Thursday, 9 June 2016

The Circle of the Same - A Platonic Practice

Therefore, at all times remember Me with your mind and intellect fixed on Me. In this way, you shall surely come to Me...

Bhagavad Gita

The Platonic dialogues are not systematic and in this are so rich that they provide essential material for a range of philosophical – or, as we might say, spiritual – paths. Socratic dialectic offers an intellectual path of realisation whereby the very nature of thinking becomes a path back to the font of thought itself. The theory of Forms leads to the Vision of the One and the Good. To live as a philosopher for three incarnations in a row, we are told, leads to liberation from birth and death – a Platonic Nirvana. Then there is also a path of Love – Divine Eros – as described in several dialogues, and elsewhere a path of imagination and the metaphor of “growing spiritual wings” and the textual foundations of the Plotinian path of “becoming one’s Guardian Angel”, which is to say realizing the Form of one's Self. Plato offers many paths. Arguably, they all amount to the same thing, but they are suited to people of various temperaments and dispositions.

In the cosmological dialogue Timaeus a further path is outlined. We are told that man is the microcosmic reflection of the macrocosmic order, but that this parallel is disturbed or ruptured at birth. In the greater cosmos are the circles of Sameness and Difference – the great cosmic motions obeyed by the planets and the stars. These same motions, we are then told, prevail in the spherical cosmic form of the human cranium, and thus in the mind, and distinctions of sameness and difference form the very bedrock of mental activity. The travail of childbirth, however, knocks the internal circles of Sameness and Difference from their pre-natal alignment with the cosmic order. The inner cosmos is knocked out of its alignment with the outer cosmos – and such is the nature of mortal life. The objective of man in his life, therefore, is to mend this misalignment and to bring the inner circles of Sameness and Difference back into orbits aligned with the circles of the heavens making micro- and macrocosms unison and whole again.

This schema is the rationale for all conceptions of Platonic astrology. It is through the study of the stars, we are told, that we come to learn of the inner cycles of the mind. On this basis astrology is a philosophical path of self-knowledge and self-realisation. But there is also another method at least implicit in this dialogue of Plato’s, and implicit elsewhere in Plato as well. The mind, we are told, has become unruly and disordered. The challenge that the philosopher faces is to bring the mind back into order. This is the same task as being able to discern the Forms – the ordering of all intellectual structures then reveals the Form of the One and the Good, the Thought of Thoughts. In terms of the cosmological system given in the Timaeus, as already noted, this entails restoring the proper relation between the Circles of Sameness and Difference. The disordered mortal mind, in particular, is overcome by the erratic motions of the Circle of Difference. Cosmologically, this is the motion of the ever-wandering planets and their chaotic alternations of progression and regression. Beyond them lies the steady reliability of the fixed stars. In the heavens, the Circle of the Same counters the chaotic diversity of the Circle of the Different. It is from the steady, eternal motions of the Circle of the Same that the mortal microcosm has become dislodged. In life we are thrown around this way and that as our thoughts become dragged around in the Circle of the Different. 

Many, or perhaps most, spiritual methods make the same diagnosis, albeit in different terms. The human problem, it will be said, is the so-called “monkey mind” and its incessant chattering. In Plato’s terms, this is the product of the primal misalignment between inner and outer cosmos. We are carried along with the erratic motions of the Circle of the Different. Our thoughts move back and forwards in time, never able to fix upon the eternal present. The cure, then, is to still the chatter of this “monkey mind”, to learn to concentrate, to be in the present and no longer a victim of our own errant thoughts. Nearly all systems of meditation have this as their objective. Typically, for example, the meditator will fix their their hearing upon the ever-same rhythm of their breath. Then they are instructed to let all wandering thoughts wash past without participating in them. The objective is to eventually still the mind, to stop the inner chatter, to bring the mind back to clarity. In Platonic terms, the meditator finds a stillpoint – the steady rhythm of the breath – which then represents the Circle of the Same. By fixing upon such a stillpoint, in its sameness, it is possible to calm the raging inconstancies and vagarious meanderings of the Circle of the Different and to restore the cosmic order. The mortal condition is fitful and in flux. Meditation cures us of this “monkey mind” condition.

Exactly the same process is used in the so-called “perpetual prayer” found in various religious traditions. Its most ancient form is the “japa yoga” of the Hindoos. This consists of fixing the mind upon one of the Divine Names and repeating it, silently or aloud, over and over and over. The most famous case is the divine syllable OM which practitioners of japa chant or intone, within or without, unceasingly. Once again, in Platonic terms, this is to be understood as fixing upon a Circle of the Same in order to bring order back to the rambling irregularities of the Circle of the Different. The Divine Name is installed as an enduring foundation of sameness in the mind. Throughout the day our thoughts wander back and forward. We are sitting on the bus – our thoughts rove from snippets of old conversations, to anxieties about future events, to bits and pieces of advertising jingles, images from TV, our desire for new shoes, the argument with our neighbour... We have no control over this endless stream of mental junk. This, various traditions assure us, is the cause of all our miseries. We are rudderless in a raging river of rubbish. In this, we are divorced from the reality of the present. To steady the Circle of the Different we need to bring ourselves back into alignment with the Circle of the Same.

