The Alchemy of Seeking the Aesthetic in the Everyday

By the time this appears in print, the wistfully evocative season of autumn will have faded to Winter and the year will have changed. Autumn is considered the most aesthetic of the seasons in the scheme of traditional Japanese aesthetics and the natural languishing of organic energies signals the recollection of experience and the withdrawal of the experience of sense data within signaled in the power of vimarshana which is key to the authentic appreciation of any potential aesthetic experience.  Autumn will have passed along with its slow inevitable descent into the Americanized arch-holiday of consumerism, Christmas, that translates the desire towards peace, generosity, goodwill to all mankind and spirituality into a frenzy of desire for material goods, most of which did not previously exist, in the form of gifts seen as obligation along with a distinctly juvenile, maudlin sentimentality that is eagerly anticipated as a vital part of the national economy along with the frenzied hoards of shoppers appearing during the ominously named Black Friday.

Numerologically the new year will be the number 8 that is associated with Shiva and is reflected in the Major Arcana (that is often referred to as the fool’s journey) of the Tarot deck, which is referred to as the Book of Thoth by the first widely known professional tarot reader Jean-Baptiste Alliette or “Etteilla” in 18th century France, by the card of Justice which aside from its literal interpretation represents the alchemical aspect of “Disposition” that represents the proper weighing and rebalancing of the elements of fire and water or of the pranic energies of the channels of the Sun and the Moon or the nadis of the Ida and Pingala.


Entrance to Karnak temple 001


The origins of Western esotericism often trace themselves back to ancient Egypt with the mythic Ptolemaic Alexandrian figure of Hermes Trismegistus, a syncretic form of the Egyptian god Thoth who was thought to be the inventor of writing, architecture, science, magic and alchemy. It is said that the ancient Egyptians used the same hieroglyph to represent the concepts of science, art and magic.  The culture, lore, artwork and world-view of alchemy in the Middle East and Europe, tended to preserve this conceptual unity of the Egyptians as well as an enchanted and mythic view of the world, the cosmos and of the transformational abilities of matter.  The scholar Francis Yates spent much of her professional works in showing how much the alchemical and specifically the Hermetic traditions actively shaped European cultural traditions such as the Renaissance.  The explosion of artwork illustrating the philosophy and lore of alchemy in highly visually coded engravings that were facilitated by the printing press up to the 18th century clearly preserve the enchanted view of the world and matter as well as the Egyptian conceptual unities of science, art & magic that today are strictly segregated, alienated and hegemonized in strict exclusion of the mythic and the magical to prevent the contamination of the pristinely scientific world view.

But you may ask yourselves what are the ultimate effects of such a strictly compartmentalized worldview that is stripped and sanitized of the superstition and non-logical antiquated notions of the mythic and the magical that comes naturally to the child, but that are kept alive yet veiled and sequestered into a yearly holiday, forced into hidden conscription used to manipulate the unwary public to create desires that did not previously exist for consumer goods and to fuel the obligation to shop.  More importantly, what are the effects of sequestering “art” and the aesthetic from the relevance and cultural hegemony of science as well as from the enchanted world view of magic and myth?


Winter is the season when nature itself gives clues to the values of letting go and of introversion and introspection.  Alchemically it represents the stage of Nigredo of blackening as the Winter solstice signals the period when there is more of the blackness of night than of day.  It represents the power of vilaya of concealment and of the “via negative” or hesychastic approach to spirituality of “emptying” oneself of thoughts and images associated in the West with Pseudo-Dionysius and with the practices of the Vijnana Bhairava in India.


I delight in the practice of seeking correspondences, which is a common trait of all esoteric traditions, and I especially enjoy seeking correspondences with Trika Shaivist elements as it is said in tantric lore that Shakti reveals herself in the specificities of time and place.  Seeking correspondences is a delightful way to embed the extra-ordinary of myth into the ordinary of everyday life, and the mythic needs no justification as it is its own.


