The philosophy and practice of alchemy, in one form or another, has been around for millennia and espoused by many different cultures, the idea centering around the chemical and physical transformation of some common ore to its highest most valuable state, gold. Modern chemistry naturally discounts this view as outdated and simply not true. But what if that is to miss the point? What if the true alchemical process has little to do with base and precious metals and everything to do man's inner state of being - and the state of his soul?

One of the most important sections of Ibn Arabi's prolific Futūḥāt, the 167th chapter called 'The Alchemy of Human Happiness', focuses on this very subject. Joining us this week on MindMatters we again have the opportunity to discuss the wisdom of the Sufi master Ibn Arabi with Prof Stephen Hirtenstein and his own translation from the original Arabic of the chapter in question.

Can self-perfection bring happiness? Are there paths by which this happiness may be attained? And can personal fulfillment be a byproduct of such a path? Join us as we ask these questions and examine the text that may bring the alchemical process much closer to the everyday work of self growth than one might otherwise imagine.

Running Time: 01:39:33

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Here's the transcript:

Harrison: Welcome back to Mind Matters everyone. Today we are joined again by Stephen Hirtenstein. If you didn't catch the last show you did with Stephen, we will include a link to it in the show description. But today we are having him back to talk about the book that we briefly mentioned in our last discussion, The Alchemy of Human Happiness which is a translation of a single chapter in Ibn 'Arabi's master work the Futuhat al-Makkiyya which is being published - we mentioned this also last time - in a translation by Eric Winkle, planned to be 39 volumes or something like that? It's a very long book. So this is one chapter from it and it's a substantial book in itself.

So with that said, welcome back to the show Stephen. We're looking forward to talking to you.

Stephen: Thank you very much for having me.

Harrison: Maybe to start out, we can talk a bit about the book itself and why you chose this chapter out of all the rest. What was it about this chapter in the Futuhat that made you want to translate it and make it available in this form?

Stephen: Well I suppose the background to the translation is actually quite simple in a way. I was interested particularly in Ibn 'Arabi's discussion of ascension, of this imitation of the prophet going through heavens and so on and it's a journey that he describes in different ways in different places. So I knew of at least three or four different descriptions of it, one is highly autobiographical which is another chapter in the Futuhat. There is this one, which we'll discuss and then there is one that happened very close to an experience of ascension that he had which has not been translated but is extremely difficult language in the Arabic. It's all in rhyming prose. So at the moment that was beyond my capabilities for sure

I also was interested because of something that I'd read about where he's discussing meeting the prophets in each of the heavens which was a whole kind of discussion I hadn't come across before and wanted to know more about. I even thought of doing a PhD on the whole subject of ascension through the heavens according to Ibn 'Arabi but it hasn't happened yet. {laughter} Let's put it like that. My hair is grey.

I also had a personal reason for wanting to do it which was that I wanted to improve my Arabic so I thought why don't we start a translation with a few friends and we'll go through the chapter and see what we make of it. It wasn't long before we discovered we'd bitten off more than we could chew, that's for sure, not only because we were learning Arabic on the job as it were, but because the kind of Arabic that is used is quite difficult, a lot of allusions in it, a lot of technical language and on top of all that you have the fact that you're dealing with a text by someone known as Sheikh Al-Akbar, the greatest master.

So there's a quality to the text which is extraordinary and I have to say I wasn't particularly interested in alchemy as such, which is part of the title of the chapter, or even chemistry. That took me back to school days. So that's the background really to the reason why I started translating and it was with a group of people. We went through a first draft and then it required a lot more work to actually produce it into a book so it's been with me through 10 or 15 years I should think, at least.

Harrison: To go off on a little tangent on something that you mentioned there about the Arabic and the nature of the Arabic, I don't know any Arabic. The only words I know are the ones that I've come across either watching Ertuğrul or reading these books, just little bits here and there and most of it doesn't stick with me. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the nature of Arabic, the etymological structure is very interesting. If you have a certain word, the word root, which I believe is a three-letter, three-consonant word will then be in its various transformations where its various vowels have a set of meanings. So is that part of the allusive nature of the Arabic that you were mentioning? I guess it's probably more than that in the sense of alluding to various other works and concepts? Maybe you could just expand on those two aspects of Ibn 'Arabi's Arabic.

Stephen: On the linguistic side you're absolutely right. Arabic is based on usually triliteral roots, three letters, but sometimes just two and in fact some linguists believe that the two is more important than the three. So the three is a kind of development.

As for the way the language works, unlike English which has borrowed words from other languages, primarily Latin and Greek and has built them into a structurally different language so it's basically an Anglo-Saxon language, but it's got enormous numbers of words that go back over centuries in different languages. Arabic is not like that at all. Arabic is, in that sense, a pure language. It has not borrowed words from somewhere else and in fact although there is what they call a Protosemitic root, some language which gave birth to Aramaic, to Hebrew, to Arabic and other languages of the Middle East, we know of its existence. It has to be there because these languages are all of the same family. But Arabic is probably the purest form of it simply because the language was never developed through invasion or something like this.

So the way the structure of the language works is - it's too complex to go into but I can give you an example.

Harrison: Please.

Stephen: The first letter of the alphabet is alif which gives rise to words that we know, alpha for example, is the Greek version of this letter. So it's the first letter of the alphabet and incidentally it's just a straight line, a vertical line. So there are symbols associated with the fact that it's a straight line. There are meanings associated with its numerical value, which is one, just like our number one. Also, there is a root from the same three letters a, l, f, which has meanings of familiarity, intimacy and that kind of intimate association.

So you can see now we already have a complex network of concepts which are very difficult to translate into another language because they're inherent in the language itself in Arabic whereas in another language, when we translate we actually have to discuss them, we have to explain them as if they were different things when they're not really different things. They're different ways of looking at something and every root in Arabic famously was described once as meaning what it means, meaning its opposite and also something to do with a camel {laughter} which shows the importance of camels in Arab society in general as an expression, also in beauty because the word camel relates to the same root as beauty. We might not find camels beautiful but many do.

