Present-time & self
South London Philosophy at the Westbridge, Battersea
Sunday 5th July 2009
present-time, self and consciousness
If I teach a subject I learn it better. That could be true for most people and perhaps it also hides a better approach than reasoned argument or debate. I teach you something then you teach me the same thing back.
For Empedocles learning probably involved breathing along with the teacher. I know of course that we will get sucked into debate and argument in the second half but I warn against it. Debate was not ab-origine the way to do philosophy so I will say along with Empedocles.
Please note: quotations and much of what I have to say comes from the writing of Peter Kingsley. He is a great inspiration and I would stay true to his teaching while freely exploring them. Please read his work to discover the extent of my indebtedness.
If you press my words down
underneath your dense-packed diaphragm
and oversee them with good will and with
pure attention to the work, they will all
without the slightest exception stay with you
for as long as you live. And, from them,
you will come to possess many other things.
For they grow, each according to its
own inner disposition, in whatever way their
But if you reach out instead after
other kinds of things – after the ten thousand
worthless things that exist among humans,
blunting their cares – then you can be sure
they will only too gladly leave you with the
circling of time, longing to return to their
own dear kind. For you need to know that
everything has intelligence and a share
translation by Peter Kingsley from his book Reality
Too much is held in the head and hundreds of years of abstract thinking have blinded humanity to ‘the seat of our awareness’ as Empedocles puts it a little further on in his poem. The thinking we hold up in our heads made of thousands of words that refer to other things has devastated the truth about ourselves.
There is much about the modern philosopher that suggests he could be better called an epistemologist and leave the word philosophy to cover what its founders intended. It was Pythagoras who coined the word, which means the Love of Wisdom or love of Sophya. But Wisdom is not, as it has become, the deterioration into arguing about the love of wisdom. Nor is it what we tend to call advice. Nor is it just a kind of reflection or other things that intellectuals are apt to bandy about. I would though, like to make a grander point.
Philosophy has never had any development in time or undergone any process of change.
Developments have happened only to fakes. The philosopher has always learned what he teaches from a contact beyond time, and beyond the ten thousand worthless things that Empedocles referred to. Philosophers do not have their being along the time line of History but have their being and teaching from the same state beyond time. Philosophy does not fit into the History of Philosophy because it has no History. The real words of philosophy refer to nothing, they are magic words that grow like seeds if tended and if pressed down below the surface, invisible to begin with. They are quite unlike the millions of spoken and written words daily released into the atmosphere, which devastate all memory of being and destroys any glimpse of reality.
Let’s look at a few more of these magic words that might quietly have this capacity to begin the process of awakening.
Although Socrates has already begun the rot of turning Philosophy into logos and episteme he was Pythagorean in his core. There are just a few magic sentences hidden in the mountains of verbiage. There are these words from the Phaedo, which is perhaps the most Pythagorean of Plato’s dialogues. The words of course are not really hidden, they are right there but since they tell us what philosophy is why is it that I have never ever heard them quoted or mentioned at any Philosophy talk. Too dangerous by far because really hear them and you may not go on in the same way. You cannot walk out the door and carry on as you did. If you do hear you will want to get away from all those debatable words that stay up high in the head because they all refer endlessly to other things. Real or rather magic words don’t refer in that sort of way. They can grow from nothing like seeds and they do it all by themselves out of the darkness. Magic words work by our being somewhere in their vicinity and hearing. It is not just about understanding that just swirls about in the head.
– “Those who are conversant with philosophy in a proper manner, seem to have concealed from others that the whole of their study is nothing else than how to die and be dead.”
Thomas Taylor translation
…and right at the end, a few moments before dying, he removes the cloth covering his face and says to his friend:
“Crito, I must thank Asklepius for this cure! Offer him a cockerel. Please don’t forget to discharge my debt.”
The meaning here is that he wants to thank Asklepius for death which he is about to receive and it is death which is the cure for life. Of course interpretations of these words have mostly been more superficial but there is a good chance that this is the correct interpretation in view of the whole context of the Phaedo. Had the sacrifice of a cockerel been more along the lines of a formality he might have sacrificed to Athena or Hippocrates but Asklepius the son of Apollo has altogether deeper connotations.
