I would like to talk with you about ancient Academies, East and West, which is what the Seventh Academy reproduces in the 21st Century.
The last time anyone tried to establish a genuine philosophical Academy was during the Renaissance. It was successful though short-lived. Before that, Plato’s Academy thrived for almost 900 years before it was closed in the sixth century.
In other words, little of what we do in today's Seventh Academy has appeared in Western society for the last 1500 years.
And it was powerful work. Philosophy was considered so dangerous to the Roman Empire's obsessive control that during the 400s, the famous philosopher Hypatia was publicly murdered, and in the 500s, the fifth incarnation of Plato’s Academy was closed by the Emperor Justinian.
Why is this study important now? Not only do we hear about coming transformations in consciousness, but also we are creating generations who can take it further. In other words, we need to master ancient wisdom disciplines and apply them to the contemporary world, not just because of our own development, which is important enough, but also because the generations behind us need us to master them.
What I want to suggest is that humanity is emerging from adolescent confusion to remember who we really are and what we really came here to do. And we need disciplines to help us claim our maturity and mentor each other.
The question is: what approach is appropriate for participating in this change of consciousness, this shift from adolescence to adulthood, from forgetfulness to awakening?
Of course, there are many approaches out there that will help.
The approach that helped during six incarnations of Plato’s Academy was based on his dialogues and other great works. The result of the study was what we call wisdom, enlightenment, or understanding.
In the modern era, we have treated enlightenment as if it were mysterious. However, it was not mysterious to ancient academies. It was the result of a definite worldview, or paradigm, which includes a definite way of being in the world. Seventh Academy seminars have involved participants of a wide range of ages in studying the classical approach. And all of it has been fun.
At the same time, any discipline takes work. Humanity, as it emerges, will work hard. I suspect that many of us now realize that — in the same way that our bodies need healing and our societies need community skills — our perspective needs breadth and our emotions need depth.
And this is what those engaged in studying, for example, Plato's dialogues and ancient philosophies have experienced.
But, as in Plato’s day when sophists were everywhere, we have plenty of people promising to give us instant enlightenment or absolute truth or trying to keep us stupid. Normally, most of us keep a polite distance from modern-day sophists and try to be tolerant. But we also want to be discriminating. We want to know what is a real discipline and what is not, as one of Plato's characters suggests in his dialogue, Laches.
So, let me sketch what modern-day sophists have been trying to sell us, with an eye to what may not be all that it seems:
1. Spiritual-material dualism: we are supposed to believe that the spiritual is some special realm that stands apart from our ordinary lives. And somehow, our ordinary lives are degraded by comparison (a form of reductionism).
This dualism (with reductionist implications) is a serious obstacle, as many teachers in the last 2500 years have noticed. There is not a spiritual out there and a material world here, they remind us. The spiritual is a way of talking about higher orders that embrace everything.
So, “a spiritual person” and “a spiritual event” are contradictions in terms.
Of course, it's okay to talk this way as a kind of shorthand. But if we can't see through this dualism, we will trip pretty hard over our everyday lives.
2. Isolated metafizzy insights: we're supposed to think that simplistic metaphysical truths or positive thinking will save us. ‘The Secret’ is one popular piece of metafizzing, for example. And it may have some positive consequences.
But metafizzing and absolutist metaphysics are dangerous in that they combines spiritual materialism (to borrow Chogyam Trungpa’s phrase) with an obvious attempt to program the public, to “dumb them down” about what is really possible in human consciousness now. As a friend of mine observed, "I'm supposed to think that moving aimlessly from one metaphysical insight to another is a real spiritual path — when it clearly is a way to avoid the spiritual path."
3. Gurus: we are supposed to believe that someone out there will enlighten us by the force of his or her personality. Of course, there are plenty of good teachers around, and if we find one as a genuine guru (meaning one who shows the way or leads us to the light), that's great.
But only certain teachings will do what they have done for centuries, and only we can do the work. Gurus can do nothing if we do nothing, as Krishnamurti often said. To be clear, there are teachers who are masters of their fields. But we must recognize where their mastery lies and realize that their role is to train from that mastery.
4. Limited mystical experiences and the few mystics: we are supposed to believe that only certain individuals have had mystical experiences, so they can now tell us what enlightenment is, while the rest of us can only hope for something transcendental.
However, Seventh Academy seminars studied the mystic path for a whole year (and return to it periodically) to demonstrate that each of us has an ‘inner mystic’ that sets us on a wisdom path. And everyone in the seminars recognized this 'inner mystic' and the need to follow it.
Following some outer mystic may give us a vision, but we still need to pursue the vision ourselves. Again, there are masters of disciplines, and we do need to acknowledge that they are out there, but the true masters will train us to develop who we are, rather than wanting to be admired for who they are.
What things will help but need clarification:
(a) Meditation: this is a wonderful support, but it is not a worldview. One can meditate forever with a screwy worldview and end up with a screwy worldview.
Of course, this insight has come from many teachers. The Buddha, for example, taught about it 2500 years ago. With ‘right knowledge,’ as he suggested in the Eightfold Path, meditation will be a support. Without it, meditation will relax us, focus our minds, and help prevent heart-attacks, so it's good in many ways. But our consciousness and thus our lives will remain in the same ‘ignorance,' he said.
(b) Shamanism: this is originally designed to train those who have already shown themselves to be unusual healers in a community. It is, in other words, a specific training for specific individuals. I have been privileged to work with a few such individuals (from my 20s, when I first began to study shamanism, through the founding of the Academy, working with co-founder and shamanic practitioner, Susan McClellan).
Since the popularization of shamanic practices, however, genuine shamans have noticed that people use their ‘journeys’ as a way to justify adolescent attitudes and behavior, or they drown in other dimensions.
Further, many Native elders are not always happy when shamanism is taken over by non-natives, so this is a touchy area as well.
In general, shamanism is a discipline that needs to be highly respected, because it works with powerful forces. And it needs, as meditation does, ‘right knowledge’ to ground it and give it direction.
(c) Metaphysical schools: yes, they are out there, and many can be helpful. But the most famous ones in the country have produced some of the silliest metafizzing one is likely to encounter. So again, we need to be discriminating.
For the work of the Seventh Academy itself, I suggest that one disciplines we need now is one of the world’s oldest, which in its original form has almost disappeared from the planet: classical philosophy. Again, this is the study used in ancient academies, East and West, and it is to this that we have returned with the dialogues of Plato, texts such as the Tao Te Ching and Upanishads, and early philosophers such as Cicero and Epictetus.
And many seminars that return to the ancient world to discover what can help us live through this age of transformation and awakening.
Thanks for reading,
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