The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

The Mystery: Why Does It Matter?

“Why do you care whether there is a God, or extraterrestrials, reincarnation, or any of that? What relevance does it have to your life?”

This is a question which I have often heard, in one form or another, when bringing up topics related to the mysteries of life, from those who are not typically inclined to ponder them. Personally, I have always found the mysteries irresistible, so this common refrain has always been somewhat baffling to me. How could you really not care whether there is a God, or extra-terrestrial life? Such apathy toward the ultimate questions of life seems unfathomable, to me.

Indeed, those who find themselves involved in Freemasonry are generally those who are inclined to explore these questions, and this is part of what draws us to the craft, esotericism in general, and what is often referred to literally as The Mysteries. This is also why the fellowship of a brotherhood of truth seekers is so precious to those who find it, because our kind so often feel alone in a world full of those who care more about their bank balance, newest electronic gadget, or mundane interpersonal dramas than the quest for ultimate reality.

So, like a fish trying to describe the ocean, for a long time it was difficult for me to articulate why these things matter to me so much when this question arose. However, I eventually did manage to create some semblance of an explanation, which I would like to share with you now. Perhaps by reading this, you will have a new answer in your repertoire the next time someone asks why you seek truth.

The short version is: I care about the mystery because the mystery is the ultimate context of my existence, and context is absolutely everything; the context of a thing defines that thing and gives it meaning. Allow me to explicate.

The Universal Existential Constant

VitruvianManThe human condition is defined by a finite or limited conscious existence, and a mystery beyond it. In fact, I believe that this is probably the condition of not just humans, but any entity, since any finite consciousness is always limited, by definition. If it had no limits, it would not be an “entity,” it would be infinite.

In other words, there are things you directly experience, and there are things beyond that, with a gradient boundary between them. Regardless of how far your awareness may expand, there is, a priori, always a boundary to it and always something beyond that boundary, which to you is a mystery.

The only possible exception to this would be if our awareness became infinite, perhaps, but we cannot really imagine that. Barring the hypothetical exception of infinity, there is always a boundary to conscious existence, and therefore, a mystery beyond it.

This would presumably also be true for any self-aware finite entity, from the lowliest worm to the most vast super-intelligent species, or even advanced spiritual beings. If they are not infinite, then it seems to me that their existence must have this structure: the known, the unknown, and the boundary between.

The Existential Island in an Ocean of Mind

9d5f825306d964f0b1fe99d921e05627One helpful metaphor is to think of our existence as a sphere, like a planet. That planet has its basic substance or ground, which for us is our direct sensory awareness. These are the things we are most certain of, because we directly experience them, and in this metaphor, they are our ground or earth, which also relates to our colloquial sayings about being “grounded” in reality. This is the reality to which we refer, our most certain, sensory reality, the bedrock of our experience.

Then, there is another layer which is beyond the ground of sensory experience, but which is near enough to be relatively certain; you can liken this to the atmosphere of our metaphorical “planet” of existence. For us, these would be facts outside of our senses, but nevertheless trustworthy, thanks to evidence and logic (to put it briefly).

For instance, I can be relatively certain that oxygen exists, a faraway country like Russia is really there, and that I have a liver, even though I’ve never truly seen or experienced any of those things. Thus, there are things I have not directly experienced, yet of which I am relatively certain. Here is where the boundary begins.

Finally, beyond that of which we are relatively certain, there is the larger Mystery, about which we ponder, and upon which we weave the fabric of our beliefs, by combining reason with imagination. To continue our planet metaphor, this would be the vast starry expanse in which our planet is suspended. Just as the cosmos is the context of a planet, whatever is beyond the boundaries of the ground and atmosphere of our existence forms the context of it.

Thus, the mystery is the context of our existence, and is experienced purely in the realm of imagination, hopefully tempered by reason. Regardless of what is actually “out there” beyond what we know with varying degrees of certainty, our experiential existence floats in a cosmos of mind and imagination because we can only imagine and reason about what is beyond the boundary of our experience and certainty.

Not only that, but no matter how far we expand our knowledge and experience, it always will float in an ocean of imagination and mystery, because that seems to be the inherent structure of any finite, experiential entity. How else could it be?

Context is Everything

a52f2b4eede4932789bf0d916be16850So, “Fine,” you might say, “the mystery is the context; why should the context matter to me?” My answer to this is that the meaning of anything essentially is derived from its context. Let’s take a very concrete example: a bar fight.

Let’s say that you witness a fight break out between two men in a bar. If you know absolutely nothing about the context of this fight, it will mean very little to you; perhaps you may have some thoughts about the volatility of alcohol and testosterone when combined in too great a quantity. In other words, to you, it is a relatively meaningless occurrence.

Let’s say that you now expand your knowledge, when someone tells you that the reason they fought is that one man was sleeping with the other’s wife. Now, to you, this is a very different bar fight, is it not? Yet, it is the same bar fight; it is the context of it in your own mind and imagination that has changed. Let’s say that you hear from yet another person that the reason the affair occurred in the first place is that the husband was abusing her; yet again, another vastly different bar fight.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your spiritual “third eye” suddenly opened, and you were able to see that this was an unfolding of karmic patterns through time that had been in motion for thousands of years between these two souls, as they weave a pattern of flesh-bound experiences in and out of various bodies and lifetimes, trying to find a balance and transcend the illusory nature of this physical reality, for their ultimate mutual enlightenment. Yet again, a totally new bar fight, with a totally different meaning.

