The Lamp of the Body is the Eye

This phrase is usually interpreted as a metaphor where the eye is likened to a lamp.

But what if it is the other way around?

The standard reading

In the typical reading, it seems obvious that the physical eye is being likened to a lamp.

The eye shows us what is around us in the same way a lamp lights up our surroundings.

It seems straightforward. So what is the purpose of the metaphor? Is Jesus giving opthalmological advice?

The lamp of the body is the eye, if therefore the eye is clear the whole body will be full of light.

If “lamp” is the metaphorical component, then “eye” should be the literal component…but since no one thinks he was talking about literal eyes, the standard interpretation is that he’s referring either to the “mind’s eye” and hence to clear-mindedness, or “single-mindedness towards God”.

In the standard view, this passage is a metaphor within a metaphor, and it’s not entirely clear what is being said. Since the next immediate passage refers to an eye that is “evil” and a body that is full of darkness, the whole framing is reduced to “don’t be evil.”

In this reductionist ethical context the metaphor doesn’t add much value. He might as well have said “good and bad are like light and darkness, be good rather than bad, ok?” Or at best: “being good is like having good eyesight, and being bad is like having some kind of eye disease that makes you go blind.”

Rethinking the metaphor

So what if it’s the other way around instead? What if “lamp of the body” and “light” refer to something concrete and real that is then elaborated on via the metaphor of the eye?

The lamp of the body is like the eye…

If so, what is the lamp of the body?

The lamp of the body is that which “lights up” our bodies. It is what we call consciousness or the mind.

In this sense, consciousness is like an eye – the mind’s eye. We can direct it, we can focus it.

This eye can be “clear”, from the Greek haplous which literally means “without folds” and is often translated as simple or single.

And if it is single, the whole body will be full of light.

In other words, if you make your consciousness single, it will fill your whole body.

The final line warns that:

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Which doesn’t make literal sense since darkness and light are opposite.

It’s another metaphor. What it refers to is that consciousness, the light within us, is not “all or nothing”.

Rather there are degrees of concentration or intensity to it.

This is something attested to universally by contemplatives and meditators from all traditions: the “normal” mind or consciousness can become imbued with a higher or more intense or more pure consciousness.

The light within us can be full of light, or it can be (comparatively) darkness.

To those who have some, more will be given, and to those who have nothing even the little that they have will be taken away.

Am I right?

This whole passage is either a moderately esoteric teaching about contemplation or an unnecessarily complicated metaphor about being a good person.

I prefer the former interpretation because it makes more sense to me. People with exposure to meditation or contemplative prayer should see what I’m getting at.

I haven’t found many others espousing the same interpretation, perhaps because esoteric or mystical perspectives on scripture tend to be either deeply private and idiosyncratic or heterodox.

But this passage is one that has always called to me, and I’m increasingly aware that my need to justify my point of view with seemingly objective or impartial reasoning doesn’t serve me.

So take it or leave it. It makes perfect sense to me.

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When suffering is good for you

Suffering is a key theme of all religious traditions. They tend to treat suffering as something inevitable, but not intrinsic. That is, we all suffer, but only because something has gone wrong in us, the world, or reality itself.

Christianity and Buddhism (and everything in between) attest that true peace and contentment cannot be found in worldly things, or in the satisfaction of our desires.  From a religious point of view, we are all suffering whether we realise it or not. The first step is to realise it.

But it is possible, with sufficient wealth and self-delusion, to distract ourselves from suffering. We can run headlong into distractions – career, relationships, experiences, whatever will feed our pride and fill us with the promise of self-sufficiency.

We can let suffering feel like our opponent in the private drama of achieving success, personal validation, vindication, of finally making it. We can attribute our suffering to not being busy enough, or rich enough, on not having enough holidays, not having the right friends, not having the right distractions.

But these efforts will only intensify our suffering in the long-run. They will turn us into the kind of person who doesn’t know how to suffer, or more importantly, doesn’t know how to let go of the roots of suffering.

Because the roots of suffering lie in our false sense of autonomy, our desire to be in control. At the deepest level of our being there is no “me” to exercise this control, there is no interior agent behind our choices and decisions. Our efforts to feel in control are vain in light of the actual causes and determinants of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The mind is very powerful.

It creates an impression of our reality – both the external and internal components. It also makes decisions in accordance with the reality it creates.

But the mind makes these decisions automatically. It weighs the evidence, arrives at a judgment, and thus the decision is made.

It does not require there to be a further arbiter of these decisions, yet we nonetheless have the strong impression that there is a “me” who guides these judgments and makes these decisions.

This is the crux of the problem: the mind creates all our impressions, yet we have an impression of a self, a “me”, who controls the mind. This means that the mind feels bound and controlled by the very impressions it has created.

The mind treats this impression of a self as if it is an actual self. It treats it with care. Like a spoiled child it caters to its whims. It factors this impression of a self into its decision-making so that its decisions are consistent with the illusion of this self being in control.

It creates a center where none exists, and then acts as though that center is vulnerable yet powerful, in control yet susceptible to losing control.

This is the delusion of self that the mind suffers – a delusion the mind itself has created. This is likewise the sin of pride, the root of all sin that seeks to make us the authors of our own glory.

As Isaiah wrote:

You turn things upside down!
Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
“He has no understanding”?

But what makes pride so difficult to be rid of, and enlightenment so hard to achieve, is that this delusion of a self persists even when we seek to let go of it.

That is why Christianity invokes grace so strongly – the free gift of holiness and redemption that comes from God in spite of our own efforts. If it came via our efforts it would only increase our pride.

