A Conversation Between Basarab Nicolescu and Arthur Versluis
© Copyright 2017 Basarab Nicolescu and Arthur Versluis. All rights reserved.
No republication or reproduction without express written consent of the speakers.
Arthur Versluis – (AV)
Basarab Nicolescu – (BN)
Part Two: The Sacred and Consciousness
AV: I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years going to different sacred sites. Actually for more than twenty years. Close to thirty years now. But in the last few years, I’ve been to Greece, Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, visiting remote, prehistoric sites, typically 2000-3000 B.C. megalithic monuments, and I came to realize that many of these places, are quite distinctive as combinations of different common characteristics. For example, in Ireland, there’s a hill, the summit in fact, is about a mile and half hike, and at the top is a cairn of stones and it’s said that there’s an entrance to a fairy kingdom at the top of the hill inside the cairn. And the wind, it’s a constant presence and it’s said you can see half of Ireland from the top of that hill. The reason that I mention it is that it too fits what you’re talking about in the sense that if you think the world of phenomena is made up of the vibrations that you’re referring to, when you’re in a particular kind of place with certain configurations, there’s normally a certain direction, there’s an orientation to water, there’s height, I mean there are characteristics that you can find for sacred places that are pretty consistent. They’re actually pretty consistent between Western Europe and the United States, North America, oftentimes, of course they’re not obviously identical, there are cultural differences, but those sacred places have certain characteristics. And by being there, you’re embodying, in some sense, those characteristics as an individual. You experience it. Many of these places that I’ve been to have only a single entrance, so only one person can go in. A closed entrance that only allows one person to squeeze through, into a cave, for example. We could understand our relation to these particular places in terms of vibration or attunement between us and the place. Another reason that I mention these sacred places is that they too could be understand in terms of what you’re calling a hidden third.
BN: Oh, yes. Absolutely.
AV: And would fit within the framework of what you’re describing.
BN: And that is very near what we called a few minutes ago laboratories of consciousness. I think the sacred places are like laboratories for consciousness, in fact. And I think this is important with regard to the modern arts. How they can interact through the hidden third with the spectator, with the public in such a way to have a role, a positive role for awakening consciousness? Now, the fact is that many in the world of modern art took the way of deconstruction, the way of things that have no meaning, which things are just, you know, playing games. I think it’s a step towards what we are speaking because you cannot evolve if you don’t go first very deep down. You understand what I’m trying to say? It’s in these periods of evolution I think in which all these sacred places are considered. These are steps towards a new consciousness of what is reality.
AV: I can think of a sacred site, a large prehistoric stone, inside metropolitan San Francisco, several thousand years old, and it’s in between a row of houses and condominiums, near a children’s park. And you walk down and there’s a valley and that valley is untouched. On one side you see houses and a park and on the other side you see houses and in this small valley with a creek running through it, there’s a stone that is completely untouched, as it was three thousand years ago. I’ve made an effort to find such places, and I’ve found them—
BN: In which area of California is that?
AV: San Francisco. San Francisco. Now here’s the thing. I’ve gone to many such places. I’ll be some place for some other reason, but then I always look and see if I can find one. And it’s very hard, they’re often not on the map, and here’s my point: I will ask. I will go ask people, hey, do you know where such and such is? And describe it, you know, or if it has a name I’ll say that, and many times people who have lived down the street from something, across the street, they live there, they’ve lived there for ten or twenty years, will not know that it exists. They will not see it. They don’t see it, it doesn’t exist in their world. It does exist, but they don’t know it’s there. And that has happened many times. Many times when I’ve been looking for sacred sites. And I mention it because it fits with what you’re talking about, which is, you could say, habits of mind. If your habits of mind are such that you don’t want to see it, or you can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. It’s as if it doesn’t exist.
BN: It’s like a screen, separating you from reality. Habits of mind.
AV: Exactly. That’s right. In the same way, in the academic world, with regard to the study of mysticism, that or any number of things are excluded by habits of mind too; people often literally don’t see what’s nearby and it’s actually been there before there was a condominium, before there was a street, before there was—
BN: (laughs) This is a wonderful example that you gave here.
AV: And in some sense, the relationship between us and that sacred site could be described in terms of hidden third, in that if you have a relationship to the place, then the subject and object is defined in terms of something you’re interacting with.
BN: In the moment, you become, you make space in yourself for that.
AV: That’s right. I think that that’s a good place to pause for right now.
BN: (laughs) Yes, yes.
AV: We were talking earlier about the hidden third and landscape and the relationship that happens between subject and object at a sacred site or a sacred place. I’d like to continue that discussion of the hidden third and see if we also might expand it to thinking about how the hidden third is playing a role in, or helps us to understand in a different way works of art and what the relationship is between the thinking about the subject and object, the hidden third, and paintings. I know you’ve recently published a book co-authored with an artist, so this is directly relevant.
