image: Ruins of the temple of Asclepius, Elea. Wikimedia commons (link).
Special thanks to a reader who recently introduced me to the work of Peter Kingsley, with whom I had previously been unfamiliar.
I have now read one of Dr. Kingsley's four books, In the Dark Places of Wisdom (1999), which can accurately be described as "momentous in its implications" (in the words one prominent author has used to describe Dr. Kingsley's work).
The momentousness of the implications comes from Dr. Kingsley's discovery that something has been stolen from the culture that we today know as "the West" -- something so essential, that it is in fact the very thing which we each long for in our lives, and which we can wear ourselves out in pursuing and never reaching.
In the Dark Places of Wisdom describes the problem:
And here's a great secret: we all have that vast missingness deep inside us [. . .] the more we feel that nothingness inside us, the more we feel the need to fill the void. So we try to substitute this and that, but nothing lasts. We keep wanting something else, needing some other need to keep us going [. . .]. 34-35.
Because of what has been stolen in antiquity, he argues, western culture has become "a past master at the art of substitution," but "It offers and never delivers because it can't. It has lost the power even to know what needs to be delivered, so it offers substitutes instead" (35).
What we are seeking is described by Dr. Kingsley at one point as "the peace of utter stillness" (36), and of course we can never find this by rushing after it, searching for it everywhere -- but ironically there is a way in which it is accessible to every one of us, at all times.
According to his thesis, the knowledge of how to access "the peace of utter stillness" still exists in places outside of western culture, and because of this many moderns have assumed that such knowledge "never took root in the West" (115). "But," he says, "that's not the case." In fact, this knowledge was once at the heart of western culture -- and may indeed lie at the heart of its greatest ancient achievements. It's just that it has been covered over by what may be described as "a conspiracy of silence" (230).
He implies that the blame lies with the invention of a new definition of philosophy, in Athens, under Plato. Plato, the book argues, could almost be seen as a "parricide," who inherited the great ancient wisdom and then betrayed it -- metaphorically speaking, killing his own father.
And the "father" that Platonic philosophy killed, Kingsley argues, was represented by an actual historical figure, one whose name has survived to this day: Parmenides of Elea.
Based upon new archaeological discoveries of marbles and inscriptions which had lain forgotten at the site of ancient Elea (or Velia, as it was also known and as it is spelled throughout In the Dark Places of Wisdom), along with the body of what had already been known about Parmenides (including the surviving fragments of his own writings), Peter Kingsley shows the reader that Parmenides came from an ancient line of wisdom-lovers who practiced the technique of achieving that "utter stillness" through the entry of a state of consciousness "described as neither sleep nor waking," in which they made contact with "another level of awareness and another level of being" (80).
In other words, Peter Kingsley has found yet another incredibly important line of evidence which demonstrates that what we today describe as "shamanic" (a word which he uses in the book) is in fact the shared inheritance of all humanity -- not least of all that portion which would later come to be known as "the West" -- but that in western culture this inheritance has somehow been lost, or stolen.
The details are amazing and fascinating, and deserve to be read in their entirety in the book itself. Below are just a few noteworthy quotations, many of which appear to resonate very strongly with material that has been presented in this blog and in my 2014 book The Undying Stars, where similar conclusions have been reached based upon other sources of evidence -- which is just what we might expect to find, if in fact something like the loss posited in In the Dark Places of Wisdom has indeed taken place in western culture (due to font limitations, some diacritical markings over vowels, present in the original quotations, are not included here):
- "Always we want to learn from outside, from absorbing other people's knowledge. It's safer that way. The trouble is that it's always other people's knowledge. We already have everything we need to know, in the darkness inside ourselves. The longing is what turns us inside out until we find the sun and the moon and the stars inside" (67).
- "And the fact is that Parmenides never describes himself as traveling out of darkness into the light. When you follow what he says you see he was going in exactly the opposite direction" (51).
- "The underworld isn't just a place of darkness and death. It only seems like that from a distance. In reality it's the supreme place of paradox where all the opposites meet. Right at the roots of western as well as eastern mythology there's the idea that the sun comes out of the underworld and goes back to the underworld every night. It belongs in the underworld. That's where it has its home; where its children come from. The source of light is at home in the darkness" (68).
- "There used to be experts at incubation -- masters at the art of going into another state of consciousness or allowing themselves to go if they were drawn there. Sometimes they did this for the sake of healing others, but the point of incubation wasn't really the healing at all. That's simply how it seemed. What was most important was the fact that the healing comes from another level of being, from somewhere else. For these were people who were able to enter another world, make contact with the divine receive knowledge directly from the gods" (101-102).
