“What does incarnation mean to you? What does it mean for you to be incarnate?”
A straightforward question, I suppose, posed to me by one of my spirits, yet one that is anything but straightforward for me to answer. I’ve been mulling over the question for over a week now, and coming up with any semblance of a coherent answer is challenging. I mean, by definition, incarnation is literally to be born in a physical body, right? Etymologically, it’s a Latin derivation, from in- plus caro “flesh”. We’re spirits having a material experience, to use the new age saying, but there’s so much more to it than that, isn’t there?
I’ve been mulling over the Hermetic canon a lot lately, and I suppose I could pull bits and pieces out from that about the role of the body and the relationship between the body and the soul, and why humans are born in bodies at all to begin with. There’s plenty in the Corpus Hermeticum and Stobaean Fragments and other parts of the Hermetic canon that talk about the fall of mankind in one sense or another, the proving-ground that is incarnate reality to obtain Mind and practice devotion and piety, how Fate affects the body but not the soul unless the soul permits it to affect it, and the like, but…something about that approach seems false to me to answer this question. It’s all informative, sure, but something about this question posed to me necessitates a more personal exploration that integrates that information into a real, substantial answer rather than just regurgitating what I can pick up or gleam uncritically from the old texts. It may not be enough to come up with a good answer, but maybe if I can come up with just an answer, it’ll be enough to start with.
I suppose that, in many ways, coincidence is more of a false myth than most of magic is: if things happen, they happen because something else happened, and there’s typically a reason for it happening. Sure, there are some things that just arise from the craziness of the world as a logical consequence of it, and at a shallow level we might call that “coincidence”, but as a magician/priest/spiritualist who believes that the whole of the cosmos is full of spirits, there’s always stuff happening at every level, and even if we humans—puny, fragile, expendable mortals that we are—can’t see all that deeply into the waters of the cosmos, that doesn’t mean there’s no root cause to something. So, it’s reasonable to me to think, then, that if something happens, there’s both a reason why and a cause by which it happened. It then follows that, because incarnation is something that happens, then it happens for a reason; because my incarnating into this body happened (and continuously happens, I suppose), it happened (and happens) for a reason. After all, consider the Mahābhārata or so many of the Hellenic myths of the gods taking on mortal form—incarnating, in one sense or another, especially in the Hindu myths of Viṣṇu where he’s literally born, lives, and dies as a god in mortal form, as well as the myth of Jesus being God incarnate. They all do so for a purpose, according to a plan executed through incarnation for some greater goal or aim. Granted, I’m no god, and I’m not nearly as aware as anything so grandiose to be attained by means of my own incarnation, but perhaps the logic can be extended: we’re born for a purpose, not as some chance and meaningless happenstance of the mechanics of the cosmos.
That we’re phrasing it as “incarnation” at all supposes that there are two elements here: an immaterial soul and a material body. Incarnation, then, is the inhabiting of the body by the soul—or some other aggregate of consciousness and awareness, depending on the system of belief and cosmology you’re looking at (like Buddhism, which professes anātman as there being no unchanging, permanent self/soul/essence in phenomena, which is why there’s generally only a notion of rebirth in Buddhism as opposed to reincarnation). As a Hermetist, I take the existence of the soul as a given, which means that for my soul to have been incarnated in this body, there should be a reason. So that means that there’s a purpose for my being incarnate in this world. Relevant bits and pieces from the Hermetic canon along these lines state things related to this that do inform something about this:
- (SH 2B) In order to live one’s life well, one should show devotion to God, which is the highest height of philosophy, and without philosophy, it is impossible to reach the heights of devotion. The goal of devotion, then, is to “know the place of truth and its nature”: to learn the “nature of reality, how it is ordered, by whom, and for what purpose”, for one who learns these things will show thanks to the Creator as “a good father, a kind provider, and a faithful administrator”, for one “who learns about its own Forefather holds fast to passionate love, forgets all its ills, and can no longer stand apart from the Good”. In doing so, one will “live well and die blessed”, since this informs the soul “of where it should wing its upward flight”; this is how one can attain the Good.
