Following the Princess - On the Magic of the Sensible World
Let me start by sharing a short kabbalistic story. I came across it while reading Moshe Idel's wonderful essay 'From Platonic to Hasidic Eros' in this anthology from 2001.
While still reading it a full download of insights and realisations hit me. Wether these are meaningful in my own subjective mind only, I do not know. They certainly reflect the way I like to look at the world. They reflect a love for understanding magic as something that can happen in any given moment; something that doesn't need to be controlled or coerced. They also taught me quite a few things I hadn't come across before.
“Thus we learn from one incident, written by R. Isaac of Acre, of blessed memory, who said that one day a princess came out of the bathhouse, and one of the idle people saw her and sighed a deep sigh and said: ‘Who would give me my wish, that I could do with her as I like!’ And the princess answered and said: ‘That shall come to pass in the graveyard, but not here.’
When he heard these words he rejoiced, for he thoughts that she meant for him to go to the graveyard to wait for her there, and that she would come to him and he would do with her as he wished. But she did not mean this, but wished to say that only there great and small, young and old, despised and honored - all are equal, but not here, so that it is not possible that one of the masses should approach her.
So that man rose and went to the graveyard and sat there, and he fixed the thought of his intellect to her, and always thought of her form. And because of his great longing for her, he removed his thoughts from everything sensual, but put them continually on the form of that woman and her beauty. Day and night, all the time, he sat there in the graveyard, there he ate and drank, and there he slept, for he said to himself: ‘If she does not come today, she will come tomorrow.’
This he did for many days, and because he separation of the objects of sensation, and the exclusive attachment of the thought of his soul to one object and his concentration and his total longing, his soul was separated from the sensibilia, including that woman herself, and it was united with God. And after a short time he cast off all sensibilia and he desired only Divine Intellect, and he became a perfect servant and holy man of God, so that his prayer was heard and his blessing was beneficial to all passerby, so that all the merchants and horsemen and footsoldiers who passed by came to him to receive his blessing, until his fame spread far about.
Thus far is the quotation as it concerns us. And he went on at length concerning the high spiritual level of this ascetic. And R. Isaac of Acre wrote there in his account of the deeds of the ascetics, that he who does not desire a woman is like a donkey, or even less than that one, the point being that from the objects of sensation one may apprehend the worship of God.”
(from a lost 14th century Kabbalistic book by R. Isaac ben Shmuel of Acre)
I don’t know more about R. Isaac of Acre than what is shared above. Yet, it seems he was a man who knew a great deal about the world of sensible things as well as the worship of the female divine. Strangely, it appears in subsequent decades and centuries this combination of wisdom drifted apart further and further. It certainly is hard to encounter these days: Looking at our magical community today the experience of the female divine often is replaced by courses on Tantra or abstracted by images of ancient goddesses which hardly relate to the everyday experiences of people in the West. The wisdom of the sensible things on the other hand seems lost even more radically - with doors locked and bolted by layers of untempered hedonism, consumption and materialism built up over centuries of practice in the West.
In times like ours such half-forgotten stories work like trails of breadcrumbs - allowing us to rediscover what we lost long ago. It is stories such as this one that preserve the most simple keys - not to magical techniques or arcane knowledge, but to something even more intimate: to a way of being present in the world that has almost been extinct. By following their trails, by meditating upon them and playfully experimenting with them, we might be able to bring their spirit back to life. To our own lives that is.
So let’s do a joint mediation on the story of the idle man and the princess. Where might its trail of breadcrumbs lead us to?
Well, I guess what stands out at first glance is the idle man doesn’t desire change, nor to become a wise man. All he really desires is the princess - and to do with her as he pleases. His motivation is as straight forward as it could be. Even in order to fulfill it he doesn’t make significant efforts. In fact he doesn’t do anything except for changing his physical location. Rather than sitting idle on the street-corner at the bathhouse he goes to the graveyard and sits amongst the gravestones. This is all the effort he makes; he follows the subjective lead of the princess and it leads him to change his location.
