If there is any real prospect of recovering and reviving Gnosis today, it will require looking closely at problems endemic to the Piscean Age, which the telestai were unable to solve, or denied the opportunity to solve. Deep ecology may well find the spiritual and mythic dimension it lacks in the Sophianic vision of the Mysteries—such, at least, is the premise of this book. I cannot predict how this will happen, or even if it will happen, but I can offer a rough sketch of the conditions required for it to happen.
Gnosis is not a religion, yet it could well be formulated in a holy trinity: Gaia, other species, Anthropos. Each point of the trinity concerns the ultimate question of how we as human beings view life. In other words, the trinity comprises three perspectives: our view of Gaia, the living planet; our view of all species apart from ourselves, including microbial and molecular entities; and our view of our own species. The issues left unresolved by the telestai involve working through to a clear formulation of all three of these views. I propose to look upon this process, not as a grim chore of tackling arcane, exasperating problems, but as an adventure we are invited to undertake in order to reclaim the Sophianic vision.
A Sentient Planet
Consider first our view of Gaia, the living planet. This is, let’s say, the apex of the trinity of sacred ecology. After many years of reflection, James Lovelock is careful to qualify the theory he introduced to the world: “I am not thinking in an animistic way, of a planet with sentience,” he says in Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. Well, he may not be, but a great many others are. The central problem in our view of Gaia is how to look beyond what hard science supposes, but without going all fuzzy with mystical pretensions. This is precisely where the Goddess mystique fails the day, of course. It brings into play a set of wooly animistic beliefs about the planet. Both James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis resist the animism inherent to the mystique, and for good reason. The confectionary haze of New Age mysticism and the soft gloss of Neopagan sentimentality both obscure the Sophianic vision. Animist beliefs will not meet the challenges left unresolved by the seers of the ancient Mysteries, but Gaia theory will become animistic, one way or the other. It is just a matter of how.
The Gaia hypothesis and deep ecology appeared in the world almost simultaneously. These two propositions would seem to be closely related, but so far they have not merged, nor have they become associated either in popular or specialist discourse. One reason may be that specious assumptions attached to Gaia theory, mainly by New Age visionaries who champion the idea of a sentient planet, block the very facets of the theory that might be compatible with the principles of deep ecology. The specious assumptions concern the questions, Is Gaia benevolent? (denied by Margulis); Is Gaia able to control the planet in a conscious, intentional way? (denied by both Margulis and Lovelock); and Does humanity have a special role to play in Gaian biophysics? (variously disputed by both Margulis, Lovelock, and others). But if the advocates of the Goddess mystique that has grown up around Gaia theory are to be believed, the answer to all the above questions is a resounding yes. This affirmation inspires and encourages many people who are deeply concerned about the fate of the planet—but is it true? Or is it just wishful thinking on a global scale? A case of cosmic makebelieve?
In the initiatory revelation of the Mysteries the participants came to know Gaia by direct contact with the Organic Light. But that was mysticism and not science, right? Lynn Margulis defines science as “a way of enhancing sensory experience with other living organisms and the environment generally.” With a sharp glance in the direction of Goddess worshippers, she warns against “debilitating biomysticism” and the “deification of the earth by nature nuts.” Well, a Gnostic would say that her definition of science is a pretty good definition of biomysticism. It is not the least bit “debilitating” to enhance sensory experience by deepened rapport with nature. On the contrary, the practice of biomysticism restores the palingenesis of the ancient Mysteries: regeneration through rapturous surrender to the life force.
In this book, I have advocated animism and asserted that Gaia is sentient, but not as matters to be accepted on belief, or rejected because of their unscientific character. Rather, they are propositions to be tested. How would we verify the sentience of Gaia, anyway? How could it be tested scientifically? How can we know that the planet can feel and respond as an animal does? To put the question in another way, How might Gaia communicate her sentience to us? The first point of the trinity—our view of the living planet—raises the formidable issue of communication. Anthropologist Jeremy Narby stated the issue with elegance: “How could nature not be conscious if our own consciousness is produced by nature?” Thinking logically, Narby assumes that the consciousness we have cannot have evolved from anything less conscious. But human consciousness is intimately bound up with language. If nature (Gaia) is really conscious, how can she let us know that she is, unless she has the language to do so?
