Remembering and Forgetting

In The Temple and the Pub, I described an intense ayahuasca experience in which I lost all sense of myself and the world. I suppose you could say that I died and went to heaven. Except that heaven wasn’t the particularly blissful or even pleasant place one would hope it would be. And it was severely under populated. In fact there was only one thing in it – me. And then again, not even me, because there was no awareness of “me” to speak of. There was just “my” consciousness, with barely two thoughts to rub together: “I am immortal” and “I am God”.

I wouldn’t say it was a particularly enviable position to be in, in fact it was verging on the nightmarish. I knew that I would never die, that I would go on and on and on forever, “world without end”. And that was a terrifying prospect. I remember realizing with horror, at the age of seven or so, that one day I would die and just cease to be. The realization, thirty or so years later, that I wouldn’t, was equally horrifying.

I felt the unbearable persistence of being. But, luckily for me, I soon forgot all about it. I forgot that I was God and that I was immortal. I started to think about other things instead, and it was as though I had descended into another plane of existence, outside this silent “cloud of unknowing” I had been suspended in for an unspecified eternity.

This was the plane of binary opposites. But it wasn’t just opposites. It was basically a realm of abstractions, represented as much in images as in words, many of which I experienced as arising with their opposites attached, so to speak. Or rather, with their opposites arising out of them.

At first, I was just a passive spectator. I was being shown all these images, one after the other, each illustrating an abstracted aspect of reality. The male/ female polarity loomed quite large in this display, but there were many other elements of the human condition as well, such as youth and age, life and death.

Then I could reason again, and think about the things being shown to me. And that’s how I reasoned my way back to the particulars of the physical world and the real bottle of water by my side. Eventually,  I “woke up” and “re-membered” the world.

I described some of my thinking about pubs and temples in the last chapter. It was all very abstract, “temple” in the abstract, and “pub” in the abstract (although, having said that, I did picture a particular pub in Tottenham near the river Lea). I thought about “drink” in the abstract and “people” in the abstract. I understood that the pub was the place where you found drinks and people. That was the basic definition of “pub”.

Not a genius realization, I know. But for me, it was a revelation. The people you can meet in a pub and the conversations you can have, are basically infinite, and so are the drinks you can drink. The “pub” symbolized something like infinite experience, whereas the “temple” represented unity.

My reasoning went a bit like this. I thought about the general category of “drink”, and then broke it down into the sub-categories of beer, wine, spirits, fruit juice and cordials. Then I broke those down further into lagers, bitters, stouts, ales, wheat beers, red and white wine, and so on.

It was like tracing the branches of a family tree. And I realized that the final tips of the smallest twigs were infinite in number and that they were growing all the time. New craft beers with new flavours were being created all over the world every day. So that the potential sensory taste experiences of “my” consciousness are, to all intents and purposes, infinite. And that’s just beer.

The infinite variety of sense experience is infinite. But they are meaningless if we can’t relate them to some abstract idea. This is why, as T.S. Eliot said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality”. We can only bear as much reality as we can understand, as is meaningful.

So the world of the “Many” does not and cannot exist for us completely divorced from our maps of it. We may like to think that we can be completely Zen all the time with no mind mediating and interfacing our direct experience of the world. But that’s just a naïve fantasy. Zen Masters know it’s not really like that.

All sense perceptions must be attached to the family tree of our mental categories for them to be meaningful. Which isn’t to say that we can’t experience the “Many” relatively free of these attachments, just as we can experience the “One” relatively free of them at the other end. The shaman achieves the former, and the mystic achieves the latter. But pure sense experience is as impossible for human beings as pure consciousness, except, perhaps, very fleetingly.

Plato was right. There is a world of Forms up there (or “in here” – does it matter?) There is the Form of “beer” and the Form of “wine” and the Form of “glass”, of which all particular beers and wines and glasses are concrete expressions in the concrete world.

The world of Forms is the realm of Archetypes. “Ideas” or “Forms” or “Archetypes” are really different words for the same thing. As they interact together, they create associations and family trees and maps and stories. They create what Jordan Peterson calls “Maps of Meaning”. They create the myths we live by.

What is the Platonic Form of the people in the pub then? Well, just like with the drinks, there are categories of Archetypes floating around up there, and we experience individuals as embodiments of one or more of those Archetypes.

And what about the Archetype for human beings as such? Or the Ideal human Archetype? Peterson would say Christ. If you asked someone in Asia, they would probably say Buddha or Krishna. The fact that they are all men is a bit problematic, and is obviously the result of male dominated religions. In my ayahuasca visions, they did appear strangely androgynous, which is interesting.

In any case, it seems that when we forget the “One”, we forget the “Many”, and end up living almost exclusively in a world of ideas, an intermediate world of sense making. We mistake the maps of meaning for the territory. We forget about the trunk of the tree, rooted in Heaven, and we forget the tips of the branches, flowering in the five senses down here on Earth. We spend nearly all our time, like the proverbial monkey mind, swinging endlessly from branch to branch of the cosmic tree.

If you are tired of swinging, and yearn for the “One” and the “Many”, and long to return to the Source and taste the fruits of Existence, then the only thing for it is to do what Mohammed suggested, and “die before ye die”, or, a little less poetically perhaps, “inhibit your default mode network”.