Hanging in There

“What matters above all else is the attitude we take towards suffering, the attitude in which we take our suffering upon ourselves. … man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.”
Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

 

I feel beat up by the future.
I know the ecological sciences as well as I know anything, still when I encounter a blunt articulation of our ecological future by someone I trust, such as the one published last week by Michael Greer, it comes as a body blow. The tragedy of die-off is something my mind cannot really grasp but my body seems to respond to. I am old enough that the fear of nuclear war once saturate my body. There was a time it joined all the other fears I had about the future, including my own mortality, and simply became unbearable. I learned the hard way there is just no room for that much fear.

We are so enamored with our conceptual minds it is rare to quite them down enough to feel what the body is actually experiencing but when we do we find it has a wisdom all its own, a wisdom not couched in conceptual thought but more raw and direct. It is a wisdom of, shall we say, our genetics perceiving time and space events through us. Right now the body message throughout the world includes all those aspects of pollution we have been discussing, both mental and physical. It picks up the poisons in the physical world of elemental air, water and food even as it processes the hubris, greed and selfishness of the corporation dominated social world. Within its nervous system it is not fooled by the ceaseless chatter of the ego’s shallow thoughts.

Our bodies are strange to us. They are subjective matter in its most paradoxical form and one in which we have a very personal stake. At some level each of us cannot ignore the mystery of thinking meat. It is the only material object we can access from the inside. When we pierce this experience with our awareness as far as it is possible to go what we find is that the element of subjective awareness is more fundamental to its experience then the abstractions of mind and matter in complete isolation to one another. This was Bishop Berkeley’s great insight, that experience is primary.

“Each of us has this inner knowledge of only one such body, and it is by virtue of this that we are individuals. This material object here, and this one alone, I can know with a direct, non-sensory, non-intellectual knowledge from within: everything else in the universe I can know only from without, via the representations of sense and intellect, which are themselves functions of physical organs which are parts of this body of mine – which means that my knowledge of all other bodies is gained from the standpoint of this one and its position in time and space. This individuation, and the fact that all knowing is only for an individual (not to mention the fact that there is a dichotomy between knowing and being, such that we do not even know what we are) – these things lie very near the heart of life’s mystery. ‘Everyone can be only one thing, whereas he can know everything else, and it is this very limitation that really creates the need for philosophy.'”
Bryan Magee, The Philosophy of Schopenhauer quoting from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation

We fear suffering. You do. I do. If the most precious thing in all the universe, say the one and only son of God if your metaphysical predilections run that way, were to also need to suffer, would that make bearing your own cross a bit easier? For centuries peoples of the west believed it did. Our grandmothers and grandfathers looked to a corpus on a cross and found therein some measure of strength and solace. Why?

I submit it is because the body in crucifixion is experiencing suffering that has a purpose. In the context of the metaphysic in which the crucifixion takes place that act is understood to be a necessary one; Christ died to save sinners, or as I would put it, to save the ignorant from needing to act out the existential facts being revealed in quite so dramatically bloody fashion. The act became a metaphor, a spiritual signal.

Life entails suffering; this is the truth, the first ennobling truth. There is no escaping it, try as we might. It is easy for awareness to go shooting off to the stars when things get to be too much. It is a sign of spiritual maturity to be able to stay with pain, to hang on the cross with both eyes open. As creatures evolved to seek pleasure and avoid pain, powerful scripts within drive us to desperately seek a final solution to the problem of pain; a final answer to the riddle of an existence capable of the sweetest heights of love and wonder yet so susceptible to devastating heartbreak. What the wisdom traditions offer us, if we are willing to accept their teaching, is that even the most excruciating pain imaginable is bearable if it has meaning, if it will help someone else.

It might be easy to characterize our Prozac Nation as one in which we expect a pill for everything; a quick fix for all depression and sadness to get us right back on that shiny tinsel path of consumer lifestyles but I don’t read the data that way. I think our Prozac Nation is suffering an immense lack of meaning. Having achieved a certain minimum required for our physical and social well-being we failed to learn and teach a culture of contentment. The nonstop messages of malcontent – your not quite rich enough, famous enough, powerful enough, smart enough, good enough, handsome or beautiful enough – have left us psychically hollow. In pursuit of goals of self-fulfillment we have lost touch with the power of self-transcendence; we no longer find it easy to live for something or someone greater than ourselves.

Viktor Frankl survived the death camps of World War II only to find out when set free by the allies that most of his family had been killed. He went on to reflect upon his experience in the camps, particularly what separated those who found a will to live from those who could not in such circumstances. He developed his observations into a psychological healing modality known as logotherapy: logos less like the Word of Christian theology (Dr. Frankl was Jewish) but more as the ancient Greeks used the term to indicate that which is ordered and rational, in a word, meaningful.

In his most well known work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he relays the following story which both resonates very deeply with me personally and also captures the essence of logotherapy. An elderly man lost his beloved wife some years earlier. He was still struggling every day to make it without her presence. Dr. Frankl asked him how she would feel if he had died first, to which the elderly man quickly replied, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered.” So, Dr. Frankl pointed out, “such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her.” The man, Frankl reports, silently shook his hand and calmly left. Nothing had changed: his wife was still dead, the house still empty, but a measure of something greater than suffering had been revealed, changing the elderly man’s attitude.

What Viktor Frankl proposed was that human beings have a will to meaning as powerful as our will to survive. We have a deep desire to believe our lives have purpose. The wasteland of consumerism pretends owning things is meaningful in itself, as a sort of last ditch effort to deal with the modernity in which, as Frankl noted, “No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition [any longer] tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do.”

When the will to meaning is thwarted it can become a will to power as Nietzsche and Aldrian psychology teach, including its most primitive form, the will for money. Another possibility when the will to meaning is thwarted is the Freudian will to pleasure. This is why sexual escapades so often accompany bouts with this “existential vacuum.” This “existential vacuum” is also known as the Sunday neurosis or holiday blues that hit us when the business of the week recedes and we are left staring at the lack of meaningful content in our lives. Frankl saw juvenile delinquency and alcoholism as reactions to this vacuum and I would add those sensitive to the ecological message of the times are also at risk of experiencing similar needs to numb or lash out if their lives are not physically embodying some form of fight against the ongoing poisoning and a nurturance of healing for the earth herself.

