Feb 21, 2023, 05:55AM

Dream of Light

The tripartite soul and the ocean of bliss.

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First there was the shrine. It was made of clean white marble: white like the desert, like the desert sands bleached in the sun, white on white on white. Inside it was cool. In the middle of the floor there was a pool. It was shaped like an eight-petalled flower. On the surface lily pads floated, the white flowers blooming on top, white on green; and from under the surface ever changing colors pulsed, from red to orange to yellow to green, to blue, indigo and violet, the colors of the rainbow mixing and fading, merging into each other, like the multi-colored lights on a disco floor.

The shrine itself was eight-sided with a domed roof in the Arabian style. Doric columns divided the walls, topped with Roman arches. On the far side a white curtain, of some fine, semi-transparent material, covered the wall. The atmosphere was tranquil, calm, like the surface of a lake on a still day. And then the curtain began to rise. This was sudden, unexpected, and it broke the quiet calm of the moment. There was already a presage of some imminent revelation. Behind the curtain a painting was being exposed. It was brilliantly lit, bright and vivid with colors that were almost alive.

First it showed a pair of feet, naked but for sandals. They were Jesus’ feet. I must have recognized them from somewhere. I could see the ankles and the toes, larger than life, peach and cream with dashes of white. I’d seen them before. I already loved the man whose feet they were.

The curtain continued to rise slowly and I became excited. I was about to see Jesus. The excitement turned inexplicably to sexual arousal, and then I had a sudden pounding erection, so intense it startled me.

Such was the force of the erection, so unexpected and inappropriate, that my heart began to pound. I felt monstrously guilty, like I’d broken the only commandment laid upon me. Almost immediately, my head began to ache. The strange mixture of excitement, shame and pain filled my body, till it became all there was. It was like an ascending wave. The throb of the erection, the thud of the heart, the thump of the headache, in a relentless rhythm rising up through the body, on and on and on, growing more and more powerful, until it washed the body away. I no longer had a body. I no longer was a body. I became melded in the rhythmic thrum, free of thought, free of distraction, nothing but an undulating pulse of energetic presence, a wave of energy in an ocean of light.

The ocean was like white noise all around me, bristling with static, and I was there, in the midst of it, like a receiving signal in an oscillator, a three-centered sine wave, the energetic presence surging through me in ululating waves of blissful abandon. I was still myself, discrete and self-knowing, although nameless, and at the same time submerged in the shimmering white ecstasy of the surrounding energy-field: merged and emerging, whole, holy, transported, transformed, a soul in joyous union with the source of all life, ever birthing in the luminous bliss.

I was outside time and space and the experience seemed to last forever. But here’s the really important bit, the bit that needs to be emphasized. I was still me. I knew who I was. Despite not having a name or a body, despite being no more than an energy signal, despite my merging with the surrounding field of light, there was something distinct and identifiable about me, something unique and self-knowing, self-aware, a signature as well as a signal. I was a wave of self-awareness in an ocean of bliss, giving and receiving life.

And then I came to. Now I was in my bed, floating about half a centimeter beneath my eyes. I could feel my body all around me, but I was unable to take control of it. I was in my body but separate from it, unable to connect, in the grip of sleep paralysis, struggling to wake up, while the morning light streamed against my eyelids, lighting up my skull.

I finally broke the paralysis, and I was in my body again, awake, back in the ordinary world, in my ordinary bed, on an ordinary morning, with the prospect of school ahead. I was 16. I have no recollection of what happened next, except that I must have resumed my ordinary existence. The dream went away and I forgot about it. The hormonal rush of my teenage years buried me in miserable self-consciousness.

But something remained, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to recall it now in such vivid detail. Have I constructed this dream retrospectively, with hindsight, or was that how it really was? Both, I suspect. Certainly the words you read now are those of a 70-year-old man trying hard to reach back and remember an ephemeral moment from 54 years ago. The language belongs to an old man, the dream to a teenager, but there’s a continuity. The man has changed, but something remains unchanged.

This is emphasized by the fact that the dream itself contains a reference to something even earlier: Jesus’ feet. They were in a painting I must’ve seen at a very early age, I think, probably, when I lived in Malta in the late-1950s. My father was in the Royal Navy and he was stationed there. Eventually he brought his family out to join him. I still have very clear memories of that time.

Malta lies in a strategic position in the middle of the Mediterranean. Consequently it has seen waves of invasion. Almost everyone in the region has occupied it at some point, from the Romans and Phoenicians in classical times, to the Arabs and the Knights Hospitallers in the medieval period, to the French and the British more recently: the British until the 1970s. Its religion is Catholic, but its language is Semitic. It’s the only Semitic language in the world to use Latin script. The people are very religious, with churches in every village and shrines and statues on almost every street corner. I think the painting of Jesus was in a church in Kalkara, where we lived, but the sense of awe and wonder, which caused such a disconcerting reaction in the dream, must’ve come from one of the locals, perhaps a babysitter. It wouldn’t have come from my mum, who was profoundly irreligious all her life, nor would it have come from my dad, who identified as Jewish, though he was only half-Jewish on his father’s side.