Before moving on a few words about where the Philosophical encounter is to be sought and under what conditions. A line from Parmeneides poem surely settles this.
For it was
no hard fate that sent you travelling this road – so far away
from the beaten track of humans – but Rightness and Justice.
Peter Kingsley translation
Philosophy is to be done far from the bustle of human activity. It is primarily an encounter and not a subject. The encounter happens in a context which usually involves profound silence, solitude and stillness. Stillness – the Greek word hezychia is the key. Hezychia means the stilling of the apparent movement of thought.
For Pythagoreans who lived a little south of Parmeneides in the Bay of Tarentum it is chastening to appreciate that a new member of the community would first keep silence for 5 years - earning the title akousmatic - a listener. Like Parmeneides, Pythagoras sought his encounter with Wisdom underground in remote caves and dark places. Such dark and remote places would deepen hezychia linking it to the inner journey through the darkness behind our eyes. Such a journey into ones own personal interior darkness was enacted in a real downward journey into a cave, the depths of which represented Hades. Such a downward journey called katabasis encounters Persephone who at the moment where time based moving thought ceases the light of Apollo is released and enters into and suffuses the human being with bliss and wisdom.
The caves and underground places in which these people sought wisdom were literal Physical places but the psychological journey was also not all metaphor. Dreams might arise and require interpretation but memory (and sickness) held throughout the body is encountered and released somatically. The walls and base of the cave are held and released as the same physicality as the interior of the head and body.
The journey was quite literally into the darkness of ones own skull, and down, and down and if one reached a solid floor, at a deepest depth the injunction will be to go lower still. And there in stillness there would be light – Apollo and his son Asklepius to whom Socrates wished to give thanks.
I line from Empedocles is worth quoting as he says to his disciple Pausanius:
Learn these things….”And you will fetch back from Hades the life-force of a man who has died.”
I wonder what we make of that!
We will have to pass over for now the many links between the caves and dark places of Pythagoras and Parmeneides that reassemble in the Myth at the end of the Phaedo* and Socrates last words. You may have read the myth or perhaps be encouraged to look into it at your leisure but please remember that Plato was already allegorizing what had been better understood by earlier Orphics and Pythagoreans.
We may note the very structural sounding language that occurs in the Myth, which may link it to a lost poem called the Krater by the Pythagorean Zopyrus. Zopyrus an engineer founded the science of ballistics and there is something of the engineer’s sense of structure in Plato’s myth. We can also reflect upon it being a very good description of the complex built at Cumae with its underground tunnels and rivers.
A cardiologist will have a definition of the heart that is quite different to the one expressed in this poem by Ibn Arabi. This is not to say that the cardiologist is wrong or that I would replace the cardiologists understanding of the heart with that of Ibn Arabi. Nevertheless it is more to Ibn Arabi’s intuition that I turn today.
Pasture between breastbones
a garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
a meadow for gazelles,
a cloister for monks.
From Michael Sells: Mystical Languages of Unsaying
Also there is no reason why the cardiologist should not appreciate the poetry of Ibn Arabi.
Relatedly the definition I propose for self does not require replacement of the idea that self is, for many people, roughly, the story of a person’s life or a mixture of personality and body. These other sorts of definitions can often co-exist with self defined as the observer behind all things observable because the definitions refer to such different things. Clearly a person does have a story but this has nothing to do with it. Self as the observer is not physically the eyes or merely looking through the eyes but rather the observer who watches thoughts and mental imagery, as well as on and out through the eyes and other senses to the external world. If we ask questions about the location of this observer the questions themselves become things observed, so such a chain of questions does not help us establish this self. To establish this self we have to take the action of remembering ourselves. It is a kind of jump or drop. Until established it is a great effort of constantly turning to this place from-which-we-view without interpretation of it because all interpretation turns into other views. We can learn eventually to turn to this place even when it is most inconvenient until we gradually realize it is not a matter of inconvenience because we find that it is the best place of all and the only place to be since it is self.
