With Heart

“We don’t have religious tests for our compassion.”
President Barak Obama

“‘Every day seeing death and destruction… through horrific high definition images fed directly to their smartphones and social media feeds.
This is unlike any other generation, being exposed to so many traumatic uncensored images.
This has a really quite profound effect on them. When young people have no-one to talk to – and express their ideas to – it’s deeply unsettling for them.
For some kids it might manifest into [joining] a gang or binge drinking or anti-social behaviour or self-harm.
It just so happens that for young Muslims it manifests itself into extremism, for some of those kids.
It’s the counter culture they gravitate towards.’ …
Many Islamic State recruits believe they are taking part in an ‘important episode of human history’.
IS thinks what is happening in Syria marks the start of the apocalypse.
They believe in Muslim prophecies that an epic battle between Christianity and Islam will lead to the appearance of the anti-Christ and eventually the day of judgement.”
BBC Why People Want to Join the Islamic State, quoting the imam Alyas Karmani

 

The other form of the Dark Youth Lashing Out At The World phenomenon raised its ugly head in Paris this week. The lives of a school shooter and a fundamentalist bomber are worlds apart; they share no motives in common, the results of their actions could not be more different politically and yet both are choosing to make their statement by murdering innocent people, both tend to be of the same age ranges and gender. Both are obviously products of the modern world’s environment of neoliberal globalization and Eco-Crisis. Perhaps both share some of the same biological and physiological markers we have been discussing as indicators of a propensity to psychopathology. These are interesting speculations, particularly if they prove to be a tentative diagnosis of a new global phenomenon of youth killing youth on unprecedented scales.

I prefer the term fundamentalist bomber to terrorist bomber because it identifies what I think is the single most critical ingredient; the conviction that brooks no doubts that in killing you, I am doing some god’s work. No religion has an exclusive market on fundamentalists and bombs dropped from drones are not all that different than bombs strapped to vests for their victims. A starker example of the importance of intention would be hard to find because there is in fact a world of difference between acts of violence carried out in an apocalyptic fever and those executed for the protection of the dignity and well-being of a threatened community after rationally exploring diplomatic alternatives.

Sometimes you have to kill the monster but in doing so great care is needed else you become a monster yourself. As one religious tradition with a strong apocalyptic element faces off with another religion with equally strong apocalyptic features we as individuals would do well remembering this.

Regular readers will have noted the mention of the graphic images of violence in the imam’s words quoted above. When working on the front lines with our youth this concern about the radicalization of images is not an ivory tower subject. As contemplatives who understand some of what the true power of images can be, we need to stand for their skillful use and against their abuse. In a culture suffering a hypnotic fascination from its saturation in violence and torture “entertainments” it might seem a hopeless task to ever reestablish an aesthetic worthy of our human dignity, but we can speak the idea. The self serving gerrymanders against censorship should not be allowed to continue to shut out any and all real public conversations about the types of public images we want. The culture you save could be your own.

I wonder if the Eco-Crisis darkening our children’s futures is not acting as a psycho-physiological pressure with symptoms we are starting to see. The school shootings and fundamentalist bombings are like traumas of a species being squeezed. If the cycles historians like Arnold Toynbee and Oswald Spengler claimed to have discovered are real, the symptoms will not end here; Caesars, war bands and other Dark Youth lead developments can be expected as our fossil fueled industrial civilization continues its long descent.

Previous civilizations have degraded ecosystems and environments as part of their fall but the way in which our situation is global and our powers are on the scale of Homo Colossus adds an unprecedented risk to the rise and fall of civilizations as they have played out over the long centuries of recorded human history. We can play business as usual and pretend normal still exists but it looks like our children are not being fooled. Life reacts to the environment it finds itself in and if these ecological critiques are accurate, that environment now contains signals about numerous tipping points having already been crossed. Already baked in the cake is a devil’s brew of crop failures, immigrations, costal destruction. And how might we react to these things? With resource wars and lots of talk about curbing carbon as it continues to increase year after year. Oh and those resource wars, they are very likely to disrupt the flow of oil one day and then everything would suddenly get a whole lot more interesting, quickly.

