Blessed is he who has a soul, blessed is he who has none, but woe and grief to him who has it in embryo.1
– G.I. Gurdjieff
The United States Declaration of Independence proudly proclaims the mystical truth that “all men are created equal.” What happens after that, though, is anybody’s guess. Once we’ve been created equally, does that mean all our lives are the same? Do the essential differences between us come from genetics, environment, free will, the soul? Do we all end up in the same place again when we die? These questions have excited the myth-making faculties of humankind from antiquity down through to the present day.
Working for a Soul
The esoteric teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, in many ways, fly in the face of traditional Western religious thought. Whereas it is accepted as a given within Judeo-Christian tradition that each human is born with a soul, Gurdjieff does not let us off so easy. Active in the early part of the 20th century, this Greek-Armenian mystic travelled the world, synthesising spiritual disciplines into a unique path called The Fourth Way. He taught that human existence is a kind of waking sleep, in which we live more or less automatically, unconscious and unaware of ourselves.
He even went to the extreme of suggesting that humans are not born with souls at all, and that we can only create one while alive through intense personal suffering and what he called “work.” If we are not successful in this venture, he taught that our identities would not survive the shock of death, that we would “die like dogs” and that the ever-hungry Moon would gobble up our energy as part of its own evolution of consciousness.
It’s a teaching which sounds strange to most people today, but which was perhaps more common to the ancient world. Consider the words of the Gospel of Philip, an ancient Gnostic codex recovered at Nag Hammadi in 1945:
Those who say they will die first and then rise are in error. If they do not first receive the resurrection while they live, when they die they will receive nothing.2
Like the other Gnostic texts recovered at Nag Hammadi, this type of information was declared heretical, banned and except for in a few lucky cases, completely destroyed by the early Catholic Church in an effort to consolidate both its teachings and its power structure. The Catholic story-system pivots around the idea that we will be resurrected at the end of time, not transmuted to higher levels of understanding and awareness here in our lifetimes. The Gnostic texts, on the other hand, seem to teach that humans are born with a spark of divinity which can either be left undeveloped or guarded and fanned into a full-on blaze.
With the popularity of books like the Da Vinci Code, and a renewed interest in Gnosticism, many people today are left wondering why these alternative esoteric Christian teachings were so viciously eradicated. Who benefits by suppressing this ancient gnosis, and what happens to those of us left in the dark as a result?
If Gurdjieff and the Gospel of Philip are at all correct in their teachings, then it may be that by waiting for our reward in the afterlife, by not working feverishly on our souls like a life raft on Gilligan’s Island, then we are lost. We miss our chance. We remain soulless automatons, vanishing at death or being consumed by insidious forces (if not well before then).
The Inauthentic Human
Science-fiction writer Philip K. Dick saw something very similar to this scenario happening in today’s world. Through the lens of trashy sci-fi novels, he explored questions of what is ultimately real, and what constitutes the authentic human. He used outlandish and bizarre plot devices to fling his characters through inverted realities and distorted mindscapes. And from his explorations, he came to believe that:
… [T]he bombardment of pseudo-realities begins to produce inauthentic humans very quickly, spurious humans – as fake as the data pressing at them from all sides.… Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans.3
Similar themes appear in popular and fringe culture. In the movie The Matrix, we see a false reality maintained by mysterious agents who can slip in and out of the bodies of ordinary people as though they were clothing. The paranormal investigations of people like John Keel, Jacques Vallee and others also posit the existence of ultraterrestrials, a race of entities who evolved right alongside us on the planet Earth. They are thought to camouflage themselves, adapting imagery pulled from the human minds and cultures they interact with. In other words, they appeared to the ancients as angels and demons, to medieval people as fairies and goblins, and to us today as alien visitors.
Others threaten that the soulless human can play host to these and other types of entities and energies, acting as a sort of empty vessel, or organic portal.4 Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan echoes this sentiment in The Active Side of Infinity, suggesting that malicious beings or “predators” seek to control us by “giving us their mind” which is filled with “covetousness, greed, and cowardice,” and which keeps us “complacent, routinary and egomaniacal.”5
Unfortunately for us though, it is not just science fiction authors and occultists who have explored ideas like this. In “real life,” similar notions of humans as fundamentally without soul took root among psychologists who espoused the philosophies of Behaviourism and Eliminative Materialism in the middle part of the 20th century. In short, these thinkers (perhaps paradoxically) believed that internal human states were nothing but a fiction, a primitive “folk psychology,” and that only externally observable behaviour had any real significance. They saw concepts such as belief, desire, fear, love – even the mind and soul – as untenable, unscientific and therefore ultimately unreal and useless. Noted Behaviourist B.F. Skinner encapsulated the quest to abolish “inner man” in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, with this chilling passage:
What is being abolished is autonomous man – the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity.
His abolition has long been overdue. Autonomous man is a device used to explain what we cannot explain in any other way. He has been constructed from our ignorance, and as our understanding increases, the very stuff of which he is composed vanishes. Science does not dehumanise man, it de-homunculises him, and it must do so if it is to prevent the abolition of the human species. To manqua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to real causes of human behaviour. Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulable.6
At first glance, strong thematic similarities tie together the cores of Skinner’s and esoteric philosophies such as that of Gurdjieff. Both strip humans of any kind of inherent soul. Skinner, however, seems to revel in the thought, because it means that human behaviour may be controlled by those with the power and drive to do so. It is, in essence, the Holy Grail of scientifically-driven totalitarian systems of governance. Applied to world events, it may help explain the inhuman atrocities we see played out on the global scale every day. On the other hand though, we have folks like Gurdjieff who follow in the footsteps of the ancient Gnostics, and after introducing us to our fundamental dilemma rather than celebrating it, chart for us a way out of the shackles of an empty, automatic and manipulable existence.