This week I am going to give the last word to Antero Alli, author of Angel Tech. In an earlier post I shared the cover of this book as an illustration of the robot and the angel which can be a useful metaphor for teaching us to recognize all the people we encounter are the walking wounded. While I would not recommend the book for everyone, it is more like an Rx that if you need it you have already likely been given it, the heart of it consists of a set of sermons given to ‘souls in Chapel Perilous’ which capture some of what is involved in the western esoteric traditions when the rubber hits the road. The last sermon deals with the crucifixion metaphor but before we can appreciate what he has to teach it is important to recall what the robot is all about.

The robot stands for the character armor with which our egos build their defensive walls. It consists of habitual tensions in our muscle systems and other rigidities within our physiology. The child abused badly enough, for example, does not have the soft flexibility required to accept love from others because the canalizations of imprints have left scars throughout the body / mind complex. But there is another aspect to the robot metaphor that speaks to the intellectual tenor of our times which Frankl has expressed well:

“First of all, there is a danger inherent in the teaching of man’s ‘nothingbutness,’ the theory that man is nothing but the result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment. Such a view of man makes him a robot, not a human being.
To be sure, a human being is a finite being, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but freedom to take a stand toward the conditions.”

Snippets overheard from the sermon on the crucifixion: “The function of human limitations are in their articulation of the time-space coordinates essential for manifesting spiritual intent… When the great soul Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross in her human form as a man, she did so to convert her death into a metaphor for the rest of humanity. The primary intent behind the crucifixion is astoundingly simple. It has been completely overlooked due to the human forms’ immense capacity for fear, guilt and hatred, all of which has complicated and twisted a rather sweet and elegant message. This is not to offend those of this congregation who are still enraptured by its unfathomable depth and meaning… for that is here to. It’s just that the utter simplicity of the soul Christ requires, perhaps, a bit more elucidation…

CrucifixionYou are all crucified to the cross of your human forms. The grace of your evolution requires you to give in completely to every limitation until your entire being commits itself to penetrating its human form. There can be no holding back and no hesitation. The direction is through the center and out the other side, courageously, with all three eyes open.”

The Holy Child

The thing that is all too easily forgotten about our Christian heritage is what a new ethic it introduced into the ancient world. Nietzsche grasped this better than most and although he turned against the Christian ethic of compassion for the poor as a weakening of what he considered the heroic ideals of the ancient world, he was spot on in identifying Christianity’s signature contribution to Western culture. The Christ teaches that all people are to feed the poor and comfort the needy:

Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

This has been the inspiration for those involved in the production of the orphanages, hospitals and poor houses that have played such a vital role in the historical development of our society.

It was as if with the Christ story we as a society agreed about what was good. In the pagan pantheon while there was room for compassion, the society held no particular obligation of conscience to the poor, sick and old. The Christ story turned the hero worship of the great and powerful warriors and emperors on its head by holding up an outcast, itinerant teacher as one truly blessed by the gods.

Virtue has always been praised but what is considered virtuous changes with time. Virtue has not always included the aspect of innocence or childhood virginity we see in the Christian ethos. A society in which groups are worshiping say, Mars the god of war or Aphrodite the goddess of temple prostitutes or the dangerous drunken revelries of Dionysus, is a society fundamentally different than our own. It is hard for us to truly appreciate just how thoroughly the leaven of Christianity has remade the modern world. It is not that we no longer have violence, prostitution, and drunken brawls; it is just that no one is really holding them up as paragons of virtue.

The archetypal nature of our minds is well reflected in the pantheons of polytheism but the summum bonum has changed. The wisdom and folly of the world was shuffled a bit, spawning numerous stories where the outcasts are kings, underdogs win, and the weak bring down the strong. In our stories and folk wisdom we believe the best of human lives are often lived among the common people, those without fame or fortune.

All this is of a type with the story of the outcast who hung on a cross and overthrew the most powerful empire in history by the power of virtue. This new Moses rejects the temple religion of his day and the philosophies and cults of the pagans of his society. In his elevation of the child and the poor and the sick to states of beatitude, his teaching disrupts the common understanding that the rich and the powerful must be God’s favorites.

When Scrooge says, “let them die and decrease the surplus population” he is expressing a common wisdom of an age unleavened by Christian charity. That it sounds monstrous to our ears is an indication of just how thoroughly we have assimilated the Christian ethos into the modern world view. Though we tend to consider our religious heritage a stodgy killjoy full of archaic superstitions, I wonder how willing we would really be to trade it for something else. As a western culture we have toyed with blood and soil as a possible replacement during World War II, toyed with unbridled greed during the gilded age of robber barons and our own generation of criminal banking, and even toyed with the neoliberal, Ayn Rand like justifications of selfishness as the proper basis and ideal for human societies instead of altruism and mutual cooperation.

Nietzsche, again, was more perceptive than most. He saw how the Christian ethos no longer provided Western cultures enamored with science and the new humanism with a living tradition. He famously declared to the West the death of our God – and that we had killed him. Fools felt giddy with hubris but Nietzsche himself was more circumspect. What, he wondered, would replace Christianity?

A bit more than a century hence and we have our answer. Unbridled greed has locked the human race into a lifestyle dedicated to consumerism. Choking the air, poisoning the water, despoiling the land – we are paving over paradise, and we cannot stop. We built the infrastructure of the modern world using oil and the oil is running out, still we cannot stop. Unfair inequalities within countries and throughout the world are breeding ever more violent extremists, and still there is no stopping our manic production of goods. Politics has become another corporate policy; bought and sold while manipulating the public with sound bites and polls, the danger inherent in the right to vote all but emasculated. And still the happy box continues to spew its advertising allures incessantly insisting contentment is just around the corner once you own MORE. Cable may have replaced antenna and wi-fi replaced cable but that’s just froth. The largest psychological experiment in the manipulation of individuals and societies continues apace. (Ask yourself; if a major war broke out right now, something along the lines of World War II, would you feel the weight of its reality? Would our leaders? Or would the TV-Land permeated psyche be caught up in movie or cartoon like apprehensions?)