Ah, there’s the rub. Our view of Gaia will stall out in blind speculation unless we can allow that she can communicate with us in language as we know it. Unless this is possible, we will never be able to confirm that she is sentient in the same way animals are, and we ourselves are. Ratcheting Narby’s question to another level, I would ask: How can nature that produced a species gifted with language not be capable of using the language of that species to communicate with it? The Peruvian shamans who initiated Narby into visionary rites with the psychoactive potion ayahuasca attested to such communication. They said that the sacred plants talk to them, teaching them many things, including how to use the plants correctly. That is, nature talks to them in the language she enabled them as humans to evolve. Is that not utterly logical?
But it can be objected that Gaia, Mother Nature, does not have a larynx, mouth, and tongue. She lacks the physical organs of speech. Yes, she does, but we also speak without using those organs. Thinking is a subvocal language that we hear as if it were audible. We do not need a tongue to communicate mentally. Granted, most of our mental communication consists of talking to ourselves “in our heads”—the internal monologue. If we cannot yet communicate telepathically, one to another, this is only because we lack the skill to deliberately receive and transmit the subvocal language of our thinking. But what if Gaia, who equipped us with our communicating faculties, can already exhibit telepathic abilities that we may only evolve in the future? That being so, she could talk to us in any language on earth without needing a mouth and tongue. According to the testimony of native peoples who use psychoactive plants to access the Gaian mind, this is exactly what she does.
I believe that most of what was said of God was in reality said of that spirit whose body is the Earth.
Gnostics taught that the sentience of the earth is an expression of Sophia’s Dreaming. Sophia dreams us out of cosmic plenitude, from the heart of the Pleroma. The optimal future for humanity is to reciprocate, dreaming Sophia.
The life force of the planet is animated and animating, giving expression to creatures who sense they are alive. The perception that the world is alive, not the mere belief, is animism. Gaia theory in its scientific form forces the question of animism, but cannot answer it. The revival of animism does not involve the mere assumption of the sentience of nature, but direct experience of it. We would already have this experience naturally and spontaneously, as part of our ecognostic capacities, if impeding beliefs were removed, including the belief in single-self identity. Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick said that Gnosis consists of “disinhibiting instructions” that allow us to access a vast store of innate, intuitive knowing. What I propose to call silent knowing is a state of rapturous attention to the presence of the earth. This is the eloquent muteness of being awed. The testimony of people who have experienced a spontaneous upsurge of silent knowing can teach us a lot about communication with Gaia. One such testimony comes from the Irish mystic, writer, and painter known as AE.
George William Russell (1867–1935), who wrote under the pen name AE, asserted that “the immortal in us has memory of all its wisdom.” In a simple, yet far-reaching analysis of his own mystical experience, Russell connected the immortal wisdom-bearing memory with the faculty of imagination. “This memory of the spirit is the real basis of imagination, and when it speaks to us we feel truly inspired and a mightier creature than ourselves speaks through us.” The emphasis on through signals what I have called transentience. Lynn Margulis’s SET theory is about endosymbiosis, creatures living through each other. Animistic perception confirms that living-through is a primary aspect of the ecosystem.
Russell’s eloquent memoir, The Candle of Vision, is one of the great classics of Western spirituality. No one else has described tellurian vision in quite this way, with such candor, simplicity, and richness. As an adolescent walking through the fields of Armagh in Northern Ireland, Russell became convinced that “a myth incarnated in me, the story of an Aeon, one of the first starry emanations of Deity, one pre-eminent in the highest heavens.” In a library in Dublin he came across a dictionary of religions with an entry on Gnostics, and his eyes fell on the word Aeon, the Gnostic term for a god or divinity. From this spontaneous clue he took his signature, AE. The starry emanation of Divinity that he intuited purely from the resources of his inner life was the wisdom goddess, Sophia.
