Tag Archives: stillness

The Key Is The Mind

When I wrote my last post, my intention was to start a series of posts summarizing the heart of the Gnostic way of looking at the world.  The idea at the heart of Gnosticism is the idea that each of us has a bit of divinity within us.  But this idea alone took various schools in completely different directions, depending on their overall outlook.  Gnosticism defies easy description or the inclination to get to the bottom line.

Another theme common to all of the Gnostic sects focus on the importance of the mind, of thought, and of rationality.  We’ve already discussed metanoia at length – the process of raising up the mind – and many of the aions have names which are some form of the word Nous/Noia, the Greek word for ‘mind’ or ‘thought’.  In the Gnostic creation myth, the first act of the Father is to contemplate.  As described in the Secret Book of John:

His aeon is indestructible, being in a state of tranquility, at rest in silence. … (It is) the one who knows Itself alone in the light-water that surrounds It, which is the spring of living water, the light which is full of purity. In every way It perceived Its own image, seeing It in the pure light-water which surrounds It.

We might here imagine the mind of the Father, a sole Oneness in the cosmos, surrounded by reflective water in all directions, looking out in all directions and seeing only himself.  It’s a bit reminiscent of the spirit of God reflecting in the waters at the beginning of Genesis 1.

And Its thinking become a thing. She appeared. She stood in Its presence in the brilliance of the light; she is the power which is before the All. It is she who appeared, she who is the perfect Pronoia of the All, the light, the likeness of the light, the image of the Invisible, she who is the perfect power, Barbelo, the perfect aeon of the glory.

Pronoia is a Greek word meaning “first thought.”  These events are still occurring within a mind: the Father in perfect stillness and silence, contemplating his reflection in the luminescent water; the first thought being articulated and becoming distinguished from the Father’s prior state of contemplation.

The creation of Barbelo, the First Thought of the Father, parallels the creation of Sophia as depicted in Proverbs 8:21-32: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.. … I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight.”

Pronoia acts as the Father’s mouth, speaking forth words as the Father contemplates them and then passes them into her mind.  There is a hint perhaps of sexual parentage here, especially in the image of the Father’s offspring being birthed by Pronoia the Mother as she speaks his words aloud.  The Father and Pronoia exist as a syzygy, a union of two beings into one.

The word given form by being spoken is Logos, from whom, the myth tells us, the rest of the cosmos was given order and form.

In the Valentinian version of the mythos, the prime syzygy is the union of Profundity with Silence; this pair precedes Mind and Truth.  The idea is largely the same; at the root of it all, a mind at rest, in silence, engages in deep reflection.  It is no accident that this also describes the experience of one who performs silent prayer or stillness meditation.  The “little” mind (or microcosmos) of the individual aspiring to union with God is of the same essence as the “big” mind (or macrocosmos) of God, and it is this likeness that makes reunion possible.  And, the Gnostics say, it is the state of silent contemplation in which our individual minds are most like the mind of God, so this is the best state in which to discern truth.

[W]henever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:6

In my last post, I mentioned the Valentinian view that the struggle for error vs. truth takes place primarily in the mind.  It was not their position that the mind is all there is, but merely that within is where the most profound change occurs.

A common concern expressed by those who mistrust the mysticism of “looking within” is that it is too easy to be led astray.  If in the middle of a profoundly touching mystical experience one entertains a fanciful notion, it is too easy to find oneself set on a path away from truth.  Indeed, the Gnostics themselves provide us with material enough to caution us in this regard – some of their writings are very bizarre indeed.  But the answer to this is in the notion of logic.  For example, Paul had this to say about the process:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)

The word translated “spiritual” is logike, which can also mean discerning with rationality – literally with logic.  It is almost certain he meant that as a reference to Logos, the principle which brings order to the cosmos and to the mind.  “Logic” is of course a cognate of “Logos.”  The discernment which we embark upon should produce results which are rational and which ring true when we consider them in light of the world around us.  Thus we are warned against letting our mind lead us astray by grounding our insights in rationality and experience.  They should lead us into, not away from, a state of proportion and balance.

The next indication that your mind is healing in the right direction is that your actions are more consistently ethical and compassionate.  Both the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12, which I quoted above, lead directly from instructions on “logical worship” and “praying in private” to guidelines on ethical behavior.  We find this too in the Gospel of Truth:

Say then in your heart that you are this perfect day and that in you the light which does not fail dwells. Speak concerning the truth to those who seek it and of knowledge to those who, in their error, have committed sin. Make sure-footed those who stumble and stretch forth your hands to the sick. Nourish the hungry and set at ease those who are troubled. … [T]his one, because he is a righteous person, does his works among others. Do the will of the Father, then, for you are from him. For the Father is sweet and his will is good.

