Review Article

Light from the Mystic West

By Sarah Belle Dougherty

When the unrelenting rationalism and materialism of modern culture leaves us inwardly empty, where can we turn? In Reality (published by The Golden Sufi Center, Inverness, CA, 2003; ISBN 1890350095, 591 pages, paperback, $19.95) Peter Kingsley points to the timeless mystical tradition which lies ignored at the root of Western civilization. This audaciously-titled book is about philosophy as a way of living and experiencing reality that allows us to reclaim our immortality. Such an approach is far removed from the intellectual word play and analysis of arguments that characterize philosophy as a discipline today. Focusing on the few surviving writings of Parmenides and Empedocles, Greek teachers of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, Dr. Kingsley carefully considers their words and gradually draws us into the atmosphere and context of their teachings, making immediate their insights by appealing to our intuition.

The first half of the book centers on Parmenides, born in 515 BC in Southern Italy, and often called the father of rationalism and the founder of Western logic. Of course it is all too easy to view ancient thinkers condescendingly as mere stepping-stones to the present, "as strangely primitive intellectuals; as fascinating infants in the grand unfolding of western ideas, mere children in the evolutionary scheme." However, as the author assures us, "they are not the children" (p. 253). Far from being a mere proto-scientist or intellectual speculator,

Parmenides was a priest of Apollo and, in accordance with that god's gifts, a prophet, healer, poet, lawgiver, and initiate. We now consider Apollo as the god of light, reason, healing, and clarity, but anciently he was darker and more complex, god also of the Midnight Sun in the underworld well-known for his ambiguous prophecies.


At the heart of Parmenides' teachings is the need to enter another state of awareness if we are to reclaim our immortality. His poem opens by describing his mystical journey:

The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
road of the divinity that carries the man who knows
through the vast and dark unknown. And on I was carried
as the mares, aware just where to go, kept carrying me
straining at the chariot; and young women led the way. . . .
daughters of the Sun who had left the Mansions of Night
for the light and pushed back the veils from their faces
with their hands.

In the underworld he meets the goddess of death, who tells him to listen to her words and then return with her message to the world of men. She outlines three paths: first the one "that is, and is not possible not to be," the path of being. The second path "is not, and is necessary not to be," and "there is no travelling that path" of non-being:

This is the first road of inquiry that I hold you back from.
But then I hold you back as well from the one that
mortals fabricate, twin-heads, knowing nothing.
For helplessness in their chests is what steers their
wandering minds as they are carried along in a daze,
deaf and blind at the same time: indistinguishable,
undistinguishing crowds who reckon that being and
non-being are the same but not the same. And, for
all of them, the route they follow is a path that keeps turning
backwards on itself.
From this path of inquiry hold your mind away.
And don't let much-experienced habit force you to
guide your sightless eye and echoing ear and
tongue along this way . . .

The Goddess describes human beings as existing at a fork in the road, unable to go forward or backward, confused, ignorant, trapped by unconscious mental habits and their unperceptive senses. The path of what is, however, is the only valid path: birthless and deathless, undivided and unmoving, motionless and complete. This reality is no philosophical proposition or rationalistic entity, but the One, Tat, the Rootless Root, the All -- beyond limitation and rationalization. Not separate from anything, it is all that is, and the Goddess ends by saying that

Its name shall be everything --
every single name that mortals have invented
convinced they all are true: birth and death,
existence, non-existence, change of place, alteration of bright color.

To travel the path of being, we must first realize that our present knowledge and ways of thinking are inadequate -- that we don't know. (Dr. Kingsley brings out very intriguing parallels between Socrates (c. 470-399 BC) and Parmenides, who both acted on divine instructions to expose the confusion and contradictions in their contemporaries' thoughts and beliefs -- not a pastime ensuring popularity!) Our thoughts about reality are deceptive and illusory, not because reality lies elsewhere but because we fail to perceive it all around us.

The great problem with the approach of intellectuals to Parmenides has always been their belief that in describing reality as motionless and unchanging and whole and one, he was talking about some different world from the one we live in; about some other reality, some separate existence.
But for him there is no other reality, never could be. That reality is this. -- p. 293

For Parmenides "the illusion is everywhere: inside as well as outside. And yet the one thing that matters is to travel all the way through it until, regardless of the cost, we reach its source" (p. 276), the stillness and wholeness underlying all, where "we already are and always have been" (p. 284). Dr. Kingsley describes how Plato and then Aristotle took the teachings of Parmenides and turned them from divine instructions into rational arguments. In doing this, Plato

had given people something wonderful to play with. And soon it was obvious to almost anyone that the way to get to the truth in those ideas was not through entering some other state of consciousness but through thinking. As one historian has described his achievement, in terms that are accurate enough, Plato was the man who "by a truly creative act transposed these ideas definitively from the plane of revelation to the plane of rational argument." -- pp. 305-6