A disciple of Empedocles asked him:
What is the noblest thing to know?
What people neglect the most.
from Peter Kingsley’s book Reality.
There is more to this, as after significant accumulations of time spent in this place from which we view and where we self-remember there are breakthroughs into new territories of sensation and perception. The chief breakthrough is from the ordinary sense of the thin line of the present into the spaciousness of fully-fledged present-time. This breakthrough is attended by improvements in health and perception. Present-time and self are very closely related.
To come into present-time one has to come out of time. In practice the problem is that thought has its motion and changes from one thought to another across time and so we need to come out of that if we are to reach the seat of our awareness and we are going to have to come out of these motions that occur too high up, all in the head as Empedocles says. The motion and commotion will cease in hezychia, which is the Greek word for stillness of mind.
The going down into stillness eventually drops even the point-from-which-we- view, which might be thought of as the last characteristic of the thing-in-itself that has to be left behind for the real thing-in-itself to be present. Eventually hope drops aside. No self is self.
For the Greeks this going down into stillness was often combined with a physical journey down into a cave to lie down in stillness but the cave is also a journey into the darkness behind our own eyes.
The rocky walls and base of the cave are encountered in the body itself as the solid rock of physicality, crying out for motion, sometimes in excruciating spasms. It is no use moving out of every discomfort as those new to meditation do. One must eventually lie or sit in a mineral kingdom of iron and rock which is the inside of our head and body – and go lower.
There are a couple of bigger things to say about this. There is no being in time since existence is neither a characteristic of the past or of the future. But equally there is no being or existence in the non-existent sliver or interface between past and future called the present.
And yet there is apparently existence all around us, so we must rid ourselves of this unworkable concept we have been calling the present. Unlike different concepts of self that can be useful for different things I think I would replace and thoroughly and once and for all discard the use of the term: the present. Let us from now on talk about present-time with a hyphen and the hyphen is intended to indicate quantity and the quantity is of awareness or scope and this scope can be very large indeed. I do not think human beings should be damaged any more by the idea of ‘the present’ as a sliver or interface between past and future.
We can go round all this again at a greater depth some other day but for now I will just add in the single most devilish matter that real philosophy has to reflect upon. It is this. Nobody has ever had a single memory ever in the entire history of the universe that happened at any other time than NOW. So whatever significance we want to give to the idea that the universe started out a long while ago; more importantly we need to understand that it is actually caused right NOW. Only existence can cause existence and existence is not a characteristic of the past. This really is creationism but I have not heard a creationist put the origin of the universe in present-time. The so called past can be explained as some kind of arrangement of facsimiles and constructs at the periphery of present-time. They may seem real to us while we are in time but that is the arrangement of an illusion observing an illusion at the same level of delusion. The self I am talking about is more real.
We should begin to understand death in relation to present-time. Time is death and to come fully into present-time will in any case alter a person’s relationship to dying and death. As I said even a partially achieved or occasional arrival in present-time results in big improvements in health. A few thousand years of so-called progress expanding present-time will carry humanity as a whole far beyond the boundaries we call - mortality.
Let’s look at another short piece of Empedocles while I, as it were, catch my breath.
I know that truth is with the words
I will be saying. But for humans,
the rush of assurance towards the seat
of their awareness has become so
very troublesome: so undesired.
Palms – so narrow and closed in – have been
poured over people’s limbs. But countless
worthless things keep crashing in, blunting their
cares. During their lifetimes they see such a
little part of life and then they are off:
short-lived, flying up and away like smoke,
Peter Kingsley translation
So-called literal translations do some very odd things with this word ‘palms’. The last one I looked at translated the Greek as ‘devices’ but the Greek word is palamai and they have been poured over people’s limbs. These palms are not the fronts of our hands but something more like senses or perceptics and they are all over the body. This is good because it’s true that there are many more ways of perceiving than the idea that there are just 5 senses. It is also I think the case that there is memory throughout the body.