So this is just one example of the linguistic side of it. On the other hand, when Ibn 'Arabi is using the language he's also conscious that the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic so it's in that sense considered to be a sacred language where the text of the Qur'an itself is the model for how Arabic should be spoken and written and understood. So he will often use a word which has a Qur'anic root or a Qur'anic connection expecting you to pick it up. Well obviously if you don't know the Qur'an intimately well, this is rather a complex process but thank god we have instruments and books for finding out, does this word exist in the Qur'an, in what way and so on and then you discover that yes, he is alluding to something, not by quoting it but by using a single word.

It can also be an allusion to a historical event. It could be something which everybody would know in the culture. So there are many allusions to, let's say, sacred text, to events, to other people's writing, on top of this allusive quality built into the language itself.

Harrison: That's interesting given the subject matter of this chapter in particular, alchemy, because a lot of the, as you could say, western, European - I'm not sure about eastern in Taoist alchemy or not but I know in the European alchemical tradition that there's a lot of those linguistic allusions and use of words, but not to do necessarily with the actual etymology of the words but more along the lines of puns. It might be a pun or something that pretty vaguely might sound like or look like another word. So it's a coded language a lot of times. A lot of the symbols in alchemy are coded words that might stand for one thing and serve in order to evoke the network of meanings that aren't necessarily intrinsically related to that word as they are in Arabic for instance.

It sounds to me like these western alchemists are almost in their language imitating what is inherent in Arabic itself, for instance.

Stephen: Well I think one also has to bear in mind that in the case of alchemy, this is a tradition which goes back an enormously long time, hugely long time, into prehistory and it comes out in different traditions in different places. So there is Chinese alchemy as you alluded to, there is Greek alchemy, there is Egyptian alchemy, there is Arab alchemy and it's actually through the Arabs that alchemy comes into the western world.

So many of the words that we use, even the word alchemy itself, is from the Arabic al-kīmiyā, which people have different derivations for because we're not quite sure where it comes from. Is it an Egyptian word? Is it a Greek word? We don't know. But the word itself is showing us something about the roots of this science which some people would call a pseudo-science. I think that's our modern take on the thing. One thing that's very important I think to understand is that this was a knowledge which inasmuch as it required writing or transmission by writing, was therefore for literate people who were therefore experts, if you like, the priestly class. Certainly in Egypt this is the case and in other cases as well.

So if we go back into the older tradition what we see is a transmission. We know about a certain transmission from Egypt into Arab Sufi culture. This is for sure. So there is a man for example, working in Egypt called Vilnu Na Mistri who is well known for his alchemical connections and some of that definitely passes through the tradition to Ibn 'Arabi. But really, the problem with alchemy is what we know of it is very, very little in terms of old sources.

For the Arabs, they believed it went back as far as into prehistory to a man called Hermes who is identified with the prophet Idris. But these are pre-flood people so whatever we know is kind of shrouded in myth. When the Arabs arrived in Egypt in the 7th century AD, they encountered alchemy for the first time and so they began to incorporate the ideas within their own conception of the world. But this is a very ancient tradition, we could say Mesopotamian, Indian, ancient Greek, Gnostic, Christian, Hebrew, Chinese, all of them melded in some way or another. But every single aspect of it, when we look at medieval texts for example in the Christian west, these are coded references often drawing on sources we no longer have access to and therefore they're quite difficult to understand. But in the light of the Arab tradition they're a bit easier because in many ways some of the Arab tradition was more explicit.

Harrison: I want to get into a bit of what Ibn 'Arabi says about alchemy, but first regarding what you just said about the key to reading these texts and to unlocking the code of what they're actually saying, I recently read a Taoist alchemy book by a guy named Wang Mui, I'm not sure how to pronounce it, and he was early, mid-20th century so he's almost a contemporary for us and he was part of, I believe, the southern Taoist Neidan lineage. He goes through one of the classical Taoist alchemical texts and organizes it in a way that's easy to understand and then looks at all the symbols and says, "All of these symbols and images are equivalent so whenever this author uses this word" - the muddy pellet or something - "he's talking about this."

So he kind of systematizes it and gives all the answers essentially and then relates them all to the four alchemical stages or the three and then the preparatory stage. But what I found interesting about the Taoist alchemy, at least in this lineage, it's all related to a bodily practice like Chi-Gong. So the first step I think is preparing the ground, which has to be done before the refining stages where you develop the elixir and then develop the embryo and then achieve the final transformation.

So it in itself is a very interesting tradition to look at just to see how it developed in one way in China. But one of the things that stood out was a direct similarity to Ibn 'Arabi about there being two modes, two varieties of transformation. I can't remember what they call it in the Taoist tradition but in Ibn 'Arabi as you translate it, one is origination and the other is elimination. The way I understood that was origination was the inherent development of one's inner potential towards perfection and then elimination was the removal of defects that have been acquired through life up until the time of the process of elimination.

So I'm wondering if you could give us an overview of how Ibn 'Arabi or maybe even the Arabic culture in general saw alchemy and then talk a bit also about those two processes and how those fit into the overall framework of the alchemical worldview.

Stephen: I think there are two levels of this that we need to discuss. First of all, what Ibn 'Arabi calls natural alchemy and what he called spiritual alchemy. So natural alchemy is really talking about an external process which we know from the idea of transmuting lead into gold and according to him there are two ways in which this can be done, as you mentioned, origination and the other is by elimination of defect. So we have to go back to understand what the context of this is.

Their idea was that the minerals in the earth are just really like beings on top of the earth. So we as human beings are born, we grow, we reach maturity and we die physically. So there is a process we can see also in the plant world where this is happening of this growth, development and maturity. The same thing was believed to happen in the mineral world. Now that means that when you open up the earth you are seeing, let's say, lead and in another place you see tin. In another place you see copper. These were considered to be the same substance at different stages of development. So the end development of them was gold if they reached it. That was their real condition, was gold. So it might be that from the point of view of origination that this process we can say, of coming into the maturity of a metal means that the potential for gold is already present.

So we can see origination as meaning you are created with this potential. The process in time is the playing out of how this potential is achieved or reached. If it's interrupted then you get one of the other metals. So the job of the alchemist was to intervene and in correlation with the timing of the heavens, you could intervene and produce a transformation which would eliminate the defect that had taken hold of this substance and therefore you could move it along, as it were, along the process.

