Anjali

And how does that make you feel?

This is a question you will not often hear in public discourse. It is easier to proceed with the type of social relations we have chosen to reward when we pretend that the people involved are little more than automatons. We do recognize it hurts to be hungry, or scared, or shamed. There is no attempt to deny we are emotionally driven creatures, quite the opposite, in fact, when we take account of how we actually spend our money to influence one another. A person needs to hunt far and wide to find a rational argument laid out with evidence and a well reasoned conclusion among all the noise in the mass media. It is so much easier to use snarl words and poke the inner beast with a stick than it is to talk with the inner angel.

There is talk in the United States of rebuilding the long neglected infrastructure. It means more roads, bridges…. What future is this preparing for? Certainly not the one the ecologists are telling us to prepare for. In that future the role of carbon dioxide producing long distance travel is likely to be greatly constrained. Ask yourself if the solution to the problems of our built-out infrastructure are going to be best addressed by creating more of the same and repairing what exists? The number of cars on the road is expected to double by 2030, think its crowded out there on the highways today? Do you really think 20, 50, or 100 years from now, that the dollars spent on automobile infrastructure will still seem to have been the best use of our limited public funds?

Take a moment to check in with what you feel about these facts. First sit still and take a few deep breaths to calm the mind down from running in circles, and then slowly allow your own answer to come to you. Slowly bring to mind a picture or your own felt intuition of just what the world of the day after tomorrow is going to be like if, in fact, a huge national investment is made again into the ecologically destructive technology of fossil fuel transportation. Remember the tonnage of earth killing cement and pavement it will require, the pipelines, fracking. Remember the output of our tailpipes, how it lags for a decade or more. How does it make you feel?

Tell me, does it matter to you how other people feel?

Fear leaves the mind unable to reason well. It is very difficult to cultivate the angels of our better nature when our imaginations are fed on hellish images of anger, pain, suffering, injustice, abuse, killing, rape, torture, and war; in other words, all the types of images that seem to be ever increasing among our mass media communications and “entertainments.” Do we consider the impact all of this is having on the minds of the youngest among us? Do we care?

Normally these kinds of concerns are dismissed as naive, unrealistic for the world of a gray dawning Monday morning. I disagree. The integrity in a moment of consciousness is related to how integrated the whole person is at that moment. The most abstract thoughts continue to have emotion at their core, and the most extreme emotions constitute thoughts of sorts. What is reasoning to the mind, compassion is to our emotional make up.

Choosing a lifestyle of non-violence and low consumption comes directly from this insight. When you see the beating of the sacred hearts all around you, well you just need to see it for yourself: this is a sacred world. I greet you with anjali. I recognize the divine dwells within you: I recognize you have real subjectivity. In doing anjali we affirm that the universal spiritual teaching applies between us, that the Golden Rule between I and Thou applies. It is found in every major religion and philosophy, it is the gold standard of proper human relations. Why? Because it is our reality.

At the heart of my own consciousness is a profound mystery. I am grateful for the awareness I call my own, it is immeasurably precious to me. The logic of the Golden Rule is then impeccable. I will grant that you too have this same mystery at the core of your experience. This makes us kin. Mindful Ecology invites us to extended our anjali greeting to all the animals on earth as well, for they too bear the mark of subjectivity.

Consciousness is relationship. More specifically, consciousness is our relationship with the “things” it contains. These things, we should recall, are reflections in our awareness of real objects, however weird those objects might be in themselves. “Things” are the molecular world’s emergent states which happen to be happening at our human scale. Consciousness is consciousness of these things.

These things are always and everywhere in relationships among themselves. This is the reality of interdependence. This matters a great deal when we turn our attention to the different ways in which we treat those things we consider fully alive and those we do not. It is a slippery slope, this dividing dead and alive. The Cartesian split soon justifies splitting the more worthy, the more alive, from the lesser. Our Faustian investigation of machinery has lead us to suspect we ourselves might be little more than robots. We fear our body is more real than the mind, that we might be nothing but bodies, that mind is an accident, meaningless. It supports prejudice since some among us might look like they are alive and worthy of anjali, but really be little more than automatons. Throughout the western history of ideas animals, children, women and slaves have all had their integrity of consciousness questioned.

It is not hard to see that the Cartesian inheritance carries with it a pride in rational thought defined as being free of all emotion. What characterizes all those that had been placed in the category of not-quite-as-really-alive-as-ourselves? Animals, children, women, the uneducated and the slave were all understood as living lives lead by emotion instead of thought. Their crime was to allow feeling to rule their actions instead of cool reasoning. We have already looked at Descartes Error in this regard, how neuroscience contradicts any clear separation of thought and emotion. The Age of Reason was followed by the Age of the Romantics precisely because it seemed no reconciliation between thought and feeling would ever be found. That such a reconciliation has been found, and backed up by all the proof of modern neuroscience, is a really big deal. The Cartesian gulf begins to look like little more than a crude rationalization meant to justify cruelty. How is it, exactly, that one being with subjectivity could lay judgment on another being with subjectivity, such that the later is not extended an equivalent basic right to their existence which one unquestionably grants oneself?

For in the depth of feeling, are we not then most real?

It is not in the heights of thought that we come to sense the greatest depths of being. The experience is much more directly accessible than that. What we are is not the contents of our thoughts, it is our reaction to that which we contemplate.

The Destroyer

And so it has come to this. The basement of the mind, the basement of our times. The journey within the psyche we have been examining includes a final feature that is the subject of today’s post. There, in the depths of what ego is able to encounter and endure, hides a very dangerous feature, one which we do not know all that much about, only that it is really there.

