Joy is feather light, but who can carry it?
Confucius and the Madman
In his closely observed life, Joseph of Copertino proved a mystic known for his frequent ecstasies and strange phenomena such as levitation. The friar appears in history as a multi-pronged counter-example to the reductive metaphysics of physicalism.
In this post, however, I want for a moment to deconstruct the idea of levitation. There are less literal ways of looking at the phenomenon. And they seem to speak to us more directly, perhaps in ways that might be useful. Surely there’s something here of significance -- but what exactly? The question is this: Are there threads of wisdom from Joseph’s otherworldly career that we can weave into the mix of mundane life and present realities?
Joseph seems to me to express something archetypal, call it the perennial dream of magical flight. Images of celestial ascent show up in art, in movies, in comic books; in our dreams, fantasies, religious mythologies; in science, sci-fi, and (very powerfully) in technology. From the Greek gods to Superman and modern space travel, images of transcendent flight haunt the collective imagination.
In our psyches, I believe, there is a spark, a propensity to cut loose from ordinary life and soar to parts unknown. One could phrase this situation in theological terms. However we name this spark or propensity, what can we do with it, as we drive onward into the 21st century? Was Joseph the herald of a new travel technology, destined to displace the car, the boat, and the airplane? Or does this crude fantasy totally miss the mark?
Instead of technology, let’s for a moment think etymology, in particular, of the Latin word, levare, ‘to make light’, the root of two words, levitation and levity. In levitation, as in reports of Joseph of Copertino and Teresa of Avila, there is the making light of physical bodies. For the moment, let’s lay aside that particular marvel. There is also a less literal sense of ‘making light’, captured by the word levity. Here one “makes light” of things but figuratively and mentally.
Could levity be a more subtle ally of levitation? Is there a wisdom of levity that corresponds to the showmanship of levitation? Could it be more important than levitation? Could levity, an attitude of mind, alter the way we experience the world? We might ask: Are all life’s problems as grave, heavy, and oppressive as they often appear to be? Or could we take our pains and pleasures, our failures and successes, a bit more lightly? It might not be a bad idea to work on that a little.
“Look upon the world as you would upon a bubble”, said the Buddha in the Way of Truth, “look upon it as a mirage.” Oppressed by the gravity of existence, an attitude that ‘makes light’ of things and sees their impermanence, promises to ease suffering and points toward liberation. Such was the way of the Buddha.
Are there ways of “making light” of the inevitable, overbearing heaviness of being? One thing that comes to mind is very simple, very direct. Suppose we decide to incorporate the idea of “making light” into our diet: that is, how we eat, drink, and consume what we need from Mother Nature. Making light – now an existential strategy -- could be a benefit to health: to our bodies, to the economy, to the whole environment. Suppose that by eating and drinking less, quite literally we got lighter. We could count that as a kind of levitation. What do you think? Low key, not flamboyant. But maybe a real step onward. It would be a new way to think about levitation and as well a new sort of incentive – as we say – to go on a diet. Lose weight and ‘levitate’: that could be our motto.
In thinking about levity as a way of living lightly, are there benefits to reap if we made light of our possessions? No, we don’t have to copy Joseph and throw our pillows in the dumpster! No suggestion here that we don hair shirts or become ascetics, but that we cultivate an attitude of non-clinging toward what we think are our possessions. Ownership, after all, is an illusion; even our bodies are on loan.
Come to think of it, levity -- making light of things -- has a subversive side. To entertain then a subversive reflection: what if whole populations lightened up on their corporately manufactured needs and decided to rebel against the consumer rationale of their capitalist overlords? In making light of our appetites, we would automatically change our habits of consumption. If we really did that en masse we could transform the world.
Musing like this on levity is bound to make some people uneasy. I suppose there are some things we dare not lighten up about, like money, power, and doubtless other things. At the risk of sounding over the top, levity, rightly understood and rightly practiced, could revolutionize the economic paradigm. By practicing levity in consumption, the corporate tyranny of our minds and bodies could be overthrown. Target mass efforts of levity toward specific rogue products, services, and companies, and the evils of corporate capitalism might wither away without anybody lifting a finger.
Levity, I submit, is a versatile ally in the war with the heavies of the great world. At its most daring, it can make light of existence itself! Call this enlightenment, if you will; the result of studiously holding one’s beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices lightly. And let’s add that levity, as cognitive lightener, would promote a virtue the world desperately needs – tolerance.
Living lightly, thinking lightly, taking things lightly converge to lighten perception and indeed consciousness itself. What would the value of this be? Shedding overweight beliefs and opinions, brushing aside the rabble of rowdy thoughts, we could gradually dismantle our cognitive filters and emotional deadweight. By means of this willfully refined levity we might learn to travel farther and higher than by mere levitation.
I have saved for last another side of levity, another device we might use to deconstruct our portentous friend, levitation. Levity, we must not forget, is related to the droll, the funny, the comical. Joseph’s comrades found him droll and liked to tease him and he liked to joke with and tease them back. Joseph joked about the Devil and nicknamed him Evilpocket, mocking the length of his horns. It is worth noting that he made light of the ‘Devil’ and showed no fear of ‘him’.
Blaise Cendrars and Norman Douglas who studied the friar’s phenomena and wrote about him were amazed but also amused. I laughed out loud reading for the first time about the friar’s zany flights and felt like a child laughing at the jerky movements of a Jack in the Box.
Why do I laugh at the image of Joseph flying backwards? It seems to cause in me a kind of spasm, a feeling of release from the tyranny of the impossible and the sound of my laughter is the sound of my worldview exploding.