Detail from The Hermit Saints
by Hieronymus Bosch
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
—Mark 8: 35-37, King James Bible
Christ's statements sound like an abstraction, a hypothetical or theoretical position — and I believe we are tempted to be drawn into complications in examining what he said here. Yet the premise, the essential meaning, is not that difficult. A man's inwardness, what he knows within himself, is his own soul; and the whole world is all the other material he encounters. A man who knows his own soul has integrity; that is, he is in a state of spiritual wholeness. Gurdjieff called this "three centered being." It is something that comes before the outer world and exists of itself; it is, thus, of Christ and of God, if we wish to speak of it in Christian terms. One can also call it Being. Being comes first; then the world.
Yet if I gain the whole world, I think the world is in me first, and I am of it. This idea of me being of the world is the mistaken one; and the idea of the critical mind is one of the spiritual rejection of this idea. I'm not of the world; it does not beget me, all the material and external evidence to the contrary. Like all souls and all being, I am first begotten by God. Then I encounter the world. If I do not use my critical mind to reject the literal, naturalistic, and materialistic premises presented to me by my senses first, I swallow the world whole and in doing this it swallows me.
Buddhism has a certain perfect ingenuity in understanding this and attempting to direct us away from being swallowed. If we understand Christ's words, he brings an equally perfect ingenuity to this practice.
This is a very delicate practice, in some ways, as one has to properly see both of one's natures in the moment in order to intelligently discriminate between them. Without inhabiting a Presence within the finer energy of the inward flow of divinity, it is impossible to maintain balance, because the world is an enormously convincing and powerful force. Only if I maintain a critical attitude towards the outward events and bring myself into an intentional, active, intimate, and above all loving relationship with the finer energy that is available for my inner work in that moment can I possibly hope to navigate these waters. This idea of repeatedly "coming back to myself" which we hear about so often in inner work doesn't have so much to do with remembering that I ought to be working; that is the intellect, pointing in a direction. It involves much more returning to the influence of the energy that can support my essence, my inwardness, against the onslaught of outer events and circumstances.
One eventually finds a balance. Yet that balance is always invested, rooted, in a finer energy that I participate with. I need to see that at all times in order to understand better this mystery that inwardly forms me. I myself, and my life, belongs to this energy, which forms the soul — quite exactly, in this case. And if I do not "lose" my life, if I don't reject it first in favor of the soul, the soul disappears.
The last phrase in this particular quote from Christ is perhaps the most poignant.
What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
This can have several different meanings, which I will investigate as we move onward through these posts.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.