Christianity has a way of forcing us to confront our consumerism. During our holiday shopping we cannot help but notice that the local store has a hundred of this doo-dad and a thousand of this plastic whatever. In my mind I know this inventory needs to be multiplied by every store in my city and every city in my land and every land on my planet. Look at all this with the critical eye of a poor carpenter: of all this stuff, what do humans really need? The astonishing gulf between our need and our greed has become our fate. We are unable to stop.

We could choose to return to pride in workmanship. The goods purchased could be a craftsman’s delight, easily able to serve multiple generations. This is especially true if people return to that other pre-consumerism tradition of running productive households. A dwelling able to produce some of life’s necessities, well stocked with quality tools, was the type of capital that made the middle class. Consumerism plays the population for fools, having each generation start out from nothing since their parental generation’s purchases were all defined as consumer goods which go in and out of style and are not made to last decades anyway. Those benefiting from consumerism play by a totally different set of rules. Their children inherit estates, companies, portfolios and all the other accruements of the upper class. The third generation butter churn might look humble in comparison, but of such were the traditions of America once made.

If as a society we are unable to stop our headlong plunge then perhaps we need to acknowledge a higher power like any addict, but where do we turn if God is dead? The saint of ecology, Saint Francis of Assisi, perhaps left us a clue. He initiated the Christmas manger because he wanted to see for himself the sacred human child – that which is born of a woman and surrounded by animals.

Consumerism and the neoliberal economics that justify its exaltation of “free markets” is the resurrection of Moloch. We are feeding our children’s lives into the hellish maw of consumerism’s apocalyptic fires. All that plastic crap at Wallmart is not being purchased with more plastic from Chase bank as it might seem. It is being bought with blood, the blood of our children’s future.

st-francis-nativityJesus taught that all human beings are members of one family. Long before the discovery of DNA and genetics taught us there are no strangers among us hiding off in some foreign land of devils, Jesus constellated “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. In the consumer society the one avenue left to express the sacredness of our precious human life is to approach the purchase of goods for the express purpose of giving them away. The light of the holiday is that all the shoppers were participating in our society’s one big empathy practice / ritual / rite as we hunted for gifts to give to friends and loved ones. It has not been easy to turn a naturally caring and generous people into the caricature of our former American values we see around us today. The good news is our bonds of solidarity run deeper than the mind shackles of the selfishness and greed preachers.

In one way of looking at it, nothing could be easier than what we need to do to shut down the fires of Moloch.

Come out of Egypt, come out of the city, out of the desert, come to the country and look in the manger. There is dung and soil and hay under the simple roof. Respected, the animals are at peace, their hot breath warming the child. Above, a vast and cold night sky gently holds an illumination, like a reflection of the living earth as a jewel in the lotus of deep space. That which is holy is there on the hay – a human child.

Tree of Life

A student of mysticism soon discovers there is a plethora of esoteric traditions accompanying the more mainstream worship practices of any given culture. Though we might speak, for example, of Kabalism as the mystical tradition of the Jewish people or Sufism as the mystical tradition of the Muslim people, these are generalizations. In practice these things change with the times and adapt to the needs of those embracing their practices. Surveying centuries will uncover a kind of trekking through the wilderness of a culture’s meaning factory; its collective assumptions about what is real and not real and the experiences such assessments make possible.

The mystical heart of religion, while surrounded on all sides by mumbo-jumbo, is where individuals encounter the numinous, the sacred. A part of religion is social, another part is concerned with the preservation of stories and words and yet another part with cognitive maps; views, philosophies and theologies. Religion is multifaceted. By tracing the esoteric the existential aspect is placed front and center. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience is perhaps the first of the type of psychological approach that is willing to take numinous encounters at face value, as experiences that do happen to people and often have profound, lasting effects. This psychology is interested in just what it might be possible for the human psyche to experience in its extremes.

James’s work is very much a product of his Christian culture though we should be careful not to dismiss his research into the conversion experience as irrelevant outside the Protestant traditions. The role of conscience before the fear of death is an ancient doorway into altered states of mind. The ancient Egyptian having his heart weighed in the land of the dead is not wholly unrelated to the person today unexpectedly struck by their conscience and turning their thoughts to “religious matters” to desperately “work out their salvation in fear and trembling.”

Though stating it this way is using terms used by the monotheisms, the actual human life event being referred to is universal. Everywhere and every when we find clues to indicated shocked encounters with the spirit world, or to put it less poetically: with the reality of one’s own death and how the actions of one’s life, good or otherwise, compare or ‘weigh’ against the stream of humanity of which you are a part. This shakedown of the ego blinded by ignorance, greed, and lust from valuing non-selfish behaviors and altruistic motivations seems to be an inescapable step on the path towards human maturity. The nexus of death symbolism that are always found in esoteric traditions is the psychological vehicle by which one generation communicates what it has learned about this encounter with the next. Skulls and skeletons, cremation grounds, coffins and all the rest show up in religious art and esoteric practices of both the east and the west whether the message is being delivered by an aboriginal shaman, city priest or a guru.

As important as this encounter with one’s personal mortality is on the path, it is not the only ordeal that is charted in esoteric traditions. Beyond the socially derived sense of self and obligation is the most fundamental encounter of all – the mystery of consciousness itself. The question of subjectivity and objectivity is translated into personal terms when we ask what is really real. Asking this question inevitably entangles us in issues of epistemology, how do we know what we know? Here the grand philosophical conundrums of realism and idealism push cognitive comprehension to its limits. Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wittgenstein come to mind as modern representatives mining all the rich inheritance of previous centuries careful thought that provide us an outline of what can be said and where silence must reign. This seems to be a second inevitable encounter a human being will experience on the path towards maturation. Here the nexus of symbolism deals with illusions, emptiness, interdependence and all the other symbols of union that speaks to us of non-dual awareness. These symbols include the union of heaven and earth in ‘as above, so below,’ the union of man and woman in Tantric embrace, the union of gods and goddesses with men and women, the union of organic and inorganic as when Dogen recognized his mind was no other than the mountains and rivers and finally the union of the personal and the impersonal somewhat like the center point of the ubiquitous mandala symbol.

