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Hushed by Beauty

A Neoplatonic Practice to Restore Ourselves to Soul

Michael Wakoff presented this paper at the annual Prometheus Trust conference in Warminster, UK, June 21-23, 2013. The conference theme was “Philosophy: Restoring the Soul.” There were twenty-one papers presented. The participants and audience consisted for the most part of scholars in the area of Neoplatonism, many of whom are committed to Neoplatonic philosophy as a practical guide to living.

Plotinus faced the same problem we face today: how can we restore to soul the value and worth we should accord it, given its divine origin? For example, most of Ennead 5.1 is concerned with demonstrating the “high birth” of the soul and the nature of the divine principles immanent in it. At the end of the tractate, he asks, “Why don’t we consciously grasp these divine realities since they exist also in ourselves?” To remedy this lack of awareness, he advises us to “turn our power of apprehension inwards and make it attend to what is there.” He compares it to listening intently for a desired voice, ignoring all other sounds, so one will catch it when it comes: “We must let perceptible sounds go [as far as possible] and keep the soul’s apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from on high” (5.1.12).

In this passage, Plotinus has provided us with an important clue as to how we might restore ourselves to soul: we should interiorize our attention. By letting attention rest within, we can cultivate a vital awareness of the soul’s presence and its filiation with the divine.

There is a second clue to be found in what Plotinus says about the power of beauty to stimulate longing for the divine. It’s clear that he was sensitive to the beauty of this world and was moved by it. Speaking in the metaphor of a Platonic dualism, the aesthetic beauty of this world stirred him because of its continuity and connection with beauty’s source in the heavenly nature within himself: “For how could there be a musician who sees the melody in the intelligible world and will not be stirred when he hears the melody in sensible sounds?” (–41). Further, “Will anyone be so sluggish in mind and so immovable that, when he sees all the beauties in the world of sense . . . he will not thereupon think, seized with reverence, ‘What wonders, and from what source?’ If he did not, he would neither have understood this world here nor seen that higher world” (–56, my emphasis).

How can we recover this Plotinian sensibility about beauty? Is there a way to cultivate these moments of remembrance so that we too will be seized with reverence? Yes, by following these two clues, we will arrive at the rudiments of a technique that will restore ourselves to soul.

However, this technique is only hinted at in Plotinus’s writings. To find a more fully articulated practice that makes use of these two elements, I turn to the work of the twentieth-century mystic philosopher Paul Brunton. After saying a bit about who he was, I will discuss a general technique to interiorize attention in response to the presence of beauty that Brunton describes in his book The Quest of the Overself.[1] Next, I will discuss a particular application of this technique, a meditation on the sun at dawn or sunset, which he presents in a later work. Practicing these techniques will enable those of us who find Neoplatonism so intellectually satisfying to nourish our heart and move toward an authentic and vital realization of the soul’s presence.

Paul Brunton was a twentieth-century British author who first published books in the 1930s on his travels in India and Egypt in search of spiritual enlightenment. He is famous for introducing the Indian guru Sri Ramana Maharshi to the West in his best seller A Search in Secret India. Later in the 1940s, Bruntonreconstructed the wisdom tradition that he found scattered throughout Asia and presented it in a new form for Westerners in his two books The Wisdom of the Overself and its companion volume The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga. Although he stopped publishing books in the 1950s, he continued to write daily. At his death in 1981, he had amassed thousands of pages of material. Selections from his notebooks have subsequently been published in sixteen volumes as The Notebooks of Paul Brunton.



The Spiritual Culture of Finer Feelings


Who has not been hushed into silence by the tranquillity of the sun setting over the glittering expanse of a mountain lake? Who has not felt something heartrendingly delicate about the poignant sonorities in a late Beethoven string quartet? At these moments, when our feelings have been charmed and our thoughts forgotten, we stand at the threshold of the way that leads deep into our inner nature. However, it is essential that we first recognize the opportunity. If we savor the feelings and nourish them with attention, they may deepen into a deep state of interiority, maybe even a transcendent moment of clarity, a glimpse of heaven. Attention will reverse itself almost without our effort. The gradient is already inward, and we need only not resist or allow ourselves to be distracted.

