The Dark Places of Wisdom
THE ROAD TO THE GODDESS
The mares that carry me as far as longing can reach
rode on, once they had come and fetched me onto the legendary
road of the divinity that carries the one who knows
through the vast and dark unknown. —Parmenides
What inspired you to dive so deeply into the traditions of Ancient Greece?
Ever since I was a little boy, I was searching for something. I didn’t find it in London where I was growing up, so when I became a teenager I started exploring and traveling and running away a great deal. I walked across Europe, and then hitchhiked into the Middle East and North Africa, and eventually found that my real home was in Eastern Turkey and Syria.
Over the course of these travels I was living a very risky life. I was shot at in Turkey, I had to fight for my life in Syria, and I won’t even go into what happened in the Sahara Desert! But there were a lot of very stimulating and challenging things, and by the time I returned to England and decided to study philosophy at university, it was all a bit ridiculous for me. Compared to what I had experienced, I found the teachers to be very naive. They weren't answering anything real... it was just about proving how clever one was.
Then I remembered how a few years back I had loved reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets in particular. I recalled how at the beginning of his Quartets he gives two quotations in ancient Greek —he doesn’t even translate them in the original edition— from a figure called Heraclitus.
I said to myself ‘well, if Heraclitus was important enough for Eliot, then he’s probably important enough for me.' And I started to learn ancient Greek, just by teaching myself. I remember I felt a tremendous draw and need to do that.
Now I was at a university where there was a very big, very influential religious studies department, and all of my friends at the time were studying Hinduism and Buddhism with world class professors, and there was a lot of excitement. Everybody was reading the Gita and so on, and was about to go off to India.
In the midst of all this, I remember lying down in the middle of my room —this is something I used to do spontaneously, meditate by just lying down either on the floor or on my bed, which was interesting as later I discovered there was actually a history of this practice in Ancient Greece— but while I was lying down a voice said to me very clearly 'if you go to India, you will never come back. But your work is to do with the West—it begins with the West, it ends with the West, and that is what you need to do.'
It seemed very bizarre, because here I was at 17 years old, and I didn’t even have any idea I had any work to do. Yet I trusted this voice completely, and so I started going back further into history, trying to figure out what had happened before all of what the academics and scholars talk about as philosophy.
So it really became the search for wisdom, which is what the word philosophy actually means. Real embodied wisdom; because I had experienced enough in the Middle East and North Africa to know I needed something real. I wasn’t going to simply be satisfied with some concept.
And so you came upon these philosophers in pursuit of this wisdom...
Well yes. But the real answer, the true answer to your question of what inspired me and brought and drew me to these figures, is that they in fact inspired me and drew me and came to me themselves. But how am I to explain that? It’s not at all easy... I’m planning to write about it, and it’s probably going to take a whole book to discuss what that really means—to be literally drawn by figures in the past, not just metaphorically, or symbolically.
So I was brought to Parmenides, brought to Empedocles, and then everything started changing. I learned very quickly that not only were these figures amazingly powerful poets, but they were also tricksters.
They’re very cunning people, these philosophers. I found they demanded everything of you. They were not concerned with concepts, or the narcissistic notions of self-development and evolutionary progress we are often obsessed with in today's culture.
This particular obsession actually goes all the way back to Athens, to the time of Plato and Aristotle, who lived roughly 100 years or so after Parmenides and Empedocles. At that time Athens, this supposedly democratic power, was in fact forcing all the other Greek states to also become so-called democrats; yet the truth is that hardly any of the other states actually wanted to be pressured into this.
Alongside that, if you look at the larger picture that began to emerge at this time, you suddenly see a complete violation of culture and cultural continuity in regards to the principles of the ancestors... of humility and respect for where we come from.
Plato and Aristotle looked back at these old figures —the so-called Presocratics, who were supposed to anticipate or lead up to Socrates— and viewed them mostly as just bumbling, stumbling, primitive thinkers; fools who hadn’t come to the level of sophistication that they themselves now had.
Yet the Athenians basically took something that came before them —something sacred, powerful, unpredictable, incantatory, magical, and mysterious— and turned it into something very aggressively rational and lopsidedly intellectual, and then claimed they were at the beginning of a tradition even though they weren’t.