Empedocles’ says that all these senses - palamai carry us all over the place and make it very troublesome to reach the seat of our awareness. The ‘seat of our awareness’ is self as I described. Self is itself a palm for sensing. But if this self isn’t properly established as the seat of our awareness then all the other views of things sensed through all the other senses will just be worthless things blunting our cares.
The seat of our awareness, which is just self, is the sense through which all the other senses should be sensed. It is the sense-in-common or awareness of awareness which, if it is in place, joins everything else up. It is the origin of common sense. But the idea of common sense that we have has gone so far from this sense-in-common that it has become a rather blunt tool and misunderstood notion.
When it comes to what I have to say about consciousness there is no parallel with Ibn Arabi’s heart because there is no consciousness that can be considered as a stand alone characteristic of the individual brain. Consciousness has no equivalent of the cardiologist’s heart. To discover that consciousness touches the body or brain is not to discover either its sense or its location. Scientists do not seem to be on the right track and in any case they are looking for something that is already well understood - as though nobody understands.
I could not have anything at all to say without a workable definition of consciousness in place. It has to fit in with everything else or really there is no philosophy but just a muddle… But there is philosophy and it all aligns very well indeed. There has been a good understanding of consciousness for a long while and it was well understood in the West.
As Empedocles said:
everything has intelligence and a share
Peter Kingsley translation
And the Universe is cause in present-time.
It’s much the same thing as self . Consciousness is cause of all universe that is present in present-time.
It is also self that turns out to be Brahmin should we want to go East. As Shankara the Indian sage announces: tat tvam asi - thou art that. Consciousness is the single all pervading substance throughout universe. There is nothing else. A table or chair may not seem to be very conscious but it’s all that they are made of. Consciousness gets down to being a chair because it’s very altered consciousness.
You could say that thoughts are a bit less altered but they are still a long way from the stillness in present-time of consciousness - without all the alterations. To get to the consciousness or seat of our awareness Shankara’s source in the Chandogya Upanishad puts it neatly as neti neti. It is not this, not that or neither this nor that. The negation opens a gate and in passing through the gate: tat tvam asi, thou art that and that is Brahmin.
I am always trying to make things practical. There is this fragment from Panopolis (modern Achmin) in southern Egypt, a place where the poetry of Empedocles was still cultivated as an active religion at least until 300CE. But it was also transported much further across the Middle East. Empedocles was known as the Shaikh of Shaikhs to Shiite Sufis in 13th Century Persia. But here is this practical advice from Zosimus in Southern Egypt.
Just sit at home in the knowledge that there is one god and one technique. Don’t allow yourself to be pulled here and there searching for god. Once you have succeeded in doing this you will have carried out the genuine transformation.
Parmeneides, just before Empedocles, is arguably the greatest of all western philosophers but endless commentaries by philosophers usually work away only at fragments 8, 3, 6 and 7 because they contain the so-called logical bits. For these, Parmeneides gets his title as the founder of Western Rationalism. But all the work by philosophers over centuries misses the mark because they tend not to have the slightest inkling that Parmeneides was describing actual experience and he was not remotely interested in logic in the sense of its having a speculative purpose. He describes three paths that one by one he shows are not really paths at all. So it is just neti neti again and all these people from East and West are understanding the same thing.
But what does Parmeneides mean when he says there is no such thing as movement when apparently there is movement all around us.
From my own experience I know that Parmeneides is quite right; and it is experience that really interests me. I am much less interested in arguments based on logic of the sort that divides things into different categories. If Parmeneides had a logic it joined everything together into a unity. That’s’ really quite different. It was in bound whereas logic since then has been dividing things up to show differences.
In the experience at the core or the seat of my awareness I would say that everything I have called movement is still there but it is so different that the word movement is a useless description. That is to say in hezychia or where thought is stilled, there is a profound change to my relationship to motion. It’s all still there – only it’s a lot more real.
Actually, it’s sort of obvious that if you stop the motion of mind there is going to be a stopping of motion in the world because it never has really been true that the one is outside the other.
