In my quest for Samsaric relief while stuck in Freeway traffic (see this post) I have dug into one of those boxes in the shed. The object of the search was some music cassettes I had recorded over 20 years ago. This involved the ancient arts of recording from a friend’s LP disc (precursor to copying files from CD to IPod) or hitting record at the right moments when the ‘Album Hour’ was playing on the radio (downloading from the Net).
In an effort to maximize resources, we would plonk unrelated songs at the end of an album to fill up space. And so it was I came across treasures like Aztec Camera’s liquid-light acoustic version of Van Halen’s “You Might As Well Jump”. And, sadly, “Love Me Slowly” by Dollar. Now the picture to the right will give you a perfect taste of the genre and feel of the song, which should cause anyone with any taste to immediately start gagging. I remember chasing it up because of its producer, Trevor Horn.
And just yesterday my mother (who has been ‘tidying’) presented me with a letter and newspaper piece I wrote when a naff Pagan teenager, in which I display ideas I’d forgotten about. This and my obvious once-upon-a-time liking of ‘music-to-make-you-vomit’ made me praise the Gods for blessings of change.
While it is obvious that ‘I’ did once like Dollar, and that ‘I’ did hold opinions I now cringe at (though ‘I’ have no memory of them) can those ‘I’s be considered ‘me’ now?
If yes, then what is the constant essence, the unchanging identity, which enables the 18 year old Pagan ‘I’ to be the same person as the 42 year old Buddhist ‘I’? And if we do not identify with that unchanging identity that connects the numerous ‘I’s along the way, can we be said to exist in any meaningful way at all?
If no, then why do we consider these two ‘I’s the same person (in this case me)? Is it just the convention of name? (bearing in mind that ‘I’ changed mine). Is the convention of having the same body/face? (and what part does plastic surgery and amputation play in this?). And if they are not the same ‘person’ then what marks the boundaries between one ‘person’ and another ‘person’? Do we become a new person every few years? After a radical change of opinion? After a major life event? After an initiation? After death? After sleep? After sex? (Of course we may become a different person during sex, but that’s another mystery) 🙂
The answers to these questions ultimately lead to enlightenment, so of course we are very keen on them. From an esoteric point of view we are constantly changing, constantly dying and being reborn: through physical death, every time we sleep, orgasm, meditate deeply and in smaller ways throughout the day:
“For the moment of death is every moment and at every moment we may rise in the Light as One, knowing ourselves for the first time.”
The western esoteric traditions, drawing from theistic antecedents postulate the existence of an unchanging Essential Self, unborn and hence undying around which both our lower and higher attributes of ‘self’ formulate, incarnation after incarnation. Many non-theistic traditions, like Mahayana Buddhism, argue there is no independent, self-existing essential self, and views all manifestations of the ‘self’, including serial incarnations, as dependant on causes and conditions alone.
The two, apparently divergent point of views can be graphically represented. In the western view the Soul or Essential Self is the thread of light connecting a string of pearls, each one of which is an incarnation. So at the centre of each incarnation is the Essential Self, eternal, unborn and dying, beyond stain, perfect and therefore unchanging. This centre gives rise to and is the focal point of the lower self life.
In the Buddhist view each incarnation can be considered a layer of lemons in a box. Each layer determines the subsequent layer (incarnation) by the way it is laid out (karma), but there is no essential Self within the lemon box, nor is there an exterior force that lays out the lemons. So while it is right to say every layer is the same person, the connecting factor is no where to be found, yet it is still there. Because without the lemons (person) in layer 1, layer 2 does not exist and so on.
It is important to understand two things about the Buddhist viewpoint. Firstly, the philosophy of no-self does say we do not exist, only that we do not exist as an independent entity which we may point to. We obviously exist, but only on in a conventional sense (like the convention of naming and physical form). Our existence on the conventional level is real, otherwise who is typing and who is reading? We exist though only through co-arising in interdependence with all and from causes and conditions such as Karma.
Secondly, our conventional selves are extremely important, a view that is different to some mistaken views of Buddhism which sees negation of the self as the goal. If there is no Higher or Essential Self to be found, then our conventional self is the only way of accessing and changing who we are.
The Traditionalist and esoteric viewpoint, as well as the exoteric pluralist viewpoint, is that there is only Truth and all authentic traditions simply point to that Truth. So the esoteric and Buddhist views must be pointing to the same mystery and can be reconciled. More and more I can see this is the case, and is one of the reasons why I get so excited when studying Vajrayana Tantra alongside the RR et AC tradition.
Many modern magicians and Pagans make some fundamental errors in reasoning and some wide assumptions when it comes to the concept of the self. I’ve mentioned some of these before (see this post) and examples like pointing to and naming the Higher Self or believing the Higher Self engages in psychic battles or finding parking spaces are others. Holding any belief in the ‘reality’ of concepts like these is ultimately producing more barriers to illumination.
The way through such barriers is mercifully given in the Golden Dawn tradition right at the start of the journey in the form of the Neophyte Meditation (this is the most potent and beautiful variant):
“God is the circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”.
This meditation is naturally replete in meaning and blessing and one of these relates to the concept of the self. We may relate the centre to Buddhist idea of the ever present conventional self, the magical ‘Lower Self’ – the ‘I’ that is always around even though one year it may be an 18 year old gay Marxist, and another year a 49 year old straight Liberal voter. This conventional self cannot exist alone – it is at the centre where everyone exists – and is interdependent with all – it is formulated by the environment around us and our responses to it. We cannot be a Marxist alone, a Liberal voter alone or human alone.
The circumference we can relate to the Buddhist concept of no-self, the magical Essential Self, and is empty of existence and reality, yet is still there. ‘I’, the lower conventional self, cannot experience this circumference; it is nowhere to be found. Yet it contains and gives rise to the conventional, lower self at the centre (no centre without a circumference). From a magical Qabalistic viewpoint, a personal level we can relate this to the Empty Room of Daath and on a transpersonal level to the Negatively Existing Ain. The process of ‘moving’, interrelating between centre and circumference can be related to the Higher Self or in Vajrayana to the Beatitude Body.
Once we grasp, even imperfectly the true nature of self, once we experience the true power of this meditation we are changed forever. And it is so freely available for anyone to do, right where you are sitting now. This is so wonderful and so beautiful it deserves to be celebrated over and over. Hence this post 🙂