This feature of the mind is why, at least in part, there is a common wisdom in the west about not going too far with introspective practices. We have sayings like this one from the Native Americans, “a man loses himself in the blacks of his eyes,” or the half-comic characterization of meditation as “navel gazing” which implies it is nothing more than an adult attempting to get back into the womb ala Freud. St Anthony, the first Christian contemplative, goes out into the desert and is immediately set upon by Satan. The Tibetan meditative tradition has a very rich array of fierce Buddhas reflecting what they found when they went inside. We have been using shamanism as a model for these things.

A destroyer hides in our subjectivity.

One model of therapy I find cognizant names the parts of the psyche, recognizing that there is an Internal Family System within (IFS). The part of the psyche we are concerned with here is at the end of a spectrum of inner critics. The spectrum begins with the perfectionist within, that part that has very high standards for performance, behavior and production. When we do not measure up to its dictates it attacks us by insisting our work or behavior is not good enough. Under its influence what we do fails to nourish our sense of self worth because it seems as if it is never quite measures up. Each of us has this critic part of ourselves which we need to learn to deal with. Some people have had incidents in their lives, particularly childhood incidents, which makes this perfectionist within a major burden, but none escape completely unscathed. People in highly competitive cultures, such as our own, find the energy of our ‘Can Do’ drive is often and easily diverted towards this less than helpful delusion that we could one day be perfect. You know the drill: the right partner, church, job, house, car, clothes, friends, and all the rest the squawk box goes on and on about endlessly, will make out lives happy and everyone will like us, if only we would listen to the helpful advertisers treating us to their arcane knowledge about how best to spend what money we do have.

The perfectionist can become a bit more adamant. They then take on the characteristics of what IFS has called the molder. The molder works to get you to fit into a particular social mold, typically one based on your particular cultural and family mores. It makes you feel good when you fit in but attacks you when you dare to deviate. Notice how the worth of the individual is shifting towards the worth of a more institutionalized interpretation of what an individual should be. The molder wants to remake the world in their image and can brook no deviance. Fundamentalists of every stripe are captivated by the needs and values involved with the molder part of the human psyche. The molder is sure the only safety in this dark and dangerous world is to be found in the special habits of one’s own tribe. All others are heretics. Heretics threatening the very law and order of the cosmos.

Take this desire to remake individuals in the image of a perfect being one more step and the molder turns into the destroyer. The heretic and apostate must be killed. The destroyer is defined as an inner critic that makes attacks on your fundamental self-worth. It uses the weapon of shame. It seeks to persuade you that you should not exist. The perfectionist wants to make you do better in the world, it is simply not all that skillful so all it can do is harp on you about not being good enough until it wises up a bit. The molder wants to help you fit in within the many social aspects of your life. It fears the social isolation complete individual eccentricity creates, it just lacks the skill to communicate helpfully about the dangers it perceives. The destroyer, on the other hand, wants one thing only – to watch you die.

The torture chamber hells are what our imaginations conjure to clothe what we feel in the extremities of suffering. Here we turn on ourselves. The mind lashes out at the body, angry at its vulnerability and mortality. In its imaginative images it chops and burns, cuts and tears away at it until there is nothing left but a bloody, quivering chunk of flesh. Somewhere a frozen witness observes this – and is not fooled by who is who and what is what all along the long chain of karmic causes and effects that has lead up to it. The problem is, that if we do not find the courage to take on the battle within, we are destined to project the destroyer so that it walks among us as cruel injustices: abuse, poverty and war.

It is a sad fact that there are others who would gain a sort of satisfaction with your destruction. No matter who you are, your very existence is an affront to some group or another. When a person’s identity is with a particular group instead of their own self, anyone who lives outside that group is threatening. To see these outsiders destroyed confirms the true believers in their faith. Nations and religions thrive on this projection of the shadow and the creation of scapegoats it entails. Since all of us are individuals, we are bound to cross others and be for them the target of their ‘evil eye.’ That old phrase captures a psychological process whereby the burden of self-destruction is injected into a person as a result of their socialization. Inside our psyches we encounter not only protectors, which look and act fiercely but do so out of compassion and have our best interests at heart. We also encounter destroyers, that 10% of the shadow that is not gold, that is evil pure and simple. The teaching I like around this point is that the universe is only fully interesting and engaging with a devil in it, but we are meant to honor life by keeping a firm foot on its neck. The only karmically correct response when confronted by a destroyer is to thwart their plans, to short circuit their energy, to destroy them in turn by honesty, light, truth and reason. Remember, if you commit suicide, or murder-suicide, the bad guys win.

The tools of the Wrathful Buddhas are surgical, they destroy destroyers. They also accomplish the dismemberment of the shaman. How could it be otherwise in a universe that is wholly interdependent? Those who would venture in the lands of the inner worlds should know not all is sweetness and light there. Our evolutionary roots, while graced with wisdom, are also home to many relatives of the alligator variety.

Earth is a place in which we are all playing the parts of both predator and prey. Both parts in themselves are as pure as mountain streams. In man, however, there exists the ability to get lost in a dream, a world of his own imagining. This is what those bits of common wisdom about the dangers of introspection are warning us about but they, in my opinion, fail to place sufficient weight on the dangers of not working with one’s own mind.