So the creation of gold is really a bit of a misnomer. What they were seeing as they were intervening in a process to produce what should have been produced in the natural way but for some reason had been interfered with rather like if you get sick, the natural state of a body is to be healthy, so when you get sick the intervention is to restore the balance in the body and that's called elimination of defect in that sense.

So that's the natural side of it. But then we can transpose the whole thing into the spiritual which is where it starts to get interesting because what do we mean by the potential of a human being? What is the perfectability of a human being? What condition can be reached which corresponds to the gold of this metallic substance? What is the gold of human nature?

So I think that one should bear in mind we are looking at a process of transformation and also of - maybe we could call it expert intervention to remove the defect and allow the natural process of development to reach its proper conclusion. A spiritual master in that sense, their job is precisely that; to orientate the person towards their perfection and eliminate the defect that has taken hold of them, let's say, and arrested their development. So that's a kind of general overview I guess of the understanding of the process.

Obviously there is this word elixir, that you mentioned, again another Arabic word borrowed into English as many, many words associated with alchemy are, basically Arabic in origin. Alembic, alimbic and so on. So the elixir, what is it? Well it can be either quicksilver which is created by vapours they said, generated by the interaction of water in air or it can be sulfur which is created by smoke fumes which are generated by the interaction of earth and air. So you can see that the four elements are now beginning to play a part in all this in the conception of things.

Quicksilver is female, sulfur is masculine. So when they're in equal balance in the chemical wedding then gold is generated. If they're not in equal balance some other metal will be generated. So what we need to understand in it is there's a symbology behind first of all, the physical hierarchy of matter is symbolic. Secondly, that there is a male and a female progenitor in all forms of matter including the metallic, which for us of course we don't look at chemical substances that way at all. But they were looking at it through that lens of the interaction of the active, masculine element and the receptive feminine element.

When we get into the spiritual realm, the same principles are in play. So you've probably come across the idea that the spiritual master's real name is the red sulfur. This is the one who is capable of transforming others to the degree of gold. So they don't do it by an external process. They do it by adjusting the balance, as it were, and it's a masculine element. It's an active force that is generating this change.

Corey: So in that case, the other elixir in the spiritual alchemy was what I believe Ibn 'Arabi calls the priapic face, which served the purpose as the other elixir. So would that be the feminine element in transformation?

Stephen: Well in a sense you're absolutely right. It's very interesting that he describes the elixir of the Gnostics or those who really know, this is what he calls the private face which is the direct connection between each being and their origin and their source. So in that sense, you can say there's nothing intervening in reality between the person or the thing and their origin. So they do not have to study. They don't have to learn. This is an intrinsic connection which we have forgotten. By definition we've forgotten it. If we knew it we would be already, as it were, enlightened. We would know who we are, where we are, where we're headed and so on and we would know that what we have come from is what we are going back to.

So we would know many things because of this private face. In Ibn 'Arabi's description of ascension he's very keen to point out that there are essentially two modes of knowledge. So I'm jumping the gun with your discussion probably because this is a question that everybody likes to ask about this chapter.

Corey: Oh yeah.

Stephen: Because he is developing almost a novel in terms of his description of ascension or the process of human transformation. So he says there are these two travelers, one of whom travels by virtue of the private face who, for the sake of argument - he calls it two different names at the beginning, one is the follower which we could translate as the imitator even. It's somebody who, as I explained in the introduction to the book, acts through mimesis like a baby does. A baby learns through imitation of what they see around them, testing it out and so on. They learn directly. It's not because somebody told them something. No, they are inherently copying, listening and adjusting and so on.

That's on one side. Of course we lose this as we grow older. We develop our reason. So as we develop our reason we start to think about things. How does this relate to me? This notion of self then begins to predominate in the person so that they can only learn by relying on themselves, on what they already know and therefore their relationship to new knowledge has changed because they've got old knowledge to work against new knowledge whereas a baby doesn't have this. It is laying down, as it were, new neural pathways all the time.

So these two processes which are going on, which in modern neuroscience they would refer probably to left and right brain processing, this is inherent to all of us but they're depicted in this chapter as two characters. One is a rational thinker who uses reason, one is a mystic who uses their direct insight and their direct connection with the source. And the fruits of their activity are different.

Harrison: Maybe we can get into some of those fruits.

Corey: Yeah, because it seems to me like the rational thinker gets abused quite a bit. {laughter} He just doesn't get a fair shake.

Stephen: Before we get into that, I'll give you a different example where you can see the same polarity in existence and this is something familiar to everybody and that's food, something we all take for granted. But we have two kinds of alchemical processes. First of all there is cooking which has transformed the food from its raw state into a cooked state and once done it doesn't go back.

So then this has to be ingested and refined. When it's ingested we have, as it were, a choice as human beings. Are we aware that this food is being digested and refined into higher degrees of consciousness than the food ingredient? Or, because from a natural point of view it's just a chemical process, the food simply metamorphoses into gross forms of energy and it feeds the physical appetite. From a spiritual point of view food is quite different. Food is the means by which spiritual energy is generated through this process of transformation.

So you can see that we're glimpsing something about the nature of matter being transformed when if you think about it, how does matter get transformed? Yes, we know the chemical processes but we don't understand necessarily the internal, conscious, consciousness processes. As an example of the practicality of this, in the Islamic culture, before you sit down to a meal, you will set an intention and say, Bismillah, in the name of god. Why? Because this is an aspiration to participate consciously in this process of ascension from the materia to spirit. So it requires dedication and it requires intention.

So these are two absolutely key ingredients in the process and it's one of the reasons why in Islamic culture, for example, so much attention is paid to the intention behind an action rather than the simple carrying it out. So it's said, for example, what the divine really looks at in a human being is the intention. If they manage to carry it out they get a double blessing but it's the intention that is primary.

Elan: Stephen, this idea of the two paths, the difference between the disciple or follower and the rational thinker as you started to lay it out, is really one of the more fascinating parts of this chapter because Ibn 'Arabi seems to be saying a little something about the nature of intention and attitude as you were just describing and the idea that there is something about - and maybe this is just my own projection of what he's saying and isn't correct - but that there's something more innocent, intuitive and heart felt about someone who is willing to be a discipline, willing to recognize a teacher or guides that are above him or her versus someone who is solely or primarily reliant upon one's own powerful but limited intellectual and rationalizing capability.

