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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Filtering by Tag: religion

What is Empyreanism? A brief overview of the fire inside

Stephen H. Provost

Empyreanism is an approach to life that pursues self-awareness with the goal of understanding and connecting with the world around us. It takes its name from the Empyrean, defined by Claudius Ptolemy as the highest heaven or celestial realm, which translates literally as “the place in fire” (em-pyr). Its core principle is derived from a saying attributed to Jesus in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “The kingdom is within you and all around you.”

The recognition that the highest good — the Empyrean or “fire inside” — resides within us leads to the recognition of its presence in everything around us. Hence the symbol of Empyreanism, the flaming heart: the crucible in which the inner realm of self is forged and brought into harmony with the outer realm of the universe. When this is accomplished, the distinction between the realm “within you” and “all around you” loses its meaning: The two are reconciled as one.

Indeed, the inner and outer realms have always been one: Not just spiritually, but physically. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson points out that “the atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago.

“For this reason,” he says, “we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.”

The process of becoming aware of this, however, begins within. As the Buddha said: “The Way is not in the sky; the Way is in the heart.”

And it is a process that is alwaysoccurring, from moment to moment and day to day.

Empyreanism is simply a name for that process. It is not dogmatic, but dynamic: dedicated to the idea of continual growth. It is not a religion, but rather seeks to find commonality in core principles shared by many belief systems, both spiritual and secular. It can be practiced by people of any faith or philosophy, by people of spirit and of science. After all, Jesus spoke of a kingdom of heaven — a celestial realm — within each of us, and Neil deGrasse Tyson agrees: We are made of stardust.

Empyreanism calls upon us to acknowledge this connection and recognize that which we share at the core of our being. It therefore focuses on shared principles such as compassion, empathy, the quest for truth, openness, reverence for nature and respect for others. In doing so, it seeks to build bridges of awareness between diverse individuals, breaking down barriers that obscure our commonality and suppress our connection: barriers such as prejudice and fear.

Such barriers are the result of focusing on our differences, and guarding them jealousy as though they define who we are. But when, conversely, we focus on what we have in common, we gain the freedom to embrace those differences without fear, because we recognize them as new and vibrant manifestations of the same shared spirit.

The bridges we build in doing so stimulate more rapid growth by exposing us to new perspectives. This dynamic process of building bridges and crossing them to explore new, yet somehow familiar wonders is both the goal and the nature of Empyreanism.

Quotes

The essence of Empyreanism is expressed in a number of sayings from around the world. Here are just a few of them:

“The kingdom is within you, and all around you.” — Jesus the Galilean

“Awakening is not changing who you are, but discarding who you are not.” — Deepak Chopra

“He who is filled with love is filled with God himself.” — Augustine of Hippo

“Who looks outside dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” — Carl Jung

“The Way is not in the sky; the Way is in the heart.” — Buddha

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” — Albert Einstein

“Each star is a mirror reflecting the truth inside you.” — Aberjhani

“Rather than being your thoughts and emotions, be the awareness behind them.” — Eckhart Tolle

“Re-examine all you have been told. Dismiss what insults your soul.” — Walt Whitman

“To find the journey’s end in every good step of the road ... is wisdom.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” — Jesus

“Love is the bridge between you and everything.” — Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” — Roald Dahl

“That which is to you hateful, do not to your neighbor.” — Rabbi Hillel

“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” — Rumi

“We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

 “E pluribus unum. (Out of many, one.)” — Pierre Eugene du Simitiere

“All things are bound together. All things connect.” — Chief Seattle

“You are the universe in ecstatic motion.” — Rumi

“Peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.” — Emerson

Awareness and religion: Your path or someone else's

Stephen H. Provost

What’s the difference between religion and spirituality – or, more specifically, between doctrine and awareness? A lot of people have tried to answer this question over the years, but I’ve decided to offer my own perspective.

Religious groups often appoint a priesthood or hierarchy to administer their rituals and oversee dogma. Hence the term “organized religion.” But without that dogma and without those rituals, the hierarchy simply wouldn’t be necessary.

It’s not the priesthood that defines religion, in my view, it’s the rulebook ... which the priesthood uses to remain in power.

Spark of awareness

Religions often coalesce around a spark of awareness – a basic idea that’s powerful enough to gain a foothold in the imaginations of more than a few people. That idea isn’t the problem; it’s the “coalescing” factor. It tends to produce a rigid us-versus-them mentality that’s fortified by an ever-growing list of dos and don’ts.

These rules serve to separate people into two categories: the faithful and the heathen. They define who’s “accepted” and who’s not, but they don’t really do much else ... except to justify the existence of a priesthood (whose members benefit by being in power) – and to dim the spark of awareness that started fire in the first place.