The shaman or mystic comes with the message that things are not at all what they seem. Allow their medicines to work on you and they will turn your world upside down like a tree whose roots are in the sky and branches reach down into the earth. Down may be the way up and in may be the way out. The enlightenment insight shares these characteristics with jokes where the punch line turns everything around.

Speaking of a tree rooted in the stars prepares the way for this week’s discussion of one of the esoteric traditions born from the Jewish symbolism, namely the Kabala. It is particularly good at illustrating these two major events on the mystic path. Here is an image of the Kabala’s Tree of Life which consists of spheres and the paths between them.

Treeoflife0The Jewish and Christian holy book starts with the story of the Garden of Eden which features a tree of good and evil and a tree of life. It should come as no surprise then to see a tree of life at the heart of an esoteric tradition related to it.

One of the ways this sigil is used in meditation and study is as an organizing framework for associations. Systems of associations are a common feature of a number of esoteric teachings. The idea is that everything we deal with in our physical and mental lives can be assigned a place somewhere on this organizing framework. The five Buddha families have played this role in Tibetan Buddhism which includes charts of what is associated with each one. These associations typically include a color, a compass direction, characteristic animals and other adornments of their ‘realms’ and an accompanying characteristic insight and ignorance, virtue and vice. Druids used types of trees as their framework for making associations, some Native Americans used the medicine wheel mandala, Sufis used the hundred names of Allah and Christians the four evangelists. In all cases the teaching tool is related to seeing the world as sacred. By associating everything to some aspect of the sacred glyph everything thereby takes on a touch of the sacred. This is the universal insight of the mystic; that even the most mundane is precious and holy, that chopping wood and carrying water are sacred acts.

We spoke in an earlier post about using the symbolism of the family to guide us to the heart of teachings. The main associations dealing with the family message of the tree of life are as follows. The second sphere is related to the father, the zodiac of stars and leads to wisdom; the third sphere is related to the mother, sea, night, tears and leads to understanding; the sixth sphere in the middle of the tree is related to the son, a king’s crown, the heart and the sun and leads to compassion and love; and finally the tenth sphere is associated with the daughter, the earth, and fertility and leads to being grounded in physical reality.

The two initiatory events are included on the tree of life glyph by the horizontal paths. They are referred to as places where the aspirant needs to cross an abyss or pierce a veil. The ego death involved in learning the value of love and compassion and the encounter with the existential roots of awareness empty of dualism are each characterized as journeys across dangerous waters or leaps off cliffs into space. The first event related to ego death is a leap into the space of the heart and is mapped on the tree by the horizontal path between the spheres seven and eight (feeling and thought). The second related to naked awareness is a leap into the space of space and is associated with the two horizontal paths connecting spheres four and five and two and three respectively. This gap between the two sets of spheres is the Great Abyss said to separate the all of the divine and eternal from the temporal and secular.

The focus of this cycle of posts is around waking up our capacity for compassion and so we will focus on the so called lesser abyss but it is worth mentioning a detail students of Buddhism will appreciate. The triangle made up of spheres one, two, and three is said to come forth from emptiness in its three forms. This is what the “Ain” above the tree indicates. Kabbalistic mysticism is fundamentally apophatic, that is, like many of the esoteric traditions it seeks its god in its absence. The not-this and not-that of Nagarjuna’s Middle Way, though not given the central place it is in eastern teachings, is not unknown to the west.

One way to understand the life challenges the tree of life is designed to teach about is to recognize the perennial generational challenge in its layout of family roles and where the abyss crossings occur. The great abyss simply separates one generation, the mothers and fathers, from the next which is made up of the sons and daughters. Like many of the great stories it presents a challenge about how the young will grow wisely enough to take on the responsibilities of adulthood. The Kabbalistic teaching is that through the correct act of the son (sphere six) the daughter (sphere ten) can be raised to the throne of the mother (sphere three). Obviously on one level the correct act of the son is the act of sex; pregnancy lifts those in the role of daughter to the role of motherhood. Indeed the ninth sphere between the son and daughter is associated with the sex organs.

However the richness of associations pushes the Kabbalistic lesson considerably further than just the act of procreation. We have looked at the abuses children suffer at the hands of those not capable of healthy embodiments of fatherhood and motherhood. One does not need to be Freudian to recognize much pathology includes a sexual element. The path through sex on the tree is associated with shooting an arrow. Our word for sin means to miss the mark like an arrow missing its target. The other symbolism associated with this path is the rainbow, Biblically the symbol of peace between man and God. We say crazy people are over the rainbow and that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. All this is related to the lesson this part of the tree is trying to educate us in; how to successfully navigate across this abyss.

One of the main associations not yet mentioned is how the holy name of God, Yahweh, is assigned the family spheres. One Hebrew rendering of Yahweh is IHVH. The initial I is assigned to the father in sphere two, the first H to the mother in sphere three, V the son in sphere six and the final H is associated with the daughter in sphere ten. The special act in this context is the redemption of the world. By this reading all sentient beings are female, members of the earth or samsara if you will. All sentient beings consist of a spark of awareness embodied in circumstances not of our choosing and beyond our control; life lives us. Part of the knack of wisdom is learning to embrace our restrictions and limitations, to accept with grace the causes and conditions of which we are a part yet which extend much, much farther than ourselves.

The person drawn to the esoteric path is willing to work hard to tame the mind but this is easily first understood as a willingness to storm the gates of heaven, to force the gods to do one’s bidding (echoes of Faust). This arises from our intuitions informed about the two truths that reflect our familial and existential situations. Nothing seems more important than achieving one’s spiritual goal. The whole study of associations is an example of actively using our intellect to try and construct a bridge between our ego and a perception of the world as sacred in non-dual states of consciousness. Meditation techniques, drugs, dancing and the whole host of esoteric technologies are more of the same; ways to try and force ourselves into blessedness. All these have their place but the masters both east and west are in one accord in teaching that ultimately all such forms must be set aside.

