Keep your mind ever on the Star, but let your eyes watch over your footsteps, lest you fall into the mire by reason of your upward gaze. Remember the Divine Paradox, that while the Universe IS NOT, still IT IS. Remember ever the Two Poles of Truth — the Absolute and the Relative. Beware of half-Truths.
—The Kybalion (1908)
Having immersed myself in a somewhat vast array of ‘inner work’ teachings over the past 35 years and having, during that time, lived in many communities based on such work, I’ve inevitably come across some bizarre matters on my journey. I keep reminding myself to start a file on these stories lest they vanish forever into the grey mists of memory decay. Doubtless, however, I have also resisted creating such a ‘file’ if only because I’m all too aware of the illusory substance to such tales. That said there is value in myth—as in the literal meaning of the word, ‘story’—in terms of a moral parable, or more pointedly, as teaching device or instructional allegory. For example, whether the historical Buddha actually confronted some fearsome dude known as ‘Mara’ under the Banyan tree matters less than what this apparent deus ex machina enabled him to realize, and subsequently, teach. (This instructional value to parable is not always so simple, alas, as the Resurrection stories attributed to the life of Jesus all too well illustrate—the ‘rolling away of the stone’ has done more than merely provide an allegorical teaching, it has also founded a ‘rock’ of lasting doctrine and dogma).
The quote at the top of this blog, attributed to the peculiar little book on Hermetic wisdom published in 1908 and known as The Kybalion, was written by someone possibly suffering from a tripartite identity crisis, as he portentously named himself ‘The Three Initiates’. (The author is believed by most historians to have been William Atkinson—not the pitcher with the wicked curveball who played for baseball’s Montreal Expos in the 1970s—but rather the New Thought author of the late 19th century, who was fond of using pseudonyms, one of which was ‘Yogi Ramacharaka’. With all his nom de plumes, one wonders if he moonlighted in espionage, but I digress).
I found out about The Kybalion from my aged doctor, of all places. I’d gone for my once a decade checkup a few years ago and was proudly telling him, while he peered into one of my ears, about my most recent book. ‘Humph’, he muttered. ‘Interesting. Ever heard of The Kybalion?’ I stared vacantly as I tried to recall this title but any bells it was ringing were not loud enough to register. I had to admit defeat. ‘Read it’ he ordered, ‘and don’t forget your vitamin D’.
The Kybalion claims to be a modern interpretation of Hermetic wisdom (as in Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek version of Thoth, Egyptian deity of wisdom and enlightenment) although it resembles more closely the New Thought teachings that emerged from the American metaphysical movements of the 19th century with their roots in Emerson and German idealism. What struck me about the little book, however, was its strong grasp of the matter of negotiating the nuances of living in a material, relative universe while at the same time orienting one’s consciousness toward the Absolute truths. This is well captured in the poetic line ‘Keep your mind ever on the Star, but let your eyes watch over your footsteps…’
What happens to one who ‘keeps their mind on the Star’, but ‘forgets their footsteps’? All sorts of things, many of which frequently border on the ridiculous. I have two small stories that illustrate the matter clearly enough. I’ll present the short version of them. (For some reason so many of my quirkier tales hearken from the 1980s, and I’m not sure if that’s because more oddities were to be found amongst spiritual seekers during that new-agey decade, or simply because I was younger and more foolhardy then. Probably it’s a bit of both).
In the first, sometime during the mid-1980s, I lent a friend a sum of money (I think it was around $500). He was a fellow disciple within a spiritual community I was part of. He was no simpleton—he owned a collection of (he claimed) 25,000 books, many of which (he further claimed) were in the language of High German. I could not verify this immense number of volumes but it was certainly possible. His apartment consisted of a few rooms, all filled with boxes of books. One could barely move from room to room. It was something like the basement of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He himself was tall, thin, and with a perpetually stunned look, perhaps a given for one who apparently spent much of his life reading.
As fate had it he failed to repay the money, and I lost track of him over the years (he had left town—perhaps in a small truck to accommodate his Alexandrian library). I did eventually hear, however, that a relative had left him a large inheritance. Surprisingly I was still not repaid. I attempted to track him down but he proved elusive. He had several names, a fact of life for many in the ‘spiritual communities’ with ties to Eastern teachings and gurus, especially. I consulted a few friends for suggestions. Most (in good Taoist fashion) suggested letting the matter go. One or two others had a more militant response—one, a PhD in psychology, suggested (only half-joking) that I hire a thug to break his legs. (I considered this but alas, did not deign to act on it).
And then came the comical climax of the story—it was reported to me that this man had claimed enlightenment, and that further, because of this attainment, he had radically and totally disconnected from his past. Asked about his debts (I was not the only creditor) he declared that he was absolved of these affairs because he was no longer the same person who had borrowed the money in the first place. (I’m not making this up, I swear on my Knight's Templar honor). The issue had, at that point, become so bizarre that it left one content to indeed ‘let it go’ knowing that the person’s inner confusion and failure to ‘watch over his footsteps’—pay attention to relative reality—could only come toppling down on his head at some inevitable point. I never heard from my ‘liberated’ friend again.