In your translation it's really driven home that the disciple reaps all these kinds of fruits by allowing him or herself to follow, to be shown all of these things in these different stations of the spheres where the rational thinker gets shown some facts about planets and gnashes his teeth a little later for all the limits of his learning. So what of that description is correct or maybe you can flesh some of that out for us?

Stephen: You've absolutely put your finger on one of the more, in a way, exciting parts of this chapter. So to give an example, I was just thinking because you mentioned private place and so on, in the first heaven which is associated with the moon, the planet of the moon and the prophet Adam. So just for those who haven't read the book yet, the rational thinker is met by the moon and goes off with the moon and gets the lunar sciences. The follower or disciple is received by Adam. So what's going on?

First of all we notice that this happens in each heaven, that one is met by the planet, one is met by a prophet associated with that planet and Ibn 'Arabi's quite clear that the prophet or this prophetic reality is the ruler of the planet, the person responsible, the spiritual authority, if you like, belongs with the human being not with the planet. So one aspect of this is that it very clearly shows that for Ibn 'Arabi, the human being is at the center of things. It's not matter or planets or the cosmos itself at the center. No, the cosmos is under the rulership of the human and he means that quite seriously, not the human that we know but the human reality.

So these prophets are shown to have knowledges of states and degrees and ways of being which Ibn 'Arabi kind of lays out. So Adam's teaching is concerned with teaching primarily through the private face and it's at this point that in the text Ibn 'Arabi mentions the private face and says "The follower knows this. The rational thinker has no access to this at all."

This is a crucial part for understanding the whole contact story because as you put your finger on Elan, when a person think that they can work everything out through their mind, they are relying on their rational faculty entirely then for Ibn 'Arabi this is a limitation and the person who is in this condition has no access and no knowledge of something which is intrinsic to us as human beings which is at a deeper level which we can call heart. We can call it by many names. We can call it intuition, insight and so on. It is not emotion, I should hesitate to say. It's not "I feel this" or "I feel that". No. It is a direct perception which only the person who has it has and the realization that, let us say, in that sense, each of us is a circle around which the whole cosmos is turning because we cannot be outside our center. We can never be other than what we actually are.

But this is just the beginning of the transformation process. It has to start with this understanding that we have never, ever been anything other than gold, to put it in alchemical terms. It's difficult to explain but most people conceive of transformation as going from A to B. So there is some unrefined state and they're going to get to some refined state. But this is in time. This is an apparently temporal activity in the mind and it's a mental construct. It's not according to how things actually are because according to how things actually are, the potential of a person which is always present, is already complete. So the real question is why is it not being realized at each moment?

Once a person gets to the level of the moon this is precisely what starts to happen with them because they have left the earthly realm which in that sense symbolizes you are either here or there. You are either in this direction or that direction. From the point of view of the moon, the earth is one whole as we know from the wonderful pictures that have been sent back ever since the 1960s.

So we see the earth differently today to anything that our ancestors were able to do. We can see it physically. But spiritually this knowledge was always known. This is not new. This is just, as it were, the manifestation of something which is an interior knowledge.

Elan: Just a quick follow up to that. One other thing that's mentioned in the translation Stephen along those lines was that it's not that the disciple or follower doesn't do some rationalization or some thinking or some questioning on the knowledge that's being presented or the truths that are being shown, but that it's not at the exclusion of this direct experience that he or she also allows to become the knowledge, that there is a perceiving of truth that also falls outside of the mentation or reflection upon knowledge.

So that was just a qualifier that I felt was also relevant.

Stephen: That's very important because otherwise people think that somehow mysticism and being rational are completely different things and to be interested in the mystical you have to abandon your reason. No, it's not like that at all. Not at all. You have to use reason for what it should be used for which is things to do with this world. But you also have to understand the limits of reason and know how to go beyond it, how to go through the door, as it were, that this reason imposes upon you.

So to give you an example, if you don't know something you have to have the humility to ask. We know this in daily life but how is it put into practice in the interior life is the real question. So a person who knows this intimately well and knows the limit of what they've come to and knows that there is always more is always in a state of being informed and being in a state of progress, let's say, towards deeper understanding. They're not confined by their own mentality. Things can be changed in other words.

So we come back to the idea of transformation. It's a question of what it is in us that can be transformed and what it is in us that is actually always the same thing.

Corey: I just wanted to read a paragraph from that chapter on the first heaven, Adam and the Moon because I think it goes to what you and Elan have been talking about. So Ibn 'Arabi writes, and you translate,
"Everything that the rational thinker acquires is also acquired by the disciple but not everything that the disciple obtains is obtained by the rational thinker. The rational thinker cannot grow and develop except in sadness and distress and they cannot confirm the truth until their journey comes to an end and they return to their body. They make this journey like someone asleep who sees it all in their dream while knowing that they are asleep. They do not believe that they will ever wake up and be able to start daily life again and be relieved of their distress so they remain disturbed and fearful of what has happened to them during their journey, gripped by the constriction and they cannot progress after that. This is what upsets them. The disciple is not like this. He sees the constant progress which accompanies him wherever he goes because it comes from the private face which is recognized only by the one who possesses it."
That gets to the symbolic and multiple layers of meaning I think because clearly he's making a distinction between two different personality types but also you can see different people who are more rational and then you have people who are disciples and you see that in society, you see that in cultures. But then you also get the idea that at the core of it he's talking about this agony within the individual that is starting this transformation process. I wonder, and maybe you could tell us, is this somewhat autobiographical do you think of his own experiences, of his own rational mind trying to come to grips with what he had seen in his journeys and understanding that this was his way of describing that and leading the individual along that path?

Stephen: That's quite a complicated question you've asked, but to be very simple about it, I think one of the reasons for translating this chapter originally was it is a universal chapter. Not all the chapters in the book have this kind of universal quality in the sense that it applies to all human beings, whoever they are, wherever they are.

So I don't see these two travelers particularly as two independent people. I see them as two sides of ourselves and two approaches, let's say. So rather than thinking of them as two independent people whose character traits we can see in others, if we think of them as two approaches within ourselves, I think it becomes easier to understand at least intellectually, the real core of what Ibn 'Arabi's talking about. This is not a matter of being devotional when he's talking about the follower. It's not devotional practice in the sense that we might understand it because somebody could be involved in devotional practice at the level of actions and they're actually thinking about something completely different while doing their prayers.