In the west it is said that ultimately one learns to wait on the Lord, to be the bride anxious for a visit from the bridegroom. The feminine, earthly soul awaits the quickening kiss of the sun / son spirit.

In the east it is said that ultimately one learns mediation without fixed forms. The aggregates rest in stillness, patiently expectant of Buddha’s dawning omniscience.

The love poetry we find in so many esoteric traditions is often a reflection of these psychological features whereby we are all the bride. The Bible’s Song of Songs, so long a puzzle to those not mystically inclined, finds its explanation here. So does some of what Carl Jung had to say about what he had discovered about the anima and animus. An important aspect of the feminine as symbol of the aspirant here is that it is a waiting in full awareness of the feelings and sensations that accompany human consciousness when it has the courage to face the cosmic without the ego hardened character armor. This waiting includes a rawness of perception and emotion we find it very difficult to maintain, requiring as it does extraordinary courage to accept just how deeply we feel what we feel.

It is not the act of sex as such that brings about the transcendence of the ego but the sharing it embodies which softens, if not dissolves, the barriers between inside and outside, self and world, you and me. This brings us to the final way in which we as Buddhists might learn from and learn to appreciate this esotericism of our western past. The colors on the tree and its overall structure have similarities to the chakra systems of the east. The middle pillar of the tree is associated with the spinal column and the right and left pillars are similar to the right and left channels found in chakra yogas. In this context it is easy to see how both traditions concern themselves with what my first teacher put this way:

“First we must get you right in your heart.”

Exodus, the Magic of Liberation

The violence claiming a religious justification that continues to dominate our headlines surprises and shocks the secular cultures of the West. Though it was very secular politics that provided the means and justifications for the last century’s two world wars, the largest conflicts in human history, somehow the explicit religious justifications in the current incidents make them seem just that much more barbaric to us. After centuries of bloody religious wars the European continent grew weary of paying their costs in lives and treasure. To have a Jihad bombing in Paris causes an atavistic reaction for many in the West. We rightly fear the dark nationalism that can arise in response.

One does not need to read far into the holy book of the West to encounter a record of similar murderous fanaticism. The people of the book, as the Jewish people were known, systematically put one city after the other under the “ban.”   On orders from God they left no stone unturned and killed every man, woman and child in these populations that were condemned. Their sin was to be following different Gods.

Now we need to be careful here. What I just presented is a bald reading of what the holy books report themselves. Archaeologists have combed the holy lands and found the number of places affected by the Jewish expansion into the “promised land” were fewer, and that in many cases the destruction was far less, than what the written records that have been passed down to us claim. Telling the story of a people’s origin these documents are as much political as they are religious. Exaggerations are understandable. Apologists also make a point worth mentioning in light of our previous conversations around the abuse of children. It seems just possible that the sources of the ancient records are from a time in which human sacrifice was a widespread religious practice. Offering a child to Moloch entailed that child’s death. Such a perversion demanded justice from the ‘real God,’ or so these apologists claim.

The same message is found in the story of Abraham which is said to come from the time of the patriarchs, a time even earlier than the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Abraham is going to sacrifice his son Isaac to God when the ‘real God’ intervenes, stopping his hand as the sacrificial knife is about to strike. Abraham sacrifices an animal instead of Isaac, the first scapegoat. The Jewish civilization will go on to develop around a temple cult run by a priestly caste that would perform the obligatory animal sacrifices.

The role of the scapegoat takes center stage in the anthropological study of human evil undertaken by Rene Girard. His attempt to discover the genesis of all tragic myths and the origin of religious rituals leads him to conclude there is an intimate bond between, as the title of his most well known work has it, Violence and the Sacred. Perhaps a future post will provide an opportunity to explore his provocative ideas but I mention it here to underscore the point that it is not at all uncommon for religions to have an element of violence entangled in their histories, rites and enthusiasms. Girard argues they need to if they are going to effectively serve their role in human societies which, in his view, is to renew support for and rejuvenate the social order that keeps chaos and barbarism at bay. That societies most powerfully unify themselves in the act of collective murder of the other, the scapegoat, is what makes our circumstances tragic.

Though it is easy to find parallels between today’s headlines and the “ban”, our project of exploring our Western roots is aiming at a deeper analysis. Before we became these secular societies, we too could have been called a people of the book of sorts. These stories of Abraham and the ram, the conquest of Canaan and the “ban” we’re familiar to every educated person. They were the common currency by which we exchanged ideas in theology, poetry, literature and politics. Of all these stories none would pervade our collective consciousness like the one about how the Jewish people came to be conquering Canaan in the first place; the story of Moses and the great Exodus from the fleshpots of Egypt.

Again archaeologists and Egyptologists point out there is no evidence that a large number of slaves ever revolted and escaped from an Egyptian empire. What, if any, actual events transpired we will never know but our ignorance about the facts and figures in this case leaves the importance of the tale as told undiminished.

Following Oswald Spengler I have characterized the modern world as a Faustian culture. There are a number of reasons I agree with this characterization; one of which comes from my reading of the tale of Moses in Pharaoh’s court. Though the giving of the Ten Commandments is the central encounter of man and God in the holy book pre-Christian, we will respectfully not treat it here and focus instead on this battle of magics. It is the ten plagues of Egypt that make the liberation possible.

Moses has entered Pharaoh’s court and demanded release of the Jewish people so that they can go into the desert to properly worship the ‘real God.’ This sets the stage for a contest between this God and all the Gods of Egypt. It will take place as a battle of supernatural powers between Moses and the court magicians and resident God, the Pharaoh. Though many tales of the ancient world took the form of ‘my magic is stronger than yours’ this is the one that has played a formative role in shaping our Western sensibilities.

Oppressed people over the millennia have found comfort and solace in the biblical tale of the Exodus. A people living in slavery and bondage are lead to freedom; the underdog wins even though they are a rag-tag assembly of the poor daring to defy the most powerful empire on earth. They win because God is on their side. No wonder so many people suffering injustices at the hands of their governments have found the ancient tale to be a source of strength and at times, political dynamite.

