Monday, 15 July 2019

Catafalque; Die Before You Die: In Search of a Middle Path

One thing that Peter Kingsley brings up several times in Reality and in Catafalque: Carl Jung and the End of Humanity is the need to "die before you die", for the ego to die before one's physical death, whether in the context of Jung's individuation or the path of traditional Sufism. In the case of individuation, it means descending into the underworld, being torn to shreds, being born again into a greater but notably impersonal reality, and undergoing horrendous conscious suffering; and the seven valleys that we pass through in the Sufi, Attar's The Conference of the Birds doesn't exactly turn out to be a jolly weekend ramble and picnic in the park (though in the case of both, there is a call or move to stillness, serenity and peace).

Kingsley leaves few stones unturned in his quest, from mistaken beliefs and tragically-lost knowledge, right down to the crucial original constellation of meanings of individual words. But in both the study of, and practice in, the Sufi Way, and also in Kingsley's explanations of individuation, one topic that is taken for granted and seldom examined is the central need to "die before you die" (and the need to avoid dangers such as self-inflation).

In his book, Islamic Sufism, the Sirdar Ikbal Ali-Shah writes that unlike other Sufis the Shattariyya (from shattar, meaning lightning-quick, rapidness; etc) do not subscribe to the concept of fana (annihilation of the ego).[1][2] He quotes Khaja Khan's work, Studies in Tasawwuf,[3] saying: "With the sect of Shattaris, the Salik (seeker, aspirant) descends, of himself, in his own knowledge - there is no annihilation of self with them." (p95) In that book, however, Khan is not recommending this course of action, seeing it as a "thorny path" (p15) and commenting that "Imagination and judgment are upset, and a man is liable to become an Egotist (Self expressionist). This path is therefore abjured." (pp15–16).

Nevertheless (aside from my being a hopeless heretic), it would be interesting to know whether a middle path exists in the Sufi Way, in other spiritual schools, or in Jung's process of individuation – a compromise or "half-way house" (even "a low start mortgage") that does not require quite such a hellish descent, such excruciating levels of conscious suffering[4] (to add too much to our existing burden of suffering in this world), and without stripping away some of our humanity and leaving us in such an impersonal state; whilst rendering what service to the work, to humanity and to the way, as we may – and not so tattered, battered and bruised that we can no longer function soberly (as Idries Shah has taught us) or cope in modern, largely-secular Western society – and not, instead, intoxicated, shattered or fragmented, and straitjacketed in the padded cell of some mental asylum.

Is this what the benign "Powers that Be" really want from us, or is this anthropomorphism on our part, something left over from the (supposed) Dark Ages when monks cruelly flagellated themselves and wore hair shirts over the raw wounds to cause constant irritation, pain and suffering? Kingsley warns against what we foolishly think of as progress, and constantly refers back to, and pays homage to, our cultural ancestors, such as Parmenides and Empedocles (since Plato, Aristotle and Company seriously screwed-up). So, what did the pre-Socratics, their own esoteric guides – or, say, Henry Corbin, his inner sheikh Suhrawardi, and the Ishrâqi – have to say on such matters? Does the mundus imaginalis (the intermediate Imaginal World) offer such a "half-way house"?

As Peter Kingsley makes shockingly and painfully clear in Catafalque, we are in dire straits, the world is not simply facing but living through a catastrophe, and humanity is facing an existential emergency, so there may be some merit in adopting a rapid course of action. For now, the niceties and the polishing of our facets can wait.

Kingsley's method is, in a way, a rapidness. In Reality, for example, he starts (I don't mean at the start of the book) by voicing what have been until now, mostly, secrets of an initiation into the Mysteries. He and Vaughn-Lee (Golden Sufi Center) realize the dire straits we are in, and that we can't keep milling around at the fork in the road (the "Y" junction, not a crossroads), so Kingsley really lays it on the line, creating intentional "shocks" (since it is the shocks that move us on). His aim in writing these books is partly to provide information (and he provides such a lot), but essentially to initiate or further the transformation of the individual reader (ie you, "yes, you!").

[1] Ali-Shah, Sirdar Ikbal (1933). Islamic Sufism. Tractus. p. 221. ISBN 978-2-909347-07-3.
[2] After fanāʾ comes baqā (subsistence).
[3] Khan, Sahir Khaja (1923), Studies in Tasawwuf.
[4] If I'm reading Kingsley correctly, Jung deliberately underwent conscious suffering to atone for the suffering that we cause the gods and our ancestors.

Image: Middle Path at Kenyon College [A liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio].
Image credits: cdorobek from Washington, DC, USA.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Image licence: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).


  1. Most true mystics feel that eternal union is assured when you give up self during this lifetime. Sufis say, “to die before one dies.” The Christian mystics call it “death of self.” Kabbalists refer to it as bittul ha-yesh, “annihilation of the desiring self.” Whenever there is no observing “self” then, in transpersonal actuality, there is no “other.” In self-less living, all is experienced as unity in essence. The greatest achievement in life is maintaining that realization.