Octavio Paz quoted Baltasar Gracian, the Spanish Jesuit priest and poet and founder of the Spanish Baroque literary style “conceptismo”, in his biographic masterpiece on the enigmatic Mexican poet nun and prodigy, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, on the notion of the Baroque concept of the “conceit” which is “…an act of comprehension that expresses the correspondences that exist among objects”.  Gracian reveals his hidden strategy of aesthetic invention at the heart of the awe- inspiring profuseness of the Baroque imagination which is but a continuation, elaboration and refinement of the esoteric strategies of alchemy and the Hermetic tradition revealed in the mythic Emerald Tablet that states “That which is above is as That which is Below”, and is a further continuation of the aesthetic interpretation of the esoteric practice of the interpenetration of the macrocosm with the microcosm which inspired the artists of the Renaissance and the Baroque to embed and interpenetrate the iconography of their works with the marvelous of the myths and symbolisms of the pagan past within the mundane of Christian themes or of contemporary life that featured man frequently as the center of the subject matter that is mirrored in Pico della Mirandola’s historic Oration On The Dignity of Man that was inspired by Hermetic doctrine that placed man squarely in the center of the cosmos and who was most able to reflect the Divine will through his own abilities to accomplish all through his own will.


This enchanted view of aesthetics of an enchanted cosmos where matter itself held soul along with the power to transform based ultimately on texts claiming ancient Egyptian origins led also to such historical characters of Baroque anomaly as Athanasius Kircher, the German Jesuit who was an enthusiastic student of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs before Champollion translated them with the Rosetta Stone, who was convinced they held emblematic symbolism of esoteric  significance of the various elements of the world and who created Rome’s first cabinets of wonder or wunderkammer, that contained such fantastic collections and elaborate microcosms of the world itself as hieroglyph. What would the implications be if our own religious and political figures and leaders were also poets and aesthetic and esoteric visionaries of the marvelous? Or what would archeologists say about the values of American culture today if they were to discover artifacts of it in the future?


Deity with erect phallus 001


Jaideva Singh’s translation of Abhinavagupta’s commentary in his Paratrishika Vivarana states flatly, “If there is complete absence of delight, it only spells insentiency”.


I often take great pleasure in viewing the unique manifestations of the sky close to where I live in a suburban surrounding town outside of Houston, that is completely unobstructed from any multi-storied buildings and that displays itself in seemingly endless panoramic vistas that simply do not occur within the city limits of Houston. I enjoy driving along the long flat multi-laned road that calls itself a highway and that follows a strict East/ West axis and listening to the local classical music station on my radio that is free of charge and viewing the often breathtaking formations of the sky that appear above and on the horizons lines uncontaminated by the visual cacophony of the criss-crossing strings of above-ground power lines and the riotous commercial visual pollution of signage for often abandoned malls or small businesses and strip malls with often wildly contrasting types of businesses. I am struck by amazement one recent late afternoon on leaving the grocery store parking lot to see a panoramic sky at twilight that is half day light at one horizon line and half early evening on the other with broad strokes of crimson stretching along the underneath of long altostratus cloud formations that blend and fade effortlessly into a rich cerulean of a cloudless blue sky.

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It may be interesting at this point to examine the hidden connotations and our reactions to the term aesthetics itself.  What comes to your mind now when you see or hear that word – an effetely precious art movement of the late 19th century, elitism, archaic and outmoded traditions and definitions of beauty, an antiquated division of classical philosophy, or actual hegemonic manifestations that exclusively extol the culture and values of the particular ruling elite of a time and place?  It will be necessary to uncover the full range of current connotations that are associated with the aesthetic before discussing its almost palpable absence in contemporary discourse and in particular in terms of our daily lives.  That is if anything comes to mind at all as evidenced by Oscar Wilde’s 1880’s lecture which he gave on his US tour, The English Renaissance of Art, where he praised the concrete expression of the aesthetic, “If you ask nine-tenths of the British public what is the meaning of the word aesthetics, they will tell you it is the French for affectation or German for a dado”.