Russell was a writer, painter, and social visionary of some importance in Irish political life. He was the éminence grise behind the Celtic Revival, an Irish cultural and spiritual movement that formed part of the European occult revival, lasting roughly from 1885 to 1915. He was a close friend of Nobel laureate William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory, who led the Celtic Revival. Both Yeats and AE were members of the Theosophical Movement founded by Madame Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott in 1875. Theosophy had a profound influence upon many artists and intellectuals of the era—for instance, Vassily Kandinsky, who wrote an influential book art theory related to theosophical concepts, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. AE, who coined the word “supernature,” was a natural mystic who needed no theory to guide him into cognitive ecstasy. In spontaneous trance he experienced a series of vivid cinematic visions of pre-Christian Europa or possibly Atlantis. His understanding of these experiences was aided by reading about the Gnostics and the Sabians, a sect of stargazers who lived in ancient Iran. AE claimed that his visions arose because he was disposed to “vital contact” with the natural setting around him.
In The Candle of Vision AE identified the Celtic river god Manannan with the visionary streaming of “the divine imagination,” the sublime force that swept over him in his trances. (The root man- occurs widely in world mythology, always with the connotation of a human but supernatural guide: for instance, the Hindu Manu and the Native American Manitou, which are versions of the Mesotes.) Like that other natural mystic, Romantic poet William Blake, AE identified the power of imagination with Christ, whom he called “the magician of the Beautiful.” Describing the sensuous allure of the nymphs and dryads encountered in his visions, AE said that they had “a beauty which had never, it seemed, been broken by the act of individualized will which with us makes possible a choice between good and evil, and the marring of the mold of natural beauty.” AE was an exceptional mystic in that his clairvoyant faculties did not operate by blind “channeling,” as occurred, say, with the “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce, and Jayne Roberts, the famous medium who produced the Seth material. His observation that the strict dualism of good and evil locks human awareness into a cognitive setting that cannot accept beauty, or “go with the flow” of nature’s perpetual revelation, is a genuine Gnostic insight, and merits deep reflection.
Russell’s visions were entirely body-based, somatically grounded, and all that he saw was as alive as himself. “That Infinite we would enter is living,” he testifies. As the visions came on, he felt “a growing luminousness in my brain as if I had unsealed in the body a fountain of interior light.” The invocation of a fountain of light occurs in several revelation discourses in the NHC, as we have seen. AE’s candle is a humble metaphor for the soft glow of the Organic Light. The candle burns for us all. “In every mind exists the Supernal Light of the ineffable Mystery” (The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, 67.10).
Russell cites the late classical mystic Proclus on the Divine Mind: “It had not yet gone forth, but abode in the Eternal Depth, and in the adytum [inner sanctum] of godnourished Silence.” This snippet of Mystery lore could have been lifted right out of the Egyptian codices. Proclus, who was born in the year Hypatia died, studied at the Museum in Alexandria and was certainly initiated in Gnostic lore. Sige, Silence, is an Aeon in the Pleroma, the company of gods from whom Sophia plunges in her Dreaming of an emergent world. The line AE cites explains how the Aeons remain eternally placid, absorbed in the Uncreate, even when their ennoia (intention) produces worlds outside the Pleroma. This detached actuating process is typical of emanation, the cosmological process taught in the Mysteries.
AE would have had no access to original Gnostic writings, virtually unknown in his time, and he does not appear to have known G. R. S. Mead, the resident Gnostic scholar of the Theosophical Society. The Candle of Vision contains no allusion to the Aeon Sophia or an “earth goddess” of any kind, except for homage to Dana, the Celtic mother goddess. Yet everything AE says about the memory of Nature can be applied to the Sophia of Gnostic teachings. His visionary experiences were Sophianic reveries drawn from vital contact with the earth. As such, they are excellent models of animistic perception of the Goddess aspired to by people today.
AE said of his visions that their creator is transcendent to the waking self and even to the self that dreams at night, and yet this power, “a mightier self of ours,” makes itself “our slave for purposes of its own.” This language comes close to the Gnostic intuition that the fallen Sophia relies in some sense on human collaboration to achieve her correction. Russell’s sublime little book does not answer all the questions that arise on the path to knowing Gaia, but it sets the mood to contemplate those questions. His invocation of Sige, “god-nourished Silence,” is particularly apt. The self-conscious mind cannot reach silent knowing, but silent knowing can reach into it at rare moments when the internal talk ceases, allowing other things to be heard. Everyone has these moments, when the world turns quiet and an indefinable calm washes over us. To enter and abide in such moments is part of the mystical discipline that sustains the Sophianic vision.
By John Lamb Lash