Casting about for examples in more recent centuries the inspiration the black church of the American south drew from the story of the Exodus comes to mind. What a soulful power still resonates in the gospel songs of that era… More recently throughout Central and South America liberation theology among the peasants drew its motivating inspiration, as well as its name, from the story of the Exodus.

Liberation theology appeared at a time when the United States was training and funding, often covertly and against the explicit direction of the congress, far right elements within a number of countries to the south of us. Death squads ran rampant. In places like El Salvador the Catholic Church was made a target and soon priests and nuns were ‘disappeared’ alongside the poor they worked with. Archbishop Romero’s murder was one of the few incidents that broke through the general media apathy at the time. Nothing I know of more clearly states the power and importance of the stories we tell and the actions they can inspire than this chapter in the history of Latin America. The events, teachings, torture techniques and death squad politics are all laid out in Penny Lenoux’ Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America – The Catholic Church in Conflict with US Policy. The Library Journal commented at the time, “A stunning blow to North American consciousness… should be required reading for all U.S. citizens.” I agree, it should still be required reading but be forewarned, dealing with the reported atrocities made me physically ill.

Another point: as mentioned last week it is not necessary to know all the details of suffering for compassion to arise but I do believe there is a need to educate ourselves about the reality of suffering. As citizens we should be particularly willing to learn about the actions that have taken place in our name, both the good and the evil we and our ancestors have done. These are the reasons a work like Cry of the People can have such profound and life changing effects. Other people and other generations will find their own sources for the same maturation. What is important is not the content, which changes with the headlines, but the context in which power is abused, corruption rules and the breakdown of law and order follows.

While liberation theology is Christian and the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role in its teachings, I was struck during these studies by how meaningful and powerful the people’s found the story of the Exodus to be. People struggling to live with the most brutal manifestations of man’s inhumanity to man in their own lives and the lives of their families were able to do so in part by seeing their lives as participating in the long struggle of God in history, working for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed. It should go without saying these are not the cute cliches of a story for children in Sunday school. Even all the pomp and special effects Hollywood has brought to the telling of the tale are incapable of capturing or obscuring this core meaning which is capable of giving strength to people who are standing up to the face of evil.

Poorer parts of the world have often paid dearly for mistakes made in richer parts of the world.

Speaking of special effects… How does Moses convince Pharaoh to “let my people go”? Through the ten plagues of Egypt; the miraculous displays of Moses God’s power over the God-Pharaoh’s power. The list of plagues reads like a hellish shopping list; let’s see, rivers of blood, swarms of locusts, rains of frogs, and death of all the firstborn children throughout the land. There is more but the point has already been made – these are all acts of death and destruction.

When the contest begins Moses’ companion Aaron performs the first wonder, yet the Pharaoh is unimpressed because his court magicians are able to do something equally marvelous. They turn a staff of wood into a living snake. Here is the point I think explains a lot about Western culture and Western religious ideas. Aaron and the magicians of the court use magic to bring forth life, animal life from vegetative life. In common parlance today we would say it is an act of white magic. As things proceed however we see that Moses’ God performs the blackest of black magic, that which is designed only to bring about death and destruction.

Though of course it is not really black magic because it is God’s doing. To put it bluntly, it is presented as a case in which the end justifies the means. These terrible plagues are the only way God can get Pharaoh to change his hard heart, nothing less will do. We know this because the story mentions Pharaoh’s hard heart time and again… “and God hardened Pharaoh’s heart against him.”

This ambiguity around magic and miracles will continue to haunt Western thought right up to our own day. Should we storm the gates of heaven or wait patiently on the lord? We will pick this up next week when we look at the Jewish mysticism that developed as people reflected on these stories.

The Setup of Set

“Compassion is a melting of the heart at the thought of another’s suffering.”
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness

“War is a monstrous lack of imagination.”
Franz Kafka

 

It seems appropriate in the week our world leaders gather in Paris to discuss the ecological issue of climate change that we are examining the origin of Western civilization in the dim past of Egypt. Contemplatives train ourselves in taking the long view as the proper context for the radical momentariness of our lives. Ecology can serve as a powerful aid on this contemplative path when we use it to cultivate a serious consideration of and concern for the long term consequences of climate change and peak oil.

Although plenty of signs of climate change are all around us right now the models on which these climate change sciences are based include prognostications for decades and centuries hence. Appreciating their importance entails sensitivity to the long view. The full ecological crisis has also been centuries in the making; many of the issues threatening humanity’s well-being within this planet’s biosphere are the result of long standing behavior. The soil loss, overfishing, scattered toxics and heavy metals, deforestation, desertification, eutrophication, and all the rest of the big picture of which climate change is only one part, have been brewing for generations to reach the degree of crisis we see around us today.

It would be a mistake to pin too high of hopes on whatever resolutions COP 21 might produce, just as it would be a mistake to dismiss such results as completely meaningless. Businesses are starting to pay for some of the financial costs climate change entails and the expenses have become sufficiently worrying that the captains of industry are insisting on some government frameworks in which to work with these issues. This is the element I see as differentiating this gathering from the mostly impotent Copenhagen climate change conference of 2009; more of the rich and powerful are being squeezed. It is reasonable to expect that this time something substantial will be hammered together. If I am right, these conferences are going to include more than a slight resemblance to international trade agreement discussions such as Nafta and the WTO than what we saw in Rio and Copenhagen. Of course if a substantial agreement is reached it will be substantial only within the framework of economic growth.

We find it comforting to divide the world into black and white, good guys and bad guys and then trust our leaders and warriors to tackle the evil on our behalf. It soothes our conscience to assure ourselves these people are in control so we can go about our daily chores untroubled. COP 21 will likely remain firmly within this pattern. No fundamental shakeup of business as usual should be expected, or even seriously discussed. Those of us who are convinced by the evidence that the only long term social organization sustainable within the limits of the biosphere is one that entails a radically smaller human footprint will need to find our comforts elsewhere.