It is true that at some point in every therapeutic treatment there comes a time to let the past be past and move on. In every shaman journey taken to the end the heart is properly placed in the Halls of Judgment. “First,” one of my earliest teachers once told me, “we have to get you right in your heart.” The human heart is to be weighed by the gods with the angels looking on. In other words, it needs to be liberated from the judgments of other people who cannot know you as only you yourself can. Only you know why you did what you did, that you felt what you felt. The heart cannot be given its final judgment by any human being – not by mother or father, not by teacher, priest or prophet. It was said by St. Augustine, “Love god, and do what thou wilt.” This describes the same view – doing what you will takes up your conscious focus and you let others worry about the right and wrong of it. A creature is to deal first with their creator, and it is a profound confusion to think the moms and dads of the world are the final arbiters of that power. It is right to be liberated to do what thou wilt because you lead with your heart, following the truth of love and compassion. To put it yet another way: being in a place of healing involves a real acceptance that you are never going to get all your vices in order before you give your all to life. We have to learn to love the outcasts, the downtrodden and the sorrowful we find within and without. So many of us are caught up in provisional living, snared by some complex or another from really committing 100% to this life just as it is. We act as if this is the dress rehearsal and the real thing is going to start anytime now, just as soon as we get a few things in order…

We do the same thing socially and it is starting to have some serious real world implications: we will stop driving the animals to extinction just as soon as we get good, solid economic growth going again; will leave some clean water for our children to drink just as soon as we get this little problem of a diminishing power supply figured out; will cease overfishing and clear-cutting just as soon as we have paid off our loans. It is the modern modus operandi for all things related to the real ecological burdens our way of life creates.

We as a society have become entranced by scenes of torture and mayhem. We see it everywhere from the short scene in BBC’s Sherlock on Masterpiece Theater, to longer scenes in James Bond films, and on into the depravity of torture porn proper such as we see in the Saw series. The news carries the same things. The real world Texas Chainsaw Massacre like abuse of human beings (women and children, minorities and the poor more often than not it is worth pointing out) haunts us. It is as if we understand that before someone does these kinds of things on the outside, they long ago did the same thing and worse to parts of themselves on the inside. This scares us all. It can literally scare us to death.

Reason sheds its loving light on the search for the destroyer within. The ego’s waking mind can teach this wild imagination of ours the difference between a metaphor and a reality. The truth is that very few people, thankfully, will ever experience first hand the psychological state of extreme duress brought on by being tortured. However, as our “entertainments” are quick to capitalize on, we all share places within where our deepest fears around our fleshy vulnerabilities are imaged through torture in hot and cold hells.

The child wakes up screaming from a nightmare, their head filled with monsters, wild animals, weapons or torture devices attacking them, or any of the other shamanistic idioms. The parent soothes their fright with words of reason; there is no monster in the closet or under the bed. Eventually the child’s mind coalesces around real world fears, such as burglars coming through the windows, covert night visits by sexual predators in the family and other dangers of the real world the child is working so feverishly to understand. Reason is the boon of compassion. It does not go away but greets us again fresh each morning, regardless of what terrors may have visited us in the night. Our reasoning ability needs to teach the rest of the mind its knack for separating what is real from what is poetic, metaphor, exaggeration, or simply thoughts way too extreme to be applicable to the real daytime world as we experience it.

Against the destroyers we bring our protectors. These are every voice we have ever heard and glance we have recorded from the people who have seen who we really are as individuals, not remaining content to encounter just the personas built for the roles we fulfill as needed by some institution or another. Our protectors have seen who we are beneath the character armor and liked it. They hold a revelation it is almost impossible for the hurt parts within to really accept: loving kindness. The protectors act like a cloud of witnesses made up of everyone who has ever encouraged us with a kind word to do our best and be happy with that, as it expresses our own unique brand of Being Human via DNA ™. The protectors assert the rational truth that you have as much right to exist as any other creature that has ever won the DNA lottery. Protectors call destroyers what they are – liars. The devil, the Bible states, has been a liar and a murderer since the beginning. Protectors, on the other hand, defend life and stand firmly on the truth of things. They are warriors which keep the warrior’s honor.

This is in stark contrast to the destroyers. A warrior will not cause his or her opponent’s face to become washed in blood. They will not shame their enemy. That is dishonorable, a despicable act; to fight fair the shame shot is not taken. The willingness to do so is what makes the bully-torturer pathetic in the eyes of a warrior.

And so it has come to this. It is not exactly that we have elected a Bully in Chief, but indisputably President Trump brings a public meanness to the office not seen before. Does President Trump shame those he attacks, or does he stay above the belt and fight fair? Only the victims of his attacks can answer that. We all, however, have a stake in the answer to that question. For a great many things it will come to matter a great deal whether this nation is being led by a warrior in disguise, or a destroyer.

Remaining mindful of ecology we are not given to despair over the shifting fortunes of empires. We have been training in bringing aid to the suffering, under triage conditions, among the two-legged and four-legged for quite some time now. Don’t be fooled by shifting circumstances, big oil doubling down and taking over the apparatus of government, for example. Give it another ten years before drawing any conclusions.

Change would be coming about now, we were told a long time ago. Change was certainly needed; it has become patently obvious that business as usual has no long term future. Well, change is what we’ve got. Let us all pray. Pray with compassion filled hearts for each of the suffering sentient beings on our most precious, rare and beautiful earth. Pray the inevitable death throes of big oil will not be too destructive to that which remains.


I have added a a new page under poetics. It is hoped it might comfort with it’s simple reminder to Go forth and love life.

