This is Post 23 in the ‘Meditation Guidance’ series. Summaries of the other articles in this series can be found by clicking here.
Self-inquiry, meditation practice, and the practice that the English-speaking Buddhist traditions call ‘Mindfulness’, all involve what can be described metaphorically as an inner drawing back, out of the egoic identification in which we find ourselves, into an identification with the field of Consciousness itself – and discovering the blessings that flow from that. We usually associate these practices with Indian and far eastern spirituality (and perhaps with a few Christian mystical traditions like the Quakers). It is important to understand however, that the same subtle spiritual knowledge was present at the beginning of Western Philosophy in the Platonic and Neoplatonic traditions that flourished before the Christian period, and then re-emerged in the Renaissance.
An Ancient Greek Vision of Spiritual Freedom
Socrates, the Classical Greek philosopher, who lived in Athens in the 5th Century BCE, was teaching on ethics and the ultimate nature of mind in the same century that the Buddha was addressing these themes in ancient India. If he did ever do any writing himself, none of Socrates’ writings have survived, so we only know of his ideas though the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and via the playwright Aristophanes.
There is much in Plato’s literary record of Socrates’ life and teachings, that is relevant to this series of posts on the brahmavihāras, but I would like to return to one of his teachings that I have touched on briefly before in this series (here) – the ‘Allegory of the Cave’ from Plato’s Republic. Set in the context of a wider discussion about the value of education and of spiritual knowledge, it appears to present a philosophical theory of human perception that is very similar to both the Buddha’s view, and that of Quantum Physics.
Egoic Perception – Helpless Prisoners in Plato’s Cave
The central image of the Cave Allegory is that of a line of prisoners who are chained up facing the back wall of a cave on which they can see shadows moving – shadows projected by the light of a fire that is burning brightly behind them, but which they are unaware of. Either because the prisoners are so tightly constrained from movement, or more likely (as depicted in the video that is posted below this article) because they are so bemused by the moving shadows, they are entirely unaware of either the fire or the actual objects that are throwing the shadows. The shadows are of a procession of figures and animals that are being moved between the prisoners and the fire, to provide a ‘show’ – a play of shadows that holds the attention of the prisoners.
‘The Cave’ is a visionary landscape, like an image from a myth or a dream, and there are several ways in which it can be interpreted. Fundamentally however, Plato’s ‘Cave Allegory’ is Socrates’ stark and brilliant allegorical description of the nature of egoic consciousness – a state of unfreedom and unconsciousness. It is worth reflecting deeply upon this image, because it may well be the most accessible metaphor to guide our practice of spiritual self-inquiry that has ever been imagined. The prisoners are so transfixed by the moving shadows that they never even try to turn round and see the source of the firelight, just as human beings rarely turn inward to witness the source of Consciousness. The general message is clear – in order to become conscious, we must draw back into Consciousness.
Self-Inquiry – Where, and What, is Consciousness?
The imagery of Plato’s Cave is an invitation into the mystery of self-inquiry. It invites us to look within – to notice the Consciousness that is the ultimate subject of all our experiencing, and to notice its qualities, and to notice that our experiencing is entirely dependant on it.
This is of enormous importance in regard to our current strand of reflection on Appreciative Joy, and in regard to our experience of Sensation (the vedanā skandha of Indian tradition) and the sensory world. Although we a mostly unconscious of Consciousness, logically there can be no experience – of either our extraordinary bodies or our beautiful world – without it. Sympathetic Joy is an attitude of Consciousness, and is a mode of recognition that includes an appreciation of the mystery of Consciousness in our appreciation of the realm of Sensation. The magnificent human body with all its incredibly acute senses, has only evolved in the way it has, and only functions with such grace and capability, because of the mystery of Consciousness.
If we take the fire in Plato’s Cave in a very general way as a symbol of Consciousness, the first implied invitation is to look for the source of that Consciousness. I have discussed this mode of self-inquiry in several of the early posts in this series – here, here, and here) – I regard self-inquiry as an essential preliminary practice for any serious meditator. The act of looking for the source of Consciousness in self-inquiry provides necessary and foundational insights which transform our approach to meditation and Mindfulness practice. To recognise Consciousness, and to recognise that it is ultimately non-personal and non-locatable, is to enter into a profound process of empowerment. The next implied invitation is to familiarise ourselves with that Consciousness: to recognise the way it is embodied in us; to identify its energetic qualities; and to understand how we can allow ourselves to more fully embody those energetic qualities through meditation practice.
Where is Consciousness of Sensation?
The self-inquiry in which we seek to notice the Consciousness of Sensation, usually first leads us to try to find that aspect of Consciousness which is related to our sense of sight, and we may be perplexed to find that the Consciousness that we might have assumed to be somewhere behind our eyes is nowhere to be found – but instead is non-locatable and non-personal. Clearly some process of perception is happening but the crucial element of Consciousness, without which there would be no experiencing, is illusive. It is always absolutely reliably present when we look for it, but it is indefinable and not locatable.
We find the same ‘problem’ of non-locatability with our Consciousness of hearing, taste, smell, touch and position sense – and the same with thought. This non-locatability of Consciousness may at first seem a little odd or perhaps inconsequential, but if we pursue the inquiry further, we undergo a process of gentle realisation in which we begin to see that this absence of anything personal in the experience of Consciousness is an incredibly positive thing. We begin to recognise it as a great blessing – and as the source of our freedom.