So what we're talking about is aspects of ourselves who are striving to know and in the manner of our striving is determined the fruit of our striving. So if we seek to know from our position, from ourselves, then inevitably we will encounter, sooner or later, the limitation of that because our effort is limited, our knowledge is limited, even our aspiration is limited because it's fixed to certain things and not others. So because of this aspiration we are actually missing the moment because we are, as it were, taking ourselves out of it and beyond it to somewhere else that we imagine is more perfect, more real, more beautiful, whatever.

So this process within us is something we have to come to terms with. Every human being has to come to terms with it. So learning what is meant by a follower is actually very key to it. This is why he's so emphatic about the private face. It's where it starts and ends in a way. Each person already is directly facing their reality. At each moment we are facing our reality. The question is do we recognize it. To what extent do we recognize it? Because that's all that's asked of us, is recognition.

So what's laid out in the chapter is some of the "knowledge" that will come through facing reality as it is without trying to turn it into something comfortable, uncomfortable. If it's comfortable, fine. If it's uncomfortable, fine. {laughter} What's the difference? That's about our process. But the reality of things is always being manifest to us. It's always being given to us. So for Ibn 'Arabi, the whole process of being in this world is about recognition, recognition of who it is who is revealing what because at each moment it's different.

Elan: Just a quick comment. By saying that these are actually two features of a single person, that we can go in either direction and sometimes we alternate, it clicked so many things for me personally when you mentioned that Stephen. That's a great conception because we might have intuitions or inspirations. We were just talking about this on our previous show about intelligent design. It's just like you said, it's a question of recognizing real knowledge even though it flies in the face of our rational thinking sometimes. We might perceive something and decide to ignore it because our rational minds decide that it's invalid for whatever reason.

So just a wonderful way to understand how it is that we might as individuals hone in further on our own perceiving of knowledge where it doesn't always look like something that comes from an intellectual process. So great stuff is all I wanted to say on that.

Stephen: Thank you very much. Just to say that so many people think of Ibn 'Arabi as a great intellectual. He's not. He's a great teacher about human nature and that's a very big difference. Yes, it looks like when you study it it's very complicated, all these ideas and words and all the rest of it. But actually what it is, is a construction of the way things actually are if you were looking from the top downward of a pyramid. You would see everything.

So in these descriptions one has to bear in mind in a way, that even as these people are ascending through these degrees, they are already there. In reality, they are already looking down. So what is being given to us is like a kind of map, a road map let's say, of human experience and human understanding that is quite secure. The symbols may be a little bit unfamiliar. They may be something we have to come to grips with in some way but I'm quite convinced that it's a language for describing something which is almost indescribable, which is the mechanics of human transformation and perfection.

Harrison: That's one of the things that stood out for me in this, even when Ibn 'Arabi seems to be taking a far out trip into the realms of imaginal space, there's always a human relevance and practicality to it, either implicit or explicit. That reminds me of something I was looking for. I couldn't find it. I thought it was right at the beginning where he says, essentially introducing the topic - I'm going to paraphrase - he says 'I've heard all of this alchemy stuff and we know all this and as far as I know, no one has actually told you what it's all about so I'm just going to tell you right now. I don't think anyone else has done it so this is what all this stuff is actually talking about.' He mentions that alchemy is essentially about transformation in three worlds, I think he says in one place, the physical, the spiritual and the divine.

This is kind of related. I want to read a quote and then I'll try to make a connection between it and what I just said. This is in the section on the constellations and gardens. This is near the end of the chapter. He writes,
"The reason why this transformation is so rapid and constant is that the Origin is like that. His bounty towards the created world is in accordance with what the reality of his level entails so that he is constantly creating and the creation is perpetually in need. The whole of existence is perpetually in motion but both in this world and the hereafter because the creative act does not happen from non-movement. From god's side there are constant facings and inexhaustible words which is his saying what is with god remains. Thus with god is the facing towards a thing which is his saying when we desire it and the word of presence which is his saying to each thing that he desires, 'Be!' with the meaning that is appropriate to his majesty."
The thought in there that struck me was, on the one hand I was talking about him bringing it always to the human and practical levels but then at the same time there is always the deeper implication and the ultimate truth behind those human levels. So in this case there are two of those. One is that change and transformation, as he points out elsewhere, are universal. This is going on everywhere. It's going on at all levels. It applies to everything. Even in the mineral world there is always change and transformation going on. Then naturally, as we can see in ourselves and as we can reason analogically, it happens with ourselves and it will above too.

Incidentally I think that's interesting in light of modern science where we can see these constant processes of change and transformation happening at the subatomic level and within atoms. There's always energetic transfers of information and transformations going on, even in basic chemistry. You fire a certain photon at some atom and something magical will happen even though most people don't see it as magical. But there's something similar going on at the human level where there are these changes in transformations that we go through constantly and then as a spiritual master Ibn 'Arabi will be the one to guide the development, to identify and eliminate the defects. But then the ultimate goal of all of this, because there is a direction that all of this is heading, there is a goal towards which all of this is heading. I think that the way to put the ultimate goal would be the realization and the recognition of unity of - how is it called in Arabic? Is that the Tawhid?

Stephen: The Tawhid one way to express it, yes.

Harrison: And all the different significances and meanings of that is that that's what this alchemical process is. That's the gold. That is the perfection. That is the potential inherent in us to which we are striving and to which we will develop with the proper elimination of defects. Going back to my first statement about how he introduces the topic of alchemy, I find it almost funny - well it is a bit humorous - when I read that, he almost offhandedly or flippantly says, 'This is what this all means. It's all just this exquisite, beautiful transformational process about the return to oneness and god and the realization of the unity of all existence and here's how it all is' and he lays it out.

I just wanted to string those thoughts together and see if I could come up with something coherent. {laughter} Did you have any thoughts on any of those comments that I made?

Stephen: Well I think your emphasis on transformation and transfer of information is very interesting because transformation at the form level is one aspect of it. But the other aspect is something which we call transfer of information and that is something which is, as it were, being carried, the knowledge which is being carried by this transformational process.