A Shamanism Model

The model we have been exploring is how the western mythology of the Christ includes the shaman-like descent into hell and ascent into heaven. We are looking at shamanism because we are interested in what we can say about the extremes of conscious experience. The suggestion has been that at some point an individual’s capacity for conscious experience, rooted in the ego, is transcended and passes into or blends with the archetypal. Mythology and symbols carry information about themes that are larger than any one individual life. Making them meaningful for an individual is a process not of indoctrination, as many a missionary might suppose, but recognizing how they might relate to or explain the events and experiences within an individual’s own life.

The highs and lows of subjective consciousness are something each of has intimate familiarity with, yet, for the most part we do not discuss them in polite company. The modern world has seen fit to relegate in-depth conversations about in-depth experiences to the psychologist and psychiatrist’s office. Therapy is the one place still sanctioned by the society as a place where individuals might work with the images and urges of what earlier generations called the soul and what we have come to call the psyche.

We are a sick society, growing ever more mean-spirited, frightened and selfish. We are sick in the way we think about things, specifically how we have come to value things. Clean air, land and water do not rank higher than quarterly short term profits. This type of sickness, when seen in an individual, has traditionally been referred to as a loss of soul, a sickness of heart, or even simply as having emotional problems. It might help us members of these societies to deal with them more skillfully by studying how the sickness and healing of the psyche plays out within individuals. This can give us some indications of what type of things to expect might happen in a general way as our society makes its way through history and who knows, a healing of individuals just might reach a critical mass one day and turn the tide of destruction currently in the ascendancy.

Within the full scope of our cultural evolution as a species we find these human needs involved with the highs and lows of subjective consciousness were first attended to by a class of healers anthropologically known as shamans. My definition of the shaman: one who recognizes that, whatever else they might be, the gods and demons are found within the soul, the psyche. The shaman has taken that first and most fundamental step on the path by insisting on remaining honest with themselves about what is real and what is not within their own experiences. Critically, this includes those experiences that arises from altered states of consciousness; peak experiences, ego death and the like. Shamans map the extremes of what consciousness can experience.

The abuses of young people are nothing new. The scars those abuses leave on the adult mind, and all the evil they can cause, are nothing new either. Additionally, the difficult transition from childhood thought to reason is a psychic challenge every generation has had to deal with. The shaman’s journey is the healing journey through the intra-psychic components of our body-mind. It does not seem to make that much difference if the healing is sought under the guises of a tribal, religious or medical community – it always entails rediscovering the innocence we all had as children. This is the Christ child of the west, as it is discovered within. Different people need different things to provide the courage and encouragement needed to make this often painful and lonely journey to find that place of initial innocence. But everyone who persists comes, sooner or later, to the place in reviewing their own past where they must finally admit to themselves that they were innocent and undeserving of the harm and pain, abuse and misuse they were subjected to by other people and by the nature of life on earth itself. This is the point at which the Bodhisattva is born. This is the point at which grace overcomes sin. From the root of this insight the ego and self are reconciled. Or, as the Christmas carol has it, “god and sinner reconciled.” God forgives the sinner, as per orthodoxy but also, as per the wisdom of the world, the sinner forgives god. Seeing oneself with these eyes of compassion allows one to forgive oneself for one’s ignorance and forgive others for theirs. Forgiveness is not a magic trick that turns acts of abuse into anything other than what they are. Forgiveness is a fundamental wisdom that recognizes that all things are equally subject to karmic-like forces.

In the history of the Western world and its traditions we find that the role of the shaman was taken over by the priests of the Christian church before it evolved into the counseling sciences we have today. Confession and penance, joined with a ritualistically supported cosmology centered around an active participatory mysticism in the Eucharistic Mass allowed our Christian foremothers and forefathers a chance to heal themselves of their psychic wounds. The Church provided a rather sophisticated map of the territory a person finds when they turn their attention within.

Many of these teachings have stood for centuries. In itself this means nothing when we ask ourselves if any particular idea bears wisdom or folly, but when ideas last this long it is incumbent on us to at least query whether or not there might be something there we can still find helpful as we try to find our way in these dark and troubled times. History is filled with dark and troubled times yet here we are as a species, still plugging away. Something kept our ancestors capable of living through waking nightmares. Perhaps that something is still available for us, even though we can no longer naively accept many of the unquestioned premises on which they were justified. It is very likely the case, in my opinion, that many of the early religious and philosophical investigations of our ancestor’s best minds and hearts are still capable of throwing some light on our generation’s experiences. These old hoary teachings may not be as out of touch as they first seem. The problem, as I see it, is that many of these ideas have salesmen today that insist you need to buy them wholesale, that is, in the form they took in the Dark Ages or during the Renaissance or even just when Leave It To Beaver was entertainment’s hottest ticket.

The Seven Deadly Sins were once known by most every school boy and girl. Since most of us no longer have this set of ideas on our cognitive tool belts here is the full list: Lust, Gluttony, Wrath, Sloth, Covetousness, Envy and Pride. They are called the deadly, or mortal, sins because these are the ones which can lead to a fall from grace and loss of soul. As E.F. Schumacher explained in his masterful essay The Roots of Violence, they are naturally divided between ‘warm’ sins of the body and ‘cold’ sins of the mind. (The majority of this essay has been added to this site as an adjunct to the model I am presenting). The body is subject to lust, gluttony and wrath whereas the mind is subject to covetousness, envy and pride; sloth is neither warm nor cold:

“The warm sins arise primarily from the body, the ‘heart’ if you like, and there violence tends to be counterbalanced or checked by strong emotional forces like pity, mercy, and a liability to get tiered and disgusted… It is different with the ‘cold’ sins. The roots of violence grow in all three, and there is little, if anything, in the natural dispositions of the mind to counteract or check their force… The old teaching of the Deadly Sins recognizes that the violence that stems from the heart tends quickly to find its limits: it is checked by other powerful emotions; while the violence that stems from the mind is capable of becoming unlimited and transgressing all bounds.”