We can do this through japa – the deliberate fixation upon an appropriate mantra. It is, therefore, a Platonic method. The Mohammedans call it “dhikr”, meaning rememberance, a strikingly Platonic title. Rememberance, ἀνάμνησις, anemnesis, is the Platonic path par excellence. We live submerged in a state of forgetfulness, removed from the One and the Good. The Mohammedan dhikr consists of remembering God – the One and the Good – through the deliberate recital of His revealed Names. The very same method is also found among the Christians – the rosary and the hesychasm - and in other traditions besides. Typically, though, religious traditions construe this method as a ‘prayer of the heart’, a dedicated devotion, a mode of bhakti. In the Platonic understanding it is an essentially intellectual method. It is the means by which the structures of the mind are rehabilitated to the innate structures of the cosmos. Other metaphors, though, lend themselves to the Platonic presentation. The cosmology of the Timaeus has presiding over it the Demiurge, a figure modelled upon the mythological figure of the blacksmith god Vulcan. The dhikr of the Musselmans, the japa of the Hindoo, the hesychasm of the Christian, the anamnesis, is sometimes described as beating upon metal or else polishing a bronze mirror, metallurgic metaphors that invoke the notion of alchemical transformation. The method has a more noble and arcane philosophical heritage than what is commonly found in the sentimental presentations of religious devotionalism. 

Historically, its simplicity has recommended it to simple people, but in fact it is a method especially adapted to the intellectual temperament. The man of intellectual disposition, more than anyone else, is likely to fall in love with his own thoughts and with thinking and ruminating. The intellectual, the mentalist, loves the parade of errant thoughts that drift through the mind. This is exactly why such a person should pursue an intellectual (jnana) path, rather than a path of devotion, and why the anemnesis (dhikr/japa) is an ideal element of such a path. No one needs a Circle of Sameness as much as the head-bound and scatter-brained intellectual! But it is just for this reason that he will find it difficult. He resents being drawn away from his own thoughts. He hates the interruption. He likes ruminating, not meditating – and they are precisely opposite things. Intellectuals make bad meditators. Methods that ask them to stop thinking, though, are, in this, unreasonable. Many methods of oriental meditation are actively anti-intellectual. It is unreasonable, and finally futile, or even dangerous, to ask a person of intellectual and philosophical temperament – a thinker by nature – to stop thinking and to “surrender to the Void.” The better strategy is to ask them to think on one thought alone. Relevant to this, the present author recalls a conversation with a psychologist friend who reported to him that she often encounters occidental people who are driven to madness – actually damaged - by many forms of Boodhist meditation. The Boodhist emphasis on Emptiness, she said, can drive intellectualized Western people insane. There are hazards in japa too – bringing one’s inner cosmos back into alignment with the greater cosmos, rectifying the very rupture of one’s nativity, is no casual feat. When one challenges the mind’s addiction to its own wobbling, reckless, self-indulgent Circles of Difference the mind will, at length, resist. But it is still a more concrete and structured method than embracing Nothingness, and safer in that respect. 

For the Platonist, in any case, this mode of anemnesis – within or without a religious context - can be recommended. It is a matter of redefining the Circle of the Same in the mind and thereby bringing it back into alignment with the Circle of the Same in the great cosmos as a whole. This is the same, as it happens, as finding an axis, a centre, for the Circle of the Same defines the cosmic axis whereas the Circle of the Different wobbles and shifts here and there in a never-repeated dance of difference. For the Platonist, this mode of anemnesis entails fixing upon the thought of the One and the Good in the form of some suitable Name or formulae. The method consists, as explained above, of repeating this Name or formula over and over and over and over as a mantra at all times and in all circumstances. (We will call it the anamnesis, the ‘remembrance’.) It is not always easy – the very nature of man is to forget – but eventually it can be installed as a fixture of the mind, the very best of habits. Strictly speaking it does not matter what the Name or formula might be, but in a Platonic context it should represent the One and the Good. Usually, some form of Divine Name from an appropriate religious tradition is in order, although let us recall that the philosopher is not, after all, a religionist. His motives in regard to this may have more in common with the astrologer than with the religious devotee. For the philosopher, there is truth in religion – Socrates is meticulous in respecting popular religious observations - but it is very often like a pearl buried in a pile of dung. In this case, the pearl is a Name that acts as an auditory icon encapsulating the Form of Forms.

The effect of this practice of amenesis is to recontextualize all thinking. The Circle of the Same in the human microcosm is strengthened and reinforced, and this brings stability to the Circle of the Different. The objective is not to crush the "monkey mind" but to tame it. The method, therefore, is not anti-intellectual but rather it aims to bring a coherent order to the disturbed pertubations of the common mind. It is, superficially at least, a remarkably easy practice and can be done anywhere at anytime, and better yet it can be done in secret, quietly, as silent as a thought. It is, all the same, transforming. No one should underestimate its potency. Over time, it transforms the entire psychology. We cannot know if Plato himself knew exactly such a method - it is very ancient, as we know from its use among the Hindoos, and it is found in virtually all spiritual climates - and yet we can be sure that he was acquainted with its impact, for many of his dialogues are nothing less than an exploration of the mental processes that unfold in the course of diligent application to this method. In some later religious traditions, moreover, - most notably the cosmological whirling dance of the Soofis of Konya - exactly this method is directly linked to the name of Plato. There can be no doubt that the strength of the tradition of hesychasm in Greek Orthodox Christianity is built on Platonic foundations. Let us also mention that the beads often used as a prop to assist in this method - so-called japa mala - typically consist of one hundred and eight beads strung on a string, and this number, one hundred and eight, is not chosen at random but is in fact a key figure in the calculation of Plato's Nuptial Number, for 108 x 120,000 = 12,960,000. This should suggest to us that what we have here, in Plato's dialogues and in various religious traditions, are remaining elements of what was once a universal understanding. 

The japa-mala, or string of 108 beads, is typically used to assist in the practice of anamnesis (remembrance) in many religious traditions. 


Harper McAlpine Black

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