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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — January 2015

Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

In his “Allegory of the Cave” in The Republic, Plato presents us with his vision of the philosopher, and describes how the philosopher is regarded by others in the everyday world. The world we see, Plato tells us, is like an underground den or cave. On the far wall, cast by the light of a fire, shadows flicker and dart, and most people, chained where they sit and unable to look elsewhere, mistake these shadows for reality. The philosopher, however, drawn by a love for the truth, frees himself from his chains and wanders toward the fire, eventually ascending from the cave into the light of day, where he beholds the fiery source of light, the brilliant sun. In Platonic thought, this means that he sees for himself that the ultimate truth of things behind all appearances is Goodness. Making his way back into the cave, the philosopher tries to tell others about the light he has just seen, that the shadows on the wall are not reality at all but only the merest reflection of reality cast by the light of a higher truth. But he has been blinded by the light, and stumbles around the world of shadows now like one lost in what should be a familiar place.“Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes.” He tries to express to others something of the higher reality of which they know nothing, but he appears to them to be more than a little crazy—out of touch with the reality of the cave and its shadows, the only reality they know.

In philosophical self-work, we continually awaken from the dreams of unexamined beliefs and assumptions and shift into ever greater awareness. This means that, the more deeply we are willing to know ourselves, to become transparent to ourselves, the more awake we are, and the more joyful, gratifying, beautiful, creative, expressive, and fulfilling life becomes. This applies conversely, as well: If the dream of life is joyless, ugly, stagnant, boring, or disappointing, the problem is not with the dream but the dreamer. “The fault…is not in our stars but in ourselves.”

Western philosophy begins with the Delphic mandate, “Know thyself,” which implies that identity is key to wisdom and the good life. We come to know ourselves by taking responsibility for our conclusions, examining our beliefs and assumptions, and questioning those things that at first may seem to us to be so evidently true that we might not think to question them if we were not following the compass heading of self-knowledge. As an example, let’s say that you learned, perhaps early, that winning is everything, and further, that it never occurred to you to question it. Winning is a feature of your self-definition. ”You win, period. No matter what. Against incredible odds. In fact, the belief only really proves itself worthy when the odds are incredible. What does the belief require for its fulfillment? A contest! Something working against you. What can it mean to win if there’s no losing? So, someone will ask you “How are you?” and in your reality, a shadow flickers—something about which of the two of you is doing better. The question is an invitation to compete, to win. It has to be. It’s who you are.

If we could understand that the world is operating as an obedient servant, and that what it’s serving up is the complement of our self-definition, we would have much more compassion for the world, for each other, and for ourselves. Instead of running to the rain forest or India or a guru or a new romantic relationship or whatever to find what’s missing, we’d look at our world as it is right here, right now, and wake up to the realization that the self is all we ever see, dancing like firelight on the walls of time and space, because we are always looking out through our own eyes. So, if we’re not complacent, if we apply the first principle of awakening to our experience as a construct and question the obvious, those things we’ve taken for granted, then a world of self-knowledge opens up to us. Let’s step outside the cave, and see where we stand in light of all this.

Suppose your employer, a co-worker, and your lover all begin withholding from you. In the same week, your promotion is stalled, the co-worker isn’t giving you a promised and now overdue memo, and your lover seems to have lost all interest in making love. The same shadows are flickering in so many areas of your life, you wonder if some weird karmic debt didn’t come due during the night. For some reason, up till now, it hasn’t occurred to you that you’re the common denominator.

Then, you remember philosophy. You remember self-work and allow your attention to turn in the direction of self-knowing. You remember that the world outpictures your self-definition, your beliefs, your assumptions, the things you haven’t questioned. And you ask yourself the most important question we can ask, the question the answer to which has the power to resolve any difficulty: What am I believing here that requires this situation? Asking this question is self-retrieval. You’re retrieving yourself. From what? From the dream of the world. From the shadows of fact and evidence that seem, so convincingly, to be the cause and the culprit.

You ask yourself this pivotal question, and it strikes you that the withholding of others “fits” your unwillingness to receive. When “I am the one who does not receive,” the world appears, must appear, withholding. You held your identity up before the light of consciousness, and it cast its corresponding shadow. Of course, the belief may be different while fitting the facts no less, for example: “I am the one who is denied what she has earned,” or “I am the one who remains sad so others can be happy.” You can’t consult a book of dream symbols to grasp the meaning of a symbol in your waking dream. We have to look within. This isn’t something one can “figure out.” One has to be still and let it come.

The importance of this in practice cannot be overstated: The self is retrieved from the dream-world through being still. Corollaries here would include: Being still wakes us up, and being still brings us into the light of who we are. Putting this to use means that if you find yourself facing any situation in the world that you don’t like, you remember that the situation complements something you’ve agreed to—wittingly or unwittingly. Then, you can allow yourself to be deeply still. Simply that. You can sit in the sunlight of willingness, open to acknowledging what you’ve believed about yourself up to this moment. It will show itself. All it was waiting for was the light of your attention. Then you can choose, either to continue to believe this, or to believe something else, something better. If you’re willing to let go of the old belief, then you see the cave flooded with light, and when the acceptance is wholehearted and natural, you ascend to a new world, the one that corresponds to the new vision, as it must.

Questioning the obvious, looking within for the cause, and taking creative responsibility are the philosopher’s best allies for waking up. In their company, we can leave the world of shadows long enough to step into the light of a truer version of self. Returning to the world against which we may have struggled desperately, even for years, we see in a flash that it was on our side all along.

January 23, 2015   Comments Off on Out of the Shadows