From time to time, a reformer will come along and try to peel away the layers of dogma that have buried the original idea – and they’re usually castigated for it. Jesus the Galilean, for instance, said all the law and the prophetic utterances in Israel could be distilled into two simple principles: love God and love your neighbor. Martin Luther argued that Christian believers could have direct access to the divine, with no need of a priestly middleman.

The existing religious hierarchy, perceiving a threat to its power structure, did its best to silence them both.

The fact is, if you boil all the dogmatic dos and don’ts down into one or two simple principles that apply to everyone, two things happen. You discover you don’t need a hierarchy. And you focus on commonality, building bridges rather than walls. The priests obviously don’t like the first of these two repercussions. But they don’t like the second much, either, because they thrive off false us-versus-them distinctions – the kind of distinctions that leave the impression that “we’re better than they are.”

The priests can then lead the faithful into battle and claim credit for waging “spiritual warfare” against evil.

Ironically, these complex, Byzantine rules and restrictions create a simplistic, black-and-white dichotomy that pits the saints against the sinners, the chosen against the damned, the clean against the unclean. Such false simple-minded distinctions make the “in” group feel superior to those on the outside – who become dehumanized in the process. The entire process is akin to offering snake oil as a treatment for personal insecurity.

The spark remains

None of this means there’s no value in religion. Most religions, after all, are based on that positive spark of awareness that’s still there under all the dogma. And that spark can motivate people to do wonderful things in spite of all the spiritual red tape inherent in hierarchies and commandments.

But wouldn’t it be a lot easier to cut through that red tape to the heart of the matter?

That’s the idea behind Empyreanism. It’s based on two simple principles: awareness of self and awareness of the world outside. One leads to the other. There’s no map on how to get there, though, no set of prescribed rituals to follow or approved commandments to keep. Some people might use moral codes as guides. Others might make use of meditation. Or nature walks. Or conversations with close friends. Or being of service to others. Or some combination of the above and other tools not mentioned.

Some of these guides, or tools, will be of more help to one person than another, and that’s fine, because our paths are all different and our journeys uniquely our own. Guides can accompany us on those journeys, but they cannot walk the path for us. If we think they can, we doom ourselves to go no further and instead be diverted onto a path someone else has chosen – a path that is theirs, not ours.

Religion is someone else’s path, but awareness is uniquely our own. That’s the difference.

Everything else is just red tape.

 

Empyreanism: The quest for awareness always starts within

Stephen H. Provost

Spiritual definitions have always been a bit of a sticky wicket for me. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring various beliefs, but none of them ever seemed quite right.

Most of them were theisms: monotheism, pantheism, polytheism, atheism. ... While I found something to admire in each of them, I felt a bit like Goldilocks trying to find the perfect fit in the home of the three bears.

The problem is, it was somebody else’s house.

Exploring the options

The teachings of Jesus the Galilean often inspired me, but the dogma that grew up around him seemed at odds with much of what he said. What do you make of an admonition to “judge not” when Jesus’ followers these days spend so much time sitting in judgment? To “pray in secret” when so many condescendingly announce, “I’m praying for your soul”? To turn the other cheek when so many self-proclaimed Christians clamor for war?

Indeed, monotheism seems vulnerable to abuse by its very nature: The temptation to disguise one’s one biases as “the will of God” and attempt to force or intimidate others into heeding them will always be there. Not all monotheists succumb to this temptation, but enough of them do that it made me uncomfortable identifying myself with such a movement.

I found polytheism fascinating. The myths surrounding many gods in various traditions offer amazing insights into human history and psychology. They shed light on our attempts to explain the world around us and offer evidence of the connections we share with other humans and with nature. But I couldn’t take them literally. The gods were, it seemed to me, archetypes that offered important knowledge, but not actual celestial beings.

Pantheism was appealing – except for the fact that, if everything is divine, how is that different from everything not being divine? A definition that is all-encompassing loses its meaning. And its power.

Atheism isn’t even a belief so much as a philosophical statement: “I am without god(s)” is what it literally means. Atheists will tell you as much, and that’s all well and good. But it’s a negative statement, and I realized I wasn’t interested in defining myself in negative terms anymore.

I realized, at this point, that all of these beliefs related, in one way or another, to god(s) – beings presumably superior to human beings. Humanism was different, but it focused (naturally) on humans, and I was attracted to a broader approach that recognized humanity as just one strand of thread in a much larger tapestry of the universe.

The kingdom is within you, and all around you.
— The Gospel of Thomas

The Thomas revelation

I started describing myself as “eclectic” to indicate I was open to strands of philosophy from various traditions, but the description that always resonated with me most strongly was a saying attributed to Jesus in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, a work with ties to both Gnostic and mainstream Christianity:

“If those who lead you say, ‘See, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will arrive before you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. But rather, the kingdom is within you, and all around you.”

That sounds a lot like pantheism, but there’s more here than meets the eye.

In some quotations, Jesus refers to it as the kingdom of God; in others as the kingdom of heaven. “Heaven” to the ancients meant the celestial firmament, or, metaphorically, the highest state of being. To say that the kingdom of heaven was within was to say that, inside each of us, there exists the highest state of being. But there’s something more: It’s all around us, too, if we only choose to recognize it!

Key to the kingdom

The key in discovering this celestial kingdom is recognition, or awareness, that it exists. Roald Dahl once said that “those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” That might sound like you’re setting yourself up for confirmation bias, but I’m convinced that’s not what he meant. The point is, unless you’re looking for something – even something ordinary like a loaf of bread in the supermarket – you’re not likely to find it except by a lucky accident.

The second-century philosopher Claudius Ptolemy, an astrologer and mathematician, referred to the highest heaven as the Empyrean. It was a place of elemental fire and perfect light. Hence the Latin name, incorporating the words for fire (pyr) and the prefix for within (em). The translation could be “in the fire” or “the fire within.”

Within us, and all around us. The kingdom of God. For Ptolemy – who was not a Christian but an Aristotelian – the Empyrean was the seat of God – pretty much the same thing Jesus referred to. Jesus, of course, wasn’t a Christian, either, since Christianity didn’t exist until after he died. The saying attributed to him in The Gospel of Thomas reflected an insight that transcended Christianity, Aristotelian philosophy or, really, any other belief system.

In fact, it wasn’t a system at all. It was, and is, a state of awareness and a gateway to achieving that awareness. The first step is to understand that the gateway to kingdom is within. This is because awareness always comes from within. Although it’s expressed in celestial terms, looking for the kingdom in the sky is futile: “or the birds of the sky will arrive before you.” This is why, I think, the saying is constructed the way it is, placing inner awareness of the kingdom before the declaration that it is also “all around you.”

The message seems plain: You won’t recognize the kingdom around you until you first become aware of and acknowledge it in yourself.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
— Roald Dahl

Heaven or hell

That’s where it – and you – are forged “in fire.” And it may feel more like hell than heaven. That’s why, I suspect, some turn away from it. The light from the fire is too bright, and the heat it generates too much for them to withstand. To recognize the kingdom is to recognize self, and only through that recognition can one begin to acknowledge the kingdom that exists all around us. Perception is the necessary precursor of awareness.

And awareness is not a belief system or doctrine or series of commandments. It is pure, undiluted understanding. But to go back to Roald Dahl’s observation: the belief that understanding can be attained always precedes understanding itself. Those who wish to find this magic, this alchemy of the soul, must first believe that it is there to be found.

Not in the sky. Not in the sea. But in the celestial core of the self.

Suddenly, the Psalmist’s declaration can be read in a whole new light: “You are gods; you are sons of the most high.” Not offspring of some old guy with gray hair and a beard sitting on a mythical throne in some external heaven. But scions of the highest celestial reality that exists within us and functions as the seat of divinity. The seat of self.

The spirit within.

When I realized the implications of this – that awareness, and the quest to attain it, was at the core of my being – I understood why the various “isms” I had explored all fell short of what I was searching for. Those “systems” shared the same desire for meaning, but each began by seeking it on the outside – in the sky or the sea, as Jesus said, or in a “holy book,” a sermon, a culture, a set of commandments or social expectations.

Hard work or easy answers

It’s easier to exist in an external system than in the fire. The answers are provided for you. You haven’t found them yourself, and they may not even apply to you. They’re like prepackaged fast food that has lost most of its nutritional value sitting on a shelf in shrink-wrapped cellophane. If you’re diabetic and they’re full of carbs, they could kill you. If they’ve lingered on that shelf past the sell-by date (e.g., are no longer relevant), they can make you sick.

If you start by looking within – by figuring out whether you’re a diabetic or allergic to peanuts or at risk of a heart attack if you eat fried food – you’ll recognize the kingdom outside: what’s good for you. It’s scary to look within, and there are plenty of people on the outside with their own agendas who want to keep you from doing just that – so they can sell you their prepackaged answers and get you hooked on them.

They often do this by offering to replace the scary aspects of self with a different kind of fear: threats of condemnation if you fail to do as they say. But such threats are false, and facing false fears never fostered growth. It’s only by facing the seat of your true fear – inside you – that growth will occur.

I call this dedication to awareness Empyreanism – or Panempyreanism, because it exists “within us and all around us.”

When it comes right down to it, I guess that’s what I am: an Empyreanist. I decided I’m done trying to make myself fit in someone else’s house. Goldilocks has gone home.

Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame.
— John Hurt as the War Doctor, "Doctor Who"