Likewise, the point of enlightenment in Buddhism is that there is no enlightenment once the delusion of an agent, a self who is in control, is erased.

But the mind does exist. And there is, in essence, no difference between the deluded mind and the enlightened mind. It’s the same mind all along.

That’s why suffering can be a gift, when it encourages the mind to stop investing in the false impression of a self. Suffering is, after all, something that makes sense only in the context of a self who suffers, desires, strives and fails.

Imago Dei and the basis of human dignity

My recent article on the awful truth of human dignity produced an interesting discussion, with some readers wanting to emphasise the notion of Imago Dei – the Christian belief that humans are made in the image of God.  I wrote the following reply to a commenter who argued that Imago Dei is a more valid basis for the widespread sense of human dignity:

But I think few people are able to articulate ‘Imago Dei’ either. In terms of knowing something to be true intuitively, even then we ought to be able to reflect on the nature of this knowledge.

For example, the first principles of reason such as “a statement cannot be true and false at the same time and in the same way” cannot be proven, nevertheless we all know it almost intuitively. But on reflection we can find that the truth of this principle is grounded in the more fundamental behaviour of reality, i.e. “an object cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same way”.

So there is a deeper basis, and when we know it our understanding is more complete.

Applying the same process to the Imago Dei, Aquinas writes: “some things are like to God first and most commonly because they exist; secondly, because they live; and thirdly because they know or understand; and these last, as Augustine says “approach so near to God in likeness, that among all creatures nothing comes nearer to Him.” It is clear, therefore, that intellectual creatures alone, properly speaking, are made to God’s image.”

Without going into it too deeply, I think the implication is that our intellectual nature is our likeness to God.  This is in fact very closely related to my depiction of dignity. Our capacity to know and to understand is the part of us that is most like God; and one could say that my theory of dignity is merely the humbling recognition that other humans (not merely oneself) are, by nature, able to know and understand and therefore resemble God.

Yet as I said at the start, most people do not seem to have a clear understanding or even a theory of what Imago Dei means. Rather, they derive significance from this teaching at face value.  If, on the other hand, one had no knowledge of God or the Imago Dei concept, one could nonetheless become aware of the reality of the knowing human mind, and as I have shown, the humbling and awesome reality of other people’s minds; and this in itself would be a recognition of Imago Dei without the explicit religious and historical context.

This is not to say that one can have a value or an invented dignity independent of God.  Existence itself depends upon a creator, and we are indeed prone to deluding ourselves with vain concepts and ideas.  But if God has created us in his image, it is okay to inquire as to what this means, what part of us is distinctly God-like in that sense.  This knowledge enriches our understanding of the Imago Dei concept, by showing what the idea is pointing to in reality.

Personally I find it quite exciting to think that what we call ‘Imago Dei’ is a part of human nature universally recognised as somehow transcendent, spiritual, and even divine, in a variety of religious, philosophical, and cultural traditions independent of Judaism and Christianity.  I think this may well open a path for a rapprochement between otherwise quite diverse traditions.

Stuck in my head

In the literature on temperaments I’ve read that melancholics seem to be less coordinated, less ‘at home’ in their bodies, and more prone to illness and minor ailments.

Even before I came across the temperament theory, I’d concluded that as someone who thinks a great deal, spending so much time “in my head” upsets things like balance, coordination, proprioception, and my awareness of minor aches and pains, tension, thirst, and bad posture.

It’s no exaggeration to say that I spend nearly every waking moment thinking. And while I’ve tried various methods to ‘quiet’ my mind in line with generic meditation advice, I think that such advice is not necessarily appropriate for a melancholic idealist philosopher.

After all, I’m not just thinking about what I’m going to have for dinner. My mind is inquiring, analysing, speculating, and critiquing. My mind composes speeches, stories, articles and even conversations; it welcomes inspiring new ideas and elaborates on intriguing problems and dilemmas. It’s always working, and while it can be exhausting, I feel I’ve found the right kinds of creative directions for this mental energy.

So while I used to think this constant thinking was excessive and needed to be shut down, I now see it as a skill and a creative process that needed to be trained, disciplined, and given appropriate work to do.

Nonetheless, there are times when being so ‘head-centred’ becomes too much, and I’ve found over the years that it’s possible to shift the focus away from thoughts and towards other aspects of embodied awareness, such as the aforementioned proprioception, breathing, or just the feel of my feet on the floor. But more important is the sense of dimming the focus on my thoughts, of deciding that my thoughts are not important for the time being, and I won’t miss anything by letting go of them for a while.

We talk about lowering our centre of gravity, but this is more like lowering the centre of awareness. As strange as it sounds, it has an immediate impact on perception, making everything around me seem a little more real and substantial. It’s as though being focused on one’s thoughts and dwelling in abstraction leaves the world feeling somewhat unreal.

The world of thoughts is a valuable one, but this conflict between thinking and being troubles me. It leaves me wondering what a true balance would look like; am I really overdoing the thinking, and is it undermining my health in ways of which I am oblivious? If you’ve ever had the experience of getting up from a computer desk after hours craning over a keyboard, you’ll understand that we can easily lose touch with bodily discomfort when engrossed in mental activity. How much more so if we spend most of each waking day lost in thought?

That’s a telling idiom after all: no one ever claims to find themselves in thought. Am I, a thinker, more myself when I am thinking? Or am I just someone who’s gotten used to losing himself in entertaining, instructive, ever-more-engaging thoughts?