So it's interesting that in the modern world we talk about transformation on both sides. One is on the form level and one on this informational level which is directly equivalent to Ibn 'Arabi's idea that yes, everything is in the process of transformation but at the same time there is a purpose behind it, there is a meaning behind it which is being carried through it and which has to be recognized. That's why I put the emphasis earlier on, on recognition because that's, if you like, the job of a human being, to be one who can recognize what is actually being displayed in this existence.

The reason I'm using the word recognition is because part of the chapter title in Arabic is on the ma'rifa kimiya sa'ada. So we have three terms. We have ma'rifa which means recognition. We have kimiya which is alchemy and then we have sa'ada which is happiness. So this first one, the recognition side of it is therefore, if you like, the primary one. It is recognizing when we say manifestation, we recognize who manifests in what form. We're not confused by the form and we're not confused by the meaning of the form. We see. That is full recognition, full ma'rifa.

So in order to do that we have to know the degrees of existence on one side which for Ibn 'Arabi are 28 and correspond to lunar mansions and Arabic letters and all sorts of correspondences. But the importance of these 28 degrees is that they represent all the potential differences of being. So just like the moon goes through different phases, in one respect full, that it has all these different phases to it, even invisibility in opposition to its visibility, all of those are like possibilities of being, the possible variations in which light can be manifest.

So we can say that being able to recognize each manifestation and where it is in this arena, this circular repeating cycle, that metaphor means that the human being would be capable of recognizing every manifestation for what it actually is. They know what light is. They know what the full moon is but they're also able to recognize when the moon is only in a quarter. They're not confused by the quarterness. So most people are very confused by quarterness and they end up saying "That's what the moon is." We all have this tendency because yes, we've recognized this. This is what it is." And then he's very keen to say that this process of development in the human being is moving from one stage of understanding, one stage of knowledge, to another one, to another one, to another one incessantly because that is the nature of being itself. It has to be recognized, it has to be known and it has to be returned for what it is. Because if we don't recognize it, what we're actually doing is misrepresenting it, as it were.

Harrison: That reminded me of a footnote on the next page after the bit I just quoted. This will be an example of what we were talking about right at the beginning, about the linguistic nature of Arabic, just so we can give another example of it. First the sentence in Ibn 'Arabi's text is "These facings and words in the treasuries of generosity belong to each thing as it receives existence." Then the footnote is, "The notion of divine generosity, juwid, is related etymologically and cosmologically to the coming about of existence itself, wujuwid."

I made a note of that one just because I thought it was such a good juxtaposition of meanings that is this constant almost reception of being and attributes and all of these things is the primary manifestation of generosity, of the gift of being and the gift of the present moment because every moment that we find ourselves in, along with being a state of transformation, looking at it from another angle, it's a bringing into being of everything at every instant. I guess one way to put it might be the manifestation of numerous names of god at any given time and that reception of those possibilities is god's generosity towards us. So being itself is a gift and therefore every moment is a gift and inherent in any moment is the potential for these transformations to take place too and to eliminate those defects and to recognize what is going on.

That just made me think of that example of generosity and its etymological and cosmological relation to being itself.

Stephen: That's absolutely right and such a fundamental point for Ibn 'Arabi, but that being itself is, as it were, the consequence of generosity and pure gift. So this principle runs through everything for him, even down to his first teacher in Seville saying to him "Sit with the one who gives freely." Now the name which is used, Al'Wahad, is the divine name which expresses this giving without requiring anything from the person to whom it's given. It is pure giving, sheer generous giving.

So his advice from his first teacher is sit with this quality of being until he speaks to you without a veil. So what he's referring to - going back to our earlier discussion - is this is the way, if you want a way of Ibn 'Arabi, of returning to the direct perception of the private face through which god will speak to you without a veil because there is no veil between the divine and you. Any veil you think is there is a construct. So what removes the construct is this quality of pure beneficent giving which is constant in the universe.

One can say other creatures know this already. They never lose this. A tree inherently is in praise because it is always conscious of receiving this gift of being. And I'm not talking about just the gift of rain and the gift of nutrients from the soil and wind and so on. No, I'm talking about the gift of being itself plus all those qualities that surround anything.

So we have these two aspects. The gift may be something, as it were, external to us, coming to us, given to us, but it's also the giving of the being of us in the first place. Both sides a pure, generous gift. So for someone who comes to this in themselves, into this realization, then that means that they have started the journey of the private face, to whatever degree. From then on their learning process will occur through this quality of gift. In other words, you still have to make effort, you still have to try and do things, but the effort has been transformed now from something that is done in order to achieve something. It is done in gratitude for what you are already receiving.

Harrison: Very good.

Elan: And that certainly feels a lot nicer than begrudgingly doing one's duties and being resentful and being dragged by the universe by one's responsibilities. To do something in a state of gratefulness and graciousness, not that I don't experience those other things too. {laughter} I'm still working on it, but that's a lot more joyful, to do things in appreciation of those things that we've been given, in joy and generosity.

Corey: That's why it's titled The Alchemy of Human Happiness. I think we all just became instantly happy when you said that. {laughter} A chance mutation occurred.

Stephen: That's one term we haven't talked about and maybe we should, to clarify what he's talking about with happiness. Again, it's a loaded work in the Arabic. Sa'ada or Saaid would mean also the blessedness of being in paradise. So in one sense we can speak about it as a state of blessing but not a state like we experience here where you kind of have it for a bit and then you come out of it. No. This is a recognition of blessing itself so that's why I was putting the emphasis on recognizing the giver of bounty, the pure giver because that's the quality that would be experienced by somebody in paradise. That is exactly what paradise is. They realize that that's what the world is. That's what all of existence is, is gift. So that's why a person we can say is in paradise as opposed to not being in paradise where they would be distanced from this condition of grace.

So that's on one side. On the other side it's important to realize that what we call being happy and the striving for happiness is usually loaded with self-constructs of happiness. I'm happy if this or I'm happy if that, and is usually to do with a state of happiness that somebody has tasted which they're always trying to recapture or return to. So that's a very different perception. The happiness that's being talked about in this is what the Greeks used to call eudaimonia which is self-fulfillment. It's that kind of happiness that was well-known to the Greeks as you know. It's not about whether I'm happy or not in that sense, in a transient way but whether I am deeply content with being exactly who I am, where I am. That's more of the quality of it.