BN: Yes. For art in general and painting in particular, and also for literature, by the way, I think it has a crucial and practical role, in fact. At the same time crucial and very practical. Practical—what do I mean by that? If I have in front of me a painting, which I consider as an object, and myself I’m a kind of observer of the subject, it’s quite clear that the maximum of information we can get from this position is just mental information on who is a painter, what kind of a painting he or she is making, what is the period, what is the history— in other words, mental associations. We tend to increase the density of information. But we have to make the mind silent, to make a place for the hidden third. The hidden third needs a place in ourselves. If the place is fully occupied, there’s no possibility for acting of the hidden third. The first rule is silence.
Silence is the first stage because it is not yet new information. So silence is just to open a perception of impressions, I would say, energetic kind of interaction between the painting and myself, in such a way that I begin to feel that the painting looks at me. It is not that only I look at the painting—it’s a double kind of circulation of information going on. I also when I first experiment with these kind of things, it was really extraordinary feeling, but now I am doing it in a more elaborate way in the sense that I know the stages so I can create the conditions. So that moment when the circulations begin, this introduces this other piece, the hidden third. The hidden third in this situation is what gives meaning for me in that painting. In other case, in other words, not for art as an object, not for history of facts, not for I don’t know what kind of considerations. But for my life, for how the work is beginning to be food for my spiritual life and ah these foods are the big question of the meaning of the heart because if art is made for giving food, for the soul, for the spirit, for spiritual life, well in that case it is a big requirement.
BN: And this connects to what art was in antiquity, in traditional kinds of civilizations, when for example theatre was made just for that: to give meaning, for mysteries, for living the myth, for living the mystery in itself, yes.
AV: So essentially what you’re saying is I think, that that the hidden third is another way to talk about meaning that circulates or that is revealed between us and in this case we’re talking about a painting, but beyond that you’re expanding it to mysteries and theater as originally mysteries. Because of course that is the origin of theatre, but we’ve forgotten that actually, the origin of theatre is in the mystery tradition and that there is particular meaning that was conveyed in the ancient mysteries, which had a salvific power. The ancient mysteries were a collective, collectively, understood transmission. In other words, the people gathered in the mysteries and there was the revelation of meaning and it was in a gathered group. In the modern world, it’s typically an individual with a painting and the transmissive element is not there in the same way as in the ancient mysteries. In the ancient mysteries there was a tradition that was being transmitted. In the modern world it’s much more individualized, so the meaning is an individualized meaning out of a painting. Is there any way for a restoration of a more, of a larger, a more collective, and transmitted understanding in the modern world or are we relegated to the individual understanding?
BN: I would say both in some sense, I mean if we insist only on the collective level, who and in the name of what would be silent is impossible to consider. It is only on the individual level it is somewhat limited in action so my, my feeling is that small, small effects accumulate, congregate, can give very big effects. So in other words, this kind of change is yes, is strictly individual. This doesn’t mean that it remains on the individual level because in giving meaning to myself, to my life, to my spiritual evolution, I connect with others. I know I mean my presence opens, so in that case the interaction with others come. I mean we speak very much in spiritual literature about the presence. The role of the presence of master, of a person, of even of a tree, of a plant, of something, the presence. So the height of presence this means if some of it is present transmits by definition, it begins to circulate the information so I think that there is transmission in that sense, but the beginning is just individual, in my opinion.
AV: It’s a really interesting thing you’re suggesting, which is that in some sense something like the mysteries could exist cumulatively.
AV: From collective, a collection or a group, a constellation of experiences, something like mystery traditions could potentially even be created in a new context as a result of not something transmitted from antiquity, as such, but as the creation of them in a new context.
AV: In terms of the creation of multiple works or multiple aspects of a work that share a common insight, or intuition, or origin.
BN: Speaking about transmission from the past: I think that is strictly impossible to transmit just from the past because transmission’s something alive. It is going through an alive person or collectivity, so if we remain attached to books or representations it is not alive in the same way.
AV: Plato alluded to that.
BN: I always in my writing refer to the idea of transmission or tradition, which is reinvented at every moment. I don’t believe myself in perennial tradition, for example as some people used to say, like René Guénon. In my opinion, this kind tradition is dead because it becomes dogmatic. Whereas we are speaking here about the perpetual reality, a reality which is always there. So this means tradition, in my opinion, I think is not a contradiction in terms, has to be reinvented at every moment.
AV: That’s actually my experience. I mentioned going to these different standing stone sites or megaliths, sacred sites, cairns, in Western Europe or the United States, and in archeology there’s an archeological set of approaches, which are that these are objects to be studied. So archeologists will go to a place, say, a megalithic site, the megaliths at Carnac, and seek data about them. And of course those things are important and I’m not denigrating that at all, I think those are important things to know and they augment our total knowledge of the site and the place. But the other question is how does that place actually speak to you, in the same way you’re talking about a painting.?
BN: It’s the same process, I think.
