Sunday, March 11, 2012

Truth and Lies, Reality and Myth

Peter Kingsley. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Inverness: Golden Sufi, 1999. ISBN: 189035001X.

Peter Kingsley. Reality. Inverness: Golden Sufi, 2003. ISBN: 1890350095.

Peter Kingsley. A Story Waiting to Pierce You. Point Reyes: Golden Sufi, 2010. 1890350214.

Robert Pirsig. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. Morrow, 1974. ISBN: 0688002307.

These books were all important in my discovery that reality exists apart from myth (without excluding it).  I encountered Kingsley's work while investigating the early Greek philosopher Parmenides, about whom he has written extensively.  (He also has many interesting things to say about Empedocles.)  I was impressed with Kingsley's scholarly depth (more than one of my dissertation advisors, who finds some of his historical ideas "fanciful"), but what really drew me to his work was its elegant simplicity.  Reading his work shows you (1) how ancient people found meaning in the pre-Socratics, and (2) how the pre-Socratics remain relevant today.

The central thesis of Kingsley's work is that Parmenides was concerned with reality as people actually experience it.  He wanted to talk meaningfully about all the experiences that all of us have every moment of our lives--no matter who we are, where we live, or when.  In other words, he was what some people call a mystic.  Like other mystics ancient and modern, he used the language and ideas of his time to talk about the human experience (conceived as something universal, i.e. bigger and larger than any single person's understanding).  He told myths.  He composed poetry.  He saw changes happening all over the place, all the time, and he saw continuity underlying change.  He recognized that people are at once alike and different (when compared with one another), and that they all see the same world (even when they see it very differently).  In short, he was an ancient analogue to Robert Pirsig -- the mad modern genius whose idea of Quality is very like Parmenidean Being.  I will try to summarize my understanding of this Quality/Being below.

Reality is not a narrative.  It does not develop predictably from known principles, and its end is equally mysterious.  When storytellers say in the beginning, they are venturing into the unknown--a place none of us has ever been--just as they are when they say the end.  (How do we really know that a story has ended?  What is the end, really, of anything?  If there is no known beginning, then there is no known end.)  Most of us experience reality as a series of impressions--thoughts, feelings, impressions, ideas, reactions, intuitions, experiences.  But these only ever exist in the present moment, where we organize them and reorganize them, over and over again.  In this process of organization, something is always lost.  No story can ever do justice to the full extent of the experience it seeks to describe.  From this perspective, all stories are lies: they omit potentially important information.  Living well is learning to live with lies, learning to hold them when they help you and to let them go when their usefulness is gone.  Lies are not inherently evil, but they become so when  we insist that they must be true.  Lies are not inherently good, but they become so when we know how to use them well (i.e. when to stop believing them).  The wise man is aware of lies, is happy with them, because he sees the reality behind them.  He is in the moment, discarding the lies that hurt and embracing the lies that help (which he will let go in turn when they prove false).  Consciousness is not a matter of learning the absolute truth (finding the rock upon which to build a permanent house), but of learning the impossibility of absolute truth (riding the wave of contextual truth, which moves constantly as moments pass and the nature of life's game changes).  Truth (reality, quality, being) is in the experience, which no myth, however great it may be, can really capture.  Myth is useful.  It can help you benefit from someone else's experience, but it is no substitute for actively engaging your own experience (which is the most important thing for you, the bricks and mortar out of which your very own life is made).

When it finally broke through to me what Kingsley, Pirsig, and Parmenides were talking about, I knew that something had changed fundamentally in the way I think consciously about the world.  Part of me assented unconditionally to the way they conceive consciousness: waxing psychological, I think that my conscious mind finally realized how it really works (and has always worked, as near as I can tell).  As I experience life, following the truth is much more like surfing than building a house on a rock.  I tried building that house on the rock, and the rock kept washing away.  Now, I am riding the wave.  I don't have to stop every few moments and convince myself that the rock is not water.  I do not have to pretend to hold onto solid matter where all I can find is fluid.

Kingsley warned me that reading his books would change the way I looked at things.  As a faithful LDS, I was not convinced (with good reason: maybe if I had read them 10 years earlier, they wouldn't have changed anything: every individual walks a unique path to Reality).  In the end, however, he was right.  I must credit him with providing one of the most interesting interludes in my faith journey as an adult.

No comments:

Post a Comment