The technique is to cultivate these finer feelings by honoring them with a relaxed yet unwavering attention. The first thing we must do is notice these feelings when they start to arise: As Brunton suggests, “One must set oneself to watch for and cultivate certain fragile moods of the heart. Such moods come into most people’s lives at different times, often casually and unexpected, but generally for the shortest of periods, and being uncultivated are thrust aside and much of their value lost. These moods are most frequently evoked unconsciously through aesthetic pleasures” (The Quest of the Overself, 123). Not realizing that these feelings could be harbingers of the soul’s presence, we often hurry on to the next thing or continue with the activity we were engaged in. Instead we should stop and tune in to the feeling, listening intently, as Plotinus says, to the voices from on high. Brunton advises us that “whenever such a mood of powerful charm, intense awe or utter peace is experienced it is necessary that one should keep all one’s mind upon it and recognize it as an important messenger and listen to its message. . . . Because such moods do not come to us labeled with the name of the country of their mystic origin, we are apt to under-value their worth” (123).

The next point is that we need to cultivate a way of paying attention to these moods that give them the space to develop without also inwardly commenting on or analyzing them. Those who have practiced meditation on the breath, for example, are cultivating such a spacious nonjudgmental awareness. Noticing the breath as it moves gently in and out without thinking about it is like feeling a mood without thinking about it. In the Quest of the Overself, Brunton also describes a breathing exercise, a gazing exercise, and a meditation on the heart, and recommends that at the height of one’s aesthetic response to nature, art, or music, for example, one should begin these practices and go through them briefly but consecutively. These practices are designed to calm mental activity, concentrate attention, and then draw this focused attention down and inward toward the heart. In some sense, this is what would happen naturally if we weren’t conditioned to ignore or resist these delicate moods, and so these practices help deepen and interiorize our aesthetic response to beauty by helping us surrender to the mood evoked.

In his notebooks, Brunton calls these unforgettable moments of uplift and clarity “glimpses,” which he describes as a “a transitory state of mental enlightenment and emotional exaltation.”[2] Countering the view that such mystical experiences are unusual and only the few are destined to experience them, he writes:

The glimpse in its most elementary form does not come only to specially gifted persons. It belongs to the portrait of every human being as a natural and not a mysterious part of his life-experience. It is simply a part of the feeling for Nature, to whose system he belongs, and for the Sun which is Nature’s supreme expression. The sun’s glory, beauty, power, and benignity arouse reverence. [Asian] faiths mostly recognized this and made prayers obligatory at dawn and twilight. (Notebooks 4.44)[3]

Here we see that a meditation that makes use of our aesthetic and emotional responses to the beauty of the sun, especially when it is at its most glorious, sunrise and sunset, would be an application of this technique of consciously cultivating the feelings aroused by beauty. It is to such a meditation that I now turn.



A Nondual Metaphysics


Brunton describes an exercise called “A Meditation on the Sun” in chapter 14 of The Wisdom of the Overself, “The Yoga of the Discerning Mind.” Since this exercise is given near the end of the book, it might be helpful to contextualize the chapter. One of the chief aims of the book is to remove the obstacles to the reception of truth posed by a materialistic metaphysics by presenting and arguing for the truth of an immaterialist nondualism that he calls “mentalism.”[4] Mentalism reverses the priority that would make separate bodily things the primary things and awareness of them an effect. Mentalism boldly asserts the primacy of awareness as the source of all: the source of things and our consciousness of them: the world is primarily the thought of formless divine mind.

By the time we get to chapter 14, much ground has been covered: how the world appears at periodic intervals as a vast thought out of the apparent nothingness of an all-embracing mind that he calls “World-Mind” and is transformed into perception by the workings of individual minds; the true immortality of the deathless soul, called “the Overself”; Mind-in-itself as the ultimate reality and hidden unity that embraces everything. (Note the parallels here to the three principles of Plotinus: Soul, Intellect, and the One.) Chapter 14 then presents seven meditation exercises that Brunton labels “ultra-mystic” because they go beyond mystical or yogic methods of transcending thought by incorporating the use of an understanding of mentalism and the creative power of thought. The meditation on the sun is the first of these.



A Meditation on the Sun


The sun meditation is both a preparatory exercise and one that the most advanced practitioner may still engage in. Brunton says that the reason it is so valuable for beginners is that it purifies them of their self-centered attitude by making them vividly feel their connection to the cosmos, of which they are just a part, and to its source. Also, by invoking and worshipping the “supreme power which has manifested as this universe,” they invite a descent of grace that can remove obstacles, inner and outer, to living in harmony with the universe.