So for example Ibn 'Arabi will say something like the happy person is somebody who is pleasing to their lord meaning that they know that who and what they are is already agreed to. It's already accepted. So this is a way of describing an internal condition that people have the potential to reach. Everybody has the potential to reach. If I wanted to emphasize anything about this book it would be that one of the most important elements is that he's emphasizing every single human being has this potential for reaching that perfection.

So it's not a question of special people or that only certain mystics do this. No, this is something - and that why I said the chapter is universal in its application - it applies to everyone. Each of us will have different understandings, different tastes in it. So some of my colleagues and companions have been studying this text in Australia for two-and-a-half years, meeting every month and reading parts of it and they started going quite fast and then they got much slower. So sometimes they would spend two hours discussing one page. For many of them it was the first time that they had read something in company like that with people of similar intention and aspiration and trying to imbibe as much as possible what was being laid out before them, the banquet that's put in front of them.

I think for many of them the actual reading process itself was quite a transformative experience because reading with other people slows us down, allows us to ask questions, allows different viewpoints to come which we haven't considered and all of that is an enrichment through reading the text together. Whereas if you're reading on your own, which is what we're all encouraged and trained to do, it's a solitary activity and we probably read quite fast, we skim over things, we miss a lot. It's a very different experience.

So in terms of reading books, I would just say I'm absolutely sure in my own experience that reading these kind of texts together in small groups, friends and so on, is a hugely beneficial way of exploring and discussing these questions which apply to every human being.

Harrison: Absolutely. Can we do a little bit of that right now? How much time do you have Stephen? Are you good for another five or ten minutes?

Stephen: Five or ten minutes is fine.

Harrison: Okay. I had a question about this section because I'm not quite sure of the context. It references music. I'll just read it first and then I'll state my question. This is in the section on the footstool and the supreme light. It's on page 141 of my copy. Ibn 'Arabi writes,
"Then he leaves this place and is plunged into the supreme light where love ecstasy overcomes him. This light is the presence of spiritual states whose power is manifest in human individuals. People are usually overwhelmed when they listen to music. When these states descend upon them they pass through the spheres. The movement of the spheres can have happy melodies that enrapture the ears something like the music of the water wheel. The melodies clothes the states, descending with them upon living souls during sessions of audition."
So the question I had about that was specifically in regard to this little bit, 'People are usually overwhelmed when they listen to music. When these states descend upon them they pass through the spheres,' I wanted to know what your thoughts are on this. When he's saying that people are overwhelmed when they listen to music, is this the kind of heavenly music or is he talking about music in general? When I first read that it sounds like he's talking about music in general but then that would imply that listening to music in general, it follows that when these states descend upon them they pass through the spheres. So actually listening to music and being overwhelmed by the music itself is somehow equivalent to passing through the spheres. Is that what he's saying or is he saying something else? Or do you have any thoughts one way or the other?

Stephen: You missed out the following line, didn't you.

Harrison: Which one?

Stephen: At a certain point, because he's really talking about the states of passion or love ecstasy that might overtake people. While it might happen, you can see it in pop concerts. You can see it in classical concerts. You can see it in many different forms so he's not just talking about the heavenly music. He's talking about music in general as its effect on people where it changes your state and it doesn't happen all the time obviously. But sometimes it can transport somebody. So the question is what is actually happening. People think it's the music. People think it's the example he gives of attachment to a slave girl or a slave boy. Whatever thing the soul is taken up with, that linkage is really the love of divine beauty clothed in imaginal form.

So we've got therefore the distinction between divine beauty itself and the clothing and that's in a nutshell the kind of understanding of what is actually going on that is key because most people confuse the form with the reality of the form.

Harrison: Okay.

Stephen: Just to say, the last line of that paragraph 'loving ecstasy seizes a person according to what they have created in their imagination.' So what we create in our imagination is the enabling of this passion, actually this divine passion for beauty to occur. So if we see it that way we're seeing, as it were, from the real perspective...

Harrison: Yeah.

Stephen: ...as opposed to our personal perspective which might be quite limited in that respect. We don't realize that this divine passion is the key to it all.

Harrison: I think last time we talked we mentioned a bit about the imaginal realm and how the pure meaning will clothe itself in a certain form in the realm and that might be in the form of the perceived physical form of a prophet or something like that. So there's a similar thing going on here where there's this divine beauty that then transmits itself to the person in question through the form it happens to take in the imagination.

I'm thinking maybe one example of that might be, like you said, the pop concerts or the classical concerts. I know that at some point everyone gets to an age where they look at the music that the younger generation is listening to and says that's just garbage. But you see the kids enjoying their music and some of them entering into a particular state and it seems that the state is the same regardless of the form that the music is taking. Do you think that might be an example of what he's saying? That the form that it takes in the imagination is different?

Stephen: I think this is where we start to get into other aspects of it. Let's go back to the idea of intention and what it stimulates within a human being. It may stimulate, let's say, sex energy, which is the lowest form of love energy. If it stimulates that and doesn't enable this energy to actually rise to a different level, then it's exactly the same as eating food to satisfy your physical appetite and that's what it is. It's no different. In other words, the potential for its realization has been minimized to the lowest level. So this is a very important point because it brings in the question of what people do and how they behave is propagating something, let's say. It's propagating a certain level.

So if the person has more degree of insight and knowledge then they are capable of propagating higher degrees of being, higher levels of being than the most basic. This is fundamental to the whole concept of transformation because it implies that whatever level of transformation we understand, there is always more and there have been many aspects of it that we don't understand and therefore a certain degree of caution and care is necessary. If we think it's just a matter of turning up the volume and blasting people until they can't think anymore, this is so crude as to be hardly comprehensible. Whereas viewing this as a sacred act where something is being transmitted which is the closest to beauty, and that would mean at every level, not just sound as it were, but everything about the experience is in keeping with harmony and so on, then that will have a different effect on people.