In her essay/ lecture Composition As Explanation which essentially was an apologist argument for the radical iconoclastic techniques of modernist artists who went beyond aesthetics per se, Gertrude Stein argues that truly creative artists are never ahead of their time, that instead they are the most sensitive members of their society who are able to accurately reflect the actual composition of the life of their time.  She begins her essay by writing that the only thing that really changes in any time period in human history is really just the composition of daily life as everything else in human life is essentially the same as in any other period.  This to me is a fascinating insight that is in need of particular emphasis today as an entire generation feels that they are living in an age that is historically incomparable simply because of the Internet and their abilities to play videos of their mobile devices or the ability to “text” which is essentially no different than the telegraph.  Yet it is undeniable that the digital revolution has changed the “composition” of the daily life of the 21st century.

It is also important to emphasize that “virtuality” is in essence not something new, and has always been a prominent factor in all of the “analog” arts and culture especially in the main defining trait and “technology” of the human phenomenon of “civilization” – writing and reading, and it remains, what could be more virtual, the phenomena of looking at and interpreting stylized hieroglyphs that literally can engage all of the senses in distinct yet inexplicable ways like hearing silent whispers or of waking daydreams in much like Abhinavagupta’s Kaula dictum of “each thing being an epitome of all things for all people”.  On the other hand another characteristic trait of “civilization” that is more immediate and visceral yet is still extremely virtual is the habit of eating and the artificial technology of cooking which like reading also has the abilities to engage all the senses simultaneously and there is the relevant usage of the word taste in English which also has the implications of aesthetic sensitivity.


Gertrude Stein also wrote her cryptic pronouncement in her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, much like those of Abhinavagupta which were replete with inversions of expected or conventional meaning, yet in Stein’s case was limited to her own obsessive notions of an ontological and aesthetic Manifest Destiny of America, that “… America having begun the creation of the twentieth century in the sixties of the nineteenth century is now the oldest country in the world”.  Aside from having a certain ring of truth to it in America’s post-industrial decaying urban landscapes and infrastructures, as well as its obsession now with its own past, it also is indicative of the twentieth century’s own destructive side of modernism by defining its own obsession with the new through the need to destroy the past.  Likewise a large part of the twentieth century’s creativity has been through the dismantling of the perceived constraints of the “aesthetic” which has also survived into post-modernism. Yet America itself may have always held a deep mistrust and uneasiness towards the aesthetic, from its Puritan origins to its Federalist suspicions of anything evoking monarchic or religious patronage or power to its fully formed period of national self-consciousness in the early modern age of the 1920’s with Calvin Collidge’s popularly quoted remark, “the chief business of the American people is business”.  Ironically Oscar Wilde, the self-publicized public spectacle arch-aesthete, gave a successful US lecture tour promoting the aesthetic movement in art and the aesthetic in daily life and promoted resistance to passive consumption of industrial goods in favor of interior design and dress that would highlight the indigenous beauty found in America.  He lectured and toured widely from New York to San Francisco arousing notoriety and controversy wherever he went from offending blue-blood critics in Boston to impressing a group of miners in Colorado by drinking them all under the table and he even lectured at the opera house in Galveston TX, an island on the coast some 40 minutes from Houston, where reportedly guns were shot off in the audience.



