Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Levity and Levitation

In his closely observed life, Joseph of Copertino proved himself a mystic known for his frequent ecstasies and startling phenomena such as levitation. The friar appears as a giant counter-example to the one-dimensional metaphysics of physicalism.

But now for a moment let us shift the perspective and decon­struct the idea of levitation. There are less literal ways of looking at the phenomenon that also seem to speak to us. Surely there’s some­thing here of significance, beyond admiration and wonder. But what exactly? Are there threads of wisdom from Joseph’s otherworldly career we can weave into the mix of mundane life?

Joseph’s story exhibits something archetypal, 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. Was Joseph perhaps the herald of a new travel technology, des­tined to displace the car, the boat, the airplane? Or does that miss the mark?

Instead of technology, let’s for a moment think etymology: take the Latin word, levare, “to make light,” the root of two words, levi­tation and levity. In levitation, as we know from reports of Joseph and Teresa of Avila, there is the making light of physical bodies. But there’s also a less literal sense of “making light,” captured by the word levity. Here one “makes light” of things; but you do it figura­tively and mentally.

Is levity a subtle ally of levitation? Is there a wisdom of levity that corresponds to the showmanship of levitation? Could levity, an attitude of mind, alter the way we experience the world? 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?

“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, at the very least, to lighten the weight of suffering.

Are there ways of “making light” of the overbearing heaviness of being? Something comes to mind, very simple, very direct. Suppose we chose to incorporate the idea of “making light” into our diet: that is, how we eat, drink, and in general consume what we need from Mother Nature. Making light–conceived here as an existential strategy--could be a benefit to health: to our bodies, to the economy, to the environment. Suppose that by eating and drinking less, we got lighter--literally. We could count that as a kind of levitation. Low key, not flamboyant, but a step onward, It would be a new way to think about levitation and the incentive–as we say–to go on a diet. By the way, the broad sense of the old word diet went beyond food and drink. Diet in ancient Greek was your general life-style. How indeed are we to go about making our life-style lighter.

In thinking about levity as a way of living lightly, are there, for example, benefits in making light of our possessions? We don’t have to copy Joseph and throw our pillows in the dumpster! No sugges­tion here that we don hair shirts and become ascetics, but that we calmly 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. What if whole populations lightened up on their man­ufactured needs and rebelled against the commandments of their corporate overlords? In making light of our appetites, for example, we change our habits of consumption. If we could do that en masse– and come together with heroic focus--we could transform the world. We could eliminate the enemy by non-doing. The evils of corporate capitalism might wither away without having to lift a finger, no less pull a trigger.

Levity, I submit, can be 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 like-- the result of studiously holding all one’s beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices lightly. Levity, as cognitive lightener, would promote a virtue the world could use – unfanatical cheerfulness.

Living lightly, thinking lightly, taking things lightly converge to lighten perception and indeed consciousness itself. And the point of that? Well, shedding overweight beliefs and opinions, brushing aside the rabble of rowdy thoughts, we might gradually dismantle our cognitive filters and clean out the emotional deadweights. By levity we may learn to travel into some very high places; our feet, however, happily held fast by Earth.

I save for last another side of levity, another device to decon­struct–not destroy–the phenomenon of levitation. Levity, as we know, is related to the droll, the funny, the comical. Joseph’s com­rades found him droll and teased him and he joked and teased them back. Joseph joked about the Devil and nicknamed him Evilpocket, while mocking the length of his horns. 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. I felt like a child laughing at the jerky movements of a Jack in the Box.

Why laugh at the image of Joseph flying backwards? It seemed to cause a kind of spasm, a feeling of release and the sound of my laughter was the sound of my worldview exploding.

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