Dr. Kingsley maintains that this dominant rationalistic trend has played its part so that now

It's no longer enough to read what Plato or others say and be inspired, intellectually stimulated, emotionally touched, stirred by a longing for reality. The time for all that searching and struggling is past, finished. The reality is here, in the middle of the illusion; has been all along, longing to be recognized. Now we need to become that reality, take responsibility for it, make it real again. -- p. 306

The second half of Reality turns to Empedocles (492-c. 424 BC), another in the line of Southern Italian teachers. He was a poet, lawgiver, healer, sorcerer, initiate, and prophet whom we classify as a philosopher and one of the founders of Western science. In his esoteric cosmology Love and Strife act on the four elements and on the immortal souls to produce alternating cycles, first of imbodiment and oneness where beings are trapped by Love, and then of separation and immortality where beings are liberated by Strife. Here Strife rather than Love is the emancipating force:

If we let it have its way without cooperating, then Strife will manifest as violence and destruction all around us. But if we are willing to cooperate, we can consciously channel its energy instead into destroying ourselves -- our beliefs and illusions, our attachments, our clinging to the ways things are. For what can be so difficult to realize is that the very act of becoming conscious is, itself, a process of destruction; of separation; of learning to die before we die. -- p. 435

This cosmic cycle is a divine process because for Empedocles "In the whole of existence there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is not divine," whether Love, Strife, the elements, or the souls (p. 348). He taught that "everything is conscious. Everything, regardless of whether to our perception it seems alive or just a lifeless object, thinks. Everything has its share of intelligence" (p. 397). Plants, animals, gods, and elements are all living souls which, in Empedocles' words, are "made to wander away from the blessed ones and take on all sorts of shapes and forms of mortal existence through the course of time, exchanging one hard path of life for another" (p. 362). Everything, then, is related to everything else, spiritually and physically, entangled together in a tumultuous and violent cycle of reincarnations, all equally illusions in comparison to their source. But Empedocles

comes as a messenger to remind us of our real origin and call us to become free again, to show how to make the journey not to some happy human state but to something far vaster. He is confronting us, if we can only learn to understand it, with the strangest prospect of all -- the death of our mortality. -- p. 367

To do this, he does not seek to improve our present faculties of perceiving, knowing, or reasoning; rather he wishes "to awaken an entirely different form of cognition" (p. 387), so that we realize and experience that we are in fact gods and always have been. The key for both philosophers is metis, an intense alertness and skillful subtlety, an awareness of the moment (kairos) that allows one to avoid being trapped in illusions and deceptions. The method that Empedocles enjoins is to consciously perceive with all the senses simultaneously in each moment, rather than wandering off into the mental dream-state that lies outside the Now. This method is described in an excerpt from Reality that follows this article. Continual sensory awareness of the present requires constant practice and tending, until

there is nothing left to learn not because you know everything but, on the contrary, because you can at last afford to relax and know nothing -- in the quiet knowledge that whatever needs to be known will make itself known to you at the appropriate moment. . . . the mind goes quite silent and still in the awe of realizing it will never be able to understand even the tiniest fraction of what has just been given.
. . .
All of a sudden everything visible has become quite transparent, a pointer to the invisible. -- pp. 531, 546

Finally we realize, in the eternal moment, that we encompass everything, that nothing is separate from us.

Dr. Kingsley's stimulating interpretation of these pre-Socratic philosophers allows them to speak to us over the millennia. They escape from the strait jacket of misinterpretation and misunderstanding imposed on them by rationalistic thinkers even in ancient times. Reality demonstrates that the acknowledged founders of Western thought transmitted a powerful mystic tradition that was later passed through the Hermeticists into Islam and Christendom, and that this tradition is still available to us today.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 2004/January 2005; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

World Spiritual Traditions Menu

There is a hierarchy of compassion which extends from the furthest reaches of mind and beyond, down through and including mankind. Always the sacred effort has been kept alive. Never abandoning their post, open to all deserving human souls, the great ones persist until that day when light pours from heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul: till all of us may also actualize in our lives the god within and, inspired by compassion, take our post and turn to assist our younger brethren in the evolution of all sentient beings. Each and every one of us is responsible to the living universe, each man and woman is a teacher and a student of universal law. No one is alone or unaided, but all have within the gift of the gods to realize and share. -- Alan E. Donant