Saturn Return

Al-wujūd: unveiling embodiment and reality through Saturn

Saturn through the mirror of being

Words Aaron Cheak, PhD

On the night that Saturn made his epoch-shifting ingress into the sign of Aquarius, I fell asleep reading Ibn ‘Arabi’s tale of mystical ascent through the seven planetary spheres, Kīmiyā al-Sa’āda, or Alchemy of Eudaimonia. Awakening within the world of dreams, I continued reading from a book very similar to the one I had fallen asleep reading. As I leaved through its pages, my attention was magnetically drawn to a very particular word. Regardless of whether I flipped forwards or backwards through the book, the same image hovered before my vision like the needle of a compass, the word al-wujūd.

Instinctively, my dream consciousness understood this as the Arabic word for “reality”. In the waking world, it is usually the word for “being”, “existence”, or “presence”. In Sufism, however, it is a precise term for the divine quality of reality that causes things to be. Like Saturn himself, wujūd is the reality principle par excellence.

In this article, I will enter the waters of wujūd and attempt to unveil what the Sufi concept of being means for our understanding of Saturn. Among other things, we will see that within the framework of Hermetic and Sufi cosmological concepts, Saturn emerges as the critical threshold between embodied existence and the divine nature of being-itself. Underneath his leaden exterior, Saturn hides the nature of gold.


The idea of wujūd as a reality principle is best understood theologically. Rather than arguing for the existence of god as a being (supreme or otherwise), wujūd posits that god is being-itself; the universal principle of being that all particular beings participate in. Without being-itself, no beings would be.

Within the context of his mystical philosophy, Ibn ‘Arabi’s ascent through the planetary spheres expresses the path of return to this primordial ground of being. This is only possible, for Ibn ‘Arabi, because all particular beings are in essence fundamentally united to the same primordial root of reality. In other words, because being-itself is necessary for all beings to be, we are inseparably bound not just to being-itself but also to all other beings.

This doctrine, known as the wahdat al-wujūd or “unity of being”, has formed the cornerstone of Sufi metaphysics since the thirteenth century. According to this doctrine, divinity is not encountered as a separate being but through the deepest essence of our own being. In effect, this encounter dissolves the duality between creature and creator, between human-being and divine-being, revealing them as one. For this reason, it remains one of Ibn ‘Arabi’s greatest and most controversial assertions.

Historically speaking, the philosophical wellsprings of wujūd flow from the very beginnings of western civilisation. It is the central theme of the fragments left to us by the Greek metaphysician, Parmenides of Elea, whose mystical poem, On Nature, describes a journey to the depths of the underworld. Here, beyond the gates of Hades, an unnamed goddess reveals the immortal “way of truth” (alētheia) as contrasted with the mortal “way of appearance” (doxa), making a fundamental distinction between the real (that which is) and the unreal (that which is not). At the core of the goddess’ teachings lies the imperative to complete the circuit of reality by connecting our own individual being to the divine nature of being-itself. In doing this, human perception becomes an instrument of divine self-perception.

Before it was adapted to express Greek ontological concepts, the word wujūd simply meant “finding”. As employed in Sufism, it assimilates both its basic meaning, “finding”, and its inherited meanings “being, existence, presence”. However, the sense of “finding” always remained immediate. For Ibn ‘Arabi, god is a “hidden treasure” who “desires to be found” and therefore creates beings in order to find himself.

Islamic Gnostics were called the “folk of finding” because, like their Greek counterparts, there was no need to “believe” in god because they knew god directly through immediate experiential knowledge (gnōsis). Like the Troubadours of the Middle Ages, for whom human love and divine love were intimately fused, they were not “seekers” of divinity, but literally finders (from Occitan trobador, “to find”). In each of these instances, finder and found, knower and known, lover and beloved are all ultimately found to be one.

Being and embodiment

In Hermetic, Neoplatonic and Sufi esoteric practices, the path of returning to reality (of knowing, finding and uniting with the one) was frequently depicted as a path of ascent through the planetary spheres. This ascent was specifically seen as a reversal of the soul’s descent into the realm of birth and embodiment (the sublunary world of classical cosmology) or “reality” as we know it.

Hermetic texts specify that when the soul descends into embodiment through the planetary spheres, it gains the vices and virtues of the seven planets as it does so. The path of liberation was accordingly conceived as an ascent through, out and beyond these same heavenly bonds. Saturn, as the highest planetary sphere in the classical septenary, thus takes on a twofold role. On one hand, as the outermost limit that encloses all earthly beings in the cycles of generation and corruption, he inaugurates the soul’s descent into embodiment. On the other hand, as the threshold between the planetary spheres and the boundless ocean of fixed stars beyond them, he is the final frontier on the soul’s liberation from planetary rule.
Certain Neoplatonic texts reinforce this picture by likening sublunary existence to a cave into which the soul descends upon embodiment. The entrance into this cave was associated with the Moon, while its exit was ruled by Saturn. Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, the reality that we take as real is merely a passing shadow of the true reality of the soul’s immortal origin. Moreover, we can only return to this reality when we emerge from the womb-like cave of sublunary existence and pass through the gate of Saturn.