So something was buried in me at an early age: some sense of the ineffable beauty and strangeness of Jesus—so awe-inspiring I didn’t dare look beyond his feet—which was also tied up with a sexual feeling. I think at a young age such psycho-sexual entanglement isn’t unusual. The threefold nature of the nameless being I became, however, isn’t something I would’ve heard about from a babysitter, or from anyone else. That must have come from myself.

It’s an ancient idea. Plato talks about the threefold division of the psyche. These are: the logos, or logistikon, located in the head, and associated with reason; the thymos, or thumoeides, located in the heart, and associated with the spirit; and the eros, or epithumetikon, located in the gut, and associated with desire. The three parts of the psyche are said to correspond to the three classes in Plato’s ideal Republic—rulers, warriors and citizens—while each also has a specific purpose in the functioning of the whole: the logistikon to rule through learning, the thymoeides to defend the whole from external invasion and internal disorder and the epithymetikon to produce and seek pleasure. He symbolized the three parts by three different forms or archetypes: the man (reason), the lion (courage) and the monster (appetite). We are, he said, divided within ourselves. His solution: “teach the man, train the lion, tame the monster.”

I first heard this idea in a YouTube video by John Vervaeke. It’s called Levels of Intelligibility: Neoplatonism and 4E Cognitive Science, and you can find it here. The discussion about Plato’s division of the soul starts at around 26:33.

The lowest part, the monster in the gut, he says, is the part of you that is appetitive in nature. At this level you’re urgently motivated. You’re moved by urges in the present moment. It’s the immediacy of your desire that’s most compelling. You seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s where the fight or flight mechanism is located. If a car is bearing down upon you, you’ll jump out of the way instinctively. You won’t have to think about it. It’s the part of you that keeps you alive. It also keeps the species alive by urging you to reproduce.

The next level up—which Vervaeke refuses to translate, but which is usually understood to mean the spirit, or spiritedness—he describes in terms of a cultural imperative. This is where the social emotions reside: pride, shame, guilt, respect, honor. This is the part of you that cares what others think and that loves companionship. It’s moved by seeking honor and avoiding dishonor.

The top level, the human being, he says, “represents your capacity for very broad cognitive scope, for pursuing long-term goals, for caring about whether or not things are true or false, real or illusionary.”

The three parts are often in conflict. This is because they have different degrees of motivation. The monster’s urgent, the lion’s powerful, but the human being’s weak. You may decide it would be a good idea to lose weight, but when you’re hungry and there’s a slice of cake in front of you, any long-term goals are likely to go out of the window. The monster of appetite is far stronger than the voice of reason. What Plato says is that you have to ally the human being with the lion in order to restrain the monster. As Vervaeke puts it: “The human being can be taught, the human being can then train the lion, and together they can tame the monster. When that happens, when you get that internal harmony, the conflict goes down, and that means your salience is more and more properly proportioned to the coherence of the world.”

To put it another way: you’ll fit into the world better. “The cultural world, the biological world, and the rational world, all of these things get properly coordinated.” It’s a formula not only for individual happiness, but for the advancement of the human condition, for a better way to live.

Plato isn’t the only one to have theorized a tripartite division of the soul. Freud talked in similar terms—of the id, the ego and superego—while the Armenian mystic, George Gurdjieff, referred to humans as “three-brained beings.” He said that the rational part was in the head, the emotional part in the chest, while the third part, the loins, represented movement. As he says: “I noted and firmly established that there follow simultaneously in man three kinds of associations—of thought, of feeling and of mechanical instinct… These three kinds of associations in one man explain that peculiar sensation, noticed at times by everyone, as though there were several beings living in him…”

William Blake, meanwhile, added a fourth element. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell he says: “The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.” If you think about it this also fits into the structure. The fourth element in Blake’s scheme corresponds to Vervaeke’s integration of the three: “your salience is more properly proportioned to the coherence of the world.” What Blake’s saying is that when the head, the heart and the loins are in harmony, then your actions in the world (your hands and feet) will be proportionate.

Plato also believed in reincarnation, which he called Metempsychosis or “the transmigration of the soul.” In this he was following on from Pythagoras, who wasn’t only a philosopher and a mathematician, but a religious leader too. The ancient Druids believed in reincarnation, as did certain early Christian sects. References to it are contained in the Pistis Sophia and the Apocryphon of John, two of the Gnostic gospels found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, as well as in a number of other texts.

It’s well known that Hindu and Buddhist philosophies focus upon the doctrine. The Tibetan Book of the Dead lays out the stages by which a human soul is transported after death. The first stage is the Clear White Light. This is the place that the soul goes to immediately after death. Here is a passage, from the translation by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, which describes it: “O nobly-born, listen. Now thou art experiencing the Radiance of the Clear White Light of Pure Reality. Recognize it… Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha… Thine own consciousness, shining, void, and inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance, hath no birth, nor death, and is the Immutable Light—Buddha Amitabha.”

That’s all familiar to me from my dream. Yes: “shining, thrilling and blissful.” Yes: “inseparable from the Great Body of Radiance.” That’s exactly how I experienced it. Except within the radiance I still knew I was me. Separate yet inseparable, like a wave in an ocean: identifiable as myself, but a part of the ocean at the same time.

Follow Chris Stone on Twitter: @ChrisJamesStone


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