- (SH 6) It is impossible for someone incarnate to obtain the vision of God; it can only be done in a discarnate state, but in order to do so, one must “exercise one’s soul down here first to arrive up there where it can behold and not stray from the path”.
- (SH 18) Soul is composed four things: mind (Nous), reason (Logos), intellect, and discursive thought. Discursive thought itself is composed to opinion and sensation, but are changeable, and “experience excess, deficiency, and non-identity”; these alone vary and mislead, but when governed by discursive thought, they result in valid judgments about the world.
- (SH 19 and 20) Soul is inherently bodiless, and is the cause of existence of other things, i.e. the body, and so is prior to the body. Souls have reason and mind, which bodies do not have on their own, and endow a body with reason and mind by virtue of the soul within it, which provides it life. Souls receive such bodies as agree with the soul, although the body itself is tempered according to its nativity.
- (CH 3) As we noted before, the heavenly and divine powers “created every soul incarnate” to do eight things: to contemplate Heaven, to contemplate the paths of the heavenly gods, to contemplate the works of God, to contemplate the working of Nature, to examine the things that are good, to know the power of God, to know the whirling changes of fair and foul, and to discover every means of working skillfully with things that are good. This is in addition to the seven things that the gods bid us to do with our bodies: to know the works of God, to be a working witness to Nature, to increase the number of mankind, to master all things under Heaven, to know that which is Good, to increase by increasing, and to multiply by multiplying.
- (CH 4) God did not give mind (Nous) to all people (despite the wording of other parts of the Hermetic canon, but as we know, they’re neither held to be nor needed to be internally consistent as one’s progress on the “way of Hermes” advances), but “put [Nous] between souls…as a prize for them to contest”, daring/commanding humans to “immerse yourself in the mixing bowl [of Nous] if your heart has the strength, if it believes you will rise up again to the one who sent the mixing bowl below, if it recognizes the purpose of your coming to be”. Those who did, good; those who didn’t are considered to be “people of reason” (as opposed to people of reason and mind), and “do not know the purpose or the agents of their coming to be”. What that purpose of coming to be is not here specified, except in broader terms related to knowing God and creation in general, and seeking that knowledge is the Way. Consider that famous saying attributed to Socrates: “the unexamined life is not worth living”. To allow the soul to flourish means to divert attention away from the body; “unless you first hate your body…you cannot love yourself, but when you have loved yourself, you will possess mind, and if you have mind, you will also have a share in the way to learn”.
- (CH 10) The vice of the soul is ignorance, which makes the soul to be “shaken by the passions” of the body, making it a slave to the body, being ruled by the body instead of ruling it (which is proper); the virtue of the soul is knowledge. By pursuing and integrating knowledge, the quality of a human’s soul becomes more and more refined until it enters into the “troop of the gods”, which is the “soul’s most perfect glory”, enabling it to look on the beauty of the Good. This deification, however, which is “the changes that belong to any separated [i.e. discarnate refined] soul”, is not possible “while in a human body”. This is tied up in the “only deliverance” for humanity, “the knowledge of god”, which is equivalent to the “ascent to Olympus”. The soul tends to forget, which leads to its vice of ignorance, once the body drags the soul down to a material level, though before the body could do so, the soul was considered pristine and beautiful, closer to the very soul of the cosmos without being “sullied by the passions of the body”. The whole vehicle of this deliverance of the soul is mind (Nous), because “without mind, soul…can neither say nor accomplish anything”, yet mind “often flies out of soul” because the mind “cannot endure” in a “sluggish soul”, unlike the soul which can not only endure but is outright entrapped by a body.
- (CH 11) “To be ignorant of the divine is the ultimate vice”, for one who has “shut your soul up in the body and abase it” has nothing to do with God. “To be able to know, to will, and to hope is the straight and easy way leading to the good”.