There are two times at which the meditation can be practiced, dawn and sunset; more precisely, “in the morning between the time when the starlight begins to wane until the sun has just risen, and in the evening between the time when the sunlight begins to wane and the stars have just appeared.”[5] These two periods are considered especially auspicious times to practice meditation because there is a pregnant pause then in nature’s activity, similar to the pause that occurs between the inhalation and exhalation of the breath and vice versa. Yoga manuals suggest that this pause in the motion of the breath offers an opportunity for insight into reality because the mind becomes still as the breath stops. Similarly, the pause or “neutral point” in nature’s activity at dawn and sunset offers an opportunity to harmonize with nature and enter its inner silence.

Imagine that you have risen early while the stars still shine brightly. The birds have not yet begun their serenade to the sun. You sit facing east in the darkness and settle body and breath, gazing at the eastern sky. It’s hard to tell when it begins, the first glow of light on the horizon. The foreground remains shadowed, but the sky is brightening. Since your mind is still, the dawning seems to be taking place within; the light seems to radiate from your heart, and so too, the joy of well-being that is inseparable from it. Now the clouds are becoming tinged with pink, and the birds are raising their choral song of joy. Despite this outward activity, within you feel a deep stillness, a sense of gathering power mingled with utter calm. It seems to reach its utmost intensity just before that first point of light suddenly darts forth as the sun rises above the horizon. That light raying forth, is it from without or within? Your heart and the sun seem inexplicably united. Love thus kindled, inseparable from the light, shines upon all, bringing blessing, joy, and peace. Imagining all blessed by light seems as natural as sunlight setting the landscape aglow, transfiguring it into incandescence.

I hope this gives you a feeling for what might happen when doing the exercise. Now I’ll discuss the instructions Brunton provides in a more step by step fashion.

One begins by sitting in an unobserved place, facing the sun, “with legs uncrossed and slightly apart and hands unfolded and resting on the thighs” (230). This posture (unlike a cross-legged posture that is recommended for willed concentration exercises) is adopted because it enables one to be receptive and passive to the mystical energy of the Sun behind the sun, the soul of the universe.

The meditation has three stages. In the first, you “fix [your] gaze upon the rising or setting sun or the colored sky” (230). Here you let the beauty and tranquility of the scene work its magic on your feelings, uplifting them, as the light passing through the eyes heals and restores your body. As you savor the exquisite, shifting colorings in the sky, the dawning light, or the deepening shadows, something resonates deep within. You should surrender to that.

In the second stage, you try to feel and participate in the growing stillness by letting your personal thoughts subside. This inner silence allows you to commune with, and receive the inner light from, the Sun behind the sun, the mystical Light of the World-Mind.

In the third stage, you expand with the “outspreading or waning light till [you embrace] the entire planet” (231). Visualize or imagine that you are formless consciousness and strive to “identify sympathetically with the life of all beings, whether plant, animal, or human. [You] should make the conception as alive as possible by permeating it with faith and conviction, and by holding the sense of countless creatures existing everywhere” (231).[6] Brunton notes that the imagination, the creative power that has bound us to the belief that we are nothing more than body, is here being used to free us from that belief. The truth is that we are one with the cosmos in being part of it, and we are one with life in an even more intimate sense, in that life cannot really be divided into separate, isolated units.[7]

The goal of this stage is reached when you feel in complete rapport with the universal being and you are no longer aware of the physical scene at all. Attention has been wholly interiorized. This sense of rapport is often felt as an all-embracing love at the heart of the cosmos, as it is also at your own heart. Brunton notes that this feeling of love might arise within ten to twenty minutes if you are a moderately experienced meditator. Once this loving response is felt, you should begin to share it compassionately and unselfishly with others. Again, you use the creative imagination to see others “suffused with its warm light and sublime peace” (231). Given the unity of all life, and given the deep Mind that is the ground of all existence, such imagination has creative power. Especially when vivified by the real power of the World-Mind shining in you as the immortal Overself, imagining others graced with light and peace might have real efficacy. You should first direct your love to those close to you and any individuals you would like to help, then to humanity in general, which really is “one great family,” and finally to individuals who are hostile to you, for by exposing your faults, they are your teachers (231).

