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a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Section 1: What Am I?

William Bishop

William Bishop
The Primal Paradox: The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life

“I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.”

This is the exuberant way Walt Whitman opens his poem “Song of Myself”. It is almost as if Whitman, in speaking of atoms shared in common, is leaping ahead of himself to the age of quantum mechanics where particle interconnection seems undeniable, and where a self could be seen as a movement or a moment within an over-all moment or movement.
Such a poem arises from a state of well-being, if not ecstasy. Had Whitman felt ill his thoughts would have been different, assuming he would have wished to voice them. The sentiments of cosmic universalism contained in this poem also appear to emerge from the fact that Whitman transcends his small personality as Walt Whitman so that “myself” becomes more like a pure center of perception and consciousness and feeling. Instead of being distanced from the world by his personality, he is therefore able to connect with his whole environment. The poem seems to arise from a mystical experience of oneness, transcending the personality but concerning the deeper identity of the self. Myself as I and that as other, are no longer experienced as separate and in opposition but connected at the deepest level of self. The experience is I am that.
But what is this deeper level of self? It’s where self can be understood as a verb rather than a noun. It is active and not to be pinned down to a static entity. If an active universal creative impulse initiated the cosmos out of a state of Being, there is a connection through this creative Being to the “myself” of Walt Whitman. The living quality of Being determines that the “I” becomes a living soul where the individual “I” finds connection with the universal I am. New testament scripture characterizes this particularly well: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Now the vine is something living, a tree of life, and the branches gain their living quality from connection to the vine.
What exactly is this identity between individual self (branches) and universal self (vine)? What essentially is myself? Although characteristics can be documented, it does look like the I as an actual identity is active, a verb, and cannot be fixed in place merely by means of characteristics. It is living and real.
In sacred Western cosmology, unity characterized primal Being before the beginning, but with creation came the two and the many. Even so, the single self of Being could be intuited as multiplying while remaining one. Fast forward to today and the concept of the human self, with some seven billion plus individual selves in the world, and the primal paradox rises into view. Self-consciousness is defined by awareness of separation, though it still remains possible to be in unity with the flow of the world and cosmos. If self-consciousness finds a balance with unity then the tension within primal paradox seems to recede or even dissolve. Apparent independence is maintained within a greater unity. Here lies the root of the primal paradox: separation within connection. The difficulty is that what is separate can only maintain and magnify its separate identity at the expense of awareness of connection to the whole.
The sense of separateness is emphasized when the conscious self takes the onlooker stance: self-consciousness splitting unity into subject and object, I and it. Arguably, in earlier times, times preceding the ancient Greek culture when self-conscious development became evident, the sense of unity with the whole was maintained by means of a participatory consciousness where there was little feeling of a personal self—an I—to intervene, and where the individual person felt identity with the group and unity with the external world. The analogy here is with the very young child before developing self-consciousness—the I—at around the age of three. Onlooker consciousness, which is our contemporary norm, tends to magnify the sense of separateness, and yet it is still possible to release oneself from this holding position.
There are a number of ways of achieving this release. One involves taking a holistic view, employing the methods of phenomenology and cognition by means of feeling, intuition and the exercise of the faculty of imagination. This was an approach pioneered by Goethe who, surprisingly enough, considered his activities as a natural scientist more important than his prodigious literary output. This approach tries to suspend intellectual judgment while feeling one’s way into the phenomena. It is a highly artistic method in contrast to the analytic intellectual approach favored by normative science. Thinking is involved but in the living form of feeling and imagery which seeks to connect to the living quality within the phenomenon. This is where the significance lies: it is a method that tries to connect the vitality within the subject with the living quality in the object. This can be understood as prioritizing the right lobe of the brain (immediacy) over the left (analysis into a fixed, deadened, form).
While the great scientific enterprise fuelled by the dominant analytical left-brain has achieved incredible results, it seems likely to lead to devastating results for humanity. An alternative scientific approach, with its sensitivity to the qualities of living forces, has thus far been overshadowed and even overlooked, though it offers solutions to knowledge at a holistic level.
Finally the primal paradox—the contradiction of being a separate self and yet wholly connected to an outside world—is a question of knowledge: epistemology. What appears to be a paradox at one level of understanding is not a paradox when seen from within a different context. For example, in Vedic ontology the “I” of Atman is comprehended as identical with the encompassing “that” of Brahman. Multiple identities derive from the One while retaining identity with it. I am separate as an entity and yet part of the whole. I am a nodule within the flow where the flow is primal, and I am contingent within its enablement. There is no contradiction: difference requires underlying identity—I/thou, I/we, I/all that. The solution to the apparent contradiction of the primal paradox lies at the source and origin where the One becomes multiple.
There is a sense in which the I only exists when it is in action (even if the action is in thinking) and doesn’t exist as a thing. It is this being-quality that gives connection with what lives beyond its own boundaries as a human being. The difference between this I as myself in being and the thingness of myself is brought out in a comparison of a living person with its corpse. The difference is the being of the I. The corpse emphasizes the absence of that being, but even in the living person that being is hard to pin down. Rather it is easier for another living person to sense through its own qualities the quality of another being.
The images of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life are key here. Knowledge requires distancing of the subject from the content of knowledge, while the Tree of Life is concerned with the vitalizing dimension in its endeavor to make connections. Arguably, we have the fruit or the roots of these trees in our brain as the left and right lobe delicately connected to each other. Civilization in the West appears to have over-emphasized the Tree of Knowledge during the last few hundred years at the expense of the living dimension of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Knowledge and Life need each other; for, knowledge without life is dead and life without knowledge lacks meaning. It is as if knowledge and life are two separate worlds that meet but not always on equal terms within our world. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is obviously generated from the life sphere where it seems that knowledge has been patched in as the life-energy progressed.
It is deeply important here to recognize that life itself operates on the basis of opposites, which energize each other by their opposition. Seeing from the perspective of the Tree of Life allows us to recognize the essential unity in these oppositions. But seen only through the eye of the Tree of Knowledge these oppositions appear contradictory or even paradoxical. This is something acknowledged in Hegel’s philosophy which grew from the roots of the Romantic Movement in late 18th century Europe.
The Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida moved to dissolve the primal paradox by combining Western philosophy with Zen to reveal that the subject-object split can be bridged by living experience. It is this living dimension that I am trying so hard to express but which so easily escapes the fixity of language. Indeed along the main highway of contemporary science, life still remains a great mystery and seems to be better explored by poets, artists and even some philosophers and by practitioners of spiritual paths. The great paradox remaining today, though, is the continuation in separate gardens of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life when the common bond between them needs only to be acknowledged and employed in both the pursuit of knowledge and life.
Recognizing that I am is in the I, or that I is in I am, is not sufficient as a conceptual insight to make any consequential difference. For difference to happen there has to come a recognition, at the living level, perhaps equivalent to a mystical experience of union to get a person writing poetry such as “Song of Myself”. Breaking through the barrier of the primal paradox as a contradiction may be the next move that humanity needs to make if survival is to become more than a brave old world of manipulation and illusion. It takes a heart to cognize the part in the whole and the heart in the whole, which includes the part. For the intellect the primal paradox is a problem; but for the heart it is a generative tension with which it can live, and in a sense, by which it lives.
William Bishop has been managing editor of Inscape, a quarterly black & white magazine for ‘personal work’ in photography, since 1991. Other interests include philosophy, music, art, photography, writing, the perennial philosophy, the esoteric tradition, and spiritual science of Rudolf Steiner. Publications relating to these interests, including poetry, are available at The Inscape website is


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