So, Plato’s ‘Cave Allegory’ has much to teach us about Mindfulness, and much to teach us about the nature of mind. The imagery of the shadows cast on the cave wall by the light of the unseen fire are speaking of the illusory nature of our experiencing if we fail to acknowledge the light of Consciousness – when we cling to the illusion of a personal self and fail to acknowledge that Consciousness (the ’empty’ vijnāña skandha) is an objective and collective reality, and is ’empty’ of self. We are being invited to look within and to look for Consciousness and familiarise ourselves with Consciousness – and as soon as we even take the first step in that process we find ourselves becoming more conscious.
Drawing back into the Fire – into the Energy of Embodied Consciousness
In meditative-enquiry we have two choices – both of which take us to the same place. In terms of the Plato’s Cave image, we can turn around and look for source of the firelight, the Consciousness that is the cause our experiencing. Alternatively we can throw off our chains and draw back into identification with the light and energy of the fire. Fire is a predominant symbol of psychological energy in Western imagination. The fire in Plato’s Cave can therefore be seen as a symbol of the energy of consciousness – the energy that that ultimately animates our world.
We can gain new understandings each time we return to this image. For now, let me just say that, for me, the act of ‘resting as’ the fire in Plato’s Cave image represents the practice of ‘resting as’ the somatic energy of the four surface bodies that I have been talking about in recent posts. The energy of these four subtle bodies creates our ‘self’ and creates our reality. By resting each of the surface bodies ‘as’ Consciousness, as we do when we practice the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle, the four surface bodies begin take on the energetic qualities of Consciousness, which in turn initiates transformative processes in our nervous system, our physiology, our relationships, and our world.
Only by allowing ourselves to identify with the somatic energy fields of the body in this way, can we start to discern and refine the energy that we bring to the perceptual process by which we create our world. To meditate is to sit in a transformative fire, in which the egoic patterning of our surface bodies is gradually consumed – effortlessly, by the power of Consciousness. By willingly submitting to the fire we can burn away the egoic kleshas and return to our natural state.
Life Outside Plato’s Cave – in the Sun of Consciousness
In the second part of the Plato’s Cave Allegory, we are invited to imagine that one of the prisoners is unchained and persuaded, at first fearfully and unwillingly, to look at the fire and the various figures and objects that were casting the shadows on the cave wall, and then to walk in the sunlight outside the cave. This exploration of life in the world outside the cave symbolises the philosopher’s stable recognition of Consciousness, and his or her investigation of truth, ethics, love, and the ultimate nature of mind – and his or her recognition that all these are eternally present in Consciousness as archetypal ‘pure forms’.
The sun in the world outside the cave symbolises the universal Consciousness of which the fire inside the cave is a pale reflection. In Platonic terms, Consciousness is ‘the Good’ – love, truth, and ethical discernment are not possible without Consciousness. For me, the experience of the freed prisoner out in the benevolent sunlight of Consciousness for the first time, seeing the physical world in a whole new way, is a wonderful image of Appreciative Joy (muditā). Just as the freed prisoner’s experience is illuminated by the golden light of the sun, so the spiritual practitioner who chooses to rest as Consciousness comes to see the world, and nature, and all of human activity as illuminated by ‘the Good’ – by the healing, evolutionary, and compassionate sun of Consciousness.
The relationship between the light of the sun outside the cave and the light of the fire inside the cave highlights the important distinction that has to be made between the transpersonal field of Consciousness (the sun), and the personal bodily-felt somatic reflection of Consciousness in the subtle bodies. As we learn to rest each of the four surface bodies as Consciousness, and as we practice the brahmavihāras meditation-cycle, we are aware of a relational unity between these two levels, but the relationship of the sun and the fire is analogous to the relationship between the mahabrahmavihāras as archetypal principles and aspects of Consciousness, and the brahmavihāras as energetic ‘states’ felt in the field of the body in meditation.
Returning to free the other prisoners – from egoic delusion
Finally we are invited to imagine that the freed prisoner (like the Bodhisattva of Buddhist tradition), out of his joy (Appreciative Joy) at his spiritual freedom and his recognition of the true nature of things, wishes to return to the cave to free the other prisoners (Compassion). We are told however that this impulse, and his news of the wonderful world outside the cave, is met with utter disbelief, and even violent resistance, from the other prisoners, who would to prefer to stay manacled in the darkness, and to remain deluded and manipulated by the play of shadows.
We can only assume that Socrates was saddened by the lack of receptivity to his ideas among his contemporaries, so I feel grateful to him for his persistence, and also to Plato for being such an attentive student, and to those who preserved and hand-copied Plato’s writings through the Dark Ages. Perhaps, now that Socrates’ view appears to be supported by the evidence of Quantum Physics, humanity may at last be more ready to hear his message.
The link below is to a video showing artist John Grigsby’s imagining via clay animation of Plato’s description of Socrates’ wonderful Cave Allegory.
These articles are best read in sequence. To go to the next article in the series just click the ‘Next’ button at the bottom of the page. For an overview of the sequence, with short summaries of each article, click here.
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