In turning our attention to Egyptian mythology we need to keep in mind that its history spans thousands of years. In that time their stories naturally morphed and changed as evolving needs and understandings worked their way through the symbol systems. Here we stick to the main part of the main story and mention only a few variations.

What more important story might we social primates tell than one of families? They are central to the stories we tell and as we will see, the religions we give our faith to. Asking about the family story we can get right to the heart of the matter. In 2,400 BCE the “holy family” consisted of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set and Nephthys. This first family is said to be the offspring of Geb, the earth father and Nut, the mother of the starry sky. In the cultus that grew around the stories of this primal family numerous motifs were developed that remain important to Western religious traditions down to our own day.

Isis and Osiris are the mother and father of the brothers Horus and Set and their daughter Nephthys. Set, like Cain in the Bible, is the evil brother said to represent violence and chaos. He rises up and murders Osiris, chopping up his body and throwing the pieces in the Nile River or in another variation scattering them among the 49 provinces (nodes) of Egypt. Isis gathers the pieces and through her magic resurrects Osiris sufficiently to be able to copulate with him. Once she is pregnant she flees to the marshlands of the Nile to escape the wrath of Set who still seeks to thwart Osiris’s resurrection through the birth of the divine child Horus. (A very close motif is found in the Bible’s Book of Revelation where mother church is with child and must flee the wrath of the dragon that would drown her in its river.) For a time Set is made king, remembering perhaps a period in the Old Kingdom when the state collapsed and war bands ruled by violence and chaos. Eventually Horus is born, fights with Set and overcomes him thereby restoring the throne to its rightful heir. It will be said that the Pharaoh rules in life as Horus and rules in death as Osiris. The pyramidal burial chambers of the Pharaohs were meant to provide the food and drink, servants and priests the sacred King would need in his station as Osiris. Horus, who is also known as a god of war, became the first national god as the patron deity of Nekhen. Yahweh, Christ and Allah will all fill the same role at various times in Western history.

In the story of Horus avenging his father and ascending to take his proper place on the throne we are dealing with the primeval story of how one generation takes on the social and religious responsibilities from the previous generation. This is the story of stories as outlined in Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. That this tale of Osiris and Isis served the needs of this millennia-spanning civilization is understandable, given that human psychology has not changed in its fundamentals in thousands of years. Still, its endurance remains remarkable.

Why did Set attack and murder Osiris? By one telling of the tale it was due to Osiris having sexually abused Nephthys who was Set’s consort. Here we have one of the reverberations of the ancient Egyptian I detect in the modern psyche: a seething anger at the abusive father. We need to remember the royal families of kings and queens in Egypt were formed of incestuous relationships. Even among such social norms the pedophilia desire was seen to threaten the order of the cosmos and the peace of society. Set here can serve as a stand in for victims of abuse; all those for whole the law and order of society offered no protection.

Nephthys was considered a festive deity who was also related to childbirth. Her rites consisted of “liberal consumption of beer.” It is in Egypt where we find the beginning of the Western affiliation with beer or alcohol more generally, what has been called the quintessential Christian drink. Those familiar with Jungian thought will recognize her role as the feminine fourth, the other.

In these images we can just barely make out a sublimation of the sorts of events and experiences that are sadly all too common today as well. If we take Set as an example of a young man who learns about his lover’s abuse we can explore some of the ways empathy and compassion might work out. Given the statistics around rape and abuse there must be many young men dealing with this knowledge right now, which makes it a relevant example. Perhaps shedding a little light on the psychological processes involved might help them and their partners as well as deepening our own compassion for such victims by increasing our own comprehension.

First we need to recognize that for such a young man the thoughts of abuse will become an obsession, coming to mind as a shock every day on waking and often provoking insomnia when trying to fall asleep. Assuming he loves and cares for his partner deeply, how could learning of their pain do otherwise? Eventually some reconciliation with the facts occurs and the cutting edge of newness in the knowledge is blunted but in unguarded and unexpected moments the thought will still arise and bring with it all the pain of the raw wound. This is basically a description of the eruption of traumatic events in consciousness found in the post-traumatic stress syndrome. We can assume the victim has also been experiencing the same psychological suffering, perhaps for years.

Pain shared due to love can be coupled with despair when there does not seem to be any way a real healing of the suffering can come to pass. Time heals all wounds we say but we can’t trace time. Nothing hurts as deeply as the impotency we feel when confronted with our own powerlessness to relieve the pain of those we love.

There will also be the whole question of masculine pride. As a provider and protector Set failed the one he loves. Additionally this type of violation is such that it provokes the rage responses built into us by evolution, entailing as it does all the hopes and fears of manhood’s sexual identity, fecundity and responsibility. Boys suffering physical abuse will also have to deal with the consequences to their pride even though the sexual element in these cases are not in the forefront of their experiences of being excessively beaten and hurt.

The struggles of Set and Nephthys can illustrate some of the difficult journey towards true compassion. True compassion is a difficult psychological summit to scale. Is not one of our deepest aspirations that someday, somewhere we will have acted from a truly compassionate motivation uncolored by ego concerns?

At first Set’s psychology will include a strong element of emotional contagion, a mixing of his own feelings with those of Nephthys, as he tries to understand what she must be feeling. Though mixed with pride humiliated, a true empathy is beginning as he tries to comprehend what it is like to be her and live her life. Empathy entails a projection of oneself onto an external other, using the imagination to “feel the other from within” as psychologist Robert Vischer explained when he first used the word in 1873. Empathy can come from cognitive imagination or affective perceptions, both will play a role in Set and Nephthys struggles.