Is God Insane?
In his ground-breaking 1967 book, The Politics of Experience, psychiatrist R.D. Laing put forward the still-revolutionary idea that mental illness is not illness at all. Instead, it is (or can be) a healing process whereby an individual overcomes the impossibility of their own situation, and the insanity of the culture at large. In his vision, it was not individual humans who were fundamentally disturbed, but the culture which was dangerous and insane, warping and distorting the natural human into the artificial confines of local cultural existence.
Ancient Gnostics took this idea several steps further. Certain sects taught that this material world was created by the Demiurge, an insane creator god who was conceived in error, and who egotistically took himself to be the only true god. Tradition identifies him either as the angry Yahweh of the Old Testament (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me”), as Satan in his role as Prince of this world, or with more overtly Gnostic variants such as Yaldabaoth, Samael or Saklas.
Philip K. Dick mythologised this hierarchy of institutional insanity into what he called the Black Iron Prison, which is ruled over by a never-ending, infinitely destructive Empire. In his Tractates Cryptica Scriptura,7 an esoteric addendum to his novel VALIS, he wrote, “The Empire is the institution, the codification, of derangement; it is insane and imposes its insanity on us by violence, since its nature is a violent one.” Thus it would seem that the only rational course for an individual to become and stay sane is to overcome his culture, his society, and maybe even God himself (or at least the deranged being which the Gnostics believed masquerades as God).
“Against the Empire,” Dick continued, “is posed the living information, the plasmate or physician…” Dick identified this cosmic force with the Holy Spirit, the Christian concept of the Logos, or the divine Word (hence, living information) which was made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Like the ancient Gnostics, Dick believed that this divine entity – the plasmate – could fuse with, not just Jesus, but with potentially anyone who was worthy. There is no indication that Dick believed humans fundamentally lacked souls, but he seems to have believed that the plasmate healed and restored people to sanity, and to their natural whole state.
The Secret Gray-Robed Christians
Dick himself underwent a series of transformative spiritual experiences which formed the basis of his understanding of the human situation. In his novels VALIS and Radio Free Albemuth, he fictionalised these experiences, describing numerous encounters in dreams, hallucinations and waking life with a benevolent higher order entity which he variously described as a cosmic artificial intelligence, ancient alien beings, the living information of the plasmate, and of divinity itself. Both his fictional characters and he himself underwent extreme pain, personal turmoil and intense soul-searching, which perhaps could be correlated to what Gurdjieff meant as the “work” required to fashion oneself a soul or subtle body with which to escape the obliteration of death.
The exact nature of that work seems to deal with cultivating an intense awareness and a sustained “presence” within oneself at all times – as opposed to absent-mindedness, or living on auto-pilot, which seems to be the natural state of affairs. Here we may once again turn to the ancient Gnostics for inspiration and amplification. From The Apocryphon of John, another text recovered at Nag Hammadi, we find:
When the life-spirit increases and the illuminating power of the body strengthens the soul, no one can lead you astray into the lessening of your humanity. But those on whom the counterfeit spirit preys are alienated from humanity and deviated…8
In Dick’s worlds, once you have crossed that threshold and reconnected to the universal soul (or created a soul, as Gurdjieff’s teachings might indicate), others who have done the same will be revealed to you, so that you may strengthen one another and work toward a common goal. In VALIS, Dick referred to these kindred spirits as Secret Gray Robed Christians (or homoplasmates – those who had “cross-bonded” with the living information of Christ or the Holy Spirit, thereby attaining eternal life). Upon their shoulders lay the immense task of nothing less than the overthrow of the Black Iron Prison itself:
Who had built the prison – and why – he could not say. But he could discern one good thing: the prison lay under attack. An organisation of Christians, not regular Christians such as those who attended church every Sunday and prayed, but secret early Christians wearing light gray-coloured robes, had started an assault on the prison, and with success. The secret, early Christians were filled with joy.
Fat, in his madness, understood the reason for their joy. This time the early, secret, gray-robed Christians would get the prison, rather than the other way around.9
The idea that not all humans have souls is a fascinating line of thought which invariably leads to dangerous and even violent territory when employed by the agents of Empire. One need look no further than Nazi Germany’s wholesale execution of what they claimed were the “sub-human” Jews as vivid examples of the extravagant danger of these ideas. It is one thing to explore mystical truth for the purposes of personal development; it is quite another altogether to use it as an excuse and explanation for violent, thoughtless, and inhuman action.
The choice, ultimately, seems to rest in the hands of the individual as to whether or not we develop our divine spark into a full-fledged soul, or if we let it languish in darkness. We may all be created equal, but what do we do after that? The 12th century Sufi, Farid ud-Din Attar, in his “Conference of the Birds,” offered the following:
A Sufi woke one night and said to himself “It seems to me that the world is like a chest in which we are all put and the lid is shut down, and we give ourselves up to foolishness. When death lifts the lid, he who has acquired wings, soars away to eternity, but he who has not, stays in the chest a prey to a thousand tribulations. Make sure then that the bird of ambition acquires wings of aspiration, and give to your heart and reason the ecstasy of the soul. Before the lid of the chest is opened become a bird of the spirit, ready to spread your wings.10
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