There are echoes of crusades and inquisitions between the headlines these days. It is hard to miss. When a public figure suggests the only Syrian refugees the U.S. should accept are Christians, bells should go off.

If I am not mistaken there are going to be plenty of apocalypses to go around. As the wheel of history turns, the play could well be ‘I’ll see your apocalypse and raise you one better,’ as it were. Right now the focus is on the provocation of the Islamic State and its ideology, which, as the quote above illustrates, includes a very explicit threat to Christians as Christians. We can be sure a number of preachers are setting their pulpits on fire throughout our country in response.

At such a juncture it might prove profitable to examine our own western ideals and ideas a bit, clarify for ourselves what our Christian roots have bequeathed to our institutions but more importantly, out intuitions. How we each come to think about world events when they go pear-shaped is an important ingredient in the witches brew of causes and conditions from which the future will unfold.

I am interested in how the Buddhadharma is rooting itself in our western cultures. This involves the transformation of the semi-conscious Christianity in our blood, a reconciliation of our practice of Buddhism with the religious inheritance of our ancestors. There are many levels to such projects. Historically it is said to have taken hundreds of years for the dharma to be fully reflected in the Tibetan culture which had adopted it. Here in the U.S. the process is still very much in its infancy. Science has gotten into the act with brain scans of meditating lamas and psychotherapies developed around the principals of mindfulness and compassion. What I have seen less material addressing is the way a Buddhist might read the mystical or esoteric traditions of Christianity. In the same way Bon was absorbed in Tibet I expect some form of Christian insight to carry us into deeper integrations of the dharma with our lives and views.

As the western calendar turns towards the Christmas season and in light of Pope Francis’ recent ecological encyclical and finally because I sense there is a tantalizing link between the apocalyptic symbolisms and the phenomenon of the dark youth I want to try and tease out, we are going to explore the interface between the traditions of Buddhism and western traditions.

I’m aware that this type of work is often tinged by polemics where members of each side try to persuade others that theirs is the superior view. That sort of philosophy, theology, and metaphysic has always seemed to me to be of limited usefulness; as if we were putting the tradition’s deities into a boxing ring to discover which god wins.

Another fairly common framework for such comparative analysis is the conviction that all religions are equal; that when you strip away the cultural baggage all paths lead to the same place. This is a tricky one because without doubt it is exposing a kernel of truth in so far as all teachings are born from the common human experience. But when it is stated baldly, like the milk-toast New Age version, it misses the very sharp and fundamental differences among views. In my opinion there are no simple solutions to this intellectual Gordian knot but generally sharpening the distinctions is how those elements of common ground that are there can best be discovered, while blurring the differences is appropriate to non-dual states of altered consciousness reached through compassionate consideration of our fellow brothers and sisters of the human DNA dance.

With these two extremes out of the way the field is hopefully cleared for the type of analysis I think might be useful.

Ultimately the Eco-Crisis has been created, or at least unprecedentedly exasperated by, the unique dynamism of western cultural institutions and history. These, arguably, have gained their initial justifications from their roots in Christianity. In 1905 Max Weber famously sketched The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism as a classic in the genre. In it he proposed that the secular pursuit of wealth and private gain was a result of the Protestant work ethic applied to the task of proving one is blessed by god and predestined for salvation among the elect. However it is Oswald Spengler’s 1926 characterization in Decline of the West of ours as a Faustian culture which will be more important to our analysis. This however, is getting far ahead of our story.

Last week the subject of the heart was raised. A quick review of what lead us to here might be useful. As we cast about for whatever allows us to make some sense of the world in the age of limits we positioned ourselves ecologically, then in evolution’s deep time. Next we examined our biological development eventually getting to the role of the nervous system and finally the human brain. In the modular information processing capabilities of the brain architecture we find no singular, unchanging self. The other important aspect of neuroscience we examined was the role of emotion in the act of reasoning. Following this clue lead us to dive into the under-appreciated role of cooperation and empathy in the overall story of life. Focusing on the care of the young displayed by mammals lead us to the subject of compassion. Compassion wants to relieve suffering so we looked at the heart of darkness; the suffering involved when human beings kill one another. Which lead us to the heart of the matter or is that the heart of matter?