If you wish, Brunton suggests that you can end the exercise with a personal prayer, using dawn to ask for “strength, light, truth, understanding, inspiration, and material help, whilst the eventide exercise is used to ask for peace, calm, freedom, unselfishness and opportunity to render service” (231–32).

Thus, meditation on the sun combines aesthetic perception, reverential feeling, mystic stillness, creative imagination, and metaphysical understanding to enable us to realize and experience our intimate connection with the source of all Life, the Sun behind the sun, the cosmic soul. In doing so, we are following Plotinus’s advice to “turn our power of apprehension inward and make it attend to what is there.” Hushed into silence by the beauty of nature at one of her most glorious junctures, dawn and sunset, we may restore ourselves to soul.




By cultivating intimate experiences of ourselves as immaterial soul, we allow the reality of its wondrous power to transform our lives. When our actions are inspired by this deeper source, we can become, as Brunton writes, “an unhindered channel for a power light and being superior to [our] own.”[8] Doing so has consequences not just for ourselves, for in restoring ourselves to soul, we take the first essential step toward restoring soul to our culture. This is the key to solving all our other problems. Writing in 1943, in the midst of the horrors of World War Two, Brunton stresses how fateful are our intentions:

If we can quickly produce a sufficient minority of men and women who will dedicate their inner life to one of the three stages of the quest of the Overself for the sake of the common welfare not less than their own,…[mankind’s] safe passage into a brighter new age will be assured.   Every [person] who makes a deep irrevocable choice whether he will live only for selfish and sensual aims or whether he will live for altruistic and purer ones is affecting not only his [or her] own fate but also the immediate destiny of our civilization.[9]

We who wish to see the notion of soul restored to philosophy and our culture must take the decisive step of dedicating ourselves to becoming fit receptacles for its presence. The ancient practice of turning toward the sun is at once an enactment of such dedication and a practical expression of it.

[1] Paul Brunton, The Quest of the Overself (London: Rider, 1970).

[2] Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Vol. 14, Inspiration and the Overself (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publication), 4.1. The Notebooks are available online at the website for The Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation, /notebooks/.

[3] Of course, it wasn’t just Asian faiths that made prayers obligatory at dawn and twilight. For example, in Plato’s Laws, the Athenian Stranger cites the prostrations and invocations that are made by Hellenes and barbarians at the rising and setting of the sun and moon as part of his evidence of the near universal belief in the existence of the gods.  See my “Contemplation of the Sun: A Plotinian Spiritual Exercise?” (paper presented at the International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, Cardiff, June 2013) for an argument that Plotinus and his circle practiced such a meditation.

[4] If I had more time, I would discuss how mentalism synthesizes and reconceives the South Indian teachings about Brahman, Atman, and Maya, and Buddhist teachings about emptiness, dependent origination, karma, and buddha nature. Although it doesn’t aim to incorporate Neoplatonic teachings, I think the parallels with the Plotinian insight that all levels of reality are contemplation and the result of contemplation are there as well.

[5] Paul Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970), 230.

[6] Cf. Plotinus, Enneads 5.1.2, where Plotinus explains how to creatively imagine that Soul, the source of all life, embraces the entire cosmos and enlivens all living creatures, as the sun illuminates a dark cloud and gives it a golden color.

[7] In an alternative version of the exercise published in the Notebooks, he explains that at this stage you should “picture a great globe growing larger and larger within [yourself] as a formless consciousness mentally dissociated from the physical body, until it assumes GIGANTIC SIZE.” You hold the sense of countless creatures existing everywhere and then reverse the process, picturing the globe getting smaller and smaller until it encloses your own body alone. Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, Vol. 3, Part 2: Relax and Retreat,7.18.

[8] Brunton, The Wisdom of the Overself, 123.

[9] Ibid., 167.

Michael Wakoff received his PhD in philosophy from Cornell University in 1996. He currently edits translations of Tibetan Buddhist texts for Shambhala Publications and serves on the Board of Directors of Wisdom’s Goldenrod Center for Philosophic Studies in Hector, NY, where he participates in seminars and classes on Plotinus, Tibetan Buddhism, South Asian philosophy, and the work of his teachers Anthony Damiani and Paul Brunton.

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