Why? Because with every expansion of your knowledge of the context of the fight, your experience of the fight transforms. The same is true of your entire experiential existence, the same principle is in operation every time you learn, and explore the mysteries.

That, my friends, is my answer to the question of why the mystery matters. To me, this is like something I had always subtly known but for the longest time had difficulty articulating. Perhaps it may strike you the same way, as almost obvious, yet novel in it’s explanation; or, perhaps you somehow disagree, in which case I would love to hear your perspective.

Either way, I hope that you have enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

The Socratic Method: Does It Lead A Mason From Darkness To Light?

The Socratic Method: Does It Lead A Mason From Darkness To Light?

“I can’t teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” 

So says Socrates, a great thinker of his time in Ancient Greece. He was known for educating his disciples by asking questions and thereby drawing out answers from them, called the Socratic method. The goal was to nudge people to examine their own beliefs, instead of unthinkingly inheriting opinions from others. The approach was a way for his students to find the truth of anything. Thinkers have venerated the method ever since. It really worked for the Greeks.

I have always had a fascination with Greek culture. I particularly enjoy studying Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. I also admit to getting lost in Greek mythology at times, enjoying Greek food, and have always secretly wished that I could dance like a Greek goddess.

Given the above, it seems only reasonable I should find myself honing in on Socrates. Mind you, I am no authority on the great ones of the ancient past, other than being humbled by their wisdom and insight. Socrates is for me the most interesting of the three: a perspective I am sure many might agree and equally as many might disagree.

There are two statements that Socrates made that I found particularly thought-provoking. 

“To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.”

“Let him that would move the world first move himself.”

The first quote that starts, “To know, is to know that you know nothing” is a paradox right off the bat. Yet, instinctively, somehow, I understand the entire point and it makes sense even while being a total paradox! And the second quote struck me as so linked and interrelated to the first one. One would be hard pressed to assert one carries more11873522964_9cb8eb5a44_b weight than the other or to even think about them separately. 

How can we know what we don’t know? Does the Socratic method offer us a technique to advance towards the light of true knowledge? 

Plato’s Dialogue: It’s About the Questioning

Socrates said: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In other words, question everything. I recently read the statistic that children through the ages 2-5 ask roughly 40,000 questions. I have wondered why, as we go through into adulthood, the number of questions we ask drops significantly. 

We know through the writings of Plato, the student of Socrates, that he was often quizzed by his teacher about deeper realities. Red Rose in the GardenIn “Plato’s Dialogues,” we can read short works in which Plato recreates various conversations Socrates had with another student. And thus, we get a really good idea of the Socratic method. 

The style of a Platonic dialogue may go something like this:

Q: “What color is the rose in the garden?”
A: “The rose in the garden is red.”
Q:”Is this rose still red to a blind person?”
A: No.
Q: “So you are saying the rose is red only to those who can see.”
A: Yes.
Q: “What color would it be to a blind person? Would it be pink or white or some other color?”
A: (No answer – student is bewildered).
Q: “So the rose is red only to those who can see.”
A: Yes.
Q: “If the rose in the garden is where no one can see it, is it still red?”
A: (No answer – further bewilderment).

And so on. The questioner might end up forcing a realization in the student of how color only exists in a person’s mind as a result of their perception; it isn’t actually a property of the rose. In other words, the rose is not red.

Socrates believed there were two ways to come to knowledge: through discovery and by being taught. To be taught presupposes that someone else has discovered the truth for you. He thought for his disciples to really know a subject, they should form their own beliefs and experience their own blind alleys and realizations.tunnel-2033983_960_720

How does this idea of discovery relate to the path of a Freemason? 

From Darkness to Light

Every Freemason is on a quest to discover his “true self.”  He is taught the importance of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, of which logic is one of them. The study of critical thinking and reasoning allows the Freemason to look beyond mere perception and dogma in the search for truth. In this way, it is possible to forge a path to moral, scientific, and philosophical enlightenment. “To know nothing” is leaning into the next moment, wondering what you are going to find. It is a form of being blindfolded or hoodwinked, waiting for more light. 

It was in Freemasonry that I really learned to embrace the journey from darkness to light, to become a friend of the Socratic method, and learn to be humble in what I don’t know. When I first joined, a poor blind candidate, I was asked probing questions about the First Degree. Questions like, “What does it mean to know thyself?” and “Is truth absolute or relative?” I was asked to explore the relationships among concepts and ideas. For example, I had to compare two types of symbols and to explain how they are similar, how they are different, or evaluate the meanings of each. 

Over the many masonic degrees, my mentors have pointed me in the direction of truth only to glorify the beauty of the group vision and the image of enlightenment. 

The Freemason W.L. Wilmshurst said:

“Truth, whether as expressed in Masonry or otherwise, is at all times an open secret, but is as a pillar of light to those able to receive and profit by it, and to all others but one of darkness and unintelligibility.”

I think he is saying that truth is a mysterious something that is sensed, even though the truthrational mind may try to discredit it. The ability to sense this invitation to truth, even when the path is dark and hidden, is perhaps the most important lesson to consider here. “The future I do not see. One step enough for me.” 

My takeaway from the Socratic method is this: Remember how little you know, question everything, and keep your mind open to other possibilities. If all goes well, truth is our travel companion from darkness to light.  What do you ask for?