Much of Wilde’s mature work, particularly in The Picture of Dorian Gray, revolves around the ironies and distinctions of art and reality and using the strategy of the Decadents to invert the distinctions between the artificialities and virtualities of art over the “reality” of life remarking with one of his many famous epigrams, “Art should not be more popular, the public should become more artistic” and frequently privileging the aesthetic manner of living and pursuit of pleasure over the actual production of art to the point of almost praising in later essays the mediocre artist for the artistry of their lives since he felt that they almost always placed more of their artistic energy and consequently led more interesting lives than superior artists.  Wilde himself exhibited similar traits and in many ways became one of the last great manifestations and created a Decadent version of that quintessential proto-Romantic and enigmatic urban phenomenon beginning with Beau Brummel which was also to obsess the young Charles Baudelaire – the Dandy.  At once symbol and signifier detached from all conventional web of signification, the dandy was the classless aristocrat of taste, the first conspicuous consumer and phenomenon of social spectacle who defined himself in and on his own terms simply through his appearance.  Walking fashion plate yet detached and scornful of popular taste, the dandy was the supremely independent arbiter of taste armed only with the anomaly of his own fantastic appearance and an endless supply of quippish cavalier pronouncements and epigrammic bon mots.  Wilde infused the phenomenon of the dandy with the profuse aestheticism of Walter Pater and the anti-Industrialist scorn of mass production of John Ruskin, he carefully constructed the social theatrics of his own public persona, armed with his high-ranking Oxford education in Classics and his first book of poetry, he sought to do battle with the forces of vulgarity and ugliness and unmask the hypocrisies of the Victorian Age and promote the new aestheticism in the arts and in society.


As a staunch supporter of “Art for Art’s Sake”, Wilde as self-appointed figure head of the Aesthetic movement which sought to dissolve the conventional moralistic justification of the arts through didacticism to emphasize that aesthetic effect alone is justification enough for the arts.  It is interesting that this initial detachment from subject matter didacticism of the Aesthetic, Symbolist and Decadent movements many art historians agree led to the free independent iconoclastic experimentation of modernism that sought to define itself through the dismantling of the aesthetic most notably with Dadaism.  Theoretically the continuation of the dissolution of the aesthetic was given new impetus through the late 20th century movements of post-modernism, post-structuralism and deconstruction where the very concepts of the aesthetic were dismantled to become an endless series of self deflecting and deferring self-contradictory and self-undermining labyrinths of signifiers without signification which has led to a flattening and deconstructing not only of aesthetics but also of modernism’s obsessive drive for the “new” and has led to a destruction of art for art’s sake but only leading to art for “theory’s” sake.  Yet the 1967 work of Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle has only proved all too prophetic in the 21st century in his dystopic vision of the degradation of the essential quality of life through the manipulation, fetishization and commodification of images or the mere representations or simulacra of life where the “commodity completes its colonization of social life”.  Such “society of the spectacle” tactics have only become much more diffuse and perfectly suited to the digital age and are equally if not more effective means of social control as the ancient Roman strategy of “bread and circuses” where every free and spontaneously generated social trend is tracked and predicted and is mined solely for marketing and potential profit.  Yet it was Debord’s insight that the commodification of simulacra and spectacle has the insidious effects of inducing “passive assent” and of “impeding critical thought and accurate perception”.  Needless to say that ultimately this commodified society of spectacle also undermines any opportunity or ability for authentic aesthetic response or experience.  The artificial self-conscious phenomenon of self definition through an individual’s pattern of consumption that has only become uncritically accepted as normal and wholeheartedly embraced in the digital age, has led to such generational social manifestations as the “hipster”.


At once unwitting victim and half-hearted unstrategic rebel seeking to disrupt the omnipresent digitally marketed simulacra-commodity, Douglas Haddow’s iconic 2008 cover essay for Adbusters, “Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization” the subtitle of which reveals it all, “Counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum, stripped of its subversion and originality”.  Yet consumerism has filled this aesthetic vacuum as a ready-made and indeed as an ersatz aesthetic.  Contrasting these two fundamentally conflicting approaches will only help to clarify the full implications of their possibly ultimately varying paths and consequences.


