusion, we see that humans stand in relation to Intellect as animals stand in relation to Soul. In a radical departure from Plotinus, Proclus averred that human beings have no self-complete Intellect, only an image of such, which is merely an illuminated state of our soul, in the same way that the soul of an animal is only an illuminated state of its body.
Proclus describes the position of gods and daimons in contrast to the human relationship with Intellect. Daimons are to Intellect as humans to Soul, in that a daimon has a self-complete individual intellect, but only by virtue (presumably) of an ‘irrational intellect’, an illuminated state of soul, which forges the link from its soul to its intellect. Gods, meanwhile, have an individual intellect that does not descend to the level of Soul. (A daimon could perhaps be conceived as the temporary expression of an individual Form; a god, as its eternal, unchanging expression.)
As far as we are concerned, being human happens mostly at the level of our soul: this is as far as we can proceed with respect to experience that is self-complete. What we experience in life is self-evidently the case, when we experience it, but beyond our personal feelings, perceptions and thoughts, there is nothing we can know directly. We have to apply understanding. What we arrive at through understanding, thanks to this shoddy image of an intellect with which we are saddled, is knowledge only, not a direct experience. Knowledge is the image of experience.
Fortunately we have developed scientific method, a means of arriving at certain and reliable knowledge. It works, but is laborious and slow. Contrast this way of knowing with how directly we ‘know’ our own feelings and thoughts. From the Neoplatonic viewpoint, this is analogous to how the divine ‘thinks’. Indeed, it does not need to think; its knowledge is its experience.
‘Content’ appears a distraction, an interruption, but actually it is the only kind of thing we can know directly, know in a way analogous to what our experience would be if we had access to Intellect. This is why all forms of meditation involve awareness of our experience as it currently is, the setting aside of our habitual preoccupation with the images of our experience, the contents of our thoughts, the things we need to think about because (having only an image of an intellect) thinking is our only means of relating to what we cannot experience.
In our effort to transcend them, it is easy to lose sight of how the contents of experience are actually our perpetual springboard into transcendence. Content is constantly and specifically offered to us as a vivid picture of precisely what we lack: the means to know the divine as intimately as we know our own experience. What we lack at the level of Intellect is actually given in abundance at the level of Soul. Our soul is self-complete. All we have to do is to come to know our experience in the same way as our soul directly knows itself.
Simply and beautifully, the contents of experience nag at us in order to make us aware of them.
How can we have missed this, and how could we possibly fail?
Balboa, Juan F. (2008), trans. Proclus: The Elements of Theology. Available from lulu.com, ID 2321337.
Chlup, Radek (2012). Proclus: an Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press.
O’Brien, Elmer (1964), ed. and trans. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.