Guided by our hearts to listen again to the living heart of the world, a mindful ecology is one in which the biophilia within a grateful heart bestows a heart of gladness on its practitioners.

From that heart we will approach the western mysteries. In Egypt Maat weighed the heart against a feather, the Jewish mysticism of the Kabalah features the heart as the bond between heaven and earth, there is the sacred heart royally crowned and the sacred heart crowned with thorns, not to mention the heavy heart, the broken heart and the previously mentioned, heart of darkness. The heart will be our Ariadne’s thread.

Pyramids in the Collective Unconscious

“The Dalai Lama encourages each of us to take more active charge of our own minds. For use of those so inclined, he envisions an internal ‘map of the mind,’ giving us the lay of the land in our mental terrain – particularly the turbulent seas of emotions – so we can chart the way towards self-mastery.
To map that route, he adds, we first ‘should have sufficient knowledge about what emotions are helpful, which can become destructive, how they develop, the connections between them.
The more knowledge we have about that,’ he adds, ‘then the easier it is to handle destructive emotions. That’s why a map of emotions can help.'”
Daniel Goleman, A Force for Good, The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World

“My thesis, then, is as follows: In addition to our immediate consciousness, which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche (even if we tack on the personal unconscious as an appendix), there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited. It consists of pre-existent forms, the archetypes, which can only become conscious secondarily and which give definitive form to certain psychic contents.”
Carl Jung, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious

 

This week we are going to begin our exploration of western religious ideas by examining Egyptology. I hope to show in these explorations that there is more going on with these mythologies than just dry and dusty ancient history. The esoteric subjects may seem irrelevant to our lives as they unfold in the modern world. I will argue, like Carl Jung in Psychology and Alchemy, that the modern mind continues to harbor a type of resonance with the symbol systems of the past.

Jung found in an analysis of the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli a plethora of alchemical symbols and motifs that were personally relevant to Pauli at the time and, as the series of dreams documented in Psychology and Alchemy shows, even helping him comprehend and assimilate important truths about that which is numinous and beyond ego limitations.

Most cultures have recognized that dreams can be messages or harbingers from that which is greater than us. Jung’s psychotherapy continued that tradition; respecting it enough to develop dream analysis into a practical therapeutic tool to guide both doctor and patient in the treatment of the pains and terrors of the mind. In the process of developing this tool Jungian studies made a unique contribution to the scientific study of dreams in their contention that they can be contextualized through their relationship with fairy tales, mythologies, and religious tales and symbolism systems. Of course the Native American shaman interpreting a ‘big dream’ contextualized it within the spiritual tradition he or she was familiar with as well; Jung’s insight is hardly unique.

However, his hypothesis about dream content went a step further, an important step that invites us to reassess what we think we know about how the human mind works. Jung believed that dreams reflected a detailed knowledge of intricate symbol systems and esoteric motifs far in excess of what is known by the conscious mind. Wolfgang Pauli, for example, while exposed to chemistry in his training as a world class physicist had not studied its alchemical roots in medieval manuscripts full of coffins, kings and queens, ravens and all the rest. Still, Pauli’s dream content included all these things.

I am inclined to assent to some form of this odd Jungian hypothesis. In the same way that our evolutionary development which Evo-Devo studies finds a kind of recapitulation of critical stages of life’s overall evolution in our physiology, our minds structure themselves using archetypal building blocks dimly recognizable as stories and symbol systems, motifs and plots of the great civilizations of the past.

That there is an element of weirdness in the human experience of mind could be part of what peoples have tried to capture in the ideas of clairvoyance, soul travel, rebirth and reincarnation; that people at times know things they cannot know, speak languages they cannot speak and display all kinds of similar uncanny goings on. The idiot savant and the epileptic possessed by seizures, to mention two of the more extreme examples, have always been a challenge for societies to explain. Part of what we are learning as a species includes becoming more skillful around dealing with our mind’s, shall we call them, archaeological layers.

The contention is that there is still a mental environment of the dreaming, collective psyche reverberating with Egyptian symbols and sensitivities. This realm is touched by some alive today when they are affected by certain types of events that were first captured in a web of a meaningful story at the dawn of Western civilization.