What is consumerism anyway and specifically in what ways is it different from aestheticism?  One of the biggest illusions of consumerism is its necessity or of its inevitability.  In her article for Vanity Fair in the thirties, “And Now: And so the time comes when I can tell the story of my life”, Gertrude Stein affirmed that writing was her greatest pleasure, “I like it even better than spending money although there is no pleasure so sweet as the pleasure of spending money but the pleasure of writing is longer”.  Stein admitted that she succumbed to the pleasure of shopping when her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became a best seller after years of writing in obscurity.  Shopping and consumerism does offer instant gratification yet it is a pleasure that fades just as quickly like smoking cigarettes which makes it a pursuit equally prone to develop into an addiction. I see consumerism as an essentially passive activity that has little to no opportunities to essentially change the consumer, and offers little opportunity for refinement or self-awareness.  When in fact, consumerism discourages self awareness or self change as its goal is to create and market self dissatisfaction and create desire for external goods.  It is deeply uncreative even though it disguises itself in the camouflage of creative activity through promising individuality and ready-made identity and status in the most parasitic of means.  It leads to the creation of inner poverty.  It is fuelled and is dependent on the creation of external validation and envy and it is deeply reductivist, reducing the complexities of life and experience into materialism, acquisition and money.



While my intention is not to set up any rhetorical illusions of false dichotomy, I would like to suggest an alternative to the “aesthetic vacuum” of consumerism in the 21st century that depends on an expanded alternative definition of the aesthetic based on Jaideva Singh’s interpretation of the title of the Vijnana Bhairava as The Yoga of delight, Wonder and Astonishment that fundamental and open-ended ability to be moved by experience both sensual and mental in inexplicable, unexpected and marvelous ways.  It is deeply personal and authentic, it is indiscriminant in terms of “high” or “low” culture.  While it is also fundamentally ephemeral, I view it as essentially as an active state in that the emphasis is on apprehension and appreciation over acquisition.  It leads away from the materialism of the object to a path of refinement for the subject, leading away from the habitual inner poverty of consumerism to developing the state of inner richness of the subject through emphasizing satiation and satisfaction.  It is deeply spiritual yet it dissolves the compartmentalized views of religion and spirituality that coaxes out and dissolves the boundaries between deep contemplative and spiritual experience and the authentic sensual, emotional and mental experience along with the boundaries between everyday life and the extraordinary.


While popular culture and fashion have their place, it is essentially resistant to both.  It is not dictated by mere popular taste nor is it dictated by the hieratic tastes of the art world or of the cannons of academia.  It is essentially empirical and deeply personal, experiential and contemplative leading to self awareness, refinement and the development of increased sensitivity and empathy that is not defined by external validation or materialism.  I recommend nothing short of a revolution of taste for the individual consumer that like the esoteric practice of alchemy, has tremendous potential for personal, social and environmental transformation.  Like alchemy, it requires a personal commitment to slow patient evolution and refinement with an essentially empirical and intuitive approach that is willing to patiently repeat an experiment innumerable times in order to learn and to understand all of its implications instead of taking a merely linear, goal-oriented or cerebral approach.  This alchemical aesthetics is a path to “return to our senses” and like alchemy it is ultimately a non-dual and a holistic approach that excludes nothing and includes everything, and in its mature practice it has the potential to transform the energies of negativity and various poisons into positive service for the transformation of the practitioner who in turn has the potential to change his own environment and all who have contact with him.  But such broad ranging practice begins at home and involves our time and energy.