Rebirth in the Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas and several related works such as the Book of Thomas the Contender were the product of a community in Galilee or Syria modern scholars call “the Thomas Christians,” and we can call collectively the body of scripture they wrote “the Thomas scripture.”  They wrote the first draft of the Gospel of Thomas around the same time as Paul wrote his letters, circa 50 CE, a generation or so before the Gospel of Mark was written.

At the time of Jesus, there was a great amount of diversity of belief among the Jewish people, including about the notion of the afterlife.  The Sadducees held to a traditional Jewish view of the afterlife as described in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:19-20: that when a person dies, all of them dies.  The Pharisees added to this the idea that upon the return of the Messiah, the righteous would be resurrected from the dead.

Early Christians, like the Essenes and other apocalyptic sects, adopted the Greek idea of the afterlife.  According to this teaching, each person has an eternal soul.  When a person dies, the soul is guided by a psychopomp to the underworld, where they are judged and sent on to a final destination: a pleasant realm like Elysium for the virtuous, or a fiery realm of punishment like Tartarus for the wicked.

But these were not the only ideas about death and the eternal soul being considered and debated among people of the middle east at that time.  Most of the Gnostic communities, due to the influence of Buddhism, professed some degree of belief in rebirth.  Rebirth is not quite like the more familiar idea of reincarnation.  The idea of reincarnation is that each person has an immortal soul that remains unchanged from incarnation to incarnation.  The idea of rebirth is a bit more nebulous: that some of the energy that makes us up is eternal — the eternal breath, or holy spirit (ruach hakodesh or hagia pneuma) — but that the self, or the part of us that identifies as “I,” is not.  The “I” dies along with the body and the eternal essence is released back into the cosmos.

The Thomas Christians believed this, but they also taught that Jesus made it possible for the “I” to become immortal and persist after death.  This was a privilege granted only to the righteous.  Consider for example Saying 60 of the Gospel of Thomas (I’ve slightly interpolated from the translation here):

He saw a Samaritan carrying a lamb and going to Judea. He said to his disciples, “[Why is that man carrying a lamb?]” They said to him, “So that he may kill it and eat it.” He said to them, “He will not eat it while it is alive, but only after he has killed it and it has become a carcass.”
They said, “Otherwise he can’t do it.”
He said to them, “So also with you, seek for yourselves a place for rest, or you might become a carcass and be eaten.”

Rest, or repose, or stillness, as I noted in my commentary on the Gospel of Truth, is used as a way of depicting the process of achieving gnosis with the divine presence by way of quiet prayer and stillness meditation.

The Gospel of Thomas is very concerned with the distinction between being alive and being a corpse; it comes up so often we might consider it a major theme.  The idea is that if you die without salvation, your identity will fade and your spirit will be reabsorbed into the world, and you won’t have another shot at achieving eternal life for your selfhood until you are a human again, which may take some time.  Consider this excerpt from the Book of Thomas the Contender:

The savior replied, “Listen to what I am going to tell you and believe in the truth. That which sows and that which is sown will dissolve in the fire – within the fire and the water – and they will hide in tombs of darkness. And after a long time they shall show forth [as] fruit of the evil trees, being punished, being slain in the mouth of beasts and men at the instigation of the rains and winds and air and the light that shines above.”

This illuminates the meaning of the stranger sayings in the Gospel of Thomas, such as saying 7:

Jesus said, “Lucky is the lion that the human will eat, so that the lion becomes human. And foul is the human that the lion will eat, and the lion still will become human.”

There is something of an alchemical understanding of spirit at play here.  Spirit evolves when beings eat others or are themselves eaten.  If a ‘higher’ being eats a ‘lower’ being (with humans being seen as the pinnacle – what else would we expect a human to say?), it transforms the spirit of the eaten from a lower state to a higher state.  If a ‘lower’ being eats a ‘higher’ being, the spirit is still transformed from a lower state to a higher state, but all the sadder for the higher being!  But if spirit is buried in the earth along with a body, it has to start all over again… being absorbed by the roots of trees and showing forth as fruit.  (There must be a metaphorical level of meaning here too, or else why are the trees called evil?)

What goes into your mouth will not defile you; rather, it’s what comes out of your mouth that will defile you. (Thomas 14; also Matthew 15:11, compare Luke 6:45)

According to the Thomas Christians, the person who is able to achieve immortality in their identity will live on and has a chance to escape from the world, which was constructed as a prison for spirit.

