Beasts and Caesars

“Society reposes on the fact that man is a creature of habit. By interlocking the various habits of many men, society obtains a structure which may be compared with that of a running machine… Let anyone try to realize what would happen to himself if all those on whom he depends – the postmen, railwaymen, butchers, bakers, printers and very many others – were suddenly to vary their settled routines; he will then begin to appreciate in how great a degree the power of modern man over nature is due to the fact that society is a ‘going concern,’ or, in the language of the engineer, has momentum. Stop the running long enough to throw men’s habits out of gear with one another, and society would quickly run down to the simple reality of control by nature. Vast numbers would die in consequence.”
Sir Halford Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality 

“He calls it Reason, using light celestial
Just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”
Goethe, Faust

 

The recent rumblings between Iran and Saudi Arabia are capable of invoking nightmares among those of us concerned about oil as a weapon. Right now we are watching a confluence of saber rattling and sectarianism against the background of the rising militant Islamic State. Let us all pray this particular confrontation develops no further. Business as usual in the world’s industrial societies is 100% dependent on the uninterrupted flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. If the flow of oil were to be interrupted,particularly for any great length of time, the situation industrial societies find themselves in could get real interesting, real quick. Some might even say it could be apocalyptic.

We left off last week in our examination of the Biblical Apocalypse by highlighting how the image of Babylon captures well the world neoliberalism has created. The central role of finance and the trading of goods is taught in that Biblical book to be the Achilles’ heel of empires, and that it is the hubris of the emperor’s cult which is to be resisted.

That post also laid out the splitting of trinities; the mirror images of God-Father, Christ-Son and Holy Spirit are reflected in the Book of Revelation by the Dragon-Father (mother?), Whore-Daughter, and unholy beast. This was presented in the context of the psychological phenomenon whereby unconscious material first presents itself to consciousness as if it is split in two. The maturing of the psyche, individuation, comes about with a reconciliation of these opposites, a reconciliation recognizable in the schematic layout of mandala forms.

This week we are going to apply the interpretive key of the splitting phenomenon to some of the remaining characters of the dark trinity of the apocalyptic story. When laying out the mirror images above I overlooked a detail; there is not one beast described in the book but two. That is, the symbol of the beast is itself split. There is said to be a beast of the sea – which historically in the book stands for the Emperor of Rome, likely Domitian. The other beast is said to be of the land and historically most scholars associate it with the Roman provinces and their principal governors. They are said to promote the worship of the first beast and his image, the royal visage on the coin of the realm. We can see why they promote this state of affairs when in their lament for the fallen Babylon “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn for her, because there will be no more markets for their cargo…”

The image is of the Emperor ruling the sea and like the Illuminati octopus (joke folks) extending his imperial reach across the globe through every port city. A type of geopolitics with a world island is being described.

If the appearance of the two beasts is taken as a case of splitting it hardly follows the typical pattern where one side is all good and the other evil; both after all are a part of the dark inversion. Perhaps we can throw more light on the symbols by comparing them with their counterparts in the light trinity, namely the Holy Spirit.

Carl Jung spent considerable effort in explaining the implications of the feminine, earthly fourth said to be necessary to balance the masculine, heavenly trinity at the heart of Christian theology and western culture. He was inspired, in part, by the alchemical Axiom of Maria which stated (using Marie-Louise von Franz translation) “Out of the One comes Two, out of Two comes Three, from the third comes the One as the Fourth.” It was Jung’s contention that the West had developed lopsidedly by enthroning the light of reason and damning all else – all the other experiences of human consciousness such as dreams, visions and altered states. This neurosis was said to be related to our inability to properly integrate the feminine values of nurturance and compassion in our overly masculine and competitive culture. By his light the result would be an irruption from the unconscious of just those repressed elements needed to rebalance the collective psyche and steer it away from madness.

He thought the occurrences of widespread UFO phenomenon was a psychic manifestation in individuals of the unconscious material breaking through, noting the mandala shape often associated with UFO sightings. He also saw in the Catholic Church’s 1950 declaration of the Assumption of Mary as dogma a powerful corrective being applied right at the heart of the matter. With the Assumption the feminine and earthly were returned to the trinity, creating the three-fold / four-fold wholeness that is the mystery of the mandala. The Holy Spirit and Mary are now forming a reconciliation of sorts; the spirit in the pure womb, the container and the contained.

The growing concern for the state of the planet and the growth of Gaian lifestyles are further manifestations of this same eruption into consciousness, the same rebalancing of the collective psyche. In this model what each of us do matters a great deal as it will either lend weight to the ongoing evolution of the  mind’s individuation – and the accompanying strengthening of the dignity and compassion that goes along with being such a human being – or obversely throws its weight onto the precarious burden of rear-guard movements already threatening regressive madness.