But since all the things in so-called motion are still there what is realized is that the context is in stillness and turns out to be present-time and this stillness as the major reality effects the so-called movement of things. If you consider that as self it has been realized as neither this nor that, it is therefore not located in space or time - you will appreciate what I mean by context that is very high energy - but it is still.
The Buddhists call this the doctrine of immutability. This quotation is from an 8th century Zen Buddhist called Han Shan or Cold Mountain.
Han Shan writes:
As one coming suddenly out of darkness, I perceived the full meaning of the doctrine of immutability and said: “Now I can believe that fundamentally all things neither come nor go.” I got up from my meditation bed, prostrated myself before the Buddha shrine and did not have the perception of anything in motion. I lifted the blind and stood in front of the stone steps. Suddenly the wind blew through the trees in the courtyard and the air was filled with flying leaves, which, however, looked motionless. I said to myself:
“This is the whirlwind which will destroy Mount Sumeru and which is permanently still.” When I went to the back yard to make water, the urine seemed not to be running. I said: “That is why the river pours but does not flow.” Thereafter all my doubts about life and death vanished.
One other person must be mentioned and he is Parmeneides disciple Zeno. His writings are mostly in the form of Paradoxical arguments the most famous of which deny that there is motion. All the philosophers I have read who comment on these paradoxes seem to think they are about logic and amount to proofs that perfect logic does not describe the world. It says as much in the Dorling Kindersley book on philosophy for children, which is a great pity because it is giving children the wrong end of the stick. In one of Zeno’s paradoxes he shows logically that in a race Achilles can never catch up the tortoise. Achilles must first get half way before he gets all the way and then half of the remaining half and so on. But since each time Achilles does a half, the tortoise advances, then the tortoise will always stay ahead although the distance by which he is ahead will keep getting less. But the commentaries and analyses by Philosophers, from way back, really have missed the point and haven’t even remotely guessed what Zeno was talking about.
In fact Zeno is talking about the same thing as Han Shan and there is no doubt at all that Zeno had experienced it.
Let me share with you the contents of this peculiar email that I wrote and did not send to anyone. I often do that.
If you do not: sense the entire surface of your skin, including your eyes simultaneously - then this kind of sensing is being obscured by unseen pressures, tensions, darkness and mass within your head and body. While this pressure and solidity remains largely hidden we normally sense only patches of our body. We may flit from a discomfort in the knee to an itch on the elbow or be aware of contact between one part of the body and the world such as the hand while working with a tool.
Although this starting point is quite succinct it needs some expansion. So let me restate it:
If you do not: simultaneously sense the entire surface of your skin including your eyes in unity with the life within you and the consciousness at large which is all around you, this is being obscured by unseen pressure and solidity within your head and body.
To bring body to unity of consciousness requires first bringing the unseen pressure and dark solidity within your head and body into view. Once in view the task is to study it by careful looking from a point from which to view in stillness. This will gradually burn dark solidity and dissolve it so that sooner or later an entrance to present-time can occur.
The moment of entering present-time has been called non-dual awareness or turiya.
Let me just set out the basic theory of non-dualism which I hope by now will align with what has been said about self and present-time…
Adi Shankara describes two states of dualist awareness and two states of non-dual awareness. The two states of dualist awareness are our normal waking state in which there is the observer and the observed and the state of dreaming in sleep where there is the dreamer and the dream. The two states of non-dual awareness are the state of dreamless sleep and a fourth state of awakened non-dual awareness. This 4th state of non-dual awareness is called turiya and there is no separation between the observer and the observed.
In this state there is a complete entrance into present-time and therefore to the real world of the fully existing. There cannot really be existing that is not in present-time.
By now though I hope we can see that existing in present–time is not the vague state experienced through the movement of thought but something truly astounding. Nothing really disappears and the world is all there.
It is in fact all very practical and there has been an awful misunderstanding of the true nature of mysticism if the word is taken to mean something airy-fairy or up in the clouds.
There is no doubt that both Adi Shankara in the East and Parmeneides in the West were sages in authentic traditions. The authentic tradition of the Eleatic Greeks was lost through Plato and the Skeptics. The last great sage in this tradition was Gorgias who purposefully ended it as consistency to its truth required him to do.