This alchemical aesthetics is also based on ayurvedic medicine which likewise is based on the indigenous alchemical tradition of India, rasayana.  Ayurveda also uses an alchemical holistic model and realizes that we “eat” much more than food and expands that model to include all sensual, emotional and mental experience which has the potential to affect us negatively or positively with an emphasis not necessarily on discrimination and exclusion, but on processing and of the “digestion” of that experience.  It is the first medical model pre-psychology to recognize the negative overall health effects of repressed and “unprocessed” negative emotion such as anger.  Ayurveda also recognizes the healing effects of meditation that effectively “digests” and processes residual mental and emotional activity. Ayurveda ultimately is consistent with Trika Saivist non-dual spiritual praxis that includes rather than excludes.  Abhinavagupta was the first Trika teacher and philosopher to incorporate aesthetics into a central place in his vision of spiritual practice and as the ultimate metaphor in his radical revisionist theology.  Abhina mutually impenetrates and encodes his theology with rich aesthetics terms such as camatkara and rasadhvani and his aesthetics with the ultimacy of his theology by claiming that aesthetic rapture or camatkara of the responsive and self aware aesthete is the closest experience to mystical self realization.  In his magnum opus of the Tantraloka he concludes in a beautiful ecstatic prayer-like passage to the Shakti that those who ultimately desire self-realization, the highest possible offering or sacrifice is the rasa or aesthetic experience from things that “bring joy, bliss and pleasure to the Heart” and that also “exist at the heart of all things and all experiences”.  Abhina took a radical and revisionist approach to spirituality and aesthetics that was essentially anti-ascetic, but he recommended a programmic practice for his students to cultivate deeply reverential, mindful and contemplative appreciation of things and experiences that bring expansive and deeply satisfying states of joy and bliss to the “heart”, which very likely may have set the religious/ cultural framework for the bhakti movement that was to shortly blossom in India and to affect Islamic culture through Sufism and to affect European medieval culture and arts.  Yet Abhina’s programmic recommendations are not a mere advocacy for hedonism or self indulgence or sentimentality nor did he encourage his students to be content with staying with easily palatable subject content and experiences, but encouraged them to move on to increasingly difficult and challenging subjects and experiences to be able to coax out and realize the underlying blissful aesthetic response that is potentially inherent in all things and experiences and realize the unobstructed vision and taste of freedom and unity that Abhina mentions in that same prayer to the ultimate realization in Paul Muller-Ortega’s translation in his The Triadic Heart of Siva, “The essence of consciousness is freedom and of that the essence is a mass of bliss”.




I recommend that he aesthetic yogi take an active role in the use of his or her time or environment and not to settle passively with what programs are mere available on the television or media, but to take an active choice in how we spend our leisure time and energies and realize that we take in or “eat” everything that we experience and that we also take an active role in filling our own personal environments with images and objects that inspire us, that fill us with wonder, that “bring joy to the heart” and that deeply nourish us and that bring balance to our own unique temperaments.  A large part of ayurvedic regimes based on an analysis of an individual’s unique dosha combination frequently involve many other life aspects besides diet and exercise that take into account the whole person that include colors or qualities and an individual’s environment and emotions, examples of which include the recommendations for the Pitta type who in order to balance their often inflammatory personality and constitution should seek to avoid getting overheated and avoid situations leading to emotional conflict and confrontation and should seek out cooling and calming environments that include reflection pools to reflect moonlight and access to evening breezes and should surround themselves with cooling and calming colors and images.


The implications for the alchemical aesthete is to actively develop their own unique personal “taste”, first to use ayurvedic models to seek out the activities, images and experiences of objects that would authentically balance, stabilize and nourish their particular temperaments, taking into consideration the changing qualities of the movement of time with the seasons and incorporating correspondences with directions on the awareness of placement, and to test and refine this effect empirically without relying on external influence or convention or preconception.  Next to extend one’s search and exploration outside of the ayurvedic medicinal and balancing metaphor to Abhina’s Trika model of searching and testing without preconception or sentimentality for those experiences and culture, balancing the man-made with the natural phenomenon, that “give joy to the Heart”. This phrase I will leave unexplained and should be answered by your whole being.  The emphasis should be on meditatively savoring these experiences and taking them and their fullest enjoyment deeply into your being and finally offering with reverence your full enjoyment and experience to the Shakti (or to your own most intimate concept of the Divine) in your heart center.  This combination of enjoyment and the sacred was indispensible for Abhinavagupta in order to experience the transformative effects of this practice and approach.