It is not hard to see how these two families of failings correspond to the two types of abuse people can be subjected to; the hot sins of physical abuse and the cold sins of spiritual or psychological abuse.

We have examined the biological basis of abuse and healing in past posts. The shamanistic descent into hell goes into the psychoid realm of the body. This is the theoretically postulated place Carl Jung suggested exists where consciousness ends and matter begins (see section on later development here). It is as if the psyche of the broken young person is destined to have it out with the creator of the elements.

The lower centers of the body are where the fires rage. They are the evolutionary fires of hunger, lust, and anger but they are also the fires that maintain our warm blooded metabolism. Further in our descent we encounter our bones which is that part of our body that will have the longest molecular effect in time and in space on the earth, assuming they are not cremated. The shaman’s journey with dismemberment experiences and animal guides points to a place on the journey within the body where consciousness can go no further. Here the ego ends. The point is that consciousness can penetrate the glandular, molecular, and atomic nature of our own bodies to an astonishing degree given the right visionary states (or spiritual crisis) but at some point that which is human and real for the ego ceases to penetrate the darkness of the ultimate mystery of our being any further. At exactly that point myth takes over. Here the divine mingles with the human and only the one born of a virgin (aka not of the body but of the mind or soul) reconciles ourselves with god in his impenetrable darkness.

Speaking of the virgin birth symbolism, it is worth noting that in the Nativity story it is the shepherds, those that spend time attending animals, that are first called to see the Christ child laid in the manger, the home for animals. It brings to mind the fact that there is a stage universally found in human childhood in which all of the child’s favorite stories involve animals. Through animals we come to perceive and appreciate our embodied nature most immediately and directly. We share with them breath, senses and sensations but most strikingly we share with them expressions of self through purposeful actions (not to mention what we now know of DNA). According to the Nativity story it is only many weeks later that the wise men of the east, representing the ego mind, come to the manger of the Christ child bearing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. In the course of psychological development the infant mind becomes aware of its body and its extensions before it becomes aware of itself as a self.

Instead of penetrating the energy of the body with the heightened awareness of shamanistic states, the attention can be turned to the mind. Instead of a descent into the body’s hot fires of hell, there can be an ascent into the cold silence of the starry night found in the mind. Cognitive abstractions seem to carry an element of transcendence: they do not suffer from friction and entropy. This places them into a type of eternity compared to all things experienced outside the realm of thought. Instead of dealing with issues around flesh and the death of love or what we refer to as compassion as we find during the descent into the body, the ascension into the realm of the mind deals with issues related to understanding and reason or what we refer to as wisdom.

In the Jesus story the ascent is a return to the father, the all intelligent creator of these vast cosmological times and spaces which seem to dwarf our individual existence at every turn. We have spoken previously of the cosmological terror the Hubble telescope reveals and Lovecraft wrote about. Just as the descent into the body and all that is earthly uncovers not only hell fires but also the fire of love’s sacred heart, so the ascent into the mind encounters not only the heaven of Platonic ideals but also the cold hells of objectivity divorced from subjectivity.

During the ascent the ego can go to heights of penetrating insight that correspond to the penetrative emotions encountered during the descent. In one direction thought guides, in the other, feeling. The ascent up the ladder of thought, as it were, is where Jacob laid his head and angles were seen coming and going between heaven and earth in his dreams (Gen. 28). (It is true that the mind is the ultimate sexual organ and also, after the fashion of the DNA wisdom, the sexual organ is the ultimate mind. It is true that these opposites of flesh and spirit are harmonized along the middle way. Nonetheless, forces exist to tear that harmony to shreds within the psyche of the abused. This is what we are dealing with when we are discussing shamanism; the psyche that has yet to find its own way to that reconciliation with its own nature.)

The pain that needs healing in this ascending direction are all our attempts to capture the living word in a written system. We are always working to increase our understanding with the light of intuition’s insight to guide us. All this is great when it entails reasoning about that which concerns mankind: getting along harmoniously with the earth, animals and each other. But, the old Tower of Babylon temptation to build our cognitive castles all the way to heaven and claim we have captured in our dogmas the will of the living god remains. In our hubris we claim to have captured the meaning of it all, once and for all, and for all time.

These teachings concerning the shamanistic descent and ascent are intimately connected to those around the solstices. In the winter solstice with its Nativity story the darkest, longest night of the year is seen to be the point at which a growing light is first born. In the same way in the summer solstice the longest day of the year is found to be the point at which the growing darkness begins. There is no name for this day on the Christian calendar. Here, in the summer solstice, the ego falls at high noon. Just when we seem to be on the verge of leaping from human-hood to godhood, the whole project is revealed to be one of mistaken hubris. Panic surprises the hero on the cusp of victory as lightning hits the tower. Here again the poetic myth takes over to carry the Christ light into truth that is real (remember, reality is our touchstone) but beyond what the ego can know in words. Instead of a truth in words, it is the truth of the word; voice, labels, cognition. As the Native American prayer said so well, “I am humbled before that standing within me which speaks with me.”