Babylon pointed to trade and finance as a warning. The beasts point to politics with theirs. Man can indeed be wolf to man. When must we most watch out for this slide into political butchery? The warning in the Apocalypse story seems to be related to what has been called the rise of the Caesars. This is a stage when the strong man appears promising to restore order once the empire is rotten at the core, the collapse of complexity is well underway and the habitual daily habits that once supplied the populous with goods and services has been disrupted. The masses giddy with idealistic freedom after the French revolution did not take long, once the food was no longer forthcoming, to find and enthrone Napoleon.

In the Biblical story all this is symbolized by the special time being depicted. What is happening on earth is reflected in heaven, the Platonic realm of pure ideas if you will, where the Dragon has been cast out and takes with him a third of the stars of heaven. This image of stars crashing to earth is but the most dramatic of a series of natural disasters said to plague the human inhabitants of the earth at the time of Revelation. Scholars of apocalyptic literature explain the disruptions of the natural order are reflections of the societal breakdown from which apocalyptic literature is born. The beasts then warn us about the types of politics that accompany such times; the politics of collapsed states where it is rule by the ruthless and the law of the jungle prevails. Beasts indeed.

As events along the curve of society’s catabolic collapse accelerate the people naturally look for a strong leader who promises to deliver them from the painful dangers and uncertainties of societal chaos. The earliest kings were likely the toughest SOBs around. Something similar is taking place here. The aura of safety around the great man, even if illusory, is seen as a life preserver to which the people desperately cling.

With the fall of Babylon the beasts come. This is how Oswald Spengler puts it in The Decline of the West, “… the Caesar-men. Before them the omnipotence of money collapses. The Imperial Age, in every culture alike, signifies the end of the politics of mind and money. The powers of the blood, unbroken bodily forces, resume their ancient leadership. ‘Race’ springs forth, pure and irresistible – the strongest win and the residue is their spoil. They seize the management of the world, and the realm of books and problems petrifies or vanishes from memory.”

I think what the Apocalypse offers are warnings; their symbolic inheritance captures lessons learned from a particular time and place that are being presented to speak directly to any other time and place that might find itself dealing with the same dangers. This is a bad time for good people, the story says; the Dragon sends a flood of persecution to try and sweep away the “church.” The Western Revelation captures what we as a people have learned about the ways of humanity and empire. From the esoteric point of view to read it as just some sort of religious faith document is to largely miss the point.

We don’t want to go here if it can be avoided. America as a collapsed state would be a very poor condition for the world to find itself in. These real life horrors come in degrees so we can rationally hope that strengthening and spreading pockets of sanity might tame the descent into madness. The long descent as the global financial system teeters, aka Babylon falls, and our societies shed excess complexity need not be accompanied by a descent into social chaos. Disruptions of law and order can be contained if we work to encourage one another in appreciating and celebrating the blessing of life lived simply. There are many broken cornerstones in our politics today but we are pretty clear on what they are and what it would take to fix them. In spite of the headlines of gloom the good that people are able to manifest, if they so choose, remains an overwhelming characteristic of daily life for the vast majority. We can draw on that as we face the work of societal transformation we are all caught up in whether we like it or not.

It is a sad truth about human nature that often we do not appreciate a good until it is gone. We should all hope and work so that this does not become the case here. Just as with contemplation practice we can learn to perceive the preciousness of what we have without losing it, so with similar concentration on our country’s founding principles we have a good chance of getting through the next few challenging decades with our dignity intact.

Otherwise we just might find ourselves in that other part of the Apocalyptic story, the one that takes place on the fields of Armageddon. This is the western cremation ground. Here at last, and in final form, the ego learns it is not in control and does not have the final word; that it has been ignorant about reality. Human hubris is slaughtered; the meek inherit the earth and the clear light of the heavenly city, that jeweled mandala of the west, shines forth. It is a fitting conclusion to the Bible that has taken the ego’s journey as its theme. It is not however meant to be a Pentagon planning document as fundamentalists of every stripe the world over mistakenly believe. For them it is a trap. Here, in the core stories that carry such gravitas in the western psyche, it is very dangerous to mix the planes and eat the menu instead of the meal.