The reason for sharing the email I never sent to anyone was to help understand the practicality of entering present-time and what may be encountered. In mentioning Adi Shankara’s 4th state or state called turiya a bit more of the sense of this has been introduced. In passing from the movement of ordinary time based thought into present-time there are some things that can be said about the way this is experienced physically. After all it is not just the mind that is becoming present but the physical body that is also being carried forward into present-time. It is a very physical process culminating in arrival in turiya. There is a movement from perceiving that I have a body and see a separate world to being one and the same thing as both of them without there being any separation between self and world. Hey presto there is only self and as Shankara said: that art thou and thou art Brahmin.
I keep heading into this sort of abstraction but I was beginning to say something more practical when I referred to the physicality of this process.
So what is right there at the moment of change?
What happens if you are just about to cough or scratch an itch or an insect lands on your cheek or something of the sort and just a that very moment you are moving across into present-time. You were going to cough and the cough is all about how you can see that there is you needing to cough and these two things are quite different but just as you go up to the cough and start going into what you thought was a cough something just turns a bit inside you. It seems to have the topology of a swallow - and the cough disappears because every single thing about you that was lots of different things you could see has now turned into one thing and when you see through your eyes the world is just all the same one thing. In this you are healed as much as anything else.
You can feel the whole surface of yourself and it is the same thing as the form of the universe. Very small things can be openings and therefore a person has to get beyond moving or scratching or fidgeting every time there is some little discomfort when they practice hezychia or meditation. The very small discomfort of the insect brushing against a cheek can be precisely what opens to become awareness in present-time of the whole surface of the body.
Sometimes the process can be excruciating and there can be a lot of weight and deeply held sickness to get through. It can have the solidity of the rocky walls of a cave or the floor. There can be an absolutely physical sensation that the solid floor or walls of the cave is the mortal stiffness of ones own physicality. It is the very stiffness that gives matter and ones own body form and the movement to turiya is like the floor and the walls departing through ones own skin.
It worries me that young people living daily in the concrete jungle record all that hardness daily in their cells from the world around. Getting enlightened can be like tables and chairs, walls trees and rocks leaving through the pores and cells of your skin.
To begin wrapping this talk up: since the advent of quantum mechanics there is not the same sense to discursive reason. Rationalism really cannot give us the sense and meaning of ourselves and the Universe. It never could. The early Eleatic Greeks and some others down the ages understood full well the limitations of episteme and warned against it. There right back in the 5th and 6th Centuries BCE they understood a world that, I hazard, is better described by quantum mechanics. Philosophy has gone a full circle.
Some Physicists have been talking about a zero point field or a quantum vacuum. In a practical way this has been quite well understood long ago by the Eleatics. I don’t know what Physicists will do if they get it all sorted out mathematically and experimentally. It won’t mean they have achieved it existentially or practically. Who knows what the technical applications might be.
Very roughly, the zero-point-field is the postulate that at the most fundamental level there is neither time or space and yet these things are less real constructs that ride upon fundamental reality. Time, space and so on are constructs at different strengths of reality but out from the real - if I can put it like that. We ourselves as stories and movements of mind are the less than real thoughts of more fundamental reality. As illusions we inhabit greater illusions that are nevertheless constructs of our own more fundamental nature. Since we have managed to believe and entangle ourselves in the delusion of ourselves in this solid world we can also disentangle it. We made the tangle.
Since there is not time and since the whole universe nevertheless exists without time each and every so-called place in the universe is as equally close and in coincidence as every other so called place but we are too deluded to access that truth. Since there is no distance to travel there can be no real time taken for communication or travel between things. The universe has no size at all. It is the standard recognition of realization of al Haq the Real by Sufi saints that the Universe is perceived as a single sign.
Death from a delusion of no size can surely bring us into any other delusion or reality. I am sure there is a so-called after-life and it is even busier and multi-faceted than the out of present-time delusion most humans imagine they inhabit - as so-called life.
As Peter Kingsley put it: 'It is not the child that is born in the world but the world that is born in the child.'