However, it is this change in location that changes the idle man’s experience. Sitting quietly in a busy high street is a very different thing from sitting in a remote place amongst the dead - all through the day, through dusk, night, dawn and so on. It is the graveyard that turns his senses from the outside in - without any effort or coerced will. The key to so many acts of magic is to be present in the right place. Once we arrive in that location to which our desires or fears have led us, truly wonderful things become possible. There is a strange, rarely spoken of power in being present in a certain place. The act of following our fate to lead us to such places and to allow them to transform us could be considered one of the almost forgotten forms of magic.
Still, what allows the idle man to transform himself so completely and quickly is not only the change of location. It is made possible through his simplemindedness. The idle man acts upon instinct, following his heart’s desire without thinking twice. Following our heart certainly doesn’t have to mean to pursue lofty or spiritual goals. For the idle man it means desiring the princess; nothing more or less. He doesn’t question wether she will keep her word and meet him at the graveyard. Not only does he follow her lead unquestioned, but he doesn’t even consider if he understood it correctly. He follows his gut instinct in absence of all other filters.
Here is the second thing we might take from this story: The idle man takes things for face value. He doesn’t differentiate between the vessel he desires and the substance it might contain. Outer appearance and inner being are one and the same for him... That’s why the idle man is safe from doubt. And it is this lack of doubt that gives him the strength and perseverance to sit through day and night with the image of the princess on his mind.
The reason why the idle man is successful in not only finding a place that holds the power to transform him, but in realising its potential, is because he keeps his journey simple. He accepts that the solution is right in front of him, trusting his senses, trusting the sensible world, one step at a time.
Over the course of my life I have seen and followed many princesses. Looking back I am deeply humbled by the places they have brought me to - and the power of transformation I experienced in them. In following my princesses I kept myself on a journey spanning across the better part of my adult life. The fact that very rarely did I get what I thought I would get, never bothered me at all. Following the princess’ lead was good enough for me; creating the necessary amount of perseverance, of not letting go, of staying on track was difficult enough. I was always happy I didn’t need to worry where this would lead me in the end.
Here is what I am learning from the idle man: Our desire for the princess is neither childish nor unnecessary. It is nothing to be ashamed of or to overcome, but exactly the trail of breadcrumbs to follow. The responsibility we hold in this process is to follow our path without bias or preconceived ideas about its results. Fears and desires will lead us to the places where we belong, one place at a time, one life after the other. I guess one of the biggest misunderstandings in mysticism is that we believe we have to work upon ourselves in order to transform ourselves. In so many cases this is not true. What we need to do most often is to follow the princess’ advise - and not to judge where it might lead us or what realistically might come from it.
Sure - by following the princess lead we will almost certainly not achieve what we believed we would. Not holding any preconceived ideas about what we might achieve, could be the only pitfall of this journey. At some point the idle man’s experience at the graveyard had become so fulfilling in itself, so intense and divine, that he was ready to let go of the image of the princess after all... What happened if stopped trying to transform our senses so they are naturally attuned to the divine or sublime? What happened if we allowed them to do what they do best naturally: to speak to us through smell and taste and sight and sound about all the princess’ leads that surround us.
According to Kabbalistic interpretation the physical realm is like a stage where everything is veiled in masks. In this particular case the Shekhinah chose to appear to the idle man in form of a mundane princess. Following her advise unquestioned the man is lead to the graveyard, "the nexus between burial and rebirth" (Moshe Idel, p.224) where his spiritual transformation takes place. The surprising turn of the story is that ultimately his hopes are fulfilled as he encounters the spiritual princess in the end. I guess, it is not for us to choose in which masks the Shekhinah appears to us?
“He who does not desire a woman is like a donkey, or even less than that one, the point being that from the objects of sensation one may apprehend the worship of God.”