- (Asclepius 12) “…this is the payment for those who live faithfully under God, who live attentively with the world. For the unfaithful it goes differently: return to heaven is denied them, and a vile migration unworthy of a holy soul puts them in other [lesser] bodies…it seems that souls run a great risk in this earthly life regarding hope of eternity to come.”
And on and on. The general idea from the Hermetic canon regarding the function of incarnation (if not its purpose) is to train the soul to become more fit to more fully understand, comprehend, and know God, and thus come to know ourselves more in the process, because knowledge is the virtue of the soul. But, if the soul is weighed down by the body, and if the soul is more pristine and more and closer to divinity when outside the body, and if the soul only becomes forgetful when bogged down by the body which leads it into ignorance which triggers a negative feedback loop upon the nature of the soul, then why should souls be incarnated at all? Why should we have been incarnated to begin with?
I should mention that most of the final Stobaean Fragments (SH 23—26), more commonly known as the Korē Kosmou or “Virgin of the World”, does touch on a “Hermetic” fall-of-mankind story, and I can see why it’s Hermetic, as anyone else can, given that Isis is considered to be a pupil of Hermēs Trismegistus and passes on his wisdom as interlocutor to her son Horus. But…so much of the Korē Kosmou is of a radically different tone, style, and framework that it’s hard to reconcile it cleanly with the rest of the Hermetic canon. Not to say that I discount it, but taking it in with the same level of gravity is…a little awkward at best for me, especially given how far it departs or how much it conflicts with other Hermetic accounts of cosmogony and how much it personalizes God in a way that the rest of the Hermetic corpus doesn’t.
But there is certainly a fall-of-mankind story even in the usual Hermetic texts, not least of which is in Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum. The general notion, starting from there and following the rest of the ideas throughout the Hermetic canon (Korē Kosmou excepted, I suppose) goes like this:
- God makes the cosmos, within which is the material realm of the world.
- God makes the ideal humanity (soul) within the cosmos.
- The ideal humanity beholds the world, and the world beholds the ideal humanity.
- The gods and/or the world makes the material humanity (body).
- The ideal humanity enters the world via the vessels of material humanity, becoming embodied as incarnate souls in the process.
- Once embodied, some souls remember their divine origin and focus on divine existence, and some souls forget it and focus instead on embodied existence.
- At the time of death (the dissolution of the body and the retreat of the soul from it), the souls who remember their divine origin leave the world behind and return to their divine origin, but the souls who do forget their divine origin suffer death and incarnation over and over, as if embodiment were an addiction to them.
- What causes forgetfulness is the divine mind of the soul which ascends being fought against down by the drive and desire of the soul which descends, which necessarily arise as a result of the embodiment of the soul. The ascending portion of the soul, if it conquers the descending portion, free themselves; otherwise, the soul is reincarnated.
Whether this is my first incarnation or my thousand-and-first incarnation, it would seem that I fell down (or came down) to Earth and, while that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, and while (despite nothing in the world being good or true, as Hermēs says, which is a pessimistic-dualist view that doesn’t hold throughout all the Hermetic texts) this world is full of pleasures to enjoy and works to do, staying down here in a way that traps me here is what I should be trying to avoid or escape through philosophy (which “depends only on reverence for god” and is “to adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good)”, according to Asclepius 14). And it’s my incarnation that better allows me to experience the world and more fully know the creation of the Creator, which would not otherwise be possible had my soul not decided to come on down to the world.
So, what I consider to be myself is really two parts: my soul, and my body, which exist together in incarnation, with the soul being technically independent (though weighed down by the body, at least temporarily) of the body and, yet, as many Hermetic texts say, the body being completely reliant on the soul. There’s a tension, then, between the soul and the body, and if if the essential “me” is—properly speaking—my soul, then I need to consider the relationship between my soul and my body. Bearing in mind the notion of reincarnation as a failed attempt at the soul remaining independent and in control of the body, if this is my first incarnation, then what are the risks that this specific body poses to my soul in this life? And if this is not my first incarnation, then what were the addictions I had in past lives that caused me to reincarnate, and how do those affect this life, along with the risks presented in this current life?