Babylon

“If God will intercede to stop humans from destroying the earth – which 39% of respondents believed to be true – why legislate limits on carbon emissions?”
Half of Americans think Climate Change is a Sign of the Apocalypse

 

One of the more interesting things Carl Jung observed in dream analysis is that when an item is coming to consciousness for the first time it will often present itself as double, as twin images. One side often embodies the dark, twisted and sick while the other light, wholesomeness, and health. It is as if consciousness, when confronted with something larger than it is able to cope with whole, approaches it piecemeal. By working with the opposites the mind is lead towards harmonizing disparate aspects of itself. Identifying this process has provided an illuminating key to some very interesting interpretations of stories and stages of psychological development.

For example, in developmental psychology it is common to observe in young people a clean cut separation of the world into two opposite camps; the sheep and the goats. Later in life, as experiences accumulate, a more mature view develops that recognizes the potential for good or ill resides in each and every one of us.

Christian theology is no stranger to the splitting process; the Christian Bible itself could be characterized as bookended by just such phenomenon. It starts its tale of humanity in the Garden of Eden in which there are two trees; one the tree of life granting immortality and the other the tree of good and evil bringing death. At the end of the Bible is the Book of Revelation in which an evil trinity of sorts confronts the holy trinity and the end of the human world is the result.

We have been exploring the esoteric roots of western traditions in an attempt to find insight into the ongoing Eco- crisis. This point of view reads symbolism as expositions of human experience and lessons learned. Though our rational mind would like all its lessons cut and dried and delivered in unambiguous prose the nature of our perceptual, emotional and cognitive experience is such that only symbols are able to capture the essential elements of the most profound lessons and insights we are able to share with one another. Symbols can also be mined for allegorical or metaphorical meaning yet remain inviolate at the end of the day.

Consider for example the symbolism of the two types of trees in the Garden of Eden stories. Over the centuries buckets of ink have been spilt “explaining” how they represent one aspect of our experience or another. One family of explanations sees in the story the loss of childhood innocence with the coming of sexual knowledge. Another reads the tale as an explanation of undifferentiated consciousness falling into dualism while yet another family of interpretations insists on reading it literally (perhaps the apple was some new kind of neurotransmitter allowing the hominid brain to develop – that’s as far down that path I’m willing to go). This ability to host numerous insights is what makes the symbols of our stories so fruitful. Those fascinated by a particular set of symbols never tire of contemplating them.

Perhaps nowhere in the western intellectual tradition is this more obviously the case than in the lurid symbolism found in the Book of Revelation, also known as the Apocalypse. Scholars have poured over every dot and tittle and offer an interpretive key to the symbolism by recognizing the coded allusions to the Roman Empire and Emperor they contain. Historically the book is concerned with the collapse of that empire as well as the imperial cult of Emperor worship. It calls Christians to refuse to partake in the imperial cult even at the risk of martyrdom.

Apocalyptic literature is the literature of societal collapse. This alone would bring it within the purview of mindful ecology which is concerned with how people are reacting to the age of limits. That it is in the news daily only adds another good reason to take a look. But beyond these there is the elephant in the room, the specific detail that fits hand to glove within these Faustian times. Or so, at least, it seems to me.

Before adding my own two cents for how we might think about these symbols, let’s take a step back and look at the larger Biblical picture. The most defining feature is how time is being characterized as having a clear beginning and end. History is being presented as a linear progression throughout, with each event corresponding to some hidden purpose. The earth is presented as a type of backdrop or theatrical stage scene in which the real drama, the drama of souls, plays out. It is worth pointing out in passing that although this model of time has played a fundamental role in western thought it is not the only viable model nor does it correspond to what we know about relativity in physics. An earlier post mentioned an alternative in which the present moment outflows endlessly, like the center point of a mandala. Interestingly the culmination of celestial visions in the Christian Bible is also presented in a mandala form.

Recognizing this linear model of time it is not difficult to see how the Biblical symbolism lends itself to the mystical insight, the esoteric point of view. We find the symbolism relating very directly to the experiences of the ego. The western stories, more so than those of the east, take the ego on its own terms and spin out the consequences. The mind comes into awareness at some moment in early childhood we do not recall. The soft nurturance of infantile innocence and dependency gives way to struggle and toil as we enter childhood and adolescence and work out for ourselves what lights we will live by, what strikes us as good and ill. Garden of Eden story: check. At the other end of life we face our demise and with our death comes the end of the world – for us. Book of Revelation story: check.

Notice how the mystical reading moves these things from some far off and abstract dogmatic assertions about how the universe is and bring them as close to us as our breath. Though the mystic is typically considered to be rather head in the clouds and pie in the sky types, here we see something extraordinary; it is they who stick with the evident; grounding speculations in experiences rather empirically. Something similar was found when we examined ‘cold reason’ and found that without emotion being properly involved, reason goes off the tracks. Here we are finding that without personal experience to add wisdom to these stories, we all too easily end up with compassionless dogmas and holy wars.