The realm of embodiment itself, it should be clarified, is traditionally characterised as sublunary because it was under the rule of the lowest of the planetary spheres. Of all the planetary influences, the Moon is most intimately connected with birth into physical existence. Beyond the obvious maternal mysteries, the Moon is also the mistress of all that waxes and wanes on earth. The embodied soul, condensed into the lowest planetary realm, is ultimately subject to the cycles of perpetual impermanence; a dance of growth and decay forever fluctuating between birth and death.

In horoscopic astrology, a nativity typically hinges on the material birth of an individual and how their life unfolds within the sublunary world under the planetary powers of fate.

Hermetic, Neoplatonic and Sufi texts, by contrast, speak precisely of planetary ascent and are concerned less with the soul’s embodiment on earth under the forces of conditioned existence, and more with the soul’s rebirth into eternity through liberation from conditioned existence. This Hermetic imperative hinges on the realisation that, in the sublunary world, what is born under the Moon inevitably dies and, while knowledge of planetary cycles can certainly help us navigate our existence, the nature of this existence is inherently samsaric. Fate is fatal.

The alchemy of sublunary existence

Like the Buddhist truth of impermanence, a certain level of cosmic pessimism is necessary to wake us up to the reality of our spiritual task. Once awakened, however, the cosmos starts to look more promising. In a similar way, the spirituality of antiquity was pervaded by two basic views: the cosmos as a deceptive, corrupting prison from which the soul should be liberated; the cosmos as a positive, beneficent order into which the soul should be integrated. Hermetic and Neoplatonic tradition is heir to both views. Such attitudes reflect two different phases of one single ancient teaching designed to prepare the soul for the mysteries. To the extent that the soul reflects and perceives the cosmos according to the current composition of its own nature, it is either a limit to its freedom or a vehicle for its freedom.

As Parmenides teaches us, the phenomenal world of transient appearances conceals yet also reveals the path to eternity. From this perspective, the planetary instruments of fate that bind us to sublunary existence are also the instruments of our liberation. There is thus an alchemy of embodied existence by which we can engage the forces of fatality and transmute them into vehicles of immortality.

The details of this alchemy invite significant comparisons to the Indo-Tibetan kleshas, the afflictions, defilements or impurities that cloud the mindstream and congeal it into psychosomatic attachments that bind us to samsaric existence. In the Corpus Hermeticum, the specific qualities that the planets impart to the soul upon its descent into embodiment are described as follows:

Saturn — falsehood
• Jupiter — greed and aggrandisement
• Mars — reckless audacity
• Sun — ambition to dominate
• Venus — lust
• Mercury — malicious artifice
• Moon — physical growth and decay

Expressly pessimistic, these descriptions are best understood as the shadow aspects of the planets (ie. the qualities that exacerbate or perpetuate our psychosomatic attachment to sublunary existence). Moreover, as poisons or vices, they are specific inversions of the planetary virtues. On one hand, as poisons, they are the chains that bind us to birth and death. On the other hand, as medicines, they are the elixirs that restore our divine wholeness.
The process of transformation in ancient alchemy operated precisely by this principle of inversion (ekstrophē, turning something ‘inside-out’). An agent of transformation would penetrate into the innermost depths of a corrupt substance in order to reveal its hidden or interior virtue (aretē). It was not a matter of turning one thing into something else, but of revealing the ever-present virtue of a phenomenon from the midst of its vice. Like tantra, alchemy engages the world at its most corrupt in order to wrest from this condition its hidden light.

The important implication here is that alchemical perfection is not attained but unveiled. Like Michelangelo’s statue, its primordial perfection is not created but revealed by taking away. Traditionally defined as the art of “separating the pure from the impure”, alchemy, like wujūd, proceeds by unveiling what is.

Polishing the mirror

In Ibn ‘Arabi’s journey through the interior cosmos of his being, he receives the wisdom of each planetary divinity that he meets upon his way. Upon attaining the seventh sphere (the limit or threshold between mortal existence and immortal being) he meets Saturn. True to his nature, the knowledge of Saturn speaks directly to the function of the soul in the perception reality.