My natal horoscope has quite a bit of Earth in it: ascendant and Part of Fortune in Taurus, Moon and Venus in Virgo, midheaven in Capricorn. Although my Sun is in Libra, my chart is dominated by Earth, and I do resonate fairly well with materialization and embodiment. It’s also, as I see it, one of the causes (if not a reason, necessarily) why trance work, dream work, and astral projection-type states of consciousness have always been so difficult for me; while Fr. RO in his Red Work Course recommends doing the White Work (largely consisting of a daily practice of the Headless Rite to come in contact with the Supernatural Assistant) in the astral temple, I did it in my physical temple, because I found that I was naturally more able to focus and draw down those powers into my body rather than have to focus and split my attention on maintaining a presence in the astral (which was really more like mental/imaginal projection more than astral projection proper, to me). Although lately I’ve been making real gains in dream work, most of my actual work is done while conscious in the body and in the material realm. This is, perhaps, counter to some of the visionary experiences demonstrated in the Hermetic canon (cf. Book I, “when…my thinking soared high and my bodily senses were restrained, like someone heavy with sleep from eating or too much toil of the body”), and although I’ve been able to make do and get far, I admit that I know I’ve been missing out on a large portion of possibility and avenues for advancement along my path by neglecting the visionary, astral, dream, and trance aspects of spiritual practice. To an extent, I have to compensate for a lack of ability in one area by doing more in another area—not all people are going to be good at all things, of course—but since so much of the spiritual focus in the Hermetic Way is getting used to getting by without the distractions of the body, it still points out a gap in my practice and skillset. Figuring out what works for me and what can work for me, and what work I need to do to get it to work, is something I would definitely think would be on the docket for me in this incarnation as a whole. After all, with my North Node in Pisces, this shows a definite departure from a purely embodied manner of living into a more dissolved, loose, spiritual manner. And therein lies the challenge, of course, perhaps more for me than for others who might not have such a horoscope.
This isn’t to be a fatalist about my life and incarnation, of course—except in the sense of Fate expounded by Hermetic texts, that Fate rules the body and cannot be escaped, because the body is formed by the very powers of Fate. Even then, though, Fate does not absolve us of our obligations or responsibilities, since the soul always has the power to choose, because the soul comes from a place above and beyond Fate, and thus is not subject to it. Yet, because the embodied soul is wrapped up in a material vessel which is subject to Fate, and because the body struggles with the soul for dominance, the soul can be impacted by Fate; thus, the soul can be impelled, but not compelled, to behave in a certain way by Fate. It just means that my soul is in this body, for better or worse, and I need to learn how to adapt my choices to make the best use of this body while I have it, instead of letting my body make use of my soul according to how and what it wants. A challenge, to be sure, but not an insurmountable one—and even if it is, could I really not face it or even attempt to? There are always lessons in failures, after all; maybe one day I’ll be wise on that front, one way or another.
I feel like I’m going in circles with this topic—but isn’t that appropriate, too? Life here is cyclic: birth, death, rebirth, redeath, rerebirth, reredeath: ad nauseam, perhaps, but not ad inifinitum. The planets whirl about the heavens in their cycles, as do all the fixed stars together as one, but the planets and stars are immortal and, thus, it’s right and proper for them to go about doing so. Not so for us; bodies and life down here, perhaps, may well be endless as far as life can be sustained (before the Restart described in the Asclepius, at least), but our souls don’t properly belong here. Rather, as Book I of the Corpus Hermeticum says, once our souls are “stripped of the [fate-related planetary and stellar] effects of the cosmic framework, the [ideal] human enters the region of the ogdoad [i.e. the sphere of the fixed stars]; he has his own proper power, and along with the blessed he hymns the father”. It’s our goal and destiny to break the cycle of incarnation through gnosis and spiritual development and rise up to our proper places above the realm of Fate, at which point:
…Those present there rejoice together in [the ascended human’s] presence, and, having become like his companions, he also hears certain powers that exist beyond the ogdoadic region and hymn god with sweet voice. They rise up to the father in order and surrender themselves to the powers, and, having become powers, they enter into god. This is the final good for those who have received knowledge: to be made god.