Harrison: That gets into a whole discussion on the nature of music and the receptivity of people to different forms. The first thing that comes into my head when you're saying that is you can take a piece of music that, let's say experts in one field or another, and that could be experts in the field of mysticism, have a particular view of a certain piece of music, let's say, that is the most sublime and beautiful piece of music imaginable that can just touch your soul and transform you in an instant and then you have a cheap, mass produced pop song. So you play that genius piece of music to a thousand people and I think in the real world what will happen is that you'll have some people who will react deeply to it and then you'll have a bunch of people where it's just in one ear and out the other. It doesn't seem to have affected them on any level whatsoever.

Then you play that pop song to a thousand people and a lot of them will just be cheering and going along with it. Some won't like it. But then you might have one or two people who hear a single note that's in there sung by the vocalist that for some reason just touches something really deep in them. It's just the perfect note and there's something mysterious and enigmatic that's just buried within that note and it touches them so they're weeping at the beauty of this one note while everyone else is just kind of cheering and head bopping.

Corey: That's really interesting because I can't stop thinking about the elixirs that Ibn 'Arabi talks about, the allegorical symbolic nature of how something like that from another level can touch somebody and initiate some process of transformation. It can have different forms maybe, and I might be completely wrong about this but then once you get a taste of it you start to seek it out in different forms. Maybe you start to develop a different taste, a more refined taste and you want to elevate. So this name of beauty or whatever name I guess of some higher form that touches your heart and serves as an elixir of some kind that starts this transformation process and then you want to continue to refine your tastes and it slowly changes your being somewhat. You're not the same person that you were if you allow yourself to follow these influences and to start seeking and searching, not without necessarily, but internally as you start searching for the source of that attitude and the source of that new higher more wise, creative - I'm failing at all words here as I do on every show with Ibn 'Arabi.

But I hope that I'm making some point.

Stephen: Can I interrupt and give you an example?

Corey: Please, yes please.

Stephen: In the chapter itself. You see one of the things about the chapter is that it's comprehensive so you can probably find something in there that will answer your question at whatever level the question is coming. So the thing that comes to mind about this particular matter is what Ibn 'Arabi says when the prophets Moses and Aaron were sent to the Pharaoh and how they were to deal with him. He points out in the chapter - and this is following the Qur'anic exposition of it - that they were told to behave gently with him. They were not to confront him and this was to do with the secret of the transformation of the Pharaoh which he goes into. It's a very daring exposition that is the most exquisite description of how an apparently tyrannical figure, let's say, or a person opposed to the truth - we can put it in many different ways - but how a figure like that can be transformed by gentle treatment, not by confrontation, not by being told this, that, the other. By gentle treatment. By a slow process that works like yeast in the dough. He gives that example. Slowly, slowly it starts to rise until it's ready for baking, exactly the same way the same process is going on internally in the Pharaoh because of the way he's being treated.

So you can see in one respect it's a matter of taste, a taste that prefers something closer to beauty than to majesty which is its opposite and also that there are other qualities which start to filter in, in this transformation process because of this. Does that help?

Corey: That's exactly - yeah, that pretty much exactly what I was speaking of.

Stephen: Well now I'm playing Ibn 'Arabi in Ertugrul, right? {laughter}

Corey: Wait! Who am I then? {laughter} Some poor schlub.

Harrison: You can be Bamsi.

Corey: No, my life has been changed for the better, that's for sure. But yes, this book here everybody, The Alchemy of Human Happiness is chock full of insights and, like you pointed out, numerous references to ancient traditions that are actually really fresh to read, his description, as you're talking about him, of the Pharaoh and also Moses and how he treated his brother Aaron. It was very interesting little tidbits, but if you're going to read it - and we hope that you do read it because it is chocked full of wisdom and you can sit there and read one paragraph over and over again and it really opens your eyes to a different and more comprehensive way of viewing the generosity of being, as we've discussed before. But it's just so rich with all of these...

Harrison: Footnotes?

Corey: Yeah, all of these footnotes on every page so you have to go slow and really take your time because these footnotes, like you were talking about in the opening of the show Stephen, every word can have so many meanings and you really lay out all of the different ways that a sentence could be read and what it means, what it hints at, what it is in the Arabic and the puns and word play that go into it. I read halfway through, I got to the first chapter of Adam and the moon and then I had to stop and start it over again and then when I made it through the second time, I made it all the way through to the end but, as you said, I think you had a group who were reading it for two years? This is one of those books I'll probably be reading for the rest of my life and hopefully you'll have more books {laughter} released that we can read before that time.

Thank you so much for the work that you've done. It's absolutely fascinating. It would be a tragedy if more of Ibn 'Arabi's work didn't make it out to the rest of the world.

Stephen: This is a very special chapter and somehow it does go to the heart of many things that we find difficult, the sicknesses that have overcome human beings, for example. There are keys to the medicine, the necessary corrective medicine because in the end this is appointed to a universal message. You mentioned the word tawhid earlier on, this very difficult word to translate. On the one side it means literally making one but is usually used to mean the affirmation of unity. So Ibn 'Arabi says there are 36 forms of it. Thirty-six forms of affirmation of unity, which he's taking from the Qur'an. So where it says 'La ilaha illa Huwa - there is no god except him', 36 times it's mentioned in the Qur'an in different forms.

So this is like an example for him or an expression of the different approaches and knowledges associated with this affirmation of unity or realization of unity because we can translate it both ways. So it's not just a verbal affirmation. It's also a complete seeing and realization of the being where unity does not mean some transcendental state. It means the very nature of things as being both one and multiple simultaneously. And this chapter I think, really points out that this is the key message brought by all prophets ever since Adam. This is what humanity has always had explained to it because we need it explained and this chapter really does lay it out in a very comprehensive form. So I hope like you, many people will read it. And bear in mind the saying of a 16th century follower of Ibn 'Arabi in the Ottoman world called Üftade who said very simply in one of his poems, union is the only remedy for separation.

Elan: It's rhetorical but it's also the truth. It's kind of a perfect...

Harrison: A perfect way to close the show?

Elan: Yes.

Harrison: Yes. We've kept you longer than we expected to Stephen. I know you've got somewhere to be, something to do so thanks again for joining us. We recommend the book again. We'll put a link to it in the show description so everyone can check it out on the Anka Publishing website. Maybe next time we talk we can discuss whatever new projects are coming out that you're working on Stephen. Alright?

Stephen: Thank you for your time.

Elan: Thank you Stephen.