On the body the chakra system maps fairly obviously to these things. The hot sins are related to the anus, sex organs and stomach regions. The cold sins are related to the brain, throat and heart. Separating these is the abdomen, the place associated with the will. There is a phrase circulating around the media just now as the Obama presidency comes to a close that can be applied to this shaman work: “when they take the low road, we take the high road.” That is, when people (within or without) try to manipulate you emotionally through violence, sex, and fear, the wise will respond with compassion, honesty and reason. This same message can be read into the traditional Christian practice of crossing oneself by touching the head and saying ‘father,’ the abdomen and saying ‘son,’ and the shoulders and saying ‘holy spirit.’ The will of the father is to be executed by the son. It is also a message that can be read into the traditional Buddhist practice of holding one’s hands in anjali and touching them to the head, throat and heart. The dignity of our human life is strengthened and affirmed thereby.

Paraphrasing Pascal we can agree that ‘the heart has reasons reason knows not of.’ The key here is that these things beyond what the ego can know directly, these things remain reasons: reasonable reflections of the truth and falsehood, good and evil, compassion and cruelty we have come to know through our own experience of an incarnate life. As above, so below. The human maps onto the cosmological, they are not two wholly separate things associated coincidentally through meaningless happenstance. When I am using the term ‘reason,’ it is this larger view of its power I have in mind. It is not limited to mathematics or the laboratory but also guides the farmer planting seed, sure of a likely harvest and a suitor seeking out his beloved’s hand with a plan, at least somewhat reasonable, for their future together so that it might include some version of ‘they lived happily ever after.’ Earlier posts examined how reason is born in the adult psyche as it sees through childhood’s gullibility. The work of the shaman is another view into the same process.

The purpose of the shaman bringing healing to body and mind is to liberate the heart so compassion and wisdom increase naturally. Our shaman is the king whose kingdom is the heart. Touched by the shaman, our loves and losses comingle with those of our forefathers and foremothers, as well as with our children’s and their children’s, world without end, amen. It reveals what we are. That which has been sweetest in our own lives, that which has been most profound and meaningful, and all the love that we have ever given and received – all of these things were never ours alone. Though we cannot claim them for our own, we need not fear losing them on our own either.

The shaman comes to liberate the body from enduring crushingly painful emotions and the mind from enduring terrifyingly horrific thoughts alone. But it is not like someone else shows up in your head. By the touch of the shaman your suffering is made one with the universal experience of consciousness wed to limitation. The shaman comes to liberate the body from its isolation from the rest of the living world. We share flesh with our animal brothers and sisters and find we are home here. The shaman comes to liberate the mind from enchantments to numinous bewitchments. By the touch of the shaman the mind can act from its center, instead of remaining condemned to only react in fear and longing to events, as if it were an un-nourished orphan all alone in an uncaring universe. Both of these are healings our modern societies desperately need. We fear we are alone in a meaningless universe, for our technological arts have enchanted us and we have lost our communion with the earth’s many non-human life forms. We are caught up, gazing into  mirrors of our own making and listening only to ourselves in our mass media echo chambers. Our societies could not continue to destroy so many of the earth’s ecosystems, day in and day out, without radical worldwide protest otherwise. We honestly do not sense the value of what we are losing. It is in this sense that a mindful ecology seeks to help us wake up in the age of limits.

I am not using the term waking up as, for example, Gurdjieff once did. It is not an encouragement to capital E enlightenment, to immanentize the eschaton or to obtain any other imagined great New Age spiritual accomplishment. What it means to wake up in the age of limits is much more pedestrian – but also much, much more real. To be awake means, literally, to have the courage to look upon the world’s current ecological crisis with the eyes of an emotionally informed reasoning. To be awake is simply to not allow the will-o-wisp of unemotional objectivity, nor foolish faiths rooted in imaginative dreaminess, nor our emotional cravings which often wish what cannot be, to cloud the best thinking, feeling and action we are capable of. That alone seems worthy of the kingly sovereignty of subjectivity we find within every sentient being.

Healing the Loss of Soul

It is not easy being a self aware animal in a universe seemingly unconcerned about one’s fate. The human struggle for survival is not just about the four Fs of food, fighting, fleeing and procreating. It also entails an irreducible psychological element as well, one that must deal with this existential situation. Shamanistic imagery speaks to our subjective experience of being an awareness in flesh. In the psychological realm adaptation and survival are translated into how well we are able to recognize what is real and what is a misperception or misunderstanding on our part. Earlier I mentioned that the shaman works to find the real by calling the unreal non-existent. The shaman has always understood a mystical monster is best beat with a magical stick. Many of our shaman stories concern themselves with how to separate the real from illusion, as best we might. These shamanistic teachings have been passed down from prehistory, conceivably from Neolithic times. For, you see, the most unique survival skill we homo sapiens bring to the table is our ability to adapt through the use of our understanding.

We have no fur, nor do we sport a fang, but we carry coats and knives. These coats and knives we have learned to make and use from long experiments with the real world. This molecular world we encounter within and without has strict rules, yet they allow for open ended exploration of evolutionary spaces. Our evolutionary space involves our understanding. Not yours. Not mine. Ours. This understanding of what’s what we learn and inhabit but also inherit and pass on.

Shamans are taught to use animal allies to defeat monstrous illusions, much as the Buddha defeated the illusions of Mara. Magicians, urban shamans with book knowledge, are taught to test the spirits and uncover the demons masquerading as angels. All these mythic ways of talking deal with this central epistemological point: how do we ultimately determine what is real about who and what we are in this life, on this earth, with these people we come to learn to love and hate? How do we know what we know? What separates justified belief from opinion?