AV: it’s the same process and it’s and by being, by being, in the place and participating in it you’re experiencing not the original—it’s a different place now—but it’s still because its stone and its landscape and that has really not changed that much, you’re participating in the same place but in a different time and in a different way, but you still are participating. And it requires that participation in order to draw meaning from the place. And the same I think is true in terms of paintings and for that matter literature, that all of these are participative, we participate in literature, we participate in our and we participate in sacred sites.
BN: And we participate also, say in religious kind of ceremonies. Liturgy, for example. Liturgy for me, is connected to the same process.
AV: That’s right.
BN: I experienced these kind of things from when I was a child. There is something that, when it is just a form, is repeated, but at the moment in which this mystery, mystery of liturgy, awakens something in my own being that moment I begin to receive information, I don’t know from where, how it comes, because hidden third has not a place. What I mean by “hidden third” here in the context of Christian religion is of course the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit is an extraordinary example of hidden third in the frame of a given religion. Holy Spirit refers to that part of the trinity to which belongs the circulation between God the Father and the Son of God is the holy spirit. In fact, we see that these people understood something very deep. When, for example, the Virgin Mary was announced about these miraculous things happening. Giving birth to God in fact, the man of God. Well, the transmission was made through Holy Spirit and that is very interesting because the Holy Spirit has not a representation. Is something like a breath, a cosmic breath, something which is in fact the root of the word “spirituality” itself. The word refers to breathing, breath. So the Holy Spirit is like respiration. Of what? Of all systems we can imagine visible and invisible, physical and not physical. And is a kind of universal perpetuum mobile ensured by this hidden third.
AV: And hidden third in this context again is intermediate between, or comes or is exists, between subject and object but is not itself localized in the sense that it’s in a space of no-space, you could say.
BN: No space, no time.
AV: You want to say a bit more about that?
BN: Yes. Let’s come back to science itself because one of the big findings of quantum mechanics was the fact they discovered that space time is an anthropomorphic representation. Which was big surprise. Because all physics, all physical state, happens in an abstract space called Hilbert space, which has strictly nothing to do with space-time. To go from the Hilbert space, the space of physical space, to space and time, is a huge, well, novelty not fully recognized until now. Because is very interesting this historical fact. The fact that three dimensions of space and one dimension of time is connecting fact with the body, is connecting with physical body. Physical body in order to survive, identify the animals, dangers, and so on, has to kill some animals to survive and so of course, those connected perception of sense organs. So the sense organs build this three dimensional space and one dimension of time in the process of passing this energy from one system to another. So, ah, that was a big discovery, you know, a big triumph. And there was a huge debate at that moment and there is still a big debate, understanding that that’s not the metaphysical assertion but is a scientific assertion that physics exist in another space than space and time. It’s quite crazy, right?
BN: When you say that to somebody who doesn’t know physics, ah, they think that it’s a speculation. But quantum physics says that the physical realities and physical space, which is not space, not time. So in order to connect in other words, the sense organs reduce everything to one level of reality. So, in that sense is not the surprise that we can say that the hidden third is no space, no time. But this statement has to be formulated in a new logic of the included middle. If in that sense, the hidden third, it does not communicate with the physical body, ah, would be a complete transcendence which has no meaning for what we are discussing here. Whereas this hidden third is a living reality which communicates with levels of resistance of space and time, because every level of reality has an associate space and time. Within that is no space, no time. So we have to put these two contradictories together, so to give meaning to this hidden third, which is necessary for the understanding of realities, space and time.
AV: It’s interesting how that also connects to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, because, but Buddhism more broadly, the tradition centers on what sometimes in, it’s shunyata, sometimes in English it’s translated as emptiness. Sometimes it is translated as the nature of mind or the basic nature.
BN: The true mind.
AV: Or the nature of things, or true mind. There are a variety of different terms. And very much what you’re describing does sound like a different description of that. In other words, it exists simultaneous with, you could say, space-time as we think of them, but it’s not time, not space. It’s defined by negation or described by negation. And the same thing actually does occur also in Christian mysticism in a whole variety of different places. There’s a long history of that. So there is actually a correspondence both in Christian mysticism and in Buddhism arguably to what you’re describing.
BN: And in Sufism.
AV: And in Sufism.
BN: And the Sufi teachers, they speak about these kind of things, in their terminology, their language, for that I used to say in all my writings that the hidden third has thousands and thousands of faces, different faces. But cannot be reduced to one. Cannot be reduced to Tibetan Buddhism, cannot be reduced to Holy Spirit, cannot be reduced to something. It’s also that—yes, I agree totally. So these people like Buddhists who may really experiment on consciousness, they found in the nature of consciousness that, this hidden third is there. I put in my language what they say in very different ways, of course, about true mind. The true mind is something fascinating because it’s not emptiness really, it’s infinite information. That’s an extraordinary thing. So to make something empty, you empty that which has no meaning. No information. But in fact you replace it with true mind who has all the information inside. Now the problem is how to make sense of this information in your everyday life.
AV: Shall we stop there?
BN: It’s a good stopping point.
AV: For now.
BN: For now.