From this wider view another feature of the Biblical symbolism stands out running parallel to the shape of time. That is how these stories imply that the experiences of history’s nightmare somehow all make sense in light of some final revelation. This special revelation has inspired Gnostics of every stripe in every generation. This is where the myth of Faust finds its roots in Christian cultures and it should come as no surprise that such cultures have excelled in the sciences. In the book of Revelation the seals unfold and the trumpets blare and each time the reader is made privy to another event hidden from the beginning of the world. The western idea of progress captures this expectation that someday in the future a final, ultimate understanding will finally dawn and from it will come utopia.

Another feature the Book of Revelation lends itself to supporting is the idea that the real life of this life we experience exists elsewhere than where it appears. The book is constructed as a puzzle box, a set of nesting dolls where the reader is lead on into unfolding events with ever increasing anticipation of a final revelation. There are seven seals that are opened but the opening of the seventh reveals seven trumpets which blare, the seventh one of which, in turn, reveals the throne vision etc.

We are in the basement of the mind as it were, where the shape of what can or cannot be considered meaningful for us personally and collectively is molded. These major stories are like a tutor talking to us in the language we immediately perceive, the language of dreams.

Which brings us back to the phenomenon of splitting Jung observed. It has become cliché to speak of self-fulfilling prophecies when discussing the Apocalypse. I suggest the splitting phenomenon adds weight to this insight by lending it a nuance that makes it a helpful heuristic by which we might comprehend the nature of the changes our societies are going through today. It is not just that we are unconsciously seeking out an Armageddon level of confrontation with the infidels – though we are – but also that we are turning our worship to the dark trinity as well. It is not just that we are idiots conflating personal death with planetary death and both with ultimate culmination of righteousness (immanentize the eschaton!), though this too is in play. What splitting suggests is that we are also struggling to grow into a new awareness. I think culturally we are somewhat like the child who wants to leave their parent’s dogmatic religion to experience something more valid and real for themselves.

Just what this awareness might be only our descendants will be able to identify with certainty but an examination of the symbolism involved can provide us with clues. It seems to be related to empires, trade and economics; some lesson about sustainability perhaps.

The split in the Apocalypse occurs as a war in heaven and its spilling over to the earth. The God-Father, Christ-Son, and Holy Spirit collection finds its mirror image in the Dragon-Father, Whore-Daughter, and unholy beast (which is itself split).

Ecologically oriented as I am I cannot help but point out a few details I think are telling. It is my opinion that in general we human beings are not nearly as unconscious as we let on. We understand a lot more about our existential situation than we dare to admit within the very limited confines of our everyday waking consciousness. One of the ways I see this manifesting is in the care with which we have crafted the neoliberal globalization message to fit so well with the apocalyptic symbolism. Here in the basement of the mind…

Babylon is the central player here just as Christ is in the corresponding light trinity. The book does not say that much about Babylon but it is enough to be recognizable:

  • Her doctrine is that of the anti-Christ: anti-compassion aka selfishness
  • All the nations of the earth are made to trade with her, in case you thought gun-boat diplomacy was something new
  • “Merchants of the earth grew rich trading in her desire for luxury” or what the King James Version calls “delicacies.” This is not globalization to spread well crafted necessities to as many people as possible but to adorn the one percent with baubles
  • “The kings of the earth fornicate with her.” Sex sells. And we have already looked at the incestuous pyramids of kingly hierarchy where the revolving door between say, politicians and armament manufacturers still spins

Babylon seems made to order as the poster child for the fossil fueled, globalized, industrial civilization, the consumer culture it sustains, and the neoliberalism by which it justifies itself. Now isn’t that an odd thing for a (formerly?) Christian culture to do? As if a splitting phenomenon is unfolding on a massive scale as the eons turn…

Half of all Americans think climate change is a sign of the end times. I quoted an article earlier about how young Muslims are joining ISIS because they think by doing so they will participate in the final battle of Armageddon. There is no escaping how all this is bundled together in our intellectual history. We have turned to the dark side to receive our revelation. I wonder what it is going to be. How much further do we need to go in molding events to confirm our beliefs?

Here is my two cents about what the story in the Book of Revelation means; it’s like an inside view of the resurrected life, life beyond robots. It is a rather simple message really, involving the mystery of ever-present time:

The war is over – the good guys won. The Apocalypse has been cancelled.

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.”