The soul, according to Saturn, is a mirror of being-itself. That is to say, the soul exists to reflect the light of being back to itself so that the divine can know itself through the vehicle of human consciousness. Conversely, through this mirror, human consciousness can know itself as a divine totality. In its natural condition, the mirror of the soul is flawless and reflects the full, pristine nature of reality. However, due to the soul’s descent into embodiment, the mirror of its being has become tarnished. Darkened by its planetary afflictions, its vision of reality is progressively dulled. When its primordial awareness is obscured, and the soul can no longer see itself, it becomes alienated from its own essence.
The soul’s path back to reality, back to its own nature, consists precisely in polishing the mirror. The most important spiritual praxis, therefore, is simply removing the “rust” of our nature so that it can effortlessly reflect what is. Sometimes, in the tumult of embodied existence, some of our tarnishes cannot be removed; these must be embraced and transformed into vehicles of beauty and transparency. In either case, once the stains are transfigured, the soul can receive the image of reality in the mirror of its own essence.

Saturn and Satya

As we have seen, each planet has its own particular tarnish to transform. With regards to Saturn, the “rust” that we are given to unveil is falsehood. When we dig beneath the surface of Saturn, we realise that his deepest nature is not dark and deceptive but transparent and true. This is somewhat implicit in the ancient system of planetary dignities, in which Saturn rules Capricorn and Aquarius — the two signs diametrically opposed to the domiciles of the Sun and the Moon. Here, the leaden planet opposes the celestial lights, which shine as silver through the waters of Cancer and as gold through the fires of the lion. This polarity between Saturn on one hand and the Sun and Moon on the other (together with their terrestrial associations with the lowest and highest of the metals) substantiates a deeper alchemical symbolism. Lead is not simply the opposite of gold, it is in many respects inverted gold. In the words of Jacob Böhme, “Pardise is locked inside Saturn.”

It is only when we turn to the ancient Indo-European concept of world ages that we begin to see how Saturn is connected not only to gold but to truth. In classical texts, Saturn was the lord of the mythic golden age. Characterised by peace, ease and abundance, Saturn’s rule enjoyed a perennial spring, and had no need for law due to the inherent justness of human nature. But when Saturn was deposed, nature fell divided into four seasons and humankind descended into a spiral of injustice. Humanity and civilisation slowly declined through the ages of silver, bronze, and iron. In stark contrast to Saturn’s golden rule, the Iron Age was divided by strife, toil and dishonour.

In the Indian version of this myth, the “golden age” was known as the Satya Yuga and was designated precisely by the term for being and truth. Satya has a wide range of meanings in Sanskrit, including “true, real, actual, genuine and pure”. But all of these meanings rest on the root sat-, which means “being, existing, present”, and is related to the basic Indo-European verb “to be”.

Just as the golden age fell into the strife of corruptible iron, so too does Satya succumb to Kali, the demon of suffering whose consort is “falsehood”. Like a mirror succumbing to rust, the true nature of Saturn becomes obscured by darkness and illusion. Even the oldest descriptions of Saturn in Greek and Sanskrit astrological texts emphasise severity, suffering and death. As such, they appear to reflect the fallen rather than the golden nature of Saturn.

In Vedic astrology, although Saturn generally partakes of the malefic qualities for which he is known in Hellenistic astrology, he nevertheless preserves one trait that speaks to his position at the threshold of truth and being. Wreathed in black, Śani (Saturn) presides over the ascetic who withdraws from the world of illusory appearances in order to retreat into the eternal and real. In this guise, Saturn represents the renunciation of the world of shifting phenomena for the world of unchanging truth. And he does so specifically through spiritual practices (sadhana) that cultivate the perception of the true and the real via ontological purification (ie. by rendering one’s very being transparent to being-itself).

Candles in the wind

Upon waking from the dream of Ibn ‘Arabi’s alchemical tome, I lit one of the candles on the windowsill next to my bed. As its flame bathed the bay of my window in a pool of amber light, the contours of a small electric candle appeared softly in its glow. It was midnight, and my being was still half-immersed in the dreams of illusion and reality from which I had just emerged. As I stared at the two candles — one cheap plastic and the other living fire — I realised that I was looking at a vivid instance of imitation and reality, falsehood and truth. At that moment, a very clear realisation came to me in simple yet profound words: everything that exists is a shadow of the light.

Underpinning this realisation, of course, is the Platonic view that reality as we know it, reality as it appears to us, is a shadow or reflection of the true nature of reality, and that light is essentially the primordial principle that causes things to appear and thus exist. All appearances, even these dark imitations, are thus secretly connected to light.

As I went to blow out the candle, I remembered that the word nirvana literally means “to blow out”, as in, “to extinguish”. Annihilation or extinguishing is the retraction of one’s inner being into the one, true principle of reality that substantiates all being. When we retract into this true reality, our illusions fall away, our false realities evaporate, and our transient identities dissolve. Forgoing false self for true self, we appear to disappear. In this invisible light, we fade to black, and become more real than we ever were.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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