But Parmenides and Empedocles did not belong to that world of arrogance. There’s a profound surrender in both of them to the divine, to the sacred.
THE FEMININE DESCENT
Can you say more about what these figures from this earlier tradition were speaking to, in contrast to the Athenians that came after them?
Well, for example Parmenides wrote a poem that is very beautiful, very paradoxical, and very hard to swallow. In fact today the scholarly establishment still cannot swallow it.
This is because Parmenides is often hailed —even by Aristotle and Plato— as the father of logic. Yet he presented this logic in, and as, a poem.
At the beginning of this poem he describes the journey he made into the underworld, to be given the gift of logic by the queen of the underworld. From the very beginning of this poem he describes how he is taken, taken... he keeps on repeating the word —it’s really quite wonderful— taken, taken... and he’s being carried by girls, by daughters of the sun.
Every single figure in that introduction to Parmenides’ poem is feminine. It’s all to do with the feminine; with immersing oneself in the darkness —meaning, to confront the fear of going down into the depths of oneself, really down into the depths, and accepting the darkness we find there— because there Parmenides says, right down in the heart of darkness, the heart of existence, if one is courageous enough one is brought face to face with the goddess. It is she who is responsible for the reality behind existence, because she is the queen of the underworld —the queen of death— which of course we are terrified of generally.
So here he’s coming face to face with the queen of death, which incidentally was very meaningful to me. As a child ten years earlier, I can recall suddenly realizing one day why everybody was so frightened about death.
I was walking in Highgate Cemetery near the school where I used to go to, where the tombstones of Karl Marx and all these amazing figures were laid out around me. It’s such a vast, sprawling, incredibly wild cemetery, with beautiful mounds and grasses and such antiquity, and suddenly I realized... this wildness and beauty is the mystery of death.
When that hit me all of a sudden I found I could read Shakespeare. That literature started becoming more meaningful to me, because these people talked about death; they embraced death.
So Parmenides goes down and is greeted by the queen of death, and then there is a whole different dynamic. She is also constantly warning Parmenides about human stupidity, about the mistakes that we make, and how we trick and deceive ourselves through our minds.
Then when we come to Empedocles who lived a few years later, again it’s the same. Really the whole of his teaching is based on trickery: we are fools, we fool ourselves constantly, and unless we begin to see the ways in which we deceive ourselves we cannot come to any greater truth, because any truth that we come to is going to be just an intellectual, self-serving, imaginary conceptual truth—it’s not going to serve any real value whatsoever.
Why did the Presocratics choose to communicate these truths through the medium of poetry, rather than prose?
Well first of all, I wouldn't exactly say they chose to express themselves in poetry. Prose at that time was actually the unusual choice, being used in those days only for very specific purposes such as the ancient practice of lawgiving, as dictated by the gods. Generally poetry was the means of communication, and especially the means for the communication of revelation.
It’s actually very interesting to look at this question of why did they use poetry, because behind it (or the way it’s usually asked nowadays) is the assumption that because they simply have facts to communicate, why couldn't they have just used prose? And this comes from our modern obsession with facts. We really think that communication, art, poetry, that ultimately everything has to do with facts... you know, 'let’s get down to the facts'.
But for people in those times, facts were the very least of it. They were almost insignificant. You see, from this perspective it’s not what I’m saying that matters—because there can be some google artificial intelligence robot that’s saying the same words as me, or the same words as you. It’s where I'm coming from. It’s where my voice is coming from right now; it’s the depth or the shallowness that I'm speaking from in this very moment.
So we have to get back to something much deeper and darker than facts if we really want to understand what these figures were saying. This is why it can become so useless simply to read and repeat ancient learnings and teachings, because we all know that in our darkest moments this doesn’t count for anything; it can't touch the place that really matters.
So in Parmenides' poem when he’s being taken to meet the goddess of the underworld, and keeps repeating the word pherein (...taken, taken, taken...) he’s not simply repeating it as a matter of fact—when you are listening to the poem, you're actually being taken.
So the poetry does, the art performs. It’s not simply an aesthetic, it's not even something to inspire us, and it’s certainly not something to inform us—it’s to do something to us.
These people were not only familiar with the experience of ecstasy and other states of consciousness, but knew how to invoke these states in themselves and in others.