I dare say it is almost as if the reality of the universe is basically good, just as the Buddha Nature and Garden of Eden teachings have it, so that when a child is abused (or otherwise encounters adult devastations) it is as if an unreality is created in the evil of the act. Of course nothing can really create an unreality so this sets the whole world askew, distorting the warp and woof of the universe. The wounded child becomes of necessity a shaman voyager of the deep physiological and emotional roots of their body and mind. What the wounded child discovers is that the whole universe seems primed to respond as if it was activated by the assault to restore wholeness and balance. Animals and angels seem to be there as allies. (Emergent phenomenon on many different scales often depend on homeostasis, we should not underestimate its power either in the individual psyche or in the collective psyche of a society.)

Less poetically, sometimes I wonder if all it takes to save a badly abused child from the suicide or debilitating drug abuse the percentages say lie in their future is just encountering one person who really sees them, really sees that they are precious, interesting individuals. Other people have dispensed with their existence by treating them as things to be used, instead of beings with legitimate subjectivity. The result is a gnawing sense of worthlessness burdening the victimized psyche.

We all struggle against the terrors of the unknown but for these young minds, and the minds still frozen young in previously abused adults, those terrors know no bounds. They lack the self correcting negative feedback that would allow the psyche to restore balance. Instead, these terrors tend to escalate with positive feedback into full blown panic attacks. Other parts of the psyche are frightened of this potential loss of control which places their survival in danger. They repress the terrified parts which in turn try to escape their prisons in binge behaviors and other out of control times. Childhood is a nightmare precisely because it lacks the touchstone of reason and reality where no real thing is without limits. Reality is merciful only in that no torture lasts forever. The traumatic events do not continue endlessly in time and space. They might seem to, however, in the mind. That is basically the definition of post traumatic stress syndrome.

This is going to sound funny, but it seems that becoming acquainted with the real terrors of life is the quickest way to defeat the burden of unreal terrors implanted in victims by their abusers. For the adept, the shaman who survives their ordeals, their personal death becomes an ally. That, as I understand it, is the shamans journey. Not quite as romantic as it has been made out to be but not as irrelevant to the crisis of our times as we might like to think either. After all, we have treated the psyche, the atmosphere of the mind, as we have treated the atmosphere of the planet; as an open sewer. The distortions of reality created by the evil that seeks to destroy earth for short term corporate profits are threatening all life forms with centuries of suffering. This is real. It is happening again today out here in the molecular world with its strict accounting of abuses and consequences. There is a bit of the shaman in all of us now.

No life is without pain. In the normal process of maturation the child psyche moves through the stages of development without encountering adult emotional trauma before they are adults. The mind has proven itself to be extremely resilient as it grows under the pain-filled experiences everyone encounters during childhood: embarrassment, shame, guilt, fear, betrayal, rage and all the rest. So many parts of ourselves need to be recognized and integrated, many of which come with very painful struggles. The work of integration can take months, even years. Somehow most of us grow through these learning experiences into caring, functioning adults. Living lives of quiet desperation perhaps, but finding our way through the many labyrinths of simply surviving in the molecular world.

Adults all encounter, sooner or later, the complete devastation of the ego that comes along with heartbreak. A child dies, a spouse is unfaithful, a parent wastes away in dementia, or some other arrow of poison is shot into the heart. There is no such thing as a life without pain. These are not the run of the mill sufferings and sorrows of the heart that I am talking about here, these are the life changing devastations that can cause a person to question everything they have ever believed about goodness and love. These dark nights of the soul deepen the character by etching lines deep within the perceptual and emotional make up of our nervous systems. They mature us and prepare us for death. That some kind of hope and love, light and life eventually return to most people’s lives is a profound witness to the resilience of the psyche and the intelligence by which it has been formed over evolutionary time.

I think we can safely say that when confronted with such top of the line pain-filled events in our lives, our first reactions are anything but healthy. We do the best we can and struggle along, day after day, by the best lights that are available to us at the time. This leaves people at all different stages along the maturation process. Adults who do not complete the journey, or at least have not yet, remain enslaved to cheap substitutes for the peace of mind they are finding so elusive. Sentimental movies and novels exploit these dangling needs and feed off the impulsiveness created by repressions that need to hide the pain from a psyche that is not yet ready to effectively deal with it. Many of our entertainment arts, though aiming to enlighten the human condition, can serve instead to distract the human psyche from that which it fears.

Over the centuries, as adults have all struggled with these things, they have been guided to come together around a variety of institutions and traditions by which persons can aid one another along the journey. The elders among us have been around the block: those left with wisdom as the end of their lives approach can help those they recognize as being involved in earlier stages along the way. They have experienced the psychological devastation of ego death and lived to tell the tale.

This is the normal course of events. What happens when one of those adult level devastating events comes crashing into the world of a child’s developing psyche? The child has a special kind of illness as a result, a loss of soul. Aspects of the human psyche, parts, step in to protect the self. This is recognized by the ego as out of body experiences and a set of accompanying ‘skills,’ namely, one pointed concentration (Samadhi) and dissolution (spacing out). These parts are not as mature as the elders, they too are but children at the time. Though they do the best they can, they are not capable of carrying the burden of the self into adulthood. In other words, such children will need to find a way to heal themselves if they are to have a functional, relatively happy life in the years to come. Those that manage to find the path of healing under these very adverse circumstances are given a type of preview into the type of psychological work required of all people sooner or later. Because they were broken early they are particularly skilled at helping those who break later. These people are what traditionally were recognized as shamans.