Jesus said, “Whoever has come to know the world has discovered a carcass, and whoever has discovered a carcass, of that person the world is not worthy.” (Thomas 56)

The Gospel of Truth, 2: apokatastasis and stillness

For the name of the gospel is the manifestation of hope, since that is the discovery of those who seek him, because the All sought him from whom it had come forth. You see, the All had been inside of him, that illimitable, inconceivable one, who is better than every thought.

The teachings of Valentinus draw heavily from the letters of Paul and the Gospel of John. We saw before a passage expanding upon the opening of the Gospel of John, and here is an oblique reference to Colossians 1, especially verses 19-20: “For in him all the fulness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

This passage, among many written by Paul, refers to the idea of apokatastasisthe restoration or reconciliation of all things with God. This idea may remind us of the Buddhist notion of bodhichitta or the Jewish teaching of tikkun olam.  Valentinus asserts that since all things once dwelt within his mind, and spring forth from it, so all things seek to return there, to the state of balance and equilibrium which is the genuine cosmic order. And indeed, we find that all things in nature seek equilibrium.  As Meister Eckhart was attributed as saying, “There is nothing in creation so like God as stillness.”

There is a deep contrast between this teaching and that which we find among many of the other Gnostic schools of thought – dualism, the idea that the Platonic “Realm of Forms” is the only true nature and material existence is a curse or trap.  A similar flavor of dualism appears in some schools of mainstream Christian thought as well: for example the Calvinistic idea of total depravity.  Valentinus was familiar with both forms of dualism and rejected both.  As we see in the second paragraph quoted below, he argued that the distinction we think appears to divide one kind of nature from another is really just an error of the mind.  When we’ve reconciled to God’s perspective, we the error fades and we see only that all is of one nature.  If all things will ultimately be reconciled with God, there cannot really be, in a ‘deep’ sense, a fundamental divide of any sort in nature: neither of substance nor of essence.

The ineffability of God is also mentioned here. This is a theme common to all schools of Gnosticism, and it turns out to be of great significance. It is not enough just to say that God is beyond comprehension; God is also beyond description. “Ineffable” means “beyond utterance,” and this means that any descriptions or attributions we make in attempting to describe God must fall short. No one utterance can contain the whole truth. The Gnostics kept this in the forefront of their mind and refused to ever invest themselves fully in one scripture or doctrine. Doctrine was not, was never, to be taken fully literally. In their mythopoeic writings, the many variations of the creation story of Genesis which we find throughout the corpus of Gnostic literature, there is a sense that all sacred notions are being deliberately overturned – for example, they cast the serpent as the savior against a dictatorial creator. It was not that they were casually blasphemous, shocking us just for the heck of it. It was that they understood the dictum, as expressed by those of a different (but related) faith tradition – “If you meet the Buddha you must kill him.” We speak of ‘God’ in an attempt to describe our experiences of the divine presence. But our words, our concepts, must never be mistaken for the real thing.

That is one level on which we might understand what Valentinus meant in the next paragraph.

Ignorance of the Father brought about terror and fear. And terror became dense like a fog, that no one was able to see. Because of this, error became strong. But it worked on its hylic substance vainly, because it did not know the truth. It was in a fashioned form while it was preparing, in power and in beauty, the equivalent of truth. This then, was not a humiliation for him, that illimitable, inconceivable one. For they were as nothing, this terror and this forgetfulness and this figure of falsehood, whereas this established truth is unchanging, unperturbed and completely beautiful.

This theme of error being like a fog through which we cannot see is repeated numerous times, in numerous different ways throughout the Gospel of Truth. “Fashioned form” is particularly key here, because it makes clear that Valentinus is talking about the demiurge. In Valentinian myth, we learn of aions, reflections of the divine who live within the Pleroma and who are all begotten, birthed organically one from another or borne of seeds; and they are described so in contrast to the denizens of the material world, who are all fashioned, or created, as if by hand.

Which brings me to the question I asked at the end of my first post. “Error” prevents us from attuning our minds to the genuine cosmic order – because of terror and fear we are caught up into made-up ideas. The word used later in the Gospel of Truth, as throughout the New Testament, to refer to the process of casting off these errors is metanoia – which is mistranslated as “repentance,” but metanoia is not a word with the same moral overtones. It combines the roots meta, which means “above”, and nous, which means “mind,” and means, therefore, to lift your mind above its present state.