There have in fact been studies published recently by scientists who have measured and demonstrated that when one recites or even listens to this style of ancient poetry, which is called dactylic hexameter, one's heart rate and breathing start to synchronize.
There is something fascinating, even magical about how this particular form or structure of Ancient Greek poetry can even physiologically bring the heartbeat and the in-breath and out-breath into harmony. It is really quite something.
Recently I've come across references stating that the ancient Greek poets had been taught their poetry by the birds. This really gets back to understanding the beginnings of Western philosophy, and to the fact that these so called philosophers weren’t simply speaking poetry. They were actually speaking the language of animals, of nature. And I find that when I am speaking in my work about the origins of Western culture I, too, am speaking the language of nature.
There's an interesting example of this you might find very strange. I'm indeed one of these odd people who just likes to talk with animals... but it usually doesn’t make the slightest impact. Yet I still remember something that happened just after we moved to North Carolina a few years ago. One day I was looking out the window of the study in the front of my house, and suddenly I saw a huge black bear strolling down the driveway. I was amazed by the beauty of its movement, and went straight outside to have a closer look.
When it saw me I called to it, but it simply kept on walking. Then at one point, something inspired me to recite out loud a few lines of old Greek poetry. Immediately the bear stopped, turned around and just stared at me, motionless for quite some while. And in fact the exact same thing happened a number of times afterwards, even when an adult bear was walking along together with its baby cubs. They hear what we can't; know what we don't.
You mentioned many of the smaller settlements in Ancient Greece did not actually want to join the Athenian democracy. Can you say more about this?
Well firstly if you look at the world of the Presocratics, even though they are usually referred to as 'Greek philosophers', I find it very important to note that there really were no such labels before the Athenians.
These great figures, from which the Greek philosophical traditions are supposed to have derived—Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus... came from the coast of what is now modern Turkey. Then you have Pythagoras, Parmenides, and Empedocles, who either were born or grew up in Italy and Sicily, or moved there from close to the west coast of Turkey, having very little contact with mainland Greece.
Of course it's true that in all these places Greek was spoken, but the situation was very different then compared to how it is now. Today we have large countries moving all the way up to superpowers and the European Union, but for them it was more individualistic; most civilizations were comprised of much smaller units, called city-states.
As I mentioned, most Ancient Greeks couldn’t stand the Athenians, and in fact they would have preferred to be under Persian rule—I’ve said this and some modern Greeks have really hated me for it... but it’s true, I can’t help it.
I spend quite a bit of time on the Greek island of Lesbos, which is where my wife comes from, and which was originally one of these independent city-states. In the ancient world Lesbos stood up to and defied Athens, and had very important trade connections with what is now the west coast of Turkey. They had their own coinage, and the pride of these people's culture gave them a great sense of identity and individual purpose.
Yet now when you go to Lesbos you find this old sense of dignity has been forced out of the people and replaced with a helpless dependence on Brussels and the European Union. The situation has reached the point where such an island would hardly even dream of trying to rediscover its former glory. And this is important, because in a way there is a tremendous psychological regression going on now. But people and culture mattered back then, they counted.
The process you described about realizing the truth beyond death brings to mind parallels with Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. How do you view this work in relation to such traditions?
There are absolutely parallels between Ancient Greece and Tibet. I have in fact documented quite a lot of them, and given explanations —in many ways for the first time— of how these connections actually existed geographically and historically in the ancient world.
In ancient times the Greeks were not isolated from Tibet, Mongolia, China. And of course, just like Ancient Greece, in those times these were not specific countries in the way we now conceive of them. But yes, many traditions were connected.
For example I myself have actually witnessed women incubating —lying on the dirt in the ground meditating— in Eastern Turkey around the Syrian border. Although it's a practice that is frowned upon by the Islamic regimes, it's still done there, and it can feel absolutely extraordinary to come across that.
But the point I’d like to make is this—I know many Westerners working in the fields of Buddhism and these other magnificent traditions and have the greatest admiration for them, but there's something here that I have to emphasize, because it’s become more and more acute for me... and that is, we are Westerners, and it is our connection to the sacred as Westerners that we have neglected, trampled, and distorted. We’ve abused our own tradition, our own ancestors, and we cannot eventually get anywhere without addressing that, without looking back and understanding the roots of our own culture.