Shamans use ritual, meditation and entheogenic drugs along their healing journeys. These are able to re-imprint the nervous system, retrain it to feel being alive is worthwhile. Because these activities hold out the hope of healing a part of the psyche becomes enthusiastic about their use, obsessed even. This does not change the fact that these are like nuclear bomb level experiences for the self. The adult mind learns to fear losing its sanity, its grip on reason. The perceptual and emotional changes shamanistic technologies produce all shake these girders of the soul. They must to break the habitual ways of the character armor. A heroic quest is underway to find the way back to the time when their world seemed ok, before the disruption of the psyche’s continuity. These memories and parts need to be escorted across the abyss, as it were, into the full awareness of the mind as it is structured now in its post-traumatic form. Traumas such as I am discussing change the nervous system, in particular it seems the relation of the immune systems and parasympathetic nervous systems are effected. The “shaman” technologies are designed to address the wound at this level.

Are these techniques dangerous? Yes. I once was told of every 10,000 that even find their way to the abyss only 1,000 make it across. The rates of suicides, accidents with funny circumstances, homelessness and drug addictions both legal and otherwise, indicate that maybe that old saw carries some weight. It would be helpful if as a society we could come to understand that those on these kinds of paths are not choosing them due to their cussedness, they need them. They need the healing they potentially can bring to their wounded self.

One problem is none of this fits into the capitalist culture. By pretending competition is the main social force in a world of social Darwinism the whole emotional system related to the parasympathetic nervous system is denied, denigrated, and dishonored. Safety, satisfaction, comfort, compassion and caring are not highly regarded. Recall the ongoing creation of a lack of satisfaction in mass media saturated cultures is how our extremely high levels of consumerism are maintained. It is not true that our non-indigenous consumer cultures do not have shamanistic traditions, for Christ is the heart’s shaman for western European history. What has happened, far as I can tell, is that our non-indigenous consumer cultures have unwisely allowed unregulated exploitation of these psychological wounds by anyone who can use them to turn a profit. There is big money in broken children. The rock star junkies, the prostitutes, the frail bulimics, and on and on – they all make good add copy.

Another problem is that none of this shamanistic subject is well understood in the modern western world. For example, according to the federal government there is no difference between pot and heroin. It is hard to imagine being more wrong. The healing lesson of the real shaman always includes a type of humility of the human being before the great forces of the cosmos. This humility arises naturally in the process of accepting the personal pain involved in the death of love. This type of humility is distinctly out of style in the youth worshipping culture designed by Madison Avenue and funded by Wall Street. By the time the whole subject of shamanism is piled high with cosmic foo foo by their manipulations of its image into something “cool” there is very little skin left on the bone.

I mentioned in one of the first posts that I had thought long and hard about including the term ‘mindful’ for the moniker of my work. So much crap had accumulated around the term I feared using it could distance myself from the very audience I am hoping to reach. In the same way I considered not using the term ‘shaman’ at all. In both cases I decided that there is something important enough for the healing and well being of people in these troubled times that it was worth the risk of being so completely misunderstood. Besides, I think that what these terms really refer to might play an important role in helping us through the long descent of our ecologically ignorant and dangerously unbalanced culture.

What shamans learn, those that survive, is to pick their battles carefully. The parts of the psyche that usurps the role of the self in this type of spiritual emergency include an inherent ignorance that is dangerous. Generally these parts are acting with stellar motives. They are just not well equipped to do what they are trying to do – keep the traumatized psyche alive – so they do not do it all that skillfully. The healing comes as the shaman learns to reclaim the wisdom of the self: rational and balanced without cognitive and emotional extremes. Part of that healing process includes learning to defend the self from the ignorance inherent in the parts of the psyche trying to upsurge its role. One learns to fight back. Doing so well is harder than it might seem. One must learn to attack and to dress wounds without causing more harm in the process. So many self-help attempts just make everything worse. Lead by the compassionate self, the shaman in training learns to use a dart instead of a sledgehammer.

Like the contemplative, the shaman needs to discover how to extend a place of grounded safety to the hurt and abused people-like parts found within, just as surely as they work to extend a hand of compassion to those parts of people they meet out in the world. Over time the parts can learn to trust that the self really does have their best interests at heart and lay down the burdens they had acquired. They truly let go of the memories and feelings frozen in time, re-stitching the traumatic events back into the proper chronology of the mind’s autobiographical story. These traumatically frozen knots are what make up the character armor we have discussed. These knots require constant energy to maintain; just look how quickly our minds are able to leave the reality of the present and find themselves caught up in other times and other places. The teachings are that the path of healing is aided by mindfulness, that is, by the ability of awareness to return to a focus on the safety and security of the present moment in all its perceptual, cognitive and emotional reality. The frozen parts seem to be ignorant of this, as if they were not included in the on-going maturation of the psyche.

When dealing with the most difficult psychological material, that related to abuses of persons and earth, we are not seeking to obliterate ourselves or others. We are seeking to integrate the hurt parts of both ourselves and our societies. We can do so by remaining centered in our self. One way to regain or remain centered is to maintain an awareness of the body, for the body is always and only in the present moment. Bringing oneself back to the present, by becoming aware of the breath or tapping a finger, is a fairly common teaching among those who spend hours meditating. It is a major turning point in a person’s life when they discover and learn to honor the healing power of the self and take their seat. They are no longer being led around by the nose in desperate attempts to redeem themselves in the eyes of their abusers, no longer looking for a better mom or dad, no longer expecting to find the holy man with all the answers or the sacred prostitute with ultimate sexual encounters. They have recognized the inner guru, done what needed to be done.

With these few introductory remarks about what shamanism actually entails I would like to take a look next at what it is these psychological voyagers encounter. In speaking of the Christ as the western shaman mention was made of his ascent to heaven and descent to hell. I want to take this as a framework to share some speculative ideas next week.