Lest you think that this merely ends in a reverent self-indulgence, the yogi is urged to seek out more and more challenging subjects and material that extend to material that the yogi doesn’t even particularly like and even to material and subjects that are repulsive or disturbing.  Using advanced dharanis such as khecari samata which is at the heart of Abhina’s Paratrishikavivarana, the yogi is urged to extend and to expand his awareness of Divine consciousness in all states in close union to the energies of life and experience.  But also I would add that while this approach may seem to undermine conventional ethics and morality, it does lead to a heightened sensitization rather than a desensitization of the subject, that develops a sense of empathy and develops a sense of compassion through enlarging the heart with Abhina’s concept of aesthetic response or sahrdaya that instills a sense that sees injustice and imbalance as deeply unaesthetic and that is moved to response in the manner of the limitless and creative means of the Bodhisattva as there is evidence that Abhina upheld the ideal of the bodhisattva in his works on aesthetics and by the unusual fact that he was schooled in Mahayana theory by a Buddhist guru.


While Abhina’s ideas were deeply imbued with the concepts of aesthetic response, they were also deeply non-dualistic that undermined traditional conventions of religion and spirituality that identified the sense of compartmentalization, separateness and hypocrisy of experience as spiritual or non-spiritual as the very cause of spiritual ignorance and bondage and as khecari  vaisamya or the disparateness or discontinuity of the khecari energy of Divine consciousness with the mundane, while khecari samata or sameness and continuity, a very difficult position to maintain, in his system leads to an alchemical transformation of the entire person and to liberation.


While today it seems we are more and more obsessed with physical health and simply by eliminating more and more things from our diets or exposure such as becoming “gluten free” we will be quaranteed of being physically liberated from innumerable conditions, Abhinavagupta believed that a full and varied diet of aesthetic and actual experience had positive effects of the physiology of the yogi.  I am moved by the story of Jaideva Singh’s translation of Abhinavagupta’s Paratrishika-Vivarana in his nineties as his last work of translation of Trika and of his conviction that it was the most profound work of Abhina and of the whole Trika tradition, and the fact that a scholar in his nineties translated openly and expounded on Abhina’s theories concerning sexuality and spirituality and almost placed it in an erotics of aesthetics and Gnostic realization. Just as his revisionist tantric theology undercut the effectiveness or validity of the dualistic asceticism of celibacy, he undercut the ayurvedic theory of virya as being narrowly defined by the puritanical emphasis on the retention of semen by redefining its vitalizing origins as not from the reduction of bodily fluids distilled into semen in the testicles but in a non-gendered approach to emphasize the alchemical vessel of transformation in the body in the spinal column that absorbs the energies from all sensual and mental experience and like an alchemical alembic distills the energy of the experience of all the senses and mind into ojas that is then transformed into the vivifying essence of virya  that is circulated throughout the body and is not specifically localized in the genitals.  This produces a circular distilling system that is responsible for the creation of energy in the body that as it is used produces more sensual and mental experiences that is further developed and used and which also in his interpretation leads physiologically to greater sensitivity and to the ability to be moved or become passionate by experience and aesthetics. This spinal alembic is also the site of Shakti within the human body as well as the site for kundalini. Abhinavagupta also believed that meditation had a cumulative effect on the yogi’s psyche but that it yielded better results in practice by alternating with enjoyment. A passage from Jaideva Singh’s translation of Abhinavagupta’s Paratrishika-Vivaran which he subtitled as The Secret of Tantric Mysticism is worth quoting in relation to the sahrdayata, “Engrossment in a profuse delight alone excites the seminal energy [virya] and that alone signifies a taste for beautiful things (sahrdayata). Excessive delight is possible only to those whose heart is expanded by seminal energy which has the boundless capacity to strengthen sensibility and which is established in them by repeated association with objects of enjoyment”. 


Where does this lead to, hopefully to an engaged aesthetic appreciation of life itself that is transformative and that leads through refinement and sensitivity to satisfaction, enlightened action and liberation.


I am only reminded of the last Tweet of the great late Mexican author Carlos Fuentes, “There must be something beyond slaughter and barbarism to support the existence of mankind and we must all help search for it”.


© Paul Smith, 2015

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