This collective unconscious can be understood as something as mundane as the sum total of all conscious and unconscious contents of all the minds of all sentient beings alive at this moment or something as un-mundane and remarkable as a phenomenon like the shared Aboriginal dream time. The term collective unconscious captures reasonably well a set of facts about the universally shared aspects of our minds, namely that they are rooted in our biological bodies with cognitive and emotional imperatives to survive and reproduce within a social environment in which cooperation, empathy and compassion can be found. Put bluntly: mind is rooted in biology and biology is rooted in “matter” which in turn is rooted in quantum mechanics. This whole architecture provides numerous structural commonalities to individual human minds. These are organizing and guiding each mind’s unique expression of DNA meeting environments, environments that simultaneously extend from the minuscule biochemical locks and keys all the way through to behaviors we can recognize as the extended phenotype. It is as if we were dealing in the currency of DNA memories embodied in the evolutionary history of the biosphere as it is expressing itself here and now. For us, those memories present their information in particular cognitive and emotional contents of conscious experience which carry an element of the numinous, an echo of the origins of being in deep time and deep space.

These may not be ideas we are familiar with from mainstream educations but they are not unreasonable nor are they inherently unscientific.

Egypt is known for having built the largest mausoleums in history. The pyramids stand as a massive, mute testimony to our desire for immortality; they exist to provide their Pharaoh inhabitants with eternal life. Their images of an afterlife not all that different than those that continue to play a role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The afterlife for the Egyptians, as well as these “modern” faiths, were imagined as the holy city, and the divine garden. The pyramids were aligned with the starry sky just so and their ratios and dimensions were also just so to embody a god-like knowledge. Anywhere in our modern world where teachings about sacred geometry continue can find their roots right here. Oswald Spengler in Decline of the West points out Egyptian architecture is characterized by long, straight hallways and by an art which is fiercely two dimensional. The Western traditions still reverberate with the strength of the idea of the “straight and narrow.” While we might think this is just the way people think about spirituality, Spengler points out how different the ideas of the Taoists were. For the Taoists the image of the path or the way of spirituality was that of the meandering growths of nature. We also do not find among the Taoists the same resistance to death that characterized the great achievements of the Egyptian civilization.

Much could be made of the fact that the dawn of human history in the west reveals such an obsession with cheating death. The work of Ernest Becker as it has been developed in terror management theory is one example worth mentioning. In hundreds of psychological studies these researchers have found that being reminded of our mortality tends to influence our decision making and ethical interpretations of our experiences in a very particular way. Reminded subliminally of their mortality most people become more conservative, less empathetic towards strangers and more dogmatic about the rightness of one’s in-group and they proscribe harsher punishment for criminals. The theory is not without its critiques. On the Role of Death in Life by Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski is a good source for the current state of the art concerning this theory by believers.

Another author worth mentioning in this context is Alan Harrington who wrote a most unusual book, The Immortalist. By examining the tales of myth and religion, poets and scientists his contention is that death has always been the real meaning behind our devils and hells and that the great hope our species has nurtured all these long millennia is that someday we might become immortals in fact. The book begins with one of the most radical proposals I have ever encountered: “Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.” The Singularity and cryogenics folks could relate. I mention it as one of those works that turns everything sideways. Such works are valuable aids in keeping cognitively agile.

As different as the works of Becker and Harrington are, they each share the idea that there is nothing more psychologically fundamental than our awareness of our own death. In this they are like the latest in a long line of thinkers which can trace their way all the way back to the society that built the pyramids and left an indelible impression on the religions and philosophies of the West ever since.

Of course there is more to ancient Egypt than these mausoleums. In 2,400 BCE the “holy family” consisted of Osiris, Isis, Horus, Set and Nephthys. This first family is said to be the offspring of Geb, the earth father and Nut, the mother of the starry sky. In the cultus that grew around the stories of this primal family numerous motifs were developed that remain important to Western religious traditions down to our own day. We will take a look at a few of those next week.

The Setup of Set

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exodus, the Magic of Liberation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”