- "The purpose was to free people's attention from distractions, to turn it in another direction so their awareness could start operating in an entirely different way. The stillness had a point to it, and that was to create an opening into a world unlike anything we're used to: a world that can only be entered 'in deep meditation, ecstasies and dreams'" (181).
- "Ancient Greek accounts of incubation repeatedly mention certain signs that mark the point of entry into another world: into another state of awareness that's neither waking nor sleep. One of the sings is that you become aware of a rapid spinning movement. Another is that you hear the powerful vibration produced by a piping, whistling hissing sound." In India exactly the same signs are described as the prelude to entering samadhi, the state beyond sleep and waking. And they're directly related to the process known as the awakening of kundalini -- of the 'serpent power' that's the basic energy in all creation but that's almost completely asleep in human beings. When it starts waking up it makes a hissing sound" (128).
- "The recipe is strictly esoteric, only for transmission from a spiritual 'father' to his adopted 'son'" (129).
- "For us a song and a road are very different things. But in the language of ancient Greek epic poetry the word for 'road' and the word for 'song,' oimos and oime, are almost identical. They're linked, have the same origin. Originally the poet's song was quite simply a journey into another world: a world where the past and future are as accessible and real as the present. And his journey was his song. Those were the times when the poet was a magician, a shaman. [. . .] The words shamans use as they enter the state of ecstasy evoke the things they speak about. The poems they sing don't only describe their journeys; they're what makes the journeys happen. And shamans have always used repetition as a matter of course to invoke a consciousness quite different from our ordinary awareness: a consciousness where something else starts to take over. The repetition is what draws them into another world, away from all the things we know" (122 - 123).
Each of these quotations deserves careful and deep consideration. As does the entire book, and the message it is trying to tell us.
It is fascinating to note that in this ancient tradition of which Parmenides (or Parmeneides) was part, the entry into the condition of being "beyond sleep and waking" was understood to be essential for the "fields" of both healing and of properly ordering society and human activity. This same connection is also found in shamanic cultures around the world, and we have also seen that it appears to have been a central feature of the Therapeutae of the ancient world, discussed in this previous post.
Regarding the thesis that it was Plato (and the mindset of Athens in general) who is responsible for the loss of this ancient wisdom, I would say that it is very clear that Plato himself gives hints that his writing (and especially his "story-form" writing) is not meant to be understood literally -- that Plato's writing is itself esoteric in nature -- and Peter Kingsley acknowledges that in this book.
Indeed, he provides many quotations from Plato which indicate that Plato as well believed that the rules for ordering society had to come from the realm of the gods (and specifically from Apollo, who is not only the god of the sun but also of music, of healing, and of laws for the proper ordering of society and one's own life), which seems to undermine the argument that Plato or the Platonic school turned philosophy into an exercise in dead and dry "ratiocination" (to use a 19th-century term) rather than one of ecstatic travel into non-ordinary reality.
And, as I have explored previously, there is an important exchange in the dialogue known as the Phaedrus in which Plato has Socrates point to the temple at Delphi -- the most important oracle in the ancient world, and the place in which the priestess (the Pythia) would "cross over" into that same realm "beyond sleep and waking" in order to receive information directly from the divine (in this case, of course, from Apollo, whose importance is powerfully and insightfully explored throughout In the Dark Places of Wisdom).
And so I am not so sure that Plato was actually the culprit.
I personally believe that there is strong evidence to support the conclusion that the actual forces that sought to destroy the esoteric and "shamanic" elements at the heart of what would come to be called "western culture" were not the Platonists but rather the creators of literalist Christianity, who spent the years that we (and they) designate as the second and third centuries AD vehemently opposing esoteric interpretations of the scriptures that they held sacred, and especially the various different schools and groups known as the Gnostics, and who eventually maneuvered into the capitol of the Roman Empire itself -- whereupon, during the reign of the emperor Theodosius, they extinguished both the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Oracle at Delphi.
Nevertheless, I am in complete agreement with Dr. Kingsley regarding the answer to the "vast missingness deep inside us," and the fact that we are all designed for and capable of "the peace of utter stillness," and that in fact we are in contact with this infinite stillness of the divine realm at all times, and we can access it through a nearly infinite variety of different techniques of ecstasy.
I am also in agreement that this ability to journey to the hidden realm is part of the ancient heritage of all humanity -- of the "western" part as well -- but that in the West it has been stolen, and suppressed, for well over a thousand years and nearly for two thousand.
This knowledge cannot be hidden forever. It is right there, in each of us, ready to be found.
Many thanks to Peter Kingsley for his work in revealing an incredibly important part of this story, and to Mr. J____ for pointing me to it.
a few additional previous posts with some resonance to the subjects discussed above include: