The Ideal of the Quest

The Ideal of the Quest

by David A. Beardsley

This work is copyrighted © 2013 under a

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We shall not cease from exploration.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

                          –T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

    The use of storytelling, particularly that of the quest myth, is one of the fundamental human approaches to expressing the inexpressible. I’ve addressed this previously on my blog, exploring the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and the allegory of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, but I wanted to take this opportunity to examine it in more detail, and also bring it out of the realm of the heroic to something that can be applied to our everyday lives.

    The definition given by Joseph Campbell of the quest myth is still the most succinct I’ve found:

A hero ven­tures forth from the world of com­mon day into a region of super­nat­ural won­der: fab­u­lous  forces are there encoun­tered and a deci­sive vic­tory is won: the hero comes back from this mys­te­ri­ous adven­ture with the power to bestow boons on his fel­low man.

    There are many many stories from many different cultures and eras that fit this basic outline.  They can include epic poems such as the Iliad and Odyssey to  as well as fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk.  While the hero usually brings back some object from his travels, be it a golden fleece or a golden harp, what is usually represented is a new knowledge that the hero has acquired: the knowledge of the Good.  The variations are countless of course–each era must find its own language and heroes–but the basic theme remains the same.  (For other variations on the steps of the quest, see Phil Cousineau (ed.), The Hero’s Journey,  or David Adams Leeming, Mythology: The Voyage of the Hero.  I have not read these books.)

The structure of the quest can take a number of different forms.  Probably the most common is the “positive” quest, such as Jason and the Argonauts or Sir Galahad, which corresponds to the general outline given by Campbell.  The hero sets off on a journey to find some object–golden fleece or grail–and encounters a number of tests and adventures on the way.  This is also the basic form used in Theseus and the Minotaur and also some modern quests such as The Lord of the Rings, although the object in these is not to acquire something, but to remove some dark force–the  Minotaur or the ring–which is upsetting the natural peace and equilibrium.  The hero must steel himself against giving into the temptation for power and pleasure that the dark force offers.

In another form, the hero is seen as being in exile or in some other way deprived of his home or birthright.  One of the best known of this type is the Odyssey: Odysseus (Ulysses) is separated from his kingdom of Ithaca and his wife Penelope during the Trojan War and must find his way back to her, encountering dangers and temptations along the way.  He is finally delivered to Ithaca shipwrecked, alone, having lost everything, but he still finds the way to reclaim his kingship, his wife and son, restoring the “state” to justice.  (A more detailed analysis of this myth can be found at my The Ideal of the Odyssey.)  This “exile” structure also forms the basis of some of Shakespeare’s best plays: Hamlet and King Lear come to mind, although of course in them justice is not reestablished.  (For a much more detailed analysis of Shakespeare’s plays as they relate to being separated from and seeking to reunite with the Good, see any of the fine works by John Vyvyan.)

    These stories can have the effect, however, of making us think that this kind of quest is something that only happened to extraordinary people a long time ago.  Even “contemporary” versions such as the Lord of the Rings or Star Wars evoke a setting of “long ago and far away.”  In our literal era, it can be difficult to see beyond the superficial adventure entertainment value to recognize the analogy of the spiritual search that underlies them.  Whether it is getting rid of the ignorance and selfishness symbolized by the ring, or “the disturbance in the Force” symbolized by the Empire, the real quest here is that of returning ourselves to the state of equilibrium and peace represented by the Good.  While this does require heroic efforts, it is a quest of which we are all capable: we come from the Good and must return to it.  It is the source and the destination.

    A related limitation of the quest myth is that it involves going somewhere.  It implies that the Good, the Ideal, the end of the quest is somehow “out there.”  A more useful metaphor I think is that of the hot air balloon.  Yes, it travels, it ascends or “rises up” (in the words of Hermes Trismegistus, whom we’ll look at soon), but there really is no goal except an expanded view, a higher consciousness.  The balloon is surrounded by the air into which it ascends as we are surrounded the the Good.  We ascend by a combination of making it lighter than air, and also by dropping off dead weights that hold us down.  This stands in contrast to the practice of academic philosophy which is intent on bringing more weight on to the balloon, or loading down the quest-ship with cargo until it sinks in the harbor.

    There is also a belief among many that once you start on this quest it will be smooth sailing, a steady predictable ascent, until we come home, trophy in hand, to the applause of tribe.  But as we can see from the story of Odysseus and many others, the going can get rough and the outcome is not a given.  We create these obstacles on our journey out to Strife (they don’t look like obstacles in that direction), and we have to overcome them on our way back to Love.  There is always the possibility that we can get snared, and the likelihood that we will have to give up all our self-image–or have it taken away.  Like Odysseus, we may find ourselves naked and alone on some strange shore and have to start over again.  But what has been left behind will only lighten our burden.

    In addition to going, the typical story is also one of doing on the part of the hero (and it’s always a hero, seldom a heroine).  It appeals to the male love of action and conquest, without addressing what happens when this is given free rein.  Odysseus comes home to Penelope and kills the “haughty suitors,” as the only course of setting things right.  Theseus kills the Minotaur, but at the risk of becoming a monster himself.  By killing the ego, the door is opened for a new, subtler and more devious ego to take over and reestablish the state of unconsciousness.

    If we can look past the male bias for action, we can get a larger view of the quest and how it can be applied to our everyday lives.  I think it is helpful to remember that the word “quest” is also the root of other words such as “question,” “request” and “inquest.”  They all contain the sense of “to seek, to look for,” so that every time you ask a question or make a request you are engaging in a small-scale quest of your own.   The question is the basic mental tool in the search for knowledge.  It is an admission of not-knowing, an assertion of the small self in search of the true self.  We start with what we do know and ask for what we do not.  “I know I am, but what am I?” also called the master question of the philosopher, if properly answered, is enough to make us remember our identity with the One.  But there will no doubt be many intermediate questions along the way.

    Not everyone can go on a quest, but anyone can ask a question.  Asking the question opens one up to a larger world, and implies the answer.  The answer brings rest and restores balance–justice–at a higher level of awareness.  As Emerson says in Nature:

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put.

There is, I think, a telling distinction in the origins of the “establishment” view of the gods and the alternative view developed by the pre-Socratic writers.  Hesiod, whose Theogony became the basis for the Greek pantheon was not particularly a seeker asking questions.  By his account, he was minding his own business, tending to his sheep at the foot of Mount Helicon, when the Heliconian Muses appeared to him unannounced and spoke the following words: “Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.”

So as I’ve said, the Muses descend and condescend to him.  Hesiod is not looking for knowledge and they basically tell him that they may or may not be lying.  What follows from this is a construct of theological multiplicity and duplicity; gods who are paragons of virtue, but also bad behavior run amok.  The attitude toward humans that arises from this view of the gods runs the gamut from special privileges and protection for the chosen few to a benign neglect for the masses to hostility and punishment for another few who have incurred the gods’ disfavor.  To question the nature of these gods is superfluous: they are what they are, and the best strategy is to keep your head down.  As Werner Jaeger says:

The gods are part of the mythological tradition; and as Hesiod’s thinking is utterly rooted in myth, this is all that is needed to make them real for his theology.  Accordingly he never has any reason to inquire into the nature of the Divine as such.  This fundamental question is one that cannot be raised until a time when all Hesiod’s individual divine figures and the very myths themselves have become problematical.  And such a stage does not occur until the moment when man comes to recognize that his only source of certainly in dealing with the actual lies in experience and in self-consistent thinking grounded upon experience.  (p. 17)

In other words, until a man learns to ask questions.  And this was the attitude with which the pre-Socratics started their own search.  Although they no doubt were aware of the Hesiodic tradition, it is evident that their own system was based on fundamental questions: What is this creation?  Did it have a beginning?  How does it work?  Is it lawful?  Can the laws be known?  These questions led many of their askers back to a Supreme Cause, an Unbounded, but it was a Cause that could be ultimately experienced by the asker, unlike that of Hesiod.  There is always this dichotomy between the unquestioning faith of religion and the faith in questioning of philosophy.

This faith in questioning meets its high point in the person of Socrates.  It is this lack of possibility of asking questions that makes him distrustful and contemptuous of writing:

Socrates: Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself.

Phaedrus: You are quite right about that, too.

Socrates: Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

Phaedrus: What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

Socrates: The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

Phaedrus: You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

Socrates: Exactly.  (Phaedrus, 275d-276b)

So of course the irony of the dialogues being written down is readily apparent, but I believe Plato captures enough of “the living and breathing word of him who knows,”  in Socrates’  nature that these works do not feel like the dry treatises normally associated with philosophy.  It is comforting to see him pick others apart rather than stand before him ourselves for the same treatment.

The distinction is however that with Socrates, the questioning is not of the universe or the gods, as it was with many of those who came before him, but of ourselves.  Knowledge of oneself is his “alpha and omega;” without which “life is not worth living.”  As Pierre Hadot says:

The point was thus not so much to question the apparent knowledge we think we have, as to question ourselves and the values which guide our own lives.  In the last analysis, Socrates’ interlocutor, after carrying on a dialogue with him, no longer has any idea of why he acts.  He becomes aware of the contradictions in his discourse, and of his own internal contradictions.  He doubts himself; and, like Socrates, comes to know that he knows nothing.  As he does this, however, he assumes a distance with regard to himself.  He splits into two parts, one of which henceforth identifies itself with Socrates, in the mutual accord which Socrates demands from hi interlocutor at each stage of the discussion.  The interlocutor thus acquires awareness and begins to question himself. (p. 28-9)

It was not Socrates’ aim to increase duality, but to awaken the “inner Socrates,” and set it on the quest to know its unity with the Good.  It is this awakening of awareness, of being able to ask the proper questions, being able to see the universal in particular things, that is the goal of the quest.

Plato himself had mixed feelings about the value of myths.  He would not allow any stories in his Republic that suggested that the gods were anything less than all good, which of course would knock out about 90% of Hesiod and Homer.  But also as we’ve seen he uses stories and myths when it can advance his own views, such as the Cave allegory and the Myth of Er.  The ascent to the “great sea of beauty” through love, from the particular to the universal, described by Diotima in the Symposium is a quest which begins with Socrates’ question, “‘How do you mean, Diotima?’ said I; ‘is Love then ugly and bad?’”  For Plato, questions and answers, not ships and swords, are the tools of the quest.  (An interesting approach to the whole body of Platonic dialogues as a quest is presented on this page by Bernard Suzanne.)

Hermes Trismegistus

Without reviving the questions regarding the authorship of the texts attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, I think it can be said that they do bear the stamp of the Ideal tradition in their use of questioning as a means toward knowledge.  Although they have a revelatory quality, the revelations are brought on by a desire for knowledge, unlike those of Hesiod.  As recounted in The Way of Hermes, Hermes says that he has found himself in a state receptive to knowledge: “mind had become intent on things which are, and my understanding had been raised to a great height, while my bodily senses were withdrawn as in sleep….”  His mind is concentrated so that his capacity for understanding has been enlarged, and his senses are out of the picture; a brief overview of what is needed for inner knowledge to arise.  He has actually already begun his quest.

Under these circumstances, Poimandres “the Nous of the Supreme,” appears to him and puts a question to him: “What do you wish to hear and behold, and having beheld, what do you wish to learn and know?” To which Hermes replies, basically everything.  “I wish to learn the things that are and understand their nature and to know God.  Oh, how I wish to hear these things!”  So it is this desire to understand that motivates him, and guides his progression by Poimandres, who goes on to describe “the way back.”

I think it is worth spending some time with this description because it is a good example of what we might call a “negative” quest along the lines of the Odyssey; that is, unlike the traditional monomyth, the quester here is not seeking to gain something “outside” himself, rather he is caused to give up something at each level.  The assumption is that our true nature is divine, and what needs to be done is to shed all the limitations and illusions of who we think we are in order to remember that nature.

First, in the dissolution of the material body, one gives the body itself up to change.  The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power your habitual character, now inactive.  The bodily senses return to their own sources.  Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of the emotions and desire go to mechanical nature.

Thus a man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos.  To the first plain he surrenders the activity of growth and diminution; to the second the means of evil, trickery now being inactive; to the third covetous deceit, now inactive, and to the fourth the eminence pertaining to a ruler, being now without avarice; to the fifth impious daring and reckless audacity and to the sixth evil impulses for wealth, all of these being now inactive, and to the seventh plain the falsehood which waits in ambush.  (p. 22-23)

Poimandres zips through these pretty quickly, but I think it’s worth spending some more time with each of the steps since they represent a rather complete program for purging the soul of its limitations.

The first stage he describes is “the dissolution of the material body.”  By this I don’t think he means physical death, but the kind of letting go of the body which is described at the beginning of the book: “mind had become intent on things which are, and my understanding had been raised to a great height, while my bodily senses were withdrawn as in sleep….”  From this more elevated level of consciousness, one is able to see the “mechanical nature” of the body and what we normally think of as who we are.  It is a beautifully crafted tool, but a tool nonetheless that is capable of running on its own with factory settings for long periods when, as is the case with most of us, its operator seems to be on an extended coffee break.

From this realization, “man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos.”  (Isn’t that a wonderful image?)  First, “he surrenders the activity of growth and diminution.”  By this I think he means our love of–almost an addiction to–change and novelty.  The whole tendency that creates and maintains most of what we see in popular media, and various devices we have invented to maintain our not-so-slow-drip of newsfeeds, data, texts and tweets.  (In the interests of not be a total hypocrite, I do acknowledge that this digital infrastructure also allows me to do what I am doing, but I hope it is not at the same level of ephemera.  And I don’t mean to imply that this fascination with change/fear of boredom is a modern phenomenon: witness the prisoners in Plato’s Cave.)  Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”  This has never been more true, but it is something we must learn to “do” if we are going to rise up through the harmony.  It implies a stillness I will talk more about later.

In the second plain, we must give up “evil, trickery now being inactive.”  I’m sure we lose a lot of people at this point–no one thinks of him/herself as evil.  After all, I haven’t murdered anyone, or even tricked anyone, really, so what’s with this?  But as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “evil” originally had the sense of “‘exceeding the measure’ or ‘overstepping proper limits.’”  This is a much stricter standard, one that I think any of us would have difficulty living up to.  It requires an understanding of the inscription at the temple of Apollo at Delphi: μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan), sometimes translated as “keep the measure,” or “nothing overmuch.”  When we exceed that measure, in terms of the quest we have become evil, and when we engage in any kind of duplicity, doubletalk or double-dealing, even (especially) to ourselves, we engage in trickery.

Next we come to “covetous deceit,”  which Copenhaver translates as “the illusion of longing.”  (p. 6)  In other words, I would say, desire.  Especially the desire or covetousness for what other people have (or that we think they have), materially or spiritually.  This is another form of overstepping limits; not being content with what has been given to us, but always thinking that more is better, that if I have that I’ll be happy.  More money, more status, more sex, more power.  Or more humility.  Of course the desire is never satisfied, and something else will come along to take its place.  As I’ve said, not love but desire makes the world go ’round.  To make it stop, to move up instead of in circles, we must let go of the desire, like the dead weights in our hot air balloon.

Fourth, “the eminence pertaining to a ruler, being now without avarice,”  or as Copenhaver says, “the ruler’s arrogance, now freed from excess.”  (p. 6)  This for me evokes the description of the tyrant given Plato in the Republic.  For the tyrant of course, power must be absolute; avarice, arrogance, excess and ruthlessness are part of the job description.  On the level of the individual, this is the realm of the ego, about which I’ve also written in the blog.  Its purpose is to prevent further progress on the quest, and it will do whatever it takes using the weapons of the first three plains.  But if these weapons are taken away, if the tyrant is disarmed and brought under the rule of reason, it can become a useful ally in the quest, keeping desires and emotions in measure.  It can, in short, become the reasonable part of Plato’s threefold description of man’s nature.

But we are not home free; in the fifth and sixth plains we can encounter tests that are a result of our very progress.  These are “impious daring and reckless audacity and to the sixth evil impulses for wealth.”  (Copenhaver: “unholy presumption and daring recklessness; at the sixth the evil impulses that come from wealth.”)  These are more difficult to interpret, but I believe he is speaking of the tendency to spiritual pride, of a feeling of superiority that we are no longer like the poor slobs still walking around in unconsciousness.  “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” (Luke 18: 9-14)  This, coupled with the thought that this quest may go in one direction only can cause “daring recklessness.”  Perhaps we go with a desire for something because we think we have conquered it, only to find ourselves back on step three.  It is a fine line between giving up the pleasure itself, and giving up our attachment to it.  The truly enlightened person seems to be able to enjoy all things that come his or her way, but also has the ability just to let them go and not live in the desire of a repeat performance.  Same with wealth; fine if it comes, but at the point when one knows that the bliss of the Good is the real happiness, wealth is just another shadow.

At the seventh plain there is still “the falsehood (Copenhaver: deceit) that lies in ambush.”  So without trying to be facetious, this is kind of like the scene in the movie where you think it’s all over and all will be well, but then the monster rears up again and the hero/heroine has to strangle it with his/her own bare hands.  Whew!  Well, the universe is kind of like that also: it is only unity that is more fundamental than duplicity, and falsehood can appear right up to the end.  We can always think that it’s about us.

When we get over that (like I know), Poimandres tells us what happens next:

Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming.  Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice.  Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and the surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God.  This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.

But as with Plato’s newly enlightened prisoners, it is not for Hermes to remain on this plain, but to bring the boon of this knowledge to others.  “Well then, why do you delay?  Should you not, having received all, become the guide to those who are worthy, so that the human race may be saved by God through you?”  (p. 23)  The rest of the books consist of Hermes doing just that, although he is aware of the risks.  In book 9, in a passage reminiscent of the Cave allegory, he says, “…those who are seated in knowledge neither please the multitude nor does the multitude please them.  They seem to be mad and have become a laughing stock; they are hated and despised and may even be put to death.” (p. 43)

So with that happy thought in mind, and at the risk of being redundant, I thought we could take a look at the quest as it might be practiced today.

So where do we begin?  Where we are, of course.  And where is that?  As Emerson asked and answered: Where do we find ourselves?  In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none.  We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight.  (Experience)  We become aware that the quest has begun; that outside our normal experience, our “common day,” something is beckoning to a larger view.  We are happy enough; we are friends, sons, daughters, perhaps husbands, wives, mothers, fathers.  We try to be nice people–maybe even good people.  But outside of the fulfillment of each day’s to-do list, there is a parallel track of being, of which we occasionally catch a glimpse.  As our little river flows, we sometimes become aware of the “great sea of beauty.”

This can come from a simple sense of unease, a “quiet desperation,” a feeling of something lacking, which, as an absence, we are unable to articulate.  Or it can come as, or by way of, a shock.  Something terribly unfair happens: a loved one dies, the evil are rewarded, our prayer goes unanswered.  We question how God can exist and allow such injustice, forgetting or taking for granted all the blessings we’ve been given.  We ask, “Why me?”

But if we let go of the ego, this becomes “Why?”–the beginning of all wisdom.  What may seem cruel becomes a blessing if it causes us to begin questioning, opens our ears to the ventriloquist voice of the Good.

A fever, a mutilation, a cruel disappointment, a loss of wealth, a loss of friends, seems at the moment unpaid loss, and unpayable. But the sure years reveal the deep remedial force that underlies all facts. The death of a dear friend, wife, brother, lover, which seemed nothing but privation, somewhat later assumes the aspect of a guide or genius; for it commonly operates revolutions in our way of life, terminates an epoch of infancy or of youth which was waiting to be closed, breaks up a wonted occupation, or a household, or style of living, and allows the formation of new ones more friendly to the growth of character.  (Emerson, Compensation)

    We hear the call–it is always there–but of course there is also always the possibility of opting out, as in the quest where the hero refuses it, wanting to play it safe, to stay with the known.  As Campbell says, however:

Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative.  Walled in boredom, hard work, or “culture,” the subject loses the power of significant affirmative action and becomes a victim to be saved.  His flowering world becomes a wasteland of dry stones and his life feels meaningless–even though, like King Minos, he may through titanic effort succeed in building and empire of renown.  Whatever house he builds, it will be a house of death: a labyrinth of cyclopean walls to hide from him his Minotaur.  All he can do is create new problems for himself and await the gradual approach of his disintegration.

    Other than that, it’s not too bad.  We will continue to be just as happy as we are now.  We can continue with all the many pleasures the world has to offer, if we can just put up with the gnawing in the stomach.

    But if we answer the call, we embark a journey into the unknown.  Not really unknown–it will end with the Good–but it may take many twists and turns in order to get there.  There will be different paths, that of the head or the heart, but the resolve must be irreversible.  As the hero is always asked by someone at some point: Are you up to it?

Into every intelligence there is a door which is never closed, through which the creator passes.  The intellect, seeker of absolute truth, or the heart, lover of absolute good, intervenes for our succor, and at one whisper of the high powers we awake from ineffectual struggles with this nightmare.  We hurl it into its own hell, and cannot again contract ourselves to so base a state.  (Emerson, Experience.)

If we are lucky, perhaps a school or system may present itself; remembering, however, that we can be vulnerable at this point and latch onto the first thing that offers comfort.  If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.  If you do know where you’re going, only one road will get you there: yours.

 Unless you have decided to give up on society and retreat into the forest, it will be essential to find “good company”–other people who, if not questing themselves, will at least honor yours.  Ideally that would consist of meeting with them face-to-face and sharing experiences.  This could take longer than you’d like: despite the plethora of spiritual groups and “self-help” books, there is still a prohibition in our society against speaking of a spiritual quest in personal terms that seems to be every bit as strong as the prohibitions against speaking about sex or money.  (Unless you’re a celebrity.)  But it is key to avoiding the entropy that comes with trying to do it on your own.  The energy you receive from this “outside” source can help keep you going when your ego would have you give up.  You will know this group, this karass, when you find it, because it will feel like coming home, like being among people where the bond can be even stronger and deeper than family.

Or it may be that you will be able to find your companions only in books, and of course books by any of the teachers quoted here will serve as excellent guides.  It must be remembered though that the book is not the journey.  Emerson is a wonderful companion and guide; he has the “overview,” and freely shares what he sees with his “transparent eyeball.”  But he cannot carry you there.  Plato can tell you about the nature of the sun that shines outside the cave, but you must climb the steps.  Friends and schoolmates can offer inspiration and encouragement, but we have to let go of our own baggage.

Another essential is devoting time to the quest.  Now again, unless you’ve decided to retreat to the forest, this can be a difficult undertaking.  I don’t need to go through all the other demands on one’s time–jobs, family, friends, obligations–the ten thousand things.  But the quest needs to be a priority as much as any of these, since, without putting too fine a point on it, it is our reason for being on the planet.  The cliche is that no one on his deathbed ever wished he’d spent more time at the office, and it is a question of priorities–what does in fact come first.

The Romans had a word for this kind of time: otium.  It is usually translated as “leisure,” but as with many of the words in the spiritual vocabulary, that does not do it justice.  It means time specifically set aside for the quest, for meditation, for contemplation, for “the care of the soul.”  In his dedication of the Platonic Theology to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Marsilio Ficino says “it is because of your generosity that I have the leisure to be able to practice philosophy…”  (sed quod et nos beneficio tuo id otium quo facilius philosophari possemus consecuti sumus…  p. 12)  Its opposite is negotium, from which we get “negotiation”–all the wheeling and dealing, the bargaining that we do each day, even with family and friends and ourselves.   Most of us are not fortunate to have a patron such as il Magnifico, but we will find that if we make this a priority, there are forces that will come to our aid.

An important aspect of this otium is stillness.  Again, the translation of “leisure” is misleading, implying a kind of kicking back and chilling out.  But this is a particular kind of leisure or stillness that calls for letting go of all activity–physical, mental, emotional.  In our usual sense of leisure this is what we strive for on vacation by lying on the beach, daiquiri in hand, staring at the waves.  And it works to an extent.  But as Emerson says, “my giant goes with me,” and before you know it the turbulent mind is racing again, the desires are aroused and the quest is lost.  The Good is shy, like a rare bird: it appears only when we have let go of all activity of the body, mind and heart, and have become completely still.

I am all good; I am all truth.  Seek my face and you shall live.  But do not move in order to touch me, for I am stillness itself.  Do not be drawn in many directions in order to take hold of me; I am unity itself.  Stop the movement, unify diversity, and you will surely reach me, who long ago reached you.  (Ficino, Meditations on the Soul, p. 51)

Another thing you may notice is that when we are on a quest, events which previously passed by unnoticed become tests: tests of our conviction to stay on course and tests of our ability to discriminate the true from the untrue, the Unbounded from the limited.  Perhaps you take on a practice, an askesis, as an aid to remembering. Without trying to implant ideas, I can pretty safely say that when you try to practice, something will arise in mind to take you from it.  You’ve made a resolution to spend 15 minutes a day reading Plato, but when that time comes, something else comes up that’s “more important.”  You resolve to take a “beauty walk” each day, or keep a gratitude journal, but somehow never get around to it. You resolve to give up anger, but other people know just how to push your buttons.  There is always the option of refusing the call, and going back to the “devil you know.”  Even ordinary pleasures can be barriers.  We must keep our sights on the “stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight,” and keep climbing.

A consolation is that we are not expected to perform heroic deeds, except insofar as giving up our limited ideas about who we are is heroic.  We are asked only to lighten our load; to give up anger, envy, jealousy, desires, thoughts, criticisms, judgments.  Bit by bit, we slay our own internal dragon, our “resident thief,” through “effortless effort.”

 It will not always be smooth going.  We will continue to fall asleep.  But when we wake up again, we will know that despite having felt forsaken, we are in fact never alone.

There is no chance, and no anarchy, in the universe. All is system and gradation. Every god is there sitting in his sphere. The young mortal enters the hall of the firmament: there is he alone with them alone, they pouring on him benedictions and gifts, and beckoning him up to their thrones. On the instant, and incessantly, fall snow-storms of illusions. He fancies himself in a vast crowd which sways this way and that, and whose movement and doings he must obey: he fancies himself poor, orphaned, insignificant. The mad crowd drives hither and thither, now furiously commanding this thing to be done, now that. What is he that he should resist their will, and think or act for himself? Every moment, new changes, and new showers of deceptions, to baffle and distract him. And when, by and by, for an instant, the air clears, and the cloud lifts a little, there are the gods still sitting around him on their thrones, — they alone with him alone. (Emerson, Illusions)

At these moments we will realize there are no stairs above or below, that we are always where we must be in the harmony of the cosmos.  We will “arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”