So where do we break the cycle? Can the cycle be broken, for as long as there is human life? That would mean that there would be humans born without souls—but is that even possible? Although some parts of the Hermetica suggest that humans can’t devolve or change, other parts do say just that, in a very Hindu-like sort of grading where lower forms of souls develop through life into higher forms and are reincarnated into higher forms, as animals into humans, or vice versa if the life was ill-lived. This might also then mean that the whole race of humanity is a proving ground for all the souls not given immortal forms in the cosmos, in a very Buddhist-like sense, at that. But the only way to break the cycle, then, is to know the cycle fully. This does echo the various goals for humanity that Book III decrees, both for the body and the soul of the human: through contemplation of the various creatures of Creation, one arrives at knowledge of ourselves, and having arrived at knowledge of ourselves, one uses that knowledge to know God, and in knowing God, we ultimately become God. Life and the orbits of the fixed and wandering stars may be cyclical, but for us, it’s an expanding cycle—a spiral. We start where we are, right here and right now, and we end at the limit of God, and just as God is an infinite circle whose circumference is nowhere and whose center is everywhere…well, quite a few concepts break down once you throw infinity into the mix, doesn’t it? There is a terminus, that we can see, but perhaps it’s the spiral beyond that terminus in the infinite infinity of God that we truly can’t.
Every point in a cycle can be considered a beginning and an end, and I guess I find myself pretty much back where I started from. But so long as the experience of that cycle is maintained, the path to be walked in the future is not quite like the path to be walked in the past, and then the cycle becomes a spiral, hitting the same angles from where you started but at a different distance from where you started. I don’t have a good answer to the question of what incarnation means, but perhaps, in thinking about it, I may have the beginnings of an answer to the question of how to find out that meaning. Every life lived, and every life that we live, gives us that chance, after all. Incarnation, then, becomes a way to learn what cannot otherwise be learned, but more than that, a way to earn what cannot otherwise be earned. If God put the mixing-bowl of Nous down as a prize set between souls that strive for it, then while we might think of this as a trial, it might also be a requirement instead; perhaps it could just as easily be said that God put the mixing-bowl of Nous down amidst incarnate humans because discarnate humans cannot receive Nous; there must be some quality about incarnation that allows us to receive, use, train, and develop Nous that cannot otherwise be simply given from the get-go outside of incarnation as a matter of divine Necessity. After all, God does not make things in vain, so if God made the world we know composed of elements and bodies what with the Logos descending upon it all, then this material creation has a purpose and a function. It may well be that this world was made explicitly to complete the process of completing humanity through-and-through.
But the only way to learn that is to, well…to learn, to contemplate, and to know. Thus our lives—thus my life. As Socrates is supposed to have said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, because otherwise what would be the point of it all if you never bothered to learn about your life? It would make the whole experience a waste from the proper soul’s point of view, bodily pleasures be damned. By all means, enjoy the body, but be cognizant of what it’s going through, appreciate what’s happening at every step of the way, and why. Contemplate pleasure, just as one might contemplate pain, because it’s knowing “the whirling changes of fair and foul” that our souls are commissioned to do.
Maybe the question is a trick; maybe looking for the meaning of incarnation is like looking for happiness, where you don’t find happiness when you look for it but you find it when you look for something you want. If that’s the case, then the meaning of incarnation arises when I find everything else I should be looking for. And there’s quite a lot to look for—and to look forward to.