Substantiality is Inversely Proportional to Ponderability

Posted on 31 July 2006


Closely related to the topic of the earlier post on universals and particulars is an important philosophical insight in the mystical unfoldment of Franklin Merrell-Wolff, i.e., the aphorism “Substantiality is inversely proportional to ponderability.” Below is a brief discussion of this aphorism, followed by an example of what it might mean in our own experience.

The insight behind this aphorism came in late July, 1936, about two weeks prior to Wolff’s fundamental Realization. Prior to this insight, Wolff experienced certain logical difficulties reconciling Transcendent Being with the physical universe. These difficulties arise from the habit of regarding objects of consciousness, i.e., any appearance in consciousness that we can ponder or experience, as in some sense substantial. Although Wolff had a prior intellectual conviction that the Transcendent Being was more substantial, the intellectual idea alone had failed to have a powerful transformative effect on his consciousness. This insight, however, had a profound effect on his consciousness that served to clear the way for the fundamental breakthrough that would follow in a matter of days.

Wolff formally expressed the insight with the following proposition: “Substantiality is inversely proportional to ponderability”. In other words, the degree of true substance or reality is the inverse or opposite of the degree of ponderability. Thus, concrete objects of experience, which have a high degree of ponderability, are the least substantial. Subtle or abstract objects of experience, on the other hand, which are less ponderable, partake of a higher degree of substantiality and reality. The effect of this insight upon Wolff was a far more effective acceptance of substantial reality where the senses reported emptiness, and a greater capacity to realize unreality, or merely dependent or derivative reality, in the material given through the senses. This insight brought about a more profound shift of identification with the transcendent supersensible reality, and a correspondingly profound detachment from the objects of consciousness. This shift was decisive in clearing the way for the fundamental realizations that were to follow.

This aphorism is not a merely speculative philosophical idea, but expresses an insight from direct experience. To illustrate with an example, if we look up in the sky and see a cloud, normal relative consciousness habitually posits this ponderable cloud as an object “out there”. Thus, the cloud seems to be “given” to us as a real, substantial object separate from us. This objectification is not normally a conscious process, so we are consequently in bondage to this mode of subject-object experience. This mode of experience might be expressed by saying that substantiality is directly proportional to ponderability, since what is substantial seems to be what is objectifiable. Wolff’s philosophical inquiry convinced him intellectually that this is not the case, but that it is actually what is non-objective that is more real or substantial. Yet that intellectual understanding did not free him from the deep-seated mode of subject-object experience.

Now, to return to the cloud, if we become conscious of this process of objectification through sufficiently deep meditative insight, we may then “see” the cloud nakedly in the absence of that objectification. Strictly speaking there is then no seer nor seen, but just pure seeing. Although the cloud as an object is absent (or at least not in the foreground of awareness), yet the naked perceptual appearance of the “cloud” in consciousness does not disappear. It is a mere appearance that is not other than the very seeing. This insight reveals that the object was not substantial but was a mere act of imagination superimposed upon the pure awareness that is realized as identical with the pure appearance. Thus, the true substantiality is revealed only when the ponderability or objectification is absent. Hence, “substantiality is inversely proportional to ponderability.” A hint of this is experienced by most of us when beholding the clouds of a beautiful sunset. The more beauty we experience, the less we are objectifying the clouds as “out there”. You can experiment with this next time you see a beautiful sunset. When you have a sense of beauty, make a conscious effort to see the clouds as objects: judge how far away they are, where one ends and the other begins, etc. This will veil the sense of their beauty. But if that objectification is surrendered and one relaxes into contemplation of the beauty of the scene, then one is closer to resting in what is truly substantial: they beauty and glory of pure consciousness without an object.

(Originally written 30 Nov. 2003)

(If you liked this post, you might also enjoy my article The Heart of Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s Philosophy.)