The following blog entry may contain triggering material.
It didn’t seem unusual to me that I knew all about mild, green Camelot even though I lived under a fierce tropical sun…or that Merlin’s crystal cave really existed, despite every author assuring me that wizards were mythical. I knew differently, because I was an Indian boy, and I had met them.
I’d consider bardic mysticism a method (the things that happen, the things to do, to produce a thing) that I incorporate or is the way I incorporate, whereas alchemy is a process or mode (that is, the mechanics behind why a method works) and have been trying to combine the two. Texts of bardic mysticism at least give the reader some credit: the cauldron of poesy is stirred with joy and sorrow. Once upon a time, I would have taken that as possible telekinesis instructions, but now I’m more inclined to take that as a clue that the cauldron itself is also metaphorical. Then I read up on modern resources on alchemy that keep reminding the reader that older texts were always coded metaphors that didn’t need to literally involve precious metals. Why wouldn’t they writers of older texts have just said so, in the first place?
Chopra’s The Way of the Wizard combines these well. In it, Chopra explains an Alchemical life philosophy through a series of short stories and accompanying meditations or writing exercises. The stories describe the mysterious apprenticeship that a young King Arthur served under Merlin in the crystal caves, and how Merlin’s lessons continued to follow Arthur into adulthood.
I very much liked the format. Even fairy tales with the notes at the end about what the moral of the story was could get annoying, so accompanying meditation and journaling exercises would (should) be difficult to foist on a reader who wouldn’t already agree with what’s taught every chapter-step of the way. The “sayings” in each chapter came off to me as trite enough to ignore, but the exercises felt open enough structurally that it wasn’t necessarily patronizing.
The thought behind each lesson or chapter could be interesting, but…mostly incompatible with where I am now.
My corporeal roommate Cecilia recognized the author’s name from a signal boost (or several) by an influential talk show host named Oprah Winfrey. My mother subscribed to O magazine, and I would read those, and I caught the occasional event (an offhand remark by the great Winfrey about going vegetarian correlated with an undeclared grassroots boycott that moved cattle farmers to sue, A Million Little Pieces was a fake memoir promoted by the great Winfrey who was eventually very angry that it had been fake, and “Look under your seats…Everyone gets a car! You get a car, and you get a car, and you…”) but Deepak Chopra was a new name to me.
I can understand why this expression of spirituality fit alongside the little I’ve heard of the Law of Attraction and the Secret. Chopra’s Merlin and Arthur speak in terms of ego and energy, which came off to me as anachronistic and specific to new age spirituality (rather that psychology or physics). In chapter eighteen, King Arthur gives terrible counsel—my opinion, not the book’s opinion—to an angel in the guise of a grieving father, and in that thought I found some echo of the Middle Way of Buddhist philosophy between the illusions of the material cosmos and the asceticism that would reject that suffering. Not itself a bad idea, but I felt the way that story in that chapter set it up kind of minimized human suffering and blamed the victim for not being enlightened enough. Apart from that aspect, I might have considered a introduction of an Eastern philosophy into a Western aesthetic, even in defiance of the Heaven/Hell dichotomy of a most Christian King Arthur, as…interesting, as well as the modernizations. (Two chapters after that, Chopra ends the book with how it’s a wizard’s or alchemist’s duty to alleviate suffering. I feel ambivalent about that.)
The book generally reads with a lot of bait-and-switch philosophical progression. It’s after the chapter that framed enmity as a kind of love, (because enmity was attention, and love as an enlightened wizard understands it is the very makeup of the cosmos that becomes evident with any and all flow of attention,) that comes the chapter on how to break down the objectification of another person in the first place. Most of all, I noticed a call to replace blame, dislike, and other negative value judgments with a cosmic trust, that is, to cultivate complacency as a spiritual tenet. Justice is portrayed as an illusion that’s far less useful than suffering, for pain can be recognized as an untruth that at least serves as a way to truth.
So, I want to say that a handful of the chapters at least delve a little further that the sort of victim-blaming, cosmos-trusting sort of spirituality that I can only take as a reflection of the spirituality of the privileged (despite the claims that a privileged life is a reflection of or developed from this spirituality). Maybe it does a bit?
I was at least entertained at some parts that portrayed Merlin being a dickweed.
Arthur pitched into his task, digging with all his might, but after an hour he was exhausted, and still Merlin had not told him to stop. “Is this long enough?” he asked. Merlin regarded the ditch, which was perhaps ten feet long and two feet deep.
“Yes, quite sufficient,” he said. “Now fill it up again.”
Accustomed as he was to obeying, Arthur did not like the order very much. Sweating and grim faced, the toiled under the blazing sun until the ditch was entirely filled again.