On a personal level one can definitely get wonderful results from having an Eastern teacher or Westerner who has been taught and initiated in the East. But I’m saying this probably because I’m the only one who’s saying it, that there is something specifically in the West that we as Westerners have to get back to.
Of course I don't mean one should completely turn away from other traditions—when we were in the United States it was such a privilege to work with Native American elders and medicine women and men. But for me it has always been about seeing these other traditions as an aid, an impulse to get back to the roots of this Western tradition that I know I am responsible for.
HUMILITY and sacredness
Do you find any support for your work in academia?
Quite a bit. There are teachers now throughout the world who are regularly using my books in their courses at universities or colleges because they have come to realize how powerfully students respond. But I have often noticed that the strongest support of all always tends to come from the most unusual directions and sources, because the fact is that most academics try desperately to ignore what I’m saying by burying their heads in the sand and insisting on saying things in the same old tired way as before.
Academia is really just about creating a career for oneself, and now it’s becoming more and more politicized. I have many friends inside academia in the States, Europe and the UK. But boy, does one have to compromise! And somewhere along the way I just had to make that commitment not to compromise.
Most of the response actually comes from so-called ordinary people—I remember when my wife and I used to do workshops in the States, it was amazing to see how many people would travel from all across the country just to work with us. Often these would be people who were working in Walmart, or doing shelving at Costco... individuals who had no philosophical or academic background whatsoever. Their response came not from intellectual satisfaction, but from something deep inside them that had been touched; something that had changed their lives.
So how can one learn to cultivate this relationship to the sacred dimension of life in the West today? And what role can the arts play to help serve this purpose?
Well it means actually to turn the tide —not for others, because you can’t do that— but turning the tide inside oneself. To begin to swim against the tide, one has to go into that sacred descent, that aloneness of death —the death which is the aloneness and the aloneness which is death— because only there do you come across what Carl Jung referred to as Urerfahrung, which means 'primordial experience'.
It’s actually very interesting what he said about this—he said we have to get back to the primordial experience inside ourselves, which means the part of ourselves that is not conditioned by anything or anybody else. And as an artist this is also very important, because it means to come to this point where the artistic inspiration is coming directly from the source inside us.
We can call it the sacred or the divine —although that’s not very popular nowadays— but the point is to be able to come as an authentic artist from a place so alone, so deep inside us, that it is not influenced by something we watched on youtube yesterday, or listened to at a concert last week, or read about in a book a month ago. It is coming from the depths of ourselves.
And being willing to open to whatever it is that wishes to come through...
Yes, I think for me it comes back to it not being a decision that we make. Traditionally this is so clear and strong in Ancient Greece, because it was the gods who decided things. For me, the most important and meaningful things that have happened in my life have been the impossible things.
I know that when the most beautiful things have happened, I’ve had this sense of being pulled backwards through a door right behind me. In those moments all my plans, all my intentions, all my visualizations, all my wantings and desires and wishes don’t really count for anything because there’s something else that’s greater that's in charge of us. Yet we are afraid of trusting that... and this is the problem.
So how can we handle this greater reality of inspiration, of the divine and the sacred, which we have pushed aside so much in our culture? It’s fine today to talk about Yogic philosophies or Buddhist deities, but what about the raw sacredness that gives us dreams in the night, that makes us behave unpredictably? What if all of that is the sacred?
When we deny the sacred we cannot handle ecstasy. We live in a totally fabricated artificial existence, and if we get a smell, a sniff, a hint of real ecstasy, we are afraid that it might destroy us. And that is a huge problem psychologically and collectively for us.
So how can we go deep enough inside ourselves to find that unfathomable stillness where we’re not going to get so reactive and excited when something more powerful than us comes to the surface that we freak out and start attacking other nations, or have mass hysteria... how do we find our place in a world where there are forces bigger than us, bigger than we can control or understand? And how can we use art to convey the truth of that?
It seems very clear to me that we must try to look afresh at what the real answers are, and where we are going, because everything really depends on our answers to those questions. If as Westerners we just started by treating the past with far more respect, and didn't simply have to look at everything through the lens of progress and evolution, just that humility alone would help save us from many of our insanities.