June 8, Hangzhou, China
That is to say, let us think of ordinary life, and all of the ordinary parts of the intellect, our intelligence, associations, and everything we know — what the Buddhists might call form — as the underworld of Being.
In this sense, all of the underworlds of mythology — the underworld of the Greeks, the Mayan realm of Xibalba, the hell of Christianity, and so on — consist of this vast and extraordinary repository of experience, psychology, action, history, and assumptions. The idea that this is a place where the soul “goes when it dies” becomes too literal and physical in this regard; we go there when we die, conceptually speaking, because we are there now and we are already “dead.”
There are many allusions to this in spiritual literature; yet everything becomes a mythology instead of an experience if I don’t connect to it in terms of how I am in this moment, seeing my position: either in relationship with being — which occupies middle earth , the Mediterranean — or subsumed in the draw of the underworld, which always and inevitably manages to organize itself to appeal to me as an entity, even though it has already isolated itself by forming a hard kernel of belief, opinion, and assumption — all of it crystallized around a tiny group of facts which are absolutely too limited to give real insight, but which I seize and cling to like a drowning man who has discovered a single board.
Being has a power, rooted in the organic and molecular experience of the body, that grounds this current and allows it to stop influencing me — even if that is temporary. If I gain a bit of distance from any of it, I discover — again, at least temporarily — that I am indeed “dead”, and that everything I think I know, including things that I think I know about my emotional state, my cleverness, the value of the intellect, culture, intelligence, and so on, is actually limited and does not understand the nature of life as it stands.
The nature of life as it stands is not occupied by the underworld of Being; the underworld of Being is a byproduct that exists in the minds of human beings, not an objective entity. The nature of life as it stands emerges directly from life independent of the underworld being, independent of the constructions. It begins there; and although one must (albeit reluctantly) argue that the underworld of Being, this realm of our constructions, is a necessary one, one is left asking oneself whether the inhabitation of life from its original nature is not already the fundamental and primary value.
That question does not arise easily, because the underworld of Being is an occupying army. I am drawn back into it relentlessly and repeatedly; and I need to use force from my own will in order to move away from it. Not much; because the movement can be minimal, as long as it is concise. Yet it is this intimate, concise, precise, intelligent, and — I use this word so often now — molecular movement that’s necessary.
And that movement does always have to begin with a reminder that emanates from all three of my parts — sensation, feeling, and intelligence — that the underworld of being is not the origin or the answer, but rather a seething pool of self-inflected constructions that have been grafted into me.
One of the odd things about the underworld of Being is that it does contain many constructions that can point the way towards being. In the same way, the underworld of mythology contain souls, which are essences that, although alienated from their natural habitat of life, still express an essential part of its nature. Even hell, in other words, has the creatures of heaven and it: the fallen soul is very much still a soul, no matter where it is located.
It reminds me of Meister Eckhart’s contention that even the devil himself would not give up his life, because it’s what makes him what he is — it is the ”I am” of his existence.
So this underworld is not a stupid place, or worthless place, or place of punishment; it is a place that I need in order to grow. It even has the soil for growth, and all of the potential, buried in it. But I cannot think that I am the underworld of Being; and yet this is where I usually find myself.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.