The second story is equally strange but has perhaps darker overtones. It involved a woman who had been a fairly close friend (during the late 1980s). She was in her late 40s at the time, and had lived a very conventional life. In the year or two prior to meeting me she had discovered the ‘spiritual path’ and become heavily involved in some of its more outlandish elements, in particular the channeling phenomenon that had been so heavily popularized in that decade beginning with Jane Roberts and Jach Pursel and ending with JZ Knight, Shirley MacLaine, and various other glitterati. One day she phoned me and announced in a somewhat different voice that she was now a 'different' soul. Alarmed, I asked her what she meant. She replied that she was a ‘walk-in’—a term that implied that the soul of the person had departed and a previously disembodied soul had entered—something like one tenant of an apartment vacating to allow another to move in. (This is all, of course, nonsense from the perspective of non-duality, but I beg the reader’s indulgence in the story to illustrate the point).
Aghast, I began to probe her with some commonsense questions which very quickly exposed the absurdities. For example I recall asking her why she had contacted me—her ‘friend’—if she was now in fact another person and what she could possibly want, given that her and I had never, apparently, met before. Her answers were largely nonsensical and revealed the deep confusion and self-rejection that must have been operating within her to motivate this nonsense in the first place. Nevertheless she held fast. Finally, after a difficult exchange, she admitted that now that she was a new person—and not in just a metaphoric sense—she had no more moral obligation to communicate with her son, who was incarcerated in a prison somewhere in the U.S. After all, he was not actually the son of the soul that now inhabited her body. Or something like that.
I terminated the friendship then and there (what the heck, I didn’t know this new soul anyway), but the matter lingered for me as a brutal illustration of what can happen when the essential paradox of the spiritual path is never properly embraced by seekers. (And I have certainly stumbled myself in this realm over the years, although not to the extent of the two stories just mentioned).
And what is this paradox? The Kybalion described it well enough:
While the Universe IS NOT, still IT IS.
The failure to integrate this understanding is a substantial book-length topic, but I have found the matter to be continually important to look into because it can be said to lie at the root of most problems for spiritual seekers and even ‘finders’. (Finding is one thing; living another).
Within Advaita Vedanta, this matter has probably been most succinctly exposed via the contrast between traditional Advaita, and what is sometimes called ‘neo-Advaita’, the latter being connected to a facile, ‘instant’ approach to the issue of non-duality in which it is assumed that conventional actions (‘doing’ things, such as meditation, or relating to others) is mostly pointless because ‘all is One anyway, so why bother?’
Osho once told the story of how he was waiting at a train station in India when he observed some slob crudely spitting his betel leaves and tossing his banana peel on the ground without regard to others. Osho pointed out to him that he was being selfish. ‘Who cares?’ the man replied. ‘My train is coming any minute.’ Osho suggested that it was a good metaphor for the selfishness that can overcome a seeker. We may not be spitting betel leaves or tossing banana peels on the feet of others, but any serious student of Advaita has to be alert to the problems inherent in the Lazy Man’s Advaita (perhaps a more apropos term than neo-Advaita).
Now I’m going to end this blog with a third story, which is rather darker than the first two. (And like the first two is also a very true story). I once knew a successful spiritual teacher who one day became deeply (and rather suddenly) enamored with the absolute perspectives of non-duality. (This teacher was not an Advaita teacher, but rather represented a ‘parallel’ non-dualistic teaching). The teacher had had some sort of sudden awakening, and had developed a very intense but detectably warped view of things. Around the time of the ‘great awakening’ I met this teacher in a public place. This person looked at me directly at one point and declared, in certain terms, that they were now beyond material, and especially bodily, reality. Again, this is something true enough from the absolute perspective—from which stance none of us ‘have a body’, ‘were ever born’, etc.—but which is clearly a type of madness from the relative perspective (why not skydive without a parachute if you have no body?). I subsequently lost touch with this teacher for several years but one day I heard that one of the teacher’s students had developed a serious illness that had eventually become inoperable. This student had been originally advised by this teacher to ignore the illness. The student complied for too long and by the time they did something about it, it was too late. The student died.
Of course, a reasonable argument can be made that it is not for anyone to ultimately judge these issues -- after all, who is to truly know the mysteries of a given individual's destiny? -- and that repeating such stories is of questionable value (not to mention, when we judge too much, we set ourselves up for glaring hypocrisies -- 'he who is without sin, let him first cast the stone'). But nonetheless, these are worthy cautionary tales. We have to 'mind the Star' if we desire awakening, but we also must 'watch over our footsteps', lest we stumble—and fall upon someone else whilst at it.