Daniel Batson enumerates eight forms of empathy, only one of which is conductive to an altruistic motivation as necessary and sufficient. The first is knowing another person’s internal state. This can provide reasons for feeling concern but one could learn of another’s internal state and remain indifferent. The second form is motor and neural mimicry, think mirror neurons, yet this remains influenced by emotional contagion. The third is emotional resonance by which we feel what another person is feeling. While this can help altruism arise, in itself it is neither sufficient nor indispensable. Becoming terrified when someone else is terrified or crippled by pain when someone else is in pain does not provide what is needed for a truly compassionate response. The fourth form of empathy is intuiting or projecting oneself into another’s situation but this risks being mistaken in what one is imagining and for compassion it is not necessary to know all the details of another’s suffering, only that the person is suffering. The fifth form is imagining how another is thinking and feeling but this too does not guarantee an altruistic response, after all a psychopath does just that to better manipulate their victims. The sixth form of empathy is imagining how one would think and feel in the other’s place, what if these things had happened to you? But of course Nephthys has her own views and aspirations which will not include, for example, the issues of masculine pride. The clarity of compassion that does not confuse self and other is lacking. The seventh is empathetic distress in which we suffer because they suffer. We see this in babies where one starting to cry can set off a cascade of tears in everyone else. Emphatic distress involves more of a feeling of anxiety invoked by the other than feeling distress for the other and can easily lead to avoidance instead of a compassionate response. We cannot bear to view images of war or discuss the issues of pervasive child abuse or anything else that makes us feel bad, which of course is of no use for the victims.

The eighth form is empathetic concern in which we become aware of another’s needs and then feel a sincere desire to do whatever we can to help. According to Daniel Batson only the empathetic concern is directed towards the other and not towards one’s self. Note how different this is than pity which is often egocentric and condescending. On this path Set can find his way to the only maturity capable of sustaining a long term, loving relationship with Nephthys. On this path the crucial element is adopting the attitude that will bring the greatest comfort to Nephthys and seeing clearly what actions are most likely to heal her sufferings. Basically, emphatic concern lets us say what can I do to really help, regardless of my personal concerns?

Anyone in an intimate relationship surely can appreciate the power of a cheerful, hopeful attitude brought to the relationship. If it is going to reflect the joy of love it cannot remain dominated by fears and complaints, gloom and despair. As a father and someone deeply concerned about the ecological state of the planet I have often needed to ask myself what impression I want to have on my children; an example of a depressed intellectual forever bemoaning the ignorance of the human animal or a cheerful and confident example of someone facing the darkness yet inspired by it to do what I can in my own life?

The next stage of this Egyptian mythology is the many tales of Horus and Set fighting. In some a reconciliation of sorts is worked out as Set takes the eye of Horus and Horus takes a testicle from Set. To set this back into a psychological context imagine a third being between them, a being able to recognize the planetary power of evolution in lust yet not ever blinded by it into committing acts of abuse.

In a bit more Egyptology we can see another phenomenon that will play out in the history of civilizations more than once; the process whereby gods and heroes become devils and demons. The realm of the dead, Duat, was pictured as an underworld populated by demons with names like ‘the blood drinker that comes from the slaughter house’ and ‘he who eats his own excrement’ and other such guardians not all that dissimilar to some of what is found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s wrathful deities. The sun god Ra is said to traverse this underworld from west to east every night. For the sun to successfully rise in the east at dawn Ra had to fight and overcome the head demon, the great snake-hippo-crocodile monster Apep. Now what is interesting is that in the earliest stories of Set it is Set that is able to slay Apep, which is how he became associated with the desert wildernesses where the demons and the strange foreigners on Egypt’s borders live. Only later did Set, the Titan-like hero, become the devil, the bringer of violence and chaos. It’s as if to say a bit of rebellion is healthy and needed in the teenage years, the youth of our sexual awakening, if we are to avoid becoming pawns to some dogmatic straight jacket of conformity with no allowance for the spark of individuation. Society recognizes the young need to raise a little hell. These inversion tales teach how desire when uncurbed by self-discipline develops in life threatening ways.

A similar process of historical reinterpretation turned the Greek Pan into the cloven hoofed devil of Christianity. I will suggest by and by that a similar inversion is occurring now as the shadow side of Christian culture wrestles with its devils in the Book of Revelation; in particular the Ayn Rand Christians in the GOP beholden to Babylon who, using neoliberal globalization, “makes all the nations of the earth trade with her.”

If individuals were able to overcome the challenges of their demonic obstacle course through Duat they were said to come to the final judgement – a feature of the afterlife that remains in all three Western monotheisms. The judgement was called the weighing of the heart. It was overseen by the Jackal headed Anubis who weighed a person’s heart against a feather. The feather represented Maat, goddess of truth and justice. Hearts heavier or lighter than the feather were eaten by Ammit, Devourer of Souls (a title still given the devil). If you pass the test you are allowed to pass into the realm of the gods as a blessed soul.

I think the poetic image that a life well lived produces a heart light enough to be weighed by a feather captures beautifully the difficulty of the tangled path of empathy we work with when trying to achieve true compassion as the summit of our human psychological potential.

All of this is familiar enough to anyone raised in the cultures once guided by Christian stories. A God that dies and is resurrected after spending time in the underworld is found the world over. It has been related to vegetative mysteries; a metaphor for the seed that is planted in the dark earth and dies to become the life sustaining crop. The Golden Bough by Frazer went to great lengths gathering evidence for such interpretations. Another telling point is that the annual celebration of the birth of Horus took place at the winter solstice, just as Christianity continues to celebrate the birth of its divine child at the same time, the one point in the year when the longest night gives way  to increasingly long daylight hours; light coming from darkness.

Christianity’s image of Madonna and child is also first found among the statuary and images of Egypt where the roles are being played by Isis and Horus. Isis is also known as the archetypal mourner, the mother mourning much like the Madonna will be as Mater Dolorsa.

Isis_Madonna and Child 2This culture of mausoleums, incest, animal-headed gods and sexual abuse mythologies came to be a representation of all that is evil in the world as a small ethnic minority followed Moses into the wilderness, determined to find liberation from the ‘fleshpots of Egypt.’ Interestingly, when complaint was brought against Pharaoh and the royal house it was not sexual relations that fired the revolutionary fever but the social relations that kept the Jews in abject slavery. We retain echoes of our Egyptian past in this too when we use a pyramid to represent a tyrannical hierarchy ruled by an oligarchy and crushing bureaucracies. We will take up this exodus next week.