Tuesday, 9 July 2019

The Mind is its Own Place

Perhaps the best known quote from Paradise Lost runs like this. "The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven." I was familiar with this quote, though not in its context, and always assumed it to be a kind of Buddhist-like statement referring to the primacy of consciousness and how the truly spiritual person can be at peace wherever he is and whatever his external circumstances. It seems a wise saying of the sort that any advanced practitioner of meditation might come up with.

Imagine my surprise then when, in my recent reading of Paradise Lost, I found out who actually says these words. It is Satan. He has just landed in hell and it is clear that he speaks from a sense of bravado, not detached wisdom at all. This set me thinking and what I realised was that this statement, at first glance profound, is actually highly dubious. For what it is saying is that we don't need God. We can create heaven all by ourself, wherever we are, just by the power of our own mind. We are supreme. It is essentially a magical rather than a spiritual belief, relying as it does on the action of will and imagination with no moral aspect to it.

This struck me with particular force because so much modern spirituality is all to do with acquiring spiritual gifts by the force of our own will and desire. It is approaching the spiritual from the standpoint of the material personality or fallen self, trying to take from God rather than becoming a humble supplicant before him. But this was not what Christ taught and the notes in my copy of Paradise Lost, which come from an edition of 1898, make the following point. "These lines are always quoted as particularly Miltonic rather than diabolic in their sentiment; but no doctrine is taught more consistently in the poem than that disobedience to God causes misery, and that no stoicism can dispel from the wicked the feeling of wretchedness and despair. The Stoic doctrine, that the wise man is king of circumstances and perfect in himself is shown by Christ (in Paradise Regained book iv verses 300-308) to be the offspring of philosophic pride and delusion."

Here, then, is a classic example of a quote meaning almost the opposite of what it is taken to mean because it is used out of context. The idea that we, by ourselves, can become spiritual is clearly false but it is a deep-rooted one in the human psyche which wishes to acquire all the benefits of spiritual consciousness without fitting itself properly to receive that.

This quote also devalues heaven. If we only have to change our mental attitude in order to enter it then it is not something much better than what we already are. I am not saying we do not have to alter our mental attitude to become worthy of it but that is a different thing. Heaven is not created by our own mind (or consciousness if you prefer the term, it makes no odds). It is of God and he alone can grant right of entry.

None of this means that we should not work on our mind to make it a fit receptacle for heavenly inspiration or that we shouldn't attempt to cultivate the kind of inner detachment that is not affected by outer circumstances. That goes without saying. The mind truly is its own place and can certainly make the best or worst of any given situation. But it cannot make heaven. That is a popular New Age fallacy which derives from the egotistical notion that you can do without God or even are God yourself once you realise the fact. This idea is actually sinful because it replaces God with self. God may be in us but we are not God. No wonder this statement comes from the mouth of the devil.

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