“Now sit beside me,” said Merlin. “What did you think of that work you did?”
“It was pointless,” Arthur blurted out.
“Exactly, and so is most human effort. But the pointlessness isn’t discovered until too late, after the work has been done. If you lived backward in time, you would have seen ditch digging as pointless and not begun in the first place.”
Merlin, you dickweed!
I did like the chapter that described Arthur introducing Guinevere to some of what he’d learned from Merlin. I thought it was sweet. For brevity, unfortunately, I don’t include the lead-in in the quote below, which had Guinevere and Arthur conversing as anachronistic equals and Guinevere’s medieval sass:
He asked the queen to leave their chamber and promise not to return until the stroke of midnight. Guinevere did as she was told, and when she returned she found that the room was pitch black, all the tapers extinguished and the velvet curtains drawn. “Don’t worry,” and voice said. “I’m here.”
“My lord, what do you want me to do?” Guinevere asked.
Arthur replied, “I want to find out how well you know this room. Walk toward me and describe what objects are around you, but don’t touch anything.” His wife thought this a very strange test, but she did as she was bidden.
“This is our bed, and over there the oak dowry chest I brought across the water. A tall candelabra of wrought Spanish iron stands there in the corner, and two tapestries hang on either side.” Walking cautiously so as not to bump into things, Guinevere was able to describe every detail of the room, which in truth had been furnished down to the last pillow by herself.
“Now look,” Arthur said. He lit a candle, then a second and a third. Gazing around, Guinevere was astonished to see that the room was entirely empty. “I don’t understand,” she murmured.
“Everything you described was an expectation of what this room contains, not what was really there. But expectation is powerful. Even without a light, you saw what you anticipated and reacted accordingly. Didn’t the room feel the same to you? Didn’t you tread cautiously where you feared you might stumble into things?” Guinevere nodded. “Even in the light of day,” Arthur said, “we walk around according to what we expect to see, hear, and touch. Every experience is based on continuity, which we nurture by remembering everything as it was the day before, the hour before, or the second before. Merlin told me that if I could see entirely without expectations, nothing I took for granted would be real. The world the wizard sees is the real world, after the light comes on. Ours is a shadow world we grope through in the dark.”
I enjoyed some aspects of a few other chapters: the ones that demonstrate that labels are meaningless, and the ones that demonstrate that words (and labels) mean things.
But when I read the one above to Cecilia, her reaction was basically:
“Arthur, you dickweed!”
The second part of the book has Merlin encounter Percival and Galahad in the woods and talking at them about the development of a spiritual self from the immature stage to the mature. I thought that was a bore, but maybe it was better-organized.
Here’s a checklist of the exercises from this book that I paraphrased.
1.) Meditate without like or dislike on existence alone.
2.) Notice, without anticipating, one’s responses to the list of words provided. (Lesson: words for things are bad because labels are awful.)
3.) Seek the light (levity) and love in all things. (In my notebook, this item has an arrow going to item 7.)
4.) Immersive meditation that voids thoughts and names.
5.) Complete the sentence “I am afraid of…” several times with a different ending each time.
6.) Remember someone you know well, and deconstruct the appearance of their memory.
7.) Allow moments of absent-mindedness to become gates to divine impulse.
8.) Develop a god complex by stargazing. (I did not like this chapter and exercise, must be why I phrased it this way.)
9.) Clear a path from intention to reality by developing cognitive bias. (This note is the same as item 8.)
10.) Access subpersonalities by revisiting traumatic memories and breathing through them.
11.) Imagine a scroll of your life to more to and fro in time; transcend this awareness of mortality.
12.) Imagine the scroll in exercise 11 is a film of Nemo Nobody. (Alternatively, The Butterfly Effect, starring Ashton Kutcher. These weren’t in the bok, I was just watching something that reminded me of the exercise for this chapter and thought, close enough to something like that yeah.)
13.) Taste tests w/ blindfolds are the power of uncertainty.
14.) Accept loss, admire devastation, replace blame and dislike with cosmic trust. (Ditto 8 and 9 for notes.)
15.) Age your beloved’s image with imagination, remember a time that ego turned love to hate.
16.) Ask what happened before a given point in time and after, up to an eternal infinity. Rewrite nowhere as now here.
17.) Seek signs, turn self-pitying Why Me into a question out of genuine curiosity.
18.) Supplementary: void meditations for spiritual pursuit.
19.) Recall past desires, live the desires now.
Some of these were helpful, some interesting, some I’m put off by, and some maybe I’ll get around to another time. This is a book I’d like to keep as a product of post-colonial relative personhood, as well